From Socialism Today, Sept 1997.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
In the days prior to the 12th [of July] the mood in Catholic areas was that these marches should be physically blocked. The forcing of the earlier Orange march along Portadown’s Garvaghy Road led to calls by residents’ groups and by Sinn Fein for a mass mobilisation to block further parades. “Nationalist” workers were asked to strike for two hours on 11 July. Alongside widespread rioting and hijacking there was a significant upsurge in IRA/INLA activity.
Then came the dramatic climbdown by the Orange Lodges in Ballynafeigh [South Belfast], Derry and other disputed areas and the mood immediately changed to one of intense relief. This decision was taken despite a significant hardening of Protestant attitudes over re-routing. It came about in part because the determined mood among Catholics made clear that the alternative was massive confrontation.
The claims of the Sinn Fein leadership that Catholic “people power” won out have, therefore, a grain of truth, but do not tell the full story. Alarmed at the prospect of confrontation which carried the threat of civil war the ruling class applied pressure through the government and the RUC to persuade the Orange Order to back off. Within unionism and loyalism a confrontation would have benefited those opposed to the peace process – the DUP, the “spirit of Drumcree” opposition within the Orange Order, and the paramilitary dissidents now regrouped in the LVF – at the expense of the Ulster Unionists, the Orange leadership and the paramilitary-linked loyalist “fringe” parties, the PUP and UDP. After Drumcree the PUP/UVF decided to put people along the route of 12th parades to try to prevent trouble. Before the critical meeting of the Ballynafeigh Orange lodge, individual members received visits from the UVF to persuade them not to march along the Lower Ormeau Road. In the end these combined pressures won out.
The Orange Order decision rescued the Adams/McGuinness strategy. Sinn Fein’s conditions of early entry to talks following a cease-fire, a timeframe for negotiations and what they vaguely call “confidence building measures” were being met by the government. The obstacle of decommissioning was overcome with the dropping of the insistence on arms being handed over prior to negotiations.
Yet, even with all this, ongoing confrontation over parades would have made a new cease-fire impossible. Undoubtedly a hard-line section of the broad republican movement was consciously whipping up the situation so as to deal a potentially fatal blow to the Adams/McGuinness strategy. But these people were effectively side-stepped by the Orange Order decision, suddenly finding themselves out of tune with the general mood.
Instead of the bitter attacks on Secretary of State Mo Mowlam and such slogans as “New Labour, same old policies” which appeared after Drumcree, leading republicans, as for example Martin McGuinness during his TV debate with Unionist Ken Magennis, returned to praise for New Labour’s handling of the peace process.
After the 1994 cease-fire there was relief all round and a celebratory mood in Catholic areas. That any such euphoria was absent this time shows the instinctive understanding in both communities that the situation is very different now. Despite the earlier cease-fire being dressed up as a victory it really represented the exhaustion of the long military campaign. It also followed a mass mobilisation of the working class against atrocities such as the IRA’s Shankill bombing and Greysteel. In the months after the IRA cease-fire there was a noticeable decline in political activity and a general feeling that it was now up to the politicians to get together to sort things out.
Things are very different today. The new cease-fire comes, not on the back of an anti-sectarian movement of the working class, but of Drumcree One, Two, and Three, of widespread sectarian beatings and arson attacks, of sectarian boycott campaigns, of the picket of mass-goers at Harryville, and of the spreading controversy over parades. Protestants and Catholics are now more deeply divided, both territorially and politically, than at any time since the Northern Ireland state consolidated itself.
When they called off their campaign three years ago the republican movement were on the back foot. Much of the hopes in the Adams/McGuinness strategy rested on the building of alliances nationally and internationally – with the SDLP, the Dublin government and the US administration – to pressurise or “persuade” the unionists.
This time however Sinn Fein will enter the talks as the head of a major nationalist offensive within the north. In their eyes it was nationalist “people power” which stood up to the Orange Order this summer. The springing up of residents’ groups demanding rerouting in one area after another shows a new assertiveness by nationalists. Electorally Sinn Fein are also greatly strengthened. The intransigence of the previous British government only served to bolster their support. Despite the partial resumption of the IRA campaign Sinn Fein’s vote went up – to around 17% in the North – and they now challenge the SDLP as the biggest nationalist party. They also made gains in the Southern general election, winning one seat. A new situation, volatile and unpredictable, has been opened.
Although there are hardliners and bigots on both sides opposed to the peace process it is likely that the IRA and loyalist cease-fires will hold and that the talks will go ahead. Both the INLA and the Republican Sinn Fein linked Community Army Council have come out against the IRA cease-fire but there is not broad support for the idea of going back to a campaign of bombings and individual attacks. What the summer showed was that, were the IRA cease-fire to break down completely, it would not be a case of a return to a long war of attrition but an all-out conflict which would inevitably end as a sectarian war against Protestants over territory.
Paisley’s DUP and Bob McCartney’s small UKUP will not go back to the talks with Sinn Fein present. Both would like to wreck the talks but, unless they can find a major “sell out” to campaign around, (and it is unlikely that the Ulster Unionists will give them one), they will be unable to mobilise mass Protestant opposition on anything like the scale of that which destroyed previous agreements. When unionists have wanted to organise mass protests in the past they have had to go to the loyalist paramilitaries to deliver numbers and muscle in the Belfast area and to the Orange Order outside. The current loyalist and Orange Order leadership will turn a deaf ear to Paisley.
For over a year the talks have gone nowhere. On 15 September they are due to begin discussing substantive issues which will be dealt with separately in three strands of negotiations. Any progress will have to overcome huge obstacles. Issues like decommissioning could re-emerge as a barrier. Other questions such as policing will prove extremely difficult to get round.
Despite all this it is possible that some agreement will eventually be reached. This would in reality be an internal settlement involving a new assembly with powersharing (probably by a different name) and guarantees of equality of treatment. Some north/south structures would likely be set-up probably with executive powers. All in all it would likely resemble what was agreed at Sunningdale in the early 1970s – a deal which was then bitterly opposed by the IRA and eventually destroyed by Protestant opposition. This time any agreed final package is to be put to simultaneous but separate referenda, north and south, with the aim that overwhelming approval would delegitimise any paramilitary opposition.
Despite Paisley’s protestations, it is the entry of Sinn Fein to the talks which makes some such agreement at least a possibility. Gerry Adams has spoken of British sovereignty as the “key matter” to be addressed during negotiations. However both he and Martin McGuinness have made clear that they will settle for less than republican objectives of British withdrawal and a united Ireland. They will be prepared to accept some internal arrangement, based on their demand for equality of treatment, which they would then sell to Catholics as an “interim”, “transitional” arrangement which will ultimately lead to a united Ireland.
The new confident mood among nationalists actually helps foster the illusion that every change is another step to reunification – a dismantling of the northern state by degrees. An editorial in the nationalist Andersonstown News written shortly after the cease-fire shows the thinking:
“No matter what political set-up emerges from the present opportunity for a peaceful solution, whether it be negotiated or imposed, we can be sure that a united Ireland will be the ultimate result and demographic changes will have played their part in that outcome. Anyone who doesn’t accept from the figures that ‘cultural Catholics’ will form a majority in the next 20 years is deliberately refusing to face the facts.” (2 August 1997)
This is based on an illusion. Whatever concessions Protestants might accept they would do so in order to stabilise the Northern state, and especially to take IRA violence out of the picture. Were they eventually to become a minority in the north this would not be a cue for a united Ireland, but, should a capitalist united Ireland be the only choice presented them, would lead to physical resistance and repartition. In fact the current peace process could be more accurately described as a “repartition process”. The parades controversy has at root been a conflict over territory. More and more areas are becoming clearly marked off as either “nationalist” or “unionist”. The republican movement is consciously attempting to create a separate nationalist consciousness among Catholics and the growth of Sinn Fein is an expression of how far they have succeeded in this. In turn this repels the Protestant population and helps unionists and loyalists corral them behind the separate identity which they promote.
Both republicans and loyalists will attempt to maintain this separation during the talks. Encouraged by what happened over the summer Sinn Fein may try to mobilise the Catholic community to break down any resistance they encounter from unionists. It suits both nationalists and unionists to have society neatly divided into two separate camps. They can then come together like the generals of two armies to work out a deal. But this would be no lasting solution. Should such a deal collapse, as could happen any time, all that would be left would be the reality of a completely divided society.
Such an outcome is possible only if politics is left as the exclusive domain of sectarian politicians, nationalist and unionist. A new movement of the working class could cut across the neat sectarian political geography. Within working class areas there is mounting anger over social questions and other issues which affect both Catholics and Protestants. Movements on such questions can open up differences within both republicanism and loyalism and can tend to draw Catholics and Protestants together.
Even within the talks there is an opportunity for an alternative voice to that of the sectarian blocs. The Talks delegates are drawn from parties elected to the NI Forum in May 1996. Among these was a new left formation, the Labour Coalition, the largest single component of which was Militant Labour, now the Socialist Party.
The Labour Coalition talks delegates ended up as two right-wing former SDLP councillors who have completely failed to use the positions to argue a socialist case and who have broken from the Coalition rather than accept any accountability. Early this year the Coalition took a decision to replace them with two other delegates, one of whom is leading Socialist Party member Lucy Simpson. But because the secretary of state has the final decision as to who sits at the talks this decision has not been implemented.
Patrick Mayhew delayed and took no decision on the issue. Mo Mowlam has likewise delayed. Two requests for meetings with her have not been granted so that the one party which, at the time of writing, remains excluded from the talks is the Labour Coalition.
The Labour Coalition fought the Forum elections advocating a settlement which put the common interests of the working class above all other interests and which must have the consent of both communities in the north. If Labour’s exclusion is ended these are the yardsticks by which it will deal with the difficult issues that will arise in the talks. At the same time it should use the positions to put forward the idea of a socialist solution, based on changing society, not just setting up new arrangements to administer the present society.
The idea of a socialist Ireland and a voluntary socialist federation of Britain and Ireland stands out as a clear alternative to the various roads to sectarian disaster put forward by the major parties. The idea of a socialist solution, were it to be raised in the talks and then echoed in the Southern Dail by Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins, could begin to take on real flesh throughout Ireland.
Last updated: 23.11.2013