What lies behind the current impasse in Ireland’s peace process

By Frances Davis

Yet again, a crisis is brewing in the Irish peace process. This time it centres on the ongoing failure of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to agree a date for the transfer of powers on justice and policing from Westminster to the Assembly in Belfast.

The DUP’s obstructive approach on the issue has seen, at every twist and turn, excuse after excuse in order to block this key element of the new system, which is an integral part of the peace process.

Over 11 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by referenda in the two parts of Ireland. It outlined a series of key measures to address one of the central inequalities of the northern six-county statelet – a legal system and a police force which were riddled with injustice to the core. From the foundation of the ‘Northern Ireland’ state in 1921, an armed sectarian police force acted to suppress and brutalise that section of the population which did not support British rule, and upheld in the most brutal way a rotten, sectarian state, which systematically discriminated against Catholics and Irish nationalists. This history of brutality, of the ‘police’ acting as a pro-British state militia, combined with a blatantly discriminatory system of so-called justice, was unique to that part of the ‘UK’. It included the use of non-jury ‘Diplock’ courts, torture, collusion, political bans and other methods which drew international condemnation – all of which has been well documented. Unsurprisingly, it met with sustained and mass popular resistance and political opposition.

The failure by the British state to defeat or contain opposition to this system was part of what led to the Good Friday Agreement. Central to that Agreement is to provide a new way forward, based on greater justice and equality. In the past it was impossible for the nationalist community to have any faith or stake in the system of policing and justice whatever. Today, as part of the process of change, Sinn Féin has been part of transforming policing and justice, to create the a ‘new beginning’.

Despite opposing the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP were party to further talks in 2006 which produced the ‘St Andrews Agreement’, which included a commitment to move on devolving justice and policing. Some 13 months ago there was a further agreement, by Sinn Féin with DUP leader Peter Robinson, on the process to allow the transferring of more powers in the field. More recently, an agreement between the British government and the two parties would see some £1 billion made available as part of such a transfer package. Yet the DUP continues to block, stall and set new pre-conditions to further delay the transfer – introducing issues which were never part of the original agreement. Every time one ‘concern’ has been met, another has been raised. The latest list was set out in a private letter to Gordon Brown, which the DUP leadership refuses to make public. So, given that the DUP say they do not oppose transfer in principle, how does one explain the unreasonable nature of their actions? What lies behind them and what should be done?

Many commentators argue that the DUP are responding to pressure from the ultra-rejectionist split from their own ranks by former MEP Jim Allister – Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Allister left the DUP after Ian Paisley agreed to power sharing, making clear that he could not contemplate any coalition with Sinn Féin under any circumstances. The recent European elections saw the TUV gain 13 per cent of the vote. With an eye on the forthcoming Westminster elections, and responding to this right wing pressure, the DUP leadership appears to be running scared. However, such tactics will not lead to a diminution of the ultra-sectarianism of the likes of the TUV. It will merely strengthen it. The DUP vote, together with that of the Ulster Unionist Party, still reflects the overwhelming majority of the unionist electorate. The TUV is a minority. Add to this the broad nationalist vote, and it is clear that an overwhelming majority of the population are broadly in favour of parties who at least formally want the power-sharing institutions to succeed and survive. As Gerry Adams recently pointed out, the DUP’s current stance will not build confidence, but will erode it. By ceding to the rejectionist ground, the DUP leadership will strengthen it.

However, the DUP’s difficulties are not just concerned with the spectre of Jim Allister to their right flank. Several senior and longstanding DUP party figures – some of them MPs – are also deeply unhappy. They find sharing power with Sinn Féin, and being expected to treat nationalists as equals, almost too much to bear. For some of these, the end of the Assembly and a return to direct rule from London – even with an input from the old enemy in Dublin – would be preferable to the current power-sharing arrangements; These figures are using the issue of transfer of policing and justice – which is in many ways, the final piece of the peace process jigsaw – as a last stand against progress.

The DUP leader Peter Robinson is the key to all of this. For him the choice is clear – face down dissenters within his own party and in the TUV, and move forwards, or risk serious political turbulence if he continues to prevaricate.

It is worth looking back at what happened when David Trimble, having signed the Good Friday Agreement, attempted to stall and prevaricate in response to the DUP’s opposition. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin made this point in a recent speech in Derry: ‘It is both worth noting and interesting to observe what the consequences are for political leaders of failing to stand by and fight for the agreements that you make. A case in point is David Trimble, who after signing the Good Friday Agreement, failed the Agreement by refusing to embrace the change that it would bring. Such an approach only served to not just destroy his leadership but to totally confuse the unionist electorate and the rest is history’. Today the DUP is falling into the same trap.

As the issues of rights and equality are, as Sinn Féin rightly point out, ‘non-negotiable’, the issue is not going to go away. An expectation of greater equality and justice will not be reversed. The nationalist community will rightly accept nothing less.

The only real choice for the DUP and Unionism is to grasp this and to accept the transfer. Every fudge and prevarication will risk seeing the enemies of the entire process gain ground.

For the British government the lesson is also clear. In the past they simply assisted in the destruction of David Trimble’s leadership through repeated suspensions of the Agreement and allowing obstruction with the aim of ‘saving’ him. This did not save Trimble at all.

Today, the British government have an obligation to ensure that what was agreed at St Andrews comes into force. Consequently a transfer of powers on justice and policing should come into force without delay. Prevarication will simply build the support of those ultra-Unionist forces that aim to destroy the entire peace process.

The changes to policing and justice, and an equality agenda, form part of a bigger picture of Ireland’s future encompassing a relationship between unionists and nationalists in a more equal and just society. Building this future is in the best interests of all the people of Ireland, rather than as part of a British state which has fostered division and held back economic development.

This, of course, poses the question of Irish unity. The Good Friday Agreement provides for self-determination, and as the discussion unfolds around all of these issues, this question will become increasingly on the agenda. A forthcoming conference on 20 February in London will be an important opportunity to look at some of these issues in a serious way.