Northern Ireland - "Peace process" mark II

Oct/Nov 1997

So the Northern Ireland "peace process" is back on track, or so we are told.

Yet no sooner had the talks been re-opened in Stormont on 15 September - this time with Sinn Fein's participation - than the old charade restarted all over again. For a full week all five unionist parties boycotted the meetings with the Ulster Unionists' leader David Trimble clamouring to the press that he found the mere idea of meeting with a Republican delegation "repulsive". As if Unionist councillors had not been sitting for years with Sinn Fein councillors in local councils across the six counties - however "repulsive" they found the experience!

Eventually, the Ulster Unionists changed tack, judging that their posturing had lasted long enough to fulfill its purpose. On 23 September, UUP leader David Trimble marched into Stormont castle followed by his party delegation, with the loyalist paramilitary-linked PUP and UDP trailing behind. This meant that only Paisley's DUP and McCartney's smaller UK Unionist Party remained outside the talks. Government officials rejoiced in London and Dublin, boasting that things were finally going in the right direction.

But Trimble's posturing was not over yet. He insisted that he was not going in to discuss with the Republicans but to confront them, stretching the absurd to the point of refusing to address the participants in any other way than through the chair. Trimble then proceeded to demand that Sinn Fein should be thrown out of the talks there and then. Sinn Fein was the IRA, he argued, and the latter's violent methods were in breach of the undertaking signed by all participants in order to board the peace process - i.e. the so-called Mitchell principles and their commitment to renounce the use of violence. Of course, Trimble did not have any such objections about his junior partners, the UVF-linked PUP and the UFF-linked UDP, nor about... himself for that matter, as a former member of the Vanguard grouping whose paramilitary links were an open secret.

No-one believed, least of all Trimble himself, that such an argument had the slightest chance of getting anywhere in today's context. And this was made clear during that same session of the talks by Ken Maginnis, Trimble's right-hand man, who declared: "Today begins the trial of New Labour on the charge that it has diminished democracy, sacrificed the freedom of the people of Northern Ireland to the terrorist and elevated an evil Mafia to a status that would shame any other country in Western Europe". This was a straight admission that the Unionists had already lost the argument against Sinn Fein's participation.

But winning this argument was not the point of the exercise anyway. Even the most nonsensical farces have their own set of rules and political posturing has been the name of the game in the "peace process" right from the word go. And there is every reason to think that there will be a lot more of the same in the months to come.

That being said, the context in which the Northern Ireland talks are taking place today is different in many respects from what it was when they were first initiated. Governments have changed both in Britain and in Ireland while in Northern Ireland itself the political situation has somewhat evolved as well. This does not mean, of course, that the northern Irish working class has any more reason to expect anything from the peace process than before, as far as its class interests are concerned. But what it does mean is that, this time, some form of settlement may come out of it.

The Blair-Ahern factor

Obviously the removal of the Tories from government in London is the main new factor affecting the context of the peace process.

Not that Blair, or the Labour party, have ever had a policy which was significantly different from that of the Tories with respect to Northern Ireland.

After all, one should never forget that it was Harold Wilson's Labour government which brought in the troops in August 1969, in order to contain the explosion which was threatening in the catholic ghettos. Just as, subsequently, it was another Wilson government that introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act - a piece of legislation, still in force today, which effectively strips the northern Irish population of most of the protections against the police that other British citizens have.

Of course, there are currents within the Labour party which have been campaigning for a long time in support of the demands of Irish nationalists. But such currents also existed under Wilson without affecting his policy. Besides, there are also long-standing pro-unionist currents within the Labour party, and if anything the party's present establishment is closer to the latter currents than to the former. That being said, these currents are likely to have as little influence on Blair's policy in Northern Ireland as the large numbers of Labour party members who are trade-union activists have, when it comes to getting Blair to repeal the Tory anti-union laws. Ultimately, Blair will strive to implement the policy which is most consistent with the interests of the British bourgeoisie, regardless of the currents of opinion within his own party.

In this respect, the truth of the matter is that over the past few years, Labour's shadow cabinet has been consistently at one with Major's cabinet over its policy in Northern Ireland, without tolerating the slightest word of dissent from within its ranks. The Labour party endorsed every aspect and stage of the Tories' negotiation process while in opposition, and Blair has already stated very clearly that he intends to complete what was started by Major.

The main actual difference introduced in the context of the peace process by Labour's return to office lies in the fact that, unlike Major, Blair is not tied up by constraints of parliamentary arithmetic. While Major was desperate to secure the support of Unionist MPs in order to avoid the risk of a humiliating defeat at the hands of his own backbenchers, Blair's huge Commons majority is now depriving the Unionist parties of one powerful instrument of pressure on the British government.

The return of Fianna Fail to office in Dublin is also altering the context of the talks, albeit for different reasons and with fewer consequences, due to the secondary role played by the Republic in the process.

Neither is a fundamental difference of policy to be expected from Fianna Fail, compared to that of the previous Fine Gael-Labour Party government. In particular, and contrary to accusations levelled time and again by northern Unionists, Fianna Fail has been known consistently to be just as heavy-handed against republican paramilitaries as any other Irish party, since the early 1970s.

But traditionally Fianna Fail's large rural electoral base tends to be more nationalist in outlook, so that the party leadership is more likely to try to be seen on the right side of the Republicans, at least at a rhetorical level, than its predecessor. All the more so as, in addition, Bertie Ahern's minority government depends on the support of a few independent TDs, some of whom have been elected on a platform critical of the previous government's failure to take a clear nationalist stand with regard to the northern peace process. This probably explains why, for instance, unlike his very cautious predecessor Dick Spring, the new Fianna Fail Foreign minister Ray Burke has adopted a high profile in Belfast, while going on record at a Dublin press conference, on 19 September, to say that Sinn Fein's perspective of a united Ireland "is the best way for this island to be governed and for the maximum economic well-being and social advantage".

Finally, both the new British and Irish governments have good reason to want quick progress in the negotiations. On the one hand, being newly elected, they can afford to be relatively bold, even if it risks upsetting temporarily a section of their public opinion. On the other hand, they are both in the process of introducing drastic austerity packages at home which are bound to be very unpopular, and they are keen to be able to boast about a "spectacular breakthrough" in Northern Ireland, that is assuming they can manage it.

The Unionists' overbidding

Confronted with this new situation, the Unionist parties are in a weaker position altogether, as they cannot hope to have the same leverage with Blair as they had with Major.

In addition, their blatantly sectarian policy during the marching season last year backfired on them. It was certainly successful in closing the ranks of hardline unionists behind heavy-weights such as Trimble, Maginnis and Taylor. But instead of swelling the numbers of their supporters, it generated some resentment in urban protestant districts because of the resulting poisonous atmosphere. At the same time, a section among the most determined loyalists turned to the PUP or UDP, although these groups were much less prominent in the marches. This was partly due to their open links with loyalist paramilitaries and partly due to their using a language which was closer to the economic worries of ordinary people and more radical-sounding, particularly in the case of the PUP.

The Unionists' weakened support was highlighted in this year's May local election. Both Trimble's UUP and Paisley's DUP saw their share of the vote reduced, particularly in the main towns. For the first time ever, the DUP even scored fewer votes than Sinn Fein and the Unionists lost overall control of Belfast city council, among others. Some of these losses may have been due to changes in urban abstention patterns, with a lower turnout in traditionally protestant working class areas. But if so, this lower turnout itself would be significant of a shift, albeit a small one for the time being, against Unionist politicians, among protestant working class voters.

Predictably, the weakening of the Unionist parties' support has intensified their rivalries. Their obvious failure to mobilise supporters on a large scale during this year's marching season has shifted their rivalries onto the issue of the peace process itself.

The UUP, both as the largest Unionist party and as a party whose more middle-class urban electorate is rather in favour of the peace process, cannot easily afford to remain outside the talks. But neither can they allow their following to be eroded by competitors who can afford to remain outside the talks - mainly Paisley's DUP. Hence Trimble's high profile melodramatic stance, which does not prevent the UUP, today just as yesterday, to take a full part in all sorts of initiatives taking place in the background, on the margins of the peace process, such as cross-border working parties with officials and politicians from the Republic for instance.

The PUP and UDP, the much smaller groups linked to the loyalist paramilitaries, have chosen so far to follow the UUP. By doing so they want to avoid appearing as disruptive factors. They are also facing problems of their own. Earlier this year a new paramilitary group emerged - the Loyalist Volunteer Force - set up by dissident members of the UVF. The new grouping has been careful not to challenge openly the authority of the joint command set up by the various loyalist groups to monitor their own ceasefire. But at the same time they have made sure to be linked to a series of sectarian attacks, including two murders and a wave of arson attacks against catholic churches and schools, in an attempt to rally the discontent in the UVF and beyond. The LVF's cautiousness probably indicates that it is still very weak, but it represents a pressure on both the UDP and the PUP. Although the latter, with its Old Labour style, seems more resistant to this pressure, relying on developing its support on the ground through its activities in working class residents' committees and credit unions.

Paisley's DUP and McCartney's UK Unionists have both opted for a boycott - for the time being in any case. In this, however, they seem to be pursuing different agendas.

McCartney, as a former dissident of the UUP, whose base of support is mostly limited to his own constituency, is clearly banking on the UUP leadership tying itself into knots. So, for the time being, McCartney is keeping a low profile and waiting for the right time, hoping that the situation will allow him to play the role of a key intermediary at some point in the future, possibly using his long-standing links with the pro-unionist current in the Labour party.

Paisley, on the other hand, who has lost out quite significantly in some of the DUP's traditional working class strongholds like East Belfast, is trying to revamp his populist appeal by giving a higher profile to his particular brand of strident bigoted demagogy. During the course of the year, he has been instrumental in setting up, together with elements of the LVF, an Ulster Civil Rights Movement, on the grounds that protestants' civil rights are now under threat (a clear reference to the anti-unionist civil rights movement of the 1960s). Beyond this ludicrous rhetoric, his real objective was to mobilise support to impose the right for protestants bigots to march wherever and whenever they pleased. His success seems to have been limited so far. But Paisley has now taken his "civil rights" campaign into the Northern Ireland Forum, which he has manoeuvred into calling for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland - and it is not difficult to imagine what sort of Bill that should be, in Paisley's view. So, effectively, Paisley is pre-empting future developments in the negotiations by crying wolf right now, in order to be able to portray his UUP rivals as sell-outs.

Of course, all these factions, even the LVF itself, are determined to be part of any future settlement - to ensure that they get their own dividend out of it. And once the actual bargaining starts, after the present preparation phase, the odds are that they will find a way to the negotiating table. Today's overbidding is no more than their own way of preparing their entry in the talks. The risk, of course, is that their whipping up of sectarianism ends up triggering yet another sectarian backlash.

The Republicans' dependence on Blair

The Republicans never claimed that the ending of their first ceasefire, in February last year, signalled a change of attitude on their part towards the peace process.

Only it was clear by that time that the peace process would be stalled for the foreseeable future. In order to keep the Unionist politicians happy, Major had been playing cat and mouse for months over the decommissioning of weapons and this game was not likely to stop, judging from the Tories' shrinking majority in Westminster and their increasingly heated factional fights. Therefore the IRA leadership seem to have calculated that since any new move on the part of the British government was unlikely before the British general election, their ceasefire was no longer necessary.

Besides, there were good reasons for the Republican leadership to end their ceasefire. The delaying tactics used by the Unionists and Major's government were turning the negotiations into a charade which was becoming less and less credible in the catholic ghettos. And the Republicans' condoning of the process was beginning to alienate some of their supporters. By ending the ceasefire, the IRA was effectively playing safe from their own point of view. There was no chance of a settlement being reached in their absence. But on the other hand, they avoided the further erosion of their support and even bolstered it by making what appeared to be a show of their determination not to give in to the Unionist establishment.

Subsequently, this policy proved all the more advantageous as the British government insisted on keeping the peace process afloat while barring Sinn Fein from taking part. This resulted in turning the talks into a mere farce in the view of a large section of the catholic minority, including traditional supporters of the middle- class SDLP.

Then came the 1996 marching season and, for the second year running, the deliberate attempts of the Unionists to mobilise the protestant community along sectarian lines, the complicity of the police and the conspicuous leniency of the British authorities. This gave another boost to the Republicans and provided them with a justification for the IRA's spectacular bombings in Britain, including in the eyes of people who had had strong reservations about such tactics. In any case, the marching season exposed once more the impotence of the SDLP and weakened the credit won by its leader John Hume through his role in initiating the peace process, back in 1994.

This year's election results provided a graphic demonstration of the increased support won by the Republicans over the past year. In the British general election, Gerry Adams regained the West Belfast seat he had lost to the SDLP in 1992 while McGuinness took another seat. In the local election Sinn Fein scored 16.9% of the vote compared to 12.4% the previous time (gaining 74 seats compared to 51), while the SDLP went down from 22% to 20.7%. Finally, in June, for the first time since the 1950s, Sinn Fein won a seat in the Irish general election, in the Cavan- Monaghan border constituency.

The IRA's second ceasefire, on 20 July, came as a direct consequence of Labour's election in London. For a long time, the Republican press had been painting the Labour party in rosy colours, arguing that a Labour government in Britain would be a definite step forward for Northern Ireland. It was therefore predictable that the Republican leadership would strive to resume participation in the peace process and offer concessions to the new government.

Yet Blair's government did not prove too helpful in that respect. Mo Mowlam's decision to get the army to flood the Garvaghy Road and lock up catholic residents in their own houses in order to allow the Orange Order's Drumcree march to pass through should have been seen as a major setback by the Republicans - as it was by a large section of the catholic community who were outraged by the army's massive show of strength against the residents. But the Republican leadership thought otherwise. Within the next two weeks, Sinn Fein managed to find that the new Labour government had been playing a positive role in facilitating negotiations between the Orange Order and catholic residents' committees in other areas. And these findings provided the basis for the IRA's ceasefire announcement.

Clearly, the Republicans wanted this ceasefire and the resumption of negotiations more than anything else and they were not too bothered about the very ambiguous behaviour of the Labour government.

After the ceasefire testing period demanded by London, the last step was for Sinn Fein to sign up to the Mitchell principles, which they had agreed to already, under Major. So this was a mere formality, which was carried out on 9 September.

However, the following issue of An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein's weekly, came out with a comment by the IRA leadership, which said: "the IRA would have problems with sections of the Mitchell principles. But then the IRA is not a participant in these talks". Predictably, the Unionists grabbed this one sentence to turn it into a political indictment of Sinn Fein's alleged "duplicity". And once more the media began to speculate about the possibility of a "split" within the Republicans' ranks. Yet, just as in other similar circumstances in the past, the Republican leadership were only spelling out to their supporters that there was no change in their fundamental orientation, and that Sinn Fein's signing up to the Mitchell principles and participating in the talks were not an implicit condemnation of the past "armed struggle", nor a way of renouncing using it as a last resort in the future. In fact this statement is all the more understandable, since only a few days after, there was the explosion of a 400lb bomb in a van outside a RUC station in Markethill. The bombing was claimed by the dissident Republican Continuity Army Council, which pretends to aim at "taking the weapons from where the IRA dropped them" and invites Republican supporters who are dissatisfied with the IRA's "running away from the struggle" to join them.

In any case, attacking the Republicans' "duplicity", was obviously pure hypocrisy, coming from Unionist politicians who have been consistently using loyalist paramilitaries, and more importantly the RUC and the British army, against their political opponents, and cannot be trusted not to use them again in the future.

The truth is - and the Unionists know it as well as the Republicans do - that ultimately Sinn Fein's only perspective has always been to sit at the negotiating table with the British government and the Unionists, to work out some form of compromise for power sharing which will give them a role and the explicit recognition of the British state. And this is just what Sinn Fein expects from Blair's government.

Not Blair but the working class holds the key

The question remains - what will come out of this new stage of the "peace process".

Blair's objectives are clear - they are the same that were pursued before him by Thatcher and Major through the various attempts at a political settlement made since the early 1980s, the same too, as that of the Sunningdale agreement of the 1970s. The packaging may have been different each time, but the aims remain exactly the same.

The British bourgeoisie wants to get rid of an extremely costly and potentially dangerous thorn in its side. They intend to do this by putting in place power-sharing institutions, involving closer links with the Republic. But they also want to make sure that these institutions will be strong enough to guarantee the future political stability of Northern Ireland and, more specifically, to keep its poor population under control. The last thing the British bourgeoisie wants is a repeat of the ghetto explosion of the 60s and 70s. This is why they want not just the SDLP and the UUP to be part of the settlement, but also Sinn Fein and the loyalist paramilitaries, so that they can be sure that the working class ghettos of all communities will be made to toe the line of the settlement.

Within this long-term brief, there are all sorts of possible scenarios, involving greater or lesser degrees of autonomy (or devolved powers since this is Blair's catchphrase these days) for Northern Ireland, with a status somewhere in between those which have just been granted to Scotland and Wales, together with some form of privileged ties with the Republic. But in order to accommodate all the politicians involved in the talks, any such scheme will have to involve the entrenchment of sectarian divisions and politics. This was what Major's 1995 "Framework Document" was about and so far there is no sign that Blair plans to put anything else on the table.

The working class of Northern Ireland has certainly nothing to gain in a settlement of that kind, which would inevitably give a new lease of life to the protestant establishment while pushing a section of the aspiring middle-class of both communities up the social ladder so that they can be in a better position to screw the working class and take their share of the cake.

And even in the shorter term, there are threatening signs - of a kind that are already well-known in Britain - which point to Blair's plans to force through massive expenditure cuts, particularly cuts in social expenditure - which have already begun in the Northern Ireland NHS. Given Blair's overall policy, the comparatively high level of state expenditure per head in Northern Ireland can only be expected to be his first target.

In any event, the workers and the unemployed of Northern Ireland should not be misled by the illusion that, after Major's mishandling of the peace process, Blair cannot do worse. They should judge Blair from what they can see in Northern Ireland itself, particularly the higher profile of the army in working class areas since the ceasefire and the helicopters hovering day and night over Belfast - showing that in a situation where security is officially no longer an issue, the working class itself is still treated as a security risk. And they should also judge Blair from what he is up to over in Britain, with his plans aimed at bringing about his famous "flexible labour market" - a bounty for shareholders and companies, but a wholesale attack against the standard of living and conditions of the working class.

It is not Blair, but the Northern Ireland working class which can make a difference in what the future has in store. But it will only do this by closing ranks as a class, across all the artificial divisions which have plagued the six counties for so long, by raising its voice loud enough to push the overbidding and posturing of the politicians into the background and to impose a different kind of settlement - one aimed at forcing the privileged on both sides of the Irish Channel to use their profits to resolve the chronic deprivation and unemployment in the North as well as in the whole of Ireland.