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Notes of the Month


Union blues


From Socialist Review, No. 184, March 1995
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


More than quarter of a century on from the first civil rights marches in Northern Ireland and after more than two decades of armed struggle, just what has been achieved? The long awaited framework document drafted by British and Irish politicians has finally been unveiled by John Major and the Irish Republic’s prime minister,John Bruton.

The document states that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom with a new assembly running its affairs. Important legislation will require a two thirds majority while a three-person panel (made up of two Unionist representatives and one from the Nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party) oversees the assembly’s work. The London and Dublin governments have powers to intervene if any party blocks the assembly’s workings.

Sitting over this body will be a joint body bringing together ministers from this new assembly and from the Irish parliament, with powers over ‘policy areas of mutual interest’. Britain will change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland allowing its status within the United Kingdom to be decided by its population.

The new Northern Ireland assembly will have little more power than a local council on this side of the Irish Sea. It will not control matters of security. Its decisions and funding will be subject to veto by Tory politicians in London and Dublin.

Republicans attach great importance to the new ‘cross-border institutions’. These have also been targeted by Unionists like Ian Paisley. Both, for their own reasons, present these as steppingstones to a united Ireland. But the Republican leadership talks of any such development taking decades.

Yet just what will these ‘cross border institutions’ bring to the people of Ireland? One area they will have some control over is health care. In the North, health provision is under attack from Tory privatisation and cuts, while across the border there is no full welfare state. Any ‘cross border institution’ will do nothing to improve this situation.

Similarly, there is talk of ‘a parity of esteem’ where both the Nationalist and Unionist ‘identities’ receive due respect. The British government will openly recognise the right of Nationalists to carry an Irish passport, to fly the Irish flag in certain areas, to provide a degree of funding for the Irish language and will possibly back moves to establish a local police force acceptable to Catholics.

But talk about recognising separate ‘identities’ and a ‘parity of esteem’ is about restructuring sectarianism rather than abolishing it.

Northern Ireland is a low wage economy dominated by poverty and unemployment. Catholic workers have always suffered more. Yet Protestant workers pay the price too. One engineering worker in a major Belfast plant showed Socialist Review his wage slip which gave him £90 less per week than workers at its sister plant in England. The traditional image of a Protestant worker as well skilled and well-paid in a secure job was always largely a myth. Nowadays any such jobs are fast disappearing and most Protestant workers find themselves working in low paid, unskilled jobs in public sector or service industries, alongside Catholic workers.

When the civil rights marches began in 1968, demands for jobs and homes were to the fore. The Anglo-Irish framework document will do nothing to provide either for Protestant or Catholic workers. Meanwhile, political prisoners can expect no early release.

The Republican leadership continues to sell all this as a major advance. Yet in Derry, the RUC raided Sinn Fein’s office and arrested seven Republicans, including two councillors, hours before the framework document was published. In the Crossmaglen area heavy construction equipment was moved in to reinforce the security wall along the border with the Republic. Meanwhile the RUC has continued to harass people in its attempts to recruit informers.

The allies to whom Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein now looks are the political representatives of Irish capital – Fine Gael prime minister John Bruton and Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern – and, beyond them, US president Bill Clinton. It’s a long way from talk of a socialist republic or even a 32-county republic. A merger between Sinn Fein and the ‘moderate’ SDLP is being openly touted,while south of the border there is little to distinguish Sinn Fein from Fianna Fail.

There is much unease within the broad ‘Republican family’ yet there is little or no alternative on offer from within that tradition. Republicans know just how bloody the two major splits which rocked their movement in the 1970s were. There might be muted talk about a return to the armed struggle but it would be difficult to relaunch such a campaign – and it was the failure of a purely militaristic strategy which ushered in the current Republican leadership.

Behind the ranting of Ian Paisley and the more moderated tones of James Molyneaux on the Unionist side lies precious little. When Northern Ireland was established in 1921 the Unionist bosses presided over a vibrant industrial economy and carried real clout within British economic and political life, but 70 years on this has all changed. The only echo of the old slogans in England comes from the sort of Nazi thugs who rioted in the Dublin soccer international and from a few neanderthals on the Tory benches. Any weight attached to Unionist votes in Britain is more a sign of Tory disarray than Unionist strength.

The Unionists have no real alternative. Despite all their huffing and puffing the popularity of peace meant the Unionist response to the document’s publication was muted. Much attention has been focused in this situation on the two parties associated with the Loyalist paramilitaries, the PUP and the UDP, who have attacked Molyneaux and Paisley for not representing Protestant workers. Yet this does not imply a break from sectarianism. David Ervine of the PUP complained his party had not been invited to a joint meeting of the ‘Unionist family’ called to oppose the framework document and promised ‘all hell would break loose’ if the British government accepted ‘cross border institutions’. It takes little imagination to realise what those words imply, given the history of the Loyalist gangs from which the PUP and UDP emerged.

Clearly there is the danger the Loyalists can gain from a situation where Protestant workers feel that every job or house offered to their Catholic counterparts is a loss for them. Yet there is nothing inevitable in this. In a by-election in Belfast’s deprived Rathcool estate, where the Loyalists boasted of their strength, just 22 percent of residents voted. Although the Official Unionists won, the two Loyalist parties were beaten by a Labour candidate.

The overwhelming feeling among Protestant workers is that Britain has dumped them. This is mixed with bitterness at the ravages of 16years of Tory rule. The old allegiances and loyalties are weakening's Unionism, Loyalism and Republicanism offer no way forward. Just asimportantly that is also true in the Republic of Ireland.

Peace is popular within Northern Ireland. Yet while welcomingpeace we should oppose the sort of peace process being imposed on theworking people of Ireland. The only way to do that is in class terms.That requires socialist politics which can build working class unityagainst sectarianism, poverty and repression. What has opened up isthe best possibility of doing that in generations.

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