As Belfast’s trade unions revolt, are we finally witnessing the end of N. Ireland’s “Peace Process”?

Why is the Stormont House Agreement collapsing?

Amidst the scramble to apportion blame, trade union leader Eamonn McCann’s analysis hints at the green shoots of a new dynamic in Northern Irish politics. Writing in the Irish Times, McCann rightly observes:

This is the first time trade unions have opposed a Stormont deal. On every previous occasion, they have hailed the outcome as a welcome contribution to the consolidation of peace.


This is no small development.

Consider, for a moment, the dynamics driving N. Irish politics since at least 1985.

Any unionist leader willing to lead, move or negotiate beyond the tiniest of defensive steps has faced the Lundy card: Powerful accusations of treachery from a plethora of rival political parties and internal party rivals.

That has been a desperate dynamic for unionism and for Northern Ireland.

To his great credit, David Trimble’s legacy will be simple: He’s the man who broke that mold. Inevitably, he paid the political price. Not inevitably, and thanks in large part to his leadership, Trimble survived long enough to hold off rival unionist parties, and internal UUP challengers to his leadership, to lead his community into new era based on a historic peace deal. Not too shabby.

Contrast these tiny margins for leadership and negotiation in the unionist camp with the much greater freedom Gerry Adams and his kitchen cabinet have enjoyed (and enforced) for decades.

Point, as one might, to opposition from dissident republicans and the SDLP but there’s no comparison.

Shortly after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, PIRA members brutally attacked the family of an anti-Belfast Agreement campaigner who called for an election boycott in Derry.

“You cost us a seat, you bastard!”


The media largely reported the violent home invasion, which included the hospitalization of young children, as a confrontation between rival republicans. But the focus on the personal politics of SF’s republican opponents obscured the real story. By campaigning for an election boycott, Donnelly effectively represented an electoral challenge to SF. His challenge was met with violent reprisals. And there’s a word for that.

Compare the SDLP’s challenge to SF with, for example, the DUP’s challenge to Trimble’s UUP. Paisley, being Paisley, vilified and demonized Trimble for his peace process treachery. By contrast, the SDLP’s primary political objective was to facilitate the transition of its direct electoral rival into party politics.

To get a sense of how this affected the SDLP’s desire and capacity to stick it to their rivals, it’s worth recalling Malachi O’Doherty’s dry observation from around 2001. Every time Gerry Adams drops his trousers in public, the SDLP – afraid of destabilizing the peace process – hand him a towel to cover the sight.

Since the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, unionists, in their private moments, must surely resent the relative freedom to negotiate enjoyed by SF’s leadership. They look at Adams and see a leader unafraid of internal leadership challenges, unconcerned with rival parties, and unthreatened by the prospective of losing of voters due to policy failures – at least until this week.

Before they faced the reality of real policy-making power in Belfast, and the prospect of achieving it in Dublin, SF benefited from remarkably unrestrained operating dynamics. Throw in the added luxury of treating politics entirely as an exercise in the optics of protest – and to hell with policy – and you see a formidable political machine free to dedicate its energies almost entirely to the destruction of its political opponents.

It’s no longer so simple. Policy counts. Competency counts. The basics of balancing a budget sheet counts.

We have become used to watching SF worrying little about the fealty of its flock. So it’s almost startling when a revolt like this happens – not least, we now know, to the leadership itself.

But it is happening.

How will they handle it?

Will SF warn 20,000 union members they’re threatening the “Peace Process”? That schtick might have worked with government mandarins.  It won’t work when jobs are on the line.

A real political process may finally be starting on Belfast’s streets and it’s leaving SF with much explaining to do.

The questions have all-island implications too. For starters, if SF can’t handle the DUP in budget negotiations in Belfast, how do ya reckon they’d fare facing the Trioka in Dublin?

Strategic Communications Consultant, located Washington DC