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15 May 1998

Forced To Agree

Mark Ryan, author of War and Peace in Ireland, considers what's on offer in the referendum on the Good Friday agreement

On May 22, the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls to give their verdict on the Good Friday constitutional agreement. On the same day people in the Irish Republic will vote on the other strand of the agreement - whether to remove Dublin's territorial claim over the Six Counties from the Irish constitution. The Good Friday agreement is being hailed as an honest compromise between nationalists and unionists which for the first time this century offers peace and stability to all the people of Ireland.

The very circumstances in which the agreement was forged however show it to be a deal stitched up behind the backs of all the people of Ireland, North and South, nationalist and unionist. The negotiations which led up to the Good Friday agreement were not negotiations in any meaningful sense. Nearly half the so-called parties present had no mandate to be there, having had a special election called with special rules which guaranteed that these grouplets would have an almost similar representation around the table as the large popular parties. For the British, Irish and American governments however it was important to have these people around the table, because they represented the voice of 'civil society'. Civil society is a euphemism for state-sponsored bodies which parrot propaganda about confidence-building and reconciliation on cue.

While the 'negotiations' were packed with artificial parties, many of the real parties were either excluded for much of the time (Sinn Fein), or chose not to attend (Democratic Unionist Party and UK Unionist Party). No negotiations between any of the remaining real parties took place. The agenda and rules of engagement were drawn up by the representative of the US government in the person of senator George Mitchell. The text of the agreement was drawn up by civil servants who presented it to negotiators in a manner which can only be described as explanation through menaces. The DUP obtained one government document which threatened to unleash New Labour's media behemoth against anyone dissenting from the agreement. At the same time, those signing up to it would be guaranteed the plumpest rewards in terms of ministerial posts, regional funding and above all, media benediction.

As well as the arm twisting that went on behind the scenes, the government and media kept up a barrage of propaganda which amounted to little more than moral blackmail. A simple equation was drawn: agreement equals peace; no agreement equals war. By extension, those willing to sign up were presented as the good guys who wanted peace, while those opposed were the criminally insane who wanted war. The media circus reached its climax with the appearance of crowds of schoolchildren outside Stormont offices on Good Friday. We were led to believe that the children, in an act of spontaneous mobilisation burst out of the schools and marched on Stormont to lobby the negotiators with demands for peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding. Of course children don't do such things. The whole spectacle was organised by Downtown Radio at the instigation of the Northern Ireland Office. The message to negotiators from this stage army of innocents however was clear enough: failure to agree would be tantamount to visiting further war and bloodshed on generations to come.

The government embarked on a charade of consultation whilst at the same time making any rational discussion of the issues almost impossible by demonising those opposed to the agreement. A copy of the agreement - 60 pages of indigestible verbiage - was delivered to every household in Northern Ireland with the solemn advice that everybody should read it and reflect on its implications. It is unlikely that many will read the document, and of those who do, few will make sense of it. While it is almost impossible to draw any firm conclusion as to what the miasma of structures, bodies and confidence-building measures contained in the agreement might mean, such confusion seems to translate with remarkable ease into the simple moral choice: yes means peace; no means war.

The effect of moral blackmail could be seen in the way the major parties set about suppressing dissent within their own ranks. Sinn Fein announced that a special Ard Fheis (congress) would be convened to ascertain the movement's response to the agreement, even though Gerry Adams then declared that Sinn Fein would campaign for a Yes vote anyway. All dissent within Sinn Fein is being suppressed in an effort to ingratiate Sinn Fein with the media and the Northern Ireland Office.

A similar campaign is underway in the Ulster Unionist Party, even though party leader David Trimble has a tougher battle on his hands because of the scale of opposition to the agreement.

Even though a plebiscite will take place on May 22, it is no more than sham democracy. Like the party leaders who have been cowed into submission by a media-orchestrated campaign, the people of Northern Ireland will vote mindful of the need to make the morally correct choice. As with all choices between good and evil, there can be little doubt as to the outcome.

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