22 May 2008
I very much welcome the decision by Queen’s University to hold a conference on the tenth anniversary of the referenda in which the people of Northern Ireland and the people of the Republic of Ireland respectively approved the Multiparty Agreement made at Belfast on 10 April 1998.
The Agreement was the turning point in the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict. It contained a constitutional settlement which, in the decade since, has not been challenged. It created a framework for north/south co-operation, which turned an issue, previously toxic in Northern Ireland politics into one which has since run smoothly. Significantly during the four and a half year hiatus in the Northern Ireland Assembly the Irish government stuck as closely to the letter and spirit of the Agreement on this matter as administrative exigencies permitted. The Agreement created a Northern Ireland Assembly with arrangements to enable the key elements in society to work together. Despite the hiatus mentioned above, all the significant parties in Northern Ireland were agreed that the Assembly should be revived with limited modification of its procedures.
What proved problematic immediately after the Agreement were the arrangements for the transition of various paramilitary related elements into a wholly peaceful and democratic environment, and the political strains resultant from the mishandling of that transition. Obviously I have strong views on the mistakes made in the early part of that transition. It could clearly have been handled better. But I do not want to traverse that ground now. Although, those looking for lessons from Northern Ireland will find them in those difficulties.
Today, however, we celebrate not just the agreement of ten years ago, but also the more recent developments that have made the transition virtually complete. While this outcome has taken longer than envisaged in 1998 and has taken a route that was certainly not envisaged then, I am glad to see this outcome.
DUP accept power sharing with Republicans
To many the decision made by the Democratic Unionist Party to enter into a power sharing Executive with nationalists and republicans came as a surprise. But it was clearly foreshadowed virtually from the beginning. It should be remembered that the DUP entered into and participated in the first Executive. By taking Ministerial Office they participated in that power sharing administration, and though many may not have realised this, that participation indicated they had no principled objection to power sharing.
An even clearer signal was the shift made between the elections of 2001 and 2003. In 2001 they campaigned on a simple anti- agreement basis. Failing to defeat us then their approach in 2003 was much more nuanced. They called for a “fair deal”. Implicit in that was an assurance that the DUP would try to renegotiate the agreement to produce one “fairer”. In other words they were acknowledging that there had to be an agreement, which, again by implication, could only be an agreement with, among others, nationalists and republicans. They would have seen from our experience that there was no longer any possibility that nationalists would agree to exclude republicans.
Naturally not all the implications of the slogan were spelt out. But whatever their intentions, the subsequent negotiations must have helped bring it home to the party that there was no alternative to the Agreement and so prepared the ground for what happened after the publication of the governments’ proposals at the St Andrews Talks.
Changes post St Andrews
I regard some of the developments after the St Andrews Talks to be undesirable from a unionist perspective, some to be cosmetic and some to be positively good. The main undesirable change concerns the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Hitherto there had to be an election by a majority of designated nationalists and of designated unionists. This was, frankly overambitious and many would have welcomed changing to a cross community vote, which provides for a 40% minimum from each designation. The election however has been abolished in favour of a mechanical statutory procedure based on identifying the largest party of each designation. This means that there will no longer have to be an agreed joint nomination. That at least required each party to think whether their nomination would be acceptable to others. It also deprives those selected of the legitimacy that derived from the votes from members from “the other side”. It was of course DUP reluctance to confer that legitimacy on their partners that drove the change. Which some might think an ill-omened beginning.
I regret the passing of the British Government’s power to suspend the Assembly as that was a unilateral change to the Agreement made in fulfilment of the promise made by the Prime Minister in his letter to me on the afternoon of 10 April 1998. But that is more than balanced by the existence of the Independent Monitoring Commission with its power to recommend exclusion from the Executive, a more effective and focussed sanction, which we proposed early in 2002 and which had it been implemented speedily might have avoided the four and a half year hiatus in the process.
The cosmetic changes relate to the vexed issue of Ministerial accountability. That matter was widely misunderstood. To be accountable is to be liable to give an account – to have to explain what one did and why. In that sense all Ministers were fully accountable. There was adequate provision in the Northern Ireland Assembly (for such scrutiny) through the Assembly committees and, on the floor of the House, through questions, debates and statements. The power of the Assembly, however, was legislation, not executive decisions. In a parliamentary system the power of executive decision making is vested in Ministers1. They must explain them to Parliament, if called upon to do so. But Parliament cannot overrule that decision. This is the position at Westminster and the same applies to democratic legislatures generally.
So the issue was not accountability but control. In a single party government control rests with the Prime Minister who hired and can fire the Minister. In a coalition government this is more complex, and depends on a negotiation between the coalition parties. In the first Executive we put two measures in place to deal with this. The first was that any three Ministers could veto a decision. The second was the preparation of a Ministerial code that defined the issues which had to come to the Executive for a collective decision. Of the two Ministerial decisions that were controversial, that on maternity services at the City was made before the preparation of the draft Ministerial Code. The other decision on the Burns Report and selection in secondary education, was a decision that under the Code had to come to the Executive. The Education Minister knew that he could not get the decision through the Executive and eventually his special advisors started to talk to mine on whether there was anything in Burns we could agree on. Then came suspension in October 2002. In the evening a few hours before suspension took effect the Minister issued a press release abolishing the existing transfer procedure. An action formally within his powers: but a decision he could not have validly taken under the draft Ministerial code. The really important matter is that in succeeding days the Department and the direct rule Ministers treated this as a lawful decision. Our mistake was in not seeking a judicial review of that decision – and of course it was open to anyone with an interest in the matter to have done so.
After St Andrews the three Ministerial veto and the Ministerial code have been put on a statutory basis thus underwriting our decision in the first Executive. To this the DUP added a procedure to enable the Assembly to challenge a Ministerial decision. The Assembly, however, cannot overrule the Minister – a point which has not always come over in DUP descriptions of the procedure. This innovation reminds me of the procedure that the SDLP were very keen on in the talks on order to protect their party position. We conceded it to meet their then political need2. The procedure was never used during and I suspect the procedure the DUP have sought for similar reason will have a similar impact.
The point where the DUP have made significant progress is with regard to policing. I think that the position Dr Paisley took in making republican support for the existing policing arrangements the key issue with regard to the formation of an Executive, was right. It has brought about a major shift in the republican position. That shift was implicit in the agreement and would have had to be made as part of the completion of the Agreement. But that does not diminish its importance. The shift having been made I think that he was further right to say it effectively meant the end of the IRA3. To then get excited about the structure of this underground body seems to me to be mistaken. Its members will want to maintain some form of old comrades association. In this context I suggested to the republican leadership back in 2003 that they revert to the original name of Irish Republican Brotherhood and that the body then be deproscribed.
On the devolution of criminal justice functions the issue is whether the verbal support for policing and the courts is being accompanied by appropriate actions, and nothing would show that was the case better then the speedy resolution of the McCartney and Quinn murder cases4. To object to devolution because of the presumed continuation of the IRA “Army Council” is to undermine the Dr. Paisley’s justification for entering into partnership with republicans.
If there is a weakness in the present arrangements it is that in last year’s elections to the Assembly the DUP were not as candid as they could have been. There were voters who did not realise that the formation of a power sharing Executive would follow soon after the election. Had this been made clearer then the DUP could justly claim that they had a mandate for what they are now doing. Remembering the controversies of the early seventies I was anxious in the talks that the Agreement be approved by the electorate and that we get a mandate for its implementation.
Recently I heard about a confrontation between Ariel Sharon after he had announced the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and a delegation of Israeli West Bank settlers. The latter asked why Sharon had withdrawn his support for settlements in Palestinian areas. Sharon pointed first the Prime Ministerial chair he was occupying and said, “Because sitting here I see things I did not see sitting there.” And pointed to the seats occupied by the settlers. I empathise with this I had a similar experience on finding myself in leadership. It is a pity the DUP leader did not use words similar to Sharon’s for I suspect he could have uttered them with equal effect.
The consequence is that a debate that should now be closed is unresolved. I doubt if the remnants of anti-agreement unionism, grouped round the movement called Traditional Unionist Voice, will gain sufficient support to derail the Assembly. But while it may not destroy, it could destabilise; as could the growing dissatisfaction among republicans with the Adams leadership. Consequently there is a need for both parties to engage with their critics on the basis that what we have is the best option of all the people of Northern Ireland.
The continuing debate within unionism is illustrated by two books recently reviewed by always interesting Alex Kane in an article in the Newsletter (12 May 2008). With regard to Frank Millar’s David Trimble, The Price of Peace, revised edition, I am obviously parti pris. Kane classifies its viewpoint as pragmatic unionism which he defines as making the best of unpleasant political realities, and I would regard as being simply grounded in the real world. David Vance’s Unionism Decayed is classified by Kane as moral high ground unionism and he defines it as the view that almost anything is better than terrorist appeasement. I take issue with the latter classification.
Vance lays into the unionist political parties, the government, the churches, the loyal orders, pretty well everything. But he does not produce any alternative - he certainly avoids the alternative put forward by his UKUP colleague of accepting an immediate united Ireland as the only way to avoid engaging with republicans.
Now, the commentator may castigate everything. The politician must produce policies which will be judged on their effectiveness. It may be said that resolutely opposing everything is itself a policy. But we have seen the results of always saying no again and again over the quarter of a century that preceded the Agreement in 1998. That policy was bad for everyone and an abject and total failure in advancing or defending the interests of unionism. To have continued such an approach after the ceasefires in the mid nineties would have been adopting the defensive posture of the ostrich. Unionism would then have been at the mercy of its enemies with little sympathy from those who ought to be its friends.
Some anti-agreement unionists when confronted with the realities even said that nevertheless we should not have made an agreement. It would, they thought, have been better to be passive and allow the government to impose their will. Any such course is cowardly and irresponsible. Anyone involved in politics has to take account of the world in which he actually lives. As Amos Oz says,
I constantly remind myself that telling good from evil is relatively easy. The real moral challenge is to distinguish between different shades of grey; to grade evil and try to map it; to differentiate between bad and worse and worst.
We only had to make such differentiations with regard to temporary aspects of the Agreement. The core of the Agreement was principled and reflected the reality of society in Northern Ireland. When we stretched ourselves for its full implementation we held the high ground. Those who obstructed us in that endeavour, and particularly those who offered comfort to republicans on their failure to disarm, forfeited any claim to a moral position.
In a chapter entitled “The dogs on the street” Vance attacks loyalist paramilitaries. He is properly tough on the crimes. He mentions particularly the ghastly murders of two protestant youths in Tandragee in 2000 and details the criminal past of those who represented loyalism in the Talks and in the Assembly. Here there is a problem. The latter had repudiated their past – David Ervine particularly eloquently - and were trying to give their former associates a positive lead.
But there is an aspect of paramilitary activity in the period he considers to which he does not refer. While the DUP, the UKUP and others were opposing the Belfast Agreement politically, anti-agreement loyalists, mainly from certain elements in the UDA, maintained a campaign of sectarian violence against Catholics, including several murders. Then after the Assembly election in 2003 when the DUP got their nose in front of the UUP, this particular strand of loyalist violence petered out. This may be coincidence, but I think it more likely that there is a connection. Again, the violence may have been spontaneous, or the perpetrators may have thought that this was their contribution to the anti-agreement campaign. I think it would improve Mr Vance’s credibility as a critic if he were to inquire into this. He might look to see if anything was done to discourage this specific activity. Equally he should inquire if there was any encouragement, direct or indirect, of this activity. I do not suggest that there was any complicity at party leadership level – the place to look is on the ground at local level. I recall what I think was the last major republican bomb in Portadown, a significant DUP figure, from outside the constituency visited and was shown round by “Swinger” Fulton, then effectively the second in command of the LVF a group suspected of the activity under consideration. It would be interesting to know if anything was said on that occasion to maintain the high moral ground assumed by critics of the agreement.
Alex Kane concludes his review as follows
The pragmatists have carried the day, so far. Yet to be brutally honest, I acknowledge that as a matter of fact, rather than as a matter of pride. The real problem now for unionism, as it was in 1921, is that we (the pragmatists) are being forced to defend a structure of government which we never really wanted and which may, in the long term, prove to be thoroughly bad for us.”
This requires some consideration. I think when Alex refers to structures of government he is referring to the Assembly. I am sure he would agree that all the constitutional arrangements are positive. The Assembly does have unique features, but they were necessary in order to create the confidence to establish the Assembly. Some say we should have sought power sharing with the SDLP alone. But that would have left republicans as a discontented minority similar to the situation in 1992. In the short term that worked then. But is was unlikely to work again and anyway was undesirable. I had no regard for republican activists. But the integration of a significant segment of the people of Northern Ireland who looked to them for political leadership into our political structures mattered. Which is why in a talks session with the SDLP, I said I would not like to run an administration with the Shinners sitting sullenly alone on the opposition benches. Similarly I will welcome it when Sinn Fein takes its seats in Parliament.
Clearly the Assembly’s unique procedures are still needed. Indeed the DUP may not have been willing to enter the Executive without the mutually assured obstruction of the three Minister veto. These procedures will result in cumbersome decision making. On the other hand such decisions will stick and in time there will be greater understanding of each other’s position. This we found in the first Executive. If Alex is thinking that in the long run the absence of an external opposition will be bad for us, I agree. These procedures meet the present need. As those needs adjust, I hope the procedures will also adjust. In passing, I observe that d’Hondt does not compel a party or parties to take office. A conventional opposition could be created tomorrow if parties so desired.
It is possible that the mention of 1921 means that this is a reference to devolution itself. There is a school of thought within unionism that in the long run Stormont was bad for us. Bad for us in that we became parochial, self obsessed and out of touch with developments in the rest of the United Kingdom. Clearly it was bad for us in so far as we lagged behind changes elsewhere. For example, the ratepayer franchise in local government was abolished in GB in 1948. Twenty years later we were still dithering. The change would have made very little difference, affecting the political balance in only a few cases. But the delay enabled others to campaign on the one man one vote slogan to our great disadvantage.
But a disadvantage, perhaps greater because it was structural, was our gradual separation from the mainstream of British political life. This was not solely our doing. A large responsibility lies with the Labour Party and its membership ban on NI residents. This is not just a matter for unionists. Whatever one’s long term aspiration the same range of political involvement ought to available to everyone in NI to meet the needs of here and now.
We should remember the issues which are not, and will not be, devolved. Defence, foreign policy, taxation, public expenditure, the broad thrust of public and social policy are all the purview of Westminster, where all but two Northern Ireland MPs are double hatted as MLAs and many triple hatted as Ministers as well. It may be interesting to see for how long the electors are content with largely absent representation. But even if all those elected were assiduous in attendance, there are severe limitations to what members of minor parties can achieve, compared to a member of a party capable of forming a government. It will be interesting to see for how long the people of Northern Ireland remain content with a party structure that reflects an age which may now be ending. At least those broader opportunities should be a realistic option.
To return to more immediate challenges for the Assembly. Some of these relate to the reform of public services, on which the progress so far has been miniscule. Our bloated and inefficient public sector urgently needs serious attention that goes further than rattling a begging bowl. We need to make changes.
Other challenges relate to the legacies of the troubles such as victims, interface areas and community relations generally. The new dispensation gives an opportunity to tackle these. The chance of creating a society, where all sections of the community feel really comfortable, is perhaps the most tremendous and exciting consequence of the agreement. But if it is to be done successfully, we need an administration that unequivocally welcomes the spirit of the Agreement and the institutions that Agreement created.
Above all we need to take responsibility. We have the opportunity to deal with local issues ourselves. With the prospect of a stable local administration, we can no longer blame others. Rather we need to get down to the serious job, knowing that there is no magic wand, just the steady piecemeal amelioration of our condition and the patient construction of a better future.
I close with another quote from Amos Oz,
All I can add to this is just the notion that only death is perfect. Peace, like life itself, is not a burst of love or mystical communion between enemies but precisely a fair and sensible compromise between opposites.”
1 There is a Northern Ireland peculiarity in that executive power was vested in the Department not the Minister. This is, I think, a serious failing but it is not relevant to the point being made here.
2 I have deal with this in greater detail in an account of the talks, see the Antony Alcock Memorial Lecture accessible here
3 The same could be said about the republican entry into the Executive in 1999.
4 I fear the absence of a more detailed analysis of republican involvement in the Quinn murder, is having an unsettling effect on public opinion.
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