The Belfast Agreement – Reassessed


Writing in The Green Dragon No 2 March 1997 I outlined briefly part of my submission to the Opsahl Commission Inquiry 1992, proposals for a political settlement in Northern Ireland. these contained the idea of of an assembly elected on the basis of a single constituency and a proportional representation system.

The single province‒wide constituency was designed to nullify the ‘ghettos’ which concentrate communities of both sides into particular clusters., thus offsetting and leaping over the physical barriers erected in Derry and especially Belfast, the so‒called ‘Peace Lines’.

I observed in my submission (not quoted in the article) that the previous power‒sharing arrangement (Sunningdale 1974) had failed, because it had reified the coalition into the constitution, thus militating against formation of cross‒community, non‒sectarian, political organisations.

A proportional system, however, the Single Transferable Vote, was incorporated into the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, for the election of six members to each Northern Ireland Westminster constituency and a mandatory coalition was stipulated for parties which obtained a substantial vote and members elected to the Assembly.

Looking at the behaviour of the largest single party after the election, the Ulster Unionists, which delayed acceptance of shared power for about twenty months, it would seem that they are opposed to mandatory coalition, albeit for an entirely different reason to the one that I advanced.

But to change the agreement now, in this respect, validating unionist stratagems to exclude Sinn Féin would be most inadvisable, risking collapse of the whole peace process and consigning the agreement to the wastepaper bin.

To achieve this requires the support of the SDLP for which the Ulster Unionists are angling but the former are acutely aware of the destabilisation this would cause and its possible detrimental effect on their own electoral support vis a vis Sinn Féin.

In the same article I said, “For the immediate and foreseeable future, neither Orange or Green, Loyalists, Nationalists, Republicans, can be allowed free reign, untrammelled power, or a demand for a final solution on their own terms.”

The agreement of the 10 April, 1998, even with my reservations about mandatory coalition, a compromise between the contending parties, is in line with the above paragraph, so deserved the 71% plus and 90% plus support in the respective referendums in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

Again writing on the agreement in The Green Dragon No 7, Summer 1998, I quoted the German military strategist Clausewitz (1780 ‒ 1831) as saying, “War was simply politics using other weapons”. I also said that either by accident or design, in treaties which bring an end to hostilities (whether civil or between states) by the terms imposed by the winners, seeds of further difficulties take root and grow.

Although the Belfast agreement was thought not to be a victory for either side but a win win result, quibbles have continued for almost two years about meanings of some clauses and the spirit overarching the compromise. It appears that nothing short of surrender will satisfy (despite denials) certain diehard unionist politicians, either because of their own insecurity of tenure at the head of their parties or simply regret that they had agreed to terms requiring them to accept inclusive powersharing.

The position of Sinn Féin is also uncertain. They proclaim that they are an independent party and not just the political wing of the IRA as unionists contend. If ‘politics’ is to take precedence over armed action they have either to become the main part of republicanism or make a real break into the political arena, risking a split and a continuance of paramilitary activities, which they would have to face as part of an inclusive executive.

With the suspension of the assembly and executive by a special quick Act of the Westminster parliament after only eight weeks operation following the assumption of delegated powers on 2 December 1999 Gerry Adams says a vacuum has been created.

Adams fears that this interregnum is dangerous and might precipitate into violence meaning that ‘politics’ has failed. Indeed some incidents did occur on the weekend of 26/28 February 2000.

While it may be a critical phase in the peace process I suggest that we are in a deep game of Ulster Unionist politics to obtain a renegotiation of the agreement facilitated by the Secretary of State Mandelson.

Their clear aim is a coalition with other unionists and the SDLP as junior partners in the pole position with Sinn Féin once again forced into isolation. This, if they succeed, would run counter to the agreement as it stands, reversing the consensus.

The long years of work by elements in the republican movement to end the war would then be rubbished so that the violence could take on fresh momentum under new leaders and direct rule imposed for some time yet.

If this scenario prevails and the assembly and executive remain moribund what might be done to avoid descent into catastrophe as we approach the Easter marching season, the 84th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion on the exact day and date on which it occurred in 1916, and the summer Orange parades.

We could immediately reactivate the assembly and executive as Sinn Féin says, leaving the decommissioning to the De Chastelain Commission, perhaps then get a reconnection by the IRA to the process with an expanded clarified version of their second submission to De Chastelain.

Then a symbolic arrangement whereby (as was apparently offered) arms could be put beyond use as an act of reconciliation and affirmation that the war was over.

Specific days on which such an event might be staged are 17 March, 10 April (anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998) constituting a reaffirmation of its contents or 24 April, Easter Monday, a date with significant meaning. However as each day passes without progress these possibilities become less likely.

The latest news coming from a Sinn Féin meeting to discuss the situation, if I read Gerry Adam’s statement correctly, is that they believe the agreement will be inoperable for some time and might even be scrapped. He has said their strategy now was to strengthen their party’s support, which of course could only be at the expense of the SDLP. Developments will depend on whether the ceasefires hold, the street protests they have called for take off and are peaceful and whether the Continuity IRA or the other splinter group, the Real IRA, really establish themselves.

However, I believe that the two communities have had more than enough and want an end to violence, so that factor will be decisive and ‘politics’ may still be dominant.

Much discussion has centred on the 22 May 2000 as the date when decommissioning should be completed but what has been forgotten is that unless the institutions (whatever may be the reason for delay) are up and running on that date the suspension will be permanent and the agreement set aside. This despite the fact that it is classed as as an international treaty endorsed by two sovereign governments. Sinn Féin are threatening to take court action arguing that the suspension is a breach of the treaty.

If such a course is followed, whether the case stands up or not, delays are inevitable and what a sorry spectacle it would make of the democratic process.

In my view I don’t believe that the suspension will be lifted soon consequently new negotiations, if they have not already started, may take place intermittently well into the autumn. The two governments meanwhile will consult and almost run Northern Ireland as a condominium, which will satisfy neither Unionists nor Nationalists.

Turning to the post‒dated resignation of David Trimble as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, which sparked off the present impasse, supposedly arose from the issue of decommissioning but in my view was simply because of the possible split in his party, led by his No voters in the referendum of 1998.

All elected members in the assembly had to state that they were either Unionists or Nationalists. Those designated as unionists included 28 Ulster Unionist Party, 20 Democratic Unionist Party, 5 United Kingdom Unionists, 3 Independent Unionists, 2 Progressive Unionists, 2 Womens Coalition, and 6 Alliance Party, totalling 66 or 61% of the full complement of 108 assembly members. Some of course were more committed than others. The remainder were 24 Social Democratic and Labour Party and 18 Sinn Féin, designated as nationalists, totalling 42 or 39% of the total number of assembly members.

It has been argued that had the assembly not been suspended following his threatened party leadership resignation Trimble could not have retained sufficient support under the voting system to remain as First Minister.

The First Minister and the Deputy are elected by the Assembly under the same provisions as those that apply to key decisions. Strand 1, page 5, clause 5d by either of two methods as under.

(i)Parallel consent, i.e. a majority of members present and voting including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting or

(ii) A weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and and unionist designations present and voting.

So assuming all 108 members were present how might he have fared under either method?

If we assume that Trimble had lost the support of 6 members (a high figure) then the loss would be covered by the 6 Alliance Party members plus the 2 members of the Womens Coalition. At 30 votes this would have represented 45% of unionist designations. But if he, as is quite feasible, had gained the support of at least 2 of the Independent Unionists plus the 2 PUP members, it would have raised the number to 34 or 51%, a majority of unionist designated members. Added to this the 24 SDLP and 18 Sinn Féin nationalist designated members his total vote would have been 76 or 70% of the 108 members to elect and sustain him in office. So, if he had acted as a statesman rather than as a party leader, given my assumptions which err on the down side, he could have been successful under 5d(1).

Again, if we consider the election being held under 5d(ii) and once more assuming 6 of his members defecting and the 6 members of the Alliance Party quite certain to support his candidature as would the 2 members of the Womens Coalition, his unionist designated vote would have been 30 or 45% (which is 5% more than is stipulated). Together with the 24 SDLP and 18 Sinn Féin (100% support by nationalist designated members) he would have obtained 76 votes, i.e. 70% of the total assembly electorate and 10% more than the 60% weighted majority required under the prescribed procedure. But of course Trimble would again have to have acted as a statesman rather than as a party leader.

If, as appears likely the way things are going, the agreement is avoided and paradoxically the 28% who voted No in Northern Ireland’s referendum in fact win, then at a crucial moment in the history of the province lack of courage or just political gamesmanship on the part of the First Minister facilitated by a Secretary of State not really cognisant of what he was engaged upon, will have defeated the 72% who voted Yes. Truly and unfortunately failure has been snatched from the jaws of success.

Whether an early new initiative can be mounted depends on the nettle being grasped firmly by all concerned in the creation of the Good Friday Agreement. Courage to accept the challenge is not forthcoming as yet.

Postscript – Opportunity Knocks 26 March 2000

The leadership contest in the Ulster Unionist Party reached its climax 25 March when David Trimble was re‒elected by a much smaller majority than before (13%) over his opponent the Reverend Martin Smith, MP for South Belfast, a former Grand Master of the Orange Order (25 years) and Chief Whip for the party at Westminster.

One of the factors contributing to Smith’s high vote (43%) is the peculiar composition of the party’s ruling council in that the Orange order sends 120 delegates , 80% of whom voted for him, irrespective of whether they are paid up members or not. Martin Smith was one of the No voters in the referendum.

With 56% of the council in his camp Trimble intends to soldier on even though the decision of the council to resist the change of name of the RUC as recommended in the Patten Report restricts his room for manoeuvre.

The position Trimble faces is that his MPs at Westminster are split 6 to 4 against him, although only 1 of his 28 assembly members has defected.

His position in the party has been affected by the statement in the USA on St. Patrick’s Day that he would accept Sinn Féin into government before weapons were decommissioned provided there was a clear commitment to do so soon afterwards.

He is, of course, largely to blame for his predicament, for try as I have done, I cannot see any difference between that statement and the position which existed prior to the suspension of the assembly and executive connected to his post‒dated resignation due to have taken effect mid February.

In my article above I outlined some things by which descent into catastrophe or scrapping of the agreement might be avoided. St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, has of course gone but two dates remain which might provide a window of opportunity if quick action is taken.

This would require action by both governments to bring the parties together who support the agreement. It would require the leaders to act beyond the party role : in the context of Northern Ireland – statesmanship.

Two proposals should be on the table :

(i) That the assembly should be reconvened to meet on 10 April, the second anniversary of the agreement. The position of the First Minister should be confirmed as well as that of Deputy Minister and the executive appointed before.

(ii) That on Easter Monday 24 April, the exact anniversary of the 1916 rebellion, a statement will be made by the IRA that the war is over followed by a symbolic putting of arms beyond use in an observed destruction of weapons by members of the De Chastelain Commission.

The agreement, if these proposals are followed, will be seen to working and politics therefore to be worthwhile and as it progresses the tensions will be contained within democratic dialogue and structures.

This opportunity should not be knocked.


: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Gwent, Wales, March 2000.

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