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10 July 2003 Edition

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Is Blair serious about the Good Friday Agreement?

BY LAURA FRIEL


The actions of the British government in the next few weeks will be carefully scrutinised throughout the island of Ireland as supporters of the Good Friday Agreement from both sides of the border assess just how serious the British Prime Minister is about ensuring its full implementation.

Many pro-Agreement commentators believe that flaws at the heart of the British government's current strategy are engendering so many contradictions that the entire process is in jeopardy. There is even talk of a growing rift between the two governments as Britain is increasingly drawn into the abyss of trying to satisfy the demands of truculent unionism.

GFA supporters fear that legislation due to establish the Independent Monitoring Body, the latest British panacea to David Trimble, will result in even greater distress to a treaty that has already suffered from a string of anti-Agreement concessions to elements within the UUP.

Early details about the Bill are likely to emerge this week and will provide some indication of British intent. The IMB's terms of reference will be crucial in determining whether the body is likely to become a mechanism to exclude the largest nationalist party and re-establish the discredited unionist domination of the past.

Although the IMB is nominally 'independent', with both a British and Irish dimension, it is already clear that the British government will have the power to wield complete control over the body. With two representatives to the Dublin government's single nominee, the will of the British government is guaranteed to prevail. The US government will also appoint a nominee.

Given their subordinate position within the body, the 26-County government will be forced to depend upon the US nominee should any differences arise between London and Dublin.

And as if that isn't sufficient control, the IMB will report directly to the British Secretary of State, who will decide whether to accept or ignore the advice. British sources have flagged up the primary function of the IMB as a means of getting unionists back into the Executive. But more cynical voices have suggested, regardless of intention, that the IMB is most likely to become a mechanism for excluding Sinn Féin.

This is certainly the hope of both pro- and anti-Agreement unionism. David Trimble, the unionist leader upon which the British have primarily built their strategy, has been widely fÍted as the epitome of progressive unionism. Yet even Trimble appears to adhere to a fantasy of a unionist future in which Catholics will become 'happy' to comply in the abandonment of their aspirations of equality and democracy.

Of course, this has never been articulated specifically, but to get the picture you only have to listen to Trimble's 'nostalgia' for a past that never really existed. Trimble sees the future in terms of a return to a 'time' when grievance-free Catholics were content to watch Orange Parades. This fairytale exposes the restricted nature of Trimble's vision - one in which Catholics clap and cheer forever on the sidelines while unionists exercise their traditional and strictly exclusive 'rights'.

It is clear why unionism believes that the establishment of the IMB might bring them one step closer to achieving this dream. The exclusion of Sinn Féin would slash nationalist representation within the Assembly by more than half while promising to unite divisions within unionism.

It's a dream of a unionist majority in which unionism can preside over the appearance of a power-sharing arrangement without actually ever having to share power. Such a scenario would see an effective return to a one-party sectarian state, the very political configuration that previously ignited 30 years of conflict.

Crucial to the function of the IMB will be the scope of activities the body will be empowered to monitor. Currently, British officials are pushing to include all activities cited in paragraph 13 of the Joint Document. It reads:

"Paramilitarism and sectarian violence, therefore, must be brought to an end, from whichever part of the community they come. We need to see an immediate, full and permanent cessation of all paramilitary activity including military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence gathering, acquisition or development of arms or weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks and involvement in riots."

The paragraph also calls for an end to the "practice of exiling" and states that exiles must "feel free to return in safety". The document calls for an end to sectarian attacks and intimidation of vulnerable communities.

The paragraph is couched in the language of 'balance' but what it delivers is only fudge. The British PM, in his 'fork in the road' speech, has already exonerated unionist politicians from all responsibility for loyalist violence (let alone any other activity).

The language of paragraph 13 might suggest condemnation across the board but it is merely a sham deployed solely to obscure the fact that only members of the nationalist electorate are facing possible disenfranchisement.

Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the British have presided over various attempts to recreate a unionist pro-British 'majority'. Ideologically, they have attempted to reinterpret the notion of 'majority' to sustain unionist control beyond their demographic strength by the introduction of a unionist veto.

Meanwhile, an imaginative but essentially bogus interpretation of recent Census results 'created' a statistical unionist 'majority' just over the ideologically magical figure of 50%, while the sudden and inexplicable 'loss' of around 90,000 nationalist voters from the latest electoral register suggested a more sinister attempt at manipulation.

And now we are to have the IMB.

Criticism of the IMB proposal has so far focused on the observation that the body as it is currently envisaged is unworkable, with, as the Sunday Business Post puts it, "consequences bordering on the ludicrous".

"The pious reference to how informers "must feel free to return in safety" means that all that would be needed for the entire peace process to be scuppered would be someone like Sean O'Callaghan to declare that he doesn't quite feel comfortable enough to go out for a drink in Tralee," writes Seán Mac Carthaigh.

The SBP questions the IMB's ability to determine what constitutes a breach. "Is every drunken brawl involving a nationalist to be deemed a punishment attack? Does 'involvement in riots' effectively outlaw the defence of embattled nationalist areas from unionist mobs during the marching season in the mysterious absence of the PSNI?"

The IMB's independence has also been questioned. It is yet to be established whether the IMB will have the remit and resources to investigate allegations of breaches or whether they will be dependant upon 'evidence' gathered by Britain's MI5, Special Branch and other assorted securocrats, whose opposition to the GFA and hostility to Sinn Féin has been clearly demonstrated.

"It would be extremely worrying were the IMB to accept the word of British Intelligence when compiling its reports," says the SBP, "with so many anti-Agreement officers still at work in the PSNI, MI5 and elsewhere, it would create a hostage to fortune at the heart of the peace process."

But the IMB is not only 'unworkable', it is also fundamentally anti-democratic, with more than a whiff of Britain's failed criminalisation policy of old.

In the interests of continued British rule, northern nationalists have not only been subjected to the obscenity of sectarian domination, they have also been subject to special laws, special courts and special forces. Now the exercise of our democratic rights is to be subject to special monitoring and in the event of a perceived breach, special sanctions.

Tony Blair didn't promise us a united Ireland but he did promise democracy, equality and justice. For northern nationalists, the question remains to be answered. Is Tony Blair serious about the Good Friday Agreement?
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