Saturday, September 13, 2008

Searching for Plan B

The growing sense of disillusionment over the peace process among the republican grassroots found expression in this week’s Andersonstown News. This took the form of a letter from one B. Maguire. In the opening paragraph he describes himself as a “life long republican” who “voted for the Good Friday Agreement and supported the Sinn Fein strategy”. But now he is “completely disillusioned and angry”.

He goes on make a number of complaints about the settlement, and to pose a series of questions to the Sinn Fein leadership. His primary complaint is over the existence of a DUP veto. He notes that the DUP have used this to block any movement on a sports stadium, the Irish Language Act and the devolution of policing and justice powers. The fact the DUP “can veto anything thing they don’t like” raises for him the obvious question of what republicans can ever get from the power sharing executive.

B Maguire also notes a change in the Sinn Fein rhetoric on the St Andrews Agreement, which has gone from assertions that it included provisions for an Irish Language Act to a claim that an act will be in place at some undefined date in the future because it is somehow inevitable. For him “the leadership have lost their revolutionary politics for the politics of appeasement”. He cites as an example of this Belfast Mayor Tom Hartley’s opposition to the City Council hosting a home coming parade for the RIR on the basis of his personal opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than the role that regiment, and the British army as a whole, have played in Ireland.

B Maguire rounds off by stating that it is obvious to him that “the unionists are not up to power sharing. Stormont has failed. It will not work”. Rather than continue to prop up Stormont he urges Sinn Fein “walk away now and go to the Plan B” (which he believes to be joint sovereignty). His letter concludes with a plea for Gerry Adams to “give us answers”.

While many of the points in this letter are familiar, and have been made by others, it is now significant that they are being echoed by mainstream republicans who had up until recently supported the peace process. The fact that such people are starting to fall away is an indicator of the declining credibility of the Sinn Fein leadership.

The letter from B Maguire prompted a quick response from Sinn Fein, with a reply of sorts from Gerry Adams appearing in the following edition of the Andersonstown News. Much of this was a restatement of the equality provisions within the settlement, though with view examples of them operating. Adams claims that Sinn Fein had an agreement with the British on an Irish Language Act, but that this was now being blocked by the DUP. He concedes that the DUP does indeed have a veto, but that this is countered by Sinn Fein’s own veto, though they “have little need” to use it because of their “positive agenda”.

Adams says that though unionists may not be up for power sharing, Sinn Fein had a responsibility the make the political institutions work. For him “being strategic, planning for the future, keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the prize is the only way forward.” Adams concludes with the claim that the only way to move unionism is to build “a stronger Sinn Fein”.

This reply is completely disingenuous, ignoring the major points of the original letter, and making claims for the settlement that are completely baseless. The fact is that Sinn Fein signed up to a settlement that has a built in unionist veto. While formally nationalists do have a veto, to use it on any substantial issue would bring the whole edifice crashing down. There is no pressure on the DUP to concede anything, certainly not from the British and Irish governments. An assembly were Sinn Fein had a hundred per cent of the nationalist seats would make no difference. If anything it would hasten the collapse of the settlement as no unionist would be prepared to sit under a Sinn Fein first minister. Its stability depends on unionists having the upper hand and nationalists accepting that.

In his letter B Maguire displayed some naivety in his belief in the existence of a Plan B for joint authority. This does not exist - Sinn Fein aren’t going to walk away. Their only strategy is to hang on to their ministerial seats at all costs and hope that things will get better. If there is a Plan B it is the return to majority rule that has been proposed recently by SDLP leader!

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