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Peter Hadden

Sectarianism returns as “peace process” crumbles

(19 July 1996)

From Militant [UK], 19 July 1996.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

A single week has left the peace process in tatters. Bad enough was the Drumcree stand-off and the road blocks, riots and intimidation that went with it. Far worse was the sudden U-turn by the state and the brutal dispersal of Garvaghy road residents which followed.

A week began with riots, petrol bombs and barricades in Protestant areas, ended with even more ferocious rioting in Catholic areas. The RUC’s response, firing over 6,000 plastic bullets and crushing one rioter to death has left Catholics with a sense of anger, betrayal and a feeling of alienation as deep as at any time during the troubles.

Even middle-class Catholics, who had been prepared to settle for equality within a reformed state, have drawn the conclusion that nothing much has changed since the old days of Unionist rule – and nothing much is likely to change.

Protestants too feel uneasy about what is taking place. For them the events of the last week confirms their fears of the joint role of the British and Irish governments in seeking to diminish their rights. Even many of those who do not sympathise with the Orange Order now see the demands for re-routing as the thin edge of an attack on Protestant traditions and culture. The bombing of the Killyhelvin Hotel in Enniskillen, no matter who was responsible, will have greatly added to the fear and uncertainty felt in Protestant areas. Any resumption of IRA activity in the North is now certain to produce an immediate backlash.

Even if things should settle down for a period, the marching season is still with us. It was the 12 August Apprentice Boys parade in Derry which really ignited the situation in 1969. It could do the same this year.

Given what happened at Portadown there is no way that Derry’s Catholics will accept that this parade marches along the walls overlooking the Bogside as it did last year. On the other hand, were the parade banned from going over the Craigavon bridge to the city centre as is now being demanded by nationalist leaders, the reaction of Protestants is likely to be even more ferocious than over Drumcree. How is it that the hopes of the past two years have ended in violence and sectarian division?

The IRA and loyalist ceasefires were, in large measure, brought about by a determined movement of working-class people, Catholic and Protestant, who answered paramilitary atrocities by coming onto the streets and saying “enough is enough”.

This created a rare opportunity to make progress towards a solution. The opportunity was squandered by the government and by the local sectarian political parties. Instead of seizing the chance for talks, the government created all sorts of obstacles and pre-conditions.

Eighteen months later came the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf and the end of the ceasefire. Again the response of the working class was to pour onto the streets in massive and united demonstrations demanding no going back to the violence. This pressure caused the militarists on both sides to hold their hands and created a breathing space. The government and politicians had wasted the first opportunity for peace. The mass demonstrations after Canary Wharf gave them a second chance.

There followed the 30 May elections and the promise that there would be all-party talks on 10 June. The 15.5% vote for Sinn Fein showed that the mood of the Catholic community was to endorse Sinn Fein’s right to be present. Yet when 10 June came the exclusion of Sinn Fein meant the all-party talks became instead “multi-party” talks.

The first month of the talks only confirmed that the major parties present have neither the ability to, nor any real interest in, bringing about a solution. The interminable wrangling about procedures would be comical were it not for the fact that the fate of one-and-a-half million people is supposed to depend on the out-come of this farce.

Rather than offer any hope of concession the stand of the main Unionist parties has been completely belligerent and intransigent. Within the Ulster Unionist Party there has been a shift to the right orchestrated by the hard-line Craigavon society and those around it. The results which were publicly visible over Drumcree have been the hallmark of Paisley and McCartney in particular but also of the Ulster Unionists in the talks.

How could anyone have confidence in a peace process which has produced only stalemate when arguing about procedures all of whose participants have been prepared to whip up sectarian reaction on the streets? Even if the talks do keep going what hope is there of any agreement when questions such as policing, North/South relations, etc. come up?

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