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Election Delay Shows Dubious Democracy

Eamon Lynch • Irish Echo, May 7, 2003

According to Gore Vidal, there is just one guiding principle for a politician: never give the game away. His maxim seems apt this week as the main players in the Northern Ireland peace process strive hard not to expose the comical shadow democracy that represents our future.

The British and Irish governments - with cheerleader David Trimble shaking his pom-poms on the sideline - demanded that Gerry Adams unambiguously utter the very statement he has avoided for a decade: that the war is over and the IRA is ripe for decommissioning and disbandment.

They seem unmoved by the basic reality: a cease-fire that has lasted for the best part of nine years is a war that has ended. Not that Adams is particularly keen to acknowledge this fact either.

Here is the paragraph to which Adams was required to give explicit consent: "We need to see an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity, including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots."

This statement declares physical force republicanism permanently out of business but Adams choked not because of fealty to republican tradition. To agree would be to give away his game.

Since 1994, Sinn Fein's 'nod and wink' strategy has suggested to supporters that the war could resume if politics fails. Thus the former IRA chief-of-staff Brian Keenan spouts militant platitudes during his now-regular public appearances - usually at graveside commemorations, since republican mythology assumes the dead will give a mandate to the living. Even the British must chuckle at Keenan's speeches since the only wars being waged by the IRA are against dissident republicans and car-jacking kids, constituencies without many defenders. In any event, it would be difficult for Adams to dangle the 'back-to-war' carrot before a disaffected grassroots if he were to sound this death knell for the IRA.

So he came up with this cunning linguistics: "The IRA leadership is determined that there will be no activities which will undermine in any way the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement." It was a tacit nod to officialdom that the IRA is finished but with enough wriggle room to persuade doubtful supporters that nothing has changed, in effect to keep the game going. For Tony Blair it was insufficient so he postponed the Assembly election scheduled for May 29 and in doing so revealed much about the nascent democracy were are expected to celebrate in Northern Ireland.

It is obviously bogus to argue that the election was postponed solely because of a lack of clarity by the IRA since a number of post-ceasefire polls have been contested with foggier assurances from republicans. Elections in Northern Ireland merely serve to cement the norm, invariably for the worse, and all indicators suggest that unionist sentiment is drifting toward Ian Paisley's anti-accord DUP. Since the survival of the Agreement depends upon the exclusion (or containment) of those opposed to it, Trimble could not be fed to a hostile electorate unless Adams had run up the white flag.

The election was cancelled because Tony Blair would not have cared for the results.

It seems that elections are now permitted only to rubber-stamp a desired outcome and not to evidence popular opinion, that the will of 'We The People' has no standing (Oh Dubya, what hast thou wrought?). This suspension of electoral reality is appropriate since the Good Friday Agreement itself demands the suspension of common sense.

It is transparent that the Agreement simply papers over the cracks in our civic life and creates a system of government that depends no less on sectarian head-counting than the Northern state did under unionist control. A system that categorizes people only as unionist or nationalist, and demands a high-wire balancing of the two, will inevitably be paralyzed by those same quasi-religious distinctions .

An election that bestows power on the DUP and Sinn Fein - as had seemed probable - would take the Agreement to its illogical conclusion. So rather than have the farce exposed, Blair suspended democracy to save democracy. He, too, would not give the game away. The muted public response to all this was an indication that people have tired of the endless episodes of hand-wringing and recrimination, that the tiresome soap opera is losing its audience.

The very nature of democracy is that you may end up with people in power whom you consider unfit for office. This is not to say that a society in which the DUP holds sway is ideal - far from it, in fact - but is that prospect really any worse than a government whose continued existence depends upon the exclusion of the will of its citizens? This is a bastardized system unworthy of the term 'democracy'.

This week was notable for more than Gerry Adams's obituary for the IRA. It is evident that the only difference between the Northern Ireland of today and that of ten years ago is the frequency with which the body bags are filled. This is, of course, no small matter. But settling for a charade democracy that does not promise a society in which the body bags will be consigned to the past hardly seems like something worth cheering about.



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I have spent
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Index: Current Articles

11 May 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Stakeknife - Shock and Awe.
Anthony McIntyre


In the name of womanhood

Michael Youlton


Brendan Hughes


Death Threats and Harassment by the RUC/PSNI
Joe Dillon


Election Delay Shows Dubious Democracy
Eamon Lynch


8 May 2003


Volunteer Patricia McKay
Brendan Hughes


Death of Barbara Reilly

The Clinton Family


Republicans and the Protestant Working Class
Gerry Ruddy


Suicide is Painless?
Sean Smyth


The Politics of the Undecidable
Liam O Ruairc


Patriotism Polluting Journalism
Anthony McIntyre


At the Theatre

Annie Higgins




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