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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland decommissioning crisis

The failure of sectarian politics

(February 2005)

From The Socialist, February 1986.
Copied from the Socialist Party Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE IRA announced on 2 February that it had withdrawn its offer to complete the process of arms decommissioning in Northern Ireland. This was after it was blamed repeatedly for carrying out last December’s raid on the Northern Bank in Belfast.

That announcement has met with widespread scepticism in Northern Ireland. Few people consider that the IRA has the power – or any real wish – to return to a policy of armed struggle and paramilitary action. Neither is it seen, at present, as representing major splits within the IRA or Sinn Fein. Their intention was widely understood as an attempt to put forward a negotiating position with the British and Irish governments.

But the very fact of issuing that statement can wind up sectarian feelings in Northern Ireland. As PETER HADDEN of the Socialist Party in Belfast reports below, it puts even more importance to the task of building a socialist alternative to the sectarian parties that dominate Northern Ireland’s politics.

Talks collapsed

EVEN BEFORE the IRA’s statement, whatever slender chance may have existed that the Northern Ireland Assembly would be up and running this year had gone. It disappeared along with the £27 million stolen from the Northern Bank.

The talks had collapsed before the robbery – after Paisley’s DUP insisted on photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning – and there was already little likelihood that any serious negotiations would take place until this autumn.

Both the Dublin and London Governments laid the blame for the bank heist firmly on the IRA, although neither produced any concrete evidence to back this up. Whether or not the IRA actually carried out the robbery most people think they are guilty.

This perception that they were responsible was putting a potentially insurmountable obstacle in the way of any negotiations. Decommissioning, even if accompanied with reels of photographic evidence, was no longer likely to be enough to satisfy the DUP.

They want the total disbandment of the IRA, and some way of demonstrating that this has taken place. It is hard to see any way this could be done to Paisley’s satisfaction. In any case it is doubtful that the IRA had any intention of completely disbanding.

It may not be proven that they were responsible for the Northern Bank robbery, but there have been other recent large scale robberies that they clearly were behind. There has also been a stepping up of punishment shootings carried out by the Provos.

Blair’s hopes

WITH VERY little chance of a new deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP, the governments in London and Dublin were already looking to the local elections on 5 May and the Westminster election, also which looks likely to be on that date.

They wanted to pin the blame for the talks’ collapse fully on Sinn Fein and the IRA, hoping that the fallout from the Northern Bank would damage Sinn Fein and allow the SDLP to regain its position as the leading nationalist party.

If this were the outcome of these elections the British government could consider the option of a new Assembly election, hoping that a strengthened SDLP would be able to do a deal with the DUP.

All this is likely to prove a forlorn hope. Many Catholics believe that the IRA were responsible for the robbery but this will make little or no difference to the outcome of the election.

Rather than emerging strengthened it is still likely that the SDLP will lose more ground to Sinn Fein. At least two of the SDLP’s three Westminster seats, John Hume’s former seat in Derry included, could go to Sinn Fein.

On the other side the dominance of the DUP over Trimble’s UUP is also likely to be reinforced and the prospects for the Assembly thrown even further back.

The row over photographs and the bank robbery may have triggered the current crisis, but the underlying reasons for the deadlock run much deeper. The ten years since the IRA and then the loyalist “ceasefires” have not seen any reconciliation or any steps towards a real and lasting solution.

During this period the gulf separating protestant and catholic communities, especially the working-class communities, has widened significantly. The sectarian polarisation is much sharper and deeper than it was then.

The “peace process”, in the hands of right-wing and sectarian politicians and right-wing governments, has not been about how sectarianism can be overcome. It has only been about how sectarian politicians can govern a society which they all accept is permanently divided.

The growth of Sinn Fein and the DUP is the political expression of the increased division. Even if – eventually – they do reach some form of agreement, there is no way that it can last.

The deal they nearly reached at the end of last year was an unworkable scheme that would have ended in deadlock and collapse. As commentators correctly pointed out at the time, it was a proposal for the “balkanisation” of Northern Ireland.

Working-class unity

A REAL solution must be build from below by uniting the working-class communities. The potential for this has been shown recently in the support in both protestant and catholic working class areas for the firefighters, civil servants and other workers involved in struggle.

It is also being shown at the moment in the overwhelming opposition to water charges, which the British government are determined to introduce next year.

The Socialist Party have launched a “We Won’t Pay Campaign”, which has been drawing huge support in working-class areas. In some polls as many as 85% of people have said they will not pay this charge.

Campaigns such as this, which cut across the sectarian division, inevitably come into conflict with sectarian forces who want working-class people to stay in their sectarian camps.

Water charges are an especially difficult issue for the politicians as, before the Assembly’s suspension two years ago, the UUP, DUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein all agreed in principle to introduce them.

Sectarian politics has clearly failed – on all counts. The task now is to build an alternative to the sectarian parties that can unite working-class people in the struggle for a socialist solution.

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