Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and perhaps it is time we reassessed its effectiveness and questioned whether it can be a vehicle for progressive change. Whatever one may think of the GFA and its addendum the St Andrew’s Accord, if things stay as they are, there are real dangers that the ‘Northern Ireland Statelet’ will again become mired in sectarianism and political stagnation. By this I do not mean the Stormont politicians who live high on the hog at the UK tax payers expense, will revert to mouthing sectarian insults at one another. There is no likelihood of Gerry Adams crying “Up the Republic whilst Peter Robinson’s replies “No Surrender.” No; whenever a TV camera is to hand the political suits will continue to be sweetness and light itself. However unless there are major changes, the society they ‘govern’ on the UK governments behalf, will gradually return to the sectarian swamp, as the politicians and those they employ and service will increasingly become obsessed with defending there own sectarian fiefdoms.
Whilst there is a consensus amongst the Stormont clique of MLAs, it is not one that has emerged through argument and debate let alone by overcoming differences, it has come about through necessity. Thus it was perfectly logical for Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness when on camera to go around purring like a pair of Cheshire cats, but it meant little, for even the most dim witted viewer knows TV is far from the reality of life.
One only has to visit web sites like Slugger O’Toole and Politics,ie, that deal with the north of Ireland’s political scene, to understand that politics across the communal boundaries is still almost entirely based around sectarian debate. Threads become heated whenever Britishness or the ending of partition are put up, but only very rarely will there be threads that deal with the bread and butter issues of politics, education, health care, the economy, policing and foreign policy, etc, and that is not for the want of trying, for the owners of these web sites have attempted to steer there readers this way. It is a sad fact of life that when they do there will be few takers.
When the UK government negotiated the Good Friday Agreement they had only two thoughts in mind, to end the war with the PIRA and set the status quo in stone. There purpose was not to extend the political franchise nor bring democratic accountability to the north of Ireland. Thus they cobbled together a toothless Assembly and an administration that was made up of all the north’s political parties, whilst making sure it had no tax raising abilities, so it would be in perpetual hock to London; and so it is.
The British also made sure that under the GFA, the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party leaderships who jointly make up the Stormont Administration, once in ‘power’ could never be voted out. There was to be no falling out over political differences of the type that regularly arise in the rest of the democratic world, as the funds available for such essential projects as the public funding for schools, hospitals, welfare benefits and the like, are set by London, and are shared out amongst the Stormont administration on a sectarian bases behind closed doors.
Thus at best all the electorate can do is periodically move the politicians they are asked to vote for up and down the greasy pole. The party who gains the most votes gains the Head Honchos chair, (1st Minister) and so it goes down the Stormont food chain. One does not need a Swingometer to know the makeup of any incoming administration, one simple counts the number of Protestants and Catholics who live in the North.
This being so, the over riding factor for these politicians is getting the vote out within their own community, a political program that improves the lives of all those they represent comes a distant second on their list of priorities. Thus it is hardly surprising that one in nine people in the North have their very own ‘community activist’ funded from the public purse. These people go under a variety of names and titles and some even serve their communities well. However as far as the Stormont politicians are concerned, they have only one real task, and it is to get the communal vote out on election day.
As there is no opposition within Stormont the local administration is never called to account in a parliamentary forum. Parliamentary committees operate at Stormont but they are a sham, as almost all of there members belong to the governing parties. The leading politicians at Stormont divide what spoils there are, favoring loyal aides and cronies with positions within Stormont or their constituencies, where they often work in the most sectarian way by stoking up differences and pork barreling the constituencies on the cheap. New schools, hospitals, policing, etc are not in their remit as London has the final say on such things, so they keep their supporters happy by pushing sweeteners there way, often financed out of Peace Process funding or central government regeneration projects and of course that old chestnut smoothing the way for planning applications, hence the glut of community workers in the north and an open season for new builds. These supporters repay this largess, as I have already said by getting the vote out on election day and between elections they are often used to smear their politicians opponents and to keep their man’s constituency clear of oppositional forces.
The end result of all this is whereas in the past the north of Ireland was a sectarian swamp in which the Protestants held sway at the expense of the Catholics, today it is becoming a sectarian swamp where the politicians hold sway at the expense of the population as a whole.
The GFA and the St Andrews accords, have out lasted any usefulness they may have once had, and if anything have become the main blockage which prevents the North from moving away from its sectarian past. If the last ten years has taught us anything it is due to the terms of the GFA/StAA, a vigorous multi party democracy can never emerge from within Stormont. It is time for the Stormont Assemble and Administration to be stood down and the Stormont building decommissioned. To be replaced by a new purpose built regional parliament, which has none of the sectarian baggage and trappings of Stormont and in which a fully democratic regional Administration might emerge; and before someone attempts to slap down the suggestion on the grounds of cost, the UK State was willing to waste millions of pounds to build a new regional headquarters for MI5 in the North, which is used to spy on the population of the UK and Ireland, so the very least they could do after decades of misrule is to provide a new parliament to replace the sectarian edifice at Stormont, or are the people of the north less worthy than the Scot and Welsh? The model of the Scottish and Catalan Parliament’s (Parliament de Catalunya) are there to be drawn from, as both seem to work well and the one thing one can say about the politicians who are members of these parliamentary assemblies, is they are not in hock to London or Madrid, but masters of their own house.