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Ireland: Britain's treacherous peace

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JOHN MAJOR failed to end the Irish war but he did begin the most serious peace offensive by the British state for many years. Major's attempt to produce a settlement was crippled, in part because of his government's dependency on the votes of the Ulster Unionist parties.

Tony Blair and his Northern Ireland minister Mo Mowlam, freed from such constraints, relaunched this offensive last summer in concert with Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail-dominated coalition government in Dublin. The IRA rewarded Blair's initiative, particularly his dropping of the demand for the decommissioning of weapons, with the announcement of a second total ceasefire in July 1997.

By December a delegation from Sinn Féin (SF) had visited Blair at Number 10. They came with attaché cases where previously their comrades in the IRA had come with mortar bombs.

The Unionists fumed at Blair's "capitulation to the terrorists", but the meeting, and SF leader Gerry Adams' description of it as a "good moment in history", seemed to point to real progress in the peace process. It appeared that where John Major had been attempting to manoeuvre the IRA into a total surrender Blair was prepared to negotiate a serious peace settlement.

The terms of that settlement were set out in the Framework Document of 1995, put forward by the British and Irish governments as a basis for resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland. In fact, the purpose of this document was to achieve Major's goal of an IRA surrender, but by different means. That is, the entire document was promised the introduction of sufficient reforms in the functioning of the sectarian statelet as to pull the sting of anti-unionist insurgency and disaffection, while leaving the current Unionist veto over the constitutional fate of the six counties intact.

The document's crucial promise to republicans was a North/South body with executive powers. In other words, it offered a partial all-Ireland governmental body. Its powers were left vague, deliberately; but the very offer of such a body meant that SF could claim it was a step towards their goal of a united Ireland.

On the other hand, the Unionists were promised a veto in order to keep them on board. The document met their demand for the creation of a Northern Ireland Assembly (albeit with power sharing arrangements) and insisted that "the current constitutional status of Northern Ireland [that is, its existence as part of the UK] will not change save with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, clearly expressed."

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 by Britain, against the democratically expressed will of the majority of the Irish people in the elections of 1918, who voted for a united Ireland. Britain acted to ensure the domination of the north east of the island by the minority of Protestants who happened to be a majority in those six counties.

At the time this Protestant-dominated enclave was the most industrially developed region and a valuable asset for Britain. Through maintaining it as part of the UK the British state could maintain a foothold in Ireland, continue to reap profits and exercise domination over the Republic.

Of course, this was undemocratic. Not only was the statelet of Northern Ireland created against the will of the majority, it was created by terrorising the nationalist population in the six counties into submission. Catholics and even Protestant anti-unionists were killed in their hundreds.

Thousands were forcibly driven from their jobs and burnt out of their homes. A sectarian state emerged, based on the rule of an artificially created Protestant "majority". As the first prime minister of "Ulster" (which now comprised only six of the nine counties of the old Ulster in order to ensure a Protestant majority!) said:

"I have always said I am an Orangeman first, a politician and a member of Parliament afterwards. All that I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant state."

The result of this historic abortion of democracy in Ireland was brutal oppression for the nationalist minority. They suffered state terror, discrimination in jobs and housing and, no matter how they voted, were denied any say in political life. They were an imprisoned minority. And eventually they revolted against their oppression.

Their revolt led to the modern Provisional IRA. It led the British state to send in its troops to underpin Protestant rule. The inability of the British to defeat that revolt by armed force has ushered in the current peace process. But if the Protestant veto is maintained why have SF accepted the Framework document as the basis for a settlement? It is not just because of the promise of an all-Ireland executive body. It is primarily because their own strategy for driving Britain out of Ireland has failed.

The IRA, and their political counterparts in SF, began the struggle against Britain in the belief that an urban guerrilla war could secure victory. As the struggle evolved they became convinced that the efforts of a small group of volunteers, substituting itself for a mass struggle against the British occupation forces, could wear down the army and exhaust the British ruling class. The military struggle, an entirely justified tactic, increasingly became the sole form of struggle.

As a result, while the IRA maintained mass support throughout, they also came to realise that their military capacity was insufficient to drive out the British army. The best they achieved was a stalemate, but one that necessarily led their supporters to ask, where is it all leading to? War weariness was growing, fuelled by a series of tactical blunders (the Warrington and Shankill bombings etc.).

The answer to this stalemate situation was provided by the current Adams/McGuinness leadership. They never renounced the legitimacy of the IRA's armed struggle. Nor did they question the elevation of guerrilla war from a tactic into an overriding strategy. But they supplemented that struggle with a new political dimension. They set about building SF into an electoral machine that could garner enough support in the nationalist community to enable it to pressurise its constitutional counterpart, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) into a pan-nationalist alliance.

Having achieved this by the late 1980s, they then used their new relationship with the SDLP, embodied in the influential Hume-Adams agreement, to extend the pan-nationalist alliance to Dublin, specifically Fianna Fail, and the influential Irish-American lobby in Washington. Nurturing this alliance paid off: in the six counties with SF's growing electoral support and, internationally, with the growing recognition of the importance of involving SF in any peace settlement.

The invitation to Downing Street in December seemed the ultimate victory for this strategy. But the cost of this strategy suggests that the "victory" is hollow.

Not only has SF mirrored the IRA's elitism in the sphere of diplomacy - with the political leaders and negotiators rather than the mass base of support playing the decisive role - but they have relegated the goal of a united Ireland to the dim and distant future. It exists as part of SF's rhetoric and maximum programme but not as an operative objective. Instead, there is an effective acceptance of partition with the hope that an all Ireland inter-governmental body can eliminate its worst sectarian excesses.

The Republican leadership has rejected a class-based alternative to this strategy. This would have stressed a mobilisation of the nationalist community in a mass struggle against the British occupation and the sectarian state, combined with a working class programme that could mobilise the workers in the south against their bosses - instead of treating them as pan-nationalist allies. Such a programme would also have addressed exploitation in the six counties, with the hope of breaking sections of Protestant workers from their attachment to Unionism. SF have instead left themselves with only the maintenance of the "peace process" itself. SF president Mitchell McLaughlin summed it up:

"We won't be deflected from the peace project. There is no alternative to the present negotiations except to slip back into the abyss and that must not happen."
For the British this lowering of political sights has been an enormous boost, explaining their willingness not only to do business with the political representatives of the IRA but to offer concessions like the Bloody Sunday inquiry to enable SF to prove to its supporters that their strategy is yielding some results.

If the process results in a constitutional settlement short of the ending of partition, and is accepted by SF, it would mark the party's evolution from a revolutionary nationalist movement into a constitutional one, essentially indistinguishable from the treacherous SDLP.

If this development in the nationalist camp has encouraged London and Dublin into thinking that there is a real chance for a settlement based on the reform of the sectarian state, they can also take heart from the cracks that have appeared in the once monolithic Orange bloc. Sections of the working class and middle class who benefit most from the sectarian state's guarantee of privileges for Protestants are opposed to any concessions. They are represented by Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which is boycotting the talks altogether.

However, the continued participation in the talks of the main Unionist Party, David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), together with those parties linked to the Loyalist paramilitaries (the Ulster Democratic Party - temporarily expelled from the talks - and the Progressive Unionist Party) still encourages London and Dublin that a settlement remains possible.

For the UUP a settlement replacing the old model of the sectarian state that still enables its supporters to retain their economic benefits # albeit within the context of power-sharing - could prove acceptable. Likewise, the smaller parties, while resolutely opposed to ending partition, would be prepared to see reforms based on a power-sharing assembly.

The sticking point for these Unionists will be the powers of any all-Ireland bodies. Any apparent move towards Irish sovereignty over the affairs of the six counties will be opposed since it would threaten their veto. Anything merely cosmetic would be acceptable, even welcome, if it brought economic benefits to them and their supporters.

These factors point towards the possibility of a peaceful settlement, but the contradictions associated with partition and the threats posed by either its maintenance or abolition to the nationalists and unionists respectively, reveal the possibility of such a settlement being undermined.

The Protestant veto means that 42% of the statelet's population will continue to be subordinated to a minority within Ireland as a whole. And so long as partition exists this violation of democracy will fuel anger and carry the potential for the national question to re-emerge as a detonator for revolution even if a peace settlement does emerge from the current talks.

At the same time, if Britain were to undermine the Protestant veto and impose anything opening the door to a united Ireland, an extremely violent Protestant backlash is a real possibility.
The developments of the last month show how explosive this contradiction is. Whatever happens, one thing is clear - while the republicans surrender the revolutionary nationalist tradition and the counter-revolutionary Orange bloc splinters, the opportunity for building a socialist vanguard will increase. Its task will be the forging of a revolutionary communist party, based on a programme that fuses the solution to the class and national questions.

Loyalist veto alive and well
The possibility for a settlement is real. But so too is the possibility of renewed war. The events of the last month highlight just how possible.

Five months on from the second IRA ceasefire, the British state, with Blair at the helm, has continued to demonstrate a fundamental allegiance to the Unionists and their hostility to the nationalist community. Not a single significant concession has been given to the nationalists.

In place of demilitarisation, the British have used the ceasefire to refit and rebuild their military bases, particular in the border areas. The recent mistaken shooting of an RUC officer by a British soldier has been shrouded in secrecy. But it is well known in Northern Ireland that the soldier was part of a surveillance operation against the IRA.

The RUC, the bastion of Protestant sectarianism, carries out its daily routine of harassment in the nationalist communities. In December it fired 160 plastic bullets at a nationalist demonstration. It carries out regular stop and search actions against Catholics as well as house raids. At the same time its patrols pulled out just before the recent Loyalist assassinations of Catholics despite, in one instance, appearing to indicate that it had prior knowledge of a planned attack.

In the labour market Catholics are still two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than their Protestant counterparts. Indeed, the scandal of Belfast City Council has been left untouched by the British. The Unionist majority uses its position to block SF (which has the same number of seats as the UUP) from chairing any council committees and allows the SDLP to chair only one. The Unionists thereby guarantee sectarian control over patronage and job allocation.

A handful of prisoners of war have been repatriated but Britain, despite endlessly demanding confidence-building measures from SF, has not released a single prisoner.

The only "concession" was the creation of a so far untested Parades Commission. Even this is designed to defuse trouble rather than eliminate the annual orgy of Orange bigotry at the heart of the marching season.

In short, the British government has greeted the IRA ceasefire and the whole peace process as a means to push through its own agenda rather than address the concerns of the nationalists.

Notwithstanding this, the Unionist Parties have uniformly denounced any concessions and Dublin's interference into the affairs of "their" statelet. It was these supposed concessions - not the execution of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) leader, Billy Wright - that prompted the recent round of murderous attacks on Catholics.

Indeed, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) stressed that their shooting of Wright was in direct response to his own admission that he had orchestrated the murder of several Catholics in December last year. And Wright, as a paramilitary, knew the risks he was taking, as did Jim Guiney, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) commander executed by INLA last month.

The murder of nine Catholics by the UDA (or Ulster Freedom Fighters # a UDA flag of convenience) and LVF, working together, was not motivated by revenge. Its premise was outlined by Johnny Adair, one of the UDA leaders whom Mowlam visited in Long Kesh. The killings, he said, were "to terrorise the Catholics, the whole lot of them".

The illusory concessions to the nationalists served the purpose of raising the threat of a Protestant backlash, which in turn suited the UUP's respectable politicians - Trimble and Maginnis - at the negotiating able. They could point to this danger and demand that the peace talks accept their terms of reference or face a descent into violence and chaos.

The "respectable, non-violent" politicians were using the Loyalist paramilitaries as a bargaining counter. They were not worried that nine innocent people were killed and several others wounded. Indeed, while Maginnis informed Gerry Adams that he wouldn't speak to "fucking murderers" (i.e. the IRA), the same man visited Long Kesh to have a cosy chat with Loyalist murderers just after Christmas and then explained that the killings were an understandable consequence of . . . British concessions to the nationalists:

"If you look at what has happened over the last number of months, with concession after concession given to the Provisional IRA, it's not surprising that people become dispirited and say 'the only thing that works is violence'. Unfortunately the Secretary of State and her team have done nothing to contradict that notion."

He was echoed by the Church of Ireland Archbishop, Robin Eames, who excused the killings by referring to the "deep feeling of resentment" among Protestants at the concessions to the nationalists.

Yet until the announcement of the inquiry into Bloody Sunday there had not been a single substantial concession. And that inquiry was opposed 100% by Ken Maginnis and Trimble.

The reality behind all this talk of concessions was simple - the UUP and the other Unionist Parties are determined to block any settlement that creates an all-Ireland body with executive powers. They happily used the death squads to convince the British government of their intransigence on this question.

How did the British respond? Mowlam went to plead with the jailed Loyalist commanders. She said of the UFF statement declaring a ceasefire "I welcome that it appeared to indicate that there will be no further UFF involvement in terrorism for the present."

Contrast this with Mowlam's attitude to the IRA and you suddenly realise that Blair's declaration, two months into his administration, that he was a "Unionist" means just that. The IRA/SF are an enemy that he has to negotiate with. The Unionists and their terror gangs are, when all is said and done, allies in the fight to preserve the union.

At the height of Loyalist terror Blair caved in. The Protestant veto showed that it was alive and well. And Trimble, who unlike Gerry Adams and John Hume had been consulted by Blair throughout the drafting of the new proposals for a settlement, had the biggest grin on his bigoted face since his triumph at Drumcree in 1996.

SF were rewarded for their drift into constitutionality with the Heads of Agreement (HOA) document, put forward as the basis for negotiations, although a subsequent British/Irish paper maintained the idea of an all-Ireland executive body.

The HOA replaces the Framework proposal with the proposal for a council of the British Isles (a Unionist demand). It assures the Protestants that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be the decisive power in the six counties and representatives from it will not be required to serve on the Cross Border Council. No wonder David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party declared:

"If there is a full stop or comma changed in that document before negotiations, we will be out. It will be finished."

The voice of progressive Unionism? The voice of democracy? No. The voice of Orange supremacism delighted that it can still whip the British into line when it has to.

While the HOA has not derailed the peace talks entirely - despite SF's rejection of it and the IRA's statement warning that it could never be accepted as the basis for a settlement - it has served an important purpose: it has reassured the Unionists that Britain is still on their side.

Anti-unionists should draw a lesson from all of this. Concessions to the British and the Unionists will not produce a progressive and just solution to the national struggle in Ireland. They will only lead to the nationalists being forced into ever greater concessions. Dublin - which agreed to the HOA - is a profoundly unreliable ally, just as it has been since the establishment of the Republic.

Against both the HOA and the Framework document, revolutionaries, republicans and all consistent democrats in Britain and Ireland should rally to the fight to end the scandal of partition once and for all. As we move closer to the May deadline and the referendums that will follow, we should counterpose to the pro-imperialist settlement the demands for:

* The immediate withdrawal of all British troops from Northern Ireland
* The disbanding of the RUC and the Royal Irish Rangers
* The immediate release of all republican Prisoners of War
* The right of self determination for Ireland as a whole
* The convening of an all Ireland constituency assembly to decide on any constitutional proposals arising from the talks
* For a 32 county socialist republic.