Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Why I would vote No this time around

Alex Kane voted for the Good Friday Agreement in the May 1998 referendum. Never again, he says now

May 22, 1998 was one of the most difficult days of my life. It was the date of the referendum on the Belfast Agreement and, up until I voted 'Yes' just after 4pm, I wasn't entirely sure how I would vote.

I had been very supportive of David Trimble's decision to remain in the talks process in July 1997, after Sinn Fein had been admitted without a start to IRA decommissioning, because I believed that it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment to crack the problem.

Yes, I was aware that concessions would be required from unionism: but I was equally aware that the very fact that Sinn Fein was preparing to talk about a partitionist settlement, along with the IRA's nod of approval for negotiations, was the clearest possible sign that they knew they couldn't – and wouldn't – win their 'war'.

In other words, while talking to them was a calculated risk, it seemed to me that it was a risk worth taking.

Like just about everyone else within the pro-Union community (and I have no doubt it applied to many nationalists who weren't Sinn Fein supporters, either), I had huge personal problems with the issues of prisoner release, decommissioning and (even if the arms issue had been resolved) with the prospect of former IRA terrorists serving in any new government.

I had problems, too, with the question of whether or not Sinn Fein was sincere about the process, or if it was just the age-old struggle in another form.

In the back of my mind lurked the niggling, wriggling suspicion that Adams and McGuinness were playing all of us for suckers and that one manufactured crisis would follow another as they played their own propaganda game.

And, yet, I still managed to overcome my doubts in all of these areas. Prisoners were already serving absurdly short sentences and many of them were due for release anyway between 1998 and 2003.

Better a former terrorist in government, or supporting government, in Northern Ireland than encouraging a new generation into the IRA's ranks.

If the peace/political process took root, then the weapons would rust and the explosives would deteriorate beyond use.

And if Sinn Fein did turn out to be insincere, then the whole world would know who was to blame. So, again, voting 'Yes' looked like a calculated, but worthwhile, risk.

My biggest problem, though – and I wrote about it in the run-up to the referendum – was the lack of accountability and opposition within the proposed structures.

David Trimble and others have referred to the "constructive ambiguity" and "ugly scaffolding" with which the Belfast Agreement was wood-wormed; but those who were giving it the benefit of the doubt believed that some sort of review process would (once trust had been earned and co-operation borne fruit) allow the mechanical and business problems to be resolved.

I wasn't so sure. My fear then was that if we haven't nailed down some of these problems, then there is every likelihood that sectarianism will be institutionalised at the heart of the Executive and that an us-and-them approach to policy will become the fixed point of how we do our business. There will be no new era. Instead of solution, we will have stalemate.

Indeed, for a brief period, I thought that a defeat for the agreement on May 22 would force everyone back to the table, as well as leaving open the door for the entry of both the DUP and Bob McCartney's United Kingdom Unionist Party.

But listening to some of the arguments from the 'No' camp of unionism convinced me that a defeat for the agreement would deliver nothing more than the head of David Trimble and a scenario in which Sinn Fein/IRA would portray unionism as incapable of generosity, vision, power-sharing or, putting it bluntly, of 'having a Fenian about the place'. That seemed like a no-win, no-hope position for unionism: a position from which they could gain no ground and win no friends.

So, on May 22, just after 4pm, I voted 'Yes'. There was no sense of thrill, or even of quiet expectation: just the hope that a thumping endorsement from both sides (and from the separate referendum south of the border) would somehow defy the odds of British/Irish history and propel us to a place where progress could be made.

All of which goes to show that, when I call it wrong, I call it wrong on a monumental scale. We have stalemate rather than solution.

Sectarianism has been institutionalised. The "ugly scaffolding" has been reinforced. Sinn Fein doesn't give a damn about making Northern Ireland a viable, vibrant political entity.

The country is just as polarised now as it was in 1998. Opposition doesn't exist and accountability is a joke. The political parties are cemented to the spot.

Increasing numbers of people don't vote and poll after poll confirms the levels of disconnect and disapproval.

And I can't think of one piece of evidence to suggest that anything is going to improve.

Forget the border poll debate. If there was a re-run of the 1998 referendum tomorrow, I would vote 'No'.

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