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Peter Hadden

NI ‘peace’ process rumbles on

(July 1996)

From Socialism Today 10, July–August 1996, pp. 4–5.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The bombing on Manchester City Centre has cast a huge shadow over the already fragile peace process in Northern Ireland.

Even before it went off there were enough problems – Sinn Fein’s exclusion from talks, the thorny issue of decommissioning, and the sheer intransigence of the main representatives of unionism. Now there has to be added the possibility of further IRA attacks, of loyalist retaliation, and with it, of the peace process starting to unravel.

The Manchester bombing was a sign of severe tensions within the republican movement. Even if there is not immediately an open split there are clearly two factions heading in opposite directions.

The militarists who want to pursue some kind of campaign point to the failure of the Adams strategy. They see the Sinn Fein leadership as having all but abandoned the historic objectives of republicanism, of ‘Brits out’ and a ‘united Ireland’. The talks, they fear, will end with this leadership entering into an arrangement on decommissioning in exchange for the most paltry political concessions.

Gerry Kelly, No.1 on Sinn Fein’s election list in North Belfast, and someone who at one stage was associated with the hawks but who may have shifted ground since the ceasefire, during the election summed up the fears of many IRA members about the talks: “As far as I can see, it appears we are facing into a decommissioning conference – a one item agenda”. (An Phoblacht, 16 May 1996). On the other hand the Adams wing point to the failure of the military tactic. If a quarter century of IRA activity did not succeed, to resume now, especially when the movement is tired and divided, would be to court defeat.

The mood in the Catholic areas is not for war. Sinn Fein’s slogan was ‘Vote for Peace, Vote Sinn Fein’. The increase in their vote was a vote against the British policy of exclusion, a demand that Sinn Fein be in talks and not a mandate for armed struggle. Nor does the idea of a ‘safe’, ‘tactical’ war, in the form of a series of bombs in Britain designed to ‘help along’ the negotiations, hold any water. Gerry Adams himself pointed out during the election that this would sooner or later invite loyalist retaliation and that this would mean republican retaliation within Northern Ireland, opening a situation where anything could happen.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, and in an atmosphere of unreality, the talks are continuing near Stormont. Week one of this political comedy was taken up with Unionist bluster and then fratricide over the appointment of the chair. Paisley and UK Unionist, Bob McCartney, objected to the appointment of the US senator, George Mitchell, not because he was a businessman or a voice of the strategic interests of US capitalism, but because he is an Irish-American Catholic, even though his ancestry is more Lebanese than Irish. Week two has been taken up pouring over the minutiae of procedure, wrangling over what percentages constitute a majority etc.

It is not entirely ruled out that some form of agreement could eventually be arrived at among a majority of participants, but as each day passes this seems less likely. Even if peace is maintained and if after a year or two of deliberations there is a deal, there is no possibility that this will be a real end to the problems of Northern Ireland.

It is the division between the working class communities which is the real problem. The main parties sitting around the table are there because of this division. Their interest lies in maintaining, not overcoming it.

The fuel for the sectarian violence lies in the problems of poverty, of exploitation and of unemployment. While Patrick Mayhew urges a political compromise, the economic policies of his government are eroding the basis for such a solution. During the first days of the talks, when there was paralysis over the chair issue, there was another less publicized conference in Belfast which did get down to business. This was a conference to encourage private financing of public services. Among its proposals was that contracts for road building and maintenance should be hived off to private enterprise, just one of a number of privatizations in the pipeline. A 3% cut in health spending has just been implemented across all health authorities in Northern Ireland. This is the first of a series of cuts to be brought in over three years. Already the result has been the loss of beds and cuts in services both in hospitals and the communities.

Cross community movements on such issues, and against any return to the Troubles, could lay the basis for a real solution, much more so than all the bluster around the negotiating table.

In the past there have been many such movements but no political voice to give them expression. The recent elections saw a small but significant step taken to change this.

A Labour coalition comprised of four independent councillors, a number of quite prominent trade unionists and other individuals, plus Militant Labour, which for some time has been the largest and best organised of the left groups in Northern Ireland, came together to contest the elections and fight for a seat in the talks. Despite its late entry into the contest and despite a virtual media blackout for much of the campaign, the Labour coalition managed to finish in the top ten parties, securing two seats in the new Forum and a place at the talks table. Its task is now to use the Forum and the negotiations, for so long as they last, to build support for a radical socialist alternative to the main sectarian and right wing parties.

A general meeting of Labour coalition activists held in Belfast two weeks after the election victory, agreed that a broad conference be held in early September, at which proposals for building the coalition and challenging the old parties can be discussed

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