From Socialism Today,, No. 7, April 1996.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The huge crowds who took to the streets of Northern Ireland after the Canary Wharf bomb – 100,000 in a single day – were demanding more than an end to the violence. They were demanding also an end to the intransigence and stalling by the government and local politicians.
By their antics during the so-called ’proximity’ talks the politicians have shown that they were not listening. All that these talks have given us is a new definition of the word ’proximity’. While rooms were provided for all parties in a civil service building on the edge of Belfast most of the talking which was done took place in locations all over Belfast, in London and in Dublin. At the end of this farce nothing was agreed, allowing the British government to come forward with its own ’compromise’ proposals for elections in May to select those who will take part in the all-party talks scheduled to begin on June 10.
Before there can be any prospect of these talks going ahead there are immense obstacles to be overcome. All the major parties have to be convinced to take part in the May poll. Talks without Sinn Fein would be meaningless but they will not be admitted without an IRA ceasefire.
Should there be a ceasefire the British and Irish governments have accepted that the idea of prior decommissioning of IRA weapons is a non-starter. But the Unionists have not and they are currently threatening not to take part in talks unless some weapons are first handed over.
Even if these objections turn out to be political theatricals and talks do begin the real difficulties will only then come into view. Issues such as the future of the RUC, the timing and degree of Dublin involvement and ultimate decommissioning all have the potential to produce an impasse.
This is the optimistic scenario based on the IRA restoring the ceasefire. For the moment there is no such restoration but neither is there any real campaign. The republican movement is caught in a dilemma. To follow the Adams strategy of staking all on the building of nationalist alliances with the SDLP, the Dublin government, President Clinton and others who are more interested in disarming the IRA than they are in bringing about a united Ireland, is to abandon the very ethos of republicanism.
On the other hand a full scale return to a military tactic which did not succeed over 25 years would risk the destruction of Sinn Fein and possible isolation and defeat. More bombs are possible in Britain but any resumption in Northern Ireland would meet with massive opposition from within the Catholic working class areas in which the IRA has its base.
The long delay in making clear its future intention is in part in order to avoid a split. Despite denials from the IRA leadership the republican movement is deeply divided and whatever road it chooses will be unacceptable to some. The smaller INLA is presently consuming itself in bloody feud and although the IRA is a very different organisation, a split and possible feud is not excluded.
Within the loyalist paramilitaries there are also growing divisions. Moves by dissidents to end their ceasefires have so far been checked, but only by the Combined Loyalist Military Command making clear that they will retaliate ’blow for blow’ against any future IRA attacks.
While the republican leadership sorts out the dilemma of which course to follow and while the loyalist leadership test out the limits to which they can exercise restraint over their ranks, Northern Ireland hangs in a limbo suspended somewhere between peace and war. It may be that the overwhelming mood for compromise to achieve peace will leave all but a rump of the IRA with no option but to reinstate the ceasefire. This mood may also force politicians to the table and even allow some agreement to be reached.
But on the basis of the existing parties there will be no solution. The sectarian division separating Protestant and Catholic workers will remain. The underlying poverty will be there as a permanent source of instability. Whatever agreement might be patched together would always be liable to come apart.
One of the biggest mass movements in the history of the Northern Ireland state followed the Canary Wharf bomb. The working class, Catholic and Protestant, united and succeeded in temporarily halting any quick return to violence. Now the key to any real solution is whether or not this movement can stay intact and can offer a political alternative to both unionism and nationalism.
On the streets there is still huge support for the demands of the No Going Back campaign which was launched by Militant Labour and other groups. In particular the call for the talks to be opened up to trade unions, community groups and other working class organisations gets an immediate response. No Going Back is now contacting union branches, com- munity organisations and left-wing groups to see if there is any basis for some kind of left alliance to intervene in the May elections. The real choice facing Northern Ireland is whether the future is left in the hands of right-wing and sectarian politicians or whether a new socialist party can be built which can unite the working class to challenge and ultimately displace these parties.
Last updated: 27.10.2012