1990-1997 The peace process
The changed world situation after 1990 gave all these processes a further impetus. The collapse of Stalinism was followed by the display of US military might in the Gulf war. This was the "new world order" in which one world superpower appeared absolutely dominant.
In the previous era national liberation movements - and groups like the Provisionals - felt that the dominant conflict between the two superpowers gave them a certain space in which to manoeuvre. Now, in the uni-polar world created by the process of capitalist restoration in the former Stalinist states, they felt this space contract.
The feeling that there was little choice but to do Washington's bidding was an important factor in the Middle East. It influenced those Palestinian groups who had previously leaned to Moscow. Their leaderships began to buckle to US pressure and shifted more and more to the idea of a negotiated settlement brokered by the US. The same pressure bore down on the republican movement. It confirmed and reinforced the drift to the right that was already underway, especially at the top.
The republican leadership had already abandoned the "go it alone" stance of the first decade and a half of the Troubles. The talks with the SDLP were aimed at creating a broad nationalist bloc that could put pressure on the British government. Beyond the SDLP they were trying to court favour with the southern political establishment for the same ends. Sinn Fein's initial response to Hume suggested: "That Sinn Fein and the SDLP join forces to impress on the Dublin government the need to launch an international and diplomatic offensive to secure national self determination."
Ultimately they reacted to the fact of one dominant world power by striving to bring the weight of that power on "their side". Elements within the US establishment encouraged this trend. Over a period of years Sinn Fein leaders were shown the benefits of doors opening onto the Washington gravy train.
They were courted by prominent US business men, people like Bill Flynn, Chairman of a multi million dollar insurance corporation and Chuck Feeney, a billionaire who had build a fortune out of the airport duty free business. The Sinn Fein leaders quickly accepted the overtures and, as the political path from Connolly House to Capitol Hill became well worn, they ended, not just accepting US involvement, but encouraging and praising its "positive contribution".
The fact that an organisation, nominally conducting a struggle against "Imperialism" could try to enlist the "benign" intervention of the greatest Imperialist power on earth indicated the ideological shallowness of the republican leadership and confirmed their rapid evolution to the right. Any references Adams or other leaders might make to "anti-Imperialism" or to a "national liberation struggle" were starkly and obviously at odds with the new pragmatic course they were on.
The final missing piece that would complete this ideological change would be Sinn Fein's acceptance that Britain was prepared to withdraw. If the British government could also be brought "on side" there would only be one obstacle to be broken to bring about a united Ireland - the resistance of the Protestants.
If Westminster could potentially become an ally and if the real enemy are identified as the people they formerly dismissed as the "dupes" of Westminster the basis of the conflict becomes very different. Sinn Fein's evolution along these lines over the course of the 1990s is fundamental to understanding how the nature of the Troubles changed during this period.
The initial round of discussions between Hume and Adams stalled over how Irish self-determination could be exercised. Sinn Fein still refused to accept the idea of consent by the people of Northern Ireland before there could be any constitutional change. Nor had they fully come round to the view that the British, but for Protestant opposition, would prefer to withdraw or that this had in fact been the case since before the current IRA campaign even began. Their reluctance to quickly draw these conclusions is not surprising since to do so meant to destroy the entire ideological foundation on which the republican movement had been built since the split in 1969.
The contacts with the SDLP were maintained. So were the secret explorative conduits that had been set up with intermediaries acting on behalf of the British Government. From their point the British were by now seriously probing the possibility that the IRA might declare a ceasefire. The Irish government, tutored by Hume, were also looking in this direction. A big section of the loyalist paramilitary leadership were also prepared to explore the possibility that a permanent IRA ceasefire could be delivered and that this might open the prospect of a negotiated settlement.
The greatest hesitancy was on the unionist side, especially - and predictably - from the DUP. But things had moved on from 1985 when the rage of Protestants at the Anglo Irish Agreement had briefly united the leaders of the two main unionist parties in opposition. The Agreement remained, albeit only on paper.
Flowing from the Agreement the Tory government at Westminster introduced changes, such as the Public Order Act and the repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act: both looked on as concessions to nationalists. A section of the UUP leadership concluded that if they did not make some concession to try to get a deal that would "secure the Union", they would end up having a less favourable deal imposed upon them.
In 1992 the Major government made one last attempt to come up with a settlement through talks that did not include Sinn Fein. The Brooke-Mayhew talks involved the UUP, DUP, SDLP and Alliance Party. The loyalist paramilitaries responded with an undeclared ceasefire to provide space for negotiations.
On the agenda were the same proposals, in outline form, that would provide the framework for the discussions that eventually led up to the Good Friday Agreement. But in the absence of Sinn Fein - or of an IRA ceasefire - it was a little bit like Hamlet without the prince. The talks eventually broke down, leaving the ruling class with only one option - "inclusion" not "exclusion".
At the top, among the governments, the political parties and the paramilitary leaderships, the main leaning was now to a "peace process" that would involve Sinn Fein as well as the loyalist paramilitaries. The precondition had to be a ceasefire by the IRA and by loyalists. For the first time since the start of the Troubles there was a possibility that both could be achieved. Contacts between the British and Irish governments and the various paramilitary organisations were aimed at preparing the ground for ceasefires and inclusive talks.
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But a change in attitudes at the top of society, among government ministers or in the leaderships of the political parties would not in itself create the conditions for ceasefires and talks. More fundamental was what was taking place within society and, most importantly, within the working class. In fact there were two contradictory processes at work. One was in the direction of sectarian polarisation and conflict. The other was towards accommodation and peace.
Twenty years of conflict had greatly deepened the sectarian division. The tendency towards new integrated housing that had existed in the 1960s had been thrown into sharp reverse. By the 1990s most people lived in areas that were almost entirely Protestant or Catholic. The working class areas were the most polarised.
The sectarian division was not only physical. Years of upheaval had profoundly affected attitudes. The IRA campaign had left a deep mark on the Protestant population. The Protestant sense of insecurity that had emerged with the Anglo Irish Agreement had deepened. Demographic changes that had been underway for some time were now clearly altering the sectarian balance in favour of Catholics. The idea of a Protestant State for a Protestant people was gone and gone for good. Instead there was a growing feeling of uncertainty and a sense that the Protestants were becoming an embunkered minority.
In this climate of growing insecurity the loyalist paramilitaries were able to recruit a new layer of working class youth. Although the sectarian excesses of the paramilitaries repelled most Protestants, in the more polarised atmosphere there was a greater acceptance of their existence than at any previous time. Working class Protestants would commonly talk - for the first time - about "our paramilitaries".
Catholics emerged from twenty years of repression, from the trauma of the hunger strikes and from the sectarian murder campaigns of the UDA, and UVF, with a much-deepened sense of alienation from the state. Virtually the whole weight of the conflict had fallen on the working class areas and it was here that the sense of alienation was greatest.
Sinn Fein was the main beneficiary. In the absence of a sustained class movement, either locally or internationally. To provide an alternative reference point, it was the nationalist ideas of Sinn Fein that became the dominant ideas in the main Catholic working class areas.
The one common factor underlying the anger, insecurity and alienation in working class areas was the poverty that affected both Protestants and Catholics alike. This poverty could have provided the foundation for a united class movement that could have cut across sectarianism and would have had a profound effect on consciousness. The basis for such a movement existed throughout the Troubles, even during the worst years of conflict.
Despite the increased polarisation the workplaces, in the main, remained mixed. The trade unions, with only a few exceptions, united Catholics and Protestants in membership. During the 1970s, when we were virtually a lone voice on the left in defending the idea of working class unity, we pointed to the fact that strikes almost invariably brought Catholics and Protestants out together and that no strike had been broken by sectarianism.
The opportunity to develop this embryonic class unity into a powerful mass movement against sectarianism, and also into a political instrument to challenge the right wing and sectarian parties, had always been there. There had been times when very favourable opportunities to do this had opened - as in the mid 1970s on the back of the Better Life For All Campaign or in the early 1980s on the back of the big public sector strikes in the north and of the class battles against Thatcher in Britain.
That these opportunities were missed was down to lack of leadership, more precisely to the fact that the leaders of the Northern Ireland Labour Party capitulated to sectarianism and to the criminal role played by the trade union leadership in holding back struggles. As a result, while working class resistance acted as a permanent brake on sectarianism, it was only a partial brake and the fundamental tendency over the two decades to 1990 was to the reinforcement of the sectarian division and a corresponding decline in class-consciousness.
During the last half of the 1980s there had been a falling back of the class struggle internationally. This was particularly pronounced in Britain where the defeat of the miners was followed by a series of other defeats. The one exception was the magnificent struggle against the Poll Tax which eventually saw off Thatcher.
But even this did not prevent the erosion of a big part of the layer of shop stewards who in the past had been able to organise struggles with some degree of independence from the trade union bureaucracy. Nor did it prevent the shift to the right in the Labour Party and its transformation from a working class party, albeit with a bourgeois leadership, into an openly bourgeois party, a process similar to that which was taking place with social democracy internationally.
The health strikes and movements of other public sector workers at the start of the 1980s were a highpoint of class struggle not to be reached at any time again during the following two decades. Workers on both sides of the sectarian divide gave massive support to the miners in the epic battle of 1984-5. But there were no miners in Northern Ireland. The strike had an impact, but from a distance.
Even Thatcher had understood that the Poll Tax would be un-collectable in Northern Ireland and had made no attempt to introduce it. So the massive non-payment campaign, which would certainly have united Protestant and Catholic working class communities with important and lasting repercussions, did not reach across the Irish Sea.
Then came the collapse of Stalinism. This cast a long ideological shadow over much of the following decade. The ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites allowed the ideologues of capitalism to proclaim that "socialism" not Stalinism had failed, that the market was the only possible system and, in this sense, that it marked the "end of history".
The decline in class struggle and fall in class-consciousness had the negative effect of strengthening sectarianism in the north. The general law - that in periods of heightened class struggle the working class in the north, because of the sharpened political and social conditions, can move quicker and draw far reaching conclusions more readily, whereas in periods of ebb in the class struggle this retreat can be more pronounced because of the added pressure of sectarianism - revealed itself at this time, and revealed itself even more forcefully at the end of the decade.
All of this pointed to greater polarisation and to huge obstacles in the way of those representatives of the establishment and those political and paramilitary leaders who wanted to put together a peace process. Had the mood in the working class areas been uniformly for confrontation the pressure from the governments and the politicians for peace would have likely come to nothing. But against the tendency to division there was a countervailing tendency against sectarianism and against a continuation of the violence.
The former arose from two decades of conflict and from the inability of the working class to show a way out. The latter also arose from the conflict, but from a growing weariness at what, by now, most people regarded as the futile campaigns of the paramilitaries on both sides. Even many of those with strong leanings to loyalism or to republicanism saw that the violence as a dead end. The Troubles appeared to have reached stalemate point. For either side to break this would have required a huge military escalation. This would inevitable provoke a sectarian response and, unchecked, a wider sectarian conflict could develop.
From the other side of Europe the spectacle of unfolding civil war provided a sobering backcloth. The collapse of Stalinism was very quickly followed by the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the bloody re-Balkanisation of the Balkans. The secession of Croatia and Slovenia altered the ethnic balance with Yugoslavia, led to greater Serbian dominance of what was left and inevitably triggered the horror that was to follow in Bosnia. These events provided a graphic illustration of what escalation towards civil war would mean and gave an added impetus to the peace process.
Despite the setbacks, despite the decline in activity and in struggle, the working class had not been decisively defeated. The stubborn resistance of the working class, even if it was most often a passive resistance, was still a powerful factor preventing a slide to civil war.
This was shown in 1992 and again in 1993 when the workers took to the streets, answering trade union calls for protests against sectarian killings. These events provided a not to be forgotten example of the importance of the subjective factor; the key role that a revolutionary party that has points of support within the working class can play at decisive moments.
When the IRA blew up a minibus full of Protestant workers at Teebane in January 1992 we used our leading positions on Mid Ulster Trades Council to call a protest general strike against this and against the murders being carried out by the Mid Ulster UVF. The protest, called in this way, cut across the moves by loyalists to call a strike of Protestants that would have divided the workers in the area.
It also applied pressure on the trade unions who were compelled to call a huge demonstration demanding a halt to all killings in Belfast. It was our initiative and pressure that succeeded in forcing the unions to answer the UDA murder of five Catholics in the Sean Graham bookies on Belfast's Ormeau Road with protest action that briefly united Protestant and Catholics in this area.
There was an intense flare up of sectarian killings, atrocities and counter atrocities in October 1993. An IRA bomb in a fishmonger's shop on the Shankill Road - justified by the thin excuse that the UDA/UFF met in an upstairs room - killed ten people. The UDA's response was the Greysteel massacre, the killing of seven people in a County Derry bar. In all 37 people died in October, the highest death toll in a single month since October 1976.
The trade unions responded - under rank and file pressure - with a massive lunchtime demonstration of around 75,000 in Belfast city centre. This was a key event in cutting across the bigots and providing space for a peace process.
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The Sinn Fein leadership had, by this time, shifted ground significantly. Their 1992 document "Towards a Lasting Peace In Ireland" moved beyond the idea of a nationalist bloc to pressurise the British Government.
Significantly it put the responsibility to achieve progress on the British and Irish governments and called on the British to "join the persuaders". It was a distinct nod in the direction of the Hume analysis that the people to be convinced were the Protestants, not the British.
In October 1993 John Hume and Gerry Adams issued a joint statement setting out the progress towards agreement they had made in their resumed discussions. This included a fudge on the previous republican position that "self determination" must be on an all Ireland basis, in other words that the Protestants must be outvoted into a united Ireland. It proposed all Ireland self-determination, but conceded that the way this would be exercised was a matter to be negotiated by people in Ireland. In practice this was a blurred acceptance of the idea of separate consent by the people of the north.
Two months later the British Government responded with the Downing Street Declaration which said that they would "encourage, facilitate and enable", not "persuade", but which, nonetheless, was aimed at encouraging republicans to take a purely political road. Eight months later in August 1994 the IRA, although they had formally rejected the Declaration, declared an open ended ceasefire stating, as they did so, that "A solution will only be found as a result of inclusive negotiations" and that "others, not least the British government, have a duty to face up to their responsibilities."
The loyalists followed suit in October, the UDA and UVF combining briefly as the Combined Loyalist Military Command to declare an end to their campaigns on the basis that the IRA ceasefire would remain intact. Within both the IRA and the loyalist groups there were dissidents who wanted to maintain the "war" but they were relatively isolated for now.
The ceasefires did not mean a complete end to paramilitary activity. Punishment beatings, in particular, continued. But this was more about the efforts of the paramilitaries to control their own areas than a continuation of what had gone on before. By and large the IRA campaign against the state came to a complete halt, as did the loyalist sectarian assassination campaign.
All this did not mean reconciliation or a sinking of differences. The IRA called off its campaign with celebrations and a statement noting the "many gains and advances made by nationalists" while the loyalists ended theirs with a straightforward declaration that "the union is safe". Both could not be right and the testing of which was the more accurate position pointed to future conflict, not to lasting peace.
Paradoxically the ceasefires and the prospect of negotiations also added to the insecurity and were potentially a destabilising factor. True, the old certainties felt by Protestants that the state was on their side against the IRA and in defence of the union had been breaking down for some time before this.
Now, with the IRA campaign over, with the British government clearly making overtures to bring republicans fully into the world of establishment politics, and with the likelihood of talks in which all issues including a united Ireland would apparently be on the table, the Protestant sense of foreboding was reinforced. Talks that were nothing more than a constitutional tug of war between unionism and nationalism could only have the effect of deepening the sectarian polarisation.
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This could have been avoided - but only if some alternative could be put forward. The ceasefires also brought a tangible sense of relief. Among the mass of people there was a hope that the Troubles might at last be over. The fact that the killings had - more or less - come to an end was a real benefit. Working class people and young people who had stayed in their own areas were more prepared to go out and socialise together. There was the possibility that from this greater openness the sectarian barriers might start to be broken down from below.
The greater openness extended beyond social life. For a period there was a thirst from people on both sides of the divide for new ideas and for a new political direction. The emergence of the Progressive Unionist Party - because it appeared as the articulate voice of working class unionism and because its spokespersons were prepared to consider ideas that the fur coat brigade would not contemplate - came as a breath of fresh air to many, including to quite a number of Catholics.
Later there was the formation of the Women's Coalition and the Labour Coalition. Although small the initial interest shown in both indicated that the basis existed for an alternative to the old sectarian parties. For these openings to develop into a real challenge to the major parties and to sectarian politics in general would have required a broader initiative from the trade union movement to build a new working class party.
There was no prospect of such a move from the trade union leadership. Across Europe and beyond the general tendency at the tops of the unions was to the right, towards an increasing incorporation into the state. To reverse this would require new struggles and the forging of a new generation of activists to challenge the leadership. The lingering effects of the collapse of Stalinism, and of past defeats together with the ongoing world economic boom meant this perspective was delayed for a period.
In Northern Ireland the integration of the unions into the state went further than in most countries. Throughout the 1990s the trade union leadership failed utterly to play any independent role. Even the huge mobilisations against the killings that were forced on them by rank and file pressure were called in conjunction with the churches and with the employers.
The Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU was becoming an invisible component of a bloc forged between themselves, business organisations, the voluntary sector and the churches, all in the name of "civic society". Beyond this the connections that had existed for some time between at least some of the union leadership and the security apparatus of the state were maintained. The mantra of the bureaucracy was "partnership" - partnership on the sectarian issues, on social issues but beyond this partnership deals with employers in the workplaces.
The downturn in the class struggle and the wearing away of the activist layer within union branches and the workplaces allowed the union leaders to get away with this naked class collaborationism. Cause then became effect and the role of the bureaucracy further disillusioned the ranks and dampened the mood for struggle.
The broader initiatives needed to build on the openings brought by the ceasefires would not come from the tops of the movement. A class challenge capable of cutting across the sectarian polarisation would have to come from below, from the workplaces and from the working class communities. The objective conditions for such a movement did not exist at this time, neither locally nor internationally.
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After the ceasefires the peace process took an exceptionally tortuous route. This was due to many factors but the underlying reason was the time lag in the class struggle. The initial impetus had come from the working class. But, with no leadership to build on this, the initiative was handed back to the sectarian parties and to the right wing governments in Dublin and London.
The ceasefires did not lead to negotiations but to three years of obstinate procrastination in which the various parties manoeuvred for position before Sinn Fein were included. From the word go the British government put forward a series of delaying measures. First they wanted the IRA to declare the ceasefire "permanent" - then they made the question of decommissioning a precondition of Sinn Fein involvement.
These delaying tactics may have been to assure the unionists, or it could have been that the British establishment had calculated that Sinn Fein was now on a constitutional hook from which they would be unable to wriggle free and that they therefore could be cut down to size before the door to talks was opened. In some part it was also a legacy of British history for, while the sun had long set on the empire, the shadow of the past lingered in the form of the imperial arrogance that was displayed by the Tories and their aristocratic Secretary of State, Patrick Mayhew. Whatever the reason the effect was to draw out and complicate the process.
On February 4th 1996 IRA exasperation at the delays and the shifting goalposts was loudly expressed with the bombing of Canary Wharf in London. The main effect of this attack was to demonstrate that, despite the lack of progress, the mood in the north was still strongly behind the peace process. The attack took place on a Friday. The following day we went on the streets with leaflets and with the slogan "No going back".
The response was overwhelming. We launched the "No going back" campaign and organised further demonstrations. The slogan entirely coincided with the mood. Whatever the problems with the peace process a return to the conflict that people had hoped had come to an end in 1994 was unthinkable to the vast majority of people.
We linked the slogan to our criticism of the sectarian politicians and our call for an initiative by the trade unions and community organisations to make sure the voice of the working class was heard in the peace process. This was sympathetically received but the main mood at the time was that preconditions to talks should be dropped and pressure should be put on the politicians to "sort things out".
Once again, under the pressure of demonstrations that we had initiated, the trade union leaders - hand in hand with their "social partners"- called a massive demonstration in Belfast City Centre. If there had been a danger that Canary Wharf would have been followed by a sustained campaign and that the loyalists would have retaliated it was this mass demonstration of opposition that blocked that particular road. Those who were in favour of a return to sectarian military activity were left in no doubt that they would be met with ferocious opposition from the working class and would risk isolation.
Action by the working class reopened the way to negotiations. But the hurdles that had been constructed by the Government had to be overcome. So the Entry to Negotiations Act, with its complicated scheme of elections to a Forum, which in turn would elect the delegates to the talks, had to be rushed through. The British also accepted the Mitchell Report on arms decommissioning, and began to soften their stance on actual decommissioning before negotiations.
Elections to the Forum were held in time for a June date set by the governments for the start of the talks. Still, for another year, the "all party talks" were of all parties except Sinn Fein. It took another IRA ceasefire and government pressure on the UUP before Sinn Fein was allowed in. The change of strategy, from "exclusion" to "inclusion", a change that had first been considered in the aftermath of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, had taken a decade to put fully into effect.
March 2002 opening section
To read the introduction and first pages of the pamphlet, click on here
Part 2: Anglo Irish Agreement
Good Friday Agreement
Part 3: A Problem without a solution
Part 4: Can a socialist alternative be built?