#39 - Northern Ireland - The "peace agreement" and the hidden agenda of British capital

September 1998

From a profitable asset to an expensive liability

By the 1960s Northern Ireland's traditional industries, namely linen and shipbuilding, were in serious decline. In textiles, 31,000 jobs - more than 50% of the workforce - had disappeared since the war. In 1961 the largest Belfast spinning firm employing 1,700 workers closed down. In one fell swoop the great Belfast shipyard, Harland & Wolff, made 8,000 workers redundant, out of a workforce of 21,000, and over the next 12 months laid off an additional 2,000. The aircraft factory, Shorts, Belfast's then second-largest employer, was threatening to close down, after having cut its workforce by 20% between 1958 and 1961. By 1969, only 183,000 workers were still working in manufacturing in Northern Ireland, compared with 303,000 at the end of the war.

The narrow base of the Ulster economy, and the fact that private family-run firms were typical, right up until the seventies, limited the possibility of diversification and restricted investment. As a result it was far more vulnerable to outside competition. While the British economy was still expanding, and London ministers could boast of "full employment", quite the opposite was happening in Northern Ireland. There, unlike in the rest of the UK, state subsidies were not conditional on set employment targets. This encouraged mechanisation rather than job creation. In fact, Northern Ireland was already becoming a low-cost backyard for British and American multinationals such as Du Pont, Monsanto, Courtaulds and ICI, whose highly-automated artificial textile plants replaced the lost linen mills - but not the jobs which had disappeared.

The Northern Ireland working class did not take this lying down. Strikes and demonstrations met every new announcement of job cuts and the 1962 Mayday march in Belfast was the largest since 1919. Faced with threatening industrial unrest on a par with the 1930s, the Northern Ireland establishment demanded that the British government intervene. It did, and paid to keep the Harland and Wolff shipyard open - then still the biggest shipyard in the world. Within just one decade, the publicly-subsidised sector (which included Shorts in addition to Harland & Wolff) expanded enormously - from 22.5% of the manufacturing workforce in 1961 to 44.9% in 1972! It was estimated that for each job created during the 60s in Northern Ireland, the cost to the Treasury was more than double that in Britain's most deprived areas - meaning that neither the local privileged nor the much acclaimed "outside investors" were prepared to put their own cash on the table to fund investment in the province.

This was in fact a paradoxical situation. Ever since partition, the cost to the Treasury of maintaining a state apparatus (and later a welfare state) in Northern Ireland had been justified by the profits this guaranteed to British companies. Yet, by the mid-60s, while the rest of the British economy was still expanding, that of Northern Ireland was shrinking and depending increasingly on the life support subsidy machine of the Exchequer. This was also the time when the British bourgeoisie was getting rid of its empire in order to free British capital from the political and financial burden of having to maintain colonial state machineries in the Third World. But here it was, faced with a rocketting bill to retain its control over a tiny market of just over one million people!

An increasingly parasitic economy

Yet the cost of sustaining Northern Ireland in the sixties was nothing compared with what was to come, after the social explosion at the end of that decade. From £100m in 1968 and £181m in 1972, the bill for the British state was to rocket to £1bn in 1980 and £2bn in 1990. Today, just 8 years later, it is £3.4bn! No wonder Patrick Mayhew, Major's Northern Ireland Secretary, was quoted by a German magazine - Die Zeit - in 1993, as saying, "Three billion pounds, for one and a half million people - we have no strategic interest. We have no economic interest in staying there."

Private sector output per head in Northern Ireland in the mid-eighties was 67% of that in Britain, but public sector output was 134% - at the height of Thatcher's drive to "roll back" the state and cut public expenditure! Of course this included defence - but on education and health the figure was 118%. In fact from the seventies onwards, the province was totally dependent on outside support for its existence. There was an enormous growth of governmental agencies and quangos which provided careers for a substantial layer of the middle class as a way of securing its support for British rule.

At the same time there was another huge, but hidden subsidy. London was forced to exclude Northern Ireland when it came to such austerity measures as the sale of council housing, the poll tax, the Jobseekers' Allowance and health and education cuts - or at least postpone these measures - for fear of a possible social backlash.

In fact, the Northern Ireland petty-bourgeois were the main beneficiaries of London's reluctant "largesse". However, to some extent at least, the Northern Ireland working class benefited as well. But it found itself in the paradoxical situation of having the highest level of health and education provision in the UK, while also having the highest level of unemployment and the lowest level of income!

Of course the purpose of the British bourgeoisie in advancing these large subsidies over the years was not to make life easier for Northern Ireland's workers. As long as the British state retained political responsibility for Northern Ireland, it had no other choice than to foot the bill to sustain the economic viability of the province. This is why it never stopped its search for a negotiated settlement of one kind or another, even in the middle of the worst bombing campaigns. Not for the sake of "ending violence" and "securing peace" for a poverty-stricken population, but for the sake of relieving British capital of an increasing drain on the finances of its state - regardless of the consequences for the population of Northern Ireland.

The first failed attempt at North-South rapprochement

What was to become Britain's strategy for the next decades really took shape in the early sixties, under pressure of the economic recession in Northern Ireland. If the British state was to avoid taking responsibility for the North's increasing dereliction, it had to hand over the responsibility to somebody else. Self-government, which was already in place in some measure, was a convenient stepping stone towards this goal. But devolving powers to Belfast could only postpone the problem, providing a temporary screen, not a long-term solution. All the more so, as a substantial part of the Stormont government machinery was made of representatives of that section of the Northern middle-class which was increasingly threatened with economic bankruptcy - and therefore reluctant to implement London's policy. The only long term solution was a takeover of Northern Ireland by the Republic.

A section, at least, of the priviliged classes of the North was not averse to this - those whose fortunes had been built on services, finance, large scale commerce, as well as a whole layer of professionals. For them, a phased-in opening of the South was a welcome extension of their field of operation. As to the resistance which existed in the South to a resumption of closer ties with Britain, this could easily be overcome. After all, the 1949 withdrawal of the Republic from the Commonwealth and subsequent build-up of tariff barriers between the two countries had been primarily a reaction of defence against the drastic economic demands put by London on Dublin. Should London now offer a better deal, which in this period was easy enough without putting the profits of British companies at risk, the Southern bourgeoisie would not hesitate to accept.

In the South, Fianna Fail had begun to attract the votes of the business community and its new leader, Sean Lemass, who took over from de Valera in 1959, represented these "new deal" forces. In the North, economics had also been decisive. Terence O'Neill the new leader of the Ulster Unionists, expressed the concensus among the "new deal" establishment - he followed the remit of the British government in attempting to secure an alternative lifeline for the province. Thus, for the first time since 1925, direct political links were made between North and South, with Lemass visiting O'Neill in Belfast in January 1965 to discuss areas of future co-operation.

That the unionist electorate saw the need for this was shown in the election called in Northern Ireland in October the same year. O'Neill's reformist policies received widespread support, and he celebrated the result in an often- quoted speech where he said: "Co-operation between North and South is now publicly endorsed, and today, when a militant Protestant housewife fries an egg she may well be doing it on Catholic power generated in the South and distributed in the North as a result of that first O'Neill-Lemass meeting."

That same year, the Fianna Fail government negotiated a Free Trade Agreement with Britain to come into effect in 1966. This deal dismantled all tariff barriers between the two countries - in economic terms it reintegrated Ireland into the British sphere and in this sense, the barrier between the North and the South no longer had any real significance. The full integration of the two markets was clearly in the interests of British and other foreign companies, which were taking over an increasing share of capital holdings both North and South. It was also in the interests of the local capitalists, North and South, with the prospect of increased profits generated by the resulting boost for Irish trade.

However this process was stopped before it had time to come to fruition, by the social explosion which broke out in 1968, in the North. But it did create significant economic ties and cross-border trade which became permanent.

From an economic liability to a political threat

By the late 60s conditions had deteriorated severely for the entire Northern Ireland working class and very suddenly for a whole section of previously secure workers. Social discrimination, which was built into the system of local government, denied the vote to those who were not well-off enough to be rate-payers and sent the poorest families to the back of the housing queue. Those most affected tended to be catholic - who made up the largest part of the poorest - but also included poor protestant families without the right connections. This situation provoked the emergence of militant housing action and civil rights associations. A whole social layer moved into action - those from the poorest ghettoes - providing them with a voice and a political expression which so far they had never had. What started mildly enough as protests demanding "one man, one vote, one family, one house!" soon exploded into a huge social uprising which destabilised the whole province and threatened to spread to the South.

For the British government this was undoubtedly a shock, throwing them right off track as far as their aims for the province were concerned; they had not expected it and they were not prepared for it. They sent troops in and then lurched between a policy of brutal repression on the one hand and gestures of reform on the other, in an attempt to contain the revolt. Never before, except in some of their former colonies in the Third World, had they been confronted with ghetto children throwing molotov cocktails at their police and whole areas, like the Bogside in Derry and large parts of West Belfast being transformed into no-go areas against their armed forces.

In addition there was the potential, early on in this situation, for all the poor classes to unite against British rule, given the increasing unemployment and degradation of conditions also now faced by so many protestant workers.

In the event, the British bourgeoisie won a respite, because this powerful explosion failed to find a class expression. Instead, on the catholic side of the sectarian divide, it was channelled towards the narrow nationalism of the past. On the protestant side, on the other hand, reactionary loyalist forces capitalised on the fear generated by new or worsening poverty by organising local gangs of vigilantes on the pretext of "defending" the community and helping the Crown forces to restore order.

For Britain, the price for containing this rebellion was high. The events considerably reinforced the most backward section of the protestants - made up of mainly small businessmen, self-employed and shopkeepers, whose survival depended directly on the crutch provided to the economy by Britain and who could always be counted on to oppose any threat to sever this lifeline. Those protestants who had previously favoured a rapprochement with the South took fright as a result of the social unrest. A settlement, as previously planned, would now look as if it was a victory for the ghetto uprising. So, once again, they ran for shelter behind the Union.

The other element in the high cost to Britain was the development of political terrorism. While this development was much less threatening than the social revolt, keeping it under control required a massive military and repressive machine. But in addition to the exorbitant economic cost of this machine, its deployment also sustained a smouldering anger in the poor ghettoes - and therefore the risk of new social explosions whose first target would be inevitably the British state. This permanent instability turned Northern Ireland into a serious political liability for the British bourgeoisie.

The Sunningdale rehearsal

The ghetto explosion made the search for a settlement more difficult, but also more urgent. The Stormont election in 1969 brought the collapse of the reforms O'Neill had championed. Barely half the Unionists who were elected now sided with him, and he almost lost his own seat to the demagogic bigot, Ian Paisley. As a result, he resigned, to be replaced first by James Chichester-Clark, and then by Brian Faulkner. But the Unionist tail was not wagging the British dog. O'Neill's successors took a very British official line against the uprising in the ghettoes - that of brutal repression. And in tandem with this went a reform policy. In fact given the summoning of British troops to the province, and the consequent tripping back and forth of British politicians at the height of the "Troubles" the supervision of a policy in British interests was tight.

By the time Faulkner took over, in March 1971, "One man, One vote" was on the statute book, a Central Housing Commission had been set up, the notorious B Specials (an official protestant armed militia) had been disbanded and the RUC disarmed - all demands made by the civil rights movement. There was nothing surprising in this: a settlement remained more than ever a necessity for Britain, even more so now because of the political instability, but it had to be achieved on the basis of a relationship of forces favourable to British interests. Hence the faster the move towards a settlement, the tougher the repressive measures. This is why Faulkner brought in internment without trial in August 1971.

However this draconian measure produced an unexpected escalation of protest and resistance, in the catholic communities who were targetted by it. It culminated in the shooting dead of 13 demonstrators by the British Parachute Regiment on Bloody Sunday in January 1972. The Provisional IRA, which had emerged on the back of the ghetto uprising, then retaliated with a bombing campaign which left 56 British soldiers dead in the following two months. By this time the catholic SDLP had resigned from Stormont under pressure of catholic public opinion, and the Unionists were regrouping in all sorts of factions and new parties with more and more reactionary agendas. Not to mention the former B-specials and other loyalist gangs who regrouped into new protestant paramilitary organisations.

The de facto collapse of the Stormont government prompted a return to direct rule by Westminster in March 1972. Immediately, the Tory government of Ted Heath proceeded to draw up plans for a new framework to pave the way to a settlement, while at the same time stepping up the repression even more.

On July 30th, a military build-up started. This was to involve a total of 26,000 soldiers, plus tanks, bulldozers, saracens and helicopters - the biggest military expedition since Suez. Operation Motorman, as it was called, was ostensibly aimed at restoring law and order to the no-go areas of Derry and West Belfast. Such a show of military strength was unnecessary, however. The army knew that the IRA had neither the military means to counter such an operation nor the political will to mobilise the population of the ghettoes to do it. The purpose of this show of strength was pure propaganda, just as the IRA's purpose in detonating 26 car bombs in Belfast ten days before, had been propaganda. Operation Motorman was aimed at demoralising the catholic ghettoes as well as demonstrating to loyalist supporters that the British state had the situation under control and would tolerate no more attempts at forcing its hand. In that sense it was also meant to be understood as a thinly veiled threat to the loyalist demagogues who had emerged as leaders of the reaction. Above all, however, this Operation was really meant to open the way for Heath's new attempt at a settlement.

On September 20th, the SDLP took (too conveniently for this to have been just a co-incidence) the initiative of issuing a policy document, called "Towards a New Ireland". It called for joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. Five days later, a conference was held at Darlington in England to discuss the future of Northern Ireland. All the parties previously involved in Stormont were invited. Only the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance attended. The SDLP boycotted it because of internment and the Democratic Unionist Party because it branded it a "betrayal". Nothing came of it. But what mattered was the gesture. A new process had been initiated.

The next move was the proposal of a new Assembly. This was not to be quite the same as the old one. It was to be a "power-sharing" body, elected by proportional representation, in order to allow minorities a fairer share of seats. Its size was increased from 52 seats to 78, to permit the functioning of an inter-party committee system. And most importantly, it was stated that: "following elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Government will invite the Government of the Republic of Ireland and the leaders of the elected representatives of Northern Ireland opinion to participate with them in a conference to discuss the question of a Council of Ireland."

This "Council of Ireland" was nothing but the expression of the common interests that had developed between sections of the bourgeoisie in Belfast, Dublin and London. As William Whitelaw stated in his Green Paper on the future for Northern Ireland in 1972: "It is, therefore, clearly desirable that any new arrangements for Northern Ireland should, whilst meeting the wishes of Northern Ireland and Great Britain, be so far as possible acceptable to and accepted by the Republic of Ireland, which from 1 January 1973 will share the rights and obligations of membership of the European Communities."

Garret FitzGerald, one of the main ideologues of the "new deal" in Ireland, put the Republic's point of view: "Within a vast European Community the two parts of Ireland, sharing common interests in relation to such matters as agriculture and regional policy, must tend to draw together."

In June 1973, elections to the Assembly took place with a record 72% turnout despite the IRA's call to boycott the ballot. The SDLP along with the Official Unionists of Faulkner had enough of a majority between them for an executive to be set up.

Thus talks between the British government, the newly-elected Northern Irish Assembly and the Dublin governments took place in Sunningdale, in December 1973, on the setting up of a Council of Ireland. This was to be a two-tier affair, with a Council of Ministers and a Consultative Assembly. There would be equal representation from both parts of Ireland and all decisions would have to be unanimous. The Council's main function would be to facilitate economic and social co-operation. An "agreed communiqué" was issued, announcing that: "The Irish government fully accepted and solemnly declared that there could be no change in the status of Northern Ireland until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland desired a change in that state."

But despite the obvious similarities this was not 1998. It was the end of 1973. And in the first months of 1974, the Ulster unionists who were against any dealing with the South had defeated Faulkner and his faction. Then, in the face of the miners' strike in Britain, the Conservative government called a snap general election. For the new Northern Ireland Assembly, the timing could not have been worse. The new United Ulster Unionist Council brought together all the anti-power-sharing Unionists to fight the general election as one bloc. They won 11 of the 12 seats in the British parliament - although, in and of itself, this did not actually derail the process in motion in Northern Ireland.

Sunningdale's plug pulled out

As the Northern Ireland executive was taking a vote to accept the Sunningdale agreement, on 14 May 1974, the Ulster Workers Council announced a general strike. The UWC was led by, among others, Glen Barr, an ex-shop steward and ex-power worker, who was also the spokesman of the loyalist UDA. The UDA, UVF and other smaller paramilitary groups, the leaders of loyalist skilled workers and their favoured politicians, such as Paisley and William Craig, all came together in the UWC. They were opposed to the Council of Ireland, and powe-sharing, on the basis that these would undermine the future of protestant workers. Their central demand was for there to be new elections to the Assembly. However, the politicians were not too keen on being associated with the general strike proposed by the loyalist members of the UWC. In the end the UWC called a strike without the politicians' agreement.

The strike lasted two weeks and brought the province to a complete standstill - thanks largely to the support of the power workers who shut down most of Northern Ireland's electricity supply. But in fact it was not the kind of strike even the workers involved were expecting. At Harland and Wolff's shipyard, eight thousand manual workers were called to a lunchtime meeting where they expected to hear rousing speeches. Instead an unnamed voice simply announced that any cars still in the car park at 2 o'clock would be burnt!

Rather than a strike - that is the result of collective action by workers - it was a military operation in which the workers' labour power was switched off, more or less at gunpoint. It was the paramilitaries who ran the show on the ground, intimidating anyone who tried to go to work. They manned roadblocks, prevented transport from running, closed down shops and when catholic pubs in Balleymena didn't obey their orders they wrecked three of them and shot dead the two middle-aged brothers who ran a fourth pub. There was little popular support for this strike except in loyalist strongholds like Larne Harbour. But with the paramilitaries organising it by their usual methods, and the British army and RUC standing back while they did so, it was not surprising that it was successful. On the fourth day of the strike, massive car bombs were exploded by loyalists in the Republic - in Dublin and Monaghan town - killing 28 people. After just 14 days the new Assembly executive resigned.

This "strike" had in fact been met with passivity by a large section of the working class, on both sides of the divide, who saw no point in challenging the UDA's and UVF's roadblocks. Despite this, the strike was presented as evidence of support for the loyalist agenda amongst vital sections of the working class, like power and dock workers. However it primarily exposed the political vacuum which existed in the ranks of the working class where the existing working class organisations and political currents - and there were quite a few - conveniently kept a low profile throughout this period, including the trade unions. It also exposed a consistent feature in Northern Irish politics - the well-justified suspicion that workers felt towards politicians and governments. Certainly few among these workers were prepared to confront the paramilitaries in order to defend another deal cobbled up by politicians and ministers. And for that, at least, they could hardly be blamed.

As a consequence the Assembly fell, Faulkner resigned and Westminster once more resorted to direct rule. A Convention was set up to discuss new arrangements for a devolved government. However the splits in the Unionist majority, the formation of new paramilitary groups, and the increasing tension in the protestant community due to the on-going economic crisis, meant that the Unionist-dominated Convention failed to agree on how the province might govern itself. It was dissolved in March 1975.

The 1975 IRA truce

Despite the failure of the Sunningdale Agreement, and the re-imposition of direct rule, the British Labour Government did not give up its efforts to find some kind of settlement.

For a whole year in 1975 a "truce" with the IRA was theoretically in place accompanied by on-going discussions with the Republicans. This wasn't the first time that the IRA and the British government had had discussions, of course. There had been secret talks in 1972 between Conservative Ministers led by William Whitelaw and the IRA top leadership, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, only one month after Whitelaw had turned down the IRA's offer of a meeting in Derry. While Whitelaw later dismissed this meeting as a non-event, in accordance to the IRA's demand he had neveertheless granted political status to paramilitary prisoners, though refusing to talk about withdrawal of British troops.

The 1975 truce, however, took place in the context of the collapse of Sunningdale. Given that this collapse had been due to the ability of the loyalist paramilitaries to demonstrate their control over a decisive section of the protestant working class, the Republicans wished to show that they too had the ability to control a significant section of the catholic working class. They offered a ceasefire on condition that they were given the chance to police their own areas. Joint incident centres were set up to monitor this in the catholic ghettoes. But in fact it did not really work out.

What the "truce" expose instead, was that the leadership of the Provisional IRA was still far from being in a position to control the Republican movement as a whole. During the "truce" period, there was first a bloody feud between the old Official IRA - which had theoretically declared a ceasefire long before - and a split from within its ranks which was to result in the setting up of the INLA. Then later on, a second feud between the Provisionals and the Official IRA broke out over conflicting territorial claims. But more importantly, the authority of the Provisional leadership over its own ranks was shown to be lacking. There were a whole string of military operations by IRA units in the border area and even some in Belfast. And then, to crown it all, the truce was brought to a spectacular end by the Derry IRA, who, having always been opposed to the truce, decided to blow up the town's joint incident centre itself!

Had the British government been in a position to deal with the IRA in seeking a settlement, the experience of this truce would have dissuaded them. Not being capable of controlling Republican ranks or even its own units, the IRA was clearly not in a position to discipline the catholic ghettoes. Yet, in a situation of intense conflict, where in addition, the loyalists' control over the protestant ghettoes was unchallenged, this would have been the only reason for the British state to consider the possibility of doing business with the Republicans.

Maintaining the status quo

The British government was left with little alternative than to wait for a more favourable moment to re-attempt a settlement. But since the immediate problem was the instability and the cost of the British occupation, the government decided to try to reduce the burden of these aspects. This policy was the so-called "normalisation" and "criminalisation". That is, instead of the army dealing with IRA suspects or staging pre-emptive strikes against paramilitaries, the local police force, the RUC, would start to take over. To this end, the RUC was increased by 1,200 to 6,500 and the army's main battalion was withdrawn. The disturbances would no longer be officially regarded as political, but criminal - and in line with this, political status was no longer granted to new prisoners.

Of course what focused the government's mind on this kind of approach - much approved by the Unionist MPs in Westminster - was their loss of a majority in the House of Commons - a phenomenon which affected Major's government as well in the last two years of his office, and similarly resulted in a "putting on ice" of the question of North-South rapprochement, and an apparent hardening of military and policing strategy. In fact Michael Foot actually discussed increasing the number of seats in the House of Commons for Northern Ireland, on condition that the Unionists supported the Labour government. It was agreed that the number of constituencies would be increased from 12 to 17 - which was left to Thatcher to implement in the 1983 election. As a result of this opportunist agreement, however, Labour lost the support of the SDLP's Gerry Fitt.

The United Ulster Unionist Council tried again in 1977 to use the protestant workers as a stage army in order to bid for a return to Stormont and Unionist rule. But this time the power workers refused to participate, despite the severe intimidation of workers to go on strike by the UDA. As a result the UDA lost face and there was further polarisation and dissension within the protestant ghettoes. Since this turned into a fiasco ending with the arrest of Ian Paisley, there was no question of the government making any concessions to such direct action.

More importantly though, this showed the limits of the demagogic rhetoric used by Paisley and the loyalist paramilitaries. Their failure to impose their diktat on the protestant working class meant that another threat such as that raised by the 1974 UWC strike was no longer on the cards. Paisley's bigotted demagogy still mustered significant electoral support, but it had lost its real teeth - the support in the streets - and this was what counted. At some point - provided the status quo could be maintained - with the British army demonstrating enough repressive activity to deprive the loyalists gangs of their main recruiting arguments, unionist politics would return to the safe ground of the UUP itself, which would also usher back the prospect of power-sharing.

Thatcher's not-so-new tough approach

The Conservative government's first consultative document on Northern Ireland put out in November 1979 ruled out, for the first time for a British government, integration of the so-called "Irish dimension" though it did state that direct rule was not a satisfactory basis for government in Northern Ireland. But this apparent change in the strategy adopted so far by British governments was purely tactical. Thatcher's problem was to bring the UUP back to the idea of a political settlement. Ruling out the "Irish dimension" was merely a ploy - to lure the UUP into talks. As this failed, further gestures were made.

In March 1980, Northern Ireland Secretary Atkins ended the special status of all existing and future terrorist prisoners. And, on the eve of a meeting with the Irish PM Charles Haughey, in May, Thatcher made a statement saying, "The future of the constitutional affairs of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, this government and this parliament and no-one else."

But despite this rhetoric, Thatcher was effectively initiating a new strategy aimed at exactly the same kind of settlement which had been embodied in the Sunningdale Agreement. Only this time, instead of trying to entice the Northern Irish politicians into a power-sharing agreement which would lead on, afterwards, to permanent links with the South, Thatcher chose to approach the problem the other way round. Permanent links would be created between London and Dublin over the heads of the Unionist politicians, and regardless of their complaints. Dublin would start sharing with London the responsibility of guaranteeing political stability in the North. At first this would be through co-operation on security matters aimed at weakening the IRA, thereby softening the suspicions of the Unionists towards the Republic. Then links would have to be built between southern civil servants and their northern counterparts through co-operation on secondary issues via ad-hoc committees. This, again, would be achieved with or without the approval of Northern politicians. On the other hand, those politicians who proved willing could easily be brought into the ad hoc bodies at any point. Strand by strand, a web of functional ties could thus be created between the state machineries of the North and South. So that by the time the Northern politicians were eventually brought to the negotiating table, the "Irish dimension" would be a fait accompli, and its fledgling apparatus already in working order.

This was more or less the blueprint discussed by Thatcher and Haughey at a new summit in Dublin on the 8 December 1980. And it was this strategy which was adopted in the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement at Hillsborough and paved the way for today's peace agreement.

The most striking feature of this approach was its treatment of Unionist politicians. Thatcher stated in no uncertain terms that she would not tolerate what her predecessors had tolerated from them. Thatcher was ruthless in her treatment of the IRA, but she was no less determined not to be dictated by the Unionists' parochialism. Ironically, while Thatcher often reminded everyone that her party's full name was that of "Conservative and Unionist Party", she was also the first British prime minister to spell out to Northern Ireland's Unionists that they would not be allowed to stand in the way of the interests of British capital, no matter what.

The hunger strike and the aftermath

The process initiated by Thatcher was however suspended by new developments. On 1st March, 1981, a hunger strike was launched in the face of Thatcher's stance against the "prisoner of war" status claimed by the IRA prisoners. The first prisoner to strike - namely the leader of the H-block prisoners, Bobby Sands, also then stood as the Sinn Fein candidate, with SDLP support, in a by-election for the Westminster seat of Fermanagh and South Tyrone and won the seat. For the first time in many years, a candidate standing on a clear Republican ticket, and what's more, an IRA prisoner, had been elected. Thereafter, despite the deaths of Sands and another nine Republican prisoners during the course of almost a whole year, and the obvious growing support in Northern Ireland for the Republicans, the Thatcher government remained publicly resolute against any concessions on political status. Two more hunger strikers were actually elected to the Southern Parliament in the interim.

The hunger strikes marked a watershed for Sinn Fein who thereafter changed their official policy of abstention from Northern Ireland elections and Westminster elections on the strength of their obvious success. In fact, for the first time they probably thought they had a real chance of sidelining the SDLP. In June 1983, Sinn Fein obtained 13.4% of the vote compared to the SDLPs 17.9%. However this was rather due to the fact that they had managed to mobilise behind them a previously silent, non-voting section of the electorate - the poor, from the catholic ghettoes. In fact the SDLP's vote had not gone down much from the 18.3% they had achieved in the previous general election.

The emergence of Sinn Fein as a significant electoral force was seen as a major success for the Republicans and a setback for Thatcher. That it was a success for the Republicans is unquestionable. But at what a cost! The courage of the hunger strikers certainly commands nothing but respect and Thatcher's policy amounted to cold- blooded murder. But what can be said of the leadership of an organisation traditionally strict on discipline, which allows or even instructs its members to starve themselves to death - when the Republicans could have chosen alternative ways of carrying on their political struggle!

As to being a setback to Thatcher, Sinn Fein's electoral success was undoubtedly so in the short-term. But in the longer term, the establishment of the Republicans as an electoral force opened up, from the point of view of the British government, new possibilities for a future political settlement.

Indeed, whatever the official rhetoric about rejecting any deal with "terrorists", no political settlement could be reached over Northern Ireland without securing at some stage the support of the Republicans who had now demonstrated themselves to be the only force who could police the catholic ghettoes and get them to toe the line of such a settlement. In fact, despite the difficulties this involved, imposing the presence of Sinn Fein, on account of its new electoral support, at a negotiating table next to the other political currents, seemed a much easier task than having to impose the "terrorist" IRA itself.

Towards the Anglo-Irish Agreement

In any case, steps towards a resolution of the Irish stalemate resumed soon after the end of the hunger strikes.

In 1982, there was a fresh attempt at resuming the devolution approach which failed almost immediately. But that same year Lord Gowrie, of the Northern Ireland Office signalled in no uncertain terms where Thatcher was heading by stating that: "Northern Ireland is extremely expensive on the British taxpayer...if people of Northern Ireland wished to join with the South of Ireland, no British government would resist it for twenty minutes". However at this point a hiatus in Anglo-Irish relations occurred because of the Falklands war - which the Irish Republic refused to endorse.

With FitzGerald and Fine Gael back at the helm of the Irish Republic by March 1984, Thatcher and Fitzgerald started again to discuss Anglo-Irish co-operation. This led almost exactly one year later to the signing of an Anglo- Irish Agreement between their two governments at Hillsborough Castle near Belfast.

This agreement established an Inter-Governmental Conference to deal on a regular basis with political, security and legal matters - including the administration of justice. More importantly it stated: "if it should prove impossible to achieve and sustain devolution on a basis which secures widespread acceptance in Northern Ireland the conference shall be a framework within which the Irish government may, where the interests of the minority community are significantly or especially affected, put forward views on proposals for major legislation and on major policy issues, which are within the purview of the Northern Ireland departments."

Thatcher had now put in place a framework which stood above the Northern politicians, being purely an agreement between the two governments of Ireland and Britain. This 1985 agreement therefore laid the basis for future negotiations in which all politicians, provided they agreed to give up their past overbidding, would be able, once more, to discuss a settlement - whether it be power-sharing under devolved government or any other arrangement. It also gave the middle class SDLP a chance to increase their political profile after a number of years of being squeezed out of the picture by Sinn Fein. At the same time, of course, it clearly risked a backlash from those in the Unionist camp who had for years staked their political careers on refusing to have anything to do with the Republic. Right on cue, Paisley prayed on the following Sunday for god to "take vengeance on this wicked, treacherous, lying woman...", Margaret Thatcher.

To allay the fears of Unionist politicians, FitzGerald stressed the anti-republican obvectives of the agreement in a phone-in: "We are determined to defeat the IRA, remove any possible basis they may have of support, North or South... It's towards that end that the Agreement has been signed."

Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, seemed to go along with this, accusing the Agreement of aiming at "creating a climate in which this party can be isolated". At face value, given the security dimension of the agreement, this assessment seemed to be correct. Except that it paved a clear way out for Sinn Fein, a way which in fact they had already embarked on - that of a turn from the armalite to the ballot box. Scarcely a year later Sinn Fein abandoned their abstentionist position towards the Southern parliament and stood in elections for the Dail, thereby strengthening their electoral strategy. At the same time, the introduction of the so-called shoot-to-kill policy showed how Thatcher intended to use repression to pressurise the Republicans into opting for the ballot box.

There remained the question of the unionists' response. Immediately after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement the Unionists had organised a 100,000 strong rally in Belfast denouncing it. The following January, 15 sitting Unionist MPs resigned their Westminster seats in protest, hoping to use the following by-elections as a mini- referendum on the agreement. However this slightly backfired when the SDLP gained one seat at their expense. Protests by Harland & Wolff workers outside the first session of the Anglo-Irish Conference at Stormont, ended in a riot with the RUC, and 38 police were injured.

But in fact the Thatcher government continued with its policy despite the Unionists' opposition. They even allowed an enquiry into child abuse at the Kincora childrens' home (which implicated prominent Unionists) to go ahead, which added fuel to the fire of the Unionists' claims that they were being betrayed by the Thatcher government.

By 1987 Haughey came back as prime minister in the South and predictably now endorsed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. In the North opposition to it remained as strong among loyalists. Thus the UDA, in line with their "anything is better than Dublin" policy, called for Unionist politicians to reach a power-sharing agreement with the SDLP. This did not prevent an escalation on both sides by the paramilitaries in what seemed an orgy of murder and sectarian overbidding. But all this to no avail, since Anglo-Irish relations continued in regular meetings of the Anglo-Irish conference.

In 1990, an All-Ireland Forum was set up under Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke, who insisted at the time that Britain "had no selfish, strategic or economic interest in remaining in Northern Ireland". This Forum was to create a permanent framework in which Northern and Southern politicians could discuss issues affecting the island as a whole. Surprisingly the talks got off to a reasonable start with even Paisley's DUP allowing itself to be lured into them. However after two years, when the talks were symbolically transferred from Belfast to Dublin, the DUP sent only observers and soon pulled out, followed by the UUP, which did not want to be outflanked by its rival, and the talks collapsed.

This led to a period in which the loyalist paramilitaries upped the ante, once again, in order to ensure that they would not be left out of any future settlement - as they had been the last time round. For good measure, the UDA, no doubt in the hope that it would be treated in the same way, proclaimed that they would not object to Sinn Fein being invited to all-party talks, provided there was a ceasefire.

In fact by the following year, despite the IRA's bombing campaign on the British mainland, Sinn Fein was involved in secret talks with the Major government. By the winter of 1993, the leader of the SDLP, John Hume, was engaged as a public go-between, under the patronage of the Irish government. His job was to come up with proposals, agreed between himself and Sinn Fein's leadership, offering a ceasefire on condition that Sinn Fein be allowed to participate in talks towards a peace settlement. Eventually the remaining obstacles were lifted and the ceasefire was announced on 31st August 1994.

The 1994-1998 "peace process" and its outcome

It took almost another four years, a resumption of terrorist activity and a new ceasefire on the Republican side, many more random killings on the loyalist side, and a change of parliamentary majority in Westminster, before the "peace process" initiated by the IRA ceasefire in 1994 finally came to anything. As so often in the past, the main stumbling block was the resistance of Unionist politicians to allowing Sinn Fein and Dublin a space in the process. And if this process has finally had some results since Labour's advent to power, it is not thanks to Blair's exceptional diplomatic skills, as the spin-doctors claimed, but due to the fact that Unionist MPs could no longer use their votes in Westminster to exercise pressure on the British government.

However, such politicking could probably have been overcome, had the Tory governments been determined to reach a conclusion earlier. But the very length of the process was also part of their tactic. Paramilitary leaders - mainly those on the Republican side, but also, to a lesser extent, on the loyalist side - had to be given enough time to get their troops to line up behind a new policy of compromise. At the same time, a lengthy process ensured that the expectations raised by the original ceasefire among the population of Northern Ireland, particularly among its poorest layers, would be dampened by the time an agreement was reached. The last thing the governments involved wanted, or the politicians for that matter, was to spread the illusion that somehow the ghetto population would be allowed a say in the process. All colluded to ensure that this did not happen and that the settlement remained firmly in the hands of ministers and politicians.

In the end, the protracted and convoluted process started by Thatcher back in 1980 produced the so-called "Good Friday agreement". This obviously raises the question: is it going to be yet another failed stage in the British state's attempt at extricating itself from the mess it has created in Northern Ireland? Or is it the beginning of the final stage in the search for a settlement?

The details of this agreement have been profusely covered by the media and many parallels have been drawn with past attempted settlements, from the 1974 Sunningdale agreement to the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement and the Framework Document issued jointly by London and Dublin in February 1995. Trimble's Unionists argued that the new agreement marked a significant retreat from all previous attempts. The SDLP argued that, on the contrary, the North-South dimension had never been so clearly spelt out. Sinn Fein, of course, had the easiest and most convincing argument - it was the first deal ever, in which they were included.

But to a large extent the actual details of the agreement are irrelevant. Indeed this deal was primarily shaped by the concessions made at the last minute to the main protagonists in the negotiation. It was designed to enable all of them to boast a "victory" in front of their respective constituencies. And in fact, taken to the letter, the deal as it stands would probably be unworkable, either because it is too prone to widely diverging interpretations or because it is even contradictory in some of its aspects.

In reality, rather than a deal aimed at being actually implemented, it is yet another framework for negotiation. The institutions that it sets up are more sophisticated than the rather informal ones used in the previous stage of the negotiations, but they are still meant to be transitional structures, with no power for the time being. In every sphere that matters, the governments, and above all the British government, retain total control of the situation.

The main feature of this deal is that it is a consumate exercise in arm-twisting. The protagonists were allowed to limit their actual commitment to very little. But in return, they had to put up with Blair's take-it-or-leave-it attitude. They could choose to remain outside of the deal, but the deal would take place regardless.

In that, Blair's approach is consistent with that adopted by Thatcher in the early 1980s, and subsequently by Major in the Framework Document - no-one, neither friend nor foe, will be allowed to stand in the way of the scheme that British capital has in store for Northern Ireland. And this scheme has not changed in the least over the past forty years.

The future institutions outlined by the agreement may create what could be described as an "Anglo-Irish Union" - in other words, for the first time since partition, the establishment of apparatuses linking the Irish and British state machineries. This allowed the UUP leader Trimble to boast of having "won" a reinforcement of the Union with Britain. And it is not the least irony in this agreement, that Sinn Fein should have signed up to a deal which strengthens London's political hold over Dublin!

But whatever the noises made by the politicians, this "Anglo-Irish Union" is just a means to an end in the strategy of British imperialism - a means to ensure that the end will be effectively achieved. Of this, there can be no doubt. Regardless of the wording of the deal, the desires of the protagonists and the transitional forms that the process may take in the coming months and years, British capital intends to dump Northern Ireland into the orbit of the Irish Republic, once and for all.

Moreover the determination of the British state to achieve this goal, and its sense of urgency, can only be much greater today than it has ever been before. British imperialism's relatively risky strategy in its rivalry with its European competitors over the shaping of the future euro zone, cannot tolerate political instability in its Irish backyard. What is at stake for British capital over the coming years is its share of financial and trading markets covering hundreds of millions, if not billions of people. It will not allow what it sees as the parochial concerns of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Northern Ireland, or even the five million of Ireland as a whole for that matter, to stand in its way. And Blair can be trusted to treat ruthlessly those who do not comply, as his masters in the City would expect.

The decisive role of the balance of forces in the ghettoes

What has changed, also, particularly since the 1970s, and allows the British state to take a much bolder attitude, is the balance of forces in Northern Ireland itself.

Even if Paisley's gesticulations still allow him to attract a sizeable chunk of the protestant vote, his demagogy is no longer a threat, at least not for the British government. Nor can the survival of a rump of active paramilitary groups, on both sides of the sectarian divide, derail London's schemes - at least not as long as the relationship of forces in the poor ghettoes remains what it is today.

Indeed, it was never the intrinsic strength of the unionist or nationalist currents which allowed them to block London's attempts to settle the "Northern Ireland question". It was primarily the potential for uncontrolled social explosions which existed in the working class ghettoes since the late 1960s - a potential which could have been triggered easily, and even unwittingly, by the demagogy of the politicians. Likewise, this explosive potential was reflected in the ghettoes by a smouldering frustration and anger which lured the youth towards the paramilitary groups, thereby allowing these groups to maintain their profile and hold on the ghettoes despite British repression.

Thirty years on, however, this explosive potential has receded. Not that the objective conditions for a social explosion in the ghettoes are less today than they were thirty years ago. On the contrary, they are probably far greater, in that, despite the British subsidy, the economic crisis has continued to take a heavy toll in Northern Ireland, on both sides of the divide. And in that sense that threat is as present today as it ever was.

But what is no longer there today compared to thirty years ago, is the dynamism and confidence of an entire layer of the poor population, who had just discovered its collective strength in street confrontations with the repressive machinery of the state. This dynamism and confidence could of course come back very quickly, should the ghetto population take to the streets again in defence of their own interests. But for the time being, what is left of the militant generation which came out of the explosion of the late 1960s, is a layer of ageing activists, whose outlook was shaped by the Republican and loyalist military machines and narrow nationalism. And in so far as they stick to the perspectives of the Republicans and loyalists, these activists see their role only as ensuring that their respective ghettoes will act as disciplined footsoldiers for their leaderships, not as encouraging and building on the conscious aspirations of the poor masses. These activists have been incapable of passing on to the younger generations the tradition of the mass movements of the 1960s, because the explosive nature of such movements is precisely what they now fear most.

This present situation in the ghettoes is the main card in the hand that the British state is currently playing. If Blair feels confident enough to go beyond the old strategy of maintaining an uneasy status quo, if he is able, in addition, to force into his political settlement the main politicians and paramilitary forces on the basis of his own agenda, it is not due to any "special peacemaking skills". It is, of course, because it is more difficult today for the various protagonists to use the ghettoes as a lever in their rivalries and overbidding. But it is also because, more importantly, the British state no longer feels the pressure and social explosive potential of the poor masses.

Beyond the "peace agreement" - for a return to class politics

What the coming settlement has in store for the Northern Ireland working class is now clear beyond doubt. The timescale of the future changes will depend on many unknown factors, but not their general direction.

Selecting and shaping a reliable local state machinery capable of taking over the running of Northern Ireland in cooperation with the southern state - which is the real objective of the coming stage of the settlement process - will involve bribing the middle-class and petty-bourgeois layers who will be entrusted with the future political stability of the province, both those who were already part of the establishment and those who went into dissidence to get their own share of the cake. Someone will have to foot the bill for these bribes. In the short term, a combination of European funds and transitional British subsidy may do the trick, but for how long? And in any case, the settlement process will also involve creating future sources of income for the privileged classes, ready to bridge the gap when the flow of external subsidies dries up. Already politicians and ministers are lining up to hail the prospect of foreign investment and making moralistic speeches on the need for workers to be flexible and cut labour costs.

Indeed, it is the working class of Northern Ireland who is expected to tighten its belt in order to cater for the comfortable lifestyle of the province's future elite. And what does this mean in the context of Northern Ireland, where private sector earnings are 20% below British average and unemployment far higher than anywhere in Britain? It can only mean a drastic slide in the standard of living of the working class as a whole, and particularly its poorest layers, toward the lowest levels of the European scale, if not further down toward the Third World. The Blair-Trimble-Adams "peace" can only mean more drastic exploitation for the working class, and the intensification of the class war waged by the capitalists against the working class.

Nor does this "peace" necessarily mean the end of the sectarian divide. The built-in anti-discrimination, pro-Irish language and policing reform dimensions of the deal are no guarantees in this respect. Tokenism on a background of scarce jobs very often backfires on those whose interests are supposed to be protected. And no doubt, politicians will seek to make political capital out of the resulting frustrations, thereby whipping up once again sectarian tensions and prejudices. All the more so as the Northern Ireland Assembly itself will have a built-in sectarian dimension, by giving a greater say to those political currents claiming to represent one side of the divide or the other.

This sectarian divide may have its roots in the long history of Britain's oppressive rule over Ireland, but the main factor which allows it still to be 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 ghettoes 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 among the protestant majority the idea that their conditions were somehow threatened by Catholic workers .

Above all, against 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 currents among catholics or the loyalist groups among protestants.

Today the surviving predominance of these currents and ideas in the ranks of the working class of Northern Ireland, is the main obstacle to its ability to build up the unity it needs to defend effectively its class interests against all exploiters, orange or green.

The tragegy of the working class of Northern Ireland, over the past thirty years, has been that its fighting capacity has been diverted from the defence of its class interests and consciously obscured by sectarian and nationalist illusions.

In this respect, one positive aspect of the current political process, and probably the only one, will have been to expose the deadend of Irish nationalism and loyalism. One can only hope that the sinister irony of seeing yesterday's paramilitaries signing up to an agreement which strengthens the hand of their alleged "mortal" enemies at the expense of the ghettoes on whose sacrifices these groups have built up their political clout, will open the eyes of their deceived supporters.

Today may be the first decisive opportunity, since the social explosion of the late 1960s, for class-based politics to reclaim its right in the ranks of the Northern Ireland working class - and for a wholly new fighting political tradition to be rebuilt, this time based on working class consciousness, organisation and democracy. In any case, this is the only road which can lead the Irish working class toward a future free from the anachronistic divisions and deadly antagonisms left over from Britain's colonial oppression, a future which it can only build by taking its place among the ranks of the international proletariat.