Plunged into crisis
BY SEAN BRADY
The political process in the Six Counties was collapsed and the future of the Good Friday Agreement plunged into crisis at midnight on Friday, 11 February, when Peter Mandelson announced to the British House of Commons the suspension of the institutions under the Agreement and re-imposed direct British rule.
The suspension decision was predicated on a threat by Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble to resign as First Minister at a meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council the following day if the British government did not suspend the institutions.
There is a widespread belief that Mandelson, in suspending the institutions, was working to the terms of a secret deal done with the UUP at the time of the Mitchell Review in November
Mandelson's decision was made despite the fact that he had been made aware of the positive nature of a second report from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), which Sinn Féin believed had the potential to resolve the issue. The British Secretary of State thwarted the IRA proposition by suspending the institutions in an atmosphere of panic surrounding the unionist ultimatum. There is a widespread belief that Mandelson, in suspending the institutions, was working to the terms of a secret deal done with the UUP at the time of the Mitchell Review in November.
The proposition, which resulted from shuttle diplomacy by Sinn Féin representatves moving between the Irish and British governments, the Ulster Unionist Party, the United States administration and the IRA, was a clear context in which the IRA would deal with the arms issue in a way which would enhance public confidence that it was being addressed definitively.
This new development was of enormous significance, particularly when set alongside the IRA's earlier assertion that it posed no threat to the peace process and that its guns were silent. Sinn Féin stated its belief that if there was political will, this development could resolve the weapons issue. The Irish and British governments had, at all times in the past two weeks, been kept abreast of all developments around this issue. Despite all of this, Mandelson stuck rigidly to a path on which he had been clearly set for some time and suspended the institutions.
Nationalists reacted to the suspension with deep anger. Over the weekend, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern stated that the Irish Constitution has no provision for suspension of the institutions, while Sinn Féin said it was considering a legal challenge to the suspension order. Ahern also confirmed the ``deep significance for the resolution of the decommissioning issue of the last two paragraphs of the de Chastelain report''.
It has been the Ulster Unionist Party who, from the outset, have played games with the Good Friday Agreement. They have never engaged with it in spirit or in letter
On the Constitutional aspects of the suspension, Ahern said: ``All parties to the Agreement have particular concerns and responsibilities that they must look to. For the Irish government, these include our position as a state with a written constitution.
``That Constitution has now been amended to include the terms of the British-Irish Agreement, terms which do not expressly include provision for suspension. In that context, suspension raises issues of concern for the government and any significant extension of it could make the situation more difficult.''
On Monday, Sinn Féin met with Dublin Foreign Affairs Minister Brian Cowen in Belfast as nationalist and republican anger continued to grow over the British government's actions.
On Tuesday afternoon, the IRA announced the withdrawal of its representative from engagement with the de Chastelain Commission. The organisation said the British Secretary of State had reintroduced the unionist veto by suspending the political institutions under the Good Friday Agreement. This had changed the context in which it had appointed a representative to meet the IICD and created a deeper crisis.
The IRA said that both the British government and the UUP leadership had rejected the propositions put to the IICD by its representative and added that those who sought military victory needed to understand that this cannot and would not happen.
Its statement finished by announcing that in the light of the changed circumstances the IRA leadership had decided to end its engagement with the IICD and that it was withdrawing all propositions put to the commission by its representative since November.
Critical reaction to the IRA statement from unionists was entirely predictable but reaction from hurlers on the ditch John Bruton, Ruairí Quinn and Seamus Mallon must have been particularly irritating to those who had been attempting might and main to avert the latest crisis.
In a ridiculous outburst worthy only of Bruton at his most melodramatic, the Fine Gael leader accused the IRA of attempting to ``humiliate the Taoiseach'', by the timing of the announcement. Meanwhile, Labour leader Ruairí Quinn accused the organisation of ``betrayal'' - this just days after the hopes of millions had been betrayed by the tearing down of inclusive government and all-Ireland institutions under unionist threats.
But even worse was the pathetic reaction of SDLP deputy leader Seámus Mallon, who has lacked any semblance of consistency in his statements of the past few weeks. Turning the logic of recent events on its head, he accused republicans of ``playing ducks and drakes with two governments, the rest of the political parties on the island of Ireland and people who voted for the Good Friday Agreement'' and wondered aloud as to whether the IRA would ``thwart the wishes of both governments and world opinion''.
The facts are that it has been the Ulster Unionist Party who, from the outset, have played games with the Good Friday Agreement. They have never engaged with it in spirit or in letter. David Trimble chose to ignore recent IRA movement on the decommissioning issue and refused to act as a leader by using the latest intitiave to even attempt to bring his party with him.
The reality is that Unionist obstruction has nothing to do with decommissioning but everything to do with opposition to political change. But neither David Trimble nor any British Secretary of State can change the need and the right of the Irish people to follow a path of political change and progress.
There is no legal or political basis for any review of the Good Friday Agreement in the present circumstances. Having torn down the institutions and torn up the Agreement, the British government has yet to spell out what they propose will come next.