Northern Ireland: peace, but no politics

The Good Friday Agreement is so vacuous that it can be threatened by a party that can't decide if it is pro- or anti-Agreement (UUP); a party with no alternative to the Agreement (DUP); and the most enthusiastic supporter of the Agreement (Sinn Fein).

Chris Gilligan

Topics Politics

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Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble’s resignation as first minister of Northern Ireland at midnight on 30 June 2001 was a pretty staged affair – more like striking a pose than doing something out of political principle.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Since day one the Irish peace process has elevated the means (the process), over the ends (the peace) (1).

The Good Friday Agreement is not a settlement, but the framework for a settlement. The Agreement established new political institutions – the devolved assembly, the all-Ireland (North-South) bodies and the British-Irish bodies – and it laid down the procedural rules that govern how political representatives should conduct themselves.

But it is agnostic on the question of what the political future should be. Northern Ireland remains within the United Kingdom – but if the people of the region choose, they can join the Republic of Ireland.

The only objectives that the Agreement commits its signatories to are the ‘achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all’ (2). These objectives are actually guidelines for the conduct of relationships rather than political objectives.

As an instrument of conflict resolution, the Agreement is a technocratic measure, locking the protagonists into an institutional framework in which they have to work – or fail – together (3). The idea is that by working alongside each other, Unionists and nationalists will see that cooperation is to their mutual benefit. So the measure of success is the extent to which political representatives work together as effective administrators.

In short, the Agreement aims to depoliticise the conflict in Northern Ireland by turning political representatives into functionaries.

This means that the role of the electorate also changes. Trimble warned that the general election results in Northern Ireland showed a worrying loss of the ‘centre ground’ to the ‘extremes’ (4). Here, he is not referring to a non-sectarian space, a place where the differences between Catholics and Protestants do not matter. He is talking about ‘decent’ or ‘respectable’ people, people with moderate dispositions, from whatever side of the divide.

Trimble’s main concern, like that of the British and Irish governments, is that the peace process is threatened by people who are ideologically motivated. And to resolve this, the Agreement assumes that political elites, those above what they see as the sectarian fray, know what is best for the people of Northern Ireland. And all they want the electorate to do is rubber-stamp the decisions they have already made (5).

But the problem with this approach is that it is completely uninspiring. And unfortunately for Trimble and co, the electorate still has a mind of its own.

Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) made massive gains in the general election (winning three extra seats and 23 percent of the vote) – not because of its programme for the future, but because of its opposition to the Agreement (6). Not everybody buys the idea that the Agreement and its supporters know best.

Just look at what happened to Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) at the election: it lost four of its 10 Westminster seats, with its support falling from 32.7 percent to 26.8 percent. And the biggest swings against the UUP were in constituencies where there were pro-Agreement UUP candidates. In constituencies where the UUP candidate was anti-Agreement, the party’s share of the vote actually increased.

Sinn Fein benefited from being the only party that was able to project a positive message for the future. It topped the poll in four constituencies, winning 21.7 percent of the total vote (compared to 16.1 percent in 1997) – and, for the first time ever, its share of the vote exceeded the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s (SDLP).

In contrast to the SDLP’s election slogan, ‘the peace is working’ (ie, ‘this is it’), Sinn Fein offered: ‘Delivering real change.’ Sinn Fein presented itself as the engine driving the improvement of Catholics’ lot in Northern Ireland. And it is ironic that Unionists should interpret Sinn Fein’s electoral rise as a threat. In reality, Sinn Fein has gained support for the new post-conflict institutions among sections of the population that would once have been suspicious of any British solution.

It is even more ironic that it is now Unionists, not nationalists, who pose a threat to the new institutions in Northern Ireland. The divisions between pro- and anti-Agreement Unionists within the UUP threatens to tear the party apart – while the DUP is united in its opposition to the Agreement and can now legitimately claim that a majority of unionists are opposed to the Agreement (7).

But while the DUP has provided a focus for opposition, it is unable to develop any alternative. All it can say is, Opposition to the Agreement or…nothing.

There was a telling incident in Strabane. Sinn Fein’s Ivan Barr was recently elected mayor, and the DUP’s Thomas Kerrigan was elected deputy mayor. Kerrigan shook hands with Barr and said that he was prepared to work with Sinn Fein if the conditions were right. DUP leaders reacted quickly and Kerrigan got a personal call from Paisley – after which Kerrigan expressed his regret and retracted his statement. This shows some of the problems facing the DUP – indicating how the party will increasingly find tensions between the technocratic demands of political office and its hostility to Sinn Fein.

Recent events in Northern Ireland do not spell the end of the Agreement. But it is testament to the vacuity of the Agreement that it can be threatened by, depending on your point of view, a party that can’t make up its mind if it is pro- or anti-Agreement (UUP); a party that has no alternative to the Agreement (DUP); or a party that is the most enthusiastic supporter of the Agreement (Sinn Fein).

Northern Ireland has a new era of ‘peace’ – but one without any inspiring politics.

Chris Gilligan is a sociology lecturer at Magee College,
University of Ulster.

Read on:

Northern Ireland: Trimbling at the brink?, by Brendan O’Neill

(1) In 1997 I argued that the end of the IRA ceasefire did not mean the end of the peace process. Many of the points that I made then still hold true today. See Peace or Pacification Process? A brief critique of the peace process.

(2) The Agreement

(3) Trimble’s resignation as First Minister, for example, has triggered the expulsion of the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon from the post of Deputy First Minister.

(4) Trimble urges Blair to bolster middle ground, UTV , 12 June 2001

(5) Northern Ireland election: a done deal, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) The DUP won five Westminster seats and 22.5 percent of the vote, compared with two seats and 13.6 percent in 1997. For a full breakdown of the figures for both the general election and the local elections see Nicholas Whyte’s Northern Ireland elections page or the BBC’s Northern Ireland elections page.

(7) There may be a majority of Unionists opposed to the Agreement, but this carries no moral authority. The peace process has been explicitly developed in opposition to ‘majoritarianism’. The referendum on the Agreement was an exercise in rubber-stamping, a fact that can be seen in the British government’s insistence that there is no alternative to the Agreement, despite the lack of support for it among Unionists.

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Topics Politics


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