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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland ‘Peace’:

A new framework for sectarian conflict?

(May 1998)

From Socialism Today, No. 28, May 1998.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE TALKS MARATHON in Stormont is over. With a deal in place the delegates from the political parties sleepwalked out of the Castle Buildings venue to face a euphoric media scrum from all around the world, most of whom eager to declare the Northern Ireland conflict at an end.

Away from the venue, on the streets of Northern Ireland, there was no such euphoria. Generally the reaction was of relief that the talks did not end in deadlock, but relief tinged with a deep scepticism about what the agreement will deliver and whether it will last.

Despite the self-congratulatory smugness of the political leaders and of the heads of the two governments the most notable thing about the talks is how little has been decided – despite two years around the table. The eventual deal existed in outline in the form of the Downing Street declaration and the framework document long before a single party reached Castle Buildings.

The agreement sets up a new assembly, based on a complicated power-sharing arrangement, which would grant all the bigger parties at least one ministerial seat in a new executive. A North-South ministerial council is to be created to oversee a very limited range of cross-border functions. A British-Irish council made up of representatives of Westminster, the Dail, the Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh assemblies plus representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, but with limited powers and an even more limited purpose, has been thrown in mainly as a sop to the unionists. Changes to Articles Two and Three of the Irish constitution and the repeal of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act have the effect of recognising that there can be no united Ireland without the separate consent of a majority in Northern Ireland.

Other issues, and even the detail of some of these issues, have been fudged. Policing has been referred to a commission which will not report until the summer of 1999. Promises of changes in security and the repeal of repressive legislation are only made on a strictly conditional basis ‘consistent with the level of threat’. Decommissioning likewise remains only an ambition. Promises about human rights have to be balanced against the retention by the state of its emergency powers, the continued presence of troops and an armed police force, for as long as a ‘threat’ remains. The precise details of what North-South bodies are to deal with has been left to further negotiation with an October deadline for a decision.

This quite paltry agreement represents no meeting of minds. David Trimble emerged from the winding-up session to tell reporters that the union was now stronger than when the talks began. Gerry Adams, on the other hand, said Sinn Fein would study the document and would accept it if they concluded that it met their criteria of a ‘transitional arrangement’ which allowed nationalists to move further towards a united Ireland. With both sides claiming to have won the advantage, if not out-right victory, all that they have really agreed is to put in place a new frame-work within which they can continue the conflict.

FOR THE BRITISH ruling class the agreement is the culmination of a change in strategy which they put in place a decade or so ago. During the first period of the Troubles their strategic aim was to offer limited concessions to Catholics in order to bolster the SDLP, isolate the IRA and Sinn Fein, and physically break the resistance from Catholic working class areas. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was the last monument to the failure of this strategy.

The current peace process emerged from the war weariness in Catholic areas and from the growing under-standing among the IRA leadership that the long war was unwinnable and that an alternative path needed to be found. This was recognised by the British, Irish and US establishments who concluded that the IRA – and the loyalist paramilitaries – could be signed up to an agreement, and that a deal which included these ‘extremes’ might succeed where all others had failed. The conservative pan-nationalist alliance of the Dublin government, of the great and good from the Irish community in the US, and of the SDLP and Sinn Fein, was put in place – and tolerated by the British government – as a means to entice Sinn Fein along a purely political road. With the Loyalist parties, the UDP and PUP, on board, and with Sinn Fein likely to give a begrudging acceptance, the strategy of the ruling class seems, on the surface, to have paid off. But there has been a cost. The peace process has been a period of intense polarisation. The gulf separating Catholic and Protestant, especially that which separates the working-class communities, is much greater now than at the outset of this process. The British ruling class may have bought themselves a little time with this fudged agreement, but a lasting solution in the sense of the overcoming of the divisions within society is as far off – if not further off – than ever.

In fact the agreement, rather than point to the overcoming of the sectarian division, institutionalises it. The complicated version of power-sharing in the make-up of the new Northern Ireland executive creates a permanent system of checks and balances between unionists and nationalists. The underlying assumption of this ‘solution’ is that society and politics will remain permanently divided between unionists and nationalists – in other words that there is no solution.

THE BIGGEST LOSERS in the agreement are Sinn Fein. From a nationalist point of view this deal is some distance short of the 1970s Sunningdale agreement, which was rejected out of hand by the IRA at that time. Sunningdale included a Council of Ireland drawn from a Northern assembly and the Dail but free-standing of these institutions and with executive powers. This time the battle over North-South bodies has been won by the unionists. Even the convoluted language of the document does not hide the fact that the North-South ministerial council does not have separate executive powers but is subservient to the assembly and Dail. In any case the areas which it may deal with – and not even all of these have yet been conceded – will hardly make the hair on any unionist neck stand up. Examples are animal and plant health, teacher’s qualifications, social security fraud, and accident and emergency health services. In most of the areas mentioned North-South co-operation already exists through the relevant public bodies.

Sinn Fein can claim progress on the demand for equality but the guarantee, on paper at least, of equal rights within the North has been the preferred policy of the British ruling class throughout the Troubles. The Civil Rights Movement and the on-going resistance of the Catholic working class made any attempt to re-bottle the Catholic community into an Orange state an impossibility.

Britain’s commitment to respect the future right of a majority in the North to opt for a united Ireland is likewise not new. Even before the Troubles the British ruling class would have preferred to dismantle the Northern state and withdraw. Protestant opposition and resistance made it impossible to move along this road. The three decades of the Troubles has stiffened this opposition and made a united Ireland less possible. It costs nothing now for the British to commit themselves to something which has been their policy all along.

That Sinn Fein have gone so far towards swallowing this agreement is, in reality, an admission that the IRA campaign failed. No significant new concessions have been won by the twenty-five years of military activity. The argument that the agreement is a transmission belt towards reunification will ring hollow to most Catholics when they come to study its contents. A yes vote in Catholic areas will more reflect war weariness and the lack of an alternative. The argument against dissident republicans who argue for on-going armed struggle is not so much ‘look at what we have achieved and accept it’ but ‘look at how little we could get with a united movement over a quarter of a century. How will a smaller and more isolated military campaign achieve more?’

Sinn Fein have moved from the long war to the long political haul. In essence their new strategy is to consolidate and build the nationalist vote, especially the Sinn Fein vote, and see unionism gradually forced back as Catholics become the majority in more and more areas. The hope they offer is that a future Catholic majority will eventually deliver a united Ireland. For this to succeed Catholics must remain firmly welded to nationalism and the nationalist parties. If they hold to such an outlook Sinn Fein are destined to mirror unionists and play a reactionary role, opposing moves to integrate communities and exerting every effort to maintain the stranglehold of their ideology over Catholic areas.

ALTHOUGH THE AGREEMENT is basically a unionist document it has been greeted with furore by many unionists including influential members of Trimble’s own party. At least five of Trimble’s ten MPs have spoken out against it and the threat of an anti-agreement coalition linking Ulster Unionist dissidents with Paisley evokes memories of the unionist coalition which opposed Sunningdale and eventually brought down the then unionist leader, Brian Faulkner.

The main target of the anti-Sunningdale unionists was the hated Council of Ireland. This time the North-South bodies are so obviously lame that unionist opponents have not put them first in their line of fire. Lack of decommissioning, prisoner releases and the prospect of Gerry Adams being entitled to a ministerial position in a new administration, are the issues on which they have focused. It remains to be seen what echo these hard-line and bigoted voices will get. But the fact that the PUP and UDP are in support of the agreement, and that the concessions this time are mostly from the other side, will narrow the appeal of Paisley and co. The most astute among the unionists recognise that far from Adams’ entry into government being a problem, it is, from a pro-union point of view, the best place to put him.

Other obstacles stand in the way of the agreement. Paramilitary violence is not over. The LVF are intent on carrying on with their sectarian murder campaign. The INLA and Continuity IRA have declared the agreement a ‘sell-out’ and have pledged to carry on with military attacks. These groups are small but the prospect of a split in the IRA and Sinn Fein throws up the possibility of a bigger and more serious military force emerging around the dissidents of the 32-County Sovereignty Committee. A split in Sinn Fein and the IRA is not a question of whether but of how big.

Despite the political and paramilitary opposition the agreement is almost certain to be endorsed by the May 22 referenda, north and south. The Northern Ireland Office propaganda machine is already geared up to ensure a yes vote, with a visit by Bill Clinton likely as part of the packaging. However, before it can take on real flesh this deal will have several more hurdles to pass through. The assembly elections at the end of June will really be a second referendum. Anti-agreement unionists may campaign en bloc hoping to use the size of their vote to undermine the authority of a new administration, just as the vote for anti-Sunningdale unionists in the 1974 general election fatally wounded that agreement.

Then, within a few weeks, there is the disputed Orange march at Drumcree. A call has already been made for thousands of Catholics to go to Portadown to physically block the Garvaghy Road if requested by the local residents group. Hard-liners in the Orange Order have recently won a victory in limiting the authority of the Order’s leadership to intervene in local parades. This leaves a decision on whether to accept possible re-routing with the more uncompromising local Lodge in Portadown.

It could well be that the momentum for peace and the lack of an alternative, other than sectarian violence worse than before, will see this agreement clear all these hurdles. It could even bring a period of relative stability at the top so long as the delicate sectarian equilibrium worked out in the document holds. However if the sectarian division remains within society it will inevitably make itself felt at the top and at some point will disrupt whatever neat power-sharing arrangement might exist. The fact that the politicians who will agree to share power are the very politicians who have and will attempt to ensure that the sectarian division is maintained is the Achilles heel of the whole scheme.

THE REAL CONCLUSION to draw from all this is that as long as politics remains dominated by the same sectarian faces there can be no prospect of a lasting solution. During the two years of the talks no party around the table attempted to represent the united interests of the working class, Catholic and Protestant. This is reflected in the outcome. As the talks entered their final session workers in the West Belfast engineering firm Mackies came out on a one-day strike over local grievances. A shop steward was later sacked on a pretext, quite clearly victimised for being one of the strike organisers. In the agreement there is a section on Human Rights with a number of rights highlighted. Perhaps not surprisingly there is no mention of the right to belong to a trade union or the right to strike without being sacked. Nor is the basic right to a job and to a living wage included.

Nor will the proposal to set up a civic forum, with trade unions and employers organisations represented, offer any voice for the working class. This toothless body, with members agreed by the assembly first minister and his deputy, will only provide a haven for the bureaucrats at the head of the unions as well as budding careerists in the voluntary sector. It is a caricature of the call for a parallel talks structure involving representatives from the trade union rank-and-file and the communities to provide an alternative to the sectarian parties.

The prospect of health, education, economic development and other services being run by an executive committee made up of the main unionist and nationalist parties does, however, offer a new opportunity for a socialist alternative to be built. Throughout the Troubles all the local parties have had the benefit of permanent opposition, but no longer if this deal goes through. The future spectacle of the Unionists, SDLP and Sinn Fein co-operating in implementing or allowing anti-working class policies to continue will have profound effects.

Bigots on either side would try to channel the inevitable anger in working class areas along sectarian lines. But there would also be an opening for a united class movement and a socialist opposition to develop. Class unity overcoming the divisions at grass roots level, not the fragile unity of rival sectarian politicians, is the real route to a lasting solution.

There be no real settlement on a capitalist basis. The choice of which poverty-ridden state you want to live in is no choice for working class people, Catholic or Protestant. Just as the Catholic working class legitimately say no to the status quo, so Protestant workers equally legitimately say no to being incorporated into the existing southern state.

A socialist solution would uphold the rights of the Catholic minority in the north. It would safeguard also the right of Protestants who feel themselves a minority in the context of all-Ireland politics and institutions. It would guarantee no coercion of either community in bringing about an agreed socialist settlement. A socialist Ireland, with the maximum devolution of powers to regional and local level, as part of a voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, would lay the foundation for a lasting settlement and open the way for the first time to real co-operation between the peoples of these islands.

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Last updated: 18 July 2015