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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland ‘peace process’:

Sliding into sectarian conflict

(July 2001)

From The Socialist, No. 214, 13 July 2001.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Party Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (July 2012)

’PEACE PROCESS’ is fast becoming a misnomer to describe what is happening in Northern Ireland. Trimble’s resignation as First Minister has put the future of the Assembly and therefore of the Good Friday Agreement in doubt.

Bitter sectarian clashes have become a regular part of life along the interfaces in areas like north Belfast. It is clear that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) – or at least big sections of it – have returned to war.

Their attempt to build a political wing in the form of the Ulster Democratic Party has got nowhere. It is the Johnny Adair wing that is now in the ascendant and the pipe bombings and shootings are the result.

Most of the recent sectarian attacks have been orchestrated by the UDA and are directed against Catholics. (see box) But sectarianism is not a one-way street. There have also been attacks on Protestant homes and Protestant property.

Aware of the dangers the British and Irish governments, together with the leaders of the pro-agreement parties, will now try to work out a rescue package for the Assembly. They hope that some trade-off between IRA decommissioning on the one side and demilitarisation and policing on the other can get Trimble off the hook.

Agreement at the top

The problem about any such rescue operation is that the ground for compromise is narrowing. The peace process has always been about getting an agreement at the top, between sectarian politicians. Meanwhile the division on the ground, which has always been the real problem, has remained and been reinforced.

It has been reinforced both by the pro-Agreement parties who need people to keep voting along sectarian lines to put them in power and by the openly sectarian anti-agreement forces who have been whipping up sectarianism in order to destabilise the Executive.

Early on in the peace process the Socialist Party described it more as a ‘repartition process’ than a genuine process of bringing people together. The truth of this analysis can be seen in what is happening today.

The recent elections were probably the most polarised in Northern Ireland’s history. The fighting that is taking place on the ground is about territory.

Loyalist groups are trying to halt the geographical advance of the Catholic population and stop areas becoming mixed. One of the main reasons is to create a climate of fear and confrontation in Protestant working-class areas, so that groups like the UDA can maintain a degree of control and their drug operations can continue.

For republicans the sectarian battle over territory has been conducted under the disguise of a fight for ‘equality’, ‘parity of esteem’ and so on. Socialists are absolutely opposed to discrimination and are for the rights of all groups within society to express their culture without harassment or intimidation.

But there is a difference between this and using the increase in the Catholic population in formerly Protestant areas to gradually change the complexion of these areas, to make them more overtly ‘nationalist’. Many of the flashpoints over parades are in areas that until quite recently were mainly Protestant but which are now mainly Catholic.

What is happening illustrates very clearly the changed nature of the troubles. A recent television documentary about the origins of the ceasefires explained how the IRA tried to reach an agreement with loyalist paramilitaries that they would not shoot each other. Their aim was to emphasise that the war was against Britain, not against the Protestants.

In the early years of the conflict both sides, but especially the republican movement, saw themselves as highly politically motivated. The IRA liked to compare themselves with the African National Congress or other ‘national liberation movements’. So the target was ‘British Imperialism’, not those on the other side of the peace line.

Whatever the motivation, the effect of the IRA campaign was always sectarian. However a long political road has been travelled since the 1970s and 1980s.

The British are no longer viewed as the main problem. Republicans want the British government to act as ‘persuaders’ of the Protestants who are now recognised as the main stumbling block preventing a united Ireland.

The consequence of this and of the naked sectarianism of the UDA is that if there is a full scale return to conflict it will not be to the ‘long war’ and the Troubles as they were. This time the comparisons will not be with the ANC or any other ‘national liberation struggle’ but will be with Bosnia or Macedonia. It would be a sectarian war over territory that would lead towards actual repartition.

It may well be that the opposition of the mass of people to the sectarian killings and attacks will prevent this for now. But there are no grounds for complacency. Even if there is a political deal and the Assembly survives it is quite clearly not a solution. How will it survive the next election when an anti-agreement unionist is likely to be the First Minister with a Sinn Fein member as his or her deputy?

Although this year’s Drumcree protest was relatively quiet, reflecting the impasse affecting all sides, the peace process in the hands of sectarian politicians and paramilitaries will fail.

Left to these people the end result will be a Bosnia. It is urgent that an alternative is found.

What we need is a real peace process based on bringing the communities together and allowing people to set about solving the problem themselves, not relying on the failed sectarian politicians to do it.

We need an initiative from community and trade union organisations to challenge and halt the sectarian attacks. We need these organisations to start to combat the sectarian intimidation and allow people who want to live in mixed communities to do so. The sectarian flags and bunting should come down.

We need a united working class movement to bring Catholics and Protestants together to tackle the real issues of providing decent jobs, decent services and facilities.

The sectarian parties disagree on everything – except how to cut hospitals, privatise our services and excuse employers who pay poverty wages.

We need a working-class party to challenge them and to show Catholic and Protestant workers that there is an alternative socialist way forward that can halt the present slide into sectarian conflict.

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