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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland: Good Friday two years on

(May 2000)

From Socialism Today, May 2000.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey & marked up by Pat Lawlor.

Two years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed the institutions it was supposed to establish are suspended. Decommissioning of arms held by paramilitary groups, one of the many issues fudged in the haste to complete the deal, remains an impassable obstacle. Peter Hadden, from Northern Ireland’s Socialist Party, reports on a precarious peace process.

The British and Irish governments are making frantic efforts to weave a way forward on arms decommissioning that would keep both David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Sinn Fein leadership on board. They would like to come up with a formula before 22 May, the date by which, according to the original agreement, decommissioning was to have been completed. They are looking for some definitive statement from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that the war is over and a firm commitment that they will eventually carry out some form of decommissioning. In return, they want Trimble (UUP leader and first minister of the short-lived executive) to agree to reconstitute the Assembly and the executive, including the two Sinn Fein ministers.

If there is no agreement by 22 May the governments will have to opt for further negotiations in the hope of a deal in the autumn. In the meantime they will have to sweat out another summer of potential confrontation over parades, another issue that was fudged in the original agreement and which, like decommissioning, is as far from resolution as ever.

Eventual agreement, while it cannot be ruled out, will be very difficult. On the plus side is the fact of powerful forces lined up pressing for a deal. For the British and Irish governments and the US administration, the peace process has been about sucking in the leadership of the Republican movement and corralling them in the tame world of constitutional politics. They are anxious not to let the opportunity slip. Trimble, representing the more astute section of the Unionist leadership, has likewise concluded that Sinn Fein is prepared to move away from armed struggle and that inclusion rather than exclusion is the best way to neutralise them.

The Sinn Fein leadership also have gone too far down the political road to turn back. They are now concentrating their sights on the possibility of an electoral breakthrough in the South, in the Irish Republic’s next general election. They hope that with three or four TDs (members of the Irish parliament, the Dail) they would hold the balance of power and would be able to negotiate their way into a government coalition with Fianna Fail (currently the dominant government party in coalition with the Progressive Democrats).

The fact that there might be Sinn Fein ministers in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Dail is being held up to Republican activists as a first step towards a united Ireland. Although the idea is completely illusory, it is about the best hope that the current leadership can put forward. A breakdown of the Northern peace process, and with it the possibility of renewed violence, would put the whole thing in jeopardy.

Also on the plus side is the fact that the opponents of the agreement have no real alternative. The idea of a return to armed struggle advocated by those Republican dissidents regrouping around the Real IRA has no broad support. If the 25-year-long campaign fought by a united IRA did not succeed in bringing a united Ireland, what hope has a new campaign fought by only a fragment of the IRA and opposed by the vast majority of the Catholic population?

Unionist rejectionists have nothing better to offer either. The idea that there can be a return to anything even resembling the old Stormont regime, under which the Unionists held a monopoly of power, with Catholics excluded and treated as second-class citizens, is a non-starter.

There are also powerful forces weighing against deal. Sinn Fein leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, had been attempting to press the IRA to make some movement on weapons. Following the suspension of the Assembly, however, attitudes have hardened considerably. Republicans are in no mood to make any gesture or concession on arms before the Assembly is re-established – and probably for quite a period after.

Unionist divide

On the other side, Trimble’s base of support within his own party has shrunk visibly. The lack of movement by the IRA on decommissioning has eroded Unionist support for the Agreement. The brief experience of Sinn Fein ministers in the executive also left many lukewarm about the return of this institution.

The only decision of note made during this period was that of the Sinn Fein health minister, Bairbre de Brun, to close the maternity unit in the Belfast City Hospital. Protestants tended to view this, rightly or wrongly, as a sectarian decision to close a unit in what is perceived to be a Protestant area in order to keep open the unit in the Royal Victoria Hospital in de Brun’s West Belfast constituency. The shift of Unionist opinion was shown when Trimble only narrowly survived a leadership challenge from former Orange Order Grand Master, Martin Smith.

Throughout the past two years of sectarian deadlock the Agreement has been leaking credibility to the point that it has very little left to spare. If the impasse continues beyond the critical 22 May date there will be even less. The longer the deadlock, the closer another election. The next Westminster election is likely to be fought by Unionists as a referendum on the Agreement. Trimble’s pro-Agreement Unionists will face a considerable challenge and are likely to lose a number of Westminster seats, some to the anti-Agreement Unionist bloc, and some to either Sinn Fein or the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Trimble himself has gone on the offensive, announcing plans to sever direct links between his party and the Orange Order. This would remove the bloc of Orange Order delegates who mostly voted for Smith in the recent leadership contest. A major split and realignment within Unionism seems likely.

Adams and McGuinness were visibly shaken by the suspension of the Assembly. They had miscalculated in believing that once it was up and running the British government would face down the Unionists to keep it in place. Adams responded by calling on Republicans to take to the streets. A huge effort was put into organising protests and demonstrations demanding that the suspension be lifted. The response was lukewarm, to say the least. The biggest demonstration, held in West Belfast, attracted a crowd of hundreds, not thousands. Republican supporters who normally turn out faithfully had no enthusiasm for taking to the streets to get Sinn Fein ministers back into Stormont and to restore an Agreement about which they have always been unsure.

It is difficult for the Republican movement to sit tight and, in practice, accept ongoing direct rule from Westminster. But unless Adams can convince the IRA to deliver something on arms they may have little choice. Adams has made it clear that a return to war would mean the end of the road for this Republican leadership. If no compromise can be found, his only alternative may be to wait for elections North and South in the hope that Sinn Fein will come out strengthened and with more leverage to force concessions from the Unionists.

Institutionalised sectarianism

The problem with this is that the more strident the demands from the nationalists the less likelihood there is of the Unionists accepting them. This is especially so as Trimble’s supporters find themselves with ever less ground to give. All this shows the extremely tentative nature of the peace process. The Assembly may at some point be brought back to life, but if so it will be without the fanfares and euphoria that greeted the Agreement two years ago. The peace process as directed by the governments and the major sectarian parties will not bring a solution. Ultimately, even if the Assembly is brought back, it will fail.

The peace process in its early stages was driven by the mass mobilisations of working-class people demanding an end to the killings. Unfortunately, as each movement ebbed it was the sectarian and right wing politicians who moved into the space that had been created. In their hands the peace process was a means to a deal at the top while the community remained divided as before.

The underlying premise of the Good Friday Agreement is that sectarianism is a permanent feature. It is simply an agreement between sectarians as to how they can co-operate in ruling over the division. During the negotiations the main parties have not eased the situation. They have deliberately polarised people over all the contentious issues – parades, decommissioning, policing and many others.

The result is that the sectarian divide is now even deeper than it was when the process began. In the name of trying to reach agreement the parties have only succeeded in narrowing the ground on which such an agreement could be reached. Hence the current impasse.

There is no possibility of a capitalist solution that will last. Capitalism offers only a choice of either the status quo of two unjust, poverty-ridden states (despite the recent rapid economic growth in the South), or the merger of these into one poverty-ridden state. There is no possibility that the antagonistic positions of Catholic and Protestant working-class people on the national question can be reconciled if this is the only choice on offer. What is needed is working-class unity to build a socialist solution. It is the working-class communities who have suffered most during the Troubles. Within these areas people face common problems and would be capable of working out common solutions if they were free from the influence and interference of sectarian politicians.

Class matters

Despite the sectarian conflict, class issues and class divisions have never been far from the surface. The emergence of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), with its initial condemnation of the Unionist “fur coat brigade”, showed the class tensions within Unionism. Although the PUP has tended to act as a pro-Agreement prop for Trimble these class antagonisms remain and may sharpen in the future.

One of the most significant recent developments has been the emergence of dissident voices with a difference from within the Republican movement. A number of ex-prisoners have begun to hit out at the rightward drift of the leadership. These people are dismissive of the hard-line militarists who want a return to war, but are demanding a debate on why the radical and socialist objectives of Republicanism have been abandoned.

Brendan Hughes, former Commanding Officer (OC) of the IRA prisoners and leader of the first failed hunger strike, has added his influential voice to the criticism of those who have “made careers out of politics”. Hughes complains that when he got out of prison he had to work for Catholic building contractors who claimed to be Republicans and who paid poverty wages. When he tried to raise this in the Republican movement, steps were taken by the leadership to censor his comments.

Justice, according to Hughes, is not “about a handful of selected people walking into well-paid jobs and having good salaries”. The strategy of the British, he says, is “to mould the type of people they can deal with ... they have allowed a leadership to develop. They have pumped millions into here. I mean there’s centres all over the place in West Belfast and North Belfast, people have gone into these centres and become career people and they are being paid very decent wages”.

Hughes and others around him admit that they have no worked-out alternative and call merely for a debate on the way forward. That debate needs to look beyond the limitations of Republicanism, however. It is not possible to unite Protestant and Catholic workers on the platform of left Republicanism any more than it is on the basis of working class or “left” Unionism.

A new party representing the common interests of the working class, and based on the trade unions and working-class communities, needs to be built. This could draw the best elements from the Unionist and Republican traditions – as well as those who stand aside from these labels – and could unite all sections of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

The return of the Assembly would create the most favourable conditions for the building of such a party. The absence of any local administration has meant that for decades none of the local parties have held power. They have been free to whip-up sectarian feelings in order to maintain their support, but have been able also to posture on the social and economic issues, blaming any problems on Westminster.

For a brief period, from last December until the end of January this year, all this changed. Working-class people began to see the real face of the local politicians. There was particular anger at the unusual outbreak of harmony among Assembly members in December when they voted themselves a 30% pay rise. This was followed by agreement on generous pensions and then, during the first session of the New Year, on a severance allowance – got through just in case the whole thing might collapse.

In the few weeks of the Assembly’s existence, opposition to its handling of day-to-day decisions on education, health, transport and other matters begun to grow. The Assembly and its ministers began to become a focus for pickets, lobbies and protests. Had the Assembly continued it would have begun to feel the mounting anger among the working class at job losses, cuts in services, hospital closures and low wages. Among the issues to have arisen since the suspension have been the threatened closure of the Harland and Wolfe shipyard, a threat to shut down much of the already inadequate rail network, and potential strikes by fire-fighters, child-care workers and workers in education who are on term-time contracts (i.e. unpaid during school holidays).

These matters would have fallen into the ministerial laps of the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Peter Robinson, and Sinn Fein’s de Brun and McGuinness. Working-class support for all these parties would have begun to loosen and the space for a socialist alternative would have grown.

The return of the Assembly would make it easier to develop class politics – but this does not mean that without it a new working-class alternative cannot be built. A failure of the peace process would be a failure of sectarian politics. Moves to return to armed conflict could be met, as before, with mass resistance by the working class. This time the question could be more concretely and immediately asked: What is the point of working-class people uniting to prevent conflict if the same sectarian politicians who have already failed, and who will fail again, take over once more?

It is time for the working class to take the initiative. A real peace process built from the bottom up – from the workplaces and working-class communities – is urgently needed. It is on the Falls and the Shankill, not in Downing Street or in the White House, that a solution will be found.

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Last updated: 17 February 2020