Mitchel McLaughlin: Time for DUP to observe the foundations of Agreement
As the two main Government parties are in dispute over the devolution of policing and justice powers, Sinn Fein’s Mitchel McLaughlin says the DUP must step up to its obligations under St Andrews.
Prior to the beginning of the negotiations in Stormont Buildings in September 1997, the two Governments and the political parties with the obvious exception of the DUP, had already recognised the need for an inclusive political dispensation if we were to move from conflict to a democratic process in which all political aspirations would be accepted as equally legitimate.
After intensive negotiations, agreement on a set of principles known as the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was signed on April 10, 1998. This historic agreement was subsequently endorsed in separate referenda by the people of Ireland, north and south.
It is a fact that the DUP (except perhaps by staying away) had made no meaningful contribution to the GFA negotiations. However, after the first Assembly elections, the DUP demanded its ministerial entitlements under the power sharing arrangements and the d’Hondt mechanism defined in the GFA. Many were of the opinion that the DUP demands were opportunistic and not a little hypocritical; however they had an entitlement under the terms of the Agreement, despite walking out of the negotiations and opposing their outcome in the referendum. That the DUP could do so was a very powerful demonstration of the inclusive principles of the Agreement.
One of the key provisions of the GFA was periodic reviews of the agreement. This was generally regarded as a common sense mechanism, especially when issues emerged that had not been totally resolved and which required further discussion and signing off by the Governments and the parties in the north. The St Andrews talks were just such a review. This time the DUP actively participated in the discussions.
The DUP will go to great lengths to disclaim any responsibility for negotiating the GFA but it’s assertion that it does not accept many of the provisions of St Andrews nor to be bound by its conclusions, is a self-serving delusion. In any event, the issue of whether the DUP agreed to the May 2008 deadline for the transfer of policing and justice powers, or indeed subscribed to the introduction of the Irish Language Act, is a red herring. The real issue is that the DUP, by endorsing the conditions for the restoration of the Assembly, were explicitly accepting the outcome of both sets of political negotiations. The DUP cannot credibly claim that it did not accept the political principles and the legal requirements of both the GFA and St Andrews. These documents define the basis for the re-establishment of the political institutions in which the DUP is now a key participant. Neither can the DUP leadership deny that they have accepted amendments to the Ministerial Code introduced after St Andrews, which now obligates them to attend Executive and all-Ireland Ministerial Council meetings. No more semi-detached DUP, and if this was still the DUP policy, they could not be in government.
There are many aspects of the GFA and St Andrews that Sinn Fein and others would wish to develop further, but that will be the task of further reviews. But all, including the DUP, clearly accept that the two documents are the foundations on which the restored political institutions depend.
As for the so-called triple lock, which with contradictory logic they claim to have secured at St Andrews, the DUP seems to have overlooked that a veto mechanism is available to any party with the necessary strength of mandate in the Assembly. Sinn Fein did not accept the argument for a triple lock mechanism but we ensured that effective checks and balances were provided that ensured protection and equality within the institutions for everyone. Therefore no party, and especially no party which is not at ease with the concept of power-sharing, has any unique power of veto over their partners in Government.
The deployment of such options is fraught with dangers for any party and is a double-edged sword, which can recoil on the party that attempts to use it as a weapon for party political advantage. The DUP and other unionist parties contested the Assembly elections on the basis of party manifestoes which were ambiguous on commitments arising from the provisions of the GFA and St Andrews. However, they eventually and voluntarily entered into the power sharing Executive on the basis of the requirements of the GFA and St Andrews.
Power-sharing is certainly mandatory under the GFA and St Andrews protocols, but no party can be compelled to be a member of the Executive. That is a matter for any party which has the requisite mandate to decide.
Therefore it is time that the DUP respected the fact that there are others in the Assembly who also represent constituencies that have entitlements that are just as legitimate as any in the DUP constituency. It is obvious that equality and respect for the democratic mandates of other parties is a foreign concept to some within the DUP. But it is time to get used to a different political context because the old days of unionist control are gone, never to return. If the DUP is serious about participating in government in the north then it needs to accept the modus operandi of partnership in an Executive which is based on equality and parity of esteem for all.
It is imperative that all sections of society feel ownership of the institutions and derive benefit from them. That is the basis on which the political institutions of the GFA exist and that is the only basis upon which they can be sustained and developed.