Northern Ireland - The sectarian nature of the "peace process"

Mar/Apr 1998

In the seven weeks from December 27th, at least 16 people have fallen victim to sectarian killings in Northern Ireland. Most of them were targeted at random, for no reason other than that they happened to have been born in a catholic working class ghetto.

Despite the "peace process", which has been dragging on since 1994, and the ceasefire implemented on and off during this period, sectarian murders have never totally disappeared from the Six Counties. But the increased frequency of these killings, particularly in the third week of January, when they were taking place every day, came as a shock to many people and a warning that the sectarian bloodshed of the past decades might, after all, not be was set to continue.

The general attitude among politicians has been rather to play down the political significance of this wave of murders. Some even went so far as to argue cynically that the list of casualties still remains "small" compared to what it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, thus showing, they said, that the "peace process works"!

But does it? Does the comparatively smaller casualty list make these sectarian killings - and the permanent threat which they imply for working class communities - any more tolerable? For much too long already, the Northern Irish working class has been bled and crippled by the divisions sown in its ranks by sectarian politics. Almost thirty years after the British troops were brought into Northern Ireland in order to protect the unionist establishment from the potential threat of a social explosion, isn't it high time the rule of the armed gangs came to an end - whether these gangs be vested with the authority of the British state or not?

The loyalists' overbidding

The British and Irish governments and their respectable partners in the "peace process" may shed tears over the dead and splash their condemnation of the atrocities across the front-pages of the newspapers. But they all have some blood on their hands - the British state, more than anyone else, of course.

The loyalist gangs who claimed responsibility for most of these murders - in this case, apparently, the relatively recent Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and the older UFF-UDA - are direct offshoots of the policy carried out by the British state and its protégé, the unionist establishment, over the past decades. And even if, today, these gangs may appear to be pursuing their own separate agendas, one should not forget the numerous past occasions when they carried out the dirty business that the British army and RUC did not want to do themselves.

But in a certain sense, these loyalist killings are also part and parcel of the "peace process" itself, which right from the beginning had a built-in potential for overbidding - a feature of the negotiations which all the participants agreed to willingly.

Indeed, the main purpose of the "peace process" is to reach a power-sharing agreement between political currents whose influence and recognition by the British and Irish governments are dependent on the sectarian divisions which have shaped Northern Irish politics over the past decades.

In the case of the two currents which claim to speak on behalf of the catholic population, there is a relatively clear-cut division of labour between Sinn Fein, with its mainly working class power base, and the middle-class SDLP. And so far, despite the emergence, or re-emergence, of various anti-negotiation splinter groups on the margins of the Republican movement, Sinn Fein's grip over its strongholds has never been seriously threatened.

On the loyalist and unionist side, on the other hand, the situation is very different. To begin with, there is a certain degree of overlap between the constituencies of the three unionist parties on the one hand and, on the other, between that of the unionist parties and the paramilitary groups. When it comes to the membership of the paramilitaries, the overlap becomes considerable, given the tendency of local loyalist "strong men" to switch allegiance according to their personal agendas. This means that there is an intense on-going rivalry between the various unionist and loyalist groups.

No-one, therefore, least of all the British government, could have expected the representatives of the loyalist and unionist forces not to try to boost their bargaining positions during the negotiations to the detriment of their rivals. The loyalist groups in particular were bound, at some stage, to grab at a convenient pretext to resort to their usual murderous methods, if only as a pre-emptive move, designed to avoid being outbidden by rivals in their own constituencies.

The setting up of the loyalist "joint command", in the early days of the "peace process", was precisely aimed at policing jointly the ceasefire in the loyalist ranks, in order to avoid the risk of unwanted overbidding by one group or another. Early last year, however, this show of unity was torpedoed by UVF dissidents, who refused to play by the rules of the "peace process" and launched the LVF. For the loyalist politicians involved in the talks, who boasted of being the authoritative spokesmen of the protestant working class ghettos, the LVF was a serious threat. All the more so, as, due to the porous boundaries between the different loyalist groups, they could not be sure that their own supporters were not silently "leaking out" to the new group. So, under the pressure of the LVF, the joint ceasefire became increasingly uneasy while the loyalist factions went onto full alert to try to protect their respective fiefdoms against their existing and potential rivals.

Eventually, on December 27th, the execution by the INLA of the LVF's founder, Billy Wright, who was serving an 8-year sentence in the Maze prison, was the trigger (and the pretext) which prompted a number of local loyalist "commanders" into action, with or without the agreement of the paramilitary leaders, for fear of being accused of "getting soft". Even though only the LVF and UFF-UDA admitted responsibility for any of the murders, all the factions were definitely involved, at one level or another, in the wave of sectarian attacks, arson and intimidation which took place at the same time.

Significantly, the loyalists' murderous spree reached a climax in January, shortly after Mo Mowlam gave them the kind of publicity they probably had never hoped for in their wildest dreams - a high- profile visit to the UFF prisoners' wing in the Maze. The media and politicians were unanimous in their praise for what they described as Mo Mowlam's "courage". Given the considerable security around her visit, what "courage" this took remains a mystery. But the mere fact that she went out of her way to shake the hands of the followers of the Shankill Butcher, undoubtedly gave the UFF credibility - on which the loyalist gangs were bound to try to capitalise promptly. Mo Mowlam's media stunt has therefore something to answer for with respect to the subsequent sectarian murders.

The state of the "peace process"

So where does this leave the "peace process"? According to Mo Mowlam, it is merely business as usual. But whether an agreement will be effectively completed by May, as Blair had pledged, is still an open question, although the British government seems confident that it can achieve this.

The loyalists' killings have had some consequences. On January 23rd, following the UFF's admission of its involvement in three sectarian murders, the leaders of the UDP, the UFF's political wing, chose to suspend their attendance to the talks, rather than wait for a certain official expulsion by the British government.

Then, in February, it was the Republicans' turn. On the basis of unsubstantiated allegations by the RUC and undisclosed "proofs" of the IRA's responsibility in the murders of a drug dealer and a UDA gang leader, Mo Mowlam initiated moves to exclude Sinn Fein from the talks as well.

The problem for the British government, however, is that without the participation of Sinn Fein and, to a lesser extent, that of the more marginal UDP, the whole process becomes pointless, since the necessary role of the Republicans and loyalist paramilitaries is to throw their weight behind the final settlement and police its implementation in the working class ghettos. Without their backing this settlement would be unlikely to last.

As a result, Mo Mowlam has had to let it be known that the expulsion of the UDP and Sinn Fein would only last for four weeks for the former and two for the latter, thereby turning the whole episode into farce and reducing her own role to that of a headmistress meting out slaps on the wrists of unruly paramilitaries. In the meantime, the talks will continue regardless, in the knowledge, however, that nothing decisive will happen in the absence of the suspended participants.

In any case, by now, the die for the future settlement has been cast, sufficiently clearly, to leave no space for illusions - assuming there were any left. The "Heads of Agreements" document issued jointly by the British and Irish governments in January spells out the nature of the constitutional framework for the proposed settlement: a Northern Ireland Assembly elected by proportional representation, which will exercise devolved executive and legislative powers in a way comparable to Scotland and Wales; a North-South Ministerial Council which will institutionalise the existing cooperation between the civil services of Northern Ireland and the Republic, and expand the scope for joint administration; and an Intergovernmental Council bringing together both governments and, on an equal footing, representatives of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies.

Within this institutional blueprint, there are, of course, a number of possible variations. Thus for instance, the Ulster Unionist Party argues in favour of the Northern Ireland Assembly receiving the same powers as that of Wales - meaning very few - while the middle-class catholic SDLP favours somewhat wider powers similar to those of the Scottish assembly.

Labour and the unionist establishment

As in Scotland and Wales, such a settlement will guarantee the middle-class of Northern Ireland, both protestant and catholic, improved prospects for cosy careers in the devolved administration and the future cross-border institutions with the Republic. At the same time, this settlement will pave the way for a drastic cut of the considerable subsidy currently paid by the British state to Northern Ireland. It will then be up to the new devolved institutions and empowered local politicians to force on the region's impoverished communities the resulting reduction in their standard of living.

Predictably such a settlement will not put into question the grip of the unionist establishment over the region's economy, nor even over its political institutions. Even with an Assembly elected by proportional representation, these institutions will still remain under the control of the traditional unionist alliance. And even if this alliance attracts, as a result, an increasing number of middle- class catholics (which it already does to a limited extent) it will still remain the political instrument of the handful of rich families who have controlled the region for so many decades.

But what else could be expected from this "peace process" under Labour's management? If anything, Labour has proved just as willing to bend over backwards to satisfy the demands of the unionist establishment in Northern Ireland as they do in Britain with those of the City.

Thus the concept of the Intergovernmental Council introduced in January by Blair was copied almost verbatim from the suggestion of a "Council of the British Isles" floated by the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble a few months ago. As to the rest of Blair's proposed agenda, it is merely a rather more restrictive version of Major's 1995 "framework document".

Much more importantly, Labour has proved prepared to entrench the sectarian divide into the law. For instance, an unprecedented piece of legislation is currently reaching the final stage at Westminster: under the pretext of preventing more confrontations over so-called "religious" marches, it will effectively provide these marches with a legal and institutional status which they never had before. The only benefactors of this bill will be such remnants of the past as the Orange Order and similar instruments of social control used by the unionist establishment.

Compared to this major concession to the unionist bigots, the new enquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre announced by Blair (assuming it really exposes the role played by the army chiefs, which is doubtful) is no more than a tokenistic gesture towards those who have been at the receiving end of the repression of the British state for the past thirty years.

What illustrates most graphically the nature of the settlement that the British government is trying to cobble up, is the increasing likelihood that the final and decisive negotiations will be kept secret and will take place in some distant country (Finland seems to be Blair's preferred choice). This is how determined the British government is to ensure that the outcome of the negotiations are not influenced by outside pressure, particularly by any potential pressure from the working class ghettos!

The problems facing the working class

Whatever the details of the final settlement might be, it will not resolve the major problems facing the Northern Irish working class. Even assuming that the British troops finally return to their barracks on the other side of the Irish Channel and that, as Mo Mowlam hinted in very vague terms, the RUC is down-sized and reformed into a normal cross-community police force, this, in and of itself, will not necessarily end, nor even weaken, the sectarian divide.

This division may have its roots in the long history of Britain's oppressive rule over Ireland, but the main factor which allows it to be still alive today is neither the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland, nor even the survival of antiquated religious bigotry. It is the degrading social conditions imposed on the majority of the working class. It is this chronic deprivation of the working class ghettos which has allowed one section of the working class to be set up against the other - by convincing the catholic minority that the slightly better conditions enjoyed on average by protestant workers made them accomplices to the exploiters, and, at the same time, entrenching the idea among the protestant majority that their own conditions were somehow threatened by catholic workers.

Above all, on this background of deprivation, the decisive factor in perpetuating the sectarian divide is the way in which the political consciousness of workers is still being shaped, from a very early age, by political forces which are themselves remnants of the past, feeding on the sectarian divide - whether it be the Republican current among catholics or the loyalist groups among protestants.

Some of these forces may use a more progressive sounding- rhetoric than others, or may seem to have a historical justification that others do not have, but all have played in the past, and still play today the same fundamentally reactionary role. By maintaining a siege atmosphere among their respective constituencies, on whose daily life they exercised a tight control (the prime purpose of the republican advice centres in catholic areas and the loyalist-controlled credit unions in protestant areas) these forces have imposed the idea that the only possible option for workers was the kind of militia-based politics which have dominated the working class ghettos for so long.

Today, the survival of these ideas and the predominant role they play among the working class, are the main obstacles to its ability to build up the unity it needs to defend effectively its class interests against all exploiters. Neither these obstacles, nor the underlying sectarian divide, will disappear as a result of the future political settlement. On the contrary, were this settlement to entrench and institutionalise sectarian-based politics, as a result of concessions made by the British government to the rival political currents, these obstacles could actually be strengthened.

This is why it would be important for the working class to make its voice heard and put forward its class demands even before the settlement is finally implemented (which is likely to take a few years at least). This, of course, would require going over the heads of all the sectarian-based forces, and expressing the determination of the working class as a whole, not only to prevent the politicians from cobbling up an agreement behind its back and at its expense, but also to make the capitalists and their states pay in order to end the chronic state of deprivation imposed on working class communities in an otherwise affluent province.

If the existing divisions are to be ended for good, the working class will have to find in its own ranks activists, women and men who have the determination, enthusiasm and commitment to build afresh new organisations on a clear class basis, and to fight without concessions against the strangle-hold that the paramilitaries, whether they be Republican or loyalist, maintain over the working class ghettos.

But to have any chance of success in rebuilding the confidence of the working class in its capacity to deal with its own problems, rather than relying on unaccountable paramilitary groups to do it on its behalf, these activists will have to address all the pressing problems facing the working class.

For instance, one of the strongest levers used by the paramilitaries to muster support among working class communities in the past has been to impose their "protection" against the threat, real or assumed, of other paramilitaries. This is an issue that activists who are aiming to build a political organisation of the working class cannot afford to ignore or evade - with the misconceived argument, which has often been used by some left activists, that this would be following in the footsteps of the paramilitaries and that, on the contrary, working class activists should "break with the politics of violence".

Yet it is not violence in and of itself which is the issue. It is the violence of uncontrolled paramilitary apparatuses which are pursuing their own agendas, regardless of the interests and aspirations of the working class. On the contrary, in the face of waves of random sectarian killings such as the recent one, the working class could find the resources to protect itself without resorting to the dubious and double-edged "services" of paramilitaries. Instead, it could resort to the conscious mobilisation and organisation of its own ranks, on a collective and democratic basis, in each workplace and each neighbourhood; it could choose the methods and weapons which are best adapted to the threat which has to be dealt with; above all it could and should control the course of action which is taken as a result of this.

The tragedy of the working class in Northern Ireland is not lack of combativity, determination, commitment or courage. Thousands of workers, young workers in particular, have demonstrated such qualities when joining one paramilitary group or another, in the mistaken belief that this would be a way of defending their community. But many among them discovered, usually too late, that they had been misled into fighting for the particular agenda of an apparatus, for which they were no more than a stage army, if not mere cannon fodder.

The real tragedy of the working class of Northern Ireland is to have been used and abused, and to have wasted precious resources of energy and enthusiasm, and far too many lives, in fighting for the interests of others. But yesterday's lost opportunities and tragic mistakes can provide the basis for today's fresh start. A wholly new fighting political tradition can and must be built, based on collective class consciousness, organisation and democracy.