Update: Peace Process Under Strain

By Ciaran Mulholland Socialist View Spring 2001

THE INSTITUTIONS established under the Good Friday Agreement have now been in place for one year, allowing for the period when was suspended. Once again the entire process appears to be at an impasse. Whether it gets back on track or not is an open question, dependent on a number of interlocking developments. The Agreement is ultimately flawed, based as it is on sectarian division. It is not designed to overcome this division but to copper-fasten it. Whilst there is now a relatively peaceful situation, this peace is far from complete, and the Agreement has done little to improve the day-to-day lives for working people. Sooner or later the contradictions inherent within the peace process and the Agreement will bring it crashing down.

The issues of policing, decommissioning and demilitarisation remain unresolved. Against a background of low-level violence, and with elections and the marching season looming, a resolution of these issues seems very far away. Nevertheless the main pro-Agreement parties have much to lose if the Executive is suspended. It is in all their interests to demonstrate that the institutions are working. The problem is that they have sold the Agreement to their potential electorates in very different ways and they find it very, difficult to bridge the gap that divides them.

Assuming that the elections go ahead in May/June, and are not postponed because of the foot and mouth crisis, it is likely that the Executive will limp on until then, though a suspension cannot be ruled out. The outcome of the elections, particularly on the Unionist side, will be crucial. There is a real risk that Trimble could take a pounding at the bands of the DUP in bath the Westminster and local elections. Such a scenario could fatally undermine the Agreement.

In order to avoid this the two governments may decide to suspend the Executive unless the Republican movement come up with some movement on arms. It is probable that the Adams leadership are inclined to give on arms but are concerned about the risk of a further split unless such a move is accompanied by further concessions on policing or military installations. If the SDLP were to move to back the new police force this would go a long way to bolster Trimble's position, but such a move would pose risks for the SDLP in their electoral battle with Sinn Fein. The recent talks have taken place against a background of continuing low-level violence. In January and February there were more than 50 pipe bomb and gun attacks on Catholic homes across the North. In 2000 there were only 50 pipe bomb and blast bomb attacks in the entire year.

The attacks have occurred in North and West Belfast and in towns in Counties Antrim and Derry, especially Larne, Ballymena and Coleraine. Whilst in the main it is Catholic families that have been targeted there have also been attacks on Protestants, especially in Larne, and a Protestant taxi driver was the victim of the most recent fatal attack. So called punishment attacks continue on a nightly basis. There is only a relative peace in the working class areas of the North.

Trade union and community activists in towns like Larne should establish anti-sectarian committees. A firm lead from these committees could mobilise, both Protestants and Catholics to isolate the bigots in the communities, through protests marches, meetings and pickets.

The recent threat to staff at the Mater Hospital was met by the hospital unions calling a protest on the Crumlin Road. It is quite possible that this protest was one of the reasons that the attacks became less common in late February. A successful movement along these lines would encourage others to take action against the paramilitaries and ultimately free all communities from the nightmare of daily sectarian threats, harassment and violence. Without such a movement there is the risk of the situation deteriorating as we face into the upcoming elections and the marching season, especially if the Agreement institutions further unravel.

The Assembly parties have all aped New Labour's attempts to ingratiate themselves with the employers. They are selling Northern Ireland as "a good place to do business", by which they mean low par for workers and compliant unions. They are fully behind the Private Finance Initiative and Public-Private Partnerships as methods of financing developments in the public sector, despite the fact that the result will be poorer services and the enriching of a few at the expense of the many. Indeed Martin McGuinness has announced that eight schools are to be built under Public-Private Partnerships in the next few years. Parents recently picketed the first school to be built under this arrangement, Wellington College in Belfast, angry that the new school will lose most of its playing fields so that the private developer can make millions by building houses on the land.

All of the Assembly parties are pro-market, including those who voiced socialist phraseology in the past. They have not stepped away from the New Labour line on any major economic or social issue, though they have made some minor concessions on financial support for students and on free travel for pensioners. They have managed to reward themselves handsomely with pay rises and increased holidays and they continue the sectarian bickering which contributes to sectarian tension on the ground.

What working people require is a mass working class party that can win the support of both Catholic and Protestant workers and which takes independent, socialist positions on the key political issues. Such a party does not exist at present and will only be created through mass struggles and the pressure of events.

The inherent unity and strength of the working class remains intact and will be exercised in the political arena in time. A small but significant victory for the Socialist Party in the local elections will help to bring that time forward.

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