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Peter Hadden

Headed towards renewed conflict not peace

IRA Decommissioning ... Protestant riots ...

(October 2005)

From The Socialist (Dublin), No. 10, October 2005.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

In other circumstances, the IRA’s decommissioning of much of its stockpile of weapons and ammunition would have been an event of historic significance that would have had a major impact on Northern Ireland.

As it turned out, this long expected move was entirely overshadowed by the road blocks and riots that had shaken Protestant working class areas and had ground much of the North to a halt a few days earlier.

Of these two events it is the rioting that best sums up the current state of the “peace process”. The IRA’s move was not unexpected and signalled no new turn on the part of the republican movement. Rather it was a natural extension of the direction taken by the republican leadership more than a decade and a half ago.

By that time this leadership had come to the conclusion - correctly - that their military campaign was unwinnable. The methods of individual terrorism are a cul-de-sac which can never defeat the power of the State. By the late 1980s, the IRA campaign had effectively run its course.

The political analysis of the leadership also underwent a profound change at this time. Previously they had acted on their understanding that the British ruling class was determined to hold onto Northern Ireland and that the road to a united Ireland was therefore through a campaign to drive the “Brits out”. The Protestants, who were viewed as mere “dupes” of Imperialism, would then come round.

Abandoning this view, they came to accept private assurances from the British establishment that it had no vested interest in holding onto Northern Ireland and that Britain would withdraw and facilitate reunification if a majority of the population were in favour.

Accepting this meant accepting that the basis for a military campaign to force the British out had gone. From here on in the republican leadership’s approach to the British government has been to try to pressurise them to come on board and play the role of, in Sinn Feinspeak, “persuaders“ of the Protestants.

The decommissioning of heavy weapons that they had no intention of ever using therefore represents no new direction by Adams and co. That it has taken more than a decade since the IRA ceasefire to get to this point is because the leadership have had to bring along the rank and file by convincing them the political strategy can deliver and because the existence of the weapons has been a useful negotiating tool which they have been able to use to extract concessions.

The collapse of the talks last December, followed by the Northern Bank robbery and the McCartney killing, meant that the decommissioning process had to be brought to a conclusion. Suddenly finding themselves out in the political cold and in danger of having no coherent political strategy to convince the IRA rank and file, they felt little option but to make this decisive move on weapons.

The reason is not so much to kickstart the talks. Sinn Fein’s main concern is to repair any damage they may have suffered electorally in the South so that they can make the maximum gains in the next Dail election, possibly even putting themselves in a position to enter a coalition government with Fianna Fail.

Mutual blame-game

The “peace process” is really a mutual blame game with each side consistently repositioning itself so that it can blame the other for failure. From Sinn Fein’s point of view, if there is eventually an agreement all well and good, but, if it all comes apart, the fact that they have decommissioned lets them point an accusatory finger at “DUP intransigence”.

Decommissioning also shifts the focus - for the time being - away from the calls for total IRA disbandment which were being made by both governments at the start of the year. Although the means - and the intent - to carry out an armed struggle against the State have gone, and although its future role remains unclear, the IRA still exists.

Not all the weapons have gone. There is no doubt that small arms have been retained supposedly for “personal protection. ” The title “IRA” may go out of use at least for a time, but IRA members in some guise are likely to continue to try to exercise “control” over some working class communities.

IRA members may no longer carry out robberies, but the practice of contracting out criminal activities such as cigarette and fuel smuggling, in return for a cut of the profit is likely to continue.

There are two main aspects to the shift to the right by the republican movement that has been underway since the late 1980s. Most obvious is the attempt by the leadership to become part of the capitalist political establishment. They have gone out of their way to ingratiate themselves with people like Bush and Blair as well as the business and political elite in the south. Sinn Fein Ministers comfortably closed hospitals and sanctioned the privatisation of schools when they were in office in the Northern Assembly.

But the view of Sinn Fein becoming yet another right wing establishment party does not give a complete picture of the current evolution of republicanism. It is only one side of the story.

Through the “peace process” there has been the development of a strident and confrontational brand of right wing nationalism and Catholic sectarianism. Sinn Fein has emerged as its predominant political standard bearer.

This has been a quite natural development given the political analysis developed by the Sinn Fein leadership during the late 1980s. If the British ruling class really are prepared to withdraw, this leaves the million Protestants as the sole remaining obstacle to reunification.

The road to a united Ireland therefore lies through grinding down this resistance, weakening and undermining the position of the Protestants in every possible way, while, at the same time, attempting to do a deal with their Unionist leaders, hoping that at some point there would be a De Klerk like acceptance of the “inevitable“.

All this is based on the illusion that, at some point, when there is recognition of the odds against them, the bulk of the Protestant community will voluntarily accede to a capitalist United Ireland.

The real truth is that the greater the sense of insecurity and threat felt by Protestants the greater their resistance to reunification would be. An erosion of their position, whether through demographic or other change, would, at some point trigger armed resistance and civil war.

Just as the Catholic minority suffered systematic discrimination in the Unionist state, the Protestants now fear that they would become second class citizens in a capitalist United Ireland. There is no possibility of their eventually being “persuaded” to accept this outcome.

Sectarian tug of war

A real peace process would mean a coming together of the two communities and an eventual reconciliation of differences. What has happened in Northern Ireland over the last decade has been just the opposite.

What is still misleadingly referred to as “the peace process” has been a drawn out tug of war between the two communities spearheaded by the two rival sets of sectarian political parties. It has been a war over territory fought out over issues like parades. In a particularly sick recent twist it has become a war over the territory not just of the living but of the dead, with the threat by Protestant bigots to “dig up” and remove Catholic remains from Carnmoney Cemetery!

Eleven years after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires the two communities are more segregated and polarised than at any previous time. Some middle class people, including many commentators, have remained blissfully ignorant of what has been taking place. But for those who live in the working class communities the reality of the increased sectarian polarisation is starkly obvious.

Statistics recently issued by the Institute for Conflict Research, which showed that 14,000 people were forced to move home through intimidation in the decade after the ceasefires, only set out what most working class people know only too well; that sectarian threats and sectarian attacks are now a part of daily life in working class areas.

Why the riots?

This is the background to the widespread riots that erupted in Protestant areas following the blocking of the 10 September Whiterock Orange parade. The immediate trigger may have been the decision to halt the parade and then the heavy handed methods used by the army and PSNI to enforce this ban, but what happened indicates a much more deep seated anger in Protestant working class communities.

In trying to come to terms with what is taking place in Protestant areas it is important to realise that no section of the working class has benefited from the peace process. There has been no “peace dividend”, indeed even the phrase has dropped into complete disuse. Instead there has been an ongoing attack on wages, conditions and services.

The blatant discrimination practiced under the old Unionist state meant that Catholic working class areas suffered higher unemployment and greater levels of poverty. There has been no real alleviation of the poverty in these areas and, according to recent statistics, Catholic still suffer marginally worse poverty and unemployment than Protestants.

While Catholic areas have, at best, stood still, for working class Protestants things have got markedly worse. Three decades of de-industrialisation have seen the total disappearance of much of the manufacturing base, and with it the apprenticeships and job opportunities that once were there for people in areas like East Belfast and East Antrim.

Within the communities there once were social clubs, sports associations etc linked to the factories. In every street there were trade union activists who brought methods of social organisation as well as class ideas from the workplaces into the communities. All this provided a social fabric that gelled together these communities together, a fabric that has now all but gone.

Thirty years ago Protestants were two thirds of the population. There was a Unionist State which purported to represent their interests. Now Protestants are just over 50% of the population and a demographic clock is ticking which points to an eventual Catholic majority, although just when this will be achieved is disputed.

A community in decline

The Unionist State, proclaimed by its well-to-do rulers to be a “Protestant State for a Protestant people” has gone. Protestants feel themselves to be a community in decline faced by a more aggressive and apparently united nationalism, by a Southern government which they view as inherently hostile to their interests and by a British government which they do not trust.

A “peace process” conducted by rival sectarians is inevitably a zero sum game in which one side’s gain is taken by the other side as their loss. The feeling in Protestant areas is very strongly that the current process is a one way street of concessions to nationalists on demilitarisation, policing, prisoners, parades and other issues.

Catholics take a different view, seeing moves by republicans such as decommissioning as never enough for unionism. But decommissioning has done little or nothing to allay Protestant concerns. Of 208 people in Shankill and Glencairn surveyed by the Shankill Mirror, not one believed that the IRA had decommissioned all its weapons and not one thought they would not go back to war.In fact, decommissioning has actually reinforced Protestant fears that the British government has done a secret deal with Sinn Fein which will involve more concessions.

Meanwhile a sense is developing in Protestant working class areas that politics does not work. The DUP, despite their political predominance have been unable to do anything to stop the “concessions”. If politics does not work then “other means” can be justified.

Both the UDA and the UVF have drawn back from political involvement following the failure of their political wings, the UDP and the PUP, to develop. The UVF in particular have been flexing their muscles and received a great deal of support for their campaign over the summer to wipe out the LVF.

The September rioting was in part orchestrated and organised by the paramilitaries, members of the Orange Order and others. But what was most significant in indicating the deep sense of alienation and anger was the quite broad support in working class Protestant areas for what was happening.

The Orange Order would normally distance itself from such violence but its chief spokesman, Robert Saulters, had to articulate the broad mood: “For years we have seen nationalists achieve what they want by violence and the threat of violence. In these circumstances, when frustrated and with no other option, we should not be surprised that some individuals resort to violence.”

A dangerous vacuum

A dangerous vacuum has now opened up in Protestant working class areas. Unless a united working class movement emerges that can provide an alternative, it is likely that sectarian forces will emerge to fill it. Groups have already appeared, such as the “Love Ulster” campaign, which are trying to give a sectarian expression to the anger in Protestant areas.

What has happened should serve as a warning to the labour movement of the dangers of this situation getting out of hand and tilting in the direction of all out sectarian conflict. What happened in September showed how quickly things could unravel. An escalation of the riots could easily have triggered widespread sectarian clashes.

There is no prospect of the “peace process” bringing a solution. Talks that could lead to the restoration of the Assembly are a long way off, if they ever take place.

If the DUP and Sinn Fein did eventually agree to share power, this would be an agreement to rule over an ever more balkanised country and would not last. Its inevitable collapse would almost certainly lead to an even worse situation.

War is the continuation of politics by other means. If the sectarian dog fight that has been the “peace process” breaks down into renewed armed combat it will not be a return to the IRA’s armed struggle mainly against the state, but will be a Balkan style sectarian conflict.

It is only independent action by the working class which can cut across this situation. There is a responsibility on the trade unions and genuine community organisations to act with urgency to begin to provide an alternative that can show a way out for both Catholic and Protestant workers.

Up to now the right wing trade union leadership have signally failed to do so. Instead they cling on to the now discredited and failed “peace process”, issuing feeble pleas to the sectarian politicians to do a deal. This abdication of responsibility by the trade union leadership gives the sectarian organisations a free rein in the working class areas and is contributing to the present situation.

Throughout the Troubles it has been left to rank and file activists in the labour movement to take the initiatives, mobilising workers to action, that have cut across sectarianism. Such an initiative from the left of the movement is essential now.

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