Northern Ireland - After the "peace agreement" - towards an Anglo-Irish Union?

May/Jun 1998

Is the Northern Ireland "peace agreement" a "blueprint for the future" as Blair's ministers claim? Will it open a "new peaceful era" in Irish and British history? Is it even "not a solution, but the potential for a solution", as Sinn Fein put it, in their weekly paper, An Phoblacht?

In any case, the media ceremonial surrounding the end of the talks in Belfast on April 10th, left little doubt as to the preoccupations of the British and Irish prime ministers - which had more to do with their standing in the polls than with the future of Northern Ireland. The way in which Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern rushed to boast of their joint "historical achievement" in front of the TV cameras outside Stormont, before the participants in the talks had even had a chance to make their final statements, spoke volumes, unlike the content of their statements. The two prime ministers were clearly doing their best to keep the media's attention away from the reservations expressed by some of the participants, including the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and Sinn Fein.

For Blair, this was indeed a very close-run affair. Having staked so much on his abilities as a "peace broker", in front of British public opinion, he could hardly afford failure. Hence his rushed intervention in the talks, when it emerged that there was no agreement in sight for the pre-set deadline. And the last 32- hour marathon session, with Blair in person at the helm, was then merely devoted to cobbling up a "deal" at any cost, by papering over whatever differences there were.

The resulting "agreement" places only very limited constraints on the protagonists. It has been designed to allow the parties to remain on-board even if they have to face opposition from within their own ranks. Moreover, it can also include forces which have remained outside the "peace process" so far, particularly Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, without requiring them to "surrender".

At the same time, this deal aims at implementing in practice what has been the consistent objective of the British bourgeoisie in its numerous attempts to reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland, from Heath's Sunningdale agreement in 1973 to Thatcher's Anglo-Irish agreement in the mid-80s and Major's 1995 "Framework Document". In this respect, it is worth noting that, just as Wilson's Labour government ended up trying to implement the Tory-designed Sunningdale agreement, it is Blair's Labour government which is now striving to implement the Tory Framework Document - thereby illustrating the fact that in this sphere too, no matter what the electorate expects from the ballot box, it is fundamentally the same policy that comes out of it. And sometimes, as in the case of Northern Ireland today, with almost exactly the same packaging.

Moreover, this deal is consistent with the very basis on which the "peace process" was initiated by the British and Irish governments and agreed by the Northern Ireland politicians - regardless of the tactical objections these politicians may have today. In that sense, whether it works out or not, this deal can certainly be seen as a blueprint of what is in store for the working class of Northern Ireland - if not for tomorrow, in any case for the day after - should the existing political forces and governments have their way.

More negotiations with fewer players

In fact, as the document's title indicates clearly - "agreement between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of Ireland" - this deal is not a deal between the parties involved in the talks, but only between the Irish and British governments.

The only thing which the Northern Ireland politicians themselves have actually formally agreed is the first section of the document's annex, entitled "declaration of support". This merely includes a commitment to "strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements" and "work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement". As a result, the talks participants "strongly commend this agreement to the people, North and South, for their approval", without even going so far as to call explicitly for a "yes" vote in the two referendums due to take place in the North and the South on May 22nd.

There are good reasons for this "deal" to be so vague in terms of the obligations of those who signed up to it. The main reason being that the major participants needed to be able to claim in front of their constituencies that there was still room for change in what had been agreed. As a result, the only immediate effect of this deal is to create an institutional framework for the continuation of the same negotiations.

Indeed, just like the Northern Ireland Forum elected under Major in June 1996, the new 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, due to be elected on June 25th (assuming the referendums return a majority for the agreement), will have no power whatsoever for the time being. How long this transitional period will last remains an open question. The deal links the empowerment of the Assembly to that of all the other institutions sketched out by the agreement - the complex system of committees which are to take over the powers devolved to the Assembly by Westminster, as well as the cross-border and Anglo-Irish bodies. So that the function of this Assembly is really to set up these institutions and put them in working order. And given the very loose terms in which these institutions are defined, this leaves plenty of space for negotiation in the coming months, or... years.

There is, however, one significant difference between the previous Northern Ireland Forum and the new Assembly. Like the Forum, the Assembly is to be elected by proportional representation within the 18 Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies. But, unlike the Forum, there will be no top-up made of 2 delegates for the ten lists scoring the largest overall vote. Therefore, no party will be represented in the Assembly unless it is able to win over 15% of the vote in at least one of the 18 constituencies. Moreover, the agreement specifies that during the transitional period "aspects of the multi-party agreement will be reviewed at meetings of those parties relevant in the particular case (taking into account, once Assembly elections have been held, the results of these elections)". In other words those participants in the talks who only got into the Forum (and the talks) thanks to the top-up system - i.e. the two parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries, PUP and UDP, as well as the Labour list and the Women's list - are unlikely to be represented in the future Assembly. And as a result, they will also be effectively pushed out of the negotiation process. In this way the agreement ensures that only the four bigger players will remain in the game, plus possibly the two unionist parties which have remained outside the talks so far, the Democratic Unionists and UK Unionists.

Of course, the agreement does include plans to create a "Consultative Civic Forum", which will "comprise representatives of the business, trade union and voluntary sectors" and "will act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues". But quite apart from the fact that this Civic Forum will be appointed by more or less accountable apparatuses rather than elected by voters, it is clearly intended as a tokenistic body and designed to provide the new setup with an appearance of social consensus, rather than giving a say to ordinary people.

The British government's strategists must have considered that by now the "peace process" enjoys enough support among the population, including in the protestant working class ghettos, to do without the participation of the less "responsible" politicians of the UDP and PUP. Into the bargain, this allows Blair to hand over to the two main unionist parties a chunk of the votes which is potentially worth around 5% - something which is certainly not negligible for them.

On the other hand, disenfranchising in this way entire protestant ghettos, which would be the case in areas like East Belfast, may also backfire on Blair's plans - either by reinforcing Paisley and his strident bigotry or even the anti-agreement paramilitaries of the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Either way, this is playing with fire. But then, it would not the first time the British state has played with fire in Northern Ireland - at the expense of the population!

Sectarian politics entrenched

Like Major's Framework Document, the agreement will entrench sectarian politics in the operation of the future Assembly by providing that "at their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity - nationalist, unionist or other - for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in Assembly votes".

Delegates will, however, be allowed to register under an "other" identity, which was impossible under the Framework Document. Except that, when voting for key decisions, the "other" votes will be effectively totally or partially disregarded! Indeed, the agreement says that such decisions will have to be taken on a "cross-community basis". This will require either "a majority (..) including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations" or "a 60% majority (..) including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations".

Great efforts have been put into making the text of the agreement "politically correct". In order to remove any suggestion of bigotry, Catholics are described as "nationalists" and Protestants as "unionists", while the order in which the words "nationalist" and "unionist" are written, is systematically alternated. But these linguistic delicacies, which are borrowed from the middle-class liberals' terminology, do not alter the fact that the demarcation line remains neatly drawn along the old sectarian divide.

The justification for this - maintaining an equal balance between two "communities" of unequal importance - sounds all very fair and democratic, as does the pledge to set up a whole new range of quangos in charge of guaranteeing equal opportunity. But such devices are always double-edged.

In Britain's workplaces, the divisive risks attached to so-called "equal opportunity" policies are a common experience, when handled, as is generally the case, by management without any direct control by the workforce. Many "human resources managers" have learnt to use this as a means of generating bad feeling, rivalries and resentment among workers, thereby increasing tensions instead of reducing them.

This applies even more to the sphere of parliamentary politics where politicians are even less controllable than managers in a workplace. Except that in the case of Northern Ireland where the atmosphere has been poisoned for decades by sectarian tensions, the risks are much more serious and far-reaching.

On the one hand, any political current, which refuses to define itself in terms of the Union Jack or the Irish tricolour, will be weightless in the Assembly - which can only be an obstacle to the development of cross-community politics. Conversely, in so far as these outdated symbols are tightly intertwined with the defensive prejudices and fears generated by deprivation in the poor ghettos, the "community" designations in the Assembly can only be a powerful incentive for politicians to emphasise even more the alleged conflict of interest between communities, and in general use demagogy to whip up these prejudices and fears in order to build up and consolidate their electoral support.

Of course, behind the liberal-sounding "political correctness" of the agreement, this entrenchment of sectarian politics is just the continuation of the British state's divide and rule policy. Blair does not only need the goodwill of the Northern Ireland politicians. He needs them to be able to discipline the province's restless working class ghettos in order to force on them the policy that fits best with the interests of the wealthy. What better way is there of achieving this in the short- term than by maintaining the "state of siege" atmosphere associated with sectarian politics?

Towards a strengthening of the Union?

When David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, emerging from the final session of the talks, stated that, as far as he was concerned, "the Union has been strengthened" by the multi-party agreement", it was more than just a way of reassuring his party supporters. In fact, Trimble was probably making a fair assessment of the deal, at least in terms of the aims of the British and Irish states.

The issue is not, of course, the statement made in the agreement that "the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, that Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and that it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people" - as this was the very basis on which the "peace process" was initiated jointly by Sinn Fein and John Major back in 1994. Although it must be noted that this "wish" attributed to the people of Northern Ireland has never actually been put to the test. This claim is based only on the fact that it is Unionist politicians who muster a majority of the vote. But no-one can say whether, if there was a choice between all the possible options - and not just that of integration into Ireland as the only alternative to belonging to the UK - that there would be a clear majority for retaining the status quo.

The real issue is rather the Anglo-Irish dimension of the agreement. Once again, this has been consistent in the policy of the British state for several decades. On the one hand, the British bourgeoisie wanted to get rid of the political thorn that Northern Ireland had become in Britain's side, as well as the heavy economic burden it represented, both in terms of policing and economic subsidies. And to achieve this, they started by seeking to involve the Irish Republic in sharing the political responsibility for whatever happened in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, particularly since Thatcher's 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, this aim has been increasingly combined with that of strengthening the ties between the British and Irish state machineries in every sphere of activity.

The complex web of cross-border and cross-island institutions laid out by the agreement implements these objectives.

The planned "North-South Ministerial Council" builds on the existing machinery of the cross-border committees which have been in existence since 1985. It provides what was so far merely a technical apparatus, with a single executive head, drawn from the southern government and the future "Northern Executive Council". The sphere of activity of this apparatus is to be considerably expanded, to cover practically every field in which an all-Ireland policy can be defined and implemented, except in what concerns finance, foreign affairs, the police, the army and the justice system.

At the same time there is to be a "British-Irish Council" and a "British-Irish intergovernmental conference". The latter is to bring together the Irish and British governments only. Among other things, the agreement specifies that it will be concerned with discussing all those aspects of policy in Northern Ireland which are not devolved and therefore remain handled by London. As to the British-Irish council, it will comprise, says the agreement, "representatives of the British and Irish governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, when established, and, if appropriate, elsewhere in the United Kingdom, together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands". Both bodies will be much more than just pretexts for ritual conferences. They will have permanent structures operating between summits and plenaries.

In other words, what is being set up, is a set of intertwined machineries operating across the three main components of the Anglo-Irish islands. As regards the future prospects of the British and Irish bourgeoisies with respect to the European Union, for instance, where neither of them is in a position of strength, there are obvious advantages to this rapprochement. But of course, in this Anglo-Irish "union" the relationship of political and economic forces is such that the British state will be in the driving seat, thereby increasing even further Britain's influence over the Irish state and Ireland's integration in the British economic orbit - which, again, can be a way for the British capitalists to retain their privileged position in Ireland, despite the European Union and regardless of when (or whether) Britain joins the single currency.

Thus, paradoxical as this may seem, the political settlement in Northern Ireland, the concessions made there to Irish nationalism and the devolution of powers to the province, may well turn out to be a Trojan horse for the British state to tighten its political grip over Ireland for the first time since partition!

The nationalist dead-ends exposed

What is this "peace process", that Sinn Fein has been promoting so consistently over the past four years, going to deliver for the population of the catholic working class ghettos where the Republicans' base of support is concentrated? Assuming, once again, that the plans of the peace agreement do materialise, what difference will this make to them?

The peace agreement includes a number of pledges concerning the British military presence, as well as the criminal justice and police system. Thus it says "the British government will make progress towards the objective of as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland consistent with the level of threat". In other words, there is no time-table and no firm commitment. Likewise for the province's criminal justice system. There is no question of an immediate repeal of the emergency laws which are still in force in Northern Ireland. Instead a "review" is to be conducted, with a deadline for completion set for Autumn 1999, meaning that any change will not take place before well into the year 2000. The same applies to the issue of policing. There is no question of an immediate reduction in the numbers and profile of the RUC in the working class ghettos. Yet another review will be conducted, to be completed by summer 1999. Then the RUC should be re-organised, which will no doubt take a long time. By the end of this process, Northern Ireland will have the "privilege" of a police force in which the proportion of Catholic and Protestant cops will be increasingly equal. Whether this will make it less heavy-handed against working class people is another issue - which has not been subjected to review by the peace agreement!

But what about the really key issue for the future, the deprivation of the province? On this, the peace agreement is even more vague: just two paragraphs of empty phrases about "a new regional development strategy", but not one concrete plan or pledge. Not a word either about what will happen to the province's regional subsidy. But already some hints can be found on this. On April 17th, the papers reported that Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor, was planning a visit to Belfast in May when he would outline full details of a new economic package. To prepare this package, Brown was said to have had discussions with the IMF and the World Bank to secure loans for Northern Ireland.

Not even a week after the peace agreement, therefore, Northern Ireland is already being promoted to the international financial institutions as yet another Third World country in need of urgent cash. This can only mean that, without saying that much, and even before the new devolved institutions are in place, the British government has already planned when and how it would pull out of its responsibility to subsidise the Northern Ireland economy!

And indeed, it is not just with the World Bank that British ministers are talking of Northern Ireland as a Third World country. This was also Blair's own language when celebrating the peace agreement in Belfast. He just could not stop himself from delivering a sermon to the Northern Irish working class. The task now, said Blair in substance, is to attract foreign investments to Northern Ireland by pushing labour costs down in order to make them attractive to foreign companies - as if the arrogant preacher did not know that Northern Ireland already has the lowest wages in the UK and the highest unemployment rate (and still growing lately despite British ministers' past tales about a "peace dividend" to come).

Over nearly three decades, British governments handed out tens of billions of pounds to security contractors in order to contain another possible explosion in the urban ghettos. But today, while making endless speeches about peace and goodwill, they are already preparing to sever the province's lifeline, when for once it could have been used for a useful purpose, to create jobs in the public sector, in order, for instance, to rebuild the derelict council estates or develop a modern railway network, which hardly exists in the province.

Such is the real face of the autonomy and devolution contained in the "peace agreement" - relegating Northern Ireland to the status of an impoverished and tiny country which has to survive through its own devices, by offering itself to the world capitalist sharks, after having fed generation after generation of British shipyard, textile-mill and foundry owners!

The Republican leaders must be conscious of the doubts that their policy is creating among their supporters, in the light of this peace agreement and what it really means. This is probably why lately they have been resurrecting their old slogan of a "socialist united Ireland", which they had somewhat forgotten in their enthusiasm for the peace process. Yet regardless of their public reservations, for the time being, the Republican leaders' only plan is to take part in managing the deprivation of Northern Ireland.

At the same time Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams keeps insisting in his public speeches on the fact that "the struggle will continue". But the struggle for what?

Assuming that the complex machinery laid out by the peace agreement gets off the ground and delivers what it has been designed for, this will make the Irish nationalists' demands for a united Ireland increasingly meaningless.

Indeed, in the context of this Anglo-Irish "union" what would the unification of Northern Ireland with the Southern Republic mean? This is actually catered for by the agreement. Northern Ireland would retain its autonomy and devolved powers. The only change would be that the responsibility for its non- devolved powers would be transferred from Westminster to Leinster House. Would Sinn Fein then demand that the powers devolved to Northern Ireland should be returned to Dublin? This would probably not go down very well with their own supporters in Northern Ireland. And in any case, given the Anglo-Irish arrangements, this would not weaken significantly the political and economic weight of the British bourgeoisie in Northern Ireland.

As to the "socialist" component of Sinn Fein's slogan, this has always been postponed to after the reunification of Ireland. So what are the population of the Catholic ghettos meant to do now? Should they just sit and watch Republican politicians join the rush for the hundreds of cushy committee jobs which are now being lined up by the peace agreement? Or are they meant to be satisfied with the pledge contained in the peace agreement, to encourage the promotion and development of the Irish language? The British state is very good at this sort of tokenism - in Wales, for many years the unemployed have been allowed to take Welsh lessons...

For a future worth fighting for

It is not just on the backs of the Catholic workers that this peace agreement is being made. It is on the backs of the whole Northern Ireland working class, Protestant and Catholic alike, and for exactly the same reasons.

There would be no point in opposing the peace agreement in the name of a demand for a united Ireland. But it would be just as pointless to oppose it in the name of a demand for Northern Ireland to be integrated into Britain, as it was done repeatedly in the past by populist unionists and paramilitary groups. This would be relying on false hopes. The British bourgeoisie made the choice long ago to dump Northern Ireland because it was no longer profitable enough - just as they have chosen to dump entire sections of the British working class, by first pushing them out of their jobs and then out of the dole, because it was not profitable enough to keep large-scale industries operating, let alone to invest in new ones.

In fact, it is the British bourgeoisie itself which is putting the alternatives in those terms - either Ireland, or the UK. This alternative is even written into the peace agreement itself, with provisions for organising a referendum, every seven years at most, over the wishes of the electorate of Northern Ireland in this respect. And this is no coincidence, because it is in the interest of the British bourgeoisie to drag the working class of Northern Ireland into such dead-ends.

For it is a false alternative for the Northern Ireland working class. Not just because of the possibility that an Anglo-Irish "union" might come out of the peace agreement - which would make this so-called alternative meaningless anyway - but because first and foremost the working class needs to unite its ranks around objectives which are not discredited by the defeats, resentment and divisions of the past. The working class needs objectives which are worth fighting for. And the perspective of being stuck within the narrow borders of a poverty- stricken Northern Ireland, or even Ireland, cannot provide such an objective.

Today, there are more Northern Irish workers, or Irish workers for that matter, outside Ireland than in Ireland itself, and many of them are in Britain. Generation after generation of these workers has travelled across the seas and settled in every part of the world. They were running away from a starving Ireland. But they ended up in many countries as part of an emerging industrial working class, thereby joining the ranks of an international proletariat welded together by a common interest - that of freeing society of capitalist exploitation, the cause of poverty and crisis across the world. And many of them became prominent working class fighters, precisely because they had learnt through their experience that nationalism has nothing to offer, when compared to the prospect of building a world free of exploitation.

But this experience was eventually lost in Ireland. For decades, the political leaders of Northern Ireland have been allowed to lead thousands of young workers into bloody, nationalist, dead-ends, whether in the name of republicanism or that of loyalism. So that this loss of youth, and in many cases loss of life, will not have been in vain, new generations of workers will have to emerge to fight. But this time, to fight for their own interests, that is, those of their class, interests which are the same in every street, every estate and every country - thereby taking the fight forward from where it was left, unfinished, by so many of their proud ancestors.