Invariably the British government likes to spin that its role is that of a facilitator – a neutral chair trying to persuade the obstinate northern parties to see sense and agree a deal. There is a pattern to all of the negotiations that have taken place since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It’s almost like a complicated dance with some of the participants desperate to demonstrate how good they are at fancy footwork. But David Cameron is no Bruce Forsythe.
Au Contraire. His government is a key participant and has the greater role to play. It claims jurisdiction over this part of the island of Ireland. Its political strategies and self-interest over the centuries created the conditions for conflict and division. Its armed forces were one of the combatant groups. Its Parliament passed a succession of repressive laws over three decades – often in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights – to protect its forces from legal challenge and to control and contain the conflict. Its economic and political policies reinforced the institutional religious and political discrimination that was the hallmark of the unionist era.
Mindful of all of this, and of Britain’s colonial legacy, the Good Friday Agreement set out in clear terms the role of Britain while it still claims jurisdiction; “the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities…”
A fine sentiment which this British government has broken in both the spirit and the letter. The refusal by the British Government to honour its St. Andrews Agreement commitment on an Irish Language Act and the DUP’s refusal to implement the COMEX recommendations in compliance with the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages are indicative of that. Unsurprisingly this provides the licence for the utterances about Gaeilge heard in recent times.
Other outstanding commitments in the Good Friday Agreement yet to be implemented include:
A Civic Forum in the north
An All-Ireland Civic Forum
A Bill of Rights
A Joint north/south committee of the two Human Rights Commissions
An All-Ireland Charter of Rights
Obligations in compliance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
The British government has also failed to implement commitments it gave during other negotiations including an Inquiry into the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane and an anti-poverty strategy which were both part of the Weston Park talks. An Acht na Gaeilge, a review of the number of Executive Departments and the number of MLAs, and agreed legislation on Parades are all matters yet to be dealt with.
It is a long list. The British government’s obvious failure to honour its obligations is the single most important reason why the process is in such a mess at this time. It also partly explains why political unionism remains disconnected from and hostile to the power sharing institutions. Without a British government giving clear and unambiguous leadership and implementing commitments there is little incentive for political unionism to move in a consistent and progressive way.
So, understanding why there is a crisis doesn’t require a lot of deep political analysis. It’s pretty obvious.
This most recent endeavour to bridge the gaps began eight weeks ago. Papers were written and presented by the political parties and largely ignored by the British and Irish governments. Notwithstanding this Sinn Féin presented the governments with our own draft of their paper. It also was ignored.
On this occasion the political crisis is exacerbated by the impact of British government’s austerity policies which have taken on a greater significance than heretofore. Since 2011 £1.5 billion has been stripped out of the block grant which funds the north’s executive. In addition Mr. Cameron seeks significant change to the welfare system that will hurt the most vulnerable citizens.
The ability of the five Executive parties to defend front-line public services, including health and education, defend the poor, the disabled, the elderly and disadvantaged, and create jobs, has been significantly undermined as a result.
The impact of this is so grave that all of the parties, at the urging of Martin McGuinness, reached unanimity on the fiscal demands they would put to the British and Irish governments, including the size of the financial package that is required to enable the institutions to fulfil their mandate, defend citizens and allow for the political crisis in the political process to be dealt with.
Last Thursday David Cameron and Enda Kenny arrived amid the usual media fanfare to commence a negotiation which amounted to little more than a charade. They left within 24 hours.
I wasn’t surprised. This was not a serious effort. I told Cameron and Kenny this during the negotiations. I described it as the ‘most amateurish ham fisted episode I have ever been involved in’. I wasn’t joking. The approach of the British and Irish government was little short of disgraceful. It wasn’t a real engagement by them to reach a reasonable consensus or agreement. It was an exercise in bluster and political grandstanding, especially by the Brits.
The Irish government’s preparedness to sign up for a joint government paper that failed to mention Acht na Gaeilge or a Bill of Rights and which acquiesced to the British government’s use of ‘national security’ to deny information for victims was deeply disappointing. Enda Kenny failed to defend the Good Friday and subsequent agreements or to press the British government on legacy issues, like the Dublin/Monaghan bombs and the Pat Finucane Inquiry.
Claims that over one billion pounds was available from the British government to the Executive quickly evaporated under scrutiny. As one BBC journalist put it the British cheque book as ‘all stubs and no cheques. The £1 billion in spending power offer by the prime minister is largely a borrowing facility which the executive can already dip into.’
The British Government also offered to provide £10m per year for the proposed Historical Investigations Unit. But this new legacy unit will cost between £30m and 40m per year. This is only one of the institutions proposed to deal with legacy issues. Over five years the Executive will be £100m worse off.
In addition, families, including the Ballymurphy families, who have campaigned for decades for the right to Article 2 compliance inquests are being frustrated by the British government. Under last year’s Haass proposals outstanding inquests were protected. Under the proposal from the two governments the Ballymurphy Massacre and other similar disputed cases would be moved to the ‘Civil Inquisitorial’ section of the Historical Investigations Unit if their inquests have still not been completed. Given the delays in disclosure by the PSNI and British Ministry of Defence it is unlikely that many of these inquests will have concluded.
The powers and remit of the ‘Civil Inquisitorial’ process are unclear and will be dependent on ‘national security’ concerns.
The British Government also proposed that the Executive borrow £100m per year for the next five years to pay for public sector redundancies. This is money the Executive would normally use to invest in health, education and other infrastructure projects, which would then not be available.
And rather than establish a realistic peace investment fund, as proposed by all the political parties, the British Government suggested that the Executive establish this fund through the sale of its own assets with no contribution from the British Government.
The net effect of these proposals would be that the Executive would be up to £100m worse off, public services would be decimated, and we would owe the British Government £500m over five years.
The fact is that we require a different economic and fiscal model to run the north which reflects the difficult circumstances that exist there, including the fact that we are a society emerging from generations of conflict and political instability. Without that the political process will not work.
David Cameron returned to London and Enda Kenny to Dublin leaving the process in a worse state than when they came. Both leaders, despite being the architects of the talks debacle, have since tried to wash their hands of any responsibility for what occurred. With talks continuing this week the British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has stuck to the script which blames the north’s parties for the crisis. This is not helpful.
There has also been much talk in the media about the institutions collapsing. I don’t believe that any of the Executive parties want this.
Martin McGuinness and our team of negotiators will work hard this week to find solutions. But achieving an agreement to make the institutions work and secure sufficient funding to protect citizens, public services and jobs has been made more difficult by the inappropriate actions last week of David Cameron and Enda Kenny.
No political party in the north has a mandate to implement austerity policies. If that’s what Fine Gael, Labour or the Tories want to do then they should come north and fight the next election on that basis. In the meantime the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister should fulfil their obligations and honour their commitments.