Andersontown News, 5. November 2001, ,

AS I SEE IT - Danny Morrison

The core of the problem

Last month I was at the launch of the Linenhall Library’s CD-ROM, ‘Troubled Images’- a unique record of the posters, election literature and other images brought out by all sides to the conflict as part of the propaganda war. Among those present was Cedric Wilson, an anti-Agreement Assembly member.

He happened to be close to the sandwiches and as I went to satisfy my appetite we made eye-contact. I began to make small talk but suddenly he swirled around on his heels so that he was facing the opposite direction. The woman with him had to do the same, as if they had suddenly decided to do the tango. At first I found this funny and later, on my way to the wine table, I tried to talk to him again. But before I knew it I was staring at the back of his head which was getting smaller as he disappeared down the history aisle.
Just twenty-four hours earlier I had been up at the Assembly watching the debate on the motion proposing the exclusion of Sinn Féin from the Executive (because there had been no IRA ‘decommissioning’). The motion fell because it didn’t have the required cross-party consensus. Listening to the asinine comments of DUP members William McCrea and Sammy Wilson it was obvious that, regardless of what compromises republicans make, these people will never agree to share power with Sinn Féin or the SDLP.

The continuing loyalist attacks against the Holy Cross schoolgirls is only the ugly face of an ideology which manifests itself in the Assembly in the shirt-and-tie anti-Agreement unionists who oppose full and equal rights for nationalists. They will never admit that fifty years of unionist misrule was the largest single contributing factor to the outbreak of violence in the North.

This week anti-Agreement Assembly members mustered just over 50 per cent of unionist votes and were able to block the re-election of David Trimble as First Minister by everyone else. That is, 30 per cent blocked the will of 70 per cent. They achieved this under rules, with which everyone initially agreed, rules which were aimed at preventing a unionist veto vis-a-vis nationalist rights.
Today, some members of the Alliance Party, mimicking the Womens Coalition, are redesignating themselves as ‘unionist’ in order to create the right arithmetic for Trimble’s re-election and avoid a suspension of the Assembly. In return, the Alliance Party is seeking changes to the way ‘cross-party consensus’ is measured. The repercussions are not entirely clear but the Alliance proposals could be dangerous if they were to lead to a situation where nationalist entitlements could be set aside by an anti-Sinn Féin/SDLP coalition which happened to meet any new reduced voting criteria.

Bending the rules, to avoid fresh Assembly elections, is now the name of the game and though it may well ensure that the Assembly limps along for another while it avoids the real crisis. That is, that over half of the unionist representatives effectively reject reconciliation whereas the vast majority of nationalists embrace that concept. An election, in the wake of the IRA putting some of its guns beyond use, might see the anti-Agreement vote decrease, but that seems unlikely. Neither the British government, the Ulster Unionist Party nor the SDLP favour an election, given that it is anticipated that the DUP and Sinn Féin would perform handsomely and gain primacy within each community, and that the DUP would then demand a renegotiation of the Belfast Agreement. That would result in utter political deadlock.

Listening to the vitriol of the anti-Agreement unionists in the Assembly it is clear that there is no give, that the unprecedented gesture by the IRA of putting some guns beyond use has had no effect (though elsewhere universally welcomed), that the deletion of Articles 2 & 3 by the Irish people were to be pocketed and unreciprocated.

The question must be asked: do these people take nationalists for idiots? Do they think that nationalists will meekly go back into their ghettoes and accept a dilution of the principles behind the Belfast Agreement?
I know that the major concern of the nationalist community is that a political vacuum is extremely dangerous, as we can see from the nightly pipe-bomb attacks on Catholic homes. Events could easily take on a momentum of their own and uncontrollable violence could erupt. It was in the interests of stability and political progress that the republican leadership did what it did with the great gamble of two weeks ago, a gesture that will stand in its stead and which it should have no cause to regret.

Nationalists cannot force the majority of unionists to support the Belfast Agreement, the Executive and Assembly. But if the institutions cannot work and they collapse then that fact-of-life has to be faced. The British government must then admit that ‘Northern Ireland’ is a failed, political entity, and that their partitioning of this island in 1920 solved nothing but perpetuated unionist supremacy.