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Peter Hadden

“Yes” vote won’t end sectarianism

(May 1998)

From The Socialist [UK], 29 May 1998.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Northern Ireland has voted to accept the “Good Friday peace deal”, with 71% in favour in the 22 May referendum. As the Socialist Party predicted a large majority voted Yes, because they feared the prospect of returning to sectarian violence and even civil war if they had voted No.

It was a vote to keep up the “peace process” and to reject the reactionary, backward-looking forces in the No camp. But working-class people are still rightly sceptical of the deal.

The Yes campaign aimed at convincing Protestant voters that the union with Britain was safe, while at the same time convincing Catholics that the deal was a first step to more fundamental changes and even to a united Ireland.

Later, the campaign deliberately targeted those younger voters who rejected sectarian politics and wanted something new. That vote has always been there but only rarely has the opportunity to come to the surface.

In reality this referendum has not ended sectarian politics. It has in fact set the sectarian divide in stone. Any new assembly will be dominated by the same politicians, the Protestant-based unionists who set up the sectarian state in Northern Ireland and the Catholic-based nationalist/republican parties.

Protestants voted round about 55% for the deal according to exit polls. If you exclude Protestants who don’t vote for unionist politicians anyway, the vote was even closer.

In the forthcoming elections, Blair, Trimble and Co. will probably play up the referendum as a defeat for Paisley. Yes campaigners will hope Paisley’s campaign has lost its momentum and try to isolate the No parties.

The nationalist SDLP leaders now suggest a pact between pro-agreement parties. This would mean that their supporters would help Trimble overcome opposition from within the unionist camp by giving him their second preference votes!

But even if, amidst the horse-trading and vying for positions in the Assembly, they carry the elections, a deal based on stalemate and war-weariness can only last for a brief period. There are already arguments over decommissioning of arms which may affect who can take positions in the new Executive Committee. And the marching season begins soon, so disputes about routing and rerouting are likely to increase sectarian tensions on the ground.

The republicans, who have conceded a lot ideologically and have given the deal support only because decades of military struggle failed to achieve its goals, may split further when disillusionment bites. So may the unionist bloc.

It is not surprising that most people in Northern Ireland are far more cynical of the “peace process” than at the time of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in 1994. Even if the new assembly is not wrecked by oppositionists it will be shown up as useless; it is based on sectarian capitalist politics and cannot improve workers’ lives.

Socialists fight for a real solution based on the unity of working-class people and the integration of the communities. The main advantage of the big yes vote is to give time to build a genuine working-class alternative on the ground.

Unity must be forged on the basis of common class interests, social issues such as jobs, housing etc. but also on the more difficult and divisive questions posed by the national conflict.

The real struggle is for a united working class which could achieve a socialist Ireland as part of a democratic and voluntary socialist federation of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

This weekend the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland are meeting to discuss the forthcoming elections. Members will discuss proposals to stand in three constituencies, West Tyrone, Mid-Ulster and West Belfast. More in future issues.

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Last updated: 25 March 2016