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Peter Hadden

Could the Times sink Major’s plans?

(February 1995)

From Militant [UK], 10 February 1995.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, James Molyneaux, has instructed Unionist constituency parties to prepare for a general election. This has brought home the fragility of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Molyneaux has been forced to publicly threaten his long-standing cosy relationship with John Major because of anger within his party at the contents of the Irish and British governments’ Joint Framework document, as they were selectively and sensationally revealed on a Times front page last week.

What The Times revealed was actually nothing new. A week earlier The Financial Times had led with the more sober conclusion that curbs being proposed on any new all-Ireland bodies gave the Unionists an effective veto.

The Times, revealing the same proposals, did so in a manner clearly designed to set Unionist alarm bells ringing. The opening sentence set the tone:

“The British and Irish governments have drawn up a document that brings the prospect of a united Ireland closer than at any time since partition in 1920.”

The purpose of The Times article is clear – to scupper the framework document before it even sees the light of day. Exactly who is behind this is not clear, although a heavy suspicion points to a right-wing section of the British establishment who, for their own reasons, champion the unionist cause.

The once-powerful unionist wing of the British ruling class and of the Tory Party has, in recent years, been little more than a shadow, but it still exists. In 1986 the Friends of the Union Group was formed to resist the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Around this body there are right-wing Tory MPs, including some Euro-sceptics, prominent newspaper editors and journalists and some businessmen.

These people are not motivated by any concern they may feign for the democratic rights of Protestants in Northern Ireland. Generally they adopt an integrationist stance (i.e. maintenance of the Union, with Northern Ireland an “integral part” of the “United Kingdom”).

They fear that concessions, especially the setting up of a Northern Ireland Assembly, could have a knock-on effect. They fear especially that the demand for a Scottish Assembly would be strengthened and that the unity of the “United Kingdom” would be put in peril.

Sections of the Unionist Party may or may not have been involved in The Times revelations. Whatever the truth, the whole affair has narrowed the room for manoeuvre of Molyneaux and his supporters and made even an interim agreement between the Northern Ireland parties more difficult.

Molyneaux, Taylor and other Unionist leaders may indignantly scream all they like about all-Ireland bodies with executive powers. John Taylor, who has made his name as a hardliner in unionist circles, wrote in this week’s Southern Irish Sunday Tribune: “I support the principle of cross-border committees with executive powers,” adding as the main condition that “they are responsible to, as well as answerable to, a democratic body in Northern Ireland.”

Both the British and Irish governments have broadly conceded this Unionist demand. As the earlier Financial Times article pointed out, any powers given to cross-border bodies would be delegated by both the Dublin government and a new Northern Ireland Assembly, which could therefore also take them away, a point simply omitted by The Times.

The Unionist leadership will now find it harder to accept what they would have accepted before. They may have to hold out for changes to the text of the document as the price for further support for the government. The possibility exists that the carefully constructed “peace process” could come apart, at least for a time.

However there is a widespread mood, especially in working class areas, that talks should continue and peace be given a chance.

Significantly, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), the small unionist parties which emerged from paramilitary roots, have been more cautious, saying politicians should stay quiet until the Framework Document is published.

In the past they have acted as foot-soldiers who turned the bluster of politicians into deeds. Today they are reluctant to be drawn down the road again without exhausting all other possibilities first.

Gary McMichael of the UDP has said:

“The Ulster Unionists and DUP must realise that it is inherently dangerous to make hysterical, alarmist claims that could heighten tension further and drive the community to the point of no return. If that happens it is not the politicians who will suffer. It will be the ordinary people who pay the price.”

Whatever happens, whether or not some temporary agreement between the parties including Sinn Fein is ultimately cobbled together, the current crisis confirms Militant’s analysis that there can be no final and lasting solution on the basis of capitalism.

The British and Irish governments are attempting to come up with a fudged settlement which will appear to cater for the aspirations of both unionists and nationalists. Alongside the overwhelming desire for peace there is a greater political polarisation between the two communities than at any recent time. Protestants favour some concessions but are both fearful of, and firmly opposed to, a United Ireland.

Catholics, especially Catholic workers, may accept some interim arrangement which leaves the border intact, but only if they see a door opened which can lead to eventual reunification in some form.

A document, even an agreement, sold to the two communities as an apparent confirmation of their aspirations, can only prepare for renewed conflict at some time, when it becomes absolutely clear that these conflicting aspirations cannot be reconciled.

There is only one way out. Instead of relying on two capitalist governments, together with an array of right-wing and sectarian politicians from Northern Ireland to come up with a solution, working-class Catholics and Protestants need to unite to represent and defend their own interests.

A united working-class movement could link with the southern Irish working class and the working class in Britain to reject all capitalist solutions as merely different arrangements for the administration of poverty and exploitation and fight for a socialist solution.

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