Wounded pride may take yet another fall

Brian Feeney, 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

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.

October 7, 2004

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