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Peter Hadden

Debate with AWL on NI Peace Process

(September 1999)

From The Socialist [UK], 3 September 1999.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Mark Osborn [of the Alliance for Workers Liberty] has written to The Socialist with some questions about our analysis of the Northern Ireland peace process. We print his letter below, with a reply by Peter Hadden, which answers his points and gives more analysis of the current situation.

Northern Ireland: A socialist solution

Peter Hadden’s article, Northern Ireland’s “long week” (The Socialist, 9 July), argued that the gap between the parties is so narrow that it is hard to believe it will not eventually be bridged.

“All the parties agree there should be decommissioning”, “there is no way Sinn Fein can [declare they will decommission] without the intention to carry it through”, “what is on offer is the effective disbandment of the IRA” and “the more astute unionists recognise [this] ”; the IRA-Sinn Fein have rejected militarism “in favour of the political strategy of winning influence and ministerial positions”.

The experience of the last two weeks surely underlines how wrong comrade Hadden was. As your paper of 16 July notes (in a headline), the “peace process [is] in the balance”. The IRA have said, “Those who demand the decommissioning of IRA weapons lend themselves ... to the failed agenda which seeks the defeat of the IRA.”

On the other hand, there is no evidence to suppose the IRA will disarm. All we are seeing is the continuation of the armalite and the ballot box strategy, with the guns in the background for the moment. And, of course, the punishment beatings continue in the Catholic (and Protestant) ghettos.

Comrade Hadden repeats a point he makes in his article of 9 July in The Socialist of 16 July; “The Socialist Party would prefer the deal went through rather than the working class faced sectarian conflict”, adding; “But the deal and the proposed assembly will not overcome sectarianism.”

Clearly no socialist would like to see a return to the IRA/Protestant sectarian shooting and bombing campaigns. But neither should we positively endorse the lesser evil of the Assembly and Good Friday deal, which structures and consolidates the sectarianism of Northern Irish politics at the level of Northern Irish government, inside what remains an artificial and unworkable entity – Northern Ireland itself.

Peter Hadden, NI Secretary of the Socialist Party, replies.

The morning of farce, which ended with the suspension of the Assembly and the launching of a review of the implementation of the Agreement, has left the peace process in deep crisis. It is valuable to go over the events that led to this impasse as Mark Osborn tries to do in his letter

Unfortunately his analysis of what happened leads him to quite wrong conclusions. What I described in my article of 9 July is an accurate description of what was taking place in the talks.

The leaderships of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and of Sinn Fein were very close to agreement. Sinn Fein did make a seismic move when they expressed confidence that all weapons would be put beyond use by May 2000.

Mark dismisses this, arguing that “all we are seeing is a continuation of the armalite and the ballot box strategy”. Yet the Sinn Fein promise came from talks which included the military as well as the political leadership of republicanism.

The IRA has been discussing a deal on weapons. The real opposition to some form of dumping of arms is not from those who want to go back to the “long war”, but comes from those who argue that guns should be held in reserve because, if the peace process collapses, they will be needed to defend Catholic areas.

Very many nationalists have drawn different, but no less false conclusions, from what has happened. Sinn Fein now argue that UUP leader Trimble’s refusal to deal is part of a deliberate strategy to draw out the process until next May so as to permanently exclude Sinn Fein.

In fact Trimble and those immediately around him have come round to the view that the best way to neuter Sinn Fein is by inclusion, not exclusion. They recognise that Sinn Fein posts in an Executive are necessary if the Agreement is to hold.

So if both sides were so close to a deal why didn’t it happen? If Mark Osborn had read further in my article he would have found the explanation: “Yet a large constituency within unionism is either unable or unwilling to recognise victory when it is in their hands. They represent the final obstacle to this deal. We still have to hold our breaths and see if the obduracy and blind sectarianism of a section of unionism will yet manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory”

Trimble, at that point, simply did not have the support in his party to hold the line for a deal which did not include some concrete gesture from the IRA on decommissioning prior to their taking ministerial seats.

He had to play for more time. Hence the soft, but very bumpy, landing in July and the referral of the issue to the autumn review. The problem now is that both sides will come to the new negotiations further apart than they were in the early summer.

Within republicanism there is a feeling that the Adams leadership went too far, showing its hand to the unionists and getting nothing in return. Hard-line unionists, meanwhile, have been made more suspicious by recent IRA activity. Some now believe that, at the very best, the republican tactic is to disarm and rearm at the same time.

Fundamental flaw

If there is a failure now it will be a failure of sectarian politics. It will point to a fundamental flaw in the Agreement – that it institutionalises the very sectarianism it is supposed to overcome. If the failure does not come now it will come later.

Contrary to what Mark Osborn implies this was our view of the Agreement from the moment it was drawn up. We alone have pointed out that the peace process has in fact been a process of sectarian entrenchment and division. We have called for a real peace process, from the bottom up, based on the unity of the working class around common interests.

Still, at each critical juncture, we have resisted the collapse of the process and the prospect of all-out conflict that this would bring. To argue, as we did for a yes vote in the referendum or for a deal which would allow the Assembly to be set up, is not to “positively endorse” any brand of sectarian politics.

We simply prefer an option that gives us more time to argue our case for a socialist solution. In this we are in line with the great majority of working class people in Northern Ireland who have no real faith in the Agreement but who see it as preferable to the only alternative now on offer, that of sectarian war.

We do not think that it is possible to find any lasting solution on the basis of capitalism. Unionists argue that Catholics should accept their lot within a capitalist Northern Ireland state.

Nationalists put forward the alternative of a capitalist united Ireland, an option which would be fiercely resisted by Protestants. The Socialist Party dismisses both these as merely different routes to eventual civil war and repartition.

I accept that Mark Osbourn did not have space in a short letter to outline a full position. However his final sentence points to a nationalist conclusion – get rid of the “artificial and unworkable entity” and we will have progress. This is as flawed as the Agreement. It is time to lay the dead end ideas of unionism and nationalism to rest and to unite for a socialist solution.

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