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Peter Hadden

Towards Division Not Peace

A Problem Without a Solution


During the 1980s, before they began to contemplate the idea of an inclusive settlement, the British ruling class had come to the conclusion that Northern Ireland, as The Economist at that time put it, was “a problem without a solution”. By the 1990s they were more optimistically considering that the strategy of inclusion might indeed bring a lasting settlement. A year and a half into the new millennium – and seven Drumcrees wiser – they are more soberly coming to the view that the Economist may have been right after all.

On a capitalist basis it is indeed “a problem without a solution”. The “constitutional question” is irresolvable under the present system, more so now than ever. The antagonistic aspirations of Catholics and Protestants on the national question are irreconcilable under capitalism.

Not one of the range of “solutions” from reunification at one pole to independence at the other will work. Each one is merely a different route, albeit at a different pace, to civil war and repartition. Nor will the status quo hold indefinitely. Unless the working class movement emerges to provide an alternative the current arrangements will break down as the demographic and political scales shift in one sectarian direction or another – with disastrous consequences.

No capitalist reunification The option of a capitalist united Ireland is completely unattainable. The million Protestants would fight rather than voluntarily cut their ties with Britain and become a minority in an all Ireland state.

While this is the reality it is an idea that cannot be comfortable accommodated in nationalist thinking. If Protestants can’t be convinced to join a united Ireland the choice for nationalists is either to abandon the idea or else to goose-step them into it at rifle point. But civil war would not bring a clear result any more that it did in Bosnia. The end would be some form of repartition, not really the “end”, only another beginning, a re-siting of the trenches in readiness for the next battles.

Nationalists have always had to find arguments to convince their audience – and themselves – that Protestants will eventually come round. Hence the idea that the Protestants have been bribed and duped by Britain and that the privileges they have received have blinded them to their true “Irish” identity. A declaration from Britain that they were going to withdraw and a determination to carry this through would act like a political and cultural antibiotic and all their “confusion” about identity would “clear up”!

Gerry Adams, in his 1995 book Free Ireland. Towards a lasting peace strongly argues this case:

“Their (Protestants’) political philosophy expresses loyalty to the union with Britain precisely and solely because that union has, to date, guaranteed them their privileges and their ascendancy ... What republicanism has to offer loyalists is equality ... The loyalists have a desperate identity crisis. They agonize over whether they are Ulster Scots, Picts, English or British ... Yet they are not British. Loyalism is not found in Britain itself except as an Irish export. There are no cultural links between the loyalists and the British, no matter how much the loyalists scream about their ‘British way of life’ ... The loyalists are Irish.” (Our emphasis)

It follows, as the Sinn Fein document presented to the SDLP in 1988 argues, that:

“faced with a British withdrawal and the removal of partition, a considerable body of Loyalist opinion would accept the wisdom of negotiating for the type of society which would reflect their needs as well as the needs of all other people in Ireland.”

Wishful thinking is a dangerous base on which to build a political, never mind a military strategy. Sectarian wishful thinking is even more dangerous. Sinn Fein’s concentration since the late 1980s on getting the British to join the “persuaders” is based on the idea that, if the “puppet masters” in Westminster pull the rug from under them, the Protestants will eventually shrug their shoulders and join a united Ireland. There is no acknowledgement that there could be any genuine basis to Protestant opposition to reunification on a capitalist basis. The idea, for example, that Protestants fear becoming a minority that would suffer systematic discrimination, is not even considered.

These fears have always been present and have always ruled out a peaceful path to a united Ireland. They have been greatly reinforced by what has happened over the past decade and a half. As far as the majority of Protestants are concerned the more assertive nationalism that they have confronted in the 1990s, especially as articulated by Sinn Fein, is just a flavour of what things would be like in a united Ireland.

If Orange marches and other expressions of what they see as their culture are challenged in a state that is still part of Britain and in which they are still a majority, what would it be like in a 32 County state? Protestants fear that the attack on their rights would not stop at Orange marches or the flying of flags but would extend to what is taught in schools, how they would be run, to jobs, to facilities and to access to services.

As to culture and identity there is no possibility that Protestants will willingly ready themselves for the straitjacket of cultural uniformity being advocated by Sinn Fein. It is true, as Gerry Adams says, that Protestants are ‘Irish’, but it only true as long as there is a broad and diverse attitude to what this means. It stops being true when it means acceptance and adoption of the narrow definition of “true” Irish culture promoted by nationalists.

It is not true that Protestants, while being Irish, have “no cultural links” with the British. This “either one or the other” approach simply does not fit with the more complex reality. There are cultural links between Protestants and British people as, just as there are also links between Catholics and the British, between Protestants and Catholics and between the people of the north, Protestants included, and those across the border.

Beyond this there is a class identity. The day-to-day life of working class people in any part of Ireland is closer to that of each other and to that of workers anywhere in Britain than it is to the way the members of the Establishment, British or Irish, live their lives.

Events will determine which aspect of Protestant identity is strengthened, or whether the class struggle and a development of class-consciousness will push all this to the background. It will not be decided by republicans assuming the role of ringmaster and laying out a set of ‘cultural’ and ‘national’ hoops for Protestants to jump through.

Protestants – and Catholics – have a right to define their own culture and their own identity and not to have someone determine it for them. When nationalists attempt to do this, and to do it in a hostile way, the only effect is to make Protestants recoil and assert their Britishness even more.

A British declaration to withdraw would not lead Protestants to “accept the wisdom of negotiating” what would in effect be their surrender terms. It would provoke an armed revolt and civil war. If the British government were to cut them adrift and the choice was between a capitalist united Ireland and an independent state, established on the parts of Northern Ireland they could hold by force, the Protestants, en masse would choose the latter.

The 1990s stiffened Protestant resolve to oppose any move towards reunification. The next period is likely to stiffen it further. In one sense the 1990s was the most favourable opportunity for nationalism to win over a significant section of Protestant opinion. This was the period of the Celtic Tiger when the economy of the south roared ahead at a much faster rate than the north.

Wages in the south also grew faster; living standards improved and overtook those in the north. The character of the state changed. It was more urban, more modern. While the Catholic Church was still influential it was no longer the all-pervasive force that it had been in the past.

There was another side, ongoing poverty, corruption, a housing crisis and a creaking infrastructure, but overall the benefits of the boom were clear even through the siphon of the northern media. If ever there was a time when the argument that a united Ireland might materially benefit people in the north could have been made this was it. Yet the fact of the Celtic Tiger made not the slightest impression on Protestant opposition to reunification.

Now the Tiger is beginning to lose its shine. The developing world recession has already had a severe impact. It is most likely that there will be, not just a slowdown from the 9, 10 and 11% growth rates that have recently become ‘normal’, but that the southern economy will come to a shuddering halt and will pitch immediately into recession. The tigerish boom is likely to give way to a tigerish bust.

In the context of what is likely to be a prolonged and severe economic crisis in the south it will be very hard for nationalists to sustain any illusion that Protestants can be gently cajoled into a capitalist united Ireland. While the argument that Protestants can be “persuaded” continues to be advanced as the public position of most nationalists and republicans the case is made with less and less conviction.

Yet, despite the weakening of the old argument, Catholics generally have a stronger than ever sense that a united Ireland is on the cards – not immediately but not in the very long term either. This is an expression of the greater confidence felt within the Catholic community. It doesn’t come from the old nationalist arguments. The new more convincing argument comes from the changing facts on the ground.

It may not be clearly formulated or articulated, certainly not publicly. It is more of an instinctive sense that the Protestant community is in retreat, its ideology is in tatters, its territory is shrinking and that overall its position is untenable. It is a simple sectarian argument that, in the drawn out tug of war. The Catholics are steadily making progress while the Protestants are losing ground; that a salami style advance to a united Ireland is underway.

The idea has two aspects. Most straightforwardly there is the legalistic argument that demographic changes on their own will bring a united Ireland by constitutional means. It is now accepted that, on present demographic trends, there will be a Catholic majority in the north at some future point; in fifteen, twenty, thirty years; no one knows for sure. At that point a democratic vote, so the reasoning goes, could end partition. Then there is the less “constitutional” variant – that, as the State that was once a fortress of Protestant rule crumbles piece by piece, a point will come where Protestants throw up their hands and surrender themselves into a united Ireland.

Neither of these scenarios is possible. Unionists today defend the “principle” of consent by a majority in Northern Ireland. This will remain a “principle” for so long as it delivers the right result for them. If there was a nationalist majority that seemed prepared to vote for reunification more than one thing would turn into its opposite.

Nationalists would demand a vote on the “principles” of consent and majority rule. Unionists would insist that their minority rights should be protected and should not be overridden by the simple “consent” of a majority.

Protestants would not participate in any referendum they would be likely to loose on the border issue, and would not accept the result – just as nationalists dismissed the 1973 border poll as a foregone conclusion and organized a boycott. In any case it is likely that the threat of an imminent Catholic majority would blow the State in its present form apart long before that majority was actually realized.

The idea that Protestants will wait peaceable for the day of their political execution or that they will just surrender when they feel they have conceded too much ground is completely false. There is a critical point on the road of retreat when Protestants would indeed see that the game is up for the State as it is.

This would not bring surrender but revolt, and civil war. The scenario, under capitalism, is not that Protestants will bow to the “inevitability” of reunification. It is that they would end up in the position of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and that they would react in a similar manner.

No Accommodation of Catholics

Understanding that Protestants will not accept a capitalist united Ireland, the only alternative open to the ruling class is to bring the Catholic population to a de facto acceptance of the status quo. This is really what the peace process has been all about. In return for concessions on equality, on demilitarization, on some southern involvement and, with a paper ‘assurance’ that a constitutional route to a united Ireland would be left open, it was hoped that Catholics would, in practice, come to accept partition.

Those who advance this modern version of the old policy of “killing home rule with kindness” fail to take in account the deep sense of alienation felt by virtually the entire Catholic community, but especially and most crucially by the Catholic working class.

For Catholics the Northern Ireland state has meant a half-century of discrimination followed by several decades of brutal and bloody repression. All this has left a deep mark on consciousness, a mark that was never likely to be erased by the concessions that have been offered through the peace process.

Middle class Catholics, especially the better off sections, would be prepared to make do with what has come out of the peace process. For the working class it is a different matter. While Protestants increasingly feel themselves a minority, and a minority whose influence is slipping, working class Catholics continue to see themselves as part of a minority; an oppressed minority who are still very much second-class citizens within the state.

This view has a real foundation. In the past this was the blatant discrimination in jobs and housing. During the troubles it was the military repression that was concentrated most severely in the working class areas. More recently the intimidation, the pipe bombings, the beatings and the shootings carried out by loyalists have reinforced the feeling of being a beleaguered minority. And at all times this sense has arisen from the poverty, the dead end jobs and the low wages that have been an unchanging factor for working class Catholics.

There has been no discernible benefit from the peace process in Catholic working class areas. The only jobs boost has been in “community” work in the NGO type projects that have been encouraged by the state and which proliferate everywhere. When the policy of the ruling class was ‘exclusion’ there was a crackdown on such funding. Such community money as was channelled into Catholic areas was funnelled [through] the Catholic Church and similar ‘safe’ institutions.

When ‘inclusion’ became the aim money was suddenly diverted to a multitude of “community organizations”, most with some link to the republican movement. All sorts of organizations found that grants were available to let them employ full time workers. These openings have mainly gone to people “in the know”, especially to ex-prisoners and others with connections to the republican movement.

For the mass of ordinary Catholics, outside the public sector, there is very little choice but dead end low paid jobs. In some ways, by allowing greater penetration by the state into the Catholic working class communities, the peace process has actually left a lot of people worse off.

This is not just because taxes like TV licenses that were uncollectable in the past are much harder to avoid. More crucially there has been a crackdown on the black economy. In the past a significant number of Catholics were forced into the black economy by the lack of proper jobs. Now some of these avenues have been closed by the New Labour crackdown on benefit entitlement, and by cheap labour schemes like JobSkills and New Deal.

There is a sense in which the Catholic working class are second-class citizens – as are Protestant workers. This is in the sense that all workers are second-class citizens under capitalism. The poverty and hardship that is endemic in Catholic working class areas is the product of a system based on private property and run for profit. Religious discrimination is now only a marginal factor.

True, a genuine “equality agenda” has not and will not be implemented because genuine “equality” including equality of opportunity is impossible under a system whose very essence is inequality and exploitation. The only way the true interests of both Catholic and Protestant workers can be served is by building workers unity in struggle around the problems that are common to all workers.

But in the current circumstances the objective need for the working class to stand together to find a way out has been obscured from common view by the history of the Troubles to this point and by the decline in class-consciousness. The seething anger in the Catholic working class areas has had to find another outlet. In the main it has expressed itself more in a nationalist than in a class manner.

Among the Catholic working class the peace process has not even led to a begrudging acceptance of the constitutional status quo. But neither is consciousness as it was ten or fifteen years ago. There is the same alienation from the state but alongside this there is also a feeling that the state is weaker, and that the changes that are being introduced will undermine it further. And on the other side there is a sense that “nationalists” are more powerful, more capable of forcing the pace of change.

The end result has not been greater integration but greater separation from the state. Whole areas in which nationalist flags, symbols and “culture” are predominant and in which “policing” is partly carried out by paramilitaries now have one foot lifted out of the state. The changes brought about through the peace process have not pushed nationalism to the back of people’s minds as “something for the future”. Nationalism has been strengthened and the possibility of a lasting internal settlement based on securing Catholic allegiance to a Northern Ireland state has been reduced even further.

What has happened demonstrates that there can be no lasting solution on a capitalist basis. But it demonstrates more than this. After a decade which has seen the construction and partial deconstruction of the peace process it is clear that it is also unable of even coming up with any interim agreement that can stabilize the situation for any length of time.

The peace process, because it was based on the exhaustion of the paramilitary forces that had been central to the conflict, and because there was general feeling of war weariness among the population, was about the best chance for this. Yet the peace process, while it saw an agreement at the top, saw also the sectarian polarization increased to an unprecedented degree. All it has done is construct an even more sectarian landscape on which future conflict will be all the more sharply fought out.

World Recession

The events of the 1990s took place against the background of a period of economic growth. The effects, as is explained earlier, may have been marginal but such benefits that there were will be much harder to come by in the period that is now opening up.

Now the world economy is entering a recession that could well turn out to be deep and, rather than give way to a new upturn, could usher in a protracted period of stagnation and crisis. While the capitalist class would like to blame this downturn on the September 11th attack on the US the reality is that the slide to recession had begun before this.

This is more than a cyclical “correction”. Despite the boom of the 1980s and the extended 1990s boom that is now coming to an end the reality is that capitalism has been in a period of acute crisis and stagnation since the end of the long post war upswing in 1974. A feature of this depressionary period is that while the cyclical rhythm of capitalism, of boom and slump, has been maintained the tendency, even through boom periods, is towards the aggravation of the contradictions of the system.

The accumulated contradictions built up through the 80s and 90s point to a period of severe crisis, of economic dislocation and of a contraction of the productive forces. This is now a structural crisis; what Marx referred to as a crisis of overproduction and over investment.

It is not possible for capitalism to find a way out of this crisis through micro economic measures like lowering interest rates or pumping money into the economy. It is not that these measures have no effect, they can extend the life of a boom, but, so long as the fundamental contradictions are unresolved, this is always at the expense of worse pain later.

The only even temporary way out is through the destruction of the forces of production that have been built up, through a process of recession and even slump that will create mass unemployment, lower wages and, by wiping out the Capital that was accumulated during the boom, can over a period create more profitable conditions for new investment.

Capitalism offers only a catastrophic way out that means heaping misery on millions on working people and in turn strains political and social relations to breaking point. In face of the overwhelming economic forces that are pulling the world into recession the efforts of those like Alan Greenspan of the US Federal Reserve who has been elevated to the point of infallibility by some capitalist economists are puny by comparison.

Almost 130 years ago Frederick Engels gave what is a very modern description of capitalist crises:

“Commerce is at a standstill, the markets are glutted, products accumulate, as multitudinous as they are unsaleable, hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed, the mass of the workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence; bankruptcy follows upon bankruptcy, execution upon execution. The stagnation lasts for years; productive forces and products are wasted and destroyed wholesale, until the accumulated mass of commodities finally filter off, more or less depreciated in value, until production and exchange gradually begin to move again.”

The present crisis began in 1997 with the collapse of the Asian tigers and the economic meltdown that then swept this region. This was followed by the collapse of the rouble and a similar catastrophe in Russia. That a general crisis was averted at that point was because the capitalists intervened, especially the Federal Reserve, pumping in money to shore up the financial system and maintain the boom.

But this was merely postponing the inevitable while adding to the price that would eventually have to be paid for the boom years. In the recent period the final factor sustaining the growth in the world economy has been the strength of consumer spending in the US.

The strong dollar, kept artificially strong by the flight of capital from other countries to the “safe haven” of the US, has meant that the US consumer has been able to buy imported goods that are cheap in the US market. This is turn has boosted production and allowed growth in other countries. Two fifths of the increase in global demand over the last five years has come from the US.

There is a limit as to how long the world economy can rest on the single prop of US consumer confidence. Most economists initially feared that the most significant economic effect of the September 11th attacks would turn out to be the blow it delivered to the confidence of the US consumer. Whether this turns out to be the case a blow to confidence is bound to come anyway, if not from the World Trade Centre attack, then from some other source. Even before September 11th redundancies and closures were already mounting into the shape of recession. At some point consumers will decide that the time has come to stop accumulating debts and to cut spending.

What is developing is likely to be a simultaneous world recession. The economies of the US, Europe and Japan are marching in synchronized step towards downturn. The consequences for the rest of the world are likely to be devastating.

How deep the recession will be or how long it will last are questions that cannot be definitively answered at this point. There could be a partial recovery and then another downturn. Or there could be a prolonged crisis, an L shaped recession that would leave the world economy bumping along the bottom for a period of years.

While it is not possible to be definitive when it comes to economic perspectives all the key indicators point in the direction of a downturn that, perhaps through more than one recession, will be deep, and to a protracted period of stagnation. It is possible that there could be a Japanese scenario, a particularly depressing prospect for world capitalism.

Just as the current boom has been extended due to consumer optimism, which in turn has been partially based on the falsely inflated values of stocks on Wall Street and other exchanges, so, during the late 1980s, Japanese consumers had a sense of wealth that was also falsely inflated; in this case by the massively fictitious land values and the idea that credit secured against land was safe because land prices could not fall.

The bubble inevitably burst and when it did the Japanese economy plummeted into a period of stagnation from which, despite the overall growth in the world economy in the 90s, it has been unable to escape. A series of reflationary packages, with billions of yen pumped in to try to kick-start the stalled economy, have failed. Japan is now moving into what will be its fourth recession in ten years.

How Recession Will Hit the Local Economy

Whatever the actual course of the current downturn the effects will be felt in Northern Ireland. Indeed it is clear that the effects are already being felt. Just as the growth in manufacturing during the 1990s was at a faster pace in Northern Ireland than in Britain so the first stages – at least – of the contraction have been steeper. Between the first and second quarters of this year manufacturing output fell by 4.8%, as against an average fall for the UK of 2%.

The high technology industries, where most of such growth in manufacturing employment as did take place in the 1990s was concentrated, has not escaped the global contraction of these sectors. 2001 saw 1,000 jobs lost in the electronic and technology sector with firms like Daewoo, Nortel, Valence, AVX, Radix Telecom and Fujitsu all announcing redundancies. In addition many of the 7000 high tech jobs that, according to the IDB were in the pipeline, have been cancelled as multinational companies have dropped their expansion plans.

On top of this there is the continued crisis in the textile sector where the pace of decline has quickened with the latest fall of 17% representing the steepest drop since 1980. 2,000 jobs are under threat at Shorts where the Bombardier owners are using the events of September 11th as a cover for cutbacks.

Agriculture has gone through a period of depression from which it has not been able to recover. The Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre (NIERC) estimate that, coming on top of a slump that saw farm incomes plummet at the end of the 1990s, the effects of the Foot and Mouth crisis will not be overcome until 2003. They expect agricultural output to fall by 1.2% in 2001 and by 3.7% in 2002.

Tourism was looked to as the underdeveloped area of the economy that would blossom in a peace process. Even today some economic pundits point to this sector, as a recent (October 39th) article in the Financial Times put it, as “just one facet of an economic surge that has come as a benefit of the peace process.” This article argues that: “if new hotels are an indicator of a city’s health, then Belfast is in remission. In recent years at least six, including a Ramada, a Hilton and a Posthouse have appeared on the skyline, and employment in hotels and restaurants has risen 50 percent.”

This was written in the wake of what it refers to as “the IRA’s momentous arms move” and is an attempt to talk up the “feel-good factor” among the business community by pointing to the possibility of political stability. Yet even the figures it gives show that, whatever the changes to the downtown Belfast skyline, the growth of Tourism during the peace process has been extremely limited. Its contribution to the domestic economy has risen from 1% to 1.7%, a figure, as the Financial Times acknowledges, that is “meagre compared with the Republic of Ireland or England.”

Leaving aside the fact that the jobs created have been low wage, often part time and menial, those who paint a rosy picture of the future growth of the hospitality sector do so on the false idea that the sectarian conflict being waged on a daily basis on the streets is going to give way to “stability”.

They also ignore the general effects of the world recession – and the specific effects of September 11th – in cutting the numbers of outside visitors likely to fill the new expensive Hotels in Belfast and elsewhere. While it is impossible to precisely predict what effect the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent “war against terrorism” will have in persuading US citizens to stay at home, the NIERC estimate that its effect will be to knock at least £45 million off revenue from Tourism in 2002.

It is not ruled out that the British Government will put in some additional money in order to try to keep some semblance of a peace process in place. The heavy dependence on the public sector is likely to continue. Both the Westminster Government and the local Executive – if it continues to exist – may be forced to some degree to step back from their present economic canon of privatization, PFI, PPP etc. so as to allow the public sector to provide a partial buffer against the impact of recession.

What is clear is that the economic backcloth to the next stage of the “peace process” will be less favourable than before. The effects of any funding that may be put in will be more than countered by the effects of recession, especially the loss of skilled, better paid jobs in manufacturing.

There will be no regeneration or even sense of regeneration of the impoverished working class areas where the conflict is sharpest. Services like Health, Education, Housing and Transport are likely to continue to suffer from massive under funding.

No Breakthrough

Recession creates much less favourable terrain for new negotiations and new efforts to keep the Assembly and the Good Friday agreement from collapse. Yet it was not just the Financial Times that hailed the decommissioning by the IRA of some of its weapons as a major breakthrough that would put the peace process back on track. Most other newspapers hailed this “historic step” and, for the first time in a month, the “war against terrorism” was not the headline news.

Even Colin Powell, short of good news given what was taking place in Afghanistan and the Middle East, held up what was happening in Northern Ireland as an example of how “peace processes” should work. This reasoning is based on an illusion that, after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, there were a number of issues outstanding, especially policing, decommissioning and parades, and that once these hurdles were crossed there would be both a comprehensive settlement and lasting peace.

This ignores the underlying destabilizing factors, the growing insecurity of Protestants, the undiminished anger of the Catholic working class, the changing demography and the poverty, all of which together mean that the national antagonisms are set to increase, not diminish, on the basis of capitalism. The old disputes over parades and policing, the new disputes over access to schools and the future disputes on other issues that have not yet arisen, are all symptoms of the more fundamental problems. None can be fully resolved on the basis of this system.


Even the decommissioning issue is not about to simply melt away despite the fact that, in republican terms, the step taken by the IRA is hugely significant. As long ago as the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement the leadership of the republican movement were probably reconciled to the fact that some form of decommissioning would be needed.

This is why they went to the lengths of negotiating a procedure that would allow this to happen away from the cameras, verified only by the International Commission, and were also careful of the language, agreeing that arms “would be put beyond use”, not handed over.

For the leadership there has been no question but that the “war is over”. They have long recognized that the “long war” was un-winnable and, once the ceasefire was in place, had no serious intention of going back down this road. Their sights are now fully set on strengthening their electoral base, especially in the south.

They hope to make a significant breakthrough over one or two elections, expecting that at some point they will be able to enter a Coalition government leaving them as the only party to hold Ministerial positions, north and south. With this in mind the weapons of what to them is a former war are just unnecessary ballast that weighs against their strategy and that would be better discarded.

The problem – and the delay in decommissioning – has been largely down to the fact that the rank and file of the republican movement were not ready for such a gesture. In the years since the Agreement the Adams leadership has gradually prepared the ground for movement on weapons without provoking any significant split.

Two recent events have left little or no room for any serious opposition. First there was the arrest of three republicans in Colombia and the subsequent revelations of IRA links with FARC. This would not have caused much concern in the working class areas where Sinn Fein is strong. In some ways it may have helped counter the notion that the leadership has “gone soft” and reinforced the belief that they have been cleverly pulling the wool over the eyes of the British Government all along.

But – whether they knew about the FARC links all along or not – these public revelations caused a predictably hostile reaction among the US administration and those members of the US establishment with whom Adams, McGuinness and co had long been trying to curry favour. It is possible that sections of the British security services, who must have long known about the FARC connection, may have helped set up these arrests so as to increase the pressure, especially from the US, for decommissioning.

Then came the September 11th attacks on the twin towers. This was an event that has reshaped history. The twin towers when standing may have cast a physical shadow over lower Manhattan. In the method of their destruction they have cast a political shadow over the globe, altering world relations. That shadow has extended to Northern Ireland.

One consequence has been to erase, at least for a period, any possible basis for a return to a sustained campaign of individual terrorism. While many workers have deep and growing reservations or are opposed to the so-called “war against terror” conducted by the US against Afghanistan they remain deeply repulsed by the horror that was inflicted on New York in September.

The mass of workers in Ireland, north and south, share this sense of revulsion. This has drained the possible reservoir of support – already quite dry after the Omagh bomb – for any future acts of individual terror whether carried out by the IRA or by one of the republican splinter groups.

Republicans who hold to the idea that there should be a return to armed struggle against Britain face the difficulty that, if the New York attack did not weaken the US administration, but only succeeded in provoking the US and Britain to go war, the much smaller scale activities of republicans could not hope to force the hand of any British government. In any case the first question asked if there is any future attack in London or any British city will not be which wing of republicanism carried it out but whether it was the work of Bin Laden’s Al Qaida network.

The September 11th attack was a reactionary act of mass terror designed to cause the maximum number of civilian casualties. It was different in character, scale and objective from the individual terrorism of the IRA, the PLO and other similar groups. Without prettifying these campaigns all of which resulted in the deaths of many civilians this was never the central objective. Nonetheless any future actions by republicans will place them, as far as the mass of people are concerned, in the Bin Laden school of terrorism.

After September 11th a return to armed struggle was no longer an option and not just for the IRA leadership; it was not something that could be seriously contemplated by the republican rank and file. With the focus of attention diverted for a period to world events the leadership were able to break with a central tenet of republican philosophy and put some arms “beyond use” – with hardly a ripple of opposition from even “traditionalist” areas like South Armagh.

This does not mean that the decommission hurdle has been crossed or that the issue has been laid to rest. After decommissioning the issue for anti agreement unionists will be “more decommissioning”. There will be the demand not just for details of what arms are now “beyond use” but for assurances that decommissioning is a continuous process and for a deadline by when it will be completed.

It is quite possible that the IRA leadership, perhaps through an uncomfortable process of fits and starts and of further cliffhanging crises in the peace process, may put the bulk of their stockpiled weapons “beyond use”. This would create some political breathing space but, even then, the decommissioning question would probably not go away entirely.

The war as it has been fought may be definitively over for the IRA but the conflict is not over, nor is the IRA about to dissolve itself. It will retain some weapons come what may. With a sectarian conflict intensifying on the ground and with systematic attacks taking place against Catholics, republicans are not likely to leave themselves open to the charge made against their forebears after August 1969 that the areas were left defenceless. If the peace process further unravels there will be a tendency for the republican movement to get drawn into a new war of a different character, a sectarian war against Protestants. The outlines of what would then happen are already present in what is taking place at the sectarian interfaces in Belfast and in towns and villages across Northern Ireland.

There have already been shooting incidents, some of which have been put down to republicans, although the bulk may have been carried out by the INLA or by dissident groups. Should this continue, as is likely if the situation worsens, and should evidence emerge that the IRA is involved, anti agreement unionists will set out to ensure that the loud noise of republican weapons in use on working class streets weighs heavier in Protestant thinking than the silent and invisible decommissioning of weapons in arms dumps.


Just as crossing the decommissioning hurdle is likely to present more decommissioning hurdles so with other contentious issues like parades and policing. Unable to get full agreement from Sinn Fein the British government have decided to go ahead and introduce changes to policing largely based on the recommendations of the Patten report. They calculate that Sinn Fein, like the hard line unionists, will put up little more than token opposition.

The new policing structures represent no fundamental change. True, it is intended that the blatant sectarian features of the RUC be erased over time. If this can be done what would remain would still be a centralized police force: more professional; yes, less sectarian; yes, but still a repressive arm that the state can extend into working class areas.

If a renamed and revamped police force has to deal with rioting or with disputes over parades and other questions – as is certain – whatever new image it presents for itself will quickly become tarnished. Its sectarian make up will be a secondary question to the role it plays and the methods it uses. The fact that the RUC is a Protestant force has not prevented it coming into collision with people in the Protestant working class communities on many occasions. Nor has it diminished the anger that has been directed towards it from these areas.

“Even-handedness” in clamping down equally on Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and republicans, is unlikely to build support or make a new police force acceptable to both communities. More likely, were such a policy to continue, it would end being viewed with increasing hostility and suspicion by both.

If Protestants feel the brunt of police repression it will increase suspicions that the state is turning against them: that the RUC has been done away with so that a new police force could implement the agenda of “creeping republicanism”. On the other hand if the police are used to clear roads for Orange parades or implement other decisions that are opposed by nationalists the view in Catholic areas will be that nothing has changed: that the RUC has reappeared in slightly different colours and with different emblems and a new name but with the same riot shields, the same batons and the same methods.

Sinn Fein is initially likely to keep an arms length attitude to the new policing arrangements, refusing to endorse them, but at the same time careful not to mount enough opposition to prevent them coming into being. This will colour the attitude of the Catholic working class and make it less likely that there will be a flood of applications from the youth in the more hard line areas.

Over a period the Sinn Fein leadership may soften its position and nominate a representative to the new Policing Board using the argument that this is necessary in order to exercise control and achieve change from within. This might soften also the hostility of Catholics to joining for a period.

In the long run even if Sinn Fein were to line up with every other party in giving a ringing endorsement to the new “Police Service of Northern Ireland” it would not make a fundamental difference. If they held to such a position they would find themselves increasingly out of touch with their own grassroots support.

In 1970 John Hume and those who were emerging as the leadership of the SDLP had an immense authority in Catholic areas. They not only fully endorsed the decision to replace the B Specials with the Ulster Defence Regiment, they issued a call for Catholics to join the new force. Years later the UDR had to be abolished after a history that had made it every bit as hated in Catholic areas as the B Specials.

We can leave open the question whether all the proposed changes in the policing will ever be fully put into effect – although it is very difficult to see how this will be done. The question cannot be considered in a vacuum. All the proposals in the Patten report assume a degree of stabilization – over a prolonged period – that is extremely unlikely to come about. Even the proposal to drastically cut police numbers can only be implemented if the violence subsides.

The idea that there will be a gradual increase in Catholic recruitment until the police reflect the overall demographic balance also depends in what is happening in society in general. There was a similar intention with the UDR but this was entirely cut across by events.

As far as the ruling class is concerned the RUC have been professionalized and are doing the job that is necessary. The problem is one of image and of composition. Patten was set up to come up with proposals for a force which would have a new image and a changed religious composition, but which would carry on doing exactly as the RUC is doing.

It may be that they will go some way with this in the short term and that they can hold together a police force that is lifted above the conflict and comes down against both sides. But, as the 1970s showed, it is very difficult for the State to balance between two sides in an escalating conflict. Even if it is purely for pragmatic reasons there is an unavoidable tendency to come down on one side, to deal with one problem at a time.

When it comes to the British army the ruling class can more easily turn it in one direction or another. The army is a direct instrument of the British state and is made up of people from outside Northern Ireland with little or no connection with either local community.

With a locally recruited police force it is different. The recruits are drawn from the working class communities and no matter how much they are inoculated by professional training and big salaries they are ultimately subject to the pressure of those communities.

The strains of ongoing sectarian conflict will reflect themselves inside the police. Should this conflict escalate, the police, no matter how successfully it had changed its image or balanced its recruits, would tend to lean in one sectarian direction or the other. The more balanced its composition the greater the likelihood that it would come apart under this pressure.


The issue of parades has been the most divisive and destabilizing question to emerge during the peace process. Even more than policing and decommissioning, and despite some illusions to the contrary, it is not an issue that is set to die away.

Each year the police issue statistics to “prove” that in the vast majority of cases parades are uncontroversial; thousands pass off without protest or incident while only a handful are contested. If only a few disputes could be resolved, so the argument goes, there would be no difficulties.

This wishful thinking ignores what the whole thing is about. There are rights on both sides – the right of marchers to march and the right of residents not to have their lives disrupted by parades they find offensive. Our position – for these rights to be upheld and, where they conflict with each other, for negotiation to arrive at a compromise acceptable to both sides – is the only solution.

It would not be difficult to work out the terms of a compromise – if it really was only a dispute over these rights. In a few cases, where there has been a willingness to negotiate, there have been agreements that have held and the issue has died down.

Even at Drumcree the Orange Order on paper accept most of the conditions on marches that we have advocated as reasonable. And the residents have on occasions said that they would be prepared to allow the proposal that there should be a parade, under certain agreed conditions, along the Garvaghy Road.

But in general there have not been agreements, even when face-to-face negotiations have taken place. The few glimpses of light that have occasionally registered at Drumcree have soon faded into the sectarian gloom. The reason is that, for the people on both sides who are whipping this issue up, it is not really a dispute over rights; it is part of a much broader sectarian agenda. That is why we have gone further and demanded that the working class movement in the form of local shop stewards and genuine community activists should intervene to put pressure on the sectarian intransigents on both sides to settle the issue.

The disputes over parades stem from a number of things, the opposition to the Good Friday Agreement for example, but fundamentally they are about territory. This is a battleground, the most pronounced and obvious battleground, on which the long drawn out war over territory is being fought. It is this that makes complete nonsense of the idea that it is only a problem of a handful of disputed parades.

As the front lines in the territorial war change so the areas where parades are disputed and “not welcome” will change also. Areas where there was no controversy will become controversial. It is not a problem of four or five bitterly disputed parades, it is a problem of a virtually unlimited number of potential disputes.

Drumcree provides an illustration of this. Whatever uneasy stalemate has been reached through steel, concrete and miles of razor wire will inevitably break down. The outward leg of the Drumcree parades, presently uncontested, goes along the Corcrain Road. The Corcrain Road is mixed but the clear trend is for the bottom end, closer to Portadown town centre to remain Protestant while the upper part of the route becomes Catholic.

Meanwhile the Craigavon area plan has designated land for building 400 homes on sites between the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree church. One is to be built on the side road used by the Orangemen to get to the church. On present trends these will, without doubt, become Catholic estates. So the Achilles heel of the Protestant bigotry that keeps Catholics away from the town centre is that this is fast creating an extensive Catholic quarter that will within a short period cut off every access route to Drumcree church.

The point has already been raised in the recent attempts at negotiations. The Garvaghy residents passed a document to the Orange Order offering a “compromise”. This was that, provided the Order accepted that it would never again march along the Garvaghy Road, the residents would agree not to object to future marches along the Corcrain Road. This was accompanied with “advice” that the Orange Order would be better accepting this now before demographic changes leave them on weaker ground in the future.

The offer may have been intended as a concession but the Orange Order took it as a threat and refused. If the sectarian polarization continues to intensify as it has done since the mid 1990s the yearly standoff could be in Portadown town centre as the Orangemen find their outward march to Drumcree blocked. Rather than Drumcree the word Corcrain could be flashed around the world as a new epicentre of the sectarian conflict.

What is being enacted in Portadown is being enacted, perhaps less visibly and dramatically, in a whole number of areas across the north. Population changes in Belfast already mean that there are very few main routes in and out of the city that do not pass through what are now mainly Catholic areas.

Unless there is a movement of the working class to cut across the sectarian division the demographic changes are bound to fuel further disputes over parade routes. The intensity of these disputes may vary but until such times as a united working class movement can cut across sectarianism the issue itself is irresolvable.

Repartition – A Real Danger

Parades, policing, decommissioning, and other similar issues that will arise are all symptoms of a much deeper sectarian conflict that has been intensifying through the peace process. The survival of the Assembly for a further period would not mean that there would be any real political stabilization.

Rather it would be a return to things as they were – to sectarian mud slinging and brinkmanship on one issue after another. A fragile and volatile agreement may remain in place at the top. Meanwhile the process of division is likely to continue at the bottom.

Beneath whatever wafer thin agreement is reached between politicians at the top the conflict is set to continue – and is likely to intensify – in its current form as a war between rival sectarian camps over territory. Demographic changes provide this “war” with a perpetual impetus. They act like a cancer eating away at the foundations of any temporary agreements that may be reached.

Sooner or later, unless a movement of the working class intercedes to cut across sectarianism, the increased polarization will bring the whole thing crashing down. This could come through paralysis over some sectarian issue that may arise. Or it could come when future election results bring a shift to the more hard-line sections of unionism and nationalism and make it impossible to elect the First Minister, never mind his deputy or the Executive.

In the absence of a class alternative disillusionment with the Assembly and the peace process would take a sectarian form. It would mean a hardening of attitudes and a strengthening of the more hard line forces on both sides. This would not be a uniform or an even process but over a period, if no alternative were provided to cut across the sectarianism, it would be an unmistakable trend.

On the Catholic side this would likely take the form of the development of confrontational moods and the strengthening of those voices that echoed these moods. If the Sinn Fein leadership continued on the present “constitutional” road, putting their relations with establishment figures in the US and elsewhere, and their desire to end up in government in the south, above the pressures of the Catholic community, they could end up out of touch; much as Yassir Arafat has ended out of touch with the increasingly combative Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.

If this happened divisions would open within Sinn Fein, but not in the form of an opposition developing and moving to the left. Nor would those dissidents arguing for a return to the armed struggle gain much of an echo. Rather the main opposition would be from the most trenchant sectarians; those engaged in the day to day confrontations at the sectarian interfaces and over issues like parades, and who would be opposed to any pulling back by the leadership on these questions.

It is looking too far ahead to try to judge whether Sinn Fein as a whole would respond by pulling back from the search for a political accommodation in the north or whether the dissent that would develop would lead to serious fractures. What is certain is that the Sinn Fein leadership will not be able indefinitely to tie the Catholic community to support a political and “peace” process on the promise that it contains a “dynamic” for change that does not come.

Likewise on the Protestant side – and again unless class issues come to the fore and throw the tendency to increased polarization into reverse – the future unravelling of the peace process is likely to see hard line voices strengthened at the expense of the message that was put forward by the PUP in the earlier, more hopeful, period when they emerged as a force. As has already been explained it is clear that the more polarized situation that developed since the mid 1990s has thwarted the PUP’s rise.

An uneasy stand off has emerged between the UVF and the UDA/LVF. No clear victors emerged from the bitter feud that was fought out mainly in North and West Belfast in the summer of 2000. Rather it resulted in a clearer division of territory between these groupings, an inter-factional repartition within the context of overall process of creeping repartition along the fault line of religion. Although this feud was called off the bitter rivalry and the struggle between these groups for territory continues to be fought out in low intensity clashes and occasional killings across much of the north.

Individual PUP leaders like David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson have been able to retain a significant base of support but the party was not able to make significant inroads outside their constituencies. Among the mass of the Protestant working class Ervine and Hutchinson have far more respect than the anti agreement loyalists regrouping against them in the UDA and LVF. The broad view of Protestants is correctly that these are mainly thugs who are run by drug dealing barons who have grown rich out of the Troubles.

But among the alienated Protestant youth, the constituency where the UVF competes for recruits with the UDA/LVF, there is clearly a drift to the more hard-line organization. Young people who are spoiling for a fight are more like to join the organisation that appears to be fighting – as the Official IRA found after their 1973 ceasefire.

Unless the working class offers young working class Protestants the hope that, through a different kind of struggle, they can achieve a decent future, there is a danger that the lumpenisation of areas and the penetration of drugs will tilt the paramilitary balance towards the UDA/LVF. Alternatively the UVF may feel compelled to put themselves forward as the real “defenders” of Protestant areas and their cease-fire may come under impossible strain

Capitalism has no answer, neither for the short term nor for the long term. Only the working class, uniting in struggle for a socialist solution, can offer a way out. It this is not done the present “repartition” process will continue. Again unless this is cut across it will lead ultimately to civil war and actual repartition.

Thirty years ago a civil war would have meant the expulsion of most of the Catholic population from the north and the creation of a truncated state with an overwhelmingly Protestant population. Many of the Catholics would have ended up, Palestinian style, as refugees living across the new border in a southern state that would have been unable to absorb them. And Middle East style instability would have been the result.

Today the changed demography means that there would be a somewhat different outcome. Depending on where the boundaries are drawn a majority of the population of Belfast are now Catholic. Civil war would more likely end in the border areas and much of the west separating from the state but elsewhere in a Bosnian type patchwork including the possible partition of Belfast.

This nightmare scenario would be a massive defeat for the working class movement throughout Ireland. It would throw back the movement in Britain also. The question of questions is whether or not the working class will be able to prevent this disaster from taking place.

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Last updated: 31 August 2016