On Saturday the 25th of October the Ruling Council of the Ulster Unionist Party met yet again to decide the fate of peace in Northern Ireland by considering whether to continue half-heartedly with the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), or simply to scrap it altogether. The ruling council met to consider proposals from a group of UUP dissidents led by the openly anti-Agreement Jeffrey Donaldson. The proposals would have seen the UUP quit power-sharing with Sinn Fein before Christmas, if the IRA has not started handing in its weapons. David Trimble, forced uncomfortably to defend himself again against an apparent split in the party, put forward his own proposals to the Ruling Council in response.
Three days prior to the meeting Trimble was ‘thrown a lifeline’ by the IRA, who made a statement reporting that its arms dumps had been re-examined by international observers. Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, welcomed the IRA statement as encouraging and positive (quoted from John Brown, ‘IRA throws Trimble a lifeline’, FT 25/10/00).
Two days prior to the meeting Tony Blair visited Northern Ireland. According to John Brown, Blair’s surprise visit was clearly aimed at bolstering Mr Trimble’s support ahead of Saturday’s meeting (FT, 25/10/00).
Despite the IRA statement, and despite Blair’s visit, and despite the fact the he is the First Minister of Northern Ireland (let alone the leader of the UUP), Trimble could not find the resolve pro-actively to promote the GFA and face down his opponents. Instead, Trimble put forward a timetable for decommissioning which will see the exclusion of Sinn Fein ministers, democratically elected like all other members of the 108 member assembly, from meetings of the North-South bodies set up by the GFA. This timetable, clearly in breach of the letter and spirit of the Agreement, was endorsed by the Ruling Council. The text of motion actually refers to the blocking of Sinn Fein ministers in their duty as ‘sanctions’, to be lifted and/or re-imposed according to the whims of the UUP’s leadership. The new timetable was accurately described by Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein member for North Belfast, as ‘destructive and ill-advised. It is a timetable for disaster’.
The bourgeois media have been quick to concentrate on the differences between Trimble and the hardliner Donaldson, and the attention paid to Trimble’s victory over Donaldson, and in doing so have avoided any serious criticism of Trimble himself. Mr Trimble, in a letter to Council delegates, set out his objectives as: a crisis around the Executive and the Assembly; suspension of the Agreement; with blame to be attached to republicans. His six-point plan to achieve this, endorsed by the UUC, links the blocking of the political process on a number of fronts to the demand for a physical IRA weapons surrender. A follow-up meeting in January to evaluate the results of this strategy is being seen as tantamount to the arms surrender deadline which leadership rival Jeffrey Donaldson demanded be put in place. After winning the key vote on party strategy, Mr Trimble himself admitted the policy differences between himself and Donaldson were “essentially tactical”. As for Donaldson, he said: “We did not get everything we wanted but David Trimble has moved very firmly on to our ground.”
The day after the UUP Ruling Council meeting, Sunday 29th October, Sinn Fein held a national meeting of party activists in Castlebellingham, where Gerry Adams made the following remarks:
“Mr. Trimble’s propositions to the Council differ from Jeffrey Donaldson’s only with regard to timing. The attention being paid to Mr Trimble’s victory over Mr Donaldson has sidelined the more important issue, that is the consequences which all of this has for the political process. David Trimble should have faced down his opponents by pro-actively promoting the Good Friday Agreement. Instead he has chosen to step outside that agreement and if he follows through on his threat he will be in breach of the Agreement, and in contravention of his Pledge of Office and of his Ministerial code. Sinn Fein does not hold Executive position by dint of patronage from the UUP. We have a mandate and the citizens whom we represent must have exactly the same rights as all other citizens. Could it be that Mr. Trimble’s move today is tacit acknowledgement that Unionism isn’t up to the challenge of working alongside other citizens or of developing and sustaining a peaceful future based upon equality? Could it be that he is unabl to rise above the role of a party leader, the leader of the UUP, to be a First Minister for all the people?”
Having made some criticism of Trimble and the UUP, the Sinn Fein president explained where the responsibility for the situation really lies: “While we all have a role to play in this, the primary responsibility for advancing peace, and justice and democracy, rests with the British government. And at this time, as we face into another crisis caused by the refusal of unionism to accept the democratic imperative of agreements and responsibilities entered into by them, republicans have serious concerns about the focus and intent of Mr. Blair and his colleagues. For example, a new beginning to policing was promised. On present evidence the British are producing a re-packaged RUC which nationalists and republicans will not support, endorse or join. Claims that the British government is `faithfully’ implementing the Patten report does not convince Sinn Fein, the Catholic Church, the SDLP, the Irish Government, political opinion in Washington, and a wide range of human rights and justice and victims groups in Ireland. The solution to this problem is for the British government to implement the Patten report in full.”
“On demilitarisation, a transparent PR spin is produced which seeks to gloss over the re-militarisation of South Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh, the unacceptable presence of British forces in areas like West Belfast, and the continued use of civilian human shields on Divis Tower and elsewhere by the British Army. This is not demilitarisation. This is rationalisation and it is no part of the Good Friday Agreement or the deal struck at Hillsborough. The solution to this problem is for the British government to implement the Good Friday Agreement in full.”
“On Criminal Justice, the review set-up by the British government fails to meet the standard set for it by the Agreement two and a half years ago. Nationalists and republicans are not going to support a Criminal Justice system that continues to rely on emergency legislation, the denial of fundamental human rights, a judiciary that has forever disgraced itself working the Diplock Court system and an inquest system that has colluded in the cover-up of hundreds of state sponsored killings. The solution to this problem is for the British government to honour the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and create a criminal justice system that is fair and just and defends human rights.
And of course, there is the issue of flags. The spin from London is that the two Sinn Fein Ministers will be ‘ordered’ to fly the Union Jack. What happened to the principles of partnership, equality, mutual respect and mutual consent, of tolerance and sensitivity? The British government has tipp-exed out these words and themes from the Agreement at the behest of a unionism which still wants to be top-dog. Worse, it criminalises Irish emblems and symbols. This is unacceptable and subverts the ethos of the Good Friday Agreement. The solution to this problem is for the British government to implement the Good Friday Agreement.”
“On these vital issues, as well as the threat to the Agreement now presented by Mr. Trimble, the British government holds the key. The time ahead will present challenges for everyone. Sinn Fein is up to those challenges and it remains the aim and the function of this party to manage the process in a calm and strategic way.”
Those who are familiar with the Republican struggle for a united Ireland will know that immense changes have taken place in the political culture of Northern Ireland since the IRA ceasefire, and that no amount of stalling on the part of British Imperialism, or the Unionist orders, will prevent the ultimate achievement of a united Ireland. The Agreement set out the way forward for peace in Northern Ireland, and it simply remains for the British government to implement the Agreement.
It is the duty of class-conscious and progressive people around the world to support the Irish struggle and condemn those who oppose it in such flagrantly anti-democratic fashion as Trimble and Donaldson, whilst also pointing out that British Imperialism remains in military occupation of Northern Ireland. It is particularly important for the British working class to recognise that it is faced with the same enemy as the Irish working class, since we shall never be free as long as our neighbours are subjected by our own ruling classes.