not a member? click here to sign up
THE YES MEN
Even if the Peace Agreement is accepted it might not work and will almost certainly result in the alienation of many northern citizens. The politicians, however, will have us believe that a No vote would automatically mean a return to all-out war. Eamonn McCann thinks otherwise. Pics: PETER MATTHEWS
Eamonn McCann, 29 Apr 1998
They have given us sectarian stalemate and they have called it peace. They describe the document as a Peace Agreement so as to depict those against it as opponents of peace. But some of us are against it because we're opposed to the sectarian attitudes which have prompted atrocity for the past 30 years and which are in no way challenged by the Agreement.
The Agreement envisages the reformation, not the removal of sectarianism. The structures envisaged are designed to contain sectartian rivalries, not get rid of them.
The document is based on an assumption that sectarianism springs naturally from the minds and hearts of Northern people, that it's "unrealistic" to seek an arrangement aimed at its elimation. On this view, the best we can do, and have done, is to bring in benign outsiders to supervise the setting in place of arrangements for ensuring that neither of the two tribes dominates the other in future.
It's to be fair play between the Prods and the Taigs in the future. New rules, level pitch, objective referee: but no provision for, in some instances no acknowledgement even of the existence of, people who aren't part of tribal society. The possibility of a settlement based on a rejection of tribalism doesn't rate a mention.
Supporters of the Agreement argue, some more explicitly than others, that this is the best that could have been be done. This seems to be the view of all manner of euphorics, some of whom fancy themselves as personally having long ago risen far above sectarianism, but who fear that the brute masses on the Shankill and the Falls are incapable of such urbane elevation.
Paragraph six of the section of the Agreement dealing with the proposed new Assembly reads: "At their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity - nationalist, unionist or other - for the purposes of measuring cross-community support in Assembly votes under the relevant provisions above".
Here, at least, the existence and possible presence in the Assembly of "others" is acknowledged. But acknowledgement is as good as it gets. A curt nod of the head, rather than hail-fellow-well-met.
Paragraph six says: "The chair and deputy chair of the Assembly will be elected on a cross-community basis as set out in paragraph 5(d) above".
Paragraph 15 tells that: "The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis, according to 5(d)(i) above".
Elsewhere, we are told that, all "key decisions" specifically all decisions involving the spending of money, will be taken on the same, cross-community basis.
This basis - the "relevant provision above" - is described in the much-cited paragraph 5(d):
"(i) either parallel consent, i.e. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting;
"(ii) or a weighted majority (60 percent) of members present and voting, including at least 40 percent of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting".
The devil is in the detail, we've been told over and over. And sometimes in the absence of the detail. Here, when the Agreement comes to deal with the election of officials and ministers and the making of decisions which matter, "others" have disappeared from the text. In all likelihood, this didn't happen because the drafters of the document consciously chose to deny a role in these areas to any non-nationalist or non-unionist elected. More likely, the pattern of their political thinking at that point had no space for "others. "Others" just didn't occur to them.
Not even in the darkest days of one-party Unionist rule under Craigavon and Brookborough has the sectarian basis of the political system been so frankly proclaimed.
Injury is added to the insult when people are told that the choice before them lies between this Agreement and a return to all-out war. Every newspaper in these islands and every television news and current affairs programme follows this line. Of course, the last time we were told to accept the settlement on offer or face immediate and terrible war was by Lloyd George in 1921. A substantial majority across the island accepted the deal on that basis. And here we are, 77 years on . . .
Acceptance of that deal didn't give us peace. And rejection of this deal won't automatically mean war. We have had four years of stuttering but strengthening ceasefires, and there is no going back. There is no stomach for a resumption of pro-active violence in the working-class areas, Catholic and Protestant, which have both provided the support-base and borne the brunt of paramilitary activity. A No vote next week won't change that one iota.
The unspoken implication of the "It's the Agreement or war" argument is that the IRA and/or the UVF and UDA will abandon their ceasefires if the Agreement isn't accepted. Says who? On what is this never-explained but never-endingly-proclaimed dire warning based? The IRA, in particular, is hardly so enamoured of the Agreement as to break open the arms dumps if it's given the thumbs down.
On the other hand, rejection of the Agreement would make necessary a more fundamental re-examination of Republican strategies than has yet taken place. If neither armed struggle nor attachment to the coat-tails of corporate Irish-American can deliver an acceptable outcome, what next? Far from endangering the future, a result which prompted questioning along these lines would do nothing but good.
The splinter groups which are not on ceasefire are going to be with us anyway, and they have made it clear they will not declare ceasefires irrespective of the result of the poll.
For a generation, governments and constitutional parties have been denouncing paramilitaries for threatening violence if they don't get their way. Now it's the governments and the constitutional parties who are loudest with the threats of paramilitary violence if they don't get their way. Scaremongering of this sort usually indicates shiftiness on the part of the scaremongerers about the argument they are striving to advance.
Far from eliminating sectarian violence, the Agreement, were it to "work", would make the possibility of sectarian violence a permanent feature of Northern life. The allocation of the entire population into separate sectarian camps, and the institution of mechanisms for ensuring that all decisions are weighed to ensure sectarian balance, will make competition between the Catholic and Protestant communities the main dynamic for politics in the future. This is not an end to the sectarian conflict of the last 30 (or 70, or 700) years, but a continuation of sectarian conflict by other means.
It will be in the direct and compelling interest of the leaderships of nationalist and unionist parties to reinforce communal loyalty as the basis of political allegience, and to present themselves as the most forthright and uncompromising advocates of their own community's interests vis-a-vis the interests of "the other side". The possibility of abrasion at the interfaces generating new conflagration will be a permanent feature of the system.
Meanwhile, the real material reasons for sectarianism will be left largely untouched. Reform of the RUC has been shuffled off to a "commission" under a former Tory minister which will report in 1999. At that stage, Mr. Blair has assured the RUC, the force itself, as well as other interested parties, will be given opportunity to comment and suggest alternative recommendations. And then, the possibility of change will be considered.
Sometime in the next millennium, police reform will be pondered. Diane Hamill might live long enough to see the sectarian scoundrels who sat whistling as her brother was kicked to death in Portadown rapped on the knuckles. Then again, maybe not.
The central purpose of the Agreement is to coral the working classes into two separate camps, to pledge that neither side will be worse off now than the other, and to maintain an elaborate mechanism for ensuring than any imbalance which arises is speedily rectified. Each section of the working classes will have representatives watching like hawks to see that the other section doesn't gain an inch of advantage. Social justice is to be defined as fair competition for scarce resources.
Small wonder that fat-cats North and South are purring with anticipatory pleasure at the Northern problem being settled along such lines.
The class nature of the Agreement comes through clearly in relation to women. The document promises, under the heading of "Human Rights", to guarantee "the right of women to full and equal political participation". And, under "Economic, Social and Cultural Issues", declares that the new Assembly "will pursue broad policies for . . . the advancement of women in public life".
No question of the advancement of women, full stop. No suggestion of the restoration of Lone Parents' Allowance, the cuts in which constituted an attack on the poor which hit far more women than men and thus added to working class women's disadvantage. No mention of better child-care provision without which huge numbers of working-class women cannot advance in public life" or participate equally in politics. No suggestion that the 1967 Abortion Act, which goes some way towards giving women equal control over one crucial aspect of their lives, might be extended to the North.
The Agreement, then, offers "professional" women certain reassurance. But there's naught for the comfort of the vast majority of women in either Catholic or Protestant areas. And as for women, so for men.
Finally, for the moment, it should be asked of advocates of the Agreement: what's your alternative?
Supporters of the Agreement, for all their sharp differences of interpretation, seem unanimous in saying that it might not work. It's only a beginning . . . no guarantees . . . long way to go . . . hardest part still to come, even . . .
They predict disaster if the Agreement is rejected - while conceding that even if its accepted, it might not bring peace.
If that's what happens, what do they suggest should happen next? What's their alternative? n