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Peter Hadden

Sectarian parties have no solutions

North starts to talk

(September 1997)

From Voice [Dublin], No. 7, September 1997.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Northern Ireland peace talks resume on September 15th with less prospect than ever of producing a real solution to the problem.

Three years ago, when the IRA and then the loyalists declared their ceasefires, there was a grounds well of opinion in both Protestant and Catholic areas for peace. This opening of the peace process came after a huge united movement of the working class against sectarian atrocities and demanding an end to the paramilitary campaigns.

The 1994 cease fire found the IRA on the back foot, the military campaign having achieved only a stalemate and without any clear alternative strategy other than the building of a nationalist alliance, in Ireland and internationally, to “persuade” the Protestants, The mood in Catholic and in Protestant areas was for compromise and reconciliation.

Even then, left in the hands of right wing and sectarian, parties, the peace process would never have led to a stable and lasting settlement. But the momentum for peace allowed that there could be an interlude in the Troubles during which working class people would have had an opportunity to come together at workplace and community level and a class alternative to sectarian politics could have emerged.

The current talks take place against a very different background. The on-going controversy over parades, especially what happened at Drumcree last year and this, has left Northern Ireland more bitterly and dangerously polarized than at any previous time. Whatever else this new “peace process” is about it is certainly not about reconciliation.

Sinn Fein will take their seats at the talks, not on tail of an exhausted military campaign, but as part of an offensive movement and on the back of what they see as a victory won by Catholic “people power” over the Orange Order on July 12. Expectations in Catholic areas have been raised that the talks will end all aspects of discrimination and repression and that the result will be a significant dent in the Union and a step towards a United Ireland.

The Ulster Unionists are likely eventually to sit down with Sinn Fein but with the opposite agenda of preserving the Union. While Paisley has set out to wreck the talks as the best way to reserve the status quo, the Ulster Unionists understand that without change the status quo will not hold. Their aim is to offer concessions on equality in return for an internal settlement and a new local Assembly to which Sinn Fein would be expected to give their allegiance.

Protestant attitudes too have hardened and suspicions have risen that the talks now have a much more “republican agenda”. The Orange Order’s decision to cancel parades in disputed areas did not show a new spirit of accommodation, but an acceptance of territorial division and a drawing back by Protestants into their own community. With this mood on the one side and a more stride nationalism on the other, the likelihood of the talks coming up with anything is slender.

Behind the cover of the “peace process” and the talks, the real process on the ground over the last year and more has been a process of division along sectarian lines. If sectarian organisations, republican and loyalist, maintain their current grip in working class communities, this “repartition process” will continue whatever happens at the talks.

What has happened is a serious setback to the working class movement and working class people generally. And what may happen could be much worse. Throughout the Troubles there was never any possibility of a solution on the basis of the present economic system. Now, as the sectarian divide has deepened the basis for even a temporary accommodation has become narrowed.

A real solution means bridging the divide which separates Protestant and Catholic workers, not institutionalising it through some form of power sharing. It means answering the fears of Catholics and Protestants of discrimination and of the trampling of rights and culture. It means offering economic security by providing decent jobs, decent services and facilities.

It is only the working class which can achieve this. Despite all that has happened the real common interests of the working class people are far stronger than the sectarian divisions which separate them, Unity already exists in the workplaces and in workplace union organisation. Some community organisations which are genuinely cross community have held together. It is by building on this unity at the bottom, not by relying on politicians at the top, that the basis for a solution can be found.

The alternative is to continue on the present course towards repartition and a Bosnia style settlement. Those arguing against this and for class unity have been temporarily isolated by the upsurge of sectarianism of recent years. However, there are many individuals, Catholic and Protestant, who are repelled by what is taking place and who see the dangers.

By building a socialist alternative which can attract these people – even if it is on a small scale for the time being – the Socialist Party is laying the base for a future mass socialist organization capable of challenging and defeating Sectarianism.

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Last updated: 17 September 2011