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Peter Hadden

Living on a knife edge

(Summer 1999)

From International Socialists [ISM journal, Glasgow], Summer 1999.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Within days of the votes to Holyrood being counted the shape of the new administration was agreed and the Scottish Parliament was ready to go into business. In Northern Ireland things are not so straightforward.

One year after the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly there is still no agreement on the composition of the new Executive. Unionists are holding to their demand that the IRA begin to decommission weapons before Sinn Fein are allowed their seats. Sinn Fein are insisting that ministerial posts are theirs as of right and that there will be no prior decommissioning.

The most recent round of talks in Belfast and London has produced little movement and is running out of time. The Dublin and Westminster governments have set a June 30th deadline for agreement and threatened to suspend the Assembly if it is missed.

It may be that some form of agreement will be reached by then. Both the Sinn Fein leadership and the Trimble unionists have staked all on the Good Friday agreement. The road to a deal may be rocky and uncertain but the road away from it is even more precipitous. The complete collapse of the peace process would probably spell a political end for both Gerry Adams and David Trimble.

On the other hand if either were seen to have moved too far on the decommissioning question this too would see them removed. At Easter the two governments drew up a proposal to deal with decommissioning which leaned towards the Unionist position. Gerry Adams was unable to sell it to the republican movement, especially in the wake of the Rosemary Nelson killing and of other loyalist attacks which made Catholics feel vulnerable. The proposal was stillborn.

Early in May talks in London produced an alternative government plan which this time leaned more towards the Sinn Fein position and involved no firm commitment to hand over weapons prior to Sinn Fein gaining two ministerial seats. Trimble did not even attempt to persuade his party that it was worth considering and it too will have to be put to the side.

It is possible that events over what is squaring up to be yet another long hot summer could further narrow the ground for compromise on this and other contentious issues. Trimble will certainly make no decisive move from his “no weapons, no seats” stand before the European election is over.

His leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party is already being put to the test by this poll. Paisley, in launching his campaign, has called on voters to turn this contest into a second referendum on the Agreement. Meanwhile Sinn Fein, at their launch, have declared their objective to take the seat now held by the UUP. They hope that Unionist anti agreement voters will not transfer to Trimble, allowing nationalists to take two of the three seats. Ironically, were Sinn Fein to succeed in this, their victory would turn into a blow against themselves. Trimble would likely be removed, and the Good Friday Agreement on which the Sinn Fein leadership has staked their futures, would be inoperable.


After the Euro poll there is the potentially much bigger obstacle of Drumcree. The government’s June 30 deadline is clearly set in the hope that an agreement reached a few days before the Drumcree march will defuse the tension which is already building on this issue. But on the other hand, should this risky strategy fail, hard-liners on both sides, who see Drumcree as some kind of Alamo for their cause, will be boosted.

Hopes for an early agreement which might avert a Drumcree five are fast fading. Talks initiated by David Trimble, which have included resident’s spokesman, Brendan McKenna, have not produced a solution and attitudes on both sides appear to be hardening. The Orange Order, having had no parade last year and having maintained a protest of sorts at Drumcree since last July, appear adamant that there will be a parade this year.

The people of the Garvaghy Road feel that they have been under a sectarian siege for twelve months and have had to suffer regular abuse and harassment during this time. The Rosemary Nelson killing has added to local anger. So too has the failure of the RUC to bring anyone to justice for the brutal killing two years ago of local man, Robert Hamill who was beaten to death by loyalists while police looked on.

Brendan McKenna has raised the stakes by stating, on his way into negotiations, that residents are not even prepared to discuss a parade this year. In what will be seen by Orangemen as the opening of a second front he has also said that a section of the Corcrain Road should now be considered by the Parades Commission to be a disputed route. In past years residents have demanded that the return march from Drumcree church to Portadown be routed along the Corcrain Road, the only other possible way back into the town.

Part of the Corcrain Road is now mainly Catholic and families have suffered abuse during recent loyalist protests. But the sectarianism is not all one sided. Protestant owned shops have been attacked by Catholics and the local Orange Hall has been petrol bombed. By raising a question about parades along this road residents have significantly escalated the dispute.

This is certain to add to the intransigence of the local Orange Order who, up to now, have obstinately refused face to face meetings with residents. It gives them the excuse that there is no point in meetings when residents are making it clear in advance that there will be no march on the Garvaghy Road and that other routes should also be restricted.

If there is no agreement by July it is likely that there will be a repeat of last year when a huge military operation was put into place to block the march. A physical and probably bloody confrontation was only averted when the horrific murder of three children in Ballymoney dramatically defused the confrontational mood. If there is no compromise and the march is to be blocked the state will have to try and re-open the divisions within the Orange Order and within Unionism over the use of violence at Drumcree, and hope this will allow them to hold the line.

Another potential bombshell is due this summer in the form of Patten Commission Report on the future of the RUC. Sinn Fein has campaigned for the abolition of the RUC and will find it difficult to sell anything short of this in catholic working class areas. The unionists will want only piecemeal mainly cosmetic change. If there is no Assembly and if the Agreement is suspended when this report appears it is likely that it will appease no one and antagonise everyone. If the new Executive is in place it is certain to strain relations within it between Unionists and Sinn Fein.

All of this illustrates the extremely fragile nature of the peace process. The Good Friday Agreement was arrived at only by fudging the main contentious issues. Now the parties are finding that each of these fudges has eventually to be faced and resolved. For ordinary people the whole peace process has been a roller coaster of raised expectations and dashed hopes.

No peace on the ground

On the ground in working class areas there has been little sign of peace. Petrol bombings, sectarian intimidation and beatings are now a daily occurrence. Loyalist dissidents opposed to the Agreement have stepped up their attacks under the banner of the Red Hand Defenders or various other flags of convenience. Ominously there have been a number of attempted abductions, eerily reminiscent of the grim activities of the Shankill Butchers, some in Belfast and others in the Portadown/Lurgan area. Catholics have been picked up late at night, dragged into cars and taken to Protestant areas, beaten but by good fortune have managed to get away before being killed.

In many previously mixed areas sectarian intimidation is succeeding in driving families out. Towns across the south Antrim area are facing organised attempts to create the same kind of sectarian geography as exists in Belfast and Portadown. Some estates in Antrim have become mainly Catholic and sectarian graffiti, tricolours and green white and gold kerbstones have made this obvious. Loyalists in what have been mixed estates have begun to bedeck them with UVF slogans, red white and blue kerbs, etc. Some have gone further with threats, petrol and pipe bomb attacks on Catholics living in these areas. To one degree or another this is being repeated in many areas across the north.

A complete breakdown of the peace process would make this situation much worse. There is the potential for the sectarian violence to spill out of control and for events to move in the direction of civil war and bloody repartition. The vast majority of people, while disillusioned with the lack of progress towards a real solution, are rightly fearful of the consequence of deadlock and collapse of the process. A majority still supports the Good Friday Agreement and wants to see the Assembly up and running. It is this mood which provides whatever momentum there is left in the process.

But even if fully implemented the Good Friday Agreement is neither a solution, nor a step to a solution. In fact its underlying premise is that there can be no solution. Its answer is to institutionalise not eradicate sectarianism.

The stipulation that power must be shared between unionists and nationalists, who each have an effective veto on legislation, presumes that we will be stuck with sectarian politics forever. Sectarian politicians are to unite in the Assembly to “solve“ the problem. Yet the only way these same politicians can continue to be elected is if they work outside the Assembly to make sure that people are kept apart so that they continue to vote along sectarian lines, in other words to ensure that the problem is not “solved”.

Sooner or later the divisions which exist on the ground, and which have widened considerably during the peace process, will reflect themselves within the Assembly. The fact that majority votes of both unionists and nationalists are required for key legislation is a sure recipe for paralysis at some point. When the flimsy links that have been established between unionists and nationalist politicians are brushed to the side all that will be left will be the reality of the bitter sectarian divide which separates working class people. The bloody collapse, during the 1970s, of the power-sharing arrangements which had existed in Cyprus and the Lebanon is a warning of where the Good Friday Agreement can ultimately lead.

Working class unity

From a socialist point of view it is better that the peace process continues than that we face the only alternative on offer – sectarian war. Continuation, at the very least, gives the working class more time to build a real peace process which can come up with answers to the all of the problems faced by people in the working class communities.

It was the working class who brought about the peace process in the first place. Mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers, organised through the trade unions, made clear to both republican and loyalist paramilitaries that ordinary people had had enough of the Troubles. During the long talks process political intransigence more than once threatened to wreck it – as for example at the time of the breakdown of the first IRA cease-fire. Then it was the working class, through mass demonstrations, who put a break on those who wanted a return to violence and set the talks process back on track. In general anything which has been positive in the peace process has come from below, from the workplaces and working class communities. The role of the sectarian politicians has been generally obstructive and negative.

The key now is to build a real peace process based, not the unity of sectarian politicians, but on bringing people in the working class communities together. Through the Troubles there have always been some on the left who have dismissed any prospect of class unity, and have tended to write off the Protestant working class.

In fact working class unity is a daily reality. Workers are united in the work-places, most of which are mixed. Trade union membership cuts across the sectarian divide. It is true that trade unions do not exist in a vacuum and at times the heightened sectarian tensions within the community have been felt in workplaces and in trade union structures. But when workers have moved into struggle on pay, conditions, or in the movements against sectarianism, Catholics and Protestants have stood shoulder to shoulder.

Community campaigns have also cut across the sectarian divide. In the last year there have been two huge demonstrations, one in Dungannon, one in Downpatrick, against threats to axe acute services at local hospitals. Around 20,000 people turned out for each, a huge percentage of the local population. At the Dungannon rally there were banners from GAA clubs, soccer clubs, Protestant schools, catholic schools and from all the main workplaces.

More recently in Omagh a campaign to save the local hospital has been set up with members of the Socialist Party playing a leading role. An initial meeting attracted 400 people. It’s anyone’s guess how many of the audience were from Catholic and how many from Protestant backgrounds. A new action committee linking hospital campaigns in rural areas has been set up on the initiative of Socialist Party members in Mid Ulster. People from predominately Protestant and from predominately Catholic towns are taking part.

Poverty, exploitation, low wages – these do not discriminate between Protestant and Catholic. The idea current at one time among some of the left in Britain of a pampered privileged Protestant working class always was a nonsense and is more so today. In the days of the old Stormont regime Unionist discrimination did put Protestants further up the queue for the few jobs which were going.

Stormont was abolished in 1972 and anti-Catholic discrimination has not been an active policy of the tops of the State since then. The British government saw that it was in their best interests to undo this policy in order to achieve some measure of stability. The higher Catholic unemployment which exists today is down to a residue of a past policy and to the inability of capitalism to make up for the past neglect of areas like West Belfast and the more remote rural areas by providing jobs.

Thirty per cent of households across the north have combined weekly incomes of under £ 150 per week. This poverty grips Protestant and Catholic working class areas alike. An “End Low Pay” Campaign currently being run by the Socialist Party to “Name and Shame” low wage employers and force them to pay a decent wage has met with a massive response. Over one hundred employers paying less than £3.60 have been exposed. Among the areas where we have found low pay most endemic is the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast.

A real peace process means tackling these problems. There will be no lasting stability unless people are given jobs, reasonable conditions and some hope for the future. One of the underlying disappointments with the existing process is the fact that the promises of a peace dividend, of jobs and dollars from the US, of investment from Europe, has not materialised.

Jobs have been created in the community sector, but this has only produced a layer of professionals paid for by grants from various sources, and who are more of a hindrance than an encouragement to genuine community activism. But for every job gained there have been losses through the crisis in the textile and other industrial sectors and through privatisation and cuts in areas of public services.

Big Business parties

The major parties, orange and green, have no answers. All support the market. All have trod the now well-worn political trail to Washington to court and be courted by US big business and the US establishment. All look to foreign investment, lured by grants and incentives, as the only way to provide employment.

There is no party that upholds the united interests of working people. The building of such a party is the key to finding a real road to peace. From this point of view it is better that the Assembly is established. Since 1972 no local party has exercised power over anything more than the “baths, bins and bogs” functions of the 26 District Councils. When it has come to social and economic questions all the parties have pointed an accusing finger at Westminster and then got back to the “real business” of sectarian politics.

The setting up of the new Executive means that the UUP, SDLP, Sinn Fein, and the DUP should they accept the ministerial seats on offer, will no longer enjoy the luxury of permanent opposition. It is worth recalling that the last time there was a substantial working class party was in the days of the old Stormont when disillusionment with the Unionist government allowed the Northern Ireland Labour Party at its height to win more than 25% of the vote.

This time there would not just be the Unionists to blame – the major nationalist parties also would be in power. Sinn Fein currently enjoy overwhelming electoral support in Catholic working class areas. In the past they have posed as a radical party but in recent years much of this veneer has been lost, as they have moved to the right. Much of the finance that has made them, in terms of income relative to voting strength, the richest political party in Ireland, has come from donations from businessmen.

While they pay lip service to workers rights in the small print of their programme, in practice they support grants to attract low wage anti-union companies to Catholic areas. Gerry Adams has been vocal in calling for F.G. Wilson, formerly an anti-union business which discriminated against Catholics, now a subsidiary of the union busting Caterpillar Corporation, to come to West Belfast. If Sinn Fein gain the Agriculture and Education posts they have declared for, it will not be long before there is open disillusionment at the lack of change and improvement in the Catholic working class areas. The basis for genuine class politics could begin to emerge.

The PUP has been a growing force within the Protestant working class, at least in the Greater Belfast area. They will not qualify for Executive seats and so could find themselves in opposition in the Assembly. Depending on how they react this could benefit them in the short term. The best of the PUP leadership now put a much more radical and more overtly socialist position than Sinn Fein. However they too have been on the Washington trail and look to inward private investment to develop the economy. They are for class politics – but argue that the time is not yet ripe. “First” there must be a settlement to the Troubles.

In reality the only lasting solution to the Troubles is through unity between the working class communities. Class unity, the prerequisite of a real end to the Troubles, can never be achieved on the basis of sectarian politics, only on the basis of class politics.

This unity does not mean taking up bread and butter issues and ignoring the more contentious questions like parades, justice, policing or the National Question. These issues are only sectarian because they are taken up sectarians who do so in a one sided and often very provocative manner. If they are approached from a working class standpoint, with the common interests of working class people kept in mind, it is possible to find a way through them.


Take the most immediately and dangerously contentious question of parades. Some on the left, who in reality have a left republican not a socialist position, have simply joined the chorus demanding the stopping, blocking, re-routing of all disputed Orange marches. Yes the Orange Order is a reactionary, sectarian institution. But to say that it is the equivalent of the National Front in Britain is to go too far.

To deny the Orange Order the right to march is a sure way of driving the mass of the Protestant working class, many of whom would have nothing to do with Orange Parades, behind it. When this issue first flared up the Socialist Party stood against the mood in Catholic areas which was to bar parades from contentious routes and from “Catholic” town or village centres.

We argued that two rights were involved: the right of Orangemen to march and the right of residents to object. We also said there was a third overarching right f1 that of the working class as a whole not to be dragged into a Bosnia over this issue. We argued for negotiation between residents and marchers over the regularity and conduct of parades. We said the policing of parades should also be discussed, as the conduct of the RUC has been as much a point of contention as the parades themselves. On the basis of agreement there could be stewarding by both sides and no RUC presence.

The need for negotiation is now accepted by all except the most intransigent sectarians. Those on the left who still argue for the halting of all disputed parades should pause to reflect on the fact that what they are promoting is not class struggle, but naked sectarian conflict.

After parades policing is the next issue which threatens to paralyse the peace process. A repackaged RUC will still not be an acceptable force. Neither is paramilitary “policing”, with punishment beatings and knee-capping, any answer. Instead of the RUC there should be community policing services, run democratically though elected police committees and fully accountable.

Two minorities

To solve the national problem it is first of all necessary to define what it is. The notion that it is a problem of a sectarian Orange State with an oppressed catholic minority is one sided and somewhat out of date. It was never a problem of one sectarian state, but of two, one in the north and one in the south, one particularly unacceptable to Catholics, the other particularly unacceptable to Protestants.

Today many of the sectarian features of both states have been removed. The problem is of two capitalist states, each with endemic poverty and inequality. Increasingly the problem is one of two minorities, not one. The Catholic minority in the north suffers from the residue of discrimination and is at the receiving end of the injustice meted out by the RUC and other sections of the State. Catholics legitimately are not prepared to accept the status quo.

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