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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland’s endgame?

(April 1998)

From The Socialist [UK], 3 April 1998.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The two long years of “negotiations” in Stormont have, according to the two governments, and the main parties, entered the endgame. The tight schedule set by the Dublin and London governments is for basic agreement by Easter, a referendum in May and elections to a new Northern Assembly in June.

The deadline allows no time for slippage. Beyond June the summer marching season will be at its height with the days being counted off to Drumcree IV. Even with an agreement in place Drumcree will prove difficult, as hard-liners on both sides opposed to any deal will look to confrontation in Portadown to wreck it.

Drumcree, coming on the back of talks stalemate and the seeming collapse of the peace process, could unleash violence on the scale that was threatened and only narrowly averted in the last two years. Outside the talks hard-line groupings on both sides are organising to try to prevent an agreement and scupper one if it comes.

The reactionary loyalist regroupment involving Paisley’s DUP, the LVF and the most intransigent sections of the Orange Order has been holding rallies and meetings warning against “sell out”. The LVF are attempting to maintain their sectarian military campaign with vicious attacks on Catholics and also on mixed families and mixed communities.

Their “sell out” warning has its inverted echo on the republican side where the Continuity IRA, the INLA and dissident Provisionals are carrying on with military attacks clearly to try and undermine the position of the Sinn Fein leadership.

The strains within the parties participating in the talks are increasingly obvious as those opposed to concessions flex their muscles. The challenge laid down by the 32 County Sovereignty Committee to the Adams leadership of Sinn Fein is heading to expulsions and a split.

At this stage Sinn Fein’s position is that it will not enter a new “partitionist” Assembly. To move away from this abstentionist stand they would have to amend their party constitution, and, in doing so, deepen the split which is already there.

Four of Trimble’s MPs have publicly opposed his talks strategy and there are broader rumblings in his Ulster Unionist Party. We already saw over Christmas how precarious is the UDA/UFF cease-fire while the PUP have made no secret of pressures from within the UVF to answer recent bombings and mortar attacks, if only in order to stop any drift to the LVF.

Clearly the reason why the governments are intent on rushing through an agreement, a referendum and Assembly elections in one single momentum is to unbalance the opposition and have everything signed and delivered before any deal’s limitations start to register. They also know that, with further delay, the parties at the table could start to fragment and be unable to make anything stick.

No agreement

While a deal is not ruled out the obstacles are great. Trimble’s Unionists are sticking on their opposition to cross-border bodies which are not subservient to an Assembly. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, are calling for all-Ireland bodies to have direct responsibility for such areas as “policing, human rights, the legal system and the administration of justice”.

The SDLP would settle for much less but there is a limit to how far they can go without the comfort of support from Sinn Fein. The Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) have made clear that an agreement will have to involve a procedure for the release of prisoners before they will sign.

Mo Mowlam and her Northern Ireland Office script writers have recently been trying to talk up the prospects of agreement. But two years and several million pounds of personal expenses into the talks, its striking how little progress has been made. If something does emerge from all this it will not be because of any real accommodation, but because the alternative of failure and the possible bloody collapse of the peace process will cause some party leaders to draw back.

If this happens what is produced will be very much a down-market version of what the British, Irish and US Establishment had hoped for at the outset. In terms of the original ambition the peace process has failed.

When the talks began the issues they were to deal with included controversial, divisive matters such as policing, justice, decommissioning and prisoners. There has been no serious debate, let alone agreement, on these matters.

North-South bodies

All that the government can do to obscure this failure is kick all these issues to touch by proposing numerous Commissions to deal with them. The sum total of what the talks can produce is, at best, a partial agreement on future political structures.

It is true that the outlines of a deal on structures is there, but the same outline was there when the talks started – and before. If a deal is reached it will be for the setting up of a new Assembly in the North, with a committee system of government – in other words with a complicated system of power-sharing but by another name.

The proposed Council of the British Isles, linking the Assemblies in the North, in Scotland and in Wales as well as the two governments, has been thrown in as a sop to the Unionists hoping it will make it easier for them to swallow the more bitter pill of North-South bodies.

On North-South bodies the best the governments can hope for is a fudge allowing the Unionists to claim they are completely toothless, while the SDLP can inflate them into the embryo of future more powerful executive structures.

A new Assembly made up of the same faces as in the Forum and the talks would be nothing more than a new platform for the same conflict over the issues the talks could not resolve and over other issues. A new stage but with the same actors can only produce the same result.

To sell such an agreement the parties would put their own sectarian “spin” on it. The unionists would present it as a final accord which therefore guarantees the Union. Those nationalists who support it would argue that it is a “transitional arrangement” which opens the door to further gradual change, a drift to a United Ireland by degrees.

This is a recipe for future conflict, not consensus. If there is agreement a significant section, if not all, of the Republican movement is likely to be in opposition. The divisions within republicanism are likely to be over whether that opposition should take a military or political form.

A new Assembly with the DUP and other unionists trying to wreck its new structures from within, and with Sinn Fein possibly refusing to enter, would not look very different than the failed Assemblies, Conventions, etc. which, during the last three decades, have been regularly constructed and have just as regularly crumbled.

The real measure of the success or otherwise of the peace process is not what comes out of the tete-a-tete between the governments and the sectarian politicians, but what is happening on the ground, especially in working-class communities. The net result of the peace process and the talks has been to increase the divisions between the working class and to harden sectarian attitudes on both sides.

Workers’ unity

A real solution means uniting the working class. Despite the polarisation the basis for this unity, although weaker than before the talks, does still exist.

It was shown in January in the magnificent rallies held in Belfast and a number of other towns to demand a halt to all sectarian killings. It is seen in the ongoing campaigns against the downgrading and in some cases the closure of local hospitals. It is seen in workplaces and in communities where countless day to day struggles unite Protestant and Catholic.

This must be extended to political unity in the form of a mass socialist organisation which challenges unionism and nationalism alike, uniting workers for a socialist solution.

All the difficult issues ducked by the talks could be dealt with if they were approached from the standpoint of the common interests of working-class people. So too could the national problem. Cross-border links between the working class against the speculators and capitalists who already operate on an all-Ireland basis are what we really need.

If there is an agreement the governments and the main parties will tell us we have only one choice – either back it and support peace or say no and go back to war. For the working class this is not the real choice.

Either way, with an agreement or without, the sectarian conflict will continue. Arguably the only difference for the working class – a not unimportant difference – is in the tempo. We need a better choice – the choice between having to carry on with the dead end of sectarian politics or of building a new united movement of the working class to challenge and overcome sectarianism.

There is no capitalist solution to the national problem. Protestants will never agree to enter a capitalist United Ireland. The Catholic working class in the North will not accept the status quo.

The working class can provide the answer – common struggle to change society here and in Britain. Instead of the Council of the Isles, the capitalist talking shop proposed in the governments’ “heads of agreement” document, we advocate a socialist Ireland as part of a democratic and voluntary socialist federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

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