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Beyond the Troubles?

Peter Hadden

Beyond the Troubles?

Chapter Eight

Will there be peace?


ARE THE ELEMENTS of a settlement, which will once and for all resolve the conflict, now in place? There are many in the North, particularly in the Catholic areas who would answer, yes. There are even some who would argue that the heavy price of the last twenty-five years was worth it to get thus far.

Those who look on things in this light will face disappointment. So long as capitalism remains, the problem will be insoluble. The form it takes may change, even change dramatically, its intensity may slacken, but the problem itself and from it the conflict will stay.

The violence has been rooted in poverty, unemployment and the hopelessness it breeds. Unemployment now stands at 13% officially, but the real figure is over 20%. In six of Derry’s electoral wards over 50% of men are out of work. Among those living in public sector housing in Belfast unemployment is likewise over 50%.

The manufacturing sector of the economy, the sector which produces the wealth, has been devastated. In 1969 there were 177,000 manufacturing jobs, today there are less than 100,000. Old industries have been swept away. Harland and Wolff, once a symbol of the unionist dominated economy, has cut its workforce from 2,850 to 1,400 since it was privatised in 1989 and its future is very uncertain. Much of the new industrial development attracted during the 1960s has closed clown completely.

All this has borne clown particularly heavily on Protestant working class areas. Although recent figures show that Catholics are twice as likely to be unemployed than Protestants, this is as much due to the effects of capitalism which discriminates against the more peripheral areas along the border and to the west, as it is to the overhang from past unionist discrimination. The prospects – or lack of prospects – facing people in Protestant and Catholic working class areas are now little different.

A recent survey found that 40% of young people on the Shankill Road never expect to work. Their low expectations may be well founded. Community workers in the area have produced figures to show that the Shankill wards now have the highest percentage of unemployment in Belfast. The myth of a pampered and privileged Protestant working class – always a myth in the past – can now be forcefully and with finality laid to rest.

The Tories’ answer, echoed by all the local parties, to the collapse of manufacturing, is to try to lure foreign capitalists to invest. Since capitalists invest only for profit the province has been advertised for its twin benefits of huge grants and its cheap labour.

Recent years have seen an assault on working conditions and wages in industry and by employers generally. Over the last 10 years Northern Ireland wages have fallen by about 10% compared to wages in Britain. What the government advertises as ‘wage advantage’ is no advantage to workers who are seeing their living standards eroded.

The decision by the US disc drive manufacturer, Seagate, to locate a factory in Derry in 1993 was hailed as a major breakthrough for the area. A key attraction was the relatively cheap labour on offer. Its products are shipped to factories in Malaysia, then Thailand, then to Singapore where final assembly takes place. For Seagate, Derry is one corner of a cheap labour production quadrangle.

The Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board is really a massive bribing agency, offering overgenerous hand-outs to lure foreign capitalists. State assistance now amounts to up to 50% of an incoming companies’ total capital expenditure. Taiwanese textile group Hualon has accepted £61 million government bribe to open a textile plant on the northern outskirts of Belfast. The Tories have not hesitated to put up the money despite the fact that the owners of the company have been convicted of a massive fraud of the Taiwanese stock exchange and that one of them is ‘on the run’ in Malaysia to escape a prison sentence at home.

Yet with all these inducements the IDB promotes only a miserly average of about 500 jobs a year, no more than compensating for those lost even in a good year. Even on the present basis whereby the state provides the money and the capitalists cream off the profits, capitalism doesn’t work in Northern Ireland.

Recognising that unless jobs can be provided there will be no lasting solution the capitalist peace brokers in London, Dublin and Washington, in their efforts to hook the IRA into a ceasefire, have clone their utmost to play up the economic benefits of peace, the so-called ‘peace dividend’.

In the days leading up to the IRA ceasefire announcement strong hints were given of a huge increase in US government aid, of the floodgates of private investment opening, even of Israeli style Ireland ‘peace bonds’ being sold to US citizens and big US pension funds. The carrot of extra EC funds was also enticingly dangled.

Of general promises there was no shortage. But specifics were few. Subsequently it emerged that the Clinton administration had not actually committed itself to any aid package, despite press claims that the mainly US financed International Fund for Ireland (IFI) would get an extra $130 million over a three year period. Figures of an extra 20,000 jobs in manufacturing were quite simply plucked out of the air.

Even if the amount is uncertain, some additional US and European aid is likely as part of the effort of the major powers to buy stability. As with the existing IFI funds which have been on the go since the Anglo Irish Agreement the effects will be minimal. Not many households now depending on social security benefits will see a penny of this money.

More likely it will be directed to large projects and, like previous IFI money, will largely fall into the hands of the already wealthy, not the needy. Former IFI chairman, Charles Brett, three years ago complained that most of the money was going to wealthy businessmen, especially to hoteliers who were using it to spruce up their facilities, adding on golf courses and jaccuzis.

As for major reconstruction projects, the effects of a £130 million sum can be seen in perspective against, for example, the £90 million it has taken to build a new bridge across the river Lagan in Belfast and to connect it to the dual carriageway system in East Belfast.

A peace dividend?

The Northern Ireland region of the Confederation of British Industry has made the spectacular claim that the peace dividend will amount to 50,000 new jobs. Broken down, this claim is less substantial, less dramatic than when presented in headline fashion. It is not 50,000 jobs now, but by the end of the decade.

Of these, 20,000 would only come if the Tory government could be persuaded to put any savings it makes on security spending into job creation. In any case these would not be real jobs but phoney job creation schemes – the CBI suggests that they would take the form of a topping up of unemployment benefit.

A further 10,000 are jobs to be created in tourism. The rest it is hoped would come from inward investment, the IDB bribing foreign capitalists to create 2,000 new jobs each year, instead of the present 500.

Some additional investment is certainly possible. But these jobs would be no more secure than those drawn up in the past. Foreign capitalists have tended to pull out when the grants run out or at the first whiff of recession in the world markets. In any case 20,000 new manufacturing jobs is less than one third of the numbers that have been lost since 1969, when the Troubles began. Hardly a prescription for their ending!

Tourism also could be developed, especially given North/South co-operation in joint if packaging Ireland as a holiday destination. There could be new jobs – and a bonanza for businessmen and hoteliers who have their fingers in the IFI pie. The effects will be limited in the working class areas of Belfast, Derry and elsewhere.

Against these, the much trumpeted pluses of the peace dividend, there are the minuses. A fall in spending on security would lead to the loss of potentially thousands of jobs. Some economists have put the figure at risk as 20,000.

Overall the likely prospect is not a jobs bonanza, but job substitution, the substitution of well paid and almost exclusively Protestant jobs in security, for low paid, often seasonal and part-time jobs in tourism and in the retail and service sector generally.

The trend is already to a rise in part-time work. 28% of all jobs are now part-time. In the main these are low paid and un-unionised jobs. Women are especially affected – three out of four part-time workers are female. Now this percentage of jobs that are part-time is likely to rise.

Meanwhile the Tories will be looking for their own peace dividend. At present the fragile Northern Ireland economy is only kept afloat by an annual subvention (hand out) from the British exchequer of £4 billion. This represents one third of total Gross Domestic Product.

About a quarter of this subvention is made up of security costs and, despite local CBI calls for this money to be spent elsewhere in Northern Ireland, the Tories will be looking to claw it back entirely. Beyond this there is the possibility that the government will give in to the pressure which is certain to come from Tory backbenchers who will be demanding that the subvention be reduced and that public spending per head in Northern Ireland be cut to the same average as in Britain. This would mean substantial cuts in local services as well as job losses in the public sector.

Even without these additional cuts existing Tory attacks on services, wages and conditions will mean less jobs and more poverty. While the Tories talk of peace they wage war. Not sectarian war, but a war on the poor, a war against all that remains of the welfare state and the idea that society should look after all its citizens.

Step by step the health service is being dismantled, first into Trusts as a step to a two-tier service. The aim is one private service with red carpet 1treatment for those who can par and a third rate system for the rest.

The cutting of student grants is forcing working class people out of third level education and is a step to a two-tier education system also.

Shorts, Harland and Wolff, the electricity service, Belfast airport, the Harbour Authority, whole chunks of the civil service and much more – these either have been sold off to privateers or are about to be sold off.

The Post Office is the latest target. At threat are local Post Offices, the second delivery and Saturday delivery and with them the jobs and existing conditions of staff. The ultimate in this orgy of privatisation is the proposal to sell our water service, so as to allow private businessmen to make a profit out of selling us a commodity which falls on our heads virtually every other day.

VAT is being imposed on fuel. For many with only enough each week to live on, this will mean a choice between heat or food or some other necessity. It is a sentence of death on many old people. This, not a new dawn of jobs and prosperity, is what capitalism has on offer. For the 200,000 people living on Income Support, the 200,000 pensioners forced to scrimp and save on what little they have put by, for the 27,000 one parent families living on benefits, peace, should it come, will not offer an escape from poverty. On its own it will not be a solution to their problems.

No capitalist solution

Already poorer than other regions in Britain – people in Northern Ireland have 14% less to spend each week on average than in Britain – the Tory solution is to make us poorer. You can’t talk of peace and at the same time create the conditions for instability and violence.

This is the economic reality which makes the national conflict irresolvable on a capitalist basis. The choice which capitalism offers of either the continued existence of a poverty-ridden state in the North, or else its merger with the no less poverty-ridden state in the South, is no choice at all.

The former – the present Northern state – has meant fifty years of discrimination followed by twenty-five years of repression for the Catholic working class. Although much of the blatant discrimination has gone, and although the repression may be eased, mass unemployment, poverty wages and exploitation remain and will remain. Catholic workers may accept an interim compromise which, they hope, will bring some concessions, but they retain the longer term aspiration for Irish unity. There is no possibility of a lasting internal settlement in which the Catholic section of the working class accepts the permanent existence of the Northern state.

On the other hand the Protestant working class will never accept the alternative of a capitalist united Ireland. Nationalist claims that a united Ireland would lead to economic growth, thousands of new jobs and rising living standards are more fanciful than even the most wildly optimistic estimates of the effects of the ‘peace dividend’ on jobs. For one thing there is the problem of the current British subvention.

Even assuming that this would fall, due to less spent on security in a united Ireland, the South, were they to shoulder this burden, would have to cut consumption and living standards at home by 12%. This in a country which already boasts the third highest unemployment figure in Europe. Or they could ask the people of the North to take a massive drop in their standards – or a bit of both. Whatever way the question is approached the result would not be economic growth but a depression of 1930s proportions.

In any case these calculations are all based on a hypothetical situation which could not arise. Politics is not just a matter of economic statistics. The idea that security spending would fall requires a leap of imagination to believe that Protestants would peacefully accept the change.

Protestant opposition

The opposition of Protestants, especially the Protestant working class, remains the insurmountable obstacle. Three decades ago the British ruling class had decided that their best option was to withdraw and support reunification. Nothing which has happened in the meantime has caused them to change their minds.

For them Northern Ireland represents only an economic drain and a source of permanent instability. Their ‘selfish, strategic and economic interest’, to use Brooke’ s phrase, would be best served by pulling out. However the factors which then prevented them from doing so have since been reinforced. The IRA campaign has only served to harden Protestant opposition to a united Ireland.

Were the British government to try to ‘persuade’, in other words ‘coerce’, the Protestants they would face armed revolt and civil war. The outcome if carried to a conclusion would be repartition, a truncated Protestant state, quite probably with a Bosnia type Catholic enclave of west and much of north Belfast.

The British ruling class are not prepared for the consequences – upheaval throughout Ireland, violence spreading to the Irish population of British cities and a wave of anti-British sentiment internationally, especially among the influential 40 million strong Irish community in the United States. So they have no choice but containment and an ongoing effort to come up with a political answer that will somehow square the circle of the conflicting national aspirations and outlooks of the two communities in the North.

The current situation which offers a respite in the conflict is based on the partial exhaustion of the forces which have been carrying it on, not on any resolution of difficulties. A feeling of war weariness has developed in recent years. The British ruling class, hand in hand with their Southern counterparts, have exploited this opportunity.

They have come forward with the fudge of the Downing Street Declaration and have emphasised totally different aspects of its fuzzy formulations to unionists and nationalists respectively. To the unionists they have stressed its guarantees that there will be no change without consent, and have subsequently granted their demand for a referendum as a further means of appeasement.

To nationalists they have stressed that the door to an eventual united Ireland can be opened by constitutional means, if not before, then by virtue of the fact that Catholics are eventually expected to outnumber Protestants in the North.

So while James Molyneaux and the Ulster Unionists try to placate Protestants with Major’s assurances that the union with Britain is guaranteed, nationalists both in Sinn Fein and the SDLP deliberately convey the impression that a step by step route which will ultimately lead to a ‘new’, that is united Ireland, now lies before them. This is no reconciliation, no resolution. It is a deceit which contains within it, not the seeds of permanent peace but the germ of future sectarian upheaval.

For one thing a Protestant demographic time-bomb is ticking away. Protestants have no longer a comfortable two thirds majority – in the 1991 census the Catholic population was shown to have risen to an estimated 43%. In the absence of a real settlement of the national conflict, the one factor, of a continued rise in the Catholic population, would be enough to guarantee more violence, even civil war.

A powersharing Assembly in which the leaders of the main sectarian blocs agree to link arms will solve nothing. Powersharing means the institutionalising of sectarian divisions, not their erosion. Nationalist and unionist leaders will only lay claim to positions in a powersharing government on the basis of their outside support – and to maintain this support they must keep people divided along sectarian lines. Powersharing is a prescription for permanent sectarian polarisation, not a step on the road to peace.

In the early 1970s, when the British government first pressed the for powersharing, they advised Northern Ireland politicians to study the ‘model’ of Lebanon. There, an unwritten National Convention arrived at in 1943, had divided power between Christians and Muslims ever since. Maronite Christians held the presidency and command of the army. The Prime Minister always came from the Sunni Muslim community, the speakers of parliament from the Shia Muslims. The division carried through to parliament where there were six Christians for every five Muslims.

The British ruling class, enthralled by the success of ‘democratic’ and ‘stable’ Lebanon, transplanted the powersharing idea to Cyprus through an arrangement for a Greek Cypriot president and a Turkish Cypriot vice-president.

The Cypriot model ended in 1974 with an attempted coup by a Greek Cypriot fascist backed by the military junta then ruling in Athens, a Turkish army invasion and the complete partition of the island, still in force today.

That decades of powersharing only helped keep the communities of Lebanon apart was horrifyingly illustrated when the delicate political balances worked out in 1943 disintegrated into the civil war of 1975-6. An important trigger of this conflict was the demographic changes which had taken place, particularly a rise in the Shia population and the influx of Palestinian refugees.

Unlike in 1974, today there are no models of the success of powersharing, only the partition-scarred ruins of those which have failed. Whatever new deal may now emerge from talks between the main sectarian parties offers no better long-term prospects.

For twenty five years the sectarian conflict has taken a primarily military form. Now, with the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, this is set to change. For a period the conflict is now likely to take a primarily political form. But given that nothing is resolved, and the existing sectarian forces will be unable to come forward with answers, the stage would be set at some later stage for the issue once again to be fought out by military means, this time not through decades of attrition but more likely by all out civil war.

This is not to say that a new Bosnia or Lebanon in Northern Ireland is the inevitable outcome. Far from it. A new situation has opened in which new ideas and new organisations can quickly emerge to challenge those that have been dominant for a quarter century.

A new opportunity can develop – the best since 1968 for the working class to shake off the rubbish of sectarianism and unite in its own interests. 1968 was a revolt led by the youth, who consciously turned their backs on the ideas, individuals and parties who had dominated political life and which succeeded in turning society inside out. Today’s generation of youth can just as forcefully throw aside the political baggage of the past and can again embrace the ideas of mass struggle, of working class unit y and of socialism.

Only if future opportunities for the labour movement are missed – as they were in 1968 – will the prospect of sectarian civil war arise. As at the beginning of the Troubles the course which history will take has not been decided. It is in the hands of the working class and of the youth today to ensure that it is socialism, not sectarianism, which comes out on top this time.

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Last updated: 31.12.2010