As the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches, the immediate outlook is uncertain. But reform is in the air

As the Great Anniversary approaches, unionist opinion in its supporting  press is in turmoil over whether or when to return to the Assembly. Worryingly there is talk of being resigned to loyalist violence in the event of a border poll.    Opinion is tilting against accepting the Windsor Framework. Its gaps and deficiencies are forensically taken apart in the Belfast Telegraph by Sam McBride.  In the Newsletter, the voice of sceptical unionism, the editor Ben Lowry comes down against the Framework and much of the last 25 Years.   Fundamentally it’s the old story of British betrayal and basic loathing about having to share power with Sinn Fein.

The time has come to make clear that no unionist can possibly accept such a major internal UK barrier, and move on to how we can seem constructive about the future

The 2020 deal to restore Stormont saw the then secretary of state Julian Smith reward SF blackmail over the Irish language, tear up the three strands and give the IRA just what it wanted on legacy – a pledge to implement structures that Sinn Fein believed will destroy the security forces. There was barely a squeak from unionists. We cannot be so defeatist – and it is time for London to support unionists.

He approvingly quotes Bob McCartney KC, 86 this month, and still the most eloquent objector and proponent of the “betrayal” trope

The Belfast Agreement was the final piece in the plan. The result of British government strategy has been to make the pro-Union citizens of Northern Ireland feel ever more isolated and deceived, as they watch their rights as UK citizens being progressively diluted.

At the same time they have witnessed the ascent to power of Sinn Fein, a republican party which still actively celebrates those who carried out a sectarian 30-year campaign of IRA violence. That combination, which shows every sign of intensifying, represents the worst possible background for any border referendum.

Although a border referendum may be long postponed, when it is finally held Sinn Fein will in all probability be in power in Ireland, north and south. In the event of a narrow vote for a united Ireland, it is equally likely that a significant proportion of the people of Northern Ireland would reject the result, with, I fear, a minority of loyalists potentially willing to use force in opposition.

That vision of civil unrest would not only signify dark days for Northern Ireland, but for the Republic of Ireland as well. The “peace process” has now been “processing” politically for twenty-five years, while failing to dismantle sectarianism and paramilitarism. It seems more likely to result in disaster for Ireland rather than unity.

it is all too easy to surrender to fury and despair when  contemplating paramilitary atrocities marked one by one in Twitter; or the prospect- now thankfully cancelled – of having to sign a customs declaration for sending a family parcel across the Irish Sea. But Ben hints at exhaustion; and he ends with a rather pathetic appeal: “It’s time for the government to support unionists..” But this is precisely what Rishi Sunak thinks he’s been doing over the Framework, with its revival  of the notorious petition of concern in the shape of the Stormont brake (not veto!) and in defence of the “glorious Union.”

Countering the argument briefly, the “ concessions” to Sinn Fein and the IRA during  the Agreement and afterwards  – tolerating the delay in arms  decommissioning , the prisoner releases, the later  “secret letters” and so on –  were about preventing  a return to violence  that was given priority over creating  stable power sharing. Nor were Trimble and Mallon either inclined or strong enough to come together and demand the suspension of Sinn Fein from the fledgling Executive until arms decommissioning was achieved. And rather than treat equal rights and parity of esteem as desirable  in themselves, unionists persist in  regarding them as at best trade- offs  with nationalists in which they come off badly,  or at worst about the whittling away  the British identity.  They persist in seeing the Agreement through the distorted lens of their own traditional terms. This is not to deny their emotional force. But is it a formula for facing the future? Unionists have to become less  satisfied with emotional outrage, an exaggerated and dated patriotism and a lurking memory  of past entitlement that was always based on sand.  Above all, they need to overcome the fear of the other  that has stunted development and yes, to learn from the better side of Sinn Fein in working a political system,  despite having far less experience of doing so. Society has changed dramatically and they must learn to keep up. To.adapt ATQ Stewart’s memorable characterisation, the narrow ground has become too narrow to stand on any more.

Rather than become hopelessly bogged down on irresolvable history, thankfully  harder thinking is not entirely  absent .  On the legacy itself the   former  Trimble legal adviser and barrister Austen Morgan has joined the UU associated Malone House  group in giving  mordant  approval to the UK government’s plan for a virtual  amnesty.  “Lawfare” allegedly waged by nationalists and their sympathisers to prosecute state servants for abuses like deep collusion while letting paramilitaries of the hook is pernicious .and corrosive.  Victims are being deceived that justice is still possible. Better to have done.

Unionists fantasise about republicans being held to account, oblivious of the statecraft of turning terrorists into politicians (look what happened when Gerry Adams was asked about Jean McConville). Nationalists have an anti-colonial agenda, tipping towards historical justification of the IRA’s not-so-long war.

Northern Ireland continues to do a great deal of harm to itself, contrary to the 1998 vision of reconciliation: ‘The achievement of a peaceful and just society would be the true memorial to the victims of violence.’ There may be peace: there is not justice.

This argument bites the bullet very hard.  It  implicitly rejects the argument that until the legacy issues are resolved there cannot be progress.

On one fundamental McCartney and co are surely  right. It is time to face it as a fact that mandatory coalition has not worked. If further evidence were needed, it came recently from Stephen Grimason a successor of mine one as BBC NI political editor who went on to head up the Executive’s PR for sixteen years.

…the special advisers (spads) to David Trimble and Seamus Mallon “were constantly trying to get one up” on each other. ..When the DUP and Sinn Fein took over in 2007, “the difference was like day and night because they were… very enclosed”. The late Ian Paisley “was very, very closely man-marked by everyone around him” because he was becoming frail and “there were all these advisers wanting to make their mark”.

: “The real decisions you sometimes felt with Sinn Fein weren’t being taken in the building where they should have been; everything was being referred back to Connolly House and beyond”.

“the thing that hobbled the Executive, and hobbled Stormont to an extent, is the checks and balances — the very checks and balances which were vital to getting the thing set up in the first place… slowed down decision-making.”

Stormont’s biggest success in that period, he said, was a period of more than a decade where it helped attract enormous foreign direct investment but it had “piddled it all away”, with no strategic thinking around education to support the economy.

In dealing with health there was “a lack of guts to take the decisions that would have closed various places”, he said — yet this baffled him because “you can never lose your job for something to do with the health service here — every election here is about the border”.

In an important and well timed intervention as yet barely noticed, Executive reform has now been mooted by the leading academic Katy Hayward, based on public approval

 .. the 2021/22 Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys (NILT) – the most reliable social attitudes survey in the region – showed that two thirds of respondents consider the 1998 Agreement to be the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, although most of these, 44 per cent of total respondents, think it needs some reform. Only 11 per cent think that the 1998 Agreement should be ‘substantially changed’ and just 5 per cent that it should be removed altogether….

…the latest Northern Ireland census results, ..found four in 10 describing their national identities as something other than British-only or Irish-only.

. Most – 58 per cent – would support replacing cross-community rules on key Assembly votes with weighted majority ones, giving equal weight to ‘other’ as well as nationalist and unionist members’ votes.

Only a minority – 37 per cent – support the mandatory coalition model

 Scrapping the designations would by itself hardly destroy the leading role of SF and the DUP but it should have the effect of  forcing them into greater cooperation by creating more flexible voting issue by issue and with the centre ground  given full weight. Whether they would then take necessary hard decisions remains to be seen.

But how to overcome the Sinn Fein – DUP mutual veto? Sinn Fein are unlikely to oblige just when they have become the largest party. . Appealing to the common good and improved democracy by introducing either more simple majority or weighted majority voting just to do a favour to the Alliance party might not appeal.   But unionists generally would benefit hugely by recognising the limits of their power as a community and accepting that the extension of an equal rights culture over the last quarter century necessarily redressed historic imbalances. The better vision of the future lies in “British, Irish or both” in what can be a highly personal mixture.

Of one thing we can be sure. The great folk who will be celebrating the GFA this month are not about to let it go. The two governments must revive the British Irish Intergovernmental Council, not as prelude to the chimera of joint authority but to coordinate united pressure on the local parties to govern better at last.

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