Sean Farren believes that Northern Ireland is ill served by the coming to primacy of the two extremes. He argues that the DUP has no consistent record of voluntarily embracing powersharing, and that Sinn Fein is keeping a number of issues in reserve that it can use to continue to destablise future arrangements.By Sean Farren
Despite the progress both governments say has been made, the prospects for political progress have never been more pessimistic than they are now. The so-called ‘comprehensive’ agreement published by the British and Irish governments has turned out to be anything but comprehensive. The basic reason is to be found in the approaches of the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin,
Neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin is genuinely committed to partnership politics. Instead, both parties are committed to an exclusive approach and are only willing to enter a coalition with the other because no other option is available. If either party could govern on its own each would choose that option.
The absence of a commitment to partnership is demonstrated in different ways by both parties.
The DUP is blunt in its opposition to a genuine partnership. It demonstrates its opposition by refusing to adopt power-sharing in any council where it has a majority. Ballymena and Castlereagh councils are the two prime examples. In each of these two councils a policy of majority rule continues. In both councils motions in favour of power-sharing were recently rejected by the DUP. Indeed was it not for equality legislation outlawing discrimination such councils would also deny grants to organisations like the GAA.
What confidence can be placed in a DUP led administration that it would not try to implement similar policies at a more general level?
Sinn Féin speaks the language of partnership but in practice its main concerns are really with itself. Throughout all of the negotiations before and after the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin has argued more for the interests of the IRA than for anything or anyone else.
Prisoner releases, amnesties for the ‘on-the-runs’ and wiping out the criminal records of former IRA personnel, have all figured higher on Sinn Féin’s agenda than measures to alleviate the pain of victims of violence and measures to promote genuine reconciliation.
So much has Sinn Féin’s eye been on such issues that it has accepted DUP proposals to weaken key parts of the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Féin has accepted that the DUP have a veto on the appointment of nationalist ministers and on key decisions they would make. Secondly, because the DUP has refused to provide joint leadership with a nationalist deputy first minister, Sinn Féin has also agreed that there should be no joint election to those offices. So at the very heart of the Executive there is to be no acceptance of a partnership between our communities!
Sinn Féin has also accepted that if a party does not vote for the DUP First Minister and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister, then its ministerial nominees can be automatically excluded from office. This is undemocratic is contrary to what happened in 1998. Then neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP voted for David Trimble and Séamus Mallon. However, there was no question of their own nominees being excluded from ministerial office.
Sinn Féin has also accepted the DUP’s unwillingness to approve any further development of North-South arrangements until an ‘efficiency’ committee has reported, whenever that might be. Is this not a strange position to be adopted by a party in favour of Irish unity?
These are not insignificant changes to the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement is based on respect for difference as well as respect for party mandates. It gives equal respect and recognition to both the unionist and nationalist traditions and proposes a genuine partnership between the parties representing those traditions.
What the DUP and Sinn Féin offer in the so-called comprehensive agreement is not a genuine partnership of equals but a thinly veiled return to unionist majority rule. If the future is to be based on these proposals, the result will be greater division in a society that can only have a worthwhile future through a genuine partnership between our communities. A speedy return to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement still offers the best way forward.