Sinn Féin should shift focus to the south?

The device of appending separate annexes to key government documents is becoming something of a norm in the wake of the breakdown of the Belfast Agreement. However it makes it fairly difficult to read interms of what was at least potentially agreed. Danny Morrison unpicks the last week’s document, and gives his view of its significance. Towards the end he hints that for now, Sinn Fein may be happy to let focus of its own game shift towards southern politics.By Danny Morrison

There has been much argument over what was or was not agreed on the issue of IRA decommissioning being photographed.

Proof that republicans never subscribed to the idea of visual decommissioning is actually evident from a close reading of the two governments’ proposals for a ‘Comprehensive Agreement’. When you read the statement in Annex C the governments proposed the IRA would issue there is absolutely no reference to photographs. What it says is that, “the IRA leadership has agreed with the IICD [the Decommissioning body] to complete this process in a way which further enhances public confidence and to conclude this by the end of December.”

The way which enhances public confidence was the proposal to allow two independent clerics to witness decommissioning, which is what the IRA had agreed to.

Photographs are only mentioned in the statement in Annex D that the governments proposed that General John de Chastelain would make! According to paragraph 5 he would have said: “In addition, the IRA representative has told us that the IRA will have photographs of the weapons and materiel involved taken by the IICD, in the presence of the independent observers.”

De Chastelain would have said that the photographs would be published when the Executive was formed next March.

The reference to photographs was obviously left out of the IRA statement because the British knew that the IRA had never agreed to that happening, though it appears that they were trying to bounce the IRA into accepting the unacceptable.

The British and Irish governments thus must bear a heavy responsibility for the impasse in political progress last week. It is now clear that they ignored Sinn Fein warnings that visual decommissioning from the IRA was a non-starter, yet they persisted in including such a possible prospect.

Furthermore, we now know that the British government convinced the DUP that the pictorial aspect was a probability – almost a given – in a separate document on the issue which was never shown to Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness.

That little bit of deceit was what put Paisley’s ego over the top. Falsely assuming that the IRA had agreed to visual decommissioning, he made his infamous speech about humiliation, repentance, sackcloth and ashes (and, later, threw in a hair shirt for good measure).

Paisley must have known the reaction his speech would have caused among republicans. He may have calculated that it would cause major division in the IRA and ultimately force the IRA to ‘renege’ on what he assumed it had agreed to – filmed decommissioning.

That certainly would have got him off the hook of sharing power with Sinn Fein under the Belfast Agreement which is what he would have been signing up to. However, despite what commentators, observers and politicians assert about Paisley being prepared to share power with republicans, I still cannot ever see it happening, for it would represent such a reversal of character.

The publication of the document has also shown that the SDLP was lying when it said that Sinn Fein had agreed to a DUP veto over the nomination of specific ministers. In fact, the amended method of electing the Executive rather than easing things for the DUP has made it more embarrassing.

Under the former system it would have had to vote for only one member of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. But under the latest proposals the entire Executive would be nominated and then there would be a collective vote. This led to David Trimble jibing at Paisley: “That instead of voting for one, they will vote for four [Sinn Fein ministers]. I’m sure that’s progress.”

There is little doubt that, as Gerry Adams said last week, there would be a battle a day inside such an Executive, as the DUP resisted change and progress. Paisley confirmed just that on Radio Ulster’s ‘Sunday Sequence’ when it was clear that rather than promote the smooth functioning of government (to which the DUP would have to pledge itself, according to Annexe E) he would treat particular fellow ministers with hostility.

His objective would be to frustrate the work, find fault with Sinn Fein and have it driven out of the Executive. Under those gerrymandered circumstances he would be more than willing to sit with the SDLP, the DUP’s master voice who joined the confederacy calling for IRA photographs.

The irony is that the DUP appear to prefer the sectarian satisfaction of keeping Sinn Fein out of government rather than relieving the unionist community of the negative consequences of direct rule.

All of which begs the question I have heard many republicans ask: why bother? Certainly, Sinn Fein being in power in the North and South and working the systems towards social and economic harmony, as a means of working towards unity, appears to be the most viable strategy available.

But can’t it continue to consolidate its support and ready itself for power in the South (should it want to be in government; should the pretexts blocking it be removed)? Can’t it lobby and press the British government to implement changes on a range of issues, including policing and a Bill of Rights, which the British have already conceded in principle?

Meantime, the IRA, presumably, will examine whether there is merit in doing a side deal with the two governments.

The nationalist community might be angry and temporarily frustrated. But it remains stoic, and morale is high because the IRA made the right decision. No photographs, no humiliation. Let’s move on.

First published in the Andersonstown News, Monday 13th December 2004