With the involvement of Sinn Fein alongside the other major parties, and with the outlines of an agreement having already been drawn in the Framework Document drafted by the two governments, the way was opened to a possible deal. Despite this it took a year and a half of walkouts, exclusions, obstruction, filibustering and eleventh and three quarter hour compromises before the Good Friday Agreement was eventually put together.
The deal was signed in a fanfare of press euphoria. It was declared an "historic breakthrough" that would create the conditions for a peaceful future. Sinn Fein signed it without endorsing it, but only to give them time to convince the republican rank and file that this was a good deal and, to use a now standard Sinn Fein cliché, that it "contained the dynamic to bring about an end to partition".
More significant was the unionist opposition, not so much the predictable opposition from the DUP, but the reservations of a big section of Trimble's UUP who chose to concentrate their fire on the issues of prisoner releases and decommissioning.
We took a very different position. We explained that the Agreement would not bring about a solution. In fact very little had been agreed. Issues like policing, parades and decommissioning had been fudged; left over for future negotiation and future conflict.
The sectarian parties were dominant around the negotiating table had used the talks to put their case to their supporters so as to build support and consolidate their base. In the absence of any alternative this inevitably meant that the drawn out process of negotiation had left society, especially those living in the working class communities, more divided than before.
This was an agreement at the top only. It was a pact between sectarians to keep working class people divided. The real problem was and is the division within society and especially within the working class. Far from pointing to this being overcome the underlying premise of the Agreement was that this division was permanent, that people would always be either unionist or nationalist - in other words that there would never be a solution.
The Agreement proposed an Assembly in which key decisions would require a majority of both unionist and nationalist members before they would stand. It proposed a power-sharing Executive to be made up of the main unionist and nationalist parties. In short it institutionalised sectarianism.
This convoluted arrangement could not work in the long run. It was an inbuilt recipe for paralysis. It was also fundamentally undemocratic - no matter what parties people voted for there could only be one government, a unionist/nationalist coalition. For fifty years there had been a one party unionist state. Now again there was to be only one choice of government, a "one coalition" state with the same parties permanently in power.
We explained all this at the time. Nonetheless we argued for a "yes" vote in the referendum that quickly followed. We did so, not to sow illusions in the Agreement, but because a "no" vote would have strengthened the camp of sectarian reaction and would have put the peace process in jeopardy. The key was not support for the arguments of either side but was to build an alternative to right wing and sectarian politics.
The difference between an unworkable agreement but a continuation of the peace process and no agreement and the possibility of an immediate return to conflict may only have been a matter of timing. In both cases the end would be breakdown and conflict but in one case this would come later, possibly much later, than the other.
Although secondary this was still a crucial difference in that what the working class movement needed at this moment was precisely more time to build an alternative that could challenge both sectarian camps and, in doing so, could cement a real peace process based on the unity, rather than the division, of the working class.
An Assembly and an Executive with the four major parties sharing power would also throw a spotlight on their policies. So long as they held no responsibility these parties could concentrate on their sectarian agendas, and at the same time occasionally rail against the economic policies of Westminster. Giving them responsibility for local services would make it much easier to expose the Blairite neo liberal agenda common to them all.
The issue that most clearly revealed the real nature of these parties was the long running dispute over payments to term time workers in education, a dispute that had been initiated and was led by Socialist Party members. With Martin McGuinness the Minister in charge of Education this dispute was a severe embarrassment to Sinn Fein. Our activity on low pay was also a thorn in the side of the Executive, especially when we were able to get a motion backing our £5 call through the Assembly.
Bairbre De Brun, as Health Minister, soon ended up presiding over a severe crisis in health care with waiting lists at record levels, regular photos in the press of patients on trolleys, closures of acute services in local hospitals and severe budget limits imposed on Health Trusts. De Brun, McGuinness, along with all their "colleagues" in the Executive embraced the Private Finance Initiative and other steps towards the privatisation of public services.
This does not mean that the working class completely saw through these parties. We have had examples of what would happen if the Executive survived for an extended period and if there was a general development of the class struggle. Instead during the Assembly's first years the class struggle was still at a low level.
In Britain the Blair government was able to go through it's first term without significant resistance to its pro market policies from the working class. A key factor in this was the rotten role of the union leaders who acted as a prop to Blair and concentrated their energies on preventing opposition to the government among their membership over spilling into action. The trade union leadership in the north played a similar role in relation to the Assembly.
They also maintained their course towards invisibility and - as far as the mass of the working class were concerned - to complete irrelevance on everything to do with the conflict. They further cemented their relationship with their "social partners": the business organisations and the churches.
In 1997 George Quigley, then Chairman of the Ulster Bank, took the initiative to set up an organisation linking the unions with these forces. They chose a somewhat ironic title -G7 - especially in light of the anti capitalist demonstrations that were to follow. From then on the public position of the unions to the upheavals over parades and other contentious questions was most often in the name of G7 and consequently went unheard among the working class.
The inability of the working class to challenge and reverse the polarisation on the ground or to register alternative ideas to those of nationalism and unionism negatively shaped the future course of events. For working class people the final phase of the talks and the on/off functioning of the Assembly that followed was a period of disappointed hopes.
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In the early stages, as the peace process was being put together, the idea that there would be a substantial peace dividend, that US dollars would flood in, even that there would be a mini Marshall Plan to underwrite the peace, were all encouraged. There were big illusions that the money from the US, the European Union and the International Fund for Ireland, would make a substantial difference to the lives of ordinary people. As with the similar illusions that existed in the Middle East at the time of the Oslo agreement in 1993, these hopes have been dashed.
There was economic growth during the 1990s. But, as was the case internationally, the effects of this growth were lopsided. Inequality increased. For the working class the boom plus weakened resistance on the part of the unions meant greater exploitation, a worsening of conditions in the workplaces and the extension of part time work and of dead end, low paid "yellow pack" jobs.
Nonetheless there was real growth and, although unevenly distributed, there was a rise in real living standards. Average GDP growth over the decade was 3%. Over the same period nominal GDP per head increased by 70%. These were important factors underpinning the peace process. Growth and even modest improvements in living standards for a layer of the working class did provide a certain underlying stability.
But the growth was due to the boom then taking place in world capitalism, especially in the US. The fact of a peace process had, at best, a marginal effect. Money from Europe and the US did help sustain jobs in the community sector where most community organisations were transformed into semi NGOs, with organisers financed out of state grants and by "peace" money. These effects were completely secondary to the overall impact of the global upturn.
This was seen in manufacturing. During the last five years of the decade growth in manufacturing output exceeded that of Britain. This was not the "peace" effect but was due to the extension of the world boom, especially in the high tech sector. Output in the Electrical and Optical equipment sector rose by 229% over this period - as compared to a rise of 41% in this sector in Britain.
In examining figures such as this it has to be borne in mind that in a small economy; and therefore a small statistical base, growth in one or two companies can have a marked impact on the overall figures. Other sectors also expanded during this period but none came close to this figure. The only sector to experience a decline during the boom was Leather, Textiles and Textile products where output fell by 16%.
While manufacturing output grew the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector actually fell. In the ten years to 2000 the total workforce grew in size by 16.7%. Yet the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 3.3 % over the same period. The increase in output was due to an increase in exploitation not any real expansion of the manufacturing base. Productivity rose significantly, in fact at a faster rate than Britain and it is this that explains the more rapid growth in output. Between 1995 and 1999 productivity in Northern Ireland rose by 18.4% as compared to a 2.8% rise in Britain.
In part this was down to new investment but more significantly it was due to changed work practices, extra shifts: to extra use of existing machinery and to an increase in the rate of exploitation of the existing workforce. At the end of the decade the manufacturing base was actually smaller in relation to the overall economy than at the beginning. Manufacturing output accounted for 20.1% of GDP in 1989. Ten years later this had contracted to 18.5%, this despite the extended boom in the world economy, despite the benefits that over spilled from the Celtic Tiger across the border and despite the growth in output locally.
When the Troubles began there were 160,000 people employed in manufacturing. Thirty years later, at the close of the century, the figure of 103.220 showed no recovery from the recessions of 1974 or from the devastating recession of the early 1980s which together had wiped out much of the local manufacturing base.
In the past, especially during the 1970s, the expansion of public sector jobs had partially cushioned the blow from the loss of manufacturing jobs. The 1990s was the era of neo liberalism, of the penetration of the market into the public sector through privatisation in various forms. Between 1990-2000 the total number of public sector jobs fell by 1.6%. This contraction, mainly due to privatisation, did not alter the over dependence of the economy on the public sector. Despite the fall, this sector in December 2000 still employed 201,254 people, 31.5% of the total workforce.
The main area of expansion during the decade was the service sector. An additional 90,000 service jobs were created, mainly in areas like retail, and in the "hospitality" trade, in hotels and restaurants. These were overwhelmingly low paid "yellow pack" jobs paying the minimum wage - or less - un-unionised, and in many case with even the minimal legal employment rights denied to workers. A high percentage were part time. Of the 52,320 jobs created during the "peace dividend" years, 1995-2000, more than half were part time and almost invariably low paid.
Unemployment did fall. It was down to 6.2% in April 2000. In the main this was due to the boom. It was also because government restrictions made it much harder to claim benefits and were successful in massaging the figures downwards by forcing people either into low paid jobs or else into "training schemes". At the start of 2001 almost 23,000 people were participating in the schemes, more than half of them on the cheap labour Job Skills programme.
Living standards still lagged behind Britain at the end of the decade. In 1989 Gross Domestic Product per head had been only 74.7% of that of Britain. During the first years of the decade - before the anticipated "peace dividend" - there had been a slight catching up and by 1995 the figure had risen to 79.2%. After 1995 the trend was actually reversed and by 1999 it had fallen back to 77.5%. In April 2000 average weekly earnings in Britain were £410 while in Northern Ireland they were £40 less at £360, the lowest figure for any region of Britain.
These figures do no tell the full story. In the past lower earnings in the north had been partially offset by lower housing costs. One effect of the boom - and also of the overspill of the property boom in the south - was a significant rise in house prices. Since 1993 property prices in Northern Ireland have risen faster than any UK region apart from London and the South East.
The increase was particularly steep after 1995. In that year the average price of a home in the north was only 65% of the British average. Four years later that figure had risen to 76%. Higher housing costs meant that, despite a nominal rise in earnings, a big section of the population, especially those on lower earnings where the pay gap with Britain was greatest, were worse off in terms of actual spending power than they had been in 1989.
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If people in the working class areas were disappointed that the peace process had failed to deliver any perceptible economic benefit, they were even more disappointed when it also failed to deliver either stability or peace. The ceasefires were a real benefit; the only tangible gain for working class people from the peace process.
The IRA's campaign was ended and, as far as the majority of the leadership was concerned, was ended "permanently". Even if there was less certainty about the ending by the loyalist paramilitaries of their sectarian counter terror campaign the fact that the assassinations were stopped for a time brought real relief to Catholic working class areas.
But paramilitary activity continued and continued in a particularly sectarian fashion. For republicans there was no longer even nominally a "war" against the state. What now developed was a struggle conducted by all the paramilitaries and the parties linked to them to achieve absolute hegemony and control over working class areas. The increase in punishment beatings and eventually in punishment shootings provides a brutal indices of how this was stepped up on both sides.
To maintain a controlling influence over a community it is necessary to do more than break arms and legs. The paramilitaries and their political acolytes had to create, as far as possible, homogeneity not just of religion but also of political outlook and of "culture" within these areas. In order to get a whole community to march to a single political and cultural beat they needed a mentality of "encirclement", a view that those on the other side of the interfaces and "peace lines" were hostile and threatening forces.
The greater polarisation meant that it was much harder for working class people to live in mixed communities. It also meant that within the areas that now became routinely known as "nationalist" or "unionist" it was much harder for any alternative form of thought to find expression.
With these thoroughly reactionary developments the Troubles degenerated into a sectarian conflict over territory. It became a low intensity war fought not only with pipe bombs, stones and other physical weapons but also with flags and murals, and with other tools of ideological and cultural identification.
The motor of this conflict was and remains the ongoing demographic changes; that is the relative increase in the Catholic population. The population expansion creates a pressure from Catholics for housing. With existing Catholic working class areas bursting at the seams there has been an inevitable overspill into Protestant or else mixed areas.
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Under different circumstance this could have led to an intermixing of the population and a breaking down of suspicions and prejudices, as happened with the development of new mixed housing in the late 1950s and 1960s. Under the highly polarised and volatile circumstances that existed in the 1990s it led to an increase in tensions and to widespread sectarian clashes.
The main effect of the Troubles and of demographic changes on the Protestant population was to further shatter whatever confidence and sense of security they had enjoyed under the old Unionist state. Protestants felt themselves becoming a demographic as well as a political minority. On this basis it was just not credible to think that a larger and ever more assertive Catholic population could be pushed back to where they were before 1968.
In the early stages of the peace process the fact that there was clearly no going back to the Stormont of old led to a greater openness and a search for new ideas among a significant section of the Protestant population. Dialectically it was working class Protestants including members and ex members of the paramilitaries, the people who had once been the stoutest and most militant defenders of the status quo who were the most willing to consider radical alternatives.
It was from this greater openness, and from the reluctance of former paramilitary prisoners to once again serve as the unthinking cannon fodder of the unionist establishment, that the Progressive Unionist Party emerged. The PUP articulated the feelings of many working class Protestants and drew support far beyond the milieu of the UVF from which they emerged.
But like many previous radical working class offshoots from unionism they occupied a half way house. They had shifted from a sectarian position and moved in the direction of socialism. To go all the way would mean breaking with the unionist bloc and standing firmly with both feet on the ground of class politics.
Had the formation of the PUP been followed by a development of the class struggle it is possible this party, or significant sections of it, would have shifted to the left and could perhaps have broken from loyalism to play a role in the creation of a new party that could unite the working class. Instead they emerged at a time when the working class were in retreat and their trade union and political leaders were moving to the right.
With no alternative pole of attraction to gravitate towards, the PUP remained a wing, albeit a critical wing, of unionism. Rather than hold to an independent position in the talks they tended, at each critical moment, to line up behind David Trimble in order to defeat the DUP.
Although key party spokespersons like David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson were able to get an attentive and even a sympathetic ear among some Catholic workers their inability to break out of the camp of unionism and loyalism meant they could not concretely build any kind of united class movement out of this. Working class unity can only be forged on the, in sectarian terms, neutral ground of the broad labour movement not in the territory either of "left unionism" or of "left republicanism".
When the loyalist ceasefires were called the pressure from the working class for a halt largely silenced those members of the UDA and UVF who were opposed. Within both organisations there was a thoroughly reactionary core who wanted the killing campaign to continue. These people were motivated by a mix of extreme right wing ideas and by their drug dealing and racketeering.
On the one hand they were opposed to what UVF dissident, Billy Wright, denounced as the "socialist" PUP. On the other the military campaigns made it easier for them to control working class areas and make money from drugs and other illegal activities.
Even when Wright broke from the UVF and linked his rural based support with dissidents in the UDA to form the LVF the mood of the working class against killings prevented them from openly declaring a return to war. Hardliners in the UDA who opposed the Good Friday Agreement were similarly checked by this mood. The ideas of the UVF leadership as expressed through the PUP and of the pro ceasefire sections of the UDA held a tenuous grip for a further period.
But the drift of events was pulling against those trying to urge restraint. Young working class Protestants saw no improvement in their prospects for a decent job and future coming out of the peace process or the Agreement. In the absence of any struggle from the labour movement they were open to the same sectarian explanations and sectarian solutions that had motivated the previous generation.
At the time of the Agreement a small majority of Protestants had been in favour. The following three years saw this support slip away as the Assembly failed to deliver. Meanwhile the sectarian polarisation increased. All of this weakened the arguments of the pro Agreement loyalist parties.
The PUP found themselves fighting a rearguard action as hardening attitudes in key Protestant working class areas like the Shankill threatened their support. Had they previously held to a consistent class position, and not attempted an impossible mix of loyalist and socialist ideas, they would have been able to answer the doubts of working class Protestants - on the Agreement, on the peace process, on the Blairite policies of the Assembly.
Instead they had adopted an uncritical stance on the Agreement and were left to defend it in the working class areas. Their assurances that the Agreement "made the union safe", as with their similar assurances that the "war is over", ran against the growing sense of insecurity felt by Protestants on these issues.
The PUP's first key electoral objective had been to capture the DUP's base of support in working class areas. Initially they made big inroads into this support especially in East Belfast, North Belfast and on the Shankill. Their appeal, as the foot soldiers who were no longer prepared to march to the tune called by tin pot generals like Paisley and Peter Robinson, got a big echo.
But as they found themselves defending an Agreement that was not delivering anything in the working class areas, and, worse, appearing through this to be defending David Trimble and the UUP against the DUP challenge, the momentum of their political advance faltered.
In the three years following the Agreement the growing disillusionment and uncertainty felt by Protestants and most particularly felt by Protestant workers has expressed itself negatively. Its political expression has been the strengthening of the anti agreement voices within UUP and in the - at times dramatic - increase in the support for the DUP at the expense of the UUP.
Its paramilitary expression has been the step-by-step breakdown of the UDA ceasefire, and a more open disregard by the LVF of their "ceasefire that never was". By the summer of 2000 and again 2001 the anti agreement loyalists were conducting a sectarian military offensive. This has been a vicious campaign targeting Catholic homes and families with intimidation, petrol bombs and the latest favoured weapon of sectarian hatred, the pipe bomb.
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While the 1990s added to Protestant insecurity, among Catholics a very different sense developed. The feeling of being an oppressed minority remained. But this became increasingly overlain with a growing confidence and assertiveness, both of which flowed from the same factors that have developed the opposite feelings among Protestants.
The expression of this assertiveness was not just a rise in nationalism but a rise in nationalism of a particularly strident kind. This was coupled with a general rise in sectarian attitudes and moods - of at times quite explosive and strident sectarian moods - among the Catholic population. In fact, if it were necessary to identify the single feature that most clearly distinguished the latter half of the 1990s from what had gone before, that feature would be the rise of Catholic sectarianism.
The increase in sectarianism was not uniform. At times sharply sectarian and confrontational moods have developed and have then subsided as events have temporally defused the situation. On other occasions the threat that the conflict could overspill out of control has caused a pulling back and generated a reaction against sectarianism. No process, least of all the development of a mood or a change in consciousness, takes place in a straight line. That said, the change that has taken place over a period of years in the broad outlook of the Catholic community is unmistakeable.
At the outset of the Troubles the movement that erupted in Catholic areas was against discrimination and for equality. It was a movement that gravitated in a socialist rather than a nationalist direction. The mobilisations of Catholics that took place in the 1990s increasingly had a different character. The earlier movement had been fundamentally anti sectarian, an assault on the State, not on Protestants: those of the 1990s were increasingly against Protestants.
This does not mean that the Catholic community did not - and do not - have grievances. Above all the issues that created anger and discontent in the working class areas were the problems of poverty, low wages, inadequate services and, on top of this, the social problems of crime, drugs, joyriding that breed out of poverty. They were the problems of working class life under capitalism and were no different from what existed in Protestant areas.
Added to this there was the ongoing problem of sectarianism. Intimidation, attacks on homes, and vicious sectarian beatings, remained a fact of life through the "peace process". At particular times, especially when tensions heightened over parades, the attacks intensified. With the unravelling of the UDA ceasefire what had been random, mostly sporadic incidents were co-ordinated into a systematic campaign. The petrol and blast bombs also bring the fear that the past horror of random assassinations could very quickly return.
Not one of these problems could be resolved by building a movement only of Catholics to confront them. In fact this could only worsen the situation and invite more attacks given that it only serves to deepen the sectarian division, to reinforce the Protestant view that there is an aroused Catholic community organising itself against them.
Only a united movement of the working class, Catholic and Protestant, could successfully fight to end the poverty and social deprivation that exists in both communities. And, as past movements against sectarian killings and atrocities showed, the way to isolate the paramilitaries and halt the attacks is through mass united action, not through a response by one "side".
A united class movement would not only deal a blow against loyalist sectarianism. It would strike against all forms of sectarianism and by putting the common interests of the working class to the fore would challenge the ideological, political and paramilitary grip of nationalism in Catholic working class areas. Put more succinctly it would threaten the stranglehold of Sinn Fein and the republican movement in these communities.
Well able to sense the threat that class unity would pose to them Sinn Fein consciously and energetically intervened to nip every move in this direction in the bud. When workers began to move together on issues sectarian attacks they quickly hoisted a green standard of "nationalist grievances" to rein back the Catholic working class and prevent united action. They strove to maintain a ghetto mentality and to cultivate the sense that the Catholics are a community under siege.
There are many examples. While the parades issue has always been a running sore in Northern Ireland, the argument of republicans and some of the Catholic residents leaders that the recent upheaval over this issue is nothing new, is simply untrue. Bigots on both sides whipped up the issue during the 1990s, but in the Catholic community it was Sinn Fein and those around them who turned it into a central issue. They did so - initially at least - very largely to deepen the sectarian division and to cut across the elements of class unity that had begun to develop.
The united movements that took place against the killings, beginning with the local general strike organised by members of our party against the atrocity carried out by the IRA at Teebane, were a direct challenge to Sinn Fein. When the Sean Graham bookies massacre was carried out by the UDA we again intervened and, through Belfast Trades Council, succeeded in organising a lunchtime protest on the Ormeau Road that was attended by Catholics and Protestants from all parts of the district.
Sinn Fein, who had tried unsuccessfully to discourage Catholics from the lower Ormeau supporting this protest, responded with a meeting of Catholics in that area to discuss "their" grievances. At the meeting Sinn Fein members launched an attack on the Trade Unions for "coming in to the area". The central "grievance" they raised was the problem of Orange marches coming down the road.
The call for a protest to prevent these marches passing the Ormeau Bridge, which separates the supposedly Protestant upper part of the road from the mainly Catholic streets closer to the city centre, was made at this meeting. It was made days after Protestants and Catholics had stood together on that same bridge and was made consciously to break up that unity.
It is true that the obscene five finger gesture, signifying the five people murdered in the bookies shop, that was made by Orangemen as they passed the spot enraged the people of the area and stiffened their determination that the marches should be stopped. But this gesture was not, as is often claimed, the reason why parades were initially opposed. It was made in July 1992, five months after the meeting called to make the rerouting of Orange marches the central issue for the Catholics of the lower part of the Road.
Later, when the unions organised the mass rally in Belfast city centre against the Canary Wharf bombing, Sinn Fein provocatively intervened putting themselves at the front of the protest with placards demanding that they be included in the talks. It was a similarly calculated attempt to create division and to marshall Catholics behind demands that were raised in a one sided and sectional manner.
On a smaller scale there was a more recent example of the same thing when Sinn Fein intervened in an anti globalisation protest outside the Gap store in Belfast city centre. The protest obviously involved Catholic and Protestant youth. Sinn Fein's intervention was to hand out a leaflet on parades with a headline attacking "Clockwork Orangemen - programmed to intimidate". Whether it was a conscious and deliberate attempt to inject sectarianism, or whether it was simply that sectarianism has become the instinctive and natural approach of Sinn Fein. matters little as the effect is the same.
The general response of Sinn Fein to the increase in sectarian attacks, where they had a base to intervene, was to attempt to organise the Catholic residents and launch campaigns by "nationalists" to stop the attacks. Instead of trying to unite both communities to have all offensive flags and graffiti removed they mounted "nationalist" campaigns to have loyalist flags and slogans removed.
In other words Sinn Fein have tried to organise Catholics moving into new areas, sometimes against the resistance of the people involved, as a kind of sectarian bridgehead. As the sectarian composition gradually altered, tricolours and other nationalist symbols would be displayed. Once a certain point was crossed, the slow exodus of Protestants would tend to become a flood and the character of the area would change. This is a pattern that to one degree or another has been repeated across wide areas of the north.
Nationalism develops as a force among the working class by taking real problems and real grievances and placing them on a foundation of ideological myth. It gets away with it when the working class movement fails to provide an alternative rational explanation of what is happening and fails to fight for a class solution.
The tapestry of half-truths and mythology into which the real grievances of working class Catholics have been intricately worked has been carefully woven by Sinn Fein and unfortunately has had a huge effect in changing - more accurately in lowering - consciousness. The central myth put forward by republicanism is the denial that there has been any change in the north since the 1960s.
During the talks and through the peace process Sinn Fein have played up the need for the "equality agenda", that is the demand for Catholics to have equal treatment, to be met. They took the facts of poverty in Catholic areas, and of past examples of State collusion and injustice to prove their false claim that things, for Catholics, still stood where they were in 1968.
This claim ignores the fact that the British state which has been in charge, in reality since 1969, has - in order to try to achieve stability - set about dismantling the inbuilt discrimination of the Orange State and that, while vestiges of the past still remain, has largely succeeded in doing so. It also completely ignores the fact that, through demographic, political and other changes, the Protestants are not in the position they were in thirty years ago and that, for them, there is no possible route back to that situation.
When the dispute over access to Holy Cross Primary School broke out in the summer of 2001 Sinn Fein spokespersons were quick to draw a comparison with Alabama and the struggle for black civil rights in the 1960s. Their Dublin news sheet (Autumn 2001) set out the argument: "Loyalists demand that the children use the back door entrance to Holy Cross school. This has been the unionist attitude to the nationalist population since the foundation of the Six County state - Catholics and nationalists should neither be seen nor heard....................The Northern State structure and all of its agencies, including the police, have held firm to such an ethos for eight decades."
This idea, that Catholics are in the position that blacks in the southern states of the USA were in the 1960s, is a fable, but a fable composed out of the real problems that are faced by the people of the Catholic working class areas. The objective is to place the ideological straightjacket of nationalism around the Catholic working class and to prevent people recognising that those on the other side of the "interfaces" suffer basically the same problems as them.
The paradox is that this deliberately cultivated sense of grievance coincides with a rising confidence and growing "nationalist" assertiveness. This dangerous mixture has coloured much of the conflict during the 1990s.
In dealing with the national question Marxists distinguish between the nationalism of those whose rights and culture have been suppressed and the nationalism of those who want to implant their culture on others and who are prepared to restrict others' rights in doing so. The one is the nationalism of the oppressed, the other that of the oppressor or would be oppressor.
The line between one and the other is never clear or rigid. Within one there are elements of the other and visa versa. But no matter how difficult a task, it is essential to draw a line of distinction and to be able to draw it in the right place.
Marxists not only stand on the side of oppressed nationalities, but also fight alongside them to end this oppression all the time pointing out that in this epoch it is only on a socialist basis that this can be achieved. If this is skilfully done it will reduce the grip of nationalist ideas on the working class.
Conversely Marxists oppose every attempt by any would be national ruling elite to in any way restrict the rights of others by imposing their culture, their "way of doing things" on them. At all times the aim to cut across nationalism. If we are unable to differentiate the various forms of nationalism we will be in danger of cheering on a reactionary form. This is the mistake made by most, if not all, of the ultra left groups in Northern Ireland as, for example, is shown by the one sided, in fact sectarian, position they have taken on the contentious issue of parades.
It is the reactionary and sectarian side of nationalism that has been most on view in the 1990s, especially in the latter part of the decade. At various times and on various issues the line has been crossed from a defensive movement opposing oppression and demanding equal rights to an offensive movement that not only asserts the rights of Catholics, but also infringes and curtails the rights of Protestants.
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This has been seen most clearly during the confrontations over parades. We have taken a careful position on this that has been unique among the left but which has been vindicated by events. We agree that the Orange Order is a reactionary organisation with a long sectarian history. But we stop short of the exaggerated view held by most republicans, and shared with groups on the left like the SWP, that it is a neo fascist organisation akin to the British National Party or the Klu Klux Klan. As with the comparison of the Holy Cross situation with Alabama, this is a case of facts becoming embroidered by nationalism, and by its ultra left echo, into myths.
The myth is then used to justify the demand that Orange parades should be halted. For the SWP this is a straightforward matter - all Orange parades should be opposed. Residents groups and republicans, who live in the real world, have had to put a more sophisticated position. However when people like Gerard Rice of the Lower Ormeau group say that "Protestants should find some other way of expressing their culture than by marching", it very much amounts to the same thing.
We have put forward a balanced position. We are opposed to the Orange Order, as we are opposed to many right wing and sectarian groups, but, in general, we support their right to march. This does not mean supporting their right to conduct coat trailing exercises through Catholic communities. Residents also have a right to prevent such marches going through estates. But when it comes to the disputed parades, which are along main arterial routes or into town and village centres, we have to put a cautious position.
We are for negotiation to settle the disputes over these routes. In advocating face to face discussions we completely reject any declaration that town centres or villages are "nationalist" or that "no orange feet" will walk along certain main roads. This goes beyond the question of an orange march to the real underlying issue, the sectarian composition of areas. "No orange feet" means more than "no Orangemen", it means "no Protestants" and it means this all year round, not just when there are parades.
When nationalists put forward such ideas they have crossed the line of justification on the national question. They have gone beyond defending the right of Catholics not to have to suffer sectarian abuse to a position that curtails the rights of Protestants especially of any minority Protestant communities that may live in these areas.
Parades have been the epicentre of the developing sectarian conflict. And in turn Drumcree has been the epicentre of the parades conflict. Every year since 1995 Drumcree church has been the scene of a sectarian confrontation that has cast a very long shadow across the rest of the north.
Portadown is a nerve centre of right wing unionism and loyalism and a place where Catholics have suffered systematic discrimination as well as physical attack. The town centre has long been a no go area at night for the Catholics who live only a few hundred yards away in the Tunnel and Garvaghy Road areas.
In 1986, in the aftermath of the Anglo Irish Agreement the return leg of the Drumcree parade was rerouted away from the Tunnel onto the then mixed but, even then, mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road. Over the following decade the sectarian geography changed, the Catholic community expanded and became more assertive. From this troubled mix came the series of tense standoffs that, more than the Good Friday Agreement, were the defining events of the late 1990s.
The first confrontation in 1995 dramatically heightened tensions across the north. It ended without real agreement, but with the scene set for further confrontation. At the last moment the residents agreed to let the parade pass, believing, wrongly, that they had an agreement that it would never go along the Garvaghy route again. The sight of David Trimble awkwardly dancing a victory gig with Ian Paisley when the march reached the town centre enraged Catholics and ensured that the march would be even more bitterly opposed in future.
1996 brought another standoff and even greater tension right across the north. With thousands, among them right wing loyalist paramilitaries, gathering at Drumcree and with the clock ticking towards the huge Orange marches on 12th July the scene was set for widespread violence. The army and police held the line between the marchers and the local community.
To allow the protesters to break through would mean a pogrom on the Garvaghy Road, an event that could have triggered civil war. If they had shot Protestants in order to hold the line this could have triggered pogroms elsewhere with the same result. In the end the state chose the "softer" option, lifted the ban on the march, and battered residents to create a way through.
Again Catholics were enraged and the perception that this was still a "unionist" state that would always do the bidding of Protestants gained further ground. There was a general feeling that the State could and should have cracked down on the Protestants and that the fact that it didn't do so was just "more of the same".
In fact the political and military rulers took their decision on pragmatic grounds to prevent the risk of civil war, not out of sectarian prejudice or religious bias. But this was not how Catholics saw it at the time; especially when within hours the Lower Ormeau Road was sealed off in order to prevent Sinn Fein mobilising Catholics from across Belfast to block the local Lodge's 12th July march.
1997 brought an even worse situation. With the New Labour government just elected and with a new Secretary of State, Mo Mowlan, who appeared more sympathetic to the residents, there was an expectation among Catholics that this time the Protestants would be taken on. Their hopes were quickly dashed. In order to prevent another standoff and a repeat of what happened the previous year Mowlam, despite contrary assurances she had given the residents, bowed to military advice, sent police and troops in at night to seal off the Garvaghy Road, and allowed the march through the following day.
Her decision caused an electric reaction in the Catholic community. There was widespread rioting and also attacks on Orange Halls and Protestant property. This mini uprising was of a very different character to the upheaval that had swept Catholic working class areas in the early years of the Troubles. At that time there was undoubtedly a sectarian edge to what was taking place but the anger in the areas was directed overwhelmingly against the State.
This time it was the reverse. Part of the anger was against the government because they had backed down under Protestant pressure and part was against the police and army for the way they had behaved on the Garvaghy Road. But overwhelmingly the angry and confrontational mood was directed against the Orange Order and through them against the Protestant community. For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland there was a quite general feeling that Catholics should mobilise and "take them on".
The focus for this mood was the major Orange march due to take place in Derry on 12th July. If the Catholics in Portadown had lost out because they were a minority there was a feeling that in Derry the shoe was on the other foot. The republican inspired residents groups began to mobilise Catholics from all over the north to go to Derry to physically stop the Orangemen from entering the city centre.
This could have resulted in a double standoff with thousands of Orangemen and their supporters lined up on one side of the river facing thousands of Catholics on the other. The RUC drew up plans to evacuate the small Protestant community from the mainly Catholic city side of the river. Some unionist leaders were drawing a comparison with what happened in Mostar in Bosnia.
Far from defending Catholics living in isolated areas like the Garvaghy Road or guaranteeing their rights, blocking the Apprentice Boys from Derry would more likely have unleashed pogroms against these communities. Full scale and unstoppable sectarian fighting could very quickly have spread across much of the north. The Socialist Workers Party's position was not just verbal support for the blocking of the march; they even tried to organise a bus from Dublin to swell the numbers. As with the rest of the ultra left who are stuck in a political past they made the cardinal mistake of confusing sectarian reaction with revolution.
The situation was defused on the eve of the parade when the Orange Order, acting on advice from the police that at least one march was likely to be attacked by snipers, called off the Derry parade and cancelled other contentious marches in Armagh, Newry and on the Ormeau Road. The confrontational mood subsided as quickly as it had arisen, giving way to one of relief.
I997 was a turning point. And in a different way so was 1998. This time the State had decided to hold the line. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed and the Assembly had been elected. From this moment Drumcree became a rallying point for the anti agreement unionists and loyalists. The Orange leaders locally were anti agreement and neither they nor those who backed them in other areas had any interest in reaching any kind of settlement with the residents. Instead they looked on Drumcree as the most powerful weapon at their disposal to try to smash the Agreement.
Drumcree became much less about the rights and wrongs of parades and more a test of strength between pro and anti agreement unionists. A repeat of what happened in 1997 would threaten the withdrawal of Sinn Fein and much Catholic support from the Agreement while, at the same time, it would hand a victory to the most hard line, anti Agreement sections of unionism.
Up until 1998 the State had balanced between the marchers and residents but, in the final analysis, had come down on the side of the marchers. In 1998 and in every year since, it continued to balance and to seek an agreement but when this proved impossible, came down - and came down heavily - against the Orange Order.
By the time the Orangemen arrived at Drumcree in 1998 military preparations had left the area below the church looking more like a World War 1 battlefield. Massive fortifications were erected blocking every possible access from Drumcree church to the Garvaghy district.
Once again all attempts to negotiate a deal failed and there was yet another standoff. Across the north there was a week of riots, sectarian street clashes, hijacking, arson attacks and shootings. 1000 Orangemen blockaded the Catholic village of Dunloy. All this was a build up to the 12th July parades due to be held on the 13th - as normally happens when the 12th is a Sunday.
As in 1997 the tension was defused in an instant by a single event. Not a back down by either side or an intervention by the State, but the horrific murder of three children, burnt to death in a loyalist petrol bomb attack on a Catholic home in Ballymoney. When they heard this news the vast majority of Protestants simply no longer had the stomach for what was certain to be a violent protest. There was a subdued mood on the 12th parades which passed off fairly peacefully.
The State's resolve was not fully tested in 1988. In subsequent years the fortifications were put to the test and the Orangemen and their supporters failed to break through. The situation settled down into a ritual attempt to march and a protest. About the only difference from one year to the next was the addition of some new technological innovation to make the fortifications even more impenetrable.
Drumcree did not overspill into all out confrontation any year mainly because the State was able to hold a line keeping the two sides apart, sometime fortuitously, sometimes by the skin of their teeth. Stalemate is not to be confused with a solution. The Orange Order may have been checked but the situation has not been defused. There has been no reconciliation. Instead the two sides are now further apart on the issue, and through it on other issues, than they were in 1995.
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As with Drumcree so with other parades. And as with parades so with other issues. No single issue spilled over into all out conflict. More than once disputes and confrontations went towards the edge of a sectarian abyss but each time there was a pulling back at a critical moment. But the pull back was not because there had been any resolution. It was not just a drawing back it was a drawing even further apart, a further retreat into two sectarian camps that carried with it the residue of each conflict in the form of more polarised opinions and harder attitudes.
On top of this sat the Assembly and the Executive, a thin panoply of narrowing agreement spread over a widening sectarian division. At some point politics has to catch up with social change and this is what happened during the Westminster and Local Government elections that were held in the spring of 2001.
This was the most polarised result of any election in the history of the State with the possible exception of the first elections when the State was founded in 1921. Seven years earlier the ceasefires had brought about a certain opening up of politics with new forces starting to emerge and with the potential for this to go much further. These elections erected a tombstone over most of these forces.
It effectively reduced the political landscape to the four major parties, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the UUP and DUP. These parties between them got more than 90% of the Westminster vote. Without exception the smaller parties including the smaller sectarian parties did badly.
The Women's Coalition only managed to field seven Local Government candidates and got only one elected. The PUP saw its Council representation slashed from seven seats to three. The UDA linked Ulster Democratic Party didn't even manage to get itself registered as a party, didn't appear on the ballot sheet and has largely disintegrated. It's former councillors stood as independents and only one, its chief spokesperson, Gary McMichael, was elected in the party name.
The Alliance Party was reduced to a few pockets of support among the middle class in areas like East Belfast, North Belfast, Lisburn and Carrick. Outside these areas it is virtually non-existent and its future as a party must now be in doubt.
The only independents to make any real impression were former Socialist Party councillor, Johnny McLaughlin, in Omagh and hospital campaigner, Raymond Blaney, in Downpatrick. Johnny McLaughlin had unfortunately bowed to some local pressure and agreed to run as an "independent community" candidate. The fact that he not only retained his seat but increased his vote to 10% in a election in which the smaller parties and independent candidates were being severely squeezed was partly due to his association with the Socialist Party and our record on issues like low pay and the struggle of the term time workers.
Raymond Blaney, a former unison shop steward, ran on a "save the Downe Hospital" ticket and also got 10% of the vote, winning a seat. These results were the only real chinks of light in an election that was otherwise a dull monochrome of sectarianism.
The four major parties became more or less the only four parties. Among them there was also a swing from the more "moderate" to the more hard-line parties and candidates. The DUP ate into the support of the UUP, in a quite spectacular fashion in some areas. Within the UUP anti- agreement candidates opposed to Trimble did particularly well and this wing of the party was strengthened.
Sinn Fein made significant advances and for the first time nosed ahead of the SDLP in terms of the percentage vote. The votes reflected the more polarised attitudes and the erosion of Protestant support for the Agreement. They also reflected the demographic changes. After the Westminster count every seat along the entire border and to the south and west was nationalist. Unionism had retrenched to the north and east.
1968 had been an explosion to the left that was cut across by sectarianism. Thirty-three years later Northern Ireland is headed towards sectarian conflict and some form of repartition, unless, that is, an alternative to capitalism is found.