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Socialist Review, January 1994

Notes of the Month


Too high a price?

From Socialist Review, No. 171, January 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Blessed are the peacemakers. As John Major and the Irish premier, Albert Reynolds, stepped out into the media glare to announce the Downing Street declaration on Northern Ireland a week before Xmas, there seemed to be broad support for peace.

Support stretched from the British and Irish governments to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and James Molyneaux of the Official Unionists. Major and the British press were quick to turn on the Democratic Unionist leader, Ian Paisley, as he attacked the package.

Suddenly 26 years of violence seemed set to pass away. The unthinkable, an invitation to negotiations from the British government to Sinn Fein, was being proffered to Gerry Adams. Yet any examination of the carefully worded Downing Street declaration shows that it straddles a crucial fault line.

It offers Republicans ‘self-determination, freely and concurrently given, North and South’. This seems to be a nod towards Irish unity but at the same time the document goes out of its way to reaffirm the Unionist veto on any end to the partition of Ireland.

As Hugo Young wrote in The Guardian:

‘Whatever words Britain may have conceded to secure Dublin’s acquiescence, everyone knows that in fact Irish unity will not happen, because the North will not agree and will be defended by London in refusing to agree. likewise, everyone knows that union is no longer Dublin’s top priority, and perhaps has no priority at all.’

The most cynical clause is the one which states that the British government has ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. This is true at a certain level. In 1921 when Ireland was divided Northern Ireland seemed set to retain its successful industrial base centred on shipbuilding, heavy engineering and linen. Fifty years ago Northern Ireland’s ports and airfields were vital to control of the Atlantic. Today the economy is in tatters outpaced by the Irish Republic while Northern Ireland has no military value aside from being a training ground for the army.

But this clause is intended to portray Britain as piggy in the middle – trapped between two warring tribes. It masks the reality that Britain has administered Northern Ireland at every level since 1972 and that Britain has, in the absence of any other solution, been prepared to let the killings continue on the cynical basis that they almost entirely involve Irish men and women – Protestant and Catholic.

The new package centres on an attempt to isolate any resistance to the Northern Ireland state.

A Financial Times editorial noted: ‘a peace agreement that should command support from all but the most recalcitrant extremists can now be discerned’.

Gerry Adams and the Republican movement are faced with a dilemma. Having staked so much on getting negotiations with the British government, they can scarcely afford to turn their backs on this package even though it offers them little of substance. At best what seems to be on offer is a Northern Ireland administered by the Unionists and the SDLP under the umbrella of agreement between London and Dublin.

In 1973 a Tory government brokered the Sunningdale Agreement between the mainstream leadership of the Unionist Party, the ‘moderate’ nationalist SDLP and the rump Alliance Party, whereby they would share in a devolved government of Northern Ireland. Whitehall clearly hoped that this deal would isolate both the Republicans and the Loyalists. The deal collapsed.

What has changed in the two intervening decades?

Firstly, the once monolithic Unionist Party which ruled Northern Ireland as a one party state for half a century has shattered. Once the Unionist leader was invited each year for a round of golf or for a shoot on the grouse moor with the British prime minister. Now the Official Unionists are treated with disdain by the Tories and the British media while Ian Paisley’s utterances are met with a mixture of horror and ridicule.

Secondly, there is a deep uncertainty gripping the Protestant population. The realities of economic collapse have brought about profound changes at the top among the businessmen who once provided the mainstay of the Unionist Party. A Financial Times poll shows that 88 percent of Northern Ireland’s chief executives back talks with Sinn Fein while 32 percent are prepared to support an ‘acknowledgement of the aspiration of Irish unification’. This reflects growing economic links between the North and South within a European Union context.

This uncertainty shows in other ways. At Sunningdale, Ian Paisley would not even sit at the same table as the SDLP, let alone the Dublin government. Now he is in a much weaker position. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 which paved the way for this deal brought a lot of huff and puff from Paisley and his Loyalist allies, but in the event they failed to mobilise the mass protests and strikes that they threatened.

Amongst Protestant workers there has also been a shift. The economic collapse of Northern Ireland means that unemployment in areas like Belfast’s Glencairn estate stands at 70 percent. Out of the Shankill’s population of 27,000, there are 5,000 people claiming income support. Only 13 children who sat their 11 plus last year passed, while no school leavers went on to higher education.

There is a deep bitterness towards the British government. That bitterness can take two directions. Opinion polls have shown strengthened support for Loyalist paramilitaries. Yet that has coincided with a number of strikes against sectarian killings and threats in recent weeks.

On the Republican side, the Downing Street declaration represents the end of the road for the strategy which Gerry Adams has evolved. Republicans have had to accept that there will be no straightforward military victory over Britain. In 1974 the Provisional IRA declared ‘The Year Of Victory’. Such hopes led to profound disillusionment.

From its inception Republicanism has always combined the ballot and the bullet. The aim of the IRA’s campaign has increasingly been to force Britain to the negotiating table. Now Republicans are faced with a situation whereby if they cease the military struggle there will be little to differentiate them from the SDLP.

Entirely missing is any attempt by the Republicans to address the unemployment, the bad housing and lack of services which grip Northern Ireland, and which flow from Britain’s policy of divide and rule. Even if there can be an agreement these problems will remain. Neither Bill Clinton nor a recession-gripped EU is about to pour money into Northern Ireland.

Socialists welcome the possibility of peace. But we remain sceptical about the deal and critical of the Republican politics which have carried Gerry Adams down this road. The strikes and protests over sectarian killings show that there is a base for independent working class politics. It is up to socialists to argue that Irish workers, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether living in the North or South, can expect nothing from Reynolds or Major. Together they can fight to create a new Ireland free from poverty, repression and discrimination.

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