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Peter Hadden

Stop the slide into conflict

(August 2001)

From Socialist Voice, August 2001.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WILL THE proposals from the Dublin and London governments break the political impasse over the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement? Without substantial movement from the IRA on decommissioning there is little or no chance.

There is not enough in this package to tempt David Trimble back to his First Minister’s chair. It is not that he does not want to remain in his well-paid job. He no longer has the support within his own party, or among unionist voters, for the continuation of the Executive without decommissioning.

Even with concessions on other issues David Trimble would face a revolt and probably be removed if he signed up to anything that did not include substantial decommissioning. This is the degree to which those opposed to the Agreement have succeeded in making this the central issue for unionists.

Recognising this, the government’s proposals offer very few concessions to Trimble. In the main, they are a promise of concessions to Sinn Fein to entice the IRA to disarm. There is a hint that the Mandleson changes to the Patten recommendations will be put aside and the government will return to Patten. There are also suggestions of movement on demilitarisation.

Sinn Fein would clearly like to get the Assembly back up and running. The majority of the IRA leadership have no intention of going back to a ‘long war’ and would be prepared to offer some form of decommissioning.

The problem they have is that the government proposals are hints and suggestions rather than specific promises. There will be a revised Implementation Plan on Patten – sometime in the future. Demilitarisation will take place depending on the ‘Chief Constable’s assessment of the threat at the time.’ Plastic bullets will not be used ‘except where there is a serious risk of loss of life.’ And so on. We have to wait and see what the republican movement will do but it is hard to see them taking any major step in the short term, especially when the UDA cease-fire has clearly broken down and members of this organisation are carrying out daily pipe bombings and regular shootings.

It is therefore most likely that the mid-August deadline for the nomination of First and Deputy First Minister will pass without agreement. The Blair government will then have the choice either to call new Assembly elections or to suspend it for a period.

They are unlikely to choose the option of elections. If the trends shown in the Local Government and Westminster elections were maintained, a new Assembly election would very likely produce an anti-Agreement unionist as First Minister with a Sinn Fein Minister as his or her deputy.

The other option of a suspension seems the most likely. The governments will then hope that the IRA can be pressurised into making a significant enough movement on weapons to allow the suspension to be eventually lifted. At the moment, the chances of any such breakthrough seem slender. Even if some deal is eventually put together and the Assembly is at some point restored this will not be a solution. Whatever happens to the political institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, it is no longer possible to talk of a ‘peace process’. What is taking place now is more akin to a long drawn out war fought over territory than to peace.

This failure is a failure of sectarian politics. The idea of the Good Friday Agreement was that the sectarian politicians would come together according to an agreed formula in the Executive. Meanwhile, these same parties have spent their time and energy-keeping people divided so that they continue to vote along sectarian lines.

Even if the Assembly is re-established, so long as working class people stay divided, the divisions these people help maintain would tear it down at some point.

The danger is that when the mask of ‘political progress’ is stripped away all that will be left will be the battle on the ground, fought out street by street, for control of areas. Unchecked, this is the road to a Bosnia, a situation in which there will be no winners and in which working class people, Catholic and Protestant, will be the definite losers.

The slide into sectarian conflict can be stopped, but not by relying on the governments, the sectarian parties or the paramilitaries who, collectively, have brought us to this point.

United action by working class people can force the bigots to call a halt and at the same time can begin to spell out an alternative to sectarian politics. Trade union and community activists must act now with urgency to mobilise those in the workplaces and the working class communities against the bigots.

We need protests, demonstrations and strikes to bring people onto the streets and show that there is an alternative. The first target must be the paramilitary thugs who rise to the surface in a situation like this.

But it should not stop at them. The sectarian politicians have created the conditions that breed these people. A united working class movement should also offer a challenge to them in elections. A mass party of the working class, based on the trade unions and community organisations, could offer a socialist alternative to the sectarian and right wing politics of all the major parties.

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Last updated: 4.3.2012