(1) Balanced changes to the Irish Constitution and to British Constitutional Legislation based on the principle of consent had been approved and are ready to take effect.
(2) The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had been established and members appointed, the new Equality Commission had been legislated for, and the comparable steps in the Irish Republic were under way.
(3) The Commission on Policing and the Review of Criminal Justice were both well advanced in their work and normalisation of security arrangements was proceeding.
(4) Numerous prisoners in both jurisdictions had benefited, and would continue to do so, from the mechanisms providing for accelerated release.
On April 2nd (Good Friday, 1999) following this joint declaration by the two prime ministers the Northern Ireland Peace Process and its chance of success was the subject on the BBC Radio Wales morning phone-in. In participating I said:
"Keeping the membership of their parties and movements intact was the main problem now in Northern Ireland as Ulster Unionists and Republicans feel a cautious way to an accommodation. The ‘No Surrender’ slogan of Unionists applied also to Republicans. Neither could afford to give way to the other, the putative settlement, to be mulled over until April 14th, would be an opportunity for them as they surveyed the prospect of failure, to learn to ‘blink together’. The analogy of climbing a mountain peak only to discover another higher one was appropriate – further problems, such as the Patten Report on policing, yet to come, would have to be faced. But the long journey to peace was still being traversed by both communities."
In response to questioning by the presenter, Vaughan Roderick, I said that Unionists had been obdurate at the time of Prime Minister Terence O’Neill (in the 1960s - Ed.), opposing even his minor reforms. Further questioned, I accepted that they had now moved towards agreeing ‘parity of esteem’ and equal rights for the minority community, but not of their own volition, they had to be forced.
I was then castigated by the Ulster Unionist spokesperson, Ken Maginnis, who said I had given a glib, inaccurate view of history. He claimed that he had been a supporter of O’Neill and his reforms. Most of the fault lay with the other side although, he admitted, some mistakes had been made by Unionists. It was not helpful to mention the past and I had tried to simplify the issue. This could not be done with the last hundred years and even the last thirty, besides, I was probably too young to know or understand the problem.
I responded robustly with a short biographical sketch. Born in 1919, raised in Belfast, I had been active in the Labour and Trade Union Movement, my elder brother had been Leader of the labour Opposition in Stormont (1958 – 1969), I had fought a Belfast (East) City Council election in 1946 during which I had been struck with a brick from a Unionist mob. I had therefore a clear understanding of the party to which he belonged. Furthermore, during the Spanish Civil War, I had, along with others, been escorted from public meetings in support of the democratic Spanish government by the RUC when attacked at the same time by members of both communities.
This concluded my contribution. I would have liked to have seen the colour and expression on Ken’s face after my riposte – he will perhaps have learned not to be so patronising and may even realise that I may have a more objective and accurate historical perspective than he.
The adjourned meeting reconvened on the 14th April but, despite numerous long discussions between officials, parties and the British Prime Minister subsequently, they have failed to reach an understanding on how they might get out of the impasse.
Hour after hour of wrangling has left both the Unionists and Sinn Féin entrenched in their own interpretations of the obligations inherent in the Good Friday Accord. Clearly the Ulster Unionists are concerned about holding their party together, conscious of the possibility of further defections to Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. The recent Executive Council elections in his party have left David Trimble with a 55% to 45% balance of power in its composition.
Sinn Féin maintains its stance that they are a party in their own right and are not, despite how Unionists and others perceive them, part of the IRA. They have taken their seats on the terms set out in the Good Friday Agreement and are thus committed to the ending of which they summarise as demilitarisation of the whole situation. Unless they are included in the Executive, as per its terms, they consider that the whole process is in .
They sidestep the provision that all members who may form the Executive, should they appear to associate themselves with acts of political , under procedures contained in the Agreement could be removed from office by an Assembly vote.
Meetings are continuing at different levels but, despite some over-optimistic reports of a breakthrough, the sticking point at the time of writing is still the central one of Decommissioning / Executive posts for Sinn Féin. One unofficial report suggests that there would be IRA decommissioning if Sinn Féin were first included in the Executive. This same report claimed that the Ulster Unionists would require this to be in writing, and not just a statement from the IRA.
Speculations abound that there has been some movement on both sides but not enough to produce a definitive statement which would allow appointments to be made.
Both Prime Ministers, the Northern Ireland Secretary and negotiators from the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Sinn Féin were closely involved in meetings (said to be relaxed and informal) on Friday May 14th when they adjourned without conclusion, leaving the door open for further consultations. However, since then, David Trimble has restated that he and his party will not agree to Sinn Féin joining the Executive unless some IRA decommissioning does take place.
The view of the British government seems to be that if the International Commission on Decommissioning, chaired by General John de Chastelain, could confirm some measure of decommissioning prior to June 30th then powers to govern in Northern Ireland could be devolved on July 1st at the same time as those to Wales and Scotland.
At present the Drumcree March situation is unresolved, the opposition to the ban imposed by the Parades Commission is still festering away. The First Minister, David Trimble, has had meetings with Garvaghy Road representatives but the situation is still in lock.
The Orange Order has decided that although they will support the local lodge parading and protesting about the ban on July 12th they could not agree to other lodges joining this march to swell the numbers. They recommend that lodges should hold their own local and district parades as usual although they admit that there might be some who would go to Drumcree after their own demonstrations had finished. The police will, of course, be alerted should a flash point occur.
Efforts are being intensified to try to negotiate a compromise on Executive appointments. In my view, while some progress might be made within the de Chastelain commission on detailed mechanisms by which weapons might be put beyond use there is unlikely to be any progress politically on the matter until after the European Parliamentary Elections on June 10th.
The list system which applies in the rest of the UK does not apply in Northern Ireland. There the parties have nominated individual candidates and the single transferable voting system operates. The Six Counties as a single constituency return three members to the European Parliament.
At the last Euro election Ian Paisley (DUP), John Hume (SDLP) and a Mr. Nicholson (UUP) were returned. This time eight candidates have been nominated by the following parties: DUP, SDLP, UUP, UK Unionists, PUP, Alliance, Sinn Féin and the Natural Law Party. (The victors were again Ian Paisley, John Hume and Mr. Nicholson – Ed.)
The DUP (Paisley’s party) is treating the election as if it were another referendum on the Good Friday Agreement so they are putting pressure on David Trimble as efforts are made to resolve the decommissioning issue. With this threat hanging over the Ulster Unionists it is most unlikely that any settlement can be reached no matter how hard prime ministers and others try until the smoke has cleared from the contest. The media, at least on this side of the water, has not mentioned this, although it is important for progress in the peace process.
The whole situation is still problematical and it could well be that June 30th will see Wales and Scotland having their Assembly and Parliament in action but Northern Ireland in the throes of the marching season. Although first to accept an assembly it may be the last to see it start to fully function.
©: Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran, Wales, a regular contributor to this publication who celebrated his 80th birthday in April 1999, is a native of Belfast.
Published in The Green Dragon No 9, Winter 1999
Samuel H. Boyd