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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland:
Can there be a settlement?

(November 1993)

From Militant Labour, November–December 1993.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Within both communities in Northern Ireland there exists a powerful urge for peace – an urge intensified by Shankill, Greysteel and the other harrowing events of “Bloody October”. As these atrocities become a memory, politicians from London and Dublin, as well as local political figures, have resumed centre stage. All the talk is of a possible “settlement”.

John Hume says it could come in a week if Britain responded. In Dublin, Reynolds speaks of months while Martin Smyth of the Official Unionists speaks more cautiously of a breakthrough being possible by next spring.

Is an end to the Troubles at long last insight? Can the peace which the vast majority of people desperately want be achieved? If it were simply a matter of platitudes and pious declarations then peace would certainly be on the way.

However to seriously answer the question whether or not the Troubles can end, it is first of all necessary to examine what the conflict is about, why it began and why it has continued for a quarter of a century.

At bottom, the answer to these latter questions is to be found in the nefarious role played in Ireland by the British ruling class. It was they who, over centuries of domination, deliberately fostered the divisions between Catholic and Protestant.

After the first world Britain faced a revolt in Ireland which threatened to overspill beyond a struggle merely for independence to a struggle to overthrow capitalism. Fearing socialist revolution which would spread to Britain they used the weapon of partition which resulted in the establishment of not one, but two, sectarian states in Ireland.

Partition served the immediate needs of British capitalism. It derailed this social movement North and South. It allowed direct control over the more industrialised area in the North while the Treaty terms protected Britain’s strategic and military interests through access to Southern ports.

The sectarian state created in the North was underwritten by the British exchequer who were prepared to lean on the right wing loyalists at this stage. The anti-Catholic discrimination cast into the very foundations of the state was at worst encouraged, at best tolerated and ignored by the British establishment.

By the 1960s British Capital no longer had any interest in maintaining partition. Free trade had been developed with the South and their primary concern was to exploit this market. There was no military or other advantage in the existence of a separate northern state especially with its ailing economy.

It cost the British exchequer money and in return they got a source of potential instability at a time when they wanted peaceable relations in order to assert their economic domination of both parts of the country.

Southern capitalism

The irony of the situation at this time, and since, was that in the South the weak capitalist class, who paid lip service to reunification, in reality preferred the status quo to the prospect of incorporating a million Protestants into their state, while in Britain the ruling class who paid lip service to the maintenance of the union, would have much preferred reunification.

The difficulty was that in setting up and sustaining the Northern state the British ruling class created an intractable problem which is irresolvable on a capitalist basis. The Catholic working class in the North cannot be permanently reconciled to a separate northern state which in the past was based on discrimination, and which offers mass unemployment and poverty. They retain an aspiration for a united Ireland in which they feel they would exercise control and could improve their lot.

Protestants on the other hand look with dread at the prospect of being incorporated as a minority into a poverty ridden and, what they still see, as a backward Irish state. They feel they would lose all political control and would end up in the position the Catholics found themselves in, when under Unionist rule in the North.

Any attempt to coerce the Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland would lead to civil war and either the Lebanonisation of the North or eventual repartition with the bloodshed, mass expulsions and terrible human suffering this would bring.

Capitalism offers only a choice of two poverty ridden states and cannot therefore overcome the conflicting aspirations of the two communities in the North. Only the working class, by overthrowing both states and establishing a socialist society, has the ability to solve the national problem.

The civil rights explosion which rocked the Northern Ireland state after October 1968 had the potential to develop into a united class movement opposing both discrimination and poverty. This did not happen because the leaders of the labour movement took a back seat and because those who dominated civil rights platforms dwelt only on anti-Catholic discrimination, shunned class and socialist ideas and so in the end could only repel Protestant workers.

When the conflict spilled into near civil war in August 1969 the British ruling class, despite the fact that they would have preferred to abandon the North, were compelled to send in the army. Fearing the instability of a civil war which would inevitably have repercussions in Britain they have had no option but to maintain the army presence ever since.

In 1972 the Heath government unceremoniously closed down the Stormont parliament which their predecessors had set up 50 years earlier. In so doing it assumed direct responsibility for the Protestant fears of a united Ireland which earlier Tory politicians had whipped up and for a Catholic population enraged by the treatment they had received for 50 years and by the brutal methods now being employed by the British army to hold them in check.

All of the existing political and paramilitary forces were forged in the intense cauldron of events from 1968 to the early 1970s. Together they have stymied all efforts by successive Westminster governments to come up with a solution. After Stormont fell there was the ill-fated power sharing executive which was brought to its knees by the 1974 loyalist stoppage. Rees’s Convention idea hardly got beyond the first hurdle. Jim Prior’s attempts at “rolling devolution” rolled to a standstill ending with Unionists talking to themselves in a half empty chamber.

The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was an attempt to go beyond the idea of an internal settlement to something which involved Dublin from the outset was greeted with unprecedented fanfares from all sections of the political establishment – except the Unionists – but failed no less ignominiously than did its predecessors.

The strategy behind the Anglo-Irish Agreement, apart from strengthening North/South security co-operation, was to bolster the SDLP, isolate Sinn Fein and at the same time to split the Unionist opposition and eventually broker talks about a new local assembly under the Anglo-Irish umbrella.

On these counts it completely failed. Sinn Fein’s support has remained solid. The Unionists have refused to come to the conference table and the ability of the DUP to hold its vote in the most recent local government elections was a final blow to any hopes for a change in this.

Current talks are not, as has been suggested, an attempt to build on the framework of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Rather after the eight years of stalemate which it has delivered, they are a recognition that its strategy will not work and an attempt to find something new.

They are an acknowledgement by the British government that they will not be able to find a way around Sinn Fein and so must attempt to include them. Also they are an admission that the unionists cannot be faced down but must be included from the beginning if a section are to be brought along.

Do the new flurry of talks hold a possibility of a comprehensive settlement or is this to be merely a repeat of past failed initiatives, albeit this time with a somewhat differently worded script?

There is no doubt that the current discussions are more embracing, more comprehensive than any previous. There are not one but a series of talks which are all interrelated. London-Dublin discussions, SDLP-Dublin, Hume-Adams and unionist discussions with Major, are all various axis around which basically common issues are being thrashed out.

The world background is also different from before. Handshakes between Mandela and De Klerk and Arafat and Rabin have created illusions in the possibility of democratic settlements of national conflicts within the framework of capitalism. This world climate has affected the local combatants, particularly the leadership of the Provisionals.

25 year stalemate

Also after twenty five years of stalemate and violence there are indications of some preparedness to move on the part of people who had formerly been intransigent. The British government have been forced to recognise that the IRA and Sinn Fein will not be crushed and are hoping to find a way to bring them to the conference table.

The Dublin government who, in reality don’t seek to govern the North, now feel that they can get away with scrapping Articles 2 and 3 of the Southern constitution replacing the territorial claim with an aspiration for eventual unity.

Paisley’s DUP’s contribution called Breaking the logjam is little more than a restatement of old unionist ideas and would be better entitled Re-inforcing the logjam! However, the larger Official Unionists do appear to have come to realise that power sharing will have to be an integral part of any new system of local government and that some form of defined relationship with Dublin will be the only way to entice the SDLP to participate.

Of all parties it has been Adams and the leadership of Sinn Fein who have moved most. A growing section of the Provisional leadership have been forced to accept that the other side of the formulation that Britain cannot crush the IRA, is that neither can the IRA ever hope to defeat the British government by military means


Adams has also clearly been forced to recognise what Militant – has explained since the 1960s and what has recently been argued by Hume, that the British ruling class have no strategic or economic reason to stay in the North. The fact that the yearly subvention is now £3 billion plus £1 billion on security is a persuasive enough argument on this. It is not economic interest but fear of the civil war which would inevitably greet any moves towards capitalist reunification which forces Britain to maintain its presence.

If they acknowledge that Britain wants to withdraw then the Provisional’s attempts to persuade them to go with bombs and bullets become pointless. The real issue to be confronted is Protestant resistance.

In a complete about face on previous positions Adams has accepted this. There is no longer any talk of dates for withdrawal but merely a demand for a statement from Britain that it has no interest in staying. All the semi-socialist trappings acquired by Sinn Fein in the early 1980’s have been abandoned. Adams even says that talks must now be on a “ democratic agenda, not necessarily a nationalist agenda”.

Given all of this, there does now seem to be a momentum pointing to some new package of measures, or series of talks and packages, emerging. In the background the pressure of the Clinton administration in the US, with its threat to send a “peace envoy” adds to the momentum.

The framework around which all discussions are weaving, is firstly some redefining of the constitutional position. While the South are discussing a replacement for Articles 2 and 3, civil servants in the North are reportedly working on a statement that Britain has no “selfish, strategic or economic motive for remaining in the North”.

IRA ceasefire

It is obviously hoped that this might go far enough towards the Hume/Adams proposals to obtain an IRA ceasefire and thus begin the process of including Sinn Fein in talks. Sinn Fein and the IRA could also be enticed by other concessions such as discussion on releasing prisoners and phasing down troop levels in areas. Discussions with the political parties would centre on setting up a new Assembly to which powers over education, health, housing as well as other local functions, could be devolved. The Official Unionist proposals, put recently to Major, reportedly include the suggestion that such an Assembly would have an “inter-Irish relations committee” which would bind it formally with the Dail.

All the above are matters which either are being, or can be, negotiated. As always in negotiations the path to an agreement is paved with the possibility of a break-down at any stage. This is particularly so in Northern Ireland where the many parties and many interests involved, plus the volatility of a situation in which a Shankill or a Greysteel is an everyday possibility, make progress doubly difficult.

However, it is possible that some agreement will be reached between the major parties and Dublin and London. An IRA ceasefire is also possible, leading to Sinn Fein becoming candidates for inclusion in discussions at a quite early stage. It is also possible that arrangements established in this way might hold together for a period, appearing to go further to overcome differences than past “solutions”.

But would this be a settlement? Even on the best possible scenario of a quite comprehensive agreement the result would not be peace. A Protestant backlash against any new agreement is certain, all that is in question is the scale, duration and intensity.

In recent years the loyalist paramilitaries, especially the UDA, have been able to recruit among a layer of the Protestant youth. With growing concern about a “sell-out”, this recruitment has been stepped up in hard-line areas. They would be certain to react to any deals with Sinn Fein.

Bringing Sinn Fein through one door of talks would probably see the DUP and perhaps other Unionists exiting through another. Whether this reaction could paralyse a new deal, as it did the Anglo-Irish Agreement, will depend on how successful the ruling class are in splitting the Unionist politicians and the Protestant community. An IRA ceasefire, if it came, would bring with it the likelihood of a split or splits and one or more groups emerging, who would be determined to carry on the “armed struggle”.

A new agreement would re-shape the Troubles, but would not end them. It might incorporate the majority of the existing protagonists but in doing so it would prepare the way for the emergence of new forces. It might be a watershed marking the move from the Troubles as they have been, to conflict of a different nature, but it would not be a settlement.

It is an insult to the working class communities, Catholic and Protestant, who have borne the brunt of the violence, to believe that a solution can be found in secret conclaves behind their backs. The present set of discussions will not result in even a single step being taken to bridge the gulf which divides working class communities. All the fine schemes for committees linking politicians North and South, will not build a single bridge between the crucial community organisations or the people in Catholic and Protestant areas.

In the long run an assembly of green and orange Tories which administers poverty, unemployment and cuts, this time under the shadow of an Angle-Irish Tory framework, would generate anger and mistrust among both Catholic and Protestant workers. As support slipped away the same politicians, who today talk of compromise and peace, would fall back on the old sectarian rhetoric; the only way they know to retain popular support.

Worse situation

The fundamental basis of the conflict, of two communities with different aspirations which capitalism cannot reconcile, would remain unresolved in the event of a new agreement. If a new political arrangement, which had seemed to promise more than past “solutions” came apart, it would not return us to things as they are now but would lead to new and far worse situation.

The sectarian backlash after 1968–69 was not inevitable. It only came because the working class movement was not able to provide a socialist alternative. Instead of uniting the working class behind socialist ideas the leaders of the labour movement either maintained a pathetic silence or also supported the more “moderate” elements of the political establishment.

Now again there is the possibility to defeat sectarianism and unite the working class. The labour movement needs to launch an independent campaign – independent in programme and tactics from the CBI, the churches and the political parties – to unite workers against sectarianism, against cuts and poverty and for a socialist solution. This means struggling for socialism here and linking with the working class movement in Britain and the South to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

If instead the unions back the politicians and endorse whatever solution may come from talks, they will court a sectarian disaster just as they did in 1968–69. As this latest solution runs out of steam whether in the short or the longer term, the danger will be that the unions will be remembered for their pro-establishment position and the anger of workers will seek other channels. Instead of endorsing the politicians the union leaders should be preparing now to launch a political challenge to them. In the event of new assembly election there should be socialist labour candidates in every seat so that the opposition to its right wing policies comes from socialists not from bigots.

It is possible that we are about to turn a corner in the Troubles. The labour and community movement have a responsibility to ensure that this time the working class are not led into a worse phase of sectarian reaction, but are brought together to achieve a socialist solution.

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