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Peter Hadden

Brooke Initiative – Can talks bring a solution?

(April 1991)

From Militant, 6–21 April 1991.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Northern Secretary Peter Brookes’ announcement that agreement has been reached to allow talks to begin has been greeted with universal acclaim by the press in Britain and Ireland and by all the major political parties.

The talk of an “historic breakthrough” of “conciliation now possible” emanating from all sides of the Dail and House of Commons brings to mind the last time such language was used – in November 1985 when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. The fact that these latest talks are to take place on the broken bones of the failed Anglo-Irish Agreement now barely rates a mention. The Unionists have only agreed to talk because the British and Irish governments have given in to their demand that the Anglo-Irish Agreement be, in effect, suspended while the talks last. That the agenda for the talks includes the “recognition” of the Anglo-Irish Agreement means that this last failed attempt to find a solution to the North’s problems has already in effect joined the Sunningdale Agreement, the Convention, the idea of rolling devolution, in the dustbin of history.

Will these latest talks do what all else has failed to do over two decades and find an answer? Optimistic voices have been raised who say that this time there is a difference; for the first time all major parties in the North, plus the London and Dublin governments have agreed in advance to take part.

Previous initiatives

It is true that previous initiatives like Sunningdale or the Hillsborough accord were somewhat different in that the Unionists or a major section of the Unionists were left out in the cold and very quickly were able to destroy these agreements. But the fact of all major parties now talking does not substantially increase the likelihood of success this time. In any case whereas in the past it was the Unionists who were excluded this time Sinn Fein have been left out and will likely oppose any new agreement, thereby narrowing the SDLP’s room to manoeuvre.

All other parties are in agreement only because nothing of substance has been discussed. After just over a year of diplomatic toing and froing Peter Brooke has managed to put together a framework and a possible timetable for talks, nothing more. The real difficulties now begin. No-one will be surprised if these talks quickly become deadlocked. However it is not excluded, given the present mood in the North. which is broadly in favour of the politicians talking, and even of a compromise, and given that the politicians involved are thinking of seats and salaries for themselves, that some kind of agreement may be reached to set up a Dew regional parliament, with limited powers and with some degree of power-sharing.

Prone to collapse

Such an agreement, like all its predecessors, would be inherently fragile and prone to collapse. An agreement reached at the top, while real divisions, real problems, remain in society, amounts to the papering over of these divisions. The realities of life for working-class people are not cosy chats among politicians, but events such as the grim sectarian killings in Lurgan. Sooner or later such realities would intrude on whatever form of government might be set up. Thorny issues like extradition, like the existence of the UDR, like the sectarian effects of the Provisionals campaign, which would continue, would tend to rise and to threaten any fragile unity at the top.

The real problems of the North are those faced by working-class people, Catholic and Protestant. These are the problems associated with sectarianism and poverty. While it remains to be seen whether Brookes two weeks of talks will lead to some temporary accord among the politicians, one thing is certain, these underlying problems will not be solved.

Capitalist assembly

Capitalism means poverty in Ireland, North and South. The Tories want a new assembly of the SDLP and the Unionists to manage this poverty by administering health, education and unemployment. A new power sharing assembly will be a capitalist assembly charged with overseein g the economic cuts demanded by the crisis ridden capitalist system.

Nor would power sharing do away with the sectarian division. Power sharing is the institutionalising of sectarianism, not its abolition. The parties in a power sharing government, SDLP and Unionist, depend for their very existence of the continuation of sectarianism. If workers no longer act and vote along sectarian lines the Molyneauxs, Paisleys, and the Humes would find themselves speedily redundant. The best example of its long term effects is the Lebanon where decades of a power sharing government gave way to civil war and the cantonisation of the country after 1976.

Labour movement

An initiative is needed in the North, but from the labour movement, not from the sectarians and Tories of the Unionists, the DUP and the SDLP. Let the Tories and the bigots have their talks. The labour movement in Britain and in Ireland should reply, not by applauding Peter Brooke, but by organising their own talks – workers’ talks for a workers’ solution.

Elections may be held to a new regional assembly. In any case Westminster elections must soon take place. A rank and file conference of the entire trade union and labour movement in the North should be speedily called, backed by the labour movement in Britain and the South, to build a socialist Labour Party which could challenge the bigots in these elections. While the major sectarian parties are discussing bow they can embrace each other in parliament, and draw fat salaries to boot, unity, not of Green or Orange Toryism, which is heard in any new government. This would be the real beginning of a solution.

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