Ever since the so-called "Good Friday agreement", in 1998, Northern Ireland has been Blair's favourite trump card, for use whenever he has to try to revamp Labour's image. It is no wonder, therefore, that given the disastrous consequences of his criminal policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention his support for Israel's bombing of Lebanon, that Blair should try, once again, to pull Northern Ireland out of his conjurer's hat. This seems to be one of the reasons which has led the government to initiate the process leading to its announcement of what it calls the "St Andrews agreement", on 14 October.
Admittedly, this is probably not the only reason. Since the suspension of the Northern Irish devolved institutions, in October 2002, as a result of the Unionist politicians' overbidding, the process of political normalisation has been in suspended animation.
Over these four years, London has bought a measure of peace and quiet to the ranks of the Northern Irish politicians, with generous salaries and perks. "Reconstruction funds" have been channelled towards the various parties and factions, thereby helping them to consolidate their influence.
However, whenever the government has tried to re-start the negotiation process in order to bring the devolved institutions back into operation, it has come up against the same posturing and overbidding by the Unionist parties. From its first attempt - and failure - to reconvene the Assembly, in October 2003, to the collapse of the Leeds Castle talks, in September 2004, and its second failed attempt to reconvene the Assembly in May this year, the government has been constantly ridiculed - especially in Northern Ireland itself, where resorting to damage limitation exercises was far more difficult than in Britain.
An "agreement"? Not yet, by far.
It was predictable, therefore, that Blair should announce that an agreement had been reached in talks held at St Andrews castle, in Scotland, between representatives of the British and Irish governments and the main Northern Irish political parties. To make the announcement even more dramatic, Labour's spin doctors had even timed it so that it coincided with the 4th anniversary of the suspension of the devolved institutions.
Two days later, in a lengthy statement to the Commons, Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain boasted: "We were able to defy the sceptics and the cynics, and secure the St Andrews agreement" - an agreement which, according to Hain, "opens a new dawn for democracy in Northern Ireland."
Well, maybe. Except that, as Hain himself had to admit by the end of his pompous speech, this "new dawn" will only happen "on the basis that the St Andrews agreement is endorsed." In other words, this is a document which was put on the table jointly by London and Dublin, amended by the participants in the talks over 48 hours of protracted horse-trading, without any of the parties involved actually agreeing to the final result of their own labour.
In short, it is not an agreement. But, in an attempt to avoid another humiliation of the kind which followed the 2004 Kent Castle talks, the government has chosen, this time round, to put the cart before the horse and declare victory in advance!
It is true that there is another difference with the Kent Castle talks. This time, Blair is giving the protagonists until November 10th to make up their minds, endorse in principle the general lines of the document and agree on the nomination of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister (probably the DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness). Then there will be another deadline - set on November 24th - by which time the parties will have to have agreed on a functioning so-called "shadow" Executive, operating on the basis of the principles outlined in the St Andrews document, with, possibly, some technical amendments agreed in the meantime by two commissions bringing together representatives of the parties. Eventually, if all goes according to plan, a referendum or a new Assembly election will be held next February and permanent devolved institutions will take over by next March.
If these deadlines are not met, the government threatens to impose joint British-Irish direct rule over Northern Ireland - meaning that the devolved institutions would not be just suspended, but disbanded, and many Northern Irish politicians would lose the bounty of London's regular cheques.
Whether this "strong arm" tactic will be successful remains to be seen. It certainly targets the Achilles heel of Northern Irish politicians. But whether Blair's government will have the nerve to resist the likely blackmail of the DUP - something it has never done so far - is another question.
However, this means that the only remaining "success" contained in Hain's speech that has some reality, at this point in time in any case, is that, said Hain, "for the first time ever, the head of the DUP (..) met the Catholic Primate of Ireland, Archbishop Brady."
A "success" indeed, but what a fitting symbol! On one side, Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP, who founded his own fundamentalist Presbyterian sect - the "Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster" - because the existing ones where not reactionary enough for him (and probably, also, because he wanted to be the only pope in his chapel). On the other side, the head of the Irish Catholic Church, one of the most reactionary in Europe, who is, as such, the driving force behind the subjection of women to second rate citizen status in the Republic. That these two arch-reactionaries should be propped up by Hain to share the stage set up by Labour for the political settlement in Northern Ireland, says a lot about the promised "new dawn for democracy"!
A compendium of contradictions
The various documents which paved the way for the "peace process", from the "framework agreement" of the 1980s to the "Good Friday agreement", were all written in such legalistic mumbo-jumbo, that they were virtually incomprehensible for anyone who bothered to try to read them. In this respect at least, the St Andrews document reaches new heights.
Indeed, it is a mind-boggling piece of legal work, which provides for the setting up (or revamping) of multiple bodies while trying to enact the most tortuous procedures. However, all of this is done in such vague terms, that it is open to almost every possible interpretation.
Of course, this only reflects the contradictory nature of the "peace process", which is an attempt to catch reluctant warring factions in paper hoops and, somehow, force them into sharing power and working together within the framework of devolved institutions.
Some of its provisions verge on the ridiculous. For instance, the St Andrews document provides for a "pledge of office" taken by all members of the Executive, whereby they will have to commit themselves... to do their jobs. In other words, this pledge will commit the future ministers to attend Executive meetings. It will also commit them to attend (or be represented) on various bodies, whether they be "North-South" (involving deputies from both the North's and the Republic's assemblies) or "East-West" (involving British MPs as well). Finally it commits the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to share responsibilities in their roles.
Of course, this "pledge of office" (which can still be amended in future inter-party horse-trading) is designed to tie the hands of politicians who have been in the habit, so far, of staging walk outs and boycotts whenever they disliked something, regardless of the resulting paralysis for the institutions. But who can be naive (or hypocritical) enough to claim that people like Paisley and his DUP associates will feel bound by a piece of paper - even one that they have signed up to?
On a more serious note, another provision of the document spells out the limits of Hain's devolved "democracy". Indeed, the St Andrews document makes the Executive virtually unaccountable to the Assembly. Not only does it fail to compel the Executive to implement the Assembly's decisions. But it only provides for a very limited mechanism allowing the Assembly to refer back a ministerial decision to the Executive for re-examination - and even then, only if it concerns an "issue of public importance" (a catch-all phrase which may embrace everything or nothing) and only once. So that, if the Executive persists, or contests the "public importance" of the issue, it can get anything done regardless of any Assembly vote!
By ring-fencing the Executive from the Assembly, the St Andrews document is clearly trying to shield the devolved institutions from the politicking and overbidding which have paralysed the institutions for much of the time in which they were in operation. But, by the same token, this provides a golden justification for the rival factions to stage more walk-outs and resort to more arm-twisting and legal challenges.
In fact, the whole document bears the mark of this contradiction. On the one hand, it tries to put stringent limits on what can actually be done by the institutions. But, on the other hand, everything is formulated in the vaguest possible form which, in and of itself, probably reflects the degree of "agreement" to which London and Dublin thought they could get the Northern Irish parties to come - a very minimal degree indeed.
By the same token, the document's attempt to get the devolved institutions into working order, despite and against the factional politicking of the protagonists - mainly of Paisley's DUP, in fact - creates a minefield which will undoubtedly provide jobs-for-life to an army of "legal experts", while paving the way for unending power struggles within the institutions themselves and litigation outside, when all procedural recourse has been exhausted.
Police hand-cuffs for Sinn Fein
The main topic of the document and its main purpose, however, is to tie Sinn Fein's hands once and for all, to the institutions of the state.
So far, a convenient status quo on the issue of Sinn Fein's involvement in policing was maintained. The government (and Unionist parties) insisted that as long as the IRA had not fully disarmed, Sinn Fein could not sit on the various bodies overseeing the operations of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland). And, because the idea of Sinn Fein's leaders sitting with the past torturers of Republican prisoners was by far the hardest bullet for Sinn Fein's supporters to bite, this situation fitted the designs of the Republican leadership.
However, this could only be a transitional situation, which the British state was bound to bring to an end at some point. Besides, Unionist politicians have constantly been using the IRA's continuing existence as a pretext for paralysing the power-sharing institutions. As to the Republican leaders, being responsible bourgeois politicians, they aspired to taking their full share of managerial responsibilities in the capitalist state, including in its security apparatus.
Today, twelve years on from the IRA's 1994 unilateral ceasefire, the British state no longer has any reason to tolerate the Republicans running the Catholic ghettos in the way they did over the past decades. By now, the Republicans have fulfilled their main task, from the point of view of the British and Irish ruling classes. Despite all the official rhetoric against the "men of violence", policing the nationalist and Catholic working class section of Northern Ireland was the IRA's part of the deal in the "peace process" and they delivered what they were expected to deliver. They have kept law and order in the working class Catholic ghettos. They have managed to avoid major splits in the Republican movement and convinced their supporters to abide by a settlement which will involve neither a united Ireland, nor even a measurable setback for the occupying British power.
Not only are the days when IRA units were of some use to the British state over, but it now wants the Republicans to underwrite wholeheartedly, a significantly strengthened repressive machinery in Northern Ireland and play a full part in its operation.
Indeed, the St Andrews document outlines the conditions in which all parties involved in the devolved institutions will have to take part in the Policing Board and so-called "District Policing Partnerships" - which, under the pretext of making the PSNI "accountable", are really designed to give it the endorsement of all political parties and "community" representatives.
In addition, the document provides for MI5 to be "embedded" in the PSNI at every level - thereby making Northern Ireland a laboratory for new policing methods hitherto unseen in Britain. Ironically, the pretext for this is... the need to fight "al-Qaeda and international terrorism" (could it be that bin Laden took refuge in West Belfast, after all?). The document goes into convoluted, but rather unconvincing details, to explain how, despite the new involvement of MI5, the PSNI will still be in control of everything, even though MI5 will, as always, be only accountable to London. It even spells out the future status of informers: MI5 and the PSNI will both be allowed to run their own "super-grasses" and "moles", without either of them interfering in the other's business.
In other words, Britain's military presence in Northern Ireland will have been reduced, but the presence of its other repressive apparatuses will be substantially increased. In fact, to drive this fact home, brand new headquarters are being built for the security services in Holywood.
Obviously none of the Unionist parties has anything to object to in this new setup which, to some extent at least, is designed to pre-empt any accusation on their part that London is "letting them down". For them, this is business as usual, especially as most of the senior officers of the PSNI come from the old Unionist establishment. And since a provision of the St Andrews document says explicitly that MI5 will be able to recruit former officers of the old RUC, the odds are that the top circles of the security services will be manned by the same kind of personnel.
As to the Republicans, this is the deal they are required to sign up to, in order to be admitted permanently into the ruling circles of the Six counties.
Sinn Fein's zealous endorsement
The prerequisite that the Republicans had to face before this latest stage of the negotiation process was yet another humiliation - when Blair announced the results of the 12th report issued by the International Monitoring Group (IMC) on the IRA's weapons decommissioning.
The fact that Blair chose October 4th to make this announcement was no coincidence: this was the 25th anniversary of the day when, having lost 10 of their comrades and gained nothing, Republican prisoners had to call off their hunger strike. The choice of date was clearly designed to underline the fact that the IRA was no longer what it used to be and had now been brought back to the fold, after being defeated. Hailing the IMC's report endorsing the IRA's statement that its armed campaign was over, Blair stated there was "now a consensus across all main players in the politics of Northern Ireland that change can only be brought about through persuasion and not through violence. (..) The IRA has done what we asked it to do and, while issues like policing remain to be solved, the door is now open to a final settlement." Such smug self-satisfaction on this bitter anniversary must have sent waves of anger down the spines of more than one Republican supporter across the North of Ireland. But it was part of the price to pay for the Republican leadership's political ambitions to get into Stormont.
Accordingly, at the meeting organised by Sinn Fein, at Belfast's posh Europa hotel, on the eve of the St Andrews talks, there was no trace of anger, but rather an atmosphere of exhilaration. The main banner in the meeting hall read "End British direct rule". There was no longer any question of opposing all British rule as such, nor any sight of the "Brits out" slogan which remains painted on so many walls across the North. In Sinn Fein's parlance, "End British direct rule" was merely another way of demanding joint responsibility for the Republican leadership in the devolved institutions which will enforce Britain's indirect rule. There was some truth in the statement made by Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, that "our support for policing and law and order is not a response to unionist demands." Indeed, it is primarily the expression of Sinn Fein's willingness to act as loyal trustees for the interests of capital - British and Irish.
That these issues remain contentious in the Republican movement and among its supporters, however, was highlighted by the increasingly high-profile given to long-standing, respected IRA figures to explain and endorse Gerry Adams' line.
So, in the aftermath of the St Andrews talks, Jim Gibney, one of the IRA's best-known veterans, indulged in a frantic show of enthusiasm in the columns of the Irish News, the most widely read newspaper among Northern Catholics: "It is a deal in waiting and what a deal it could be. The possibility of a new agreed Ireland waiting to be born. At its core Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness First and Deputy First Ministers - an amazing possibility. (..) It could be a Mandela-de Klerk moment waiting ratification; an Arafat-Rabin moment on the White House lawn with much better prospects. It could be a moment when 400 years of conflict and division between Planter and Gael recede to allow in a potentially fresh vista. (..) We may well have reached the point when the centuries of conflict and division can finally be put behind us."
But shouldn't the precedents set by South Africa and Palestine act, on the contrary, as warnings for the working class and poor of Northern Ireland that the deal in the making may turn out to be - and in fact already clearly appears as - a stitch-up at their expense? Leaving this rhetoric aside, surely an activist as experienced as Gibney knows what nonsense it is to claim that lining up the "Gael" behind Sinn Fein and the "Planter" behind Paisley, the arch-bigot, within the framework of conflict-ridden devolved institutions, can bring to an end the centuries of division in Northern Ireland? As the very best, this will only conceal these divisions in the political sphere under an institutional mantle. But they will still be brewing on the ground, entrenched by the very sectarian nature of the political settlement and the political parties which are in charge of implementing it - that is, until they cause another explosion.
Other IRA figures are basing their endorsements of St Andrews on arguments designed to strike closer to hearts and minds in the ghettos. So, writing on 19 October for the West-Belfast weekly Andersonstown News, IRA veteran Phil McCullough described the various stages of the negotiation process, including the outcome of the St Andrews talks as "damned hard, bitter pills to swallow." But, added McCullough, "I do sincerely believe that the objectives of ending partition are more achievable now than at any time in my 40 years of struggle. Do I believe that our engagement in Stormont negates that? No, I see it purely as a vehicle of convenience for my goals. The ever-increasing electoral support of Sinn Fein in the whole island of Ireland vindicates that position."
This is, of course, nothing but the old policy, initiated at the time of the prisoners' hunger strike, with the election of hunger striker Bobby Sands as MP for Fermanagh and Tyrone. It is based on the idea that by winning the leading position on the Catholic side in the North - which it has, since 2003 - and then winning a comparable position in the Republic - which it is nowhere near having achieved - eventually, Sinn Fein will be able to "legislate" the end of partition. Even then, no such legal change will become reality unless it is agreed by the British state, on its own terms. But long before reaching such a stage, Sinn Fein will have to turn itself into a subservient agent of the British state in the North - which it is in the process of doing - and to win the recognition of the Irish bourgeoisie in the Republic, to the point of being able to replace Fianna Fail, just as it is in the process of replacing the SDLP in the North. However, whereas in the North, Sinn Fein had its control over the Catholic poor areas as a bargaining chip, in the Republic it has nothing similar.
Ultimately, the long-term aim of using reformist means to end partition depends entirely on the goodwill of the British and Irish capitalist classes. But then, being consistent nationalists who respect the capitalist system, what other perspective have the Republicans to offer to the masses of Northern Ireland?
However, what this means is that there will be many more "damned hard, bitter pills" for the working class to swallow, many more attacks to face, North and South, in Catholic as well as Protestant ghettos, and that workers will have no help whatsoever to expect from the Republican leadership.
After St Andrews
Indeed, there is one thing in the St Andrews document which does not seem to have caused the slightest controversy among the participants - its economic chapter.
This involves a whole raft of austerity measures, most of which have already started to be implemented. There is, of course, a whole programme of piecemeal privatisation - such as the so-called "Workplace 2010" which involves the selling off of 80 public services workplaces to private companies, with their workforce, and the leasing back of these buildings from the private sharks, at a comfortable profit for them, of course, but without the workforce. It also includes a range of PFI initiatives in the NHS and education comparable to what has been taking place in Britain - except that in Northern Ireland, such measures are relatively new.
Likewise, the on-going drive to turn water authorities into so-called GOCOs (Government-owned companies) capable of making a profit out of water bills, means a big additional expense for poor households and the prospect of privatisation, with sky-rocketing bills, when this drive is completed. So does the introduction of a system of local rates similar to Britain's council tax. Besides, in order to keep the Northern Irish bourgeoisie happy, these rates will be capped for both households and business facilities. By contrast, all those on low income, with the exception of pensioners, will have to pay at least 75% of their amount. This means that the poor, who are already worse off in Northern Ireland than in Britain, will be even worse off after the introduction of these rates.
Predictably, the St Andrews negotiators did not have much to say on measures which favour the better off, and particularly Northern Irish companies, at the expense of the working class. In fact, as was shown by their enthusiastic participation in a meeting called on 1st November by Gordon Brown, they were more concerned with what the perks of the deal would be for Northern Irish business. This time, there was no question of anyone boycotting or walking out of a meeting in which the parties were to be told how much "peace money" the British government was prepared to put on the table if the devolution terms were finally agreed. The £50bn over ten years figure, which was announced by the media means nothing, as it is not clear what comes over and above the current subsidies to Northern Ireland from London and the European Union. But it was certainly designed to whet the appetite of the Northern Irish capitalists and their political trustees.
Does all this mean that the Northern Irish parties are now closer to a deal? Maybe. After all, this time, in a consultation document circulated among its membership, the DUP warned that failure to meet the deadlines set by London will mean that "there will be a greater role for the government of the Republic of Ireland in the affairs of Northern Ireland." Negative as it may be in its form, this amounts, nonetheless, to the DUP saying that the lesser of two "evils" is to make a deal.
However, this has not stopped the DUP's overbidding and there is still plenty of room for more. On 17 October, for instance, Paisley made a spectacular U-turn, apparently tailor-made for the media, when he refused to sit in the same room as Gerry Adams, after having himself demanded a meeting at top-leadership level between the different parties.
Shortly after, a new charade began to develop, sparked off by Paisley's claim to have received written assurances from Blair that Sinn Fein would not be allowed to appoint a nominee for the Deputy First Minister post, on November 10th, unless it has already committed itself to abide by the provisions on policing contained in the St Andrews document - something that Sinn Fein cannot do without convening a special conference, which would be difficult at such short notice. And Blair's ambiguous failure to deny Paisley's claim only encouraged the DUP to shout louder. Of course, there remains room for Paisley and the DUP to refuse to sit in the Executive with this or that nominee of Sinn Fein, on grounds of past IRA involvement - which could be the case for Martin McGuinness, for instance.
Then there are what seem to be challenges to Paisley from within the DUP itself. For instance, DUP MEP, Jim Allister's demand that the IRA's "army council" should be "verifiably disbanded" before Sinn Fein is allowed to take part in the devolved institutions. How an underground body such as the IRA's army council can be "verifiably disbanded" is anyone's guess. But then again, what may, any demagogic demand is as good as another!
In any case, none of this comes as a surprise. And one can only predict that the long series of crises, blackmail, overbidding and politicking involved in the "peace process" right from the beginning, is just a foretaste of what devolution will be. There is definitely nothing that the working class can expect to gain from the future devolution has to offer Northern Ireland - if it happens at all.
In fact, it is worth remembering the ironic words of the Irish socialist activist James Connolly, back in 1899: "After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won't touch socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you don't pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic. Now, isn't that worth fighting for?" This prophecy was proved right in the Republic, after the 1921 partition. Today, if devolution takes root, it will prove right again, only the green uniforms will be replaced with the hybrid version worn by the PSNI, the Crown will still be there, and the warrant will be stamped with the arms of the Stormont administration. The only difference will be, possibly, that police officers may know more about Gaelic and Ulster Scot culture, thanks to the funding provided by the "peace money".
But what will remain necessary is the all-Ireland workers' party that Connolly did not have time to build before being murdered by the British army.