The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Northern Ireland’s
Political Goodwill Games

I do not want the peace which passeth all understanding,
I want the understanding that bringeth peace.

Helen Keller
Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 25 January 2003

One point has always been central to the Good Friday Agreement. To some, it is a point so overwhelming in its importance and so unavoidable and uncontrollable in its nature that, to them, it has often seemed better to pretend that it doesn’t exist at all. To others, its existence so suffuses Northern Ireland’s socio-political environment that it is scarcely discernable as an element of the overall political context-and the overall political problem-and is therefore seldom consciously considered.

That key point is this: the Good Friday Agreement was an initiation of a political process which depends inevitably, and to an unduly large degree, on the kindness and goodwill of political opponents. The big problem is, of course, that, in political environments, kindness and goodwill are voluntary qualities which can be withheld strategically or withdrawn altogether if doing so can yield beneficial or necessary results.

The pervasiveness of this “goodwill” phenomenon is seen most recently in the following report of Sinn Féin’s alleged negotiating position:

Sinn Fein wants Mr Blair to give a categoric undertaking that he will never again suspend the assembly and power-sharing executive which have been put in cold storage on four occasions over the past five years.

Nicholas Watt and Rosie Cowan, “‘Imaginative gesture’ predicted by Adams,” The Guardian, 24 January 2003.

To whatever extent, if any, Sinn Féin did actually ask for a “categoric undertaking” on that point, that party must have known that it was literally asking the impossible from Mr. Blair and that it could in the end obtain, at very best, a personal “best efforts” commitment from him in that regard. (“Copperfastening” is a term often heard in the Northern Ireland political context notwithstanding that fact that it is invariably a laughably inaccurate description of what is actually taking place.)

Why can Mr. Blair give no “categoric undertaking” forswearing future Assembly and Executive suspensions? Four reasons leap to mind.

First, the oldest and truest cliché of so-called “constitutional law” in the United Kingdom is that no Westminster government can bind its successors, and Mr. Blair would without doubt make no profession of his own political immortality. The next prime minister may come ten weeks from now or ten years from now, but that prime minister will make up his or her own mind as to whether, under the then prevailing circumstances, Northern Ireland should have devolved government (Britain has already well established the precedent of suspending such government, even under the GFA, at its own pleasure) and, if so, in what form and under what conditions.

Second, Mr. Blair is of course in no position to guarantee Mr. Trimble’s position within the UUP. Were the UUP to choose a new leader, that party’s taking part in the GFA’s Assembly and Executive could not be regarded as a certainty.

Third, Mr. Blair cannot in fact guarantee that Mr. Trimble, even if he remained the UUP leader, might not decide-again-to abandon the GFA scheme. For example, the UUP under Mr. Trimble might threaten some time in the future to quit Stormont if Mr. Blair did not reject certain police reforms; if the UUP followed through on such a threat, any “categoric undertaking” not to suspend the Assembly and Executive would be unavailing as the resignation of the Northern Ireland Executive’s First Minister itself effectively puts a brake on that entire devolved government.

Fourth, Mr. Blair clearly cannot guarantee the UUP will prevail over the DUP in the next election, and he assuredly could not guarantee that the DUP, as the Unionist majority party in Stormont, would accede to any mandatory powersharing arrangement including Sinn Féin.

People like Blanche DuBois may individually have to depend largely-and sometimes unsuccessfully-on the kindness of strangers, but a presumption of pervasive political warm-heartedness seems a rather slender reed upon which to try to fashion a durable governmental structure in virtually any part of the real world, excluding by no means whatsoever Northern Ireland.

That fact notwithstanding, Sinn Féin could probably decide now to “jump first,” to get the IRA to disband permanently, to convince the UUP to return to devolved government under the GFA, and to hope that all would thereafter turn out well. Moreover, Sinn Féin could do so notwithstanding the fact that the party has given Mr. Blair rather backhanded praise “for his ‘frank admission’ recently that the Government had not honoured all its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement” (Press Association, 25 January 2003). And maybe all would indeed work out for the best were Sinn Féin and the IRA to take that final leap of faith.

But there has apparently been a bit of discussion in some circles on whether Republicans would more likely see controversial and yet-unfulfilled promises actually fulfilled after their Armalites have been beaten into begging bowls. (Should anyone regard that analysis as some sort of incitement, please see my year-old article “Disarm Redundant Weapons Now” (The Blanket, Belfast: 21 January 2002,).)

While he was head of Cable News Network, billionaire Ted Turner started his “Goodwill Games” in the mid-1980’s as “a way to ease tensions during the Cold War through friendly athletic competition between nations” ( Sixteen years later, with the cold war little more than a fading memory and with CNN having in the interim been swallowed by media giant AOL Time Warner, those Games ran out of goodwill and formally “cease[d] operations.”

Perhaps similarly, Northern Ireland’s own political goodwill games will soon be abandoned as well past their prime and then, à la Van Morrison, the people of Northern Ireland “can get down to what is really wrong.” À la DUP Chairman Maurice Morrow (“DUP Wants ‘New Democratic Deal,’” News Letter, 20 January 2003), any new political negotiations should and could then aim to produce not a process but, instead, a genuine settlement.


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



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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

26 January 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Sinn Féin's International Perspective: From Conservative to Radical in the Blink of an Eye
Deaglán Ó Donghaile


Northern Ireland's Political Goodwill Games
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


New Year's Greetings

Jimmy Sands


Why Ireland is Unfree; Continued
Chris Fogarty


Youth Against the Dictatorship of the Clerics
Anthony McIntyre


West Belfast Anti-War Meeting - Belfast March
Davy Carlin


Conversation with a State Assassin



23 January 2003


Answers Needed Now
Francie Perry


Where are the courts of Human Rights?
Victor Barker


Principle, Pragmatism and Lies

Ed Moloney


Historical Unconsciousness
Seoirse McLaughlin


Fallen Anglicans and Other Limping Analogies
Eoghan O'Suilleabhain


A Message from the Heart of the Empire
Michael Youlton




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