By Frances Davis
Sinn Féin have correctly condemned attempts of anti-Good Friday Agreement unionists to push through an anti-peace process bill in Stormont this week – and hit out at the fact that the latest stage of the bill’s progress was backed by the SDLP.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness commented: ‘by supporting TUV legislation against former prisoners the SDLP have thrown the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement out of Stormont’s windows’.
The bill, moved by Jim Allister, leader of the tiny anti-Good Friday Agreement Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, passed the consideration stage in Stormont on 19 March. It would ban anyone who had been sentenced to more than five years in prison from taking posts as Special Advisors in Stormont.
Sinn Féin had moved an amendment that candidates for such posts with a history of conflict-related offences, i.e. political prisoners, instead be referred to a panel – a reasonable position.
A key plank of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) involved the release of political prisoners – many of whom were and remain key players in the development of the peace process and crucial to winning support for the Agreement. This move to ban ex-political prisoners from political jobs at Stormont goes entirely against this.
Whilst it is entirely expected that a rejectionist, sectarian party such as the TUV, which desires no progressive change and opposes the equality agenda enshrined in the GFA, would bring forward such a move, it is entirely opportunist and indefensible for the SDLP to support this.
The SDLP has seen its vote progressively decline since the onset of the peace process. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin, demonstrating that it has been the best champion of the process and in defending peoples’ rights, has seen its vote rise – both north and south.
The SDLP has engaged in a series of opportunist moves, of which this is the latest, in a desperate attempt to undermine Sinn Féin and claw back some of their lost ground. This has included making noises about the need for an ‘opposition’ in Stormont, i.e. dismantling the current power sharing arrangements – another move against the GFA.
The reality is that the very precise measures enshrined in the GFA, on prisoners and on power sharing, are there for a reason. The power sharing arrangements ensure that there is no return to sectarian unionist one-party rule, which saw the nationalist/catholic section of society excluded and discriminated against. Ensuring a role for ex-political prisoners in the political process, and measures against discrimination against them, is also crucial. Indeed, many do face discrimination still in other walks of life. The important role of ex-POWs in the process is reflected in the fact that many current and past Ministers and Assembly Members are themselves former political prisoners. The move to ban them as advisors is particularly ludicrous and reactionary.
Sinn Féin Assembly Member Daithí McKay condemned the move and in particular the SDLP’s role, pointing out that the bill would ‘discriminate against political ex-prisoners in employment’, was ‘politically motivated’ and ran ‘contrary to the Good Friday Agreement and equality’.
The SDLP were, he said ‘once again exposed’, and had ‘failed to protect equality [by] rejecting the MacBride Principles, failed to support Marriage Equality and now they have failed [by] supporting Jim Allister in legislating to discriminate against ex-prisoners’.
However, the Bill has further stages to go and can still be defeated.
Rightly, the SDLP are coming under increasing pressure to reverse their position, and support what is known as ‘a petition of concern’ (where cross community support is required to pass legislation – another GFA safeguard). This could potentially stop the Bill at its final stage.
Daithi Mackay noted that some senior SDLP members have said they are not happy with the Bill. Mackay argues that ‘the only option left for the SDLP’ is to block the Bill by signing a Petition of Concern and failure to do this will again expose them for ‘failing to protect equality and the Good Friday Agreement’.
Of course, this latest development takes place within a framework of increasing sectarian opportunism by the DUP and the UUP, the latter on the coat tails of the former. This apparent ‘unionist unity’ has in fact seen some further splits within unionism, with two very high profile resignations from the UUP in opposition to their supporting a sectarian ‘unionist unity’ candidate against Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy in Mid Ulster. Many believe it is just a matter of time before the UUP are swallowed up by the DUP. The precursor to this was the whipping up of sectarianism around the flags issue, which had serious consequences.
The wider context is one in which the Tory/Lib Dem government continue, at best, to fail in terms of their responsibilities to the Good Friday Agreement, and, at worst, are attempting to roll back on some key elements. Sinn Féin continue to be the main party which operates politically in line with the Good Friday Agreement and understands that this is not a ‘done deal’ but a process which has to keep moving forward.
Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement is the only show in town, and all attempts to undermine it should be strongly opposed by socialists in Britain. Moreover, it should be understood that such sectarian reactions, whether over flags or the prisoners issue, in reality take place in a framework where the political process and the equality agenda has been driven forward to a massive effect. Supporting this is the way forward.