The Blanket

The GFA’s Failure To Deliver
An Honest and Genuine
Constitutional Settlement
Keeps Northern Ireland

Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 30 July 2002

Brendan O’Neill’s recent The Blanket article “How the Peace Process Divided Ireland“ contains some important truths - not least his assessment that, “in reality, the deepening[ Northern Ireland social] divide is a result of the peace process, not a threat to it” - but some of his analysis in that regard is quite incorrect.

More and more as the days go by, people are allowing themselves to talk out loud, as Mr. O’Neill does, about some of the objective realities and inadequacies of the “peace process,” particularly as currently manifested in the Good Friday Agreement scheme:

The Irish peace process has division and instability built in. With its aim of containing the conflict rather than resolving it, the peace process draws the political parties into a dialogue without resolving any big political questions or fundamental differences. [Emphasis added.]

However, notwithstanding those accurate observations, Mr. O’Neill goes on to exaggerate the extent to which political and constitutional matters have in fact been resolved in Northern Ireland through the GFA:

Unionist parties cut their teeth by defending the link between Britain and Northern Ireland against the threat posed by republicans - but now that no such threat exists, Unionists often seem to lack a sense of purpose and direction. On the other side, republicans have ditched the principles on which their movement has been based since the early 1900s - no longer talking about being the ‘legitimate government of Ireland’, but instead effectively accepting their position as a minority movement within the six counties of Northern Ireland.
With the national question off the agenda, and the conflict robbed of its political content, all sides in Northern Ireland are turning to culture and identity.

Mr. O’Neill repeats these above-emphasized assessments by arguing that today’s conflicts have been “[s]tripped of any political content.”

That Mr. O’Neill makes these inaccurate comments, key as they are to his general analysis, is quite surprising in light of his accurate assessment that the “peace process” has involved and still involves “containing the conflict rather than resolving it.”

Along with various others recently, Barry White has, conversely, correctly identified one stark GFA inadequacy: the Northern Ireland political conflict remains unsettled as reflected in - and, to some extent, caused by - the fact that the Provisional IRA has not seen fit to stand down but instead apparently views its “role” as a continuing one within the GFA context. More specifically, Mr. White wrote (with emphases added below) in the 27 July 2002 edition of the Belfast Telegraph:

So although the rules on ceasefires have now been defined and tightened, thanks to David Trimble, nothing has changed, unless the IRA are mad enough to continue testing the government’s resolve. If they lie low, making sure their hands don’t get any dirtier, they can carry on indefinitely, resisting the Prime Minister’s pleas for voluntary disbandment.
As long as they’re there, they’ll be a constant source of worry for the peace process. Most unionists will never be happy sharing power with a party linked even to an inactive army, and those who do will stagger from crisis to crisis, trying to survive by threatening to quit.
Any chance of devolution working as it should do, if we continue in this vein, is frankly impossible, though it can take a lot of punishment. The image of the Assembly is of an institution in constant conflict, providing an abysmal example to the interface communities.

Nonetheless, it must be said that, even were the infamous “P. O’Neill” to announce tomorrow that the Provisional IRA had stood down and disarmed completely, the immediate tensions in the “peace process” might considerably lessen but the underlying problem causing division would remain: absent a demonstrably long-term and generally accepted constitutional solution, Northern Ireland will be interminably divided between those still firmly desiring reunion and those opposed to it.

As but one minor example of this situation, the web site on July 9, 2002 published a story trumpeting: “Support for UK link at all time low in North.” That article backed up this headline with “Northern Ireland Life and Times political attitudes survey” data: “[T]he number of people supporting the Union is now at 49.3%, down a massive 22% since 1989 when it stood at 71%.” Great news for Reunionists! Bad news for Unionists!

Until, that is, the next sentence of that story is read: “The same survey suggests that the number of people who want Northern Ireland to ‘re-unite with the rest of Ireland’ stands at 28.3%.” Doing the math and leaving out the undecideds (as, of course, they might do themselves in a real-life plebiscite), this political attitudes survey tells us that a vote on reunion would run about 37 percent in favor and about 63 percent against. According to that analysis, reunion will assuredly not happen overnight, and it may indeed not happen even at the end of an additional full generation.

Nonetheless, a constant drumbeat for reunion, heard by all in Northern Ireland, continues, and thus people there inevitably divide themselves accordingly along sectarian lines.

Against this backdrop, Billy Mitchell’s recent article and question “Is Class Politics a Possibility?” can be answered: “Basically no, class politics is not a realistic possibility in the current context.” Of course, some “class politics” is already found across the respective ranges of the current Unionist and Nationalist/Republican political parties. However, more to the point concerning cross-community class politics, any attempt in the current context to form and operate, for example, a Northern Ireland “Liberal” party would, sooner rather than later, result in a split between “Union Liberals” and “Reunion Liberals.” (Cf. the Alliance Party, not yet straying far from its Unionist roots but nonetheless losing considerable support to parties more straightforward on their union/reunion positions.) The same would be true for Northern Ireland “Conservatives,” Northern Ireland “Labours,” and so on.

Jim Dee, writing for the Boston Herald on 28 July 2002, hopefully suggests that all is not lost for the “peace process,” even if the GFA is relegated to history:

So where does that leave the peace process?
There is no question that rocky times again lie ahead. But it must be remembered that the Good Friday accord - while a pivotal moment in both British and Irish history - was neither the beginning nor the end of the broader peace process.
As always, the big picture is what really counts. And, in that sense, one of the most important developments of the entire peace process is that cooperation between London and Dublin has strengthened dramatically since 1993.
If Northern Ireland’s new political arrangements collapse or are suspended between now and next May, Dublin and London will work together as never before to ensure the peace train stays on track. [Emphasis added.]

Maybe, just maybe, the “big picture” engineers of this peace train could and should next time take a difficult, never-before-attempted detour from the peace process’s “let’s not seriously try to resolve the underlying constitutional issue” mainline. Maybe it would be helpful if people in Ireland, North or South, themselves discussed that particular point publicly, directly, honestly, and, not least, capably.

More specifically in that regard, a few contributors to The Blanket have purported to address my earlier published arguments regarding the British and Irish governments’ initiating, in the wake of a GFA failure, an inquiry into the possibility of a fair and workable six-county independence. Maybe others - perhaps including Mr. O’Neill - could take on, “pro” or “con,” those same independence arguments, but maybe, unlike earlier critics, they could do a creditable job.




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We can chart our future clearly and wisely only when we know the path which has led to the present.
- Adlai Stevenson

Index: Current Articles

2 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Scam In A Pint Glass

Anthony McIntyre


Meeting the Paramilitaries

Davy Carlin


The GFA's Failure to Deliver An Honest and Genuine Constitutional Settlement Keeps Northern Ireland Divided
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


Hold Firm
Niall Fennessy


Super Stake Knife
Brian Mór


Stake Knife Logo
Brian Mór


The Ethics of Revenge

Sam Bahour and Yitzhak Frankenthal


A Tale Told By An Idiot
John Chuckman


28 July 2002


Strategy of Threat

Anthony McIntyre


E.U. Surveillance of Telecommunications

Aine Fox


Can't Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

Davy Carlin


Snap Shot
Sherry Maguire




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