The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Trust Without Honesty
In The Peace Process?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons • 2.11.03

On a train back to D.C. in February 1994—following a large National Committee on American Foreign Policy gathering in New York, famously attended by Gerry Adams—another person who had also attended chanced to sit next to me. He was, I learned, a lay member of a major U.S.-based Catholic group tangentially involved in the Northern Ireland question, and, in the ensuing conversation, he mentioned his group's frequent frustration at being unable to get straight answers to straight questions posed to various Northern Catholics.

During the past decade, I've often shared that feeling, though by no means exclusively because of dealings with members of that one Northern group. Those years have taught me well that—notwithstanding stereotypes to the contrary—many Northern Protestants are no less able to dodge, weave, cover their ears, and close their eyes when they feel it suits them to do so. Exceptions in each camp of the North's intelligentsia have, in my experience, been well outnumbered by those who illaudably follow that general rule.

Yet, the costs of such evasions may be high, including not least their leading astray politicians who often look to those bright lights and big thinkers for direction on difficult Northern Ireland issues.

Apparently in that vein—and following the recent debacle described as a promised D-Day for the peace process instead materializing as a political Dunkirk—Prime Ministers Blair and Ahern have again gone valiantly into the breech to announce, for at least the fifty-seventh time, the dogmatism that the future for Northern Ireland is the Good Friday Agreement, the whole Good Friday Agreement, and nothing but the Good Friday Agreement, so help them God (with perhaps just a few small tweaks soon to be expertly crafted and effected in order to get the lights back on at that long-dark "only show in town").

To one of those announcements, anti-Agreement Unionist politician Robert McCartney responded:

Like Henry Ford, who once said "You can have any colour of car you like as long as it is black," Tony Blair is telling the pro-Union people: "You can have an election but, regardless of the result, you will be unable to change the flawed institutions of the Belfast Agreement."

Indeed, whereas Henry Ford offered, in black only, simple cars which actually worked, the British and Irish premiers—aided and abetted by too many political pundits—seem now to be mandating that Northern Ireland can and will have only an unduly complex, Stormont-colored Sunningdale Mark II which does not work and which will never work.

"Which does not work" is a conclusion very easy to reach accurately, given that (a) the five-year-old GFA's Assembly and Executive are now into their second year of their fourth suspension and (b) Northern Ireland is just barely scraping into an overdue election which no one can reasonably hope will shortly yield a functioning devolved government.

"Which will never work" is a conclusion that, while also correct, is tougher to reach, requiring indeed an honest look at the big picture in Ireland and Britain.

A couple of decades ago, it was fairly obvious that, from Britain's perspective, a happy result in Northern Ireland could be achieved through either an outright military victory over militant Republicans or a settlement with them. Thereafter, the overall battle reached a stalemate point, something short of outright British military victory, whereat many of the principals in Ireland and Britain sought to cap the socio-political-paramilitary conflict through some form of agreement. Years of well-intended effort in that direction wrought the GFA, but additional years of still more effort have left that GFA a body without breath, leaving many to speculate on whether its spirit has already departed permanently.

Why oh why, people so often now ask, is a settlement broadly and even desperately desired on both sides of this divide nonetheless so difficult—maybe even impossible—to achieve finally and implement fully?

Decommissioning—more plainly known as disarmament—is, of course, the most conspicuous stumbling block in this regard. Militant Republicans' objectively strong disinclination to commit to anything approaching a firm timeframe for completely abandoning their weaponry is often ascribed to their subjective—and, thus, merely putative—unwillingness to be "humiliated." As I earlier stated in the online discussion group Slugger O'Toole, however, there may be more reasonable grounds for Republicans' stubbornness on this point than their supposedly delicate sensibilities:

I tend to think this simplistic and pervasively accepted "humiliation" point, as well as the related "we don't want to hurt their feelings unduly" response, is a bit of a fraud. Perhaps that ostensible emotional aspect to the decommissioning issue is but a veil for an actual and rational ground for Republican reluctance (a ground few in Ireland and Britain want to discuss aloud): namely, [the underlying "constitutional mercies" problem].

That "constitutional mercies" problem is my term for a theory based on the inability of Northern Ireland's Republicans to enter into any settlement, other than one involving their complete capitulation, which is reliable and enforceable within the United Kingdom's immutably fluid "constitutional" system. Rephrased a bit, Republicans may just be unwilling to abandon their weapons entirely and then rely ever after exclusively on Westminster's tender constitutional mercies regarding the long-term maintenance of this GFA regime.

That overall theory I have set out in, among other places, the Slugger O'Toole group, where I addressed my comments in one instance to group participant Trevor Ringland, who is both active in the Ulster Unionist Party and a staunch GFA supporter. There I argued that—from a legal/constitutional viewpoint—the Good Friday Agreement is, put very bluntly, "an obscenity because it is in fact no 'agreement' at all." Also stated in that note, to date unanswered by its addressee, was my prediction that few would take on, head-on, this challenging theory regarding this half-decade-long impasse:

Mr. Ringland: While the above-referenced Scotland on Sunday article quotes you as saying "I am fed-up with the way republicans' response to this[ weapons] issue has determined the relationship between parties in this process," the Press Association yesterday reported another statement by you at that same meeting which I think is ultimately more important: "[P]ersonally I am fed up with unionists who talk about problems and do not talk about solutions."

There's one rather large problem, though, that damned few Unionists, and damned few others in Ireland or Britain, will address publicly. Here's how I recently described it to a friend who knows little about the Good Friday Agreement and who asked me recently what the main difficulty was with it:

Let's say you've a house to rent, and I want to rent it. I propose the following agreement: I'll give you $1000 per month to rent the house, but we have to agree that, after I've moved in, I can change that amount in any way at all that I'd like, and you can do nothing thereafter to put me out of the house against my will.

My friend responded: "That's not an agreement. That's an obscenity."

The problem with the Good Friday Agreement is that it is quite similarly a "constitutional" obscenity, and hot off the presses this morning is yet another manifestation of the obscenely inequitable nature of that ostensible "Agreement."

[Further discussion there involved Britain's proposed GFA "monitoring body," citing a related article, "The Fundamental Problem Of Non-Constitutional Law Vis-�-Vis The Northern Ireland Question" (The Blanket, Belfast: 9 March 2003).]

Again, Mr. Ringland, as demonstrated by the often embarrassing and sometimes plainly ignoble history of the GFA over all of its five-year life, that Agreement is an obscenity because it is in fact no "agreement" at all. As you may not have seen an earlier posting in this group, I'll again repeat some related thoughts:

As a card-carrying Taig myself, I actually have a lot of sympathy for both sides regarding this current impasse.

Unionists have a very strong point in maintaining that they shouldn't have to deal with a political party in government while its militant wing yet exists.

However, as demonstrated in small articles � including "Republicans' Big Risk," I think the constitutional climate in the United Kingdom is so execrably poor that Republicans are bound to get constantly screwed, right and left, if they voluntarily accede completely to all that Unionists would require of them.

That impasse, within the GFA context, may be unavoidable, as suggested by events during the past five years.

If, with all due respect, you are in fact "fed up with unionists who talk about problems and do not talk about solutions," you yourself might indeed take an honest look at this situation and try to think wisely, and then talk bravely, about a genuine solution thereto, even if that solution might need to be a radical and difficult one.

Fair warning, however: your doing so would necessarily call for a healthy amount intellectual honesty, a commodity which seems not to be in superabundance in Northern Ireland's socio-political arena.

Regards, Paul Fitzsimmons August 31, 2003 05:32 PM

In an effort to exemplify this constitutional difficulty, I more recently responded as follows to another Slugger O'Toole participant who suggested the Republican leadership might now speedily push through disarmament largely in order to safeguard their own positions in history:
[H]ow's the following as a possible tail end of a history book discussion of Gerry Adams?: "Unfortunately, a few years after Mr. Adams successfully prevailed on militant Republicanism to stand down completely and disarm fully, the government led by Prime Minister John Smith, Tony Blair's successor, decided peremptorily to end the U.K.'s devolution experiments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Mr. Adams thereupon retired permanently, under heavy guard, to Donegal, to write rather melancholy poetry which thereafter found a rather small audience."

The Northern Ireland peace process is, it seems, just too frail a creature—and the truth surrounding it just too hard and indelicate—to allow Republicans to come out and say openly something like: "We'll be retaining indefinitely some adequate part of our paramilitary capacity because we know the British Constitution gives Westminster the full legal power to yentz us in this settlement, and we really don't want to get yentzed."

(Of course, this entire "constitutional mercies" theory could be immediately and dispositively proven utterly wrong by militant Republicans reliably destroying or turning over all of their weapons and overtly standing the IRA down to "old comrades association" status exclusively. Alternatively, Northern Unionists, if acting in sufficient numbers, could obviate any supposed "constitutional mercies" problem by straightforwardly announcing that they will tolerate the existence of a Republican paramilitary rump for perhaps decades to come. All the leading wire services will, I am quite confident, promptly report such historic events as those, though I'll not be sitting on the edge of my chair awaiting that news.)

In sum, the experience since that historic Good Friday 1998 seems at least to suggest, if not establish, the following five points:

(a) That, although the GFA devolution scheme is generally acceptable to most Republicans, the overarching "constitutional mercies" risk remains a substantial concern to them, as implicitly indicated by the decommissioning issue itself. Indeed—putting aside that genuine "constitutional mercies" legal impediment and Republicans' herein-hypothesized concern thereon—the decommissioning issue is unarguably counterproductive from their viewpoint, virtually to the point of irrationality, as a great many Republicans are expressly interested in the powersharing system offered by and through the GFA. Because the Republican leadership does typically appear to be quite rational, the decommissioning hold-up is, thus, inadequately explained by what appear, conversely, to be pretextual claims and assertions regarding "humiliation" (or even the ostensible bogeyman of more IRA splits).
NB: Were some other broadly tolerable political settlement fashioned that did not contain this "constitutional mercies" risk, militant Republicanism would have a clear opportunity to demonstrate whether they were in fact mere warlords and racketeers trying to hide behind a fa�ade of democratic desires and aspirations.

(b) That the risk of seeing the GFA largely or completely fail seems less important to Republicans than the risk of their getting thoroughly shafted—sometime after full IRA disarmament and disbandment have taken place—as a result of Westminster's unavoidably unreliable "constitutional mercies."

(c) That militant Republicans will, as a result of that risk-weighing, seek to retain some paramilitary capability into the indefinite future as a "counterbalance" to Westminster's legally unchallengeable powers concerning the devolved GFA government (i.e., those Republicans want to have, at the ready, an illegal force to wield should they ever again regard use of that force necessary).

(d) That most Unionists—like Fianna F�il to the South—will no longer permit in government a political party with a potent paramilitary wing.

(e) That, if Republicans were kept out of a devolved administration based on that not-unreasonable Unionist position, the GFA would no longer be acceptable to them, whereas—completing this circle—the GFA structure would yet be acceptable to Republicans were the decommissioning issue somehow once again "backburnered" (see points "a" through "c" above).

Thus does the "constitutional mercies" theory at least potentially describe accurately why this impasse within the GFA context is permanent: this dire circle, like all other circles, cannot be squared.

Frankly, and unhappily, I've not succeeded in getting this specific issue adequately onto Northern Ireland's political radar screen, where it belongs, notwithstanding various earlier efforts. Some other commentators have raised the rather obvious point that Republican militants look like they may never go away altogether, e.g., Prof. John Murphy, Sunday Independent, 26 October 2003:

There may be no question of the Provos going back to war, but do they really mean to go out of business? Or do they intend to hang on indefinitely to enough arms to enable them to impose their will on local communities, engage in nefarious activities and flex influential political muscles? For power continues to come out of the barrels of guns even when they are silent.

Yet the notion that those militants' real yet unspeakable reason for sticking to their guns might indeed have an understandable basis, in light of the United Kingdom's inherent constitutional deficiencies, has not been at all well discussed by, inter alia, the Northern Ireland punditry.

Relatedly, and also frankly, if the pro-Agreement intelligentsia is resolutely unwilling to address—squarely, vigorously, and publicly—the difficult socio-political questions arising from this "constitutional mercies" impasse theory, then those elite may themselves constitute a bigger part of the overall Northern Ireland problem than they realize or, perhaps, would care to admit.

Therefore, I'd hereby expressly and respectfully take this opportunity to solicit consideration by, and thoughtful comment from, Northern Ireland's "opinion-formers" on the following thrown-down gauntlet: Is this "constitutional mercies" theory of the GFA settlement impasse correct or is it in error?

Naturally, I hope this very specific challenge will be taken up broadly, as there seems quite little reason to believe that adequate political trust will ever develop in Northern Ireland if forthrightness there among those freest to speak is itself in unduly short supply.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

2 November 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Memo to Adams: Remember That Every Political Career Ends in Failure
Tom Luby



Anthony McIntyre


Ballot Papers and Elysium
Eamon Sweeney


Republican Prisoners and their Families Put at Risk due to Prison Strike
Martin Mulholland


Trust Without Honesty in the Peace Process?
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


The Letters Page has been updated.


31 October 2003


Cieran Perry of Working Class Action Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


Republican Socialist Alternative Economic Strategy

Liam O Ruairc


The Ultimate Obscenity
Thomas Gore


The Chomskybot Code
Mary La Rosa


CAFTA Thumb Screws - The "Nuts and Bolts" of Free Trade Extortion
Toni Solo




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