The Good Friday Agreement moved an inch or two closer to full implementation, just two days before Christmas, with the conclusion of a broad deal between the five parties represented in the six-counties executive at Stormont and the Dublin and London governments.
The fact that the agreement, for all its shortcomings, was reached at all was in large measure thanks to the patience and firmness of Sinn Féin’s negotiating team, led by Martin McGuinness – an expert at extracting blood from a stone.
Barely a week earlier, it had seemed that the high-handed behaviour of the British delegation would succeed in sinking any chance of an agreement. The British prime minister, with the Irish taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny tagging along behind, indulged in what Gerry Adams characterised on his blog as “an exercise in bluster and political grandstanding” amounting to “the most amateurish, ham-fisted episode I have ever been involved in”. (Amateurish and ham fisted negotiation, leargas.blogspot.co.uk, 18 December 2014)
The British government, said Adams, “far from seeking to engage constructively with parties, tried to present itself as some sort of independent broker. It then tried to impose its own view and predetermine the outcome of the discussions. It was not willing to engage in meaningful negotiations.”
Britain abdicates responsibility
Instead of taking responsibility for the fact that the austerity currently being endured by the people of the six counties comes on top of many years of social and economic carnage resulting from colonial oppression – imposing a moral duty on the retreating colonial overlords at the very least to take measures to soften the current economic pain – Cameron resorted to smoke and mirrors.
Says Adams: “Claims that over one billion pounds was available from the British government to the executive quickly evaporated under scrutiny. As one BBC journalist put it, the British cheque book is ‘all stubs and no cheques. The £1bn in spending power offered by the prime minister is largely a borrowing facility which the executive can already dip into.’”
In addition, Adams noted: “The British government also offered to provide £10m per year for the proposed Historical Investigations Unit. But this new legacy unit [which would look into issues concerning deaths related to the ‘troubles’] will cost between £30m and 40m per year. This is only one of the institutions proposed to deal with legacy issues. Over five years, the executive will be £100m worse off.”
Enda Kenny played a shameful role in all this as Britain’s loyal retainer, failing to hold the British to the Good Friday Agreement and not daring to raise a squeak of protest about London’s foot-dragging over setting up an inquiry into the murder of nationalist lawyer Pat Finucane.
Put out that all this colonial bullying no longer buttered any parsnips, Cameron and Kenny left in a huff within 24 hours. The reality soon dawned, however, that, at the present moment, it suited none of the parties to see Stormont replaced by direct rule from London – the probable consequence of a failure to reach agreement.
Having advanced thus far in its snail’s pace decolonisation of Ireland, the British ruling class is not eager to start retracing its steps, knowing as it does that sooner or later it will have to complete its exit, and anxious as it is to minimise the humiliation and mess surrounding its departure.
Nor were the unionists eager to alienate their own constituents by allowing Stormont to collapse, taking with it all hopes of pressuring London to take economic responsibility for the cuts now crippling living standards across all working-class communities in the north.
So, once Cameron had flounced out, with Little Sir Echo trailing behind him, all five parties in the six counties administration got together and hammered out a set of proposals regarding the public finances which would enable the executive at Stormont to make progress with communal reconciliation measures and also facilitate investment in the economy – to be underpinned by the British.
The parties also proposed a number of measures intended to protect those hardest hit by austerity, especially those with disabilities. It is ironic, but certainly long overdue, that ‘unionists’ should find themselves obliged to make common cause with Irish patriots – and is a measure of how far the political landscape has shifted in the years since Good Friday, with Sinn Féin in the leadership role.
The five parties having secured this remarkable degree of consensus, Cameron and Kenny were drawn back into negotiation – but this time working to a framework set by representatives of the Irish people themselves.
Both McGuinness (Sinn Féin) and Peter Robinson (Democratic Unionist Party) “drove home the message to David Cameron that the British government is a participant in these negotiations and must contribute to a comprehensive agreement, not just in terms of the financial issues facing the executive but also on the past and truth and justice for victims of the conflict”. (Ard Chomhairle ratifies Stormont Agreement by Gerry Adams, leargas.blogspot.co.uk, 29 December 2014)
It was on this basis that agreement was finally reached. The Financial Times noted that the agreement “covers welfare and financial reform, with the support of a financial package from the UK government – close to £2bn over 10 years – to ease the pain of looming public spending cuts. It also offers ways for the parties to address the sensitive issues of the flying of flags, routes for Orange Order marches, and other issues related to northern Ireland’s bloody past.” (Northern Ireland’s parties reach broad deal but obstacles remain by Vincent Bolan, 23 December 2014)
Sinn Féin’s evaluation of the deal was guardedly optimistic, whilst taking care not to gloss over its many failings – most importantly that Sinn Féin had to agree to public service cuts in order to achieve it. Adams blogged that “progress has been made in defending the most vulnerable against the Tory welfare and budget cuts … progress has been made with regard to the issues of flags, the past and parading.
“When agreement was finally reached, I acknowledged at the time that there was more to do at a community, political and national level to resolve these matters. Sinn Féin representatives have consistently recorded our concern that the governments have failed to deliver on their outstanding commitments including a Bill of Rights, Acht na Gaeilge [legislation to enshrine the status and rights of the Irish language], and an inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane and other outstanding matters.
“The British government specifically refused to implement a number of outstanding commitments and the Irish government representatives accepted this.” (Leargas, op cit)
Sinn Féin’s popularity soars in the south
The weakness and shortcomings of the agreement are plain enough – as is the treacherous role of the Dublin government. Yet what emerges most clearly of all is the growing influence of Sinn Féin, both north and south, to the consternation not least of the three parties that have traditionally dominated the 26-county political scene: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour.
Since 2011, the two latter have ruled in coalition – an unholy, but by no means unprecedented alliance, which has seen Labour’s credibility plummet. Whilst coalitions around either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil have been the norm in the south since the demise of Fianna Fáil’s effective political hegemony, the recent surge in the popularity enjoyed by Sinn Féin could bring about a seismic shift in politics on both sides of the border.
Enda Kenny has of late taken to issuing dire warnings that the choice at the next election, which must take place no later than 3 April 2016, will be between a coalition led by Fine Gael or one led by Sinn Féin. What a way to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising! (See Kenny and Noonan say general election choice clear, RTE, 29 November 2014)
The traditional parties are indeed right to be fearful. Back in the 2011 parliamentary elections, Sinn Féin shot up from four to 14 seats, and opinion polls since then demonstrate that the party’s popularity in the south continues to rise.
Indeed, recent polls suggest the party may now be the most popular one in the south. Of the major parties, it is the only one that is not committed to implementing the austerity agenda inflicted by the EU and IMF in return for a bail-out. Instead, the party has called for investment in social housing, health and education. (Latest poll finds Sinn Féin most popular party, RTE, 2 November 2014)
This is a powerful message at a time when frustration is growing at the readiness of all the other major parties to bow down to EU dictates. Unlike in other countries stricken by crisis in 2008, the Irish government guaranteed all the failing banks’ bad debt without even running it past the Dáil (parliament), thereby overnight transforming a private banking crisis into a public debt crisis.
Today, the working class is still paying for this excess of fiscal zeal, and, after a period of stunned quiescence, is starting to find its voice with a vengeance. The issue that has finally unleashed the pent-up anger of Irish working people is the decision by the coalition government to fix meters to everyone’s water supply and to charge for it.
The plan to charge between 176 and 500 euros a year for water, depending on the size of the household, has been the last straw. Resistance has been ferocious and well-organised, with communities banding together physically to prevent contractors from installing the offending meters.
A video showing how to disable a water meter posted on the internet has had over 70,000 views. A delegation from the US city of Detroit, where similar resistance to water charges has been mounted, complimented its Irish counterparts on the “military precision” with which the resistance struggle is being waged.
On 9 December 2014, 100,000 marched in protest through Dublin. And at the heart of the Right2Water campaign, bringing together trade unions, left-wing parties and community activists, stands the voice of all Ireland, Sinn Féin. (See Some sights and sounds of the Right2Water National Assembly outside the Dáil sinnfein.ie, 10 December 2014)