Paul Foot

Majority rule

(January 1997)

From Notes of the Month, Socialist Review, No.204, January 1997, p.7.
Copyright © 1997 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

John Major, who used to believe that his single handed achievement of peace in Ireland would bring him political immortality, has discovered a far more important objective: staying in office. The arithmetic of the British parliament leaves him at the mercy of the Ulster Unionists. Indeed, on one of the last close votes, when the official Unionists voted against the Tories, the government survived only with the support of the absurdly named Democratic Unionists, the Rev Ian Paisley’s Bigot Party.

So Major agreed in the autumn that he must do nothing to upset Ulster Unionists. Though the vast majority of people in Britain and in Ireland want to see the end of the union, this tiny band of bigots governs the political agenda on the subject

Major’s ‘new realism’ in Ireland coincided with a fresh attempt by Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party to include Sinn Fein in the constitutional talks. After the lamentable failure of its renewed bombing campaign, the pendulum in the IRA swung back in favour of another ceasefire. The only condition Sinn Fein imposed was its immediate participation in the talks. The Irish government rapturously accepted the condition. But Major, nervous of his majority, refused. He imposed a series of ludicrous conditions for Sinn Fein’s entry into the talks-conditions which he knew could not be accepted. There follows an uneasy stalemate in which the pendulum is swinging back to sectarian violence. The hideous attacks on Catholics by Orange gangs in Ballymena remind everyone how awful that violence can be.

The main cause of the stalemate of course is the Major government’s approach, a grotesque combination of rhetoric for peace and practical intransigence. The initial ceasefire was squandered, and a new one is spurned. Yet the grim record also exposes the dilemma of the Sinn Fein and nationalist leaders. Their determination to make almost any concession to appease the United States government has left them high and dry when they are rebuffed by the British. They must either return to hopeless violence, which almost everybody in Northern Ireland dreads, or cling to Clinton’s coat tails.

Irish workers, North and South, do not want sectarian violence- but nor do they want the capitalism represented by Clinton, Major and Bruton. The fruits of that capitalism are increasingly intolerable on both sides of the border. A recent House of Commons question exposed the fact that living standards in 31.4 percent of households in the North of Ireland fall below half the British national average, a staggering statistic of degradation which is matched by similar figures in the South. A socialist strategy of uniting these poverty stricken working masses across the sectarian border could break the deadlock imposed on Ireland from Clinton in Washington and the Major/Trimble alliance in London.


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