The British and Irish governments have just made a joint declaration announcing their intention to push on with convening the Belfast Assembly.
About time, you might think. After years of pandering to hardline unionists desperate to cling on to their supremacist position in the northern Irish statelet, surely the time has come to move on without them if they still refuse to participate in a power-sharing government.
The Good Friday Agreement, accepted by the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland in 1998, set out a framework for a transitional period of government. Not quite the end of British imperialism in the north of Ireland, but a definite step on the way, and a big blow to the domination of political life and institutions by the British and their unionist proxies.
The GFA marked a compromise for both sides: while republicans conceded recognition of the northern state and agreed to take part in a northern assembly, unionists agreed to cross-border cooperation in all-Ireland bodies. The unionists, however, wanted to force concessions from the republicans without themselves fulfilling their side of the bargain. They insisted on sabotaging the assembly’s functioning unless Sinn Fein was excluded.
Their intransigence enabled Labour in 2002 on the excuse of the ‘Stormontgate’ controversy, so recently and embarrassingly exposed, unlawfully to suspend the assembly. British imperialism, however, is looking for a way of saving itself what is now the unnecessary expense of maintaining the military occupation of Ireland, yet still insists on kowtowing to the sectarian prejudices of its unionist stooges.
In an attempt to have their cake and eat it, British imperialism, despite the unionists’ repeated refusals to have anything to do with the assembly if Sinn Fein are in it, plans to convene it anyway. It is likely that Ian Paisley’s DUP will scupper attempts to elect First and Deputy First Ministers and an executive; under the terms of the GFA, the assembly would then collapse. Instead of forcing the stooges of the DUP to abide by the terms of the agreement, however, Blair is planning unilaterally to rewrite the GFA. He wants to extend the life of the assembly, even if it is unable to appoint an executive, and give the neutered Legislative Assembly members (MLAs) the dummy task of “scrutinising” the work of direct-rule ministers appointed by Britain.
Without a working executive and all the safeguards of the GFA, the assembly committees would be bound to lapse into simple majoritarian devices for excluding nationalist opinion. In short, the proposal is for a sham assembly as a front for direct rule, with no power and therefore no functioning all-Ireland bodies; a fudge to keep unionists happy and a crude attempt to marginalise Sinn Fein, now the largest republican party in Ireland and a threat to both British and Irish established bourgeois interests.
This pandering to unionist intransigence is unlikely to pay off, however. Republicans have bent over backwards to facilitate agreement and power sharing over the last decade, but there is a limit beyond which they will not go. Having waged a centuries-long liberation struggle, it is extremely unlikely that the republican community is going to be fobbed off with anything less than the full implementation of the GFA – a fully functioning assembly, cross-border organisations, and an end to sectarian policing, unionist supremacy and British domination.
Republicans have made compromise after compromise, from signing up to the GFA to unilaterally decommissioning, despite the continued presence of British troops on Irish soil. If the unionists continue to refuse to work alongside republicans, they may well find the peace process collapsing around their ears – and with it their last chance to have a say in the future shape of Ireland. It is time that Britain accepted its responsibility to see the GFA implemented in full, and to force its DUP puppets learn to swallow their over-inflated egos and do likewise.