Northern Ireland - The "peace process" only swept the issues under a respectable, but sectarian, carpet

Apr/May 2009

The murders of a policeman and two British soldiers claimed by dissident Republicans of the "Real" and "Continuity" IRA (RIRA and CIRA), early in March, were bloody-minded and pointless. Targeting foot soldiers of the British state, especially army personnel about to be sent to Afghanistan - with the prospect of suffering severe injuries, if not death, in the killing fields of Helmand province for the benefit of British capital - makes a mockery of the dissidents' proclaimed aim of taking on the British state. These attacks could not possibly serve the interests of any section of the Northern Irish population, let alone advance the cause purportedly pursued by their perpetrators, that of a united Ireland. Nor could they help to loosen the stranglehold of the British state over the Six Counties.

Quite the opposite, in fact, since the immediate effect of the shootings was to bring the repressive machinery of the "Troubles" back to the fore. Helicopters started hovering and thundering again day and night over the Catholic ghettos. Police road blocks were set up in and around Belfast, under the pretext of facing up to the dissidents' "new terrorist threat". House to house searches were conducted in a number of areas with a brutality reminiscent of a not-so-distant past, while "suspects" were duly detained. And this time round, the British authorities did not even need to bring in special "emergency" legislation, as they did in the past, with the old Prevention of Terrorism Act. Indeed, thanks to Labour's "normal" 28-day detention law, the police now have all the powers required to hold "terror suspects" more or less as they please.

In short, the very same section of the Northern Irish population in whose name the dissidents' attacks were carried out in the first place, found itself, once again, on the receiving end of the British state's backlash and tit-for-tat tactics, bringing back the bitter taste of the "bad old days" to the Catholic ghettos.

Above all, however, these attacks and London's response come as a stark reminder of the fact that, for all Labour's self-glorification for having ended the "Troubles", the "peace process" has merely papered over the causes of the "Troubles", instead of addressing them. Meanwhile, Britain's old repressive apparatus has remained intact, in the background, ready to go on the rampage in full combat gear, against the very same people that it targeted during the 30 years of the "Troubles".

Entrenching divisions

The chequered history of the political settlement known as the "peace process" has long been a cause of widespread cynicism and frustration in Northern Ireland, for reasons which were entirely predictable right from the beginning. However, eleven years on, these reasons may have become somewhat blurred by the passage of time. So it is worth recalling briefly, the basis on which this political settlement was founded and how it unfolded.

The "peace process" was, in fact, the last leg in a series of attempts to reach a political settlement which was initiated in the 1980s, under Thatcher. Its aim was to end the Six Counties' on-going civil war by bringing the Republican leadership into the fold of the British state, within the framework of devolved institutions which would take some responsibility for running the Six Counties on London's behalf. It was expected that this would kill several birds with one stone: in return for a guaranteed role in Northern Ireland's political institutions and a share in the resulting perks, not only would the Republicans put their guns away and forget about achieving a united Ireland, but they would effectively endorse Britain's occupation of the North and help to police it. In the process, they would lose the large popular support they had enjoyed so far and become hostages of the British state.

From the mid-1980s, the Republican leadership began to take steps to meet the requirements for such a settlement. One such step was to turn towards an electoral strategy both in the North and in the Republic. Another, more spectacular, was the IRA's unilateral cease-fire, in 1994. By that time Sinn Fein had already had regular contacts with British officials for quite a while. So that when Labour came back to power, in 1997, the stage was already set for official negotiations to begin - leading to the "peace agreement", the following year.

But far from marking the end of Britain's "divide and rule" policy - one of the main factors behind the deep sectarian divisions which produced the bloodshed of the "Troubles" - this agreement actually entrenched these divisions in the future institutions planned for Northern Ireland. So, for instance, the rules of operation of the future devolved Assembly could only put sectarian politics firmly in the driving seat - by leaving no space to parties which refused to adopt either the nationalist or the unionist label.

The whole construction was supposedly designed to facilitate the "coexistence" between two "communities", namely "Catholics" and "Protestants". This, regardless of the fact that the real divisions, on the ground, had very little to do with religion, but everything to do with the hatred and fears fuelled by the appalling social conditions faced by a large part of the population and whipped up by the vicious methods of the British state and the sectarian demagogy of its local political allies, the unionist parties.

Despite the unionist parties' long sectarian record, Labour's preoccupation was always, in keeping with the traditional policy of every past British government, to pander to these parties, hoping that this would entice them into bringing, willingly, their erstwhile Republican opponents on board, within a devolved "power-sharing" framework. So the devolved institutions were designed to offer unionist politicians the potential for the sectarian patronage they needed in order to maintain their grip over their traditional constituency in the long term. In fact, long before these institutions were in place, under the pretext of healing the scars left by the "Troubles", subsidies began to flow from London and were allocated on a sectarian basis, thereby allowing unionist politicians, who presided over this allocation, to tighten their hold over their constituency, through designated "community" leaders and groups.

It should be said, however, that while the unionist parties and their loyalist associates were the main beneficiaries of this largesse, it also benefited Sinn Fein and its galaxy of satellites - all the more so, because its claim to be the only representative of the "Catholic" minority was virtually unchallenged, except by very small dissident groups which were easily marginalised by the Republicans.

Eventually, during the course of the "peace process", government documents switched to referring to the two "communities" as "nationalists" (for "Catholics") and "unionists" (for "Protestants"). Of course, this did not change the sectarian nature of the process. However it did shed a crude light over the fact that the political allegiances of these "communities" were taken for granted and allocated to the main protagonists in the process.

So, right from the word go, the political set-up emerging from the "peace process", was heavily marked by sectarian patronage, if not outright corruption, and by the determination of all the main protagonists to ensure that the divisions between "communities" remained as deep as ever, so as to guarantee their own political future against their rivals.

A decade of posturing

Predictably, however, the two main unionist parties got increasingly greedy and proceeded to overbid one another. This did not stop Blair from playing along. The more concessions the unionists got, the more they demanded, the more Labour conceded and the more unionist sectarianism appeared to be "paying off" in the view of their political constituency. In the end, London's pandering to their demagogy resulted in propelling the most reactionary of the two, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to the forefront of the political scene: for the first time in its history, the DUP was able to beat its Ulster Unionist Party rival. This led to the pope of Protestant bigotry, Ian Paisley, becoming the de facto official representative of unionism in the on-going negotiating process with Sinn Fein.

Having secured the lead position in the unionist camp, the DUP proceeded to up the ante. Not that Paisley had anything against power-sharing as such. But he wanted it on his own terms, with a tame Sinn Fein willing to toe his line. So the DUP sought to blackmail London into forcing the Republicans to jump through a long series of hoops. And Labour proved all too willing to tag along, since its only strategy required a "coalition of the willing", involving both the DUP and Sinn Fein, joining forces to run the devolved institutions of the Six Counties.

This process took the form of a five-year long stand-off, starting in 2002, during which executive powers were taken over by London, while the rest of the devolved institutions went on providing the Northern Irish parties with the means to maintain their political patronage and somewhat parasitical existence. This period saw the saga over the "verifiable decommissioning" of the IRA's arsenal and the dismantling of its command structure. Eventually, when the Republicans had duly jumped through all the hoops required of them, more horse-trading took place to accommodate the DUP's ever-increasing demands concerning the operation of the devolved institutions.

Eventually, this phase culminated in the St Andrews agreement, at the end of 2006. This agreement left all sorts of loose ends which were to result in yet more horse-trading. But it did squeeze a number of new major concessions out of the Republicans. For instance, Sinn Fein effectively gave up the theoretical minority veto built into the rules of the Assembly by the 1998 agreement - by agreeing that the unionist-dominated Executive would have the power, if it considered it necessary, to make "sensitive" decisions without having to get them endorsed by a normal Assembly vote (that is one involving a majority among representatives of both "communities"). Another major concession made by Sinn Fein was its pledge to take part in the multi-level "policing boards", allegedly set up to make the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) "accountable" to the population - but aimed, in reality, at getting the regional political forces, especially the Republicans, to endorse Britain's policing of the Six Counties.

In the March 2007 Assembly election, the DUP reinforced its position further by winning 36 seats against the UUP's 18, while Sinn Fein came a strong second with 28 seats against the SDLP's 16. This finally led to the formation of the first devolved Executive of Northern Ireland, with Ian Paisley, the arch champion of unionist bigotry, as its first minister, and Martin McGuinness, the former commander of the IRA's Derry brigade, as his deputy.

By then, there was not much more that the unionists politicians and the British government could have squeezed out of Sinn Fein, short of expelling the Republicans from the devolved institutions - which would have defeated the whole exercise of the "peace process". But, as it turned out, the DUP was still not satisfied with Sinn Fein's renunciations. While demanding that Sinn Fein should fulfill its part of the St Andrews agreement to the dot and comma, the DUP's strategy was to drag its own feet, and ultimately renege on the symbolic concessions made to Sinn Fein as part of the same agreement - over such things as school selection, the status of the Irish language or the reconversion of the decommissioned Maze prison into something more useful. In the end, Sinn Fein got fed up and decided to boycott the Executive, until another round of horse-trading under London's auspices led to yet another agreement and yet another spell of "normal" operation for the devolved institutions, from November 2008 - which has not yet been interrupted so far.

Reaction at the top of the institutions...

So what does the regime of Northern Ireland look like today, after all these years of politicking and posturing?

Out of the 14 positions on the Executive, 6 are held by the DUP, 5 by Sinn Fein, 2 by the Ulster Unionists and 1 by the SDLP, which gives the two unionist parties an absolute majority if they need to make a deal at the expense of Sinn Fein, which is usually the only thing they seem able to agree on.

Despite Ian Paisley's withdrawal in March 2008, when Peter Robinson took over as party leader and first minister, the DUP has remained as reactionary and bigoted as ever - which was, perhaps, predictable, since, although a slightly less controversial figure, Robinson has unmistakable "credentials", such as, for instance, his high-profile involvement in the loyalist Ulster Resistance, in the 1980s.

DUP ministers and elected representatives, in the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as in Westminster, have already won a solid reputation for their outspoken bigotry, such as Iris Robinson's hysterical gay-bashing, for instance. The DUP's Environment minister is also probably the only one on the planet to deny flatly that human activity can have any responsibility whatsoever for the deterioration of the environment and, more specifically, for climate change - which makes one wonder what exactly he is doing in this ministry? In fact, the DUP's policies are so unpalatable that the Tories themselves find them too reactionary for their taste. So much so that they ignored DUP approaches to link up with the Tory party, preferring instead to choose its much weaker Ulster Unionist rival as local associate.

As to the Republicans, they act as responsible "partners" in the devolved institutions, who would not dream of exposing the dirty tricks which are being played on the poor, including among the section of the population they claim to represent. In the present composition of the Executive, they hold the two portfolios which involve the closest contacts with the Republic - namely agriculture and regional development. However, it is with regard to their third portfolio, education, that they are experiencing the most problems. But ironically, these problems are coming from their own side, so to speak - from the Catholic Church which is vocally opposing a reform aimed at reorganising the decrepit system of segregated schools, because it is afraid of losing the direct control it still has today over so many schools and, by the same token, some of its social weight.

To all intents and purposes, however, the NI Executive's policies are hardly distinguishable from Brown's - which is only logical, since, it has no real power to organise its own finances, except within the tight guidelines pre-defined by London and, above all, within the limits allowed by the regional subsidy which it is allocated by the Treasury - around £9 billion per year.

Today, the long period during which Northern Ireland was spared all the government policies which have become so familiar in Britain - such as privatisation, the use of public-private partnership, the rolling back of welfare provisions, etc., for fear of a backlash in the poor ghettos, is over. All these mechanisms designed to divert public funds into the coffers of the capitalist class are now more or less actively at work, along with the social cost that comes with them. Services have been cut, while the long-term, off-balance indebtedness of the region has increased enormously, as PPP and similar techniques have become the only channels used for investing in public infrastructure. Likewise, the web of schemes already used in Britain to coerce the jobless into taking the first non-job on offer or else losing benefits and disappearing from the unemployment register, are being phased in across Northern Ireland, at the very time when jobs are disappearing.

However, there are still some elements of British legislation which are not applicable to Northern Ireland. Significantly, this is the case for legislation on abortion. Britain's 1967 Act never crossed the Irish channel due to the fierce opposition of both politicians and churches. So Northern Ireland is still under a 1945 Act which criminalises abortion, except in a limited number of cases following specific court decisions. As a result, fewer than 100 women are able to have a legal abortion in Northern Ireland each year, but over 20 times more travel to Britain in order to attend to an abortion clinic. As to those who cannot afford the cost, they resort to backstreet abortionists, often with the same drastic consequences that used to be common in Britain before 1967.

A "Guidance on the termination of pregnancy" addressed to GPs, was recently issued by the NI Health ministry, following a high profile court case. Although it was presented as a major breakthrough by some British commentators, it only summarises the state of the law as described above, without adding anything to it: to all intents and purposes, having an abortion or performing one, remains a crime, in most cases. Even then, DUP ministers voted against these guidelines, probably because they would oppose any document suggesting that abortion may not always be criminal!

In any case, there is no sign that this situation is likely to change in the foreseeable future, as none of the other parties in the devolved institutions is prepared to take on the bigots over this issue. And in so far as the status of women in any society is a good measure of its level of emancipation, this says a good deal about the outcome of the "peace process" in Northern Ireland.

... while sectarian tensions remain rife...

It is quite a while, now, since the "conflict tourism" industry began to develop in Belfast, with its double-decker buses touring the flashpoints of the "Troubles" for the benefit of wide-eyed visitors. This was part of the "peace dividend" of the negotiations and it did create a few jobs, although not many. Not everyone is pleased to see these buses around, though. Because, quite apart from the fact that those who died during the "Troubles" deserve something better than this commercial voyeurism, many of the "viewpoints" visited in these tours are far more than historical memorabilia.

Such is the case, in particular, of the "peace walls" (or the "walls of shame", depending of who is speaking) which cut across the working class districts of Belfast, separating "Catholic" areas from "Protestant" areas. These walls are often several hundred yards long, made with vertical slabs of concrete topped with a variable amount of barbed wire, up to a total height which can be anywhere between 20 to 30 feet. These days, some of these walls are covered in colourful mural paintings, which are sometimes purely decorative, but, more often than not, still serve to identify which paramilitary group claims "ownership" of the "territory" they encircle, especially in loyalist areas.

Far from being just leftovers from the Troubles, these walls are still "functional". The height of some of them has recently been increased, while others are almost brand new. Not very long ago, they were officially renamed "environmental barriers" - a hypocritical euphemism, given the fact that, at times the "environment" surrounding these walls becomes thick with all kinds of missiles which are hurled blindly from both sides onto passers-by who are unfortunate enough to be on the other side! These walls are so "innocuous" that, in Belfast, many of the fortified gates through which they can be crossed are manned by the police using remote controls and a comprehensive network of CCTV cameras. In Derry, where they are still manned 'by hand' by the police, the situation has become so bad that the PSNI has recently convinced the town's council to hand this job over to "specialist" private security contractors.

Nor are paramilitary groups a thing of the past either. Their activities may be more "diversified" today, thanks to the cash bounty of the "peace process". But the racketeering and smuggling which have always been a significant part of these activities, initially under the pretext of raising funds to buy weapons, or to take care of jailed members, and then in order to provide a source of income to selected "hard men", are still carrying on.

While the spotlight of the media is focused on dissident Republicans because of their recent attacks, there is certainly even more paramilitary activity among the loyalist groups, if only because, unlike on the Republican side, there was never a strong dominant apparatus capable of policing all of them. But there is another reason: after they declared their own cease-fire, shortly after the IRA, the loyalist groups did not allow themselves to be pushed into the same protracted arms decommissioning saga that the IRA had to go through. Nor was there much pressure on them to do it either, neither from the unionist parties, nor from London. Not only did their cease-fire allow the main loyalist groups to sit at the negotiating table and to stand candidates in the Assembly elections (and to win seats, in the case of the UDP and PUP, the political wings, respectively, of the UDA and UVF), but it gave them access to all sorts of funding under the cover of preserving the "cultural identity" of their "community".

It is no wonder, therefore, that one could read on 23rd March this year, a report in the Belfast Telegraph, which said, referring to the UDA and UVF: "the first hints of progress on loyalist decommissioning are starting to emerge from the paramilitary world." Even then, these are only "hints" of a possible public relations exercise regarding their weapons. Whether the paramilitaries actually intent to, or will, give up their guns, is quite another matter.

The nature of today's "peace" in Northern Ireland is, therefore, very relative. While the nationalist agenda of the Republicans may now be harnessed within the framework of the devolved institutions, the Six Counties remain as divided as ever on the ground, with some of the same gangs and strong men running the show in many poor ghettos, on much the same sectarian basis as yesterday.

... and poverty is rising its head

It should be remembered that the "Troubles" were preceded by a social explosion, in the late 1960s, which was caused by the chronic under-employment, poverty and appalling housing conditions experienced by the working class of Northern Ireland, especially in the Catholic areas. It was only later, as a result of the defensive reaction generated by the brutal repression of the protests by the British state and its loyalist auxiliaries, that the Republicans were able to hijack this mobilisation, by purging it of its social content and lining up the Catholic ghettos behind their nationalist agenda.

Today, the factors which caused this social explosion at the time, are still present, even if living conditions are certainly not as bad as they were then. For instance, even before the crisis started to really hurt, at the beginning of 2008, the existence of a large number of previously hidden unemployed was reflected by the fact that the proportion of the population of working age which was "inactive" in the government's statistics, was nearly 30% higher than in Britain as a whole. Similarly, despite official wage figures which were apparently more or less comparable to Britain, the proportion of individuals depending partly or totally on means-tested benefits, was almost 50% higher than in Britain.

The truth is that the promise of "economic prosperity", which was promoted by all the protagonists of the "peace process", has never really materialised. This was supposed to be funded by massive foreign investment, which, it was claimed, would replicate the "Celtic Tiger boom" in the Republic. Except that it never happened. Only a handful of mainly US companies did eventually build factories in Northern Ireland (such as the hard-disk manufacturer Seagate), but this did not change much to the overall employment figures. In fact, out of the 73 US companies which are registered in the books of the "Invest Northern Ireland" agency for having committed themselves to making a specific investment, most have still to begin paying out the first penny.

The only areas in which jobs have been created over the past few years, are the construction industry, the public sector and, more recently, due to the fall of the pound against the euro, the big supermarket chains near the border with the Republic.

But today, as a result of the financial crisis, both construction and public sector jobs are disappearing fast. The huge real estate bubble which had ballooned to crazy proportions from 2002 onwards, largely as an overflow from the Republic's own housing bubble, has long imploded, cutting new housing projects to a trickle. The past big EU-funded sites for expensive prestige projects, which had created a lot of jobs some years back, have all but disappeared. As to the public sector, which formally provides one third of all jobs (and many more taking in account the numerous private businesses which depend entirely on government procurement), it is facing thousands of job cuts as the NI Executive is taking the axe to its wage bill as part of the austerity measures demanded by London.

As a result, over the year up to February this year, the number of unemployed has officially increased by 77%, with over one third of the jobless being out of work for more than a year. The figures are not as high as those of the 1960s, but they are getting increasingly close, and, this time, with a welfare safety net which is even more limited than it was then.

The same dead end all over again

The Republicans' traditional base of support has been uncomfortable for a long time with some of the concessions made by Sinn Fein, especially its underwriting of the PSNI and of Britain's repressive machinery.

But what has kept most Republican supporters behind Sinn Fein's policy so far, was the hope that somehow, an improvement in living conditions would come out of the "peace process" and as a result of Sinn Fein's participation in the devolved institutions, even in "partnership" with the ultra-bigots of the DUP.

The fact that it has not happened, despite the endless list of concessions that Sinn Fein has had to made to the unionists and to London, may be enough to shed some doubts over Sinn Fein's policy, especially now that the economic crisis is becoming more brutal without any visible end in sight. Besides, there is now a new generation of youth in the Catholic ghettos who, having grown up after the IRA cease-fire, know very little about the real cost of the "Troubles" to their own people, and tend to idealise the past "armed struggle".

These may be precisely the people whose attention the dissidents of RIRA and CIRA are trying to attract with their latest bloody attacks. Nor is it the first time that they have tried. Because these attacks did not come out of the blue, as some have made out in the British media. It may be the first time for over a decade that the PSNI and British army have suffered casualties in Northern Ireland. But the attacks themselves are the latest in a long series carried out by Republican dissidents, involving anything from gun shots to a variety of explosive devices. The fact that the previous attacks left no dead victims can hardly be explained by the dissidents' "military ineptitude", as was claimed by several Sinn Fein heavyweights. After all, the death toll of the Omagh bombing (29 were massacred, back in 1998), provided damning evidence of RIRA's lethal capability. And the recent discovery of a freshly-made 300lb bomb in the vicinity of a British army barracks, in county Down, seems to indicate that, on the contrary, the dissidents groups have retained the military expertise they learned from the IRA. It is likely therefore, that after a long period in which they chose to confine themselves to largely symbolic actions, the dissident groups have now decided that the time has come to raise their profiles through more spectacular actions, in order to try to capitalise on Sinn Fein's discredit.

But it would be a terrible mistake for those who are dissatisfied with Sinn Fein conceding to London's diktats or with its lack of policies against the present crisis, to allow themselves to be lured by the apparently "radical" language of the dissidents, into returning to the failed policy of the "armed struggle".

In fact, it would be the same terrible mistake that their parents, uncles and aunts, made, almost 40 years ago, when they allowed the Republicans to dump the social objectives which had brought them out into the streets in the first place. For the first time since the outdoor relief struggle of the 1930s, these social objectives had the potential to bring together a large section of the Northern Ireland working class, across the old divisions - in fact the civil rights movement had already began to have such a non-sectarian impact. But instead, the Republicans chose to confine the movement to the Catholic ghettos and to lock its participants into a bloody tit-for-tat with the British army, which was guaranteed to involve an exorbitant cost, while having no chance in hell of succeeding against the full might of the British state apparatus.

In the context of Northern Ireland, the "armed struggle", which is waged, of necessity, by a small apparatus of committed cadres, while the masses are left to watch passively, can only be used as a bargaining chip with the dominant power, the British state, in order to win its recognition as a political partner in running the Six Counties - at a price, of course, which is what Sinn Fein has paid - but only within the bounds of what is acceptable for the British capitalist class, which leaves very little leeway.

However, advocating "radical" methods of action, such as the "armed struggle", is one thing, but proposing policies which can bring a radical and real change to the lives of the working class ghettos, that is social change, is quite another. This is precisely what the Republicans, dissident or not, have never done, confining themselves, instead, to their narrow nationalist agenda (i.e. claiming that the fight against Britain's occupation should come first and any other issue should wait until this fight is won). And yet, if the present crisis raises a need, in Northern Ireland as much as anywhere else, it is the need for social change, the need to get rid of a capitalist system which is so conspicuously bankrupt and incapable of catering for the working population and the need to unite all the forces available to do just that, across the sectarian divisions in the North, across the border with the Republic and, why not, even further afield, across the Irish channel, against the criminal parasitism of British and Irish capital!