Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster
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A Framework for the North
by Keith Kyle
Out of Print
A Framework for the North
by Keith Kyle
Centre for the Study of Conflict
The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict.
This paper is a new publication by Keith Kyle, wherein he makes a close and original analysis of the 'Frameworks for the Future' documents on Northern Ireland, published on 22nd February 1995. This makes an important contribution to the analysis and debate and the Centre is pleased to be able to publish it.
The Centre will produce, over the next few months, a set of new publications on topics such as Sport and Community Relations, Peer Mediation in Primary Schools. Parades. Education in a Divided Society and Policing a Divided Society.
It becomes of the first importance, in any situation as complex as that of Northern Ireland, to be able to separate the signal from the static. This is particularly true of the blue-and-buff coloured document called Frameworks for the Future. It is my contention that it is an essentially pro-partitionist document heavily disguised in language that falls more easily to the lips of Republicans. In both respects it closely resembles the Sunningdale Agreement reached in those distant days of Edward Heath's Premiership in December 1973.
In reaching these conclusions I find myself in closest agreement with two dissenting voices on the Republican side, those of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who was President of Sinn Féin before Gerry Adams, and of Anthony Mclntyre, a former prisoner, speaking at the What Next? conference on 3 March 1995. Ó Brádaigh, who of course dislikes the direction in which Adams has steered Sinn Féin since he took over, described the Joint Framework Document as 'a sophisticated version of the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 with the significant difference that the Provisionals are now on board the process. As John Bruton made abundantly clear, it is a programme designed to make the Six-County statelet work better and is therefore an agenda to prolong English rule in Ireland.' According to Mclntyre, 'Nationalists, particularly those who are republican, are the big losers in all of this. The Unionists have been undermined psychologically but not the union.'1 To this all that need be added is that what Republicans stand to lose is their impossibilist demands.
There are in fact two Frameworks between the blue-and-buff covers, the Blue Framework for Accountable Government in Northern Ireland issued by the British Government and the Buff New Framework for Agreement which is the joint responsibility of the British and Irish Governments. Both frameworks are complicated and both employ the kind of green vocabulary favoured by republicans, although the first does so only in its introductory paragraphs. These two characteristics invited the simple banner headline in the Belfast News Letter of 23 February: 'NO WAY.' The document, the News Letter said, 'is couched in such tortuous and ambiguous language that even a person of above average intelligence would have great difficulty of making head or tail of it.' The leader writer went on to say that large parts of it 'have a distinctively nationalist agenda which would be totally contrary to the views, aspirations and the citizenship of the unionist majority.'
To deal first with questions of complexity, tortuous and ambiguity, it is a fact that these ideas must appear cumbersome for government of so small a political entity as Northern Ireland. But experience of other such situations of conflicting ethnicity, such as Cyprus,2 shows that this is inevitable once one is driven away from the straight concept of majority rule. When I first reported from Northern Ireland in 1959 and 1960 and when I first came back as a television journalist in 1969 there was a considerable reluctance to concede that the Province came under the same category of problem. Democracy decreed, one was told by the Unionist side, that straight majority rule must prevail in the Province as elsewhere in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, great efforts were made to represent the civil rights movement as being non-sectarian, and the activities in the earlier period of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and in the later one of the Alliance Party would in some quarters be advanced in support of the idea that the Province was moving swiftly away from anything that needed institutionalising on an ethnic basis.
The events of the last quarter century have upheld those who disbelieved this proposition. The extent to which the relationship between the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist and Catholic/Nationalist/Republican communities can be classed in the same category as that between, say, Greek and Turkish Cypriots or between Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia and the extent to which the situation in Northern Ireland is unique have recently been discussed in a sensitive essay by Professor Seamus Dunn in Facets of the Conflict in Northern Ireland. He contrasts two apparently contradictory statements that it would be possible to make describing social and community life, one consistent, the other inconsistent with the notion of full dress pluralism, each reflecting a certain truth and neither without its own exceptions. 'There were periods,' Dunn recalls, 'when issues associated with human rights were a high priority.' But now the emphasis was 'on plurality and therefore on equity as between the two communities, on inter-community relations and on cultural diversity, for the interpretation that Northern Ireland is a pluralist society ...3 Writing about Belfast, Professor A. C. Hepburn speaks of the 'extreme sharpness' over time of the division between people who look the same and speak in the same way and share similar tastes in food and drink. 'Whatever claims may be made from time to time,' he writes, 'Catholic and Protestant strangers meeting on neutral territory cannot classify one another without asking questions.' Yet, whereas a century ago three-fifths of Protestants and one-half of Catholics lived in highly segregated neighbourhoods of the city, today about seven-eighths of Protestants and three-quarters of Catholics do so, and Hepburn does not hesitate to classify the conflict as an ethnic one.4
If Northern Ireland is to be treated as a pluralist society, democracy by simple-majority rule will not work; this was being demonstrated by the civil rights movement before the conflict with the IRA began. In many instances of plural societies (like Cyprus, Sri Lanka, or Rwanda) the difference in size of the two communities is sufficiently great that any treatment of them as equals runs the danger of appearing artificial and undemocratic. If the territory is itself a sovereign entity, any breakdown in an imaginative experiment in constitution-making can be catastrophic. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, the minority community (if defined by religion) is believed to be 40-42% of the whole, while the mere fact that the territory is not sovereign means that a breakdown of the constitution, though very worrying, need not mean complete disaster. Scholars have written about achieving democracy in plural societies since the last days of the Habsburg Monarchy, when Karl Renner (later President of the Austrian Republic) and his friends developed ideas which came to be classified as consociational. More recently they have been set out by Arend Lijphart.5 Belgium and Switzerland would be contemporary European examples. Here it is sufficient to make two generalisations about such systems. The first is that, being obliged to incorporate such devices as special majorities and off-setting vetoes, they are inevitably fiendishly complicated to outline. The second is that the only way to make them function in practice is for effective working relationships to grow up between leaders who enjoy the trust of their own communities, so that informal deals between them become routinely possible. If this type of constitution is tested to death by unlimited adversary politics, it will surely die, as did the Constitution of Cyprus after three and a half years.
The Framework Document may be tortuous and complex in detail. But the one feature that is absolutely clear is the affirmation by both Governments over and over again that British sovereignty is to remain in the North so long as a majority of the people of the North so favour it. There is no way that Unionists can be delivered unwillingly into a United Ireland if they remain in a majority and vote in a referendum as a block. The legitimacy of that situation will be underlined as it has never been before if the people of the Republic vote for the change in their Constitution that the Irish Government is committed to support.
If I am correct in my general thesis and the Framework Document is at heart pro-partitionist and son of Sunningdale, why did not the Unionists see it that way? And why, for that matter, had they not seen it in 1973-4? It is partly due to the effectiveness of the pro-United Ireland dressing that has had to be put on and it is partly an emotional reaction against the coolness amounting to indifference towards maintaining the Britishness of the Province that the Unionist Parties perceive in the approach of John Major and a Tory Government from whom the Ulster Unionists (though not lan Paisley) felt they might have expected better things. The loyalty of Ulster to the Crown (which David W. Miller contended in his Queen's Rebels6 was historically always a 'conditional loyalty') had not been reciprocated. It should not be forgotten that the Ulster Unionist Council was originally formed in 1905 in reaction to what was felt to be betrayal by a Tory Govemment.7
Since the early Seventies when the security forces first assessed that military measures were insufficient without a political solution, the task was how to separate direct action Republicans (and a community that was broadly sympathetic) from their impossibilist demands. Then and only then would negotiation become possible. The main impossibilist demand was that a referendum on Irish unity be held within the thirty-two counties taken as a whole. So long as this requirement was a sine qua non of peace, the conflict would have to continue even though no end was in sight. Being in the early Seventies for a while privy to some of the informal contacts that were even then in existence, through such channels as General Sir John Hackett, a retired Nato commander with a home in County Donegal, I can say that at least three of the ideas that feature in the Framework Document were in circulation nearly a quarter of a century ago. These were that there should be a power-sharing executive for the Province; that Britain should declare that she had no economic or strategic interest of her own in retaining sovereignty in Northern Ireland; and that the terms of a settlement should be put to a referendum held throughout Ireland on the same day but requiring a separate majority in each jurisdiction. The ideas were not turned down out of hand by the Provisionals, but the contacts were overtaken by other events, especially Whitelaw's direct negotiation with the Provos. The timing was perhaps not right. But the essence of the bargain now on offer - Republicans to abandon impossibilist demands in return for lavish recognition of the legitimacy of aspirations not so long ago treated as amounting to treason - was already being spoken about then and, in the case of the power-sharing executive, formed the central feature of the Sunningdale plan.
Disregarding for the moment the green dressing, what the Frameworks in fact have to offer is an internal system in the North closer to a model favoured by the Ulster Unionist Party than that agreed at Sunningdale, plus a cross-border feature that is only marginally different from the 1973 Council of Ireland proposition, albeit this time the title is tactfully dropped. While it was certainly true that the Council of Ireland was blamed as being the proposal too far which sank Sunningdale, it was also termed (by a Unionist) as part of the 'necessary nonsense' covering the reality that the Irish Government had acknowledged the legitimacy of the Border. Quite apart from the Council of Ireland, there were other factors leading to the downfall of the power-sharing executive, most notably the absence of any cease-fire, the stepping up of IRA outrages and the Irish Supreme Court's ruling that Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution constituted for aIl Irish Governments a categorical imperative to strive for United Ireland. This time the cease-fire has come first and the Irish Government has undertaken, as part of a general agreement, to introduce and support changes in the Irish constitution which shall 'demonstrably be such that no territorial claim of right to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland contrary to the will of a majority of its people is asserted.'
The bitter feeling, nevertheless, among the majority community towards the British Government, stems in part from a fundamental difference in perspective. Fourteen years ago I wrote about 'the impression given in some Belfast circles that Dublin must be treated by the whole of Britain as a mortal enemy and relations with the Republic of Ireland as the equivalent of relations with the Soviet Union.' Reflecting opinion on the mainland I then expressed the opinion that,
If the local parties would not come to terms with each other the sovereign governments would show that they could.
The characteristic stance of Ulster Unionists was one of immobilism. It was this which led to what they regard as a great disaster: the Anglo-lrish Agreement of 1985, another Conservative 'betrayal.' Following the Ulster Workers' political strike, there might have been a chance, if the Unionists had been open to it, of another attempt at internal power-sharing but dropping the Council of Ireland. That was always the best deal available to the majority community. But the opportunity was missed; the SDLP, and particularly its leader John Hume, became more addicted to solutions involving Dublin; and, getting weary of perpetual vetoes, the British Government reached the conclusion that, if it wanted to shift the political context in the North, it would find it easier to manage this via the Republic than with the local parties.
The hope at the time of the Anglo-lrish Agreement of 1985 was that the Unionists, being for once discontent with the status quo in the form it had now taken, would be stimulated to become more innovative about an internal settlement on consociational lines. This did not happen fast enough or radically enough to marginalize the Dublin Government. The scene was instead dominated with the 'Ulster Says "No"' campaign. However, after the initial demonstrations, this turned out to be much less than another Ulster Workers' strike; it became apparent that the combined efforts of the two Unionist parties were powerless to stop the two sovereign governments from regular consultation on the affairs of Northern Ireland. In the eyes of the Paisleyite editor of The Burning Bush, 'The opportunity was lost, mainly I believe because of the Ulster Unionist party's unwillingness to face down the British Government. They insisted on slinking back to Westminster.'9
Ultimately, in February 1994, more than eight years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Ulster Unionist Party produced A Blue Print for Stability,10 which has obviously inspired some of the main aspects of A Framework for Accountable Government in Northern Ireland. The central features both of Blue Print and of Framework are an Assembly of 85 or 90 members, elected by proportional representation, hovered over by a Panel of Three, also probably elected, as in elections for the European Parliament, by a single Northern Ireland constituency, whose duties are not very clearly expressed in either document. They will not be the executive but they will have, Blueprint says, 'significant consultative, monitoring, referral and representational functions.' Under neither model would there be a Northern Ireland Prime Minister and Cabinet as there were under Stormont. The Assembly would operate in local government mode, bearing in mind no doubt that if the Macrory Report is brought fully into effect the Assembly itself would indeed be the upper tier of local government. As Unionists have been proposing ever since it was clear that there would never be a straight reversion to the old Stormont, the Assembly would work through a strong committee system, with the committee chairmen actually heading the executive departments. Blueprint says that 'the chairmanship, deputy chairmanship and membership [of these committees] would be broadly in proportion to Party strengths.' Framework says, more elaborately, that they will be 'allocated from among the members of the Assembly by the Assembly, acting by weighted majority, on the nomination of the Panel, acting by consensus,' and goes into some fine detail in suggesting a five-point plan by which this might be done. The intention is to ensure that Protestants and Catholics are appropriately empowered but, for obvious reasons, they cannot be described as such in the manner of the Greeks and Turks of Cyprus both in the Independence Constitution of 1960 and in the UN's 'Set of Ideas' for a new one. So as not to be too rigid, the system has to be designed to accommodate any normal ebbs and flows of political life there might be as well as the existence of non-sectarian elements such as the Alliance Party. This makes for more complexity and less neatness and much resort to subordinate clauses.
Assuming that the system will have achieved a respectable quota of Catholic Department Heads, the Framework (but not the Blueprint) provides that a category of legislation to be labelled 'contentious' will require a weighted majority to pass. It will be weighted, says the Framework, 'at a level to be determined' - which level would be all important since it would decide whether such a measure needed more than Unionist support. The document suggests tentatively that it 'could be in the order of 65-75 %.'The decision which legislation should be labelled contentious' would be made by a Business Committee (membership unspecified) or by petition of above a minimum (as yet uncertain) of members of the Assembly. Since the Panel of Three, which looks like an attempt to institutionalise the role of deal-making leaders in the consociational model, has to reach its decisions by consensus, one cannot help speculating what the chances are of this coming about on a routine basis. If the members are elected on the same basis as the MEPs would the vote produce a similar result? Would lan Paisley come out ahead of the pack, would John Hume get the second seat and what Unionist would get the third? Or would the more normal order of Unionist parties prevail in a domestic setting? Perhaps the prospects of such a system getting off the ground looked a trifle more plausible after seeing on television the three present MEPs sitting together in Strasbourg on 5 April 1995 purring with pleasure and mutual regard after they had pulled off a good economic deal for Northern Ireland with the EU.
The main cause of offence and the reason why The Burning Bush can assert that, 'the British citizens of Ulster were served with an eviction order on Wednesday 22 February 1995 to make ready to leave the United Kingdom11, is the Buff Framework, issued by the two Governments and entitled A New Framework for Agreement. In fairness to Unionist opinion it has to be conceded that the semantic and symbolic deference to Republican sentiment in the Framework Documents is quite considerable. 'The primary objective of both Governments in their approach to Northern Ireland is to promote and establish agreement among the people of the island of Ireland.' This is not unionist language. Unionists would say that the primary objective of the British Government should be to promote agreement among the peoples of the United Kingdom; good relations with a particular foreign state, the Irish Republic, should be a secondary consideration. Furthermore, they would say, there are no people of the island of Ireland. There are British people and there are Irish people and in the North the British are in a clear majority. Thus any democratic solution should always proclaim that fundamental fact. There is a certain irony in that John Major's Government are suspected in the case of relations with the Irish Republic, of introducing the type of ratchet-like provisions which Tory Eurosceptics most dislike about documents from Brussels. Just as the Eurosceptics imagine that Britain is allowing herself to be transported on a conveyor belt towards a Federation of Europe, so Unionists interpret the sometimes contorted, occasionally slippery language of the framework as the setting in motion of a process that will eventually land Ulster in a Federation of Ireland. They note with alarm that Gerry Adams has observed with satisfaction that, 'It is undeniable that the document embraces an all-Ireland character, that it deals with the general notion of one-island social, economic and political structures.' They read that An Phoblacht, after rejoicing that James Molyneauxs understanding' with John Major gave him precious little influence over what was being drafted by the two govemments, concluded that, No amount of reassurances ... could convince unionists that the union was safe. And, of course, they are right. The union is not safe. But, thought about calmly and with strong nerves, that these words should be uttered from that source cannot but give encouragement to John Major's Government. They mean that Sinn Féin looks as if it will buy the language of the Framework instead of holding out, impossibly, for the substance of its demands. This is especially so if Ruairí Ó Brádaigh is right to quote para. 5 of the unpublished Hume-Adams accord as reading, 'The democratic right to self-determination by the people of the island as a whole must be achieved and exercised with the agreement and consent of the people of Northern Ireland.'
One of the puzzles that had most commentators worried when the IRA first proclaimed a cease-fire was what the IRA saw in it for them, given the fact that there was no evidence of the gunmen running out of arms and semtex or of volunteers for risky operations. It does appear that they are much encouraged by the acceptance of Republican concepts like 'self-determination by the people of Ireland.' That key phrase appears in the framework document, but, immediately after having legitimised it, the document goes on, in para. 16, to discuss the method by which that right should be exercised. To read the next passage requires maintaining a firm grip on one's subordinate clauses. 'The British Government recognise that it is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and constructively given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, if that is their wish; the Irish Government accept that the democratic right of self-determination by the people of Ireland as a whole must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland.'
Realists in the North, unfazed by the unwelcome language, should note that this copper-fastens partition for as long as the democratic majority wishes. It should be noted, however, that it is incorrect to describe this as 'a Unionist veto.' The Nationalist Parties -SDLP and Sinn Féin - do not now poll between them the full proportion of Catholics in the electorate. There is a substantial (though falling) Catholic Unionist vote, mainly but not exclusively given to candidates of the Alliance Party.12 To vote their way into a united Ireland Nationalists need in a referendum to poll their full sectarian potential and in addition a relatively small minority of the Unionist vote. Neither contingency is at all close. In the hope that the reader, exhausted by the prose of para. 16, will not have grasped the point, the two Government say again, quite simply, in the course of para. 17 that, 'it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.'
A feature which obviously interests John Hume and which he would have been concerned to commend to Gerry Adams in the exchanges which crucially opened the way for the cease-fire is the proposed set of North/ South institutions. These necessarily involve a certain juridical awkwardness, as they involve joint bodies, one of whose constituent parts (the Irish Republic) is a sovereign state while the other (Northern Ireland) is not. The neutral term 'Heads of Department' is used to gloss over the asymmetry of status of the two partners. The new body is to bring together these Heads of Departments in Belfast and Dublin 'to discharge or oversee delegated executive, harmonising or consultative functions, as appropriate, over a range of matters which the two Govemments designate in the first instance in agreement with the parties or which the two administrations, North and South, subsequently agree to designate.' Para. 25 goes on to state baldly that 'In relevant posts ... participation in the North/South body would be a duty of service.' Here again the joint document carries echoes of Sunningdale, since the Council of Ireland, projected in December 1973 but never actually set up was to include a Council of Ministers 'with executive and harmonising functions and a consultative vote.'
The Ulster Unionist Party has objected strongly to the risk that the initial designation of functions at the all-Ireland level might be imposed from the outset by the two Govemments and Parliaments in advance of the Assembly's convening and without the prior acceptance by the 'relevant political parties.13 There is a genuine ambiguity here which the Unionist parties, if they engage themselves in the discussions that the Govemments invite, are fully justified in probing. Whereas para. 25 of the Buff Framework seems to require 'agreement with the parties' before any all-Ireland functions are designated, para. 28 promises only that the Govemments 'will seek agreement' about these matters. It is here that there will be the greatest suspicion of a gradual seepage of authority away from the Province to all-Ireland institutions, not made any less by the inclusion of a rather provocative sentence in para. 28 to the effect that 'the British Government have no limits of their own to impose on the nature and extent of functions which could be agreed for designation at the outset or subsequently ...'
The problem with the projected Northern institutions will be to co-ordinate them effectively, thus perhaps providing the opportunity for, say, an SDLP-led department to go further in co-operation with the matching Southern department than Unionists might wish. Again, as with most things about these arrangements. it greatly depends how effectively the Panel of Three is to operate.
One item that is mentioned as a top candidate for designation from the outset for executive handling by the all-Ireland body is European policy, particularly in respect of EU-funded programmes and initiatives. It should be an interesting variation of European regional policy to find a body representing one whole member state and a piece of another dealing with Brussels. One cannot but consider ironic the zeal with which John Major's Government has called in aid European institutions and Community habits of thought to the solution of the Irish problem. When on her only land frontier, Britain is required to think European she does so, even under a Tory Government beset with difficulties over European issues.
There is another irony that will be appreciated by the Governments Labour and Liberal Democrat critics in connection with the framework document's reference to human rights. One characteristic of the Northern Ireland scene for some time has been the approximate consensus of the parties across the divide about the need to entrench specific guarantees of fundamental human rights. This has, for instance, been a prominent feature of Ulster Unionist documents for the last decade or more. The reason why, nonetheless, nothing has happened is the embarrassment that would be felt by a Tory Government if human rights were to be safeguarded in Northern Ireland but were not safeguarded in the rest of the United Kingdom. Now there is to be a specific agreement between Britain and Ireland on the subject to 'ensure in its jurisdiction in the island of Ireland, in accordance with its constitutional arrangements, the systematic and effective protection of ... rights.' Both governments are to 'encourage democratic representatives from both parts of the island to adopt a Charter or Covenant which might reflect and endorse agreed measures...' This should be good for Ireland, but it is strange that the rest of the United Kingdom should be left out and, as Rula Law has pointed out in Fortnight it is not clear that the Charter is to be legally enforceable in the two jurisdictions.14
It is also not clear quite how literally we are to take John Major's references to the three locks, including the need for agreement among all the political parties, which require to be opened before a scheme such as this goes ahead. Does he, for example, really mean that lan Paisley can veto any further advance and render the Frameworks useless? The document itself says that its proposals are such that 'both the main parts of the Northern Ireland community should be able to identify with them,' which is not quite the same thing and contains the hint of an appeal to the people rather than the politicians. It is possible that somewhere along the line, if all else fails, the authors may have in mind using the device of the referendum as, presumably, the editor of Fortnight, Robin Wilson, is suggesting when he talks of creating an overall majority from 'a majority of the minority and a minority of the majority.15
While Unionists have some cause for dismay at the rigorously neutral attitudes and unsentimental formulations adopted by the British Government, it must be hoped that they will now engage seriously with the framework documents. How these would work out for them depends on how they assess the morale of their own community. Some of the statements made since the publication of the documents leave an impression of pessimism about their nerve and stamina, if placed in the context which the frameworks suggest. There are passages in the March issue of The Burning Bush which make one feel that sections of the Democratic Unionist Party are of that frame of mind. That is surely to underrate the spirit and the staying power of the Unionist population. Their constitutional position will only be undermined by the institutions suggested by these discussion documents if they would have it so.
7 P. Buckland (ed.) Irish Unionism, 1885-1922 (HMSO, Belfast, 1972). The incident that gave rise to the accusation of betrayal was a plan to devolve local government powers to a central Irish Council. It caused a major outcry and was never pursued.
Keith Kyle is Visiting Professor of History at the University of Ulster. He reported for The Economist from Northern Ireland in 1959 and for the BBC Television programmes Tonight, 24 Hours, and Newsweek between 1969 and 1980. He was for twelve years an executive member of the British-Irish Association and was a member of the Donaldson Commission which in 1984 drew up a Policy report on Northern Ireland for the SDP/ Liberal Alliance.
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