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Peter Hadden

After a year of the ceasefires

Can Talks bring a solution?

(September 1995)

From Militant Labour, Issue 233, September 1995.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The first year of the IRA ceasefire can be characterized by two things. One is the welcome absence of paramilitary killings. The other is the not so welcome absence of any real progress towards a solution to the underlying problem.

Before the IRA, and then the loyalists, called off their campaigns we had poverty and sectarianism lopped off with violence. Now the killings have stopped but the poverty and the sectarianism remain as ever.

Nor has the year of peace been a year without violence. It may be expressed less through organisations, it may no longer come carrying armalites or semtex, but violence remains a part of life in Northern Ireland. Indeed the events of this summer – riots, confrontations over parades, sectarian skirmishes, arson attacks on churches, Orange Halls and homes, and RUC batons crashing against the heads of protestors – are unnervingly reminiscent of the tumultuous events of 1968-9 which preceded and led to the paramilitary campaigns. View these events out of their context and it would be easy to conclude that this is the start, not the end, of a period of Troubles.

These things are a warning of the fragility of a peace based on nothing being solved but they do not necessarily indicate that the ceasefires are about to break down.

Rather the likelihood is that the paramilitary weapons will stay silent and the “peace process” continue for a further period. For the paramilitary leadership there is little choice at this stage.

The IRA ceasefire was a recognition by the Republican leadership that, while their campaign could be maintained virtually indefinitely, it had no prospect whatsoever of success. Leading figures like Gerry Adams had drawn this conclusion from the mid-1980s and instead put their faith increasingly and eventually exclusively, on a political strategy.

The military strategy was a dead-end and it was right to call off the campaign. But so too is the particular political course which Sinn Fein have taken. Instead of developing socialist ideas and trying to reach out to help unite the working class, all the elements of socialism, even radicalism, put forward during the period of Sinn Fein’s early electoral successes, have been jettisoned. Instead of trying to build working class unity they have opted for a broad nationalist alliance involving the SDLP, the right wing establishment in the South and various shades of reactionaries in the United States.

Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bill Clinton are no friends of their working classes at home and it is a complete lie to argue that they can somehow represent the best interests of the Catholic working class here.

Sinn Fein’s political strategy will ultimately end up on the rocks just like the military strategy, but for now it is the only card its leaders have to play and they will stick with it.

This is why, despite the intransigence of the British government, for Adams and most of the republican leadership, there is no turning back. True, outside Belfast City Hall he reminded Sinn Fein supporters that “the IRA is still with us”. But his comment a few days later in a press release – “Do we take the road of peace or do we turn back again into the cul-de-sac of conflict”, – expresses his true attitude to the futility of a new military campaign.

Were the IRA to start up again, all the doors opened by businessmen, politicians and others in the Irish and US establishments, would quickly and firmly close. There may be discontent with how little has been gained in twelve months but a new campaign would mean the ousting of the entire existing republican leadership and there are no signs of this happening in the short term.

Another reason for the ceasefires was the growing war weariness in working class areas. This translated into an increasing sense of disgust at the excesses of both republicans and loyalists. It found expression in the huge protests which united Catholic and Protestant workers demanding a halt to the killings.

One year on, while few people have any illusions that a solution is near, the overwhelming feeling in working class areas is that the peace process should continue – that there must be no return to the nightmare of sectarian killings, or of state authorised killings either.

This mood makes it difficult for those within republican circles or in the UDA and UVF who are disappointed with the ceasefires, to find a way to break them. A new wave of killings from whatever source would be likely to provoke an enormous-movement of opposition.

Understanding the dilemma facing any would-be militarist, the British government have adopted a minimalist approach to the peace process. Their strategy seems to be to drag the negotiations on for a lengthy period in order to extract the maximum possible concessions from the IRA in particular.

Although Patrick Mayhew has used the ceasefire anniversary to boast about the flexibility of his government and the “significant” concessions it has made, the truth is that it has managed to get away with giving remarkably little.

After twelve months the only movement on the key issue of prisoners has been to give 50% remission, in other words to restore the position which existed before 1989. The Government’s hardnosed stance on prisoners is not motivated, as they would have us believe, by concern for the relatives. For them the prisoners are bargaining chips who can be used to secure greater movement from republican and loyalist negotiators, especially on the issue of weapons’ decommissioning.

The likelihood is that the “peace process” will continue probably at the snail’s pace of the last twelve months. Although decommissioning stands today as a barrier to all-party talks, it is possible that some way round this will be found. Then, if negotiations do begin, there will be new problems, not least on the nature and authority of the all-Ireland institutions which will be demanded by nationalists and resisted by unionists.

Stalemate and a breakdown is possible on such questions, but given that the predominant mood is that politicians should shift from their old intransigence and be prepared to com promise, it is possible that some form of agreement on the setting up of a new Assembly will eventually be reached.

Understandably the mood in working class areas is that the politicians should get together and talk. An Irish News poll found that 53% favoured all-party talks now and 85% were in favour of such talks if the weapons were decommissioned.

This feeling – pressurise the politicians to sort it out – is really based on a false hope, the hope that the same sectarians who helped maintain the conflict for twenty five years will now come up with an answer.

Even if they do come together to talk, the divisions between the working class communities and the incipient violence this leads to, will remain. And even on the best possible scenario, that ultimately they will cobble together an agreement, the underlying problems will remain untouched.

What working class people want from the peace is a better life. Important to this is an end to the killings and also to state repression. But just as important is the ending of poverty, mass unemployment and the misery this brings.

With the ceasefires, expectations of a “peace dividend” were deliberately raised. Twelve months on there is still hype about a future dividend but in the working class areas nothing has yet changed, poverty and unemployment remain unrelieved.

In fact, far from feeling any economic benefit, for most workers the last year has been one of belt tightening and of restraint. 40% of jobs here are in the public sector. Economists now admit that this sector is set to shrink as cutbacks come into effect. Those who do hold on to their jobs are likely to face worse conditions as the effects of competitive tendering and other forms of privatization are felt. In addition at least 12,000 of the current 24,000 jobs in security and related areas are expected to be lost.

The huge handouts hinted at from the US, EC and other sources have turned into quite paltry sums which will have a minimal effect. The “peace dividend”, economists now agree, will have to be provided by the private sector.

The problem is that private companies are interested first and foremost in profits. Peace and political stability may be taken into account but only alongside other factors such as available markets and the ability to realise their profits. In a survey of local firms, Coopers and Lybrand found that the general investment intentions of 89% were unaffected one way or another by “peace”.

The entire strategy for jobs now boils down to an attempt to lure foreign companies to set up here. The IDB now has sent trade missions to 22 countries as far afield as the Lebanon and India to attract investment.

This is the same strategy for industrial growth which has been tried and has failed for more than three decades. Some firms may come, lured by grants and low wages, but as the example of United Technologies and other companies show, such jobs can be lost as quickly as they are created.

There may be some foreign investment but there is certainly going to be no jobs’ bonanza, no escape from the poverty and unemployment which have been a key factor underlying the Troubles.

The one thing all the major parties are agreed on, is their support for the government’s strategy of begging and bribing foreign companies to invest. If there is a new Assembly this is the industrial strategy it will pursue, and in so doing it will fail to provide the economic basis of a lasting peace.

A real solution means breaking down the barriers which separate the working class communities. A power sharing arrangement between the rival sectarian parties is the very opposite of this. Its survival depends on people remaining divided, voting along strictly sectarian lines.

Agreement between rival bigots and Tories to co-operate in an Assembly would not mean an accommodation on the national question.

The nationalist parties would explain such an agreement as a step towards eventual reunification. Unionists would argue that it is a necessary concession to accommodate nationalists within the northern state.

With ongoing poverty breeding discontent, such an agreement would represent no final resolution of the conflict but rather would be a step to renewed division and probably worse violence at a later stage.

By coming onto the streets to demand a halt to the killings, working class people, Catholic and Protestant, helped broker this peace. Now, rather than relying on sectarians to end sectarianism, the working class must take its own future into its own hands.

The ceasefires don’t in themselves provide a solution but they do provide an opportunity for a new type of politics based on class, not religion, to emerge. There will never be a better moment to begin to build a new working class political party which can draw support away from both unionists and nationalists.

The last twelve months have seen a wide discussion on this issue in trade union and in community organisations. Now it is time to move from discussion to action. A conference of trade unions, community organisations and all existing socialist groups could establish a new socialist organisation.

This could put forward a socialist solution, a strategy based on public ownership rather than private investment, to provide jobs, a campaign to resist all privatisations and establish properly funded and democratically run public services, and a socialist solution to the national question which could unite, rather than divide, the working class.

Against this it will be argued by Sinn Fein and by some loyalists that socialism must wait until the national question is solved. The problem is that there is no possible solution to the national question on the basis of capitalism.

The “choice” of some variant of the status quo or of a capitalist united Ireland, is no choice at all. Either one will remain unacceptable to one or other section of the working class, leading eventually to resistance and violence.

Even those who argue that “socialism must wait” accept that “their” solution may take decades – or longer. The working class cannot afford to continue with the misery of capitalism into future generations.

A solution which is just about re-designing flags or re-drawing lines on the map is no solution. We need to change society, to abolish poverty and want, rather than dress it up in different colours. The solution to the national problem which would be acceptable to all sections of the working class lies in the building of a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland, established on a free and equal basis.

We can either leave the peace in the hands of sectarian and right wing politicians who will ultimately destroy it or else we can use the opportunity to build a united socialist movement of the working class which can make sure that there will be no going back to the Troubles.

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Last updated: 19 February 2016