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‘Reforming’ the GFA/BA May 17, 2022

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Mentioned in the Sunday Statement post, but worth a look on its own terms, was a piece by Dan O’Brien in the SBP at the weekend. It’s an odd one. There’s some good points in there, albeit couched in the usual acid approach. So for example he at least recognises a certain truth in the following:

despite quite a bit of barely numerate comment over the past week, there should be no doubt that the North’s centre ground has collapsed. Even accounting for the Alliance’s 14 per cent of the vote in the assembly election 10 days ago, the long-term decline of the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party meant those three centrist parties got just one third of first preferences.

Even if one quibbled with some of the above he is correct that the great ‘centrist’ dawn is over-egged in much of the media reporting. But he then continues:

By contrast, well over half of voters, 58 per cent, gave their number ones to Sinn Féin, the DUP or Traditional Unionist Voice, the most tribal parties and ones that, by any European standard, are on the extremes. If that outcome is considered a success for reconciliation and the bringing of the communities together, one has to wonder what failure would look like.

Tribal? On the extremes? I think that with respect to Sinn Féin that’s overdone. Is Sinn Féin more extreme, say economically or socially, than many parties of a left social democrat persuasion in Europe? More so than Podemos who manage to get along in government in Spain? Seems implausible. Many of us would argue that while left-wing in the context of a party that is now the most popular in polling it is hardly extreme in its programme. And as for tribal, that’s a strong term to use.

How is Sinn Féin’s aspiration to a united Ireland more tribal than, say, Fianna Fáil as was until recently, or Fine Gael’s leader who has spoken in glowingly positive terms of such an outcome.  The TUV might fairly be considered to be extreme. But the DUP in broad terms is a socially and economically conservative party. Hardly unknown on this island. Extreme? Extreme enough but not particularly for those reasons. As noted before in the last number of days, it is not the DUP’s unionism which is extreme so much as the manner in which it goes about supporting it.

But there’s another even more intriguing aspect to his thesis that requires consideration because for him the votes going to the DUP or SF are signifiers of failure or at least a lack of success of the GFA/BA, whereas one could make a contrary case that the very fact there are elections to an Assembly, one which Sinn Féin is a central part of and aspires to be the largest party within surely speaks of success, that the political institutions and processes are still regarded as legitimate to a greater than a lesser degree. Granted with the TUV that’s not at all clear, and with the DUP there’s so much ducking and diving that one would have to wonder where it would land. But even that latter party participates, seeks the First Minister position and assures one and all that it is keen to return to the Executive as soon as possible.

And here I think is where O’Brien’s waspish analysis is so incorrect.

The GFA/BA was never about buttressing the centre as goal so much as about enabling Unionists and Nationalists and Republicans to share power and work together. It didn’t seek as an overt or covert goal to transform any of those into centrists. Quite the opposite, it was entirely comfortable with them retaining their beliefs and aspirations as long as they were willing to work within the framework of the GFA/BA. Arguably, it is not merely entirely comfortable but functionally serves to offer a way for Nationalism and Republicanism to bring Northern Ireland out of the Union given in its very processes it reifies departure from the Union with no means to return to it. Granted, one has to get to that point of a Nationalist and Republican majority for that outcome to become tangible but that’s far from inconceivable in the next quarter century.

Reconciliation was in spite of respective political/national identity, not due to that identity changing into some sort of blended one or into centrism. This can be considered an institutionalisation of political/national identity, but the more sceptical and cynical (as well as pragmatic) reading might be that given those political/national identities long predate the GFA/BA and arguably by centuries it would be almost perverse to expect that twenty four years would see them change materially, if at all.

The very fact that there’s been a cohering of ‘other’ (to an extent, and how substantively remains to be seen) around Alliance, even if that has been partly at the expense of the SDLP and UUP (and before we shed bitter tears over the latter and the way in which its supposed ‘centrism’ is now depleted might be worth O’Brien looking up some of the comments of a recent enough former leader and pondering how that centrism is expressed), might be considered a remarkable enough phenomenon.

So when one reads O’Brien seriously write the following:

None of this is to suggest that the Good Friday Agreement is bad. It is merely to highlight how little detached analysis there is of what it has and has not achieved.

One might reasonably ask what he thinks the GFA/BA is and is not.

Pat Rabbitte in the same paper had a not entirely dissimilar analysis, though he made an interesting point in the following:

Sinn Féin ran a very shrewd low-key Northern Assembly election campaign that focused, for a change, primarily on bread and butter issues. After the election, the triumphalism that the party had displayed after other recent elections was largely absent. Yes, Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s overall leader, gave the quest for a border poll a half-hearted mention on a visit to the count centre in Belfast, but perhaps she had to do that for the heartland.

But he too slumps into the rather lethargic trope of the centre ground:

So all is changed, then? Well, not really. The dreary steeples have not receded and what is surprising is how little has changed. To have produced the prospect of a nationalist leader for the first time in 100 years is, certainly, a monumental symbolic change, while the stellar performance of the middle-ground Alliance Party is an overdue reward for years of sensible and tenacious campaigning.

However, the centre ground remains a prisoner of polarised politics. The respective strengths of Sinn Féin and the DUP is little altered, the latter surrendering some of its vote to Traditional Unionist Voice, the more extreme organisation which Bertie Ahern (perhaps intentionally) referred to as the TUP.


The rival steeples are still standing and the old political landscape is still recognisable. A new and consciously more progressive leadership of traditional unionism was not reflected in the performance of the UUP. The honourable record of the SDLP and its role as an author of the Good Friday agreement did not spare it losses, as more nationalist voters responded to DUP provocation and voted for a nationalist first minister.

Both the UUP and the SDLP lost votes to the Alliance which, taken with the defeat of the Greens, does not enhance the clout of the centre. The reality remains that it is only with the willing participation of the two big parties that evolution in politics in Northern Ireland becomes possible.

But even that seems an odd enough analysis. For example, it has been Alliance, SDLP, the GP (now departed from Stormont) and… Sinn Féin, who have been working together over Brexit. Is that not a centre ground of sorts? Is that not the very manifestation of working together that the likes of Rabbitte and O’Brien apparently want? 



1. oliverbohs - May 17, 2022

Like, Dan O’Brien has never really pretended to be the working man’s best friend- wherever the powerful are, there’s him buttering them up and cheerleading for them. You can’t criticise a donkey for not being a racehorse after all.
But you don’t need a long memory to know what grubby waste of space Rabbitte is. Thankfully every new political opinion poll that gets published underlines every time that there’s no use for the likes of him in politics anymore. Irrelevant but but reliably full of shit, can articulate his sweeping contempt for the electorate for pin money from the SBP on top of his inflated pension. A long way gone from the days when he’d promise that the Dart would go to Clondalkin


WorldbyStorm - May 17, 2022

One feels that the period with the WP was sort of an interval between his original LP membership and the later LP membership. However many years it was.


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