Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

21 January 1999 Edition

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Unionist obstructionism continues to block Agreement

By Mary Maguire

This week unfolded with a guillotine vote on Monday, indicating urgent need for all the aspects of the Good Friday Agreement to be fully and immediately implemented. The Interim report on the assembly departments and all-Ireland bodies was adopted with an overwhelming 74 to 27 votes.

The massive vote confirms what Sinn Féin has been saying for months: David Trimble's position is secure and he has shown his capacity for silencing any potential dissident voices. For the first time since the referendum, David Trimble stood against the no faction. His overwhelming support within the UUP was confirmed at the time of the vote. This is a basis upon which he can build to defeat the anti-Agreement lobby.

However, the interim document produced was not the report which the Assembly members were promised. The approval of the report on all aspects of the Assembly departments and the All-Ireland structures were initially set to be approved at once. It was at the last moment, at the insistence of the Ulster Unionists that David Trimble and Seamus Mallon agreed that a vote on what was to become a final report was delayed until next month.

While Monday's vote cleared the way for substantive work to be done, it potentially represents for David Trimble a new instrument to try and delay the setting up of an inclusive executive. There is growing concern that approval of the final recommendations, scheduled for 15 February, will be the occasion of renewed unionist blocking tactics.

Sinn Féin has become increasingly sceptical as none of the deadlines have so far been respected and this despite the fact that the Agreement outlines clear timetables and a chronology for the establishment of various institutions. The delaying tactics and the ``go-slow'' strategy of the Ulster Unionists has already caused months of delay in the creation of the new powersharing Executive and all-Ireland bodies.

David Trimble is expected to attempt to further delay the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement by, among others, getting the Dublin and London government to acquiesce to his game plan and exclude Sinn Féin on the pretext of a spurious precondition.

Ironically, it was during Monday's debate that, for the first time since the beginning of his stalling strategy, David Trimble said that he was wrong when in the speech he recognised that the Agreement contained no preconditions for Sinn Féin's entry into an inclusive Executive. He begrudgingly admitted: ``I have heard some Members state that there is no precondition for entry to the Executive. They may be right, but in a very narrow, technical sense only.''

The prospect of more delays is also alarming, given that the procedural motions that accompany the final reports will be the basis upon which Dublin and London are set to transfer power to the Assembly by 10 March.

Sinn Fein also retained considerable reservations about the way the negotiations in the run-up to the 18 December Agreement on the all-Ireland bodies and the Assembly departments were conducted. After unionists pulled out of a deal made with the British Prime Minister on 2 December, Sinn Fein was ``cut out'' of the negotiations leading to a watered-down arrangement made with the SDLP on 18 December.

Despite promises given by the SDLP literally hours before the final elements of the deal were put into place, the Ulster Unionist party and the SDLP chose to run to the media without informing the waiting Sinn Féin team. This disgraceful behaviour and flagrant opportunism contradicts the inclusive spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

The outcome of these negotiations has also caused concern. The consequence of what Sinn Féin chairperson Mitchel McLaughlin described as the ``SDLP solo run'' is that the Agreement falls short of nationalist expectations.

The opposition of the SDLP and the UUP to the setting up of the Equality Department was a fundamental blunder.

The deal on this issue leaves Equality to be dealt with somewhere between the First and Deputy First ministers. This rejection is a major sop to unionism. It opens the door to the possibility of the issue of Equality to be treated as a side-issue and therefore encouraging severe criticism from a community who will feel betrayed.

Nationalists who voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement also attached major importance to the remit, strength and dynamic of the Ministerial Council and the All-Ireland implementation bodies. But as the negotiations concluded, even these bodies were greatly restricted in their functions.

The decisions to remove inward investment from the Trade Promotion, Business Development and Inward Investment body, to further restrict the powers of that body with regard to trade promotion and business development, to limit the number of implementation bodies to the absolute minimum laid down in the Agreement and to make the Tourism body a publicly owned limited company rather than an implementation body as before were taken without Sinn Féin support. These decisions were both unnecessary and negative.

The recent developments have once again shed light on the traditional unionist exclusionist politics of the past. David Trimble is still refusing to include Sinn Féin in the power-sharing government that is one of the pillars of the Good Friday Agreement. He is using the discredited argument of potential dissidets within his party to legitimise the exclusion of Sinn Féin ministers.

In the past weeks, he has been helped by the SDLP who have effectively provided a political cover to the Unionists destructive tactics. The need for a genuine approach based on inclusivity is more vital than ever. The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has already been delayed on false pretensions that Sinn Féin's participation is subject to preconditions. The spirit of the Agreement is now flawed by the violation of the principle of inclusiveness.

It therefore remains to be seen if these next weeks will see an end to the old unionist politics of exclusion. The presentation of the final document on the Assembly departments and the All-Ireland bodies on 15 February must not become another occasion for David Trimble to try and renegotiate the Good Friday Agreement.

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