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Yes, there is an alternative to the GFA

(Paul Fitzsimmons, Irish News)

"There is no alternative" to the Good Friday Agreement – the power-sharing government of which has recently been suspended for the fourth time in three years, restarting, yet again, London's "direct rule" of Northern Ireland's six counties – is blaringly pervasive dogma, sometimes referred to merely by its acronym, Tina.

However, not everyone accepts that Tina dogma.

Several days before this fourth and likely final suspension of power-sharing, unionist politician Peter Robinson resigned his cabinet post. Surveying the GFA's rubble, he decried as absurd the fact that many in Ireland and Britain are still "parroting this line that 'there is no alternative'. What a mess we would be in if there were no alternative to the crisis-ridden system that we have had over the last four years. Of course there are alternatives to it."

From the divide's opposite side, Belfast Telegraph columnist Eamonn McCann, likewise, recently complained bitterly that the GFA "reflects no dimension of our politics or of our social being, other than that defined by competing religious identities," adding that the GFA "is not a recipe for reconciliation but for choreographed polarisation. The future it offers is of muffled enmity". He urged: "We have to begin to think outside the ideas which box us in."

As a Catholic Irish-American long and deeply concerned with Northern Ireland's socio-political strife, I believe that Messrs Robinson and McCann are entirely correct.

At least one superior democratic alternative does exist to the manifoldly inadequate GFA.

However, that constitutional alternative is radical: fair and workable six-county independence. The basic thought underlying it is that – if otherwise logistically feasible – immediate "freedom" from London in exchange for permanent "freedom" from Dublin might be acceptable to northern Catholics generally, as might be the exact converse to Ulster Protestants generally. In essence: from all, real sacrifice without surrender but, for all, huge gain.

Ridiculous? As but one indication to the contrary, David Trimble – while he had the intellectual freedom of a university academic – publicly advocated independence, even in 1988 terming independence an "inevitability". However, Mr Trimble later became a politician and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party; he then helped draft and implement the GFA and shared a resultant Nobel Peace Prize. Similarly, in the mid to late 1970s, Sean McBride had various discussions, on behalf of the Provisional IRA, with a representative of the UDA on this subject of independence. Thus, while possible independence is still quite unorthodox, it is by no means ridiculous. In any event, Northern Ireland's independence could only be the product of a formal initiative by the British and Irish governments, ultimately approved by a supermajority – probably between 66 and 75% – of those voting in an independence plebiscite. (The voting ratio of Protestants to Catholics in the six counties is now roughly 58/42.)

Four basic implementation steps might well be followed.

First, the British and Irish governments would ask Northern Irelanders to encourage their political representatives to take part in a transparent constitutional convention presided over by outside constitutional experts.

Second, after a constitutional and financial package for independence had been approved by Britain, the Republic of Ireland and the EU, and after public discussion, a "simple majority" plebiscite would be held in Northern Ireland on the following 'test-drive' issue: Should we have a 'shadow election' to establish who would hold office under this ready-to-wear constitutional plan if that plan were later approved in a supermajority plebiscite?"

Third, if the majority declined to take that 'test-drive', negotiated independence would be proven inadequate and rightly abandoned. Were, though, the 'test-drive' approved, shadow officials would next be chosen through a special election, but they would have few powers. Assuming the proposed government were a presidential system, the shadow president and shadow legislators might be empowered only to select an executive cabinet and members of the judiciary.

Fourth and finally, after an appropriate period following that shadow election, the supermajority plebiscite would be held. Rejection thereof would mean abandoning independence efforts. Acceptance would trigger a transition period, subject first to independently supervised paramilitary disarmament, whereupon the shadow members of the government would be certified as official.

In taking such bold steps, the British and Irish governments could prevent the already wrongful 'There Is No Alternative' dogma from metastasizing into 'GFA uber alles' irrationality.

October 30, 2002

Paul Fitzsimmons is a Washington DC lawyer and author of Independence for Northern Ireland: Why and How (1993)

This article appeared first in the October 29, 2002 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News