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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland Assembly crisis

(Spring 2000)

From International Socialist – Journal of the International Socialist Movement (Scottish CWI), No. 5, Spring 2000.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

As we go to press the fate of the Northern Ireland Assembly is hanging in the balance as a result of a deadlock on decommissioning of paramilitary weapons Peter Hadden writes from Belfast.

The Northern Ireland Assembly wasted no time is setting out its priorities once it was set up at the end of last year. The first major decision was a 30% pay rise for the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) as they call themselves.

Second they increased their pensions, before voting for a four-week break for Christmas. Clearly refreshed after the break they came back to debate a severance scheme that would award MLAs a lump sum if they lost their seats or if the Assembly should collapse.

The new Ministers from all four major parties – Unionists, OUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein – are visibly settling into their new roles, enjoying the press profile as well as the chauffeur driven cars and – apart from Sinn Fein – the £71,000 salaries. The main parties want to see the Assembly continue. The mood within the working class communities is also against a collapse, especially if this would mean a return to conflict.

Within the Catholic community there is overwhelming support. Those republicans opposed to the Sinn Fein leadership who advocate a return to armed struggle are isolated.

Among Protestants there is still strong opposition to the Agreement. However there is no immediate mood for confrontation to bring it down. The changes that are in the pipeline – for example the changes to the RUC have been badly received in Protestant areas but there is sense of resignation that they are inevitable and will come about whether the Assembly is there or not.

The DUP still frothing at the mouth at the Agreement and the fact of Sinn Fein in government, but they are holding onto their ministerial seats, salaries and their plush offices. When Peter Mandelson announced that the bulk of the Patten recommendations on policing would be put to parliament later this year the DUP demanded that the UUP respond by resigning their seats. The call rang more than a little hollow given that DUP members did not lead the way by giving up their own posts.

Yet, even though the new Ministers are rapidly accommodating themselves to ministerial status and despite the absence of any effective mass pressure from the No camp, the Assembly is in danger of fast reaching an impasse over decommissioning.

Decommissioning was deliberately fudged in the original agreement. Under pressure from hard-liners, the UUP leadership has made it a central issue. Trimble got agreement from his party to set up the Executive and allow the transfer of powers only by setting a deadline of mid-February for decommissioning to begin. If some weapons have not been “put beyond use” by this time he will either have to step down, effectively dissolving the Executive, or he will face a revolt from within his own party which would most likely topple him in any case.

The attention therefore shifts to the republican movement. To date the Sinn Fein leadership reject the mid-February date as a “unionist deadline”. On the other hand there is a deadline of May by which decommissioning is to be completed – not a unionist imposed deadline, but one which Sinn Fein signed up to when they accepted the Good Friday Agreement.

A fierce debate is taking place within republicanism about where the present strategy is leading. Among grass roots activists there is disquiet and unease. Doubts about whether getting Sinn Fein into a northern government is really a “transitional step” towards a united Ireland are being openly expressed. For many republicans the “jury is out” on all of this. However the problem for those opposed to the present leadership is that they have been unable to present any alternative way forward.

Above all the idea of returning to armed struggle has few takers. If a twenty-five year long campaign could not succeed, what hope now with a divided movement and with the majority of people in the Catholic areas indifferent or hostile to these methods?

Adams, McGuinness and the majority of the republican leadership have travelled too far along the constitutional road to turn back now. Their strategy is to be in government north and south, to curry favour with whatever administration is in power in the US, and to await political and demographic changes which they hope will eventually make the position of the Protestants untenable. They have not only turned their backs on the military option, they have also abandoned any element of genuine radicalism or socialism they may once have embraced.

The debate on decommissioning within republicanism has therefore moved on. It is less about the principal of no decommissioning and more about how to “put weapons beyond use” without making it look like they have been handed over.

Much of this is semantics. Whether guns are surrendered to the state or verified and sealed in bunkers they pass out of the control of the IRA and into the control of some State institution – whether it’s a British, an Irish or an International body makes little other than a presentational difference

Movement on decommissioning is likely – although in order to convince rank and file republicans that there is no sell out of guns for ministries – this may not come in time to meet the Trimble deadline. In that case it is likely that Mandelson would pre-empt unionist resignations by suspending the Assembly for a period. The hope would be that eventual movement by the IRA would allow everything to be put back in place relatively painlessly. From a working class point of view it is better that the decommissioning obstacle is over-come rather than that politics become frozen in a sectarian stalemate. The current impasse is a reminder that the politics of both unionism and nationalism is a dead end.

The Assembly – if it survives – will not overcome the sectarian division. Its cumbersome power sharing structure is based on the assumption that the majority of people will always vote along sectarian lines, in other words on the assumption that there can be no reconciliation, no lasting solution.

On a capitalist basis this is correct. There can be no capitalist arrangement that can reconcile the conflicting fears and anxieties of both Catholic and Protestant working class people.

It is only the working class who can provide a solution. It was united action by working class people, especially the huge demonstrations demanding a halt to the killings, which provided the real impetus for the peace process.

The main benefit of the Assembly is that it puts the main parties on the spot. Already the UUP and SDLP ministers have made clear that their role will be to make “hard choices” and take “painful decisions” on local services. The DUP Peter Robinson is preparing plans to push through the part privatisation of Belfast Port.

Sinn Fein with the Health and Education portfolios control nearly 50% of the Assembly budget. The Health service is in acute crisis with decisions on a range of hospital closures pending. Disappointment with the anti-working class policies which all these parties are set to carry through will lay the basis for an alternative. The Socialist Party is campaigning to push class issues to the fore. Working class unity against sectarianism and against the pro market policies of unionism and nationalism is the way to a real solution.

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Last updated: 25 March 2016