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Alternatives to the GFA?

A series of correspondence in the Irish News

Paul Fitzsimmons • November 12, 2002

Mr. Noel Doran, Editor
The Irish News

Dear Noel:

Mr. Sean Swan recently wrote a letter to agree with Mr. James Kelly that an independent Northern Ireland is a “crazy” theory. [See article and letter, below.]
In doing so, however, his points included a fair amount of ad hominem: besides unpardonably sinning by-according to Mr. Swan-taking myself too seriously, my “writing tends towards elitist, over-academic, obscurantism which, when decoded, reveals nothing more than a bad theory.”

Mr. Swan did much better in raising a perfectly valid substantive concern: the difficult problem of pervasive sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

But he argued that sectarianism has to be “eradicated” before a government in or of Northern Ireland could do anything but “totter.”

I disagree.

As others have noted, sectarianism is largely a product of, not the cause of, the constitutional problems Northern Ireland has long suffered from. Time itself, in the absence of a genuine constitutional settlement there, does not seem to be improving that situation at all. Many have asserted that sectarianism there is worse today than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

Thus, Mr. Swan’s requirement of eradicating sectarianism before establishing any good government in the North sounds a lot like a recipe for doing nothing. Indeed he makes no positive proposal himself, instead suggesting only that all is doom and gloom and that nothing really can be done politically. (His comments remind me of the old saying: “It takes a carpenter to put up a barn door, but any ass can knock it down.”)

My overall thought on Northern Ireland is that a stable, very broadly acceptable constitutional settlement would create a climate where sectarianism would begin to abate substantially.

Along these lines, there are good grounds to believe that a genuinely fair and workable constitution for an independent six-county government could be developed. Moreover, it is completely clear that, by supporting an independent Northern Ireland state in roughly the same way it will be obliged to do in any event for the next generation or two or more, Britain could make such an initiative financially viable.

As a result-and in the wake of still another failure to resolve this long conflict through the much more conventional approach of the GFA-I have publicly urged that people in Britain and Ireland examine formally a radical approach that they’ve never before examined formally.

It seems to me rather unremarkable that I should make this controversial proposal knowing full well that an effort along these lines might indeed fail to win the sort of supermajority approval that would be mandatory for such a radical change.

Conversely, what I find utterly remarkable is that Mr. Swan, along with others like him, seems so determined that no one demonstrate his “independence couldn’t work” view to be correct that he feels himself compelled to argue strongly against even the notion of looking at this idea further.

Why is he so afraid of being proven right?

Is doing absolutely nothing really better, in his eyes, than honestly examining the possibility of a radical change?

Mr. Swan asserted that my suggestion of taking a first-ever formal look at negotiated independence is crazy, and he concluded: “If you can’t take that, better not write[ in public].”

To my mind, however, Mr. Swan’s “do nothing” position is, under the circumstances, pusillanimous.


Paul A. Fitzsimmons

Yes, there is an alternative to the GFA (Link is subscription only)
The Tuesday Column
The Irish News, 29 October 2002
By Paul Fitzsimmons

“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 per cent - 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 über alles’ irrationality.

Washington DC lawyer Paul A Fitzsimmons wrote Independence for Northern Ireland: Why and How (1993)

James Kelly aught to be ashamed (Link is subscription only)
Letter Headlines
The Irish News,
5 November 2002


APPARENTLY referring to my small article (October 29) in the Irish News, Mr James Kelly wrote on November 2: “The crazy notion of an Ulster independent state having nothing to do with either London or Dublin has suddenly reappeared but there are six to eight billion reasons why it hasn’t a dog’s chance of getting off the ground - all quids, the cost in sterling of keeping us in the style that we have come accustomed to but could lose if we persist in rushing like lemmings to the constitutional cliffs, not once but four times.”

Mr Kelly’s observation on the importance of the British subvention obviously assumes that Britain is content to pay, perhaps in perpetuity, such amounts to an ever troubled province... but that refuses to acknowledge that Britain would even consider paying a similar amount, for some lengthy period of time, to a neighbour establishing itself in a new settlement.

Mr Kelly’s assumption may be entirely faulty.

More broadly - regarding the aim merely of looking formally into possible negotiated independence - I wrote the following about a half a dozen years ago in reply to a kind letter from the Rev Dr Samuel Hutchinson, then Ireland’s Presbyterian Moderator:

“A proposal on negotiated independence would inevitably be a ‘package’ containing several elements. Conspicuously among them would be a ‘constitutional’ element and a ‘financial’ element.

“Taken at its broadest, my argument is simply to craft the best possible constitution and to bolster it with the best possible financial support that Northern Ireland’s neighbours and friends can muster (see my book at 171-72).

“If at the end of the day, it appeared that the financial support so offered would be inadequate, then the Northern Ireland electorate might do well to vote down that ‘package.’

“At least, though, at that point, Britain and others could say: ‘We tried our best’, and Ulster would be able to say: ‘The choice in declining the proposal was our own.’

“(Unsurprisingly, this same basic approach could underlie other key areas regarding an independence proposal: try one’s best and see, through a vote, whether the effort was good enough.)”

Just days ago I wrote the following in response to a letter from a QUB professor:

“My overall thought is that a fair and workable ready-to-wear plan for independence needs to be worked up (because no alternative thereto has worked over these past decades).

“It needs to be served up on a silver platter to people who wouldn’t themselves take the steps to devise such a plan, and then they would be able to pick whether they prefer it or the status quo.

“After all that work, my best guess is that they’d pick the status quo (I’m a pessimist by nature).

“But should my (perhaps accurate) prediction in this respect mean that no effort along these lines should be made?”

Although, I must say, I have generally admired his work, I frankly think Mr Kelly should be ashamed of himself for, in effect, urging the following to his readers:

“I haven’t the foggiest notion of how in fact to resolve our great social conflict, but do not give any serious consideration to possible negotiated independence because - and trust me on this one - it’s crazy.”

In effect, Mr Kelly argues: “Sure we’ve got big problems, but it would be far better to do absolutely nothing at all to try to address them than to give a formal look at a middle-ground approach we’ve never looked at formally.”

Mr Kelly may view possible six-county independence as a “crazy notion,” but - in the light of the ongoing decades of these ‘Troubles’, their attendant pain and the distinct paucity of democratic constitutional alternatives - I believe conversely that affirmatively deciding to decline, as he has done, even to analyse adequately an untried middle-ground initiative at least verges on criminal neglect.

Perhaps one of Northern Ireland’s biggest problems is that its ‘big thinkers’ don’t think big enough.

Maybe intellectual honesty, intellectual vigour and intellectual courage should be more highly prized there than facile ‘I know it all and, believe me, it can’t be done’ dogmatism.




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It is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies.
- Arthur Calwell
Index: Current Articles

8 December 2002


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The British State Murder of Pearse Jordan
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The Falls And Shankill March As One
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Alternatives to the GFA?
Paul Fitzsimmons


Ted Honderich: A Philosopher in the Trenches
Paul de Rooji


Uri Davis and the Battle Against Israeli Apartheid
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Palestinian Children In The Night
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Solitary Confinement Kills
Devrimci Halk Kurtulus Cephesi


6 December 2002


Questioning the Prison System in the North
Liam O Ruairc


Britain's New Moral Authority to Shoot Republicans
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Teething Troubles
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Setting The Record Straight

Billy Mitchell


Herr Henry Struts Again
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Even the Taxi Drivers Say It: "Likud has Failed"
Uri Avnery


The Letters page has been updated.




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