Time to Review What Went Wrong

Nothing better illustrates the fragility of our political institutions than the speed of their suspension. Ten days prior to the move to suspend, the Assembly seemed to be trundling along with little inclination of the fate that awaited it in the aftermath of the allegations that Republicans had been collecting political and security intelligence. But taking a step back with a little perspective, we should not be surprised that we have ended up within a political impasse.

The immediate issue for any fresh Talks process is inevitably going to be how to generate sufficient confidence building measures from Republicans to give not only unionists, but the entire community confidence in the durability of the ceasefires.

While suspension was always the most likely outcome to this crisis, and certainly the preferred option to a unilateral walkout from the Executive and/or premature elections, it was not the only option open.

It is important to be clear that the Agreement, and the Northern Ireland Act, expressly provides for the temporary exclusion from the Executive of any party not living up to its obligations. In other words, the mechanism is there for pro-Agreement parties to police the system and to defend it from it from violence or the threat of violence.

In the aftermath of this crisis, it is legitimate to ask why these terms where not invoked, and as a result in what circumstances they would be invoked? Having shown the metaphorical ‘yellow card’ to the Republican Movement in July of this year, in the light of these further developments was the Government not morally, if not legally, obliged to table an exclusion motion? Was the reason that they did not because they did not feel it was justified or rather because the SDLP was not prepared to vote for even an exclusion motion tabled by the Government? If the latter is true, why are the SDLP being sheltered from being held to account for failing to defend the Agreement, and in what circumstances would they be prepared to sanction Sinn Fein?

The Agreement also expressly provides the basis for a Review of its own terms and its implementation. This is not the negotiation of a new Agreement favoured by the DUP, but a refinement of the Agreement we have in light of experience.

This Comprehensive Review was scheduled for four years from when the Agreement came into effect. Alliance interprets this as meaning four years from the Referendum.

While the Agreement itself remains an essentially sound document and the only viable basis for political progress in this society, we do have to acknowledge that there are some flaws in the precise structures of the Assembly, and that implementation has been most problematic.

This hiatus in devolution presents the ideal opportunity to conduct such a Review. Any meaningful way out of this impasse needs to address a number of fundamental, underlying issues.

First, the straw that broke the camels back was the failure of the Republican Movement to give sufficient confidence to the process that they had made a firm choice of democracy over violence. The latest allegations against Republicans only build on a litany of incidents involving organised crime, paramilitary attacks, exiles and even murders.

Loyalists have similarly been involved in such activities even on a more intensive basis. But unfortunately, the scope for sanctions against Loyalists is much more restricted.

Second, there is the lingering suspicion that uncomfortable truths have been swept under the carpet for the sake of political expediency by the Two Governments. The Agreement does involve some messy compromises with those that had been involved in violence.

Four years ago, I think people could accept the notion of an imperfect peace provided that the peace became more perfect over time. But what they can’t accept is the notion of an imperfect peace that is allowed to become less and less perfect. This is what has happened as paramilitaries have tested the limits of what the Governments are prepared to tolerate.

Third, the deep divisions within Unionism and the half-hearted leadership from the Ulster Unionist Party have not helped things. Many commentators believe that unionists won on Good Friday. But there were those for whom any compromise was a step too far, and others so scarred of the ‘no-men’ that they failed to properly sell the Agreement.

Four years ago, the Agreement was seen as a ‘win-win’ for all sections of the community. Today, the Agreement is seen in zero-sum terms, with a gain for one side automatically perceived as a loss for the other.

Fourth, the pro-Agreement parties to articulate and defend a shared vision of the future, not least through accommodating each other’s concerns. The Agreement fails to provide adequate structures for collective responsibility in the Executive. But even bearing this in mind, the attitudes of the UUP and SDLP has been most disappointing.

Perhaps, the key image of the 1998 Referendum campaign was that of John Hume and David Trimble at the Waterfront. However, it was notable that it was necessary for Bono to stand between them and to elevate their hands. Since then both the UUP and the SDLP have spent too much time looking over their shoulders at the DUP and Sinn Fein than moving forward together. Their failure to reach a common position on what was necessary to defend the institutions during this crisis is only the latest example of this problem.

Finally, the Agreement has institutionalised sectarianism, and has a consequence very little has been done to tackle sectarianism within society at large. The use of designations in the Assembly is the clearest manifestation of this tendency. One of the underlying, but erroneous, assumptions behind the Agreement is that Northern Ireland is fundamentally divided into two separate but equal communities. But as a consequence of this is that signals are sent out to society, that people should see themselves in terms of ‘them’ versus ‘us’ rather than being part of the same united community. Is it little wonder that we have conflict over territory and resources, and an ongoing blame game?

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