Northern Ireland - From crisis to crisis, the wheeling and dealing goes on

Jul/Aug 1999

As we go to press, loyalists demonstrators and Orange Order marchers are gathered around Drumcree. And no-one can predict the consequences of the latest crisis in the Northern Ireland peace process. But if, as a result of this crisis, the loyalist paramilitaries and their bigoted associates feel confident enough to assert themselves at the expense of the catholic minority, the responsibility will lie fully and squarely with the phoney manoeuvring of the British government and the demagogical game played by Unionist politicians.

As it turns out, Blair miscalculated by thinking he could get Trimble's Ulster Unionists to endorse an agreement only days before the high point of the loyalist marching season. Instead, the UUP rejected the plan proposed on July 2nd by the Irish and British governments, for the setting up of the Northern Ireland Executive and cross-borders institutions included in the "Good Friday agreement". Far from having to use their weight in order to calm down the marching bigots and defend a new agreement, as Blair seem to have expected, Unionist politicians were able to show themselves at Drumcree and demonstrate their support to the marchers without risking accusations of having "sold out". Moreover, their rejection means that the peace process is now back to the stalemate in which it has been stuck for nearly 15 months.

The Ulster Unionist leadership has thus chosen to maintain its veto on Sinn Fein's participation in the future Northern Ireland Executive. They chose to give in to the overbidding of the loyalist paramilitaries, the Orange Order and Paisley's Democratic Unionists, rather than to confront it. Unlike with the "Good Friday agreement", they did not even go through the normal procedure of putting the governments' proposal - let alone recommending it - to the ruling council of their party. After the six days of round-the-clock negotiations which eventually produced the governments' plan, it took less than 24 hours for the UUP leader to rush out a statement throwing it out, showing that they had never had any intention of agreeing to it in the first place. By that time, a number of Ulster Unionist figures were already parading in front of TV cameras in Portadown and along the route of the so-called "Civil Rights" march, a sinister parody allegedly designed to assert the rights of the "victims" of republicanism - but in reality a vehicle for Paisley's hysterical anti-catholic demagogy.

Wheelings and dealings

There are other reasons, of course, for the UUP's rejection of the governments' plan, than their fear of the loyalists' overbidding. What is at stake for the UUP politicians in the shaping of the future devolved institutions is their ability to distribute favours and funds - to themselves and to others - which is what being in government is primarily about.

So far the UUP had the upper hand in that respect. They held dominant positions in most of the quangos which distribute the budget allocated to the province, including the most powerful among them, the Northern Ireland Office.

But once the "Good Friday agreement" comes fully into force, the "good old days" will be over for the UUP. Or at least, there will be some pressure on them to restrain their appetites and those of their masters in the protestant establishment, if only because some of their dealings will be liable to be scrutinised by rival politicians (and not only Sinn Fein, as the DUP may well be an even worse headache for the UUP).

However, the "Good Friday agreement" was only a framework, vague enough to get the signatures of all participants in last year's peace talks, but also to leave plenty of space for change if it was needed. In particular it did not cover in any details of the actual working procedures of the future Executive, the number of portfolios, nor that of the cross-border institutions. So, from the moment of the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly in June last year, the UUP leader and future Northern Ireland first minister, David Trimble, launched a long series of negotiations with the other main parties to get them to agree to a formula which would preserve its traditional dominant position over the province's institutions. And predictably this met with a lot of resistance from the other parties, which all had their own interests to defend.

Eventually, in December last year, an agreement was reached. The UUP agreed to increase the number of ministries to 10, so as to give Sinn Fein two portfolios. In exchange the SDLP agreed to reduce the number of cross-border institutions to 6, as the UUP demanded. But even then, the wheelings and dealings were not over. It took another two months for the Assembly to endorse the agreement, and even then with almost one third voting against.

By that time, there were only three weeks left before the latest deadline set by the British government for putting together the Executive. As it happens, this deadline was missed, just like many others before it, due to the UUP raising, once again, the question of the decommissioning of the IRA's weapons. Since then, several attempts have been made to try and resolve the stalemate. Eventually Blair set an "absolute deadline" for June 30th and another round of talks was organised for the end of June. Once again the deadline was missed, despite Blair and Ahern taking over the running of the talks. Finally the two governments, rather than declare a failure to agree, produced a statement including a timetable for the setting up of the Executive, asking all the participants to take it away and see if they could agree to it. The result was the UUP's rejection.

This time, however, the issue of arms decommissioning was not the only reason given by the UUP for throwing out the proposal. The other reason was a provision which said that should the IRA fail to implement the decommissioning schedule of its weapons, which is planned to be completed by May 2000, both the Executive and the Assembly would be automatically disbanded. Trimble complained that this was "grossly unfair" and that if the IRA "did not behave itself", there was no reason for the other parties to pay for it. In Trimble's view the clause should be changed, so that only Sinn Fein should be excluded but the institutions would be allowed to carry on.

It is not difficult to see how Trimble could use such a clause to his advantage. Indeed, the UUP never had any objection to taking part in devolved institutions. They would probably be perfectly happy to go ahead with the process as long as Sinn Fein was not involved. And if such a clause was indeed agreed, how long would it take for Trimble to find a new pretext to demand that this clause be triggered in order to exclude the Republicans?

Once again on decommissioning

The worn-out pretext used by Trimble's Ulster Unionists to reject the governments' plan - that the IRA should provide a "good enough" guarantee of its intention to decommission its weapons as a pre-condition to any agreement - is the same they have used, in one form or another, to stall the peace process ever since it was started under Major's Tory government.

Ironically, however, when Blair lured Unionist politicians with the prospect of full devolution and cushy jobs, during the negotiations leading up to the "Good Friday agreement", they forgot all about their flimsy excuse for a while. Only to return to it as soon as the process of setting up the Northern Ireland Assembly was set in motion and the promised cosy allowances for them to sit in Stormont twiddling their thumbs were guaranteed. And ever since, this same pretext has been used for endless prevarications and delays in the implementation of the "Good Friday agreement" that they had signed up to.

And yet, it is hard to imagine a more absurd excuse. In fact, what is a "good enough" guarantee in Trimble's book? There have been many variations with time. But the more the IRA has conceded on this issue, the more Sinn Fein leaders have repeated again and again their commitment to peace and their willingness to get the IRA to disarm, the more Trimble and his crowd have said this was not "good enough".

Whether during the first leg of the peace process, under the Tories, or during its second leg, since Blair came into office, British ministers have more or less always adapted to the UUP's changing mood on the decommissioning issue. In so doing, the British government was first of all seeking to maintain its privileged relationship with the UUP. But at the same time, they helped to provide an artificial focus for the fears of a whole layer of public opinion (mostly protestant, but also among the catholic middle- class). And this has helped considerably the UUP's tactic of playing on these fears in order to stall the peace process so as to bend it further to their own advantage.

The issue of decommissioning should have been, indeed, a non- issue in a place like Northern Ireland. After three decades of rampant civil war, the only real issue for most people was the assurance that weapons would no longer be used. As to weapons themselves, so many people have one (and often several) that it did not need to be seen as an issue in itself. The Royal Ulster Constabulary's own figures show that there are at present 135,000 legally held weapons in Northern Ireland, almost one for five adults. Of these, 90% are in the hands of the protestant majority. But there are probably also many in catholic hands, except that due to the impossibility of getting a permit (the RUC systematically turned down applications from catholic areas), most of these weapons were bought illegally on the black market.

Of course, there is the "heavy weaponry" - rocket launchers, hand grenades, submachine guns, etc.. which are in the IRA's hands. But these were never the main tools of terrorism. On the contrary, most terrorist attacks were carried out using handguns, rifles and small automatic weapons (which make up the bulk of the arsenal held by individuals in the province) and bomb equipment, which, for a number of years, have been made using... ordinary chemical fertilizer. One can only wonder why Trimble does not demand that Ireland reverts to strict organic farming! Maybe because his backers in the province's agro- business would not be very happy with it?

Besides, in terms of heavy weaponry, there is probably a lot more to decommission on the loyalist paramilitary side - the only groups to have carried on with sustained terrorist activities over the past year. Not surprisingly so. It is a well-documented fact that loyalist paramilitaries have had access to large stocks of army weapons thanks to their connections within the RUC and British army.

And what about the closet paramilitaries, those who boast of their "democratic" credentials today to justify their refusal to share portfolios on the Northern Ireland Executive with the "terrorists" of Sinn Fein? In the 80s, an organisation called Ulster Resistance bought a large quantity of weapons, thanks to a public subscription. So far, these weapons have never been recovered. Yet both Trimble and Paisley were leading figures in what amounted to an attempt at setting up a very large loyalist armed militia. Shouldn't they be ordered to secure the decommissioning of Ulster Resistance's weapons?

Given this context, and whatever one may think of the politics of the Republicans, their reluctance to give in to the British and Unionists demand on decommissioning is understandable, to say the least. In particular, one legitimate fear among Republican supporters is that once the IRA surrenders its weapons, the confidence of loyalist forces will be boosted, leading to provocative attacks against catholic areas. This is a real danger, which the British government conveniently glosses over - that is, assuming it is not part of its calculations, as a means to make the catholic ghettos more pliable.

Decommission the RUC and the British army!

Let us recall that, as internationalists, we have always made clear our criticisms of the Republicans' fundamental choices, their petty-bourgeois content and narrow nationalism. We always saw the strategy flowing from these choices (the "armed struggle") as a major obstacle for the Northern Ireland working class, the only force capable, in our view, of unravelling the mess left by centuries of British occupation in Ireland. Because this strategy left no space for the collective political intervention of the working class, this strategy was a major obstacle to any attempt to build up the class consciousness of the catholic ghetto youth in the early 70s, then the most politicised section of the Northern Ireland working class. At the time and in the subsequent period, it was a major obstacle to any attempt at developing a sense of class unity in Northern Ireland itself, between the protestant and catholic sections of the working class, and beyond, between the Northern Ireland working class and its counterparts in the Republic and in Britain.

Having said all that, we are not pacifists. We do not think that violence and weapons in today's society are a problem in and of themselves. We live in a violent world which is cluttered with weapons, whether we like it or not, and most of them are held by a tiny minority of exploiters. The real problem, therefore, is who, that is, which social force, controls these weapons and resorts to violence.

In Northern Ireland, there is nothing reassuring for the working class as a whole in the fact that the bulk of the province's weaponry is in the hands of the RUC and the British army - that is professional forces which are there to defend the interests of a capitalist class bent on screwing as much profit as possible from working people. Nor is there anything reassuring for the catholic population in being policed by the RUC - an overwhelmingly unionist force - and by the British army - which is not much better - all the more so as, in addition, both are known to get their dirty jobs done by arming loyalist gangs, as they have done time and again in the past.

There are two worlds in Northern Ireland and an enormous gap between them - one includes rich, mixed, upper middle-class suburbs such as that of South Belfast, the other includes catholic ghettos like Andersonstown and protestant ones like Tiger Bay.

Those living in the rich parts of the province hardly suffered from the "Troubles", which, for them, were seldom more than a minor inconvenience. For them terrorism is gone for good and they can again enjoy fully an easy life thanks to the sweat of the province's working population. Maybe for these people the on-going saga in Stormont mean something, if only because they will get their share of the spoils.

But for those in the ghettos, who suffered the brunt of the killings of the past decades, the "Troubles" are not over. For most of them there is only one future - living, somehow, between the odd casual job and the dole office. Terrorism remains a daily reality, with paramilitary gangs living as parasites of the ghettos' poverty. As to the politicians' games in Stormont, it simply belongs to a different world, very far away. For those in the ghettos, Northern Ireland is above all a police state. The helicopters hovering day and night above houses, the security checks, the harassment of the RUC, their arrogance and contempt for the poorest, etc... All of this is still the daily lot of the Northern Ireland ghettos - and it has to stop.

So if anything needs to be decommissioned in Northern Ireland, in the interest of all, working people and jobless, it is the RUC and the British army. The dismantling of the RUC and departure of British troops used to be central to the Republicans' agenda. But since their leaders have begun to climb up the ladder leading to ministerial positions, they have forgotten all about it, in the name of "realism". As to the "Good Friday agreement", it only paid lip service to the issue of the RUC by announcing the setting up of a "review body" - which, in British politics, is a familiar way of shelving an issue - and it did not even hint at a timetable for the departure of British troops. Yet, the word "peace" will mean nothing as long as the province's ghettos are treated like occupied territories.

4 July 1999