The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Republicans' Big Risk

Paul Fitzsimmons • March 17, 2003

Astoundingly, even before "fat lady" P. O'Neill has sung an IRA swansong, already an essentially pro-agreement, Westminster-based pundit is heard arguing, remarkably forthrightly, that the devolved Stormont tables should be dramatically turned for - of course - the good of the province.

Gary Kent, who writes from Westminster for Belfast's Fortnight magazine and other publications, authored on 11 March 2003 a commentary entitled "No more Irish groundhogs". Therein Mr. Kent made a strikingly honest point which confirmed various conclusions reached in another recent article, "The Fundamental Problem Of Non-Constitutional Law Vis-À-Vis The Northern Ireland Question" (P.A.F., The Blanket, Belfast: 9 March 2003).

Mr. Kent's honesty - rarer in commentators on Northern Ireland than one would prefer - tends to suggest that Northern Irish Republican politicians may soon have to become more loyal to queen and country than are even the British Conservatives; otherwise, those Republicans will face a distinct risk of losing whatever slice of devolved power they may now believe they've gotten through the international treaty known widely as the Good Friday Agreement. (Cf. French President Charles de Gaulle: "Treaties are like young girls and roses: they last as long as they last.")

"No more Irish groundhogs" - whose now-clichéd title derives from the preternaturally repetitious story line in the film "Groundhog Day" - proffers an idea very similar to a conclusion stated in the small above-cited article "The Fundamental Problem": i.e., the conclusion that Northern Irish Republicans may now fear that Parliament could soon "be tempted to jettison additional 'enshrined' GFA principles like 'd'Hondt' in order to try to keep the Assembly and Executive running."

Yet Mr. Kent's proposal might more immediately suggest to those Republicans a famous line - "Be afraid, be very, very afraid" - from another film, the remade horror movie "The Fly" (whose plot also involved, like the GFA, an inherently malformed creation). Arguing, perhaps cavalierly, that the Good Friday Agreement "should be seen as a transition," Mr. Kent wrote the following on throwing overboard the GFA's d'Hondt procedure for sharing devolved governmental power:

Another possibility[ aimed at furthering political normalization in Northern Ireland] is scrapping the rule that all main parties automatically have a place in government. [Emphasis added.] Since none of the current parties could achieve a majority, this would necessitate voluntary power-sharing.

Politics would be less frozen and more fluid. Fiefdoms would be harder to maintain. There would be a real possibility of ministers and parties losing power if they make mistakes or because voters disagree with them. This would be a healthy development all round.

That modest proposal by Mr. Kent strongly reinforces the conclusion that, with a near-effortless stroke of a Westminster pen, an idea floated within Britain's own extremely fluid political system can swiftly be transformed from an outlandish suggestion - at least vis-à-vis both the words and the spirit of the GFA - into a pedestrian "governmental operations" change regarded by some as desirable and laudable. Rather easily can one imagine the rationalizations that will be asserted if and when d'Hondt is sent packing:

After all, if the majority (at Westminster) comes to desire such a change, just why exactly might members of the minority think that their opposition should matter? In a democracy, the majority rules, doesn't it? Under that exceedingly simple governmental precept, didn't Northern Ireland used to be such a great wee place?

In Lent 1998, an extremely imaginative, hopeful, and optimistic person may have been able to convince himself that the Good Friday Agreement could somehow come to be regarded as sui generis in the United Kingdom's governmental structure: viz., regarded as a set of legal rules so special that they would somehow be exempted from the course of Westminster's normal "constitutional" machinations.

Various developments in the intervening five years will have rendered any such belief utterly unfounded: particularly, Mr. Mandelson's GFA suspension legislation at Westminster, the temporary Assembly designation-swapping formally allowed by special British government order, and the imminent "sanctions" legislation which Britain has apparently already rammed down the Republic of Ireland's throat and which it now seeks to make both Sinn Féin and the SDLP swallow. These events prove that the GFA is in no respect "constitutionally" sui generis under U.K. law. A quip sometimes made about oral agreements is that they're not worth the paper they're written on; a year or two from now, after the British "constitutional" system has worked more of its peculiar magic, a quite similar conclusion might well be reached regarding the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, none of this analysis means that the end of the world is nigh. If Northern Irish Republicans can demonstrate, conclusively and immediately, a complete philosophical metamorphosis - which to some may mean that those Republicans will have to bow or curtsy just a bit lower than does Baroness Thatcher - they will likely be acceptable within most any devolved Northern Ireland powersharing government, even after Westminster has "constitutionally" morphed the original GFA beyond all recognition. Otherwise, though, those Republicans may need to gird themselves - due to drastic, unilateral changes that might soon be made to that "Agreement" - for interminably long stretches, maybe life sentences, on Stormont's opposition benches.

Before making his "scrap d'Hondt" proposal, Mr. Kent emphasized the "desperate need to find ways of beginning a new politics along more traditional lines of class, special interest and ideology." In that latter respect, perhaps he saved all his wisdom for the very end of his article: "Radical thinking about Northern Ireland's governance is overdue."

PS: Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my Protestant and Catholic sisters and brothers in Northern Ireland and beyond. P.A.F.


Washington, D.C. lawyer Paul A. Fitzsimmons wrote Independence for Northern Ireland: Why and How (1993) (



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

17 March 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Death of an IRA Volunteer
Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Fein @ The Bush Party
John Meehan


Not In Our Name, Bertie and Gerry

Brendan Young


Republicans' Big Risk
Paul Fitzsimmons


The Good Friday Agreement? What About the St. Patrick's Day War?
Eamonn McCann


St. Patrick's Day Message
Jimmy Sands

Only Another Eleven Palestinians
Margaret Quinn


13 March 2003

Anthony McIntyre

One For All & All For One
Paul Dunne


Brave New World, Indeed.

Tommy Gorman


Ireland: Direct Rule Continues
Paul Mallon




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