Alex Kane argues that the British government has engineered most of the outworkings of the Belfast Agreement on the basis that Unionists have no breaking point. As a result it has focused all efforts in billateral negotiation with Sinn Fein and the IRA, to the exclusion of all other players. He argues it is time for Unionism to call the governments’ bluff.By Alex Kane
Speaking in the Dail on Wednesday afternoon, Bertie Ahern said; “What I find really offensive…is that there was an ability to turn off the punishment beatings while negotiations were in progress , but as soon as the negotiations failed there was a string of them, they are again a nightly occurrence. I will give Sinn Fein full marks for discipline, but not for anything else.”
So there we have it, the Taoiseach is offended by Sinn Fein. He quite explicitly links the political front to the punishment beatings. He has also stood by his view that the IRA carried out the Northern Bank job and that the Sinn Fein leadership was aware of the operation. Yet, according to Michael McDowell, the Irish Minister for Justice (and no slouch when it comes to putting the boot into Sinn Fein); “Mr. Ahern told Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness that he is strongly opposed to a policy of exclusion or punishment, because in our view putting people into victim mode is not sensible and doesn’t help the present process.”
Note the use of the term, “in our view”, for this is clearly the view of the Irish Government. The Taoiseach speaks of offence, the Justice Minister accuses Sinn Fein of bad faith, and the Foreign Minister confirms that the process is in great difficulties. But, be that as it may, there is no intention to exclude, sanction, punish or face down. In other words, Sinn Fein has got away with it.
Meanwhile, Tony Blair invites the Sinn Fein leadership for talks and sends his Chief-of-Staff to buy off the loyalist paramilitaries. And President George Bush, who really should know better, refuses to cancel visas, or put a stop to Sinn Fein’s fundraising exercises across the United States.
When unionists complain that they are being punished and deprived of the Assembly because of Sinn Fein/IRA activity, it is only half of the story. The Assembly remains mothballed because the British and Irish governments have no intention of doing anything to upset armed and active republicanism. It isn’t Gerry Adams and P. O’Neill who keep the shutters down at Stormont, it is Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern.
And that is why unionists are wasting their time at meetings in London and Dublin, and wasting even more time with their increasingly monotonous and desperate calls for alternatives to the Assembly. An alternative is a palpable admission of failure. Unionism has come too far and taken too many risks to be fobbed off with second best. Why settle for a consultative Assembly when we already have government by consultation? Why settle for scrutiny committees when Direct Rule ministers would not be accountable to an Assembly, nor bound by the votes that those committees may take?
Unionists are not to blame for the fact that the Assembly isn’t functioning, so they shouldn’t be seen to shoulder the blame by attempting to breathe life into an entity which would be very much inferior to what they had.
The British and Irish governments are convinced that unionists have no breaking point; indeed, their whole approach is predicated on that conviction. And since they believe that unionists will remain put, come what may, Tony and Bertie will play the long game, forget about sanctions and bank on unionists buckling first when new negotiations are kickstarted in a few months time.
Remaining put is no longer a serious option; for unionists, all of them, are being played for suckers by cynical and spineless governments. In essence, the governments are waiting for unionists to “settle down and face political reality”. They believe we will pay almost any price for devolution on other peoples’ terms. It’s about time we proved them wrong.
First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 29th January 2005