The Belfast Agreement – Further Reflections

On 17 March 1999, in Cardiff, a memorial marking the Irish Famine (1845 ‒ 1849) will be unveiled, a tribute by those of Irish descent in Wales to their forebears who died in the ’Great Hunger’, and to those who sought refuge in Wales and other parts of the world from its ravages.

In the announcement of the fundraising campaign to cover the cost it was stated, "There was no county in Ireland, no religious denomination, no social or political class, which did not bury its dead, during that dreadful calamity."

What more apt description, in this century in Ireland, especially Northern Ireland in the last thirty years, could be applied to the destruction, turmoil, murder and mayhem that has marked it.

No doubt those who participated in reaching the consensus in the Good Friday document must be acutely aware of this parallel as they start its implementation with a view to ensuring a much different prospect as we enter the next century and millenium.

As expected, the Assembly elections did not give an overall majority to any party but resulted in the Ulster Unionists having the largest number of seats. Second were the SDLP, and in the third position the DUP followed closely in the fourth slot by Sinn Féin. The 108 seats were distributed as follows: UUP ‒ 28, SDLP ‒ 24, DUP ‒ 20, SF ‒ 18, Alliance ‒ 6, UK Unionists ‒ 5, Ind. Unionists ‒ 3, PUP ‒ 2, and Womens Coalition ‒ 2.

The most important feature, however, was that those parties which had campaigned for a ’Yes’ vote in the referendum outnumbered the ’No’ alliance by more than two to one. So, as I had hoped, a triple success, on the 10th of April, on the 22nd of May and on the 25th of June was decisively achieved.

Consequently, at the first meeting of the Assembly, with Dr. Allerdice of the Alliance Party in the Chair, there was more than enough support for David Trimble (UUP) and Seamus Mallon (SDLP) to be elected First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively to head the new shadow administration. This done they adjourned until the 12th of September.

The Drumcree saga continued to make the news where the encamped ’Orangemen’ were still determined to march their traditional route down the Garvaghy Road in defiance of the Parades Commission’s ban.

They called for a huge turnout of support from other lodges as they celebrated the ’Twelfth’ but it all collapsed as both communities turned in revulsion against the arson attack, said to have been carried out by Protestant extremists, which claimed the lives of three young brothers in their home in Ballymoney, County Antrim.

The house was in the Westminster constituency held by the Rev. Ian Paisley and I thought it quite pathetic and hypocritical to see him on TV in flat cap and tweedy overcoat, concealing his clerical garb, as he expressed regret at the deaths of these lads. He does not seem able to connect such happenings to his own rantings which might, in some minds, generate such despicable responses.

Then the hope that these would be the last such deaths after the Agreement was outrageously shattered in the small market town of Omagh in County Tyrone, on a busy Saturday afternoon on August the 15th. a large car‒bomb claimed by the ’Real IRA’ exploded killing 28 people (another was to die later) and injuring some 200 others, many of them severely maimed.

Condemnation was widespread across Europe and the USA and in Ireland in both jurisdictions, by all political parties and even Sinn Féin condemned it immediately and unequivocally.

I was moved to write letters to the South Wales Argus, the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News (Belfast) and the Guardian, which were published. In addition comments by me were broadcast on BBC radio’s P.M. Letter Line and published on the BBC’s Ceefax.

Across Ireland the public reaction was so strong that the INLA declared a permanent ceasefire and even the ’Real IRA’, which had claimed responsibility for the bomb, also declared a ceasefire, for a period at least.

So once again hopes are being expressed that this horrific event, with its indiscriminate life‒destroying carnage, irrespective of politics, religion or nationality, will be the last and will end this 30 year phase of war.

Against this background a mixture of fear, anguish, anger and hope, Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland and the Republic, meeting members of the Assembly and a representative cross‒section of the communities in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on September the 3rd., 1998.

This gathering, addressed by Belfast’s Lord Mayor, the British Premier Tony Blair, the Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon, First Minister David Trimble and President Clinton, set the scene for further inter‒party discussions and Assembly deliberations due to start on September the 12th.

The main issue overshadowing the intervening period, accentuated by the horror of the Omagh bomb, was (and still is) ’decommissioning’ and whether violence is at an end and that "the war is over", which. although Sinn Féin in statements seemed to imply, has not yet been specifically stated.

In his meeting with Gerry Adams First Minister David Trimble posed these questions which impinge upon whether Sinn Féin is in sufficient compliance to enable them to serve as members of the Executive, in charge of departments. But what hat is Trimble wearing when dealing with this issue, that of leader of the UUP or that of First Minister?

There is clearly a difference in interpretation between the UUP and Sinn Féin in relation to the Agreement and Trimble has the problem of holding his party together, so for this purpose he insists that ’decommissioning’ should at least start before Sinn Féin has a place on the Executive.

Sinn Féin, I believe, are arguing that in giving their assent to the Agreement, for instance, in the ’Declaration of Support’ on Page 1, Clause 4, "We affirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively peaceful means of resolving differences and political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others, for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise" that they have qualified, on the basis of their electoral mandate, for inclusion in the Executive.

This requirement appears in abbreviated form in Annex 4, under Pledge of Office, item (b), page 10, i.e., commitment to non‒violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

Continuance of adherence to the ’Declaration of Support’ and ’Pledge of Office’ is underpinned by Clause 25, page 7/8, under ’Executive Authority’, which states, "An individual may be removed from office, following a decision by the Assembly if he or she loses the confidence of the Assembly voting on a cross‒community basis, for failure to meet his or her responsibilities including, inter alia, those set out in the Pledge of Office. Those who hold office should use only democratic, non violent means, and those who do not should be excluded or removed from office under these circumstances."

It would seem that Trimble’s opposition to giving Sinn Féin Executive positions is based on this clause.

This is a dubious argument which is fraught with difficulties, for after perusing the text of the Agreement thoroughly, I can find no provision whereby any party, with a substantial number of seats, mandated in support of the Agreement, including the clauses I have quoted, can be deprived of their right to a place in the Executive body of Ministers. Even the DUP, opposed to the Agreement, and who have vowed not to serve with Sinn Féin, can, on the basis of numbers elected, claim places on the Executive.

On the other hand, if the appointment of Martin McGuinness to represent Sinn Féin to the Independent Commission on ŽDecommissioning? bears some early fruit or initiates some progress, then this rather thin argument used by Trimble will be very much weakened.

The problems in forging an effective Executive are forcing the UUP and the SDLP together and depend on the compatibility of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The pointers are that they do work very well together.

This is very important, not only for the launching of the new politics, but for David Trimble, whose party is threatening to split, with a faction led by the Westminster MP, Geoffrey Donaldson, which may link the dissidents to Paisley’s DUP. If four Assembly UUP members defected, then the UUP and the SDLP would have the same number of seats and Trimble would be dependent on other parties for his continuance in office.

Sinn Féin also have problems as they try to take the bulk of the Republican movement from the violence of the last thirty years into full acceptance of the new political situation and the parameters of the 10th of April Agreement, against the history of breakaways since the 1920s.

Jockeying for position continues during this phase of setting up the Shadow Executive but it is very crucial in my view for the success of the Agreement that for the sake of holding his recalcitrant members David Trimble does not succeed in excluding Sinn Féin from office so that the DUP, who opposed the settlement, could change their mind and take the seats on the Executive that their numbers entitle them to do.

The whole basis of the Agreement is that it is inclusive and to operate with real hope of success it is imperative that those parties who participated in its consensus and who campaigned for it should be included in the controlling Executive.

There may be a need for the involvement of the two governments as guarantors of the Agreement to ensure the inclusive nature of its operation. The essential requirement is that all the strands within it including decommissioning move forward together and that problems in the progress of one do not become obstructions in the way of others.

In the aftermath of the Omagh bombing both parliaments met in recall sessions to pass new legislation against terrorism. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. Mo Mowlam, has stated that the provisions concerning the word of a police officer regarding a person’s membership of an illegal organisation will require corroboration and will not be accepted on its own. Her view is that the new legislation does not conflict with the European Convention of Human Rights which is part of the Good Friday Agreement. This might have to be contested in the courts at some point but to my mind the new legislation as published in the press seems to run counter to the spirit of the Agreement and even the letter as stated under the heading of Security, Clause 2, Page 21 (iii) ‒ the removal of emergency powers in Northern Ireland, and (IV) other measures appropriate to and compatible with a normal peaceful society. They seem to hark back somewhat to the 1920 Special Powers Act and Internment, which took many years to be repealed and are out of sync with the general tenor of the Agreement.

It will be a difficult, protracted and tendentious period as the Shadow Assembly tries to bed down and prepare for taking responsibility for the twelve areas of government to be devolved to them in March, 1999. Trust and good will between the authors of the consensus have to be established. Both governments may have to play a more participative role than they might like but they have a responsibility to ensure that all the parties who support its implementation can participate. They have also an important role in the decommissioning process.

Recently I read Gerry Adams’ book Before the Dawn and this quotation at the end, dated 16 June, 1996, nearly two years before the signing of the Good Friday document, is significant:

We cannot be deflected from the task of building peace on this island. History has placed a challenge at all our doors. The people of Ireland, from every corner of our country and from throughout the Irish diaspora across the world have expressed their yearning for a lasting peace settlement and a new democracy. Building a new accord which can win the allegiance and agreement of all sections of our people may be a daunting challenge, but it is the challenge facing everyone in political leadership on these islands. If this challenge is to be translated into reality then we must all respond to it with courage and imagination.

It will not be easy. The road ahead will be difficult and dangerous and risky for all of us, but working together I am convinced we can succeed. It is my conviction that we will have a peace settlement in Ireland. This will grow from an inclusive process of negotiation, led by the two governments and involving Sinn Féin alongside the other parties. In my view, the people of Britain also support this objective. They too want a lasting peace.

This will be arrived at when peace strategies and processes are converted into a new beginning for both unionists and nationalists, and when a settlement between the people of Britain and the people of Ireland, based on respect for our mutual independence, is achieved. I am convinced that if we are resilient, if we dig deep, we can overcome all obstacles.

The Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney put it well: "Once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up and hope and history rhyme."

Let us ignore the naysayers and the begrudgers. Let us confound the sceptics and the cynics. Let us make hope and history rhyme.

If just one word was changed only the most obdurate Nationalist or Unionist could fail to concur with the the view he expressed, instead of Žindependence? read ’inter‒dependence’.

Those familiar with the poem of W.B. Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, might consider apt the lines,

And I shall have some peace there,
to describe the current state of the peace process.

Now, many months past April the 10th, three years beyond President Clinton’s first Belfast visit, five years after the joint governmental Downing Street Declaration, and over thirteen years since the Anglo‒Irish Agreement of November, 1985, we are in stalemate, no Executive, no decommissioning, no cross‒border institutionsŠ

Party cohesion, Unionist and Republican, is seemingly more important than speeding up the pace, on the last mile, to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Despite recent urging by both prime Ministers and Tony Blair?s historic address to the D?il we are in impasse. So, unless some advance has been made in the body set up to deal with decommissioning, we may enter the last year of the 20th century more uncertain than we did 1998.

There are rumours of a secret IRA convention affording Sinn Féin more flexibility, including some token arms decommissioning. The Deputy First Minister is pessimistic because of the lack of progress. The First Minister, while obdurate in excluding Sinn Féin from Executive participation, is also mouthing optimistic statements and of course, Ian Paisley is away with the fairies.

Drumcree Orangemen still insist they will walk down the Garvaghy Road this year, perhaps they intend to do so on Christmas Eve (or Day) believing that the residents, in the spirit of the season, will indulge them a little.

The October deadline is well past. Unless some easement occurs soon the February launch of devolved powers will disappear into the distance. If neither side wants to blink first they must do it together, otherwise the Agreement will melt away like snow.

The people of Northern Ireland deserve a gift‒wrapped present, Orange and Green paper will do nicely, with silver and gold tinkling bells, to show that the Sleigh of Peace is moving again. Wise Men Three (more will be better): politicians must face up to their responsibilities.

The Agreement with all its complexities can, with good faith, be made to work. We can all come in from ’The Heat’ into the cold invigorating new light of day.

However, it is alright for poets to speak of peace "dropping slow". We have waited too long. The price has been high. The pace of peace must quicken, or it will die.

When the Famine Memorial is unveiled in Cardiff let us hope that we will also be able to celebrate the satisfying of a ’Great Hunger’ for Peace in Ireland.

© : Samuel H. Boyd, Cwmbran.

This article was written in December, 1998 and was first published in

The Green Dragon No 8, Spring, 1999.

Samuel H. Boyd