By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)
The thing about it is this. Sinn Féin and the DUP did not negotiate the Good Friday Agreement: it was the SDLP and the UUP. Furthermore, in 1998 it was presumed by all concerned, especially Dublin and London, that no arrangement in the north would work that did not enjoy the support of the SDLP and UUP.
Cast your mind back to 1997-98. First of all, SF wasn’t allowed into negotiations until autumn 1997, by which time all the rules and procedures had already been established. Secondly, the UUP wouldn’t even speak to SF and concluded the agreement on Good Friday 1998 without ever addressing a word to any republican negotiator. Didn’t need them you see. As long as the SDLP was content. The SDLP was only delighted SF was at arms length.
As for the DUP, it walked out as soon as SF was allowed in following the second IRA cease-fire in July 1997. Again, nobody cared. In fact Senator Mitchell, who chaired the talks, mused that it might have proved more difficult, perhaps might have been impossible to reach an agreement if the DUP had stayed in.
That was then: this is now. How the mighty are fallen, as David lamented. No, not that David, as DUP members will know. The biblical David, the one who bewailed the deaths of Saul and his sons, killed by the Philistines. Now, instead of being surplus to requirements at Stormont talks, the presumption is that no arrangement in the north will work if it does not enjoy the support of SF and the DUP. That’s why Dublin and London are preparing to change the workings of the agreement and why the SDLP and UUP are up in arms.
So much so indeed that both Mark Durkan and Sir Reg Empey have indicated their parties might boycott any executive by refusing to nominate ministers but rather, go into opposition. How stupid can they get? Even the DUP, allegedly opposed to the whole agreement, took its ministries. At the current rate of electoral decline they may be the last ministries the SDLP and UUP are entitled to but if they huff in the corner they will consign themselves to oblivion.
The fact is there has been a political revolution in the north since the British general election of 2001, a revolution confirmed in the results of last November’s assembly elections. The UUP and SDLP naturally cling to the past when they were cock of the walk. The tables are turned now.
Politics is the roughest, most unsentimental game. Just as Dublin and London pressed on without the DUP and paid only minimal attention to Sinn Féin’s demands in 1998, so now they will press on without the SDLP and UUP.
Suppose the SDLP and UUP don’t like it. The governments could always call an assembly election to endorse any changes, couldn’t they, and what would happen then, eh? The SDLP and UUP would be lucky to end up with one minister apiece, none if the parties agree to reduce the ridiculous number of assembly members from 108 to say, 90, and the number of ministers to 10. As things stand, the DUP and SF control consent on their respective sides of the divide here. Under the principles of the agreement that’s all that counts.
The reality is that one of the great incentives for Sinn Féin and the DUP to cut a deal is that a deal between them will see the end of their ethnic rivals at the next election. It’s early days yet, of course. There will have to be a lot of haggling over the details. Neither SF nor the DUP is a pushover. There will also have to be two performances from the NIO’s puppet theatre, the Independent Monitoring Commission, giving the IRA a clean sheet, one before Christmas and one next spring certifying six months without IRA activity. The DUP can’t enter an administration without that. Otherwise they’ll be accused of doing exactly what Trimble did: acting on the basis of promises from P O’Neill.
One last point. The agreement has already been altered, first by the British and then by both governments. Mandelson rushed through powers to suspend the executive and assembly despite protests from nationalists and without their consent. While there is power in the agreement for the British to legislate for the north, the Irish government allowed them power in the IMC to fine and prevent democratically elected representatives from taking positions in an executive, which isn’t in the agreement. No complaints from the SDLP and UUP about that. In fact the UUP asked for it and the governments changed the agreement to help it, just as they intend to change it to help the DUP.