Hain’s bully-boy tactics will not work

I submitted the following to the Irish Times, who published it as an Opinion & Analysis article (downloadable as published). I argue that the Secretary of State’s bully-boy tactics will not work, and that the current stalement in the Northern Ireland political process has been made worse by the British and Irish Governments’ strategy of pursing side deals with the DUP and Sinn Fein. I propose that the way forward is for Mssrs Hain and (Dermot) Ahern to arrange inclusive all-party talks.

Northern Ireland
Hain’s bully-boy tactics will not work

Stalemate has been made worse by the governments’ strategy of pursuing side deals

There are steps we can take, including changing the Belfast Agreement, which can resolve the stalemate in Northern Ireland, writes Allan Leonard.

Nearly two-thirds of adults in do not believe that the Good Friday Agreement should be implemented in full, with no modifications. This is one of the findings of the recently published Northern Ireland Life and Times survey. It reveals that only 22% agreed that the Agreement “just needs to be implemented in full”. Nearly twice as many respondents believe that certain aspects need to be renegotiated. This would back the Alliance Party’s demand for a review of the Agreement.

It is clear that the people of Northern Ireland have had enough of stop-start politics and a revolving door Assembly. It is crucial that the Assembly and Executive are not only restored, but placed on a firm and sustainable footing.

Any real effort to achieve this must take full account of the flaws within the Agreement itself, as well as the mistakes made during its implementation.

The Agreement was achieved after much dialogue and compromise among the widest possible spectrum of political representation. The stalemates which have been experienced since then have been made worse by the Governments’ strategy of pursuing side-deals with individual parties, mainly Sinn Fein and the DUP, in the desperate hope that whatever they agree would be accepted by all other parties.

Particularly at the Executive level of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Agreement’s presumption was that the more ‘moderate’ elements of unionism and nationalism, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP respectively, would perpetually be the electoral winners of their communal blocs, and that they would employ cross-community cooperation. Neither of these presumptions were correct.

The current Secretary of State, Peter Hain MP, is employing a bullyboy strategy of implementing unpopular policies through direct rule and using financial blackmail by threatening to shut down the Assembly by 24 November.

He has arranged formal meetings between Assembly Members by introducing the Preparation for Government Committee, but he won’t allow them to discuss any business on the Assembly floor unless all he, and all five parties, unanimously agree on the subject matter. This is an extraordinary hurdle, made all the more remarkable because it has been imposed on a democratically-elected representative body.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s voters despair. They have done their civic duty and voted for their preferred parties. No one prevented them from providing the largest vote to the more absolutist tribal parties. But the Governments should have appreciated more fully the greater effort required to resolve the stalemate.

After the November 2003 election result, this appeared to be recognised. There were several intensive negotiations. However, it’s been a long two years since the last at Leeds Castle.

Alliance has always maintained that immediate and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, with no revisions, will result in disaster. This approach would ignore the flaws within the Agreement and the mistakes made during its implementation.

Likewise, for the DUP to call for a full renegotiation is, as the survey proves, against the wishes of 86% of people in Northern Ireland.

Instead, everyone needs to be objective about the Agreement’s problems and sanguine about the  solutions.

As a fervent pro-Agreement party, Alliance maintains that the principles of the Good Friday Agreement are entirely sound and must remain. This includes the principle of consent, cross-community power sharing, and the reconciliation of our societal divisions.

The main determinants of a deal in the autumn, or thereafter, would include several elements:

IRA paramilitarism: There would need to be a clear indication from the Independent Monitoring Commission that the IRA had stopped all paramilitary activity and ended involvement in organised crime. Closely related to this must be a commitment from Republicans to support the PSNI and join the Policing Board.

This is not a case of ever changing preconditions, more about achieving the goal of all-party support for the reformed police service.

We would expect the citizens of the Republic of Ireland to demand nothing less as a sine qua non for Sinn Fein if they were to be in the Irish Government.

Loyalist paramilitarism: Greater efforts must be made to address the ongoing problem of Loyalist paramilitary activity. It is of grave concern that Loyalist groups are determined to hold onto their weaponry. Meanwhile, Unionists are less than credible because they selectively boycott policing structures, illustrated in their current absenteeism from the Policing Board.

DUP commitment: The DUP will obviously need to give a commitment to support the political institutions. There is a genuine lack of trust that the DUP will work within the Assembly and other institutions in an inclusive manner.

Good Friday Agreement changes: Both the British and Irish Governments have accepted that changes can be made to the structures of the Agreement, provided that they are consistent within its underlying principles.

But changes need to be made on a much broader front than just those needed to ensure that the DUP can buy into the process. The institutionalised sectarianism of Assembly designations, and the lack of incentives for co-operation and accommodation within the Executive, remain major causes for concern.

Policing devolution: One of the key structural issues will be determining when and how policing and criminal justice powers can be devolved. This is a hugely sensitive issue, and Alliance firmly believes that without significant changes to enhance collective responsibility within the Executive, the necessary confidence, across the community, to allow such a move will not be created. Policing needs to be devolved, but only in the right circumstances and within the right structures. Any wrong move on policing and justice would have disastrous consequences.

Civic society: Finally, it is crucial that civic society gives the politicians a major push in order to make a deal in the autumn. The support and encouragement from businesses, trade unions and the voluntary sector was vital in 1998. Similar broad support to help break the political deadlock is needed urgently.

The Agreement was not cast in stone. It actually provides a formal review mechanism within it, precisely because it recognises that every detail within the original draft is not going to be correct. There are plenty of examples across the world of such significant documents providing for amendments and improvements. Like many democracies, it reflects the acceptance of the will of the people to shape their own destiny.

In order to find a way forward we must look back and remember what worked: participation by as many parties as possible, sincere and full engagement by the British and Irish Governments, and the will to make the Assembly work effectively.

The Alliance Party has made every effort to break the deadlock. We have played a leading role in the Preparation for Government Committee and in the full Assembly sessions.

However, Alliance does not believe that the Preparation for Government Committee alone will ensure that we overcome the present difficulties. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey shows that the majority people believe that the Agreement needs reform.

The only possible way that the necessary changes will take place is if Secretary of State, Peter Hain, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, get their act together and arrange inclusive all-party talks. Alliance has and will continue to work tirelessly to break the deadlock, and we demand that our efforts are matched by those of the two governments.

Allan Leonard is General Secretary of the Alliance Party.

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