Evidence is growing that agreement did not work
Is it time to admit that the Belfast Agreement has not worked, is not working and is never going to work? Far from being "an achievement of such magnitude that it gives politics a good name", as the normally perceptive Fintan O'Toole suggests (The Irish Times, February 5th), has it compromised the political process and made a solution in Northern Ireland more difficult, not less?
A decade ago, when the "peace process" began, it rested on one main foundation, that the IRA wanted to "end the war" and that the republican movement was ready to replace the armed struggle with political action.
The process was designed to facilitate that transition and take the gun out of politics. Today the gun, largely though not entirely silent, remains at the centre of politics. The most significant achievement of the process has been to put into ministerial office in Belfast those who have promoted and defended the gun and who have never given any indication that they think its use over the past 30 years was other than justified.
We have the pathetic picture of a minister of the crown in Belfast, and the Taoiseach in Dublin, grovelling before terrorists and telling them the "decommissioning" of their weapons is purely voluntary. This is compounded by the two governments pretending to see as highly significant - one hopes they are pretending - an IRA statement that it will consider putting its arms beyond use when the causes of conflict are removed, which is republican-speak for a British withdrawal and Irish unification.
So the search is on again for a fudge, with the ever-hopeful media and political circus gleefully seizing on the IRA statement and the de Chastelain gloss on it. The fog thickens, intensified by a rush to say how wonderful the devolution interlude has been. Ministers have worked together, decisions have been taken, local democracy has returned.
But beyond this facile analysis lies growing evidence that the complex institutions and mechanisms set up under the agreement were proving unworkable. Of course, ministers have been taking decisions: government in Northern Ireland has been paralysed for almost two years, as Northern Ireland Office ministers have postponed decisions awaiting devolution. But the major decisions taken so far, on the basis of files pushed before the new ministers by their civil servants, have been by individual ministers with seemingly no consultation with colleagues or approval from the assembly.
No programme of government - the vital element of any non-voluntary coalition - has been agreed. Ministers have implemented highly controversial policies, for example on language and the flying of the Union flag, on the basis of their own political views, not any collective decision of executive or assembly. The minister of health has taken one major decision on hospital facilities in defiance of a clear vote by the relevant committee in the assembly.
The execution of business in the assembly has been less than edifying. The members have attracted most attention by voting themselves large salary increases and securing generous transition payments in the event of collapse.
New bodies are created, posts advertised and costs escalate. It is never entirely clear whether the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are actually speaking to each other. The practical experience of devolution under the Belfast Agreement is, so far, profoundly depressing.
It is also clear that the agreement now being implemented is not the agreement a significant number of people voted for in May 1998. Then, Tony Blair said it meant no one associated with violence could have a place in government; Sinn Fein was there without a single IRA gun surrendered. He highlighted the endorsement of consent in the agreement - everyone accepted that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom.
Now the SDLP argues that this is merely a constitutional framework maintaining Northern Ireland's "link" with the UK and does not require nationalists to give allegiance to the state. This is a rather sad distortion of the concept of civil society, a concept that has an important role to play in reconciliation in Northern Ireland, but which in no way implies that a minority in one state can simply transfer its allegiance to another one.
In its interpretation and implementation the agreement is seriously devaluing the principle of consent. The hope that devolution would soften the lines between nationalism and unionism, and promote working together for the common good of Northern Ireland, has not been realised.
If anything, the reverse is happening. The health minister's decision on the competing claims of the Royal Victoria and Belfast City Hospitals over maternity facilities has been perceived as sectarian, and denounced as such, probably wrongly, but also inevitably. The appointment of a convicted IRA murderer as special adviser to the same Sinn Fein minister is an indication of one side's approach to reconciliation.
The weakest argument in favour of the Belfast Agreement is the most common, that there is no alternative to it. The only sense in which that may be true is that there is no alternative package that can bring into government the representatives of still-armed republicanism and those of the democratic majority. But that is the rock that has caused suspension. One way forward is to leave the rock and try another road.
Much of the Belfast Agreement, including the North-South dimension, is now broadly acceptable. What demonstrably cannot work is the d'Hondt system of involuntary coalition government. As that was devised to bring in the representatives of armed terrorism, and as they have now excluded themselves, a modified system of built-in power-sharing could replace it. A revised Belfast Agreement to incorporate that, and a clearer definition of consent, could be an alternative. Would Dublin say no?
Dennis Kennedy is a member of the Cadogan Group