Northern Ireland: peace process permanently stalled?

By Ciaran Mulholland Socialist View, Summer 2003, No. 11

The Peace process remains in deep crisis. Despite desperate efforts by the British and Irish governments over the last few months, it has not proved possible to re-establish the Executive, and the Assembly elections have been postponed indefinitely. Attempts to resuscitate the institutions established under the Agreement will continue over the summer but the same problems will surface, the same stumbling blocks will emerge. Since its inception the Executive has been suspended on three separate occasions and has stumbled from crisis to crisis. Even if a new deal is reached, it will again only deliver a temporary respite.

Achieving a new deal will not be easy. The basic fault lines that have run right through the peace process continue to bedevil it. There has been no real agreement at any stage, beyond an agreement to differ. The Agreement is based on division and accepts that division is permanent. The Agreement has actually strengthened division. The political process is now simply catching up with events on the ground.

The aftermath of an election, if it takes place, would make the political situation even more precarious and prone to fracture. The result of recent events is that Sinn Fein's position has been bolstered. Most Catholics blame unionism in general and Trimble in particular for the collapse of the Executive and the failure to reach a new agreement and to hold elections in May. It is almost certain that Sinn Fein would pull further ahead of the SDLP if an election is held.

The DUP are crowing that they were right all along and the anti-Agreement wing of the UUP is firmly in the ascendancy. It is almost certain that anti-Agreement unionists of various hues will have a majority over the pro-Agreement unionists after the next election and the DUP may even emerge as the largest unionist party. Hammering out a deal when Sinn Fein is the majority nationalist party and a majority of unionists are anti-Agreement will not be easy. Clearly Trimble's position would be bolstered by moves from the IRA that appeared to concede his demands. The outlines of a possible deal are clear. The republican movement has undertaken to effectively stand down the IRA, ending recruitment, training and targeting, and will carry out further acts of decommissioning. More fundamentally, they will probably eventually sign up to the policing boards, a move that will demonstrate their commitment to ending their armed campaign more than any other. In return, the British government will allow on the run IRA men to return home and will dramatically scale back on military activity.

Trimble's declared bottom line, however, is the effective disbandment of the IRA and a declaration that "the war is over". He will not achieve these aims. Trimble needs a simple message for the unionist electorate but he is not going to get one - the IRA is not going to publicly disband to save his skin. The question is whether some sort of compromise will allow the IRA to deny that they have surrendered, or pandered to a unionist agenda, whilst at the same time Trimble can claim that he has achieved the dissolution of the IRA. Such a compromise is not impossible but it will prove exceedingly difficult to achieve. In favour of achieving such an outcome, is that both the republican movement and the pro-Agreement wing of unionism wish to keep the show on the road, at least for now. Against, are the basic contradictions within the peace process and the distrust between the main players.

IRA long war over

According to Sinn Fein, the problem is that Unionist politicians (and their allies in the British establishment) really do not want "any Catholics about the place". Many Catholics accept this argument. The evidence is however that a narrow majority of Protestants reluctantly lined up behind Trimble and initially gave the Agreement a chance. The reality is that the majority of Protestants are now against the Agreement and Trimble's room for manoeuvre has consequently long gone. The reason for this slippage in support is that ordinary working class Protestants see themselves as losing out in a sectarian tussle for supremacy.

According to unionist politicians, the problem is that the republican movement has not broken from its past and remains wedded to the dual strategy of bomb and bullet. The unionist politicians are wrong. Whilst the republican movement retains its armed wing, it is proposing to stand it down, whether this is stated openly or not, and their "long war" is clearly over.

As the Socialist Party has pointed out since the beginning of the peace process it is not lack of goodwill or an inability to compromise by the politicians that has brought us to this point. The problem is that the whole basis of the Agreement has been flawed from the outset.

In this political vacuum that now exists conflict on the peace lines, stoked by both sets of paramilitaries, though especially by the UDA, will continue and may intensify. The violence has diminished but not ended - 50 people have died over the last three years. In an atmosphere of mutual recrimination and mistrust, and with little hope of a political way out, low-level conflict has the potential to explode at any time.

In recent weeks, further evidence has emerged of the nefarious role of the British State in the conflict in Northern Ireland. British government policy has been by and large one of pragmatism. Over the first two decades of the Troubles, it relied on a policy of repression, overwhelmingly directed against republican areas, allied with repeated attempts to create political solutions based on the "constitutional" parties. All attempts at a political solution failed, and it proved impossible to defeat the IRA. At the same time the IRA was contained and could not win. In the late 1980s the British government realised that the republican leadership were seeking a way out and the peace process began in an attempt to incorporate former paramilitaries in a "solution."

Collusion

Over the last three decades it is absolutely clear that the RUC Special Branch, MI5 and the Force Research Unit run by British Army Intelligence used agents in the ranks of the UDA to target dozens of individuals for assassination. Because of the intervention of these agents, Pat Finucane and many others were assassinated. This policy was pursued in the interests of the State, seeking to use any means to stabilise the situation. At the same time if allegations are true, informers within the IRA, such as "Stake Knife" were allowed to kill with impunity if it suited the interests of their masters.

It is important that the labour movement draws the lessons of these events. The ruling class will use these methods again in the future and the ruling classes of every "Western democracy" are quite capable of resorting to undemocratic and extra-judicial measures when their position is threatened.

In the aftermath of the recent revelations, republicans have repeated their assertion that the loyalist paramilitaries are simply British run death squads. While it is beyond question that there was extensive collusion, it is also beyond question that the loyalist paramilitaries emerged independently of the State and continue to draw both recruits and a measure of support because of events on the ground. To argue otherwise is an extension of the false republican belief that Protestant resistance to a capitalist united Ireland is a mirage that would quickly collapse if Britain declared its intention to withdraw.

A full public inquiry is necessary to expose the truth of Britain's secret war in Northern Ireland. The real questions are not about the role of this or that agent but are about the issue of how high up knowledge of their activities went. The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday illustrates some of the problems with official inquiries however. Enormous sums will be spent to demonstrate what everyone already knows-that those who died were innocent men gunned down in cold blood - but the inquiry is extremely unlikely to tell us anything about the role of Edward Heath and the Cabinet played.

A genuine inquiry must examine the question of who directed operations not just who pulled the triggers, and must represent the victims and the communities affected by these attacks. A false inquiry which makes lawyers rich but which lets the guilty men and women at the top off the hook would be worse than useless.

Sectarian parties can't deliver

If and when an election is held, the key question is what can working people expect from the political parties represented at Stormont? The answer is not a lot.

The main unionist parties, the UUP and the DUP, may differ on the issue of the Agreement but they do not differ on economic and social issues. The same holds true for the various splinter anti-Agreement parties. Historically unionism has lined up with the Conservative Party at Westminster. The DUP often takes a more "radical" stance than the UUP as it consciously seeks to win Protestant working class votes but at base both parties are as reactionary on social issues as they are sectarian on "constitutional" issues. Whenever the DUP has exercised power, either at local council level or in the Executive, they are indistinguishable from the UUP on economic and social issues.

Despite all of the talk of "post-nationalism" the SDLP is based entirely on one section of the population and always will be. Its position is under serious threat from Sinn Fin and to counter this threat it is likely to take a more stridently nationalist tone. This approach is allied to essentially monetarist policies.

Sinn Fein will almost certainly continue to eat into the SDLP's support and have already captured the majority of the vote amongst the young and the working class in Catholic areas. This does not mean that they are to the left of the SDLP in any sense. Sinn Fin is a right wing nationalist party that thrives on the division of the working class. Indeed it maintains and deepens this division through its policies. The record of Sinn Fein in power speaks for itself. Bairbre de Brun presided over a health service in crisis and Martin McGuinness refused to sanction a decent wage for term time staff and busily implemented the Private Finance Initiative in our schools.

The reality is that all of these parties and the New Labour government have no fundamental disagreements on economic and social issues. So can an alternative be built?

Many young people reject sectarianism, and because of their experiences of opposing the war in Iraq and globalisation are beginning to question the entire system. The Socialist Party and Socialist Youth speak for some of them but we need a broader party to give them a real voice. If socialists and candidates representing campaigning groups were to stand in the next elections, it would be an important step forward in building a new mass party.

Up to 100,000 people took to the streets of Northern Ireland on 18 January 2002 in a massive demonstration against sectarian attacks and intimidation. This was a hugely important event. Those who reject the drift towards division now know they are not alone and have at least an inkling of their potential power if they act together with confidence. There is a real basis for the development of a new political alternative in the natural unity of workers in struggle, a unity seen in the fire fighters' dispute.

A socialist alternative must be based on this unity, not on hopes alone. In 1996 the Labour Coalition came from nowhere and won two seats. Against a background of a world economic recession, the implementation of right wing policies by the Executive and by New Labour and an upturn in class struggle (such as an increase in the number of strikes) it will be possible to mount a serious challenge to the establishment at the next Assembly elections. We must begin preparing the ground now.

Building a Socialist Alternative

A recent opinion poll demonstrates that a significant minority of voters are sick of the sectarian parties and are looking for an alternative. Up to 17% declared their intention to vote for smaller parties outside the sectarian circus, or simply stated that none of the main parties held any attraction for them.

Ultimately we require a mass broad based socialist party in Northern Ireland that brings together the best anti-sectarian community, socialist and trade union activists. Such a party cannot be wished into existence however and it will have to be built on the back of big events and mass campaigns.

It is possible for local campaigning groups, trade union branches and left wing political parties to challenge the established political parties at the next Assembly elections. Many trade union and community activists have been stunned by the anti-working class policies of the Assembly and the Executive. Militant campaigns around issues such as health cutbacks could provide the platform from which to launch such a challenge.

At the last local elections, Raymond Blaney gained a seat on Down District Council on a Save the Downe ticket despite fierce opposition from the main parties, especially the SDLP. Two other candidates performed well though they did not win seats. In England, retired hospital consultant Richard Taylor won a Westminster seat at the last general election with an overwhelming majority. His victory was the culmination of a campaign to save Kidderminster Hospital. Indeed the Kidderminster campaigners have now won a majority on the local council.

The Socialist Party has always taken the issue of elections seriously. We have stood independently on many occasions and were the main component of the Labour Coalition in 1996.

In the South, we have demonstrated how committed, campaigning work over many years can pay dividends on the electoral front. We have one TD in the Dil; two council positions, and nearly won a second Dil seat at the last election in Dublin North.

Similarly in Britain, the Socialist Party has had more electoral success than any other force on the left. It has four council seats, including three in Coventry, where the Socialist Party gained 14% of the vote across a huge swathe of the city at the last council elections. A more favourable electoral system would deliver parliamentary seats on a vote of this size.

Our comrades in Scotland work to build the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). The success of the SSP was not an overnight phenomenon, and is certainly not based on the coming together of existing left wing parties alone. First and foremost, it was based on the solid campaigning work by members of the Committee for a Workers International in Scotland over 15 years, for example the victorious mass campaign against the poll tax.

In the North, members of the Socialist Party have been to the forefront of a whole number of recent struggles, playing a prominent role in leading the Term Time workers and the recent social workers' strike for example. The Socialist Party is in favour of a broad, anti-cuts, anti-privatisation slate at the next election, incorporating hospital campaigners, trade unionists in struggle and socialists.

Two candidates are planning to stand under the banner of the HOPE (Hospital in Omagh Providing for Everyone) campaign in West Tyrone, arguing that the Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh should retain its acute status. Olive Wylie is a UNISON shop steward in the hospital. Ciaran Deeney is a local GP. They are likely to poll well. HOPE is in favour of accessible and high quality facilities for both Omagh and Enniskillen. Socialist Party members have been instrumental in developing the HOPE campaign.

Other local campaigning groups may stand, as may trade unionists. Several left wing groups may also stand, including of course the Socialist Party. Discussions must begin now to seek a way of bringing all these forces together under a single banner, whilst leaving everyone involved the freedom to run their own campaign.

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