MALACHI O’DOHERTY, one of Ireland’s leading political commentators and author of eleven books on the North of Ireland, looks ahead to Joe Biden’s visit to his ancestral home
I’D LOVE to have a wee word with Joe Biden.
He is planning a visit to Northern Ireland in April to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that created our devolved power-sharing assembly.
I can just visualise what he has in mind; a big enthusiastic rally for the world’s media marking another historic breakthrough in peacemaking here and Joe, like Clinton before him, basking in the joy, taking a little modest credit for helping it to happen.
I’d rather he didn’t.
The historic achievement of 1998 was that nationalists and unionists, Irish and British identifying parties, were persuaded to work together with guarantees that neither side could dominate the other. If a party wanted to stay in power it had to treat its partner fairly. The ultimate veto against anything either side didn’t want was the power for the other to walk out and bring the whole thing down.
Currently the Democratic Unionist Party is exercising its veto in protest against something the assembly has actually no power over.
When Britain withdrew from the European Union two years ago it agreed a protocol with the EU on how to manage trade with and through Northern Ireland. This was necessary because Northern Ireland has a border with the EU, the Irish border. The Republic is a member state.
Rather than reinforce the Irish land border, and exacerbate relations in Northern Ireland and between North and South, the Irish Sea became a border, allowing Northern Ireland to stay, in effect, in the European Single Market.
Unionists say that compromises the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and have withdrawn from Stormont in protest, not against a domineering nationalism, but against the EU and the UK, demanding they scrap or adjust the protocol.
That power which the parties were given, to crash the whole assembly if the other side attempted to dominate them, has proven too easy to work, too handy a means of protest, not just against partner parties but against the Government in London.
The hopes of 1998 were that these communities and their political representatives would form stronger relationships through working together for the common good.
Instead they have just shored up their opposition to each other.
That veto was exercised by David Trimble, the first First Minister, to coerce Sinn Féin into securing IRA weapons decommissioning.
It was threatened by Sinn Féin to reinforce a demand for the devolution of Justice powers to Stormont.
Sinn Féin walked out and crashed the assembly in 2017 over a botched renewable heating scheme and maintained it for three years to back their insistence on an Irish Language Act.
A device for constraining abuse of power had become a weapon itself, a means by which a partner party could be bullied and abandoned.
The thing that was supposed to lock these parties together became a club they could beat each other with while smaller parties stood by aghast with no power to govern in place of the truculent big factions.
I remember those heady days when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair applauded us on our imaginative peacemaking, said we were an example to the world.
I shared in the tension and elation of those times.
Deadlines were set and crashed through. A ceasefire broke down with an IRA bombing of Canary Wharf in London and had to be renewed.
Blair and Clinton came over to reassure us that their hearts were in this and that something like a spiritual transformation was under way.
And since then, both men, and Hillary Clinton too and many others, have travelled the war zones of the world with accounts of their contributions to peacemaking in Northern Ireland. Here was the proof that peace processing worked.
But has it?
The violence was sharply reduced and you might credit that to the agreement or you might argue that sabotage and murder had already proven themselves to be useless means of securing a just and stable society.
My main concern now is that, as back then, parties here will come under pressure to put another patch on their bi polar, on again/off again agreement just to create another extravaganza, a few images for Biden’s presidential election broadcasts.
We could find that Britain and the EU will make a new deal and even that the Democratic Unionist Party will accept it. These are long shots, but with American pressure, who knows?
Then we will see the leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP shake hands on the steps of Stormont, perhaps with Joe Biden standing one step higher with a hand on each party leader’s shoulder, congratulating them on their magnanimity, their generosity of spirit, their preference for productive amity over contention and possible violence.
The media will call it historic. Yet both those parties will reserve the right to walk out again over some other dispute.
I think that for me and for many that would be a disheartening moment.
It will not be cynical then to ask how long it’s going to last this time. Unless there is a fundamental change to the agreement that removes the right of veto, allows other parties to govern in the place of a big one walking out, there really is little point in putting the assembly back together to stumble along to the next deadlock.
So, I would say to Joe Biden, Bide your time.
Let’s not have another charade.