Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Agreement ten years on


The Good Friday Agreement was actually reached on 10th April 1998, but with Good Friday falling this week it seems that the ’10 years on’ retrospectives are starting early. Alex Kane offers his analysis in the Newsletter and outlines the personal process by which he reasoned his eventual support for the Agreement in 1998. It was not the potent issues of symbolism with which most unionists wrestled that were the prime objections Kane had to overcome. Rather he had most difficulty with the failings of democratic accountability inherent in the Agreement, particularly the lack of provision for an official opposition in Northern Ireland’s devolved government, a weakness which has yet to be addressed almost ten years on.

I wish I could claim to have undergone such a process of considered and thoughtful analysis before casting my own ‘yes’ vote by post that May. At that time I was one of the many Northern Irish students enrolled at universities in Scotland. My assent for the Agreement was based on a conviction that something needed to be done to ensure a brighter future for Northern Ireland. I believed that the deal brokered on behalf of unionism by David Trimble, did not weaken the Union one iota and that although concessions to Sinn Féin were unpalatable, ultimately they were a price worth paying. I still largely believe that this judgment was sound, although I am embarrassed to admit that I did not pay much heed to the constitutional niceties dealing with how devolved government here would actually function.

With the luxury of ten years hindsight, those initial symbolic sticking points for unionism assume a less insurmountable complexion. Kane argues correctly that reform of the RUC and prisoner releases were inevitabilities with or without the assent of unionists. David Trimble was astute enough to realise this at an early stage and to make his paramount aim the constitutional matter of shoring up the Union. Rather than the abolition of the RUC and the release of prisoners on licence occurring with unionists looking on impotently, Trimble managed to use these issues as levers in order to secure a better deal for unionism. Of course by railing against these concessions the DUP were eventually to destroy Trimble, all the better to agree to the substance of his deal later. But that does not mean that the UUP’s course was not both correct and courageous.

Similarly decommissioning was an issue which attained much greater symbolic significance than it substantively merited. Handing in a quantity of weapons did not in any meaningful way signal a change in republican strategy. Those changes occurred many years before. Decommissioning has not made Northern Ireland any more or less peaceful than it was before those symbolic gestures were made. All major parties in Northern Ireland have subsequently accepted that Sinn Féin should be included in power sharing whilst they are the biggest nationalist party. All the DUP rhetoric about ‘generations’ having to pass dissolved when they assumed the leadership of unionism.

So ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, much to the commentator’s credit, the objection which Kane had to overcome in 1998 is the greatest weakness in the current arrangements in place today. Four parties are forced into a mandatory coalition and are expected to assume collective responsibility for the actions of the Executive. This arrangement results in either deadlock, or measures being forced through despite the objections of smaller parties who are nevertheless then implicated in decisions they disagree with. This situation is anti-democratic and lends itself to bad government. It also tends to perpetuate the sectarian divisions inherent in our politics and stifles the possibility of interests being politically reflected along alternative lines as normality asserts itself.

In the early days of the Assembly when attempts were being made to shore up a fragile edifice, susceptible to challenge and liable to collapse at any moment, asking all parties to share power made a degree of sense. In 2008 this is no longer the case. Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful and widespread violence is unlikely to re-emerge. The Assembly is well established and the lack of opposition is only serving to hinder effective government.

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