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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland Standoff

(May 1999)

From Socialism Today, May 1999.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The Easter deadline for agreement on decommissioning has come and gone. With no consensus among the parties, the British and Irish governments issued a declaration outlining a procedure by which the issue might be resolved. Despite the positive spin put on this “breakthrough” it was not agreed by the major parties. Upon returning to the talks after Easter, most of them rejected the declaration. It is now back to square one in an attempt to find a way between the Unionist insistence of no Sinn Fein ministers in the new government without some weapons being handed over, and Sinn Fein’s insistence on no prior decommissioning.

Despite the public standoff the difference between what the parties are actually saying is really quite narrow. Sinn Fein’s position is not that there will be no movement on weapons: only that this is not a precondition, that they must have their seats as a right, and they will not “surrender” guns at Unionist insistence. The Unionists are prepared to nominate Sinn Fein ministers in return for a simultaneous or almost simultaneous gesture on weapons.

It is possible that an agreement can eventually be arrived at which will fudge the issue, possibly allowing the “verification” of some weapons as opposed to their hand over. The fact that the parties have spent weeks talking around this indicates that they are anxious to get over this hurdle and do not want to see the peace process come apart. For Adams and for Trimble the way ahead looks thorny and difficult but the way back looks even worse. Their immediate ground for manoeuvre, however, is very slender. Trimble cannot afford any defections from his Assembly party; otherwise the anti-agreement Unionists would have a majority. He has the problem in June of the European election that Paisley will attempt to turn into a second referendum on the Agreement.

Sinn Fein, taking the government decommissioning declaration back to local activists, clearly got a cool response. There are growing divisions within the republican movement over what is seen as a softening of the leadership line on decommissioning. In Catholic areas like West Belfast the hard-line message on the walls is “Not a bullet, Not an ounce”. This attitude is strengthened by the now nightly petrol and pipe bomb attacks on Catholic homes, carried out by loyalist dissidents who call themselves the Red Hand Defenders. Most working-class Catholics are opposed to the IRA going back to war, but they are hesitant about decommissioning because of fear that Catholic areas will be left defenceless as they were in August 1969.

If there is no early agreement on decommissioning the parties will be forced to shelve, or in their words “park”, the Agreement until the autumn. The closer it gets to the European elections the less possible it will be for any major party to move. Then there is the unresolved crisis at Drumcree. The Patton Commission is also due to issue its report on the future of policing during the summer. It may be that the republican leadership will wait on the outcome of Drumcree and Patton before they consider recommending any move on weapons.

A year after the euphoria of the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland are facing into what could be another long hot summer of sectarian attacks, confrontations over parades, and political impasse.

While the Agreement was better than no agreement, and the continuation of a peace process is better than war, it is clear that the Good Friday fudge is not a solution. Even if a way round the decommissioning hurdle is found there are many other issues - the future of the police for example - which could create a new impasse.

A real peace process based on the common interests of working class people Catholic and Protestant is needed. Trade union and community activists need to come together at local level to work out answers to the problems that the political establishment has shown itself incapable of resolving. The parades deadlock could be broken through dialogue between parade organisers and residents over the nature, routes, regularity and stewarding of parades. Concretely this means pressure from working class activists on the Orange Order to back down and engage in face-to-face discussions over Drumcree. Sectarian attacks will not be prevented by the paramilitaries, no matter how big their stockpile of weapons. Nor are the police and army able to defend working class communities. If attacks continue local communities should organise their own defence by mobilising people in their area and setting up democratic structures on a street by street basis to halt the sectarian attacks.

Working class unity is possible. There are already united movements against hospital closures which have brought tens of thousands onto the streets. Out of all these movements we need to build a new political organisation which could represent working class interests and could challenge the sectarian parties who have had it their own way for too long.

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Last updated: 5 October 2015