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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

A “Plan B”
for Tony Blair
and Northern Ireland

Paul A Fitzsimmons • 12 February 2003

The Good Friday Agreement and its many tribulations vaguely suggest a middle ages scene set in some faraway palace. Emerging from years of backroom tinkering with elaborate multitudes of gears and wheels, pinions and pulleys, cams and cogs, a sage presents a marvelous invention to an anxious king.

The wise inventor then forthrightly announces before the applauding assembled court: “As your Majesty knows, it was extremely difficult to construct this machine, which aims to turn lead into gold. Even more difficult, though, will be getting it to work.”

More difficult indeed.

For years now during this “Powersharing Mark II” experiment, we’ve often been told that getting the GFA to work adequately will take laborious and patient weeks and months more … and more … and more. Similar official pronouncements today in Belfast thus seem unexceptional.

Perhaps at some point -- maybe if this fourth GFA suspension in five years stretches out much longer -- people will more generally tend to wonder whether the GFA ever had any real capacity at all for long-term success. (Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble himself recently asked formally in Westminster’s House of Commons whether the British government is “thinking of having a Plan B.” The somewhat non-responsive response from Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy -- “We’ve got to concentrate on what we’re doing at the moment, on Plan A, I suppose, before we look at any other plans” -- may deviate from earlier dogma that “there is no alternative” to the GFA.)

Several interrelated factors regarding the GFA’s innate capabilities might therefore appropriately be examined and considered.

First, the GFA of course never aimed to implement anything more than devolved governance. Some have likened its Assembly and Executive to a glorified county council, and some more harshly dubbed it a “Fischer-Price government.” The fact is, though, that the GFA’s institutions will always be subservient to the Westminster Parliament, at whose behest those institutions have been repeatedly suspended, often without the consent of local parties and/or of the Republic of Ireland’s government. Thus, through the GFA, no ultimate governmental authority has ever resided or can ever reside in Northern Ireland. And with a British safety net ever beneath the GFA, slipping hasn’t been the greatest concern of the local political high-wire artists.

Second, the GFA did not constitute a genuine settlement. Instead, it has widely and correctly been regarded as, at best, a part of a “process.” But not having, from the start, fundamental terms and conditions of government -- and anti-government -- activities firmly addressed by and through that agreement meant that fundamental tensions would both persist and persistently divide.

Third, the GFA suffers from serious structural infirmities: (a) the GFA’s Assembly institutionalizes sectarianism because of its mandatory designation of “Unionist,” “Nationalist,” and “Other” representatives; (b) the GFA’s weighting of votes within the respective Unionist and Nationalist camps yields grave and now-conspicuous instability; (c) the GFA’s credibility is diminished because jury-rigged political band-aids repeatedly need to applied to its “constitutional” holes; (d) the GFA’s d’Hondt system precludes exclusion from the Executive of any marginally-sized party, even where such a party is abhorred by all other Executive parties; and (e) that d’Hondt system also virtually guarantees that the electorate will have no opportunity to change the overall composition of that Executive.

Of course, transmuting lead into gold is not the standard for measuring the GFA’s success. Rather to the contrary, when people point to the GFA and argue that -- at least within Northern Ireland -- a bad peace is better than any kind of war, a knowledgeable person might well agree … if, perhaps, while holding his nose.

Yet if the GFA continues still further to fail so badly, another tack will need to be considered.

One obvious option, now provisionally underway, is long-term, by-definition undemocratic direct rule.

A less likely -- yet democratic -- approach would be fair and workable six-county negotiated independence. Such an option is theoretically possible and could even include a useful pre-plebiscite “test-drive.”

However, today like twenty years ago, a key problem regarding possible independence is that the main Northern Ireland political parties have no latitude to call publicly for any first-ever formal investigation thereof. (Alliance, a minor and soon-to-be-extinct centrist party there, does itself have that philosophical latitude, but Alliance also has less balls than even the province’s small Women’s Coalition.)

If the GFA irremediably fails, Mr. Blair will himself need to take charge regarding this radical approach -- somewhat encouragingly, he recently maintained of Britain that “we’re at our best when at our boldest” -- or else the British government will unboldly consign and condemn Northern Ireland to at least one more generation of unhappy direct rule.

The Republic of Ireland’s taking part in that daring effort would be a sine qua non to its success.

Also important could be assistance offered by the United States government.


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




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

16 February 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Plan "B" for Tony Blair and Northern Ireland
Paul Fitzsimmons


Evidence, What Evidence?
Michael Youlton


Choices to be Made
Larry Kirwan


Talking Through His Cassock
Bert Ward


Letter to Uncle
Jimmy Sands


Long Kesh Meets Peterhouse
Anthony McIntyre


Socialists, Leadership and the Working Class
Davy Carlin


14 February 2003


Anti War March Tomorrow
Davy Carlin


A Tale of Two Writers
Anthony McIntyre


Phil Berrigan is Dead
Larry Kirwan


8 Mile Worth the Trip
Mick Hall


A Letter of Protest
Orlaith Dillon


London Arrests Update




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