Sep 1 1999

Minority Rule in Northern Ireland

Press and politicians let rejectionists set debate

Sinn Fein prisoner Bobby Sands (Photo: Elise Montgomery)

Sinn Fein prisoner Bobby Sands (Photo: Elise Montgomery)

Establishment media claim to believe in democracy or “majority rule.” Not in Northern Ireland, it seems. There, a minority of conservatives has been able to stymie progress and practically scuttle an international agreement and a popular vote, because politicians and the press permit an intransigent few to misrepresent the facts and call the shots.

A year ago last May, voters in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic approved the so-called “Good Friday agreement.” The agreement, long in coming, had been drafted by politicians who represented just about every constituency with a stake in Anglo-Irish peace. In the North, voters turned out in record numbers, and a 71 percent endorsement swamped a 29 percent “no” vote. The majority comprised both Protestants (whose community tends to be pro-British loyalists) and Catholics, including Irish nationalists. In the Irish Republic, nearly 95 percent voted for the agreement, which among other things requires Ireland to revise its constitutional claim to the six counties that make up the North.

Fast forward to July 1999: Mainstream media are reporting that the Belfast accord is “stalled,” “deadlocked,” “mired.” On July 15, the accord “Hits Roadblock” (New York Times, 7/15/99). The language of traffic congestion obscures the actors who might be at fault. One thing’s for sure, the media want you to know: The British prime minister is doing his best.

The way the New York Times‘ Warren Hoge (4/4/99) cast events was typical: Despite “extraordinary full-time personal involvement,” Prime Minister Blair (and Ireland’s Bertie Ahern) have been “unable to wrest willing compromise from the naysaying political leaders.” The naysayers are unidentified “warring factions”–that is, Northern Irish politicians. The issue, as described earlier by the Washington Post (4/20/99): “a seemingly intractable dispute over when guerrilla disarmament should begin.”

Follow the facts on the ground and it becomes clear: That “intractable dispute” is actually a wrecking ball thrown at the peace process by loyalist leader David Trimble in an attempt to pacify one faction–pro-British opponents of the accord. The standstill has come thanks to that minority’s ability to hold up the proceedings at the expense of the majority’s will.

The decommissioning ploy

Loyalists made paramilitary disarmament or “decommissioning” critical in the wake of last year’s election for a new Northern Ireland Assembly established under the Good Friday Accord. The June 1998 Assembly election was the first the nationalist Sinn Fein party could contest in the broadcast media for more than a decade (their spokespeople having been banned from U.K. and Irish airwaves). The party received some 145,000 votes (12 percent), winning two seats in the assembly’s 12-member cabinet—twice as many as observers had expected them to earn. Almost immediately, loyalist politicians demanded Sinn Fein’s allies in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) disarm before Sinn Fein’s representatives could take their places. (The media rarely point out that the lack of disarmament by loyalist paramilitary groups has not called the loyalist parties’ participation into question.)

As George Mitchell, U.S. negotiator for the Good Friday agreement, told Ray Suarez (NPR‘s Talk of the Nation, 4/1/99), the maneuver came as no surprise. Decommissioning, he said, “was the principle obstacle to the beginning of the negotiations as far back as 1995. It was a principle obstacle in reaching agreement at the end of negotiations in 1998 and here it’s the principle obstacle to implementing the agreement.”

What former Senator Mitchell didn’t answer clearly was Suarez’s next question, which was simply put: “In the black and white of the agreement,” is decommissioning “make or break?”

It’s an easy enough question, but in all the column-inches dedicated to decommissioning since last Good Friday, the answer has been hard to find. A Los Angeles Times story (3/21/99) is typical: “Sinn Fein leaders say the accord does not make IRA disarmament a condition of its entry to government.” The paper doesn’t tell its readers if what Sinn Fein says is correct. The New York Times report on last-ditch negotiations this July (7/15/99) was outright misleading: “The 1998 agreement contained a general commitment to disarmament but did not spell out the timing.”

In fact, the Good Friday document commits “all participants” to “use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years…in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.” Abandoning Conservative Prime Minister John Major’s insistence that the IRA had to decommission before its political allies could be at the talks was what made Sinn Fein’s participation in the Good Friday discussions possible. Labour’s Tony Blair opted for voluntary decommissioning by all sides, with nothing written into the agreement that could block Sinn Fein from taking part. When reporters talk of “Sinn Fein’s refusal to promise disarmament” (New York Times, 7/1/99), they ignore that the loyalists’ demand is in direct opposition to the plan the majority endorsed.

The rest of the package

Unfortunately, the U.S. media, which were fast to hail the Good Friday agreement as “historic,” have just as quickly consigned the text to the archives. Quoting the actual document is something reporters fail to do. (It can be read in full at The press has done a poor job of even mentioning the provisions in the pact that do not deal with national constitutional and border questions. When Sinn Fein leaders say decommissioning depends on “implementation of the overall settlement,” U.S. readers don’t have the information to know what that means.

Of the 11 topics the agreement dealt with, five addressed justice, equality and human rights. “Major U.S. outlets have been entirely negligent in their attention to the human rights provisions,” says Julia Hall of Human Rights Watch. Of major papers, only the Boston Globe has regularly reminded its readers (including many Irish) that for the majority of Northern Irish voters, “decommissioning” was just part of a package of reforms (e.g. “In West Belfast, Disarmament Is Not Key,” 12/4/98).

The Good Friday agreement proposed setting up commissions, intended to proceed on a parallel track to the constitutional changes, that would oversee the surrender of illegally held weapons and the early release of paramilitary prisoners. But the framers dedicated at least as much attention to setting up an independent commission to recommend changes in policing in Northern Ireland, the creation of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (and, for the first time, a Bill of Rights), and committees to look at economic, social and cultural issues (including language, education and media). The accord committed the U.K. government to make “rapid progress” to address inequalities in employment. Copies of the entire 67-page agreement were mailed to every home on the island before the May referendum.

In short, the voters of Ireland a year ago approved a package of proposals the U.S. press rarely tried to understand. And key parts of the Good Friday agreement that deal with the province’s tradition of discrimination remain unimplemented and unreported, while the media have amplified loyalist intransigence over the largely symbolic, if incendiary, question of IRA arms.

Take the question of policing. “Decommissioning’s covered as a question of political jockeying only, of horse-trading,” says Human Rights Watch’s Julia Hall, but reluctance to disarm has everything to do with the history of discrimination and abuse by the British armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the province’s police. The Los Angeles Times (4/3/99) did quote West Belfast resident Marion O’Neill: “It would be different if there was an unbiased police force to enforce the laws…but the IRA is the only protection the Catholic people have.”

A quote from a representative of any of a number of international human rights groups could have added independent corroboration to O’Neill’s charge that the 93 percent Protestant RUC is biased. Indeed, in the last year, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and a United Nations special rapporteur have all called for investigations into charges that the RUC has colluded with killers targeting nationalist communities like O’Neill’s. Just this June, a man charged with the 1989 murder of civil rights lawyer Pat Finucane admitted he had been a RUC informant at the time (BBC, 6/24/99).

Eclipsing the British role

Refusing to cover the context behind the decommissioning debate, it’s easy to cast IRA supporters as bad-faith negotiators, and loyalists as justified in their demand that the IRA disarm. Moreover, the failure to look closely at the many provisions in the accord that aim to correct official past (and continuing) bias exacerbates an already chronic media tendency to focus on local “warring factions” and eclipse the region’s most powerful player: the British state.

The Good Friday accord lays out specific tasks for the U.K., among them “the removal of emergency powers in Northern Ireland” as “soon as possible.” This past September, the British government actually moved in the opposite direction. Ostensibly in response to a nationalist splinter group’s bombing in Omagh (which killed 28), the government rushed through tough new anti-terror legislation that inscribes into the domestic legal code some of the worst provisions of the U.K.’s infamous “Emergency Provisions Act” (normalizing, for example, the denial of the right to remain silent during interrogation). The Los Angeles Times noted the legislation in “Anti-Terrorism Laws on Fast Track” (9/3/98), but never mentioned the U.K.’s responsibilities as a signatory to the Good Friday accord.

“There’s something about the U.S./U.K. relationship,” says Human Rights Watch’s Hall, “perhaps especially this spring, during Blair and Clinton’s bombing war on Belgrade…. You’re not going to hear anything about human rights abuses by the U.K. government.” Yet those are precisely the issues that IRA-supporting communities in Ireland need to see addressed before they are likely to disarm. Media scrutiny of the progress on the human rights front could be decisive. “They could figure out decommissioning and the agreement could still fail because the human rights provisions aren’t implemented,” says Hall.

Rather than scrutinizing the British record, the media describe U.K. authorities primarily as “rescuers” of a faltering peace. When Prime Minister Blair caved in to loyalist threats to pull out of the agreement unless Sinn Fein set a date for IRA disarmament, the Washington Post (7/6/99) applauded: “Britain’s agile new leader launched a new strategy.” Ignoring the facts of the referendum, the New York Times headline-writers declared (7/4/99): “Roadblock to a Peace Pact: Irish Mostly Say ‘No.'”

Actually, a solid majority has said yes to a program for broad change. And it’s that majority’s hope for progress that the decommissioning zealots are shattering. As freed IRA prisoner Joe Doherty told Pacifica radio’s Democracy Now! (12/30/98): “It’s not guns that kill people. It’s the situation on the ground.”