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The End of the Peace Process?

Gerry Downing

DAVID TRIMBLE’S refusal to turn up for the opening of his own parliament may well spell the end of the Belfast Agreement. Sinn Féin negotiators have now been refused permission to take part in George Mitchell’s review in September by a stormy meeting of their árd comhairle, according to Niall O’Dowd in Ireland on Sunday (15 August). Trimble says the Agreement is "parked but not crashed". This is looking increasingly doubtful.

The issue of decommissioning is bogus. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) agreed to three changes in the text of the original confidential draft of the Belfast Agreement which demonstrated that they recognised that Sinn Féin could not deliver decommissioning. An article in Ireland on Sunday (15 August) by Ann Cadwallader shows that the original confidential draft proposed that decommissioning "is an indispensable part of the agreement". This was deleted. The draft proposed that the schemes developed by the international commission "represent a workable basis for achieving decommissioning’. The word "can’ was inserted before "represent", which Cadwallader observes is the same as "could’ in the context. The last change was to the sentence, "all participants undertake to work to achieve decommissioning within a fixed and limited period of (x years)". On the understanding that no party could deliver on this, the "fixed and limited period" was changed.

The dispute is not about decommissioning at all but about defending Unionist supremacy. Four closely related crises loomed for Trimble: the Patten Commission report on the RUC, the Criminal Justice Review Commission, the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and, worst of all, the near certainty that within a decade the Unionists will lose their majority in the north. Trimble could not take responsibility for implementing the Patten report or the Criminal Justice Review because this would certainly split the UUP and hand Paisley victory in the Unionist camp. He could not accept any half-honest assessment of Bloody Sunday (and half-honest would be crisis indeed). And how could the Unionists stomach the sight of a nationalist prime minister in Stormont? It is unthinkable for them, even if all nationalists agreed to renounce aspirations for a united Ireland forever. "Yes, but what about their children and grandchildren?" the Loyalists ask.

The crisis in Unionism is everywhere apparent. The management of Musgrave Park Hospital ordered the flying of the Union Jack to "mark the Battle of the Boyne" for the first time in recent memory in this mixed denomination hospital. Sectarian tensions on the ground are increasing as the prospect of getting "croppy" to lie down become more and more difficult each year.

According to the RUC itself, Loyalist marches increased from 1,731 in 1986 to 2,581 in 1995. There is no attempt at "parity" here. Nationalists are not allowed to march in Loyalist areas. Their marches went from 219 to 302 in the same period. The basic features of the Orange marches were again apparent over the weekend of 14-15 August. Peaceful protestors were attacked with the utmost brutality on the Lower Ormeau Road on the Saturday morning. This led directly to the violent confrontations in Derry at the Apprentice Boys’ march.

There have been almost a hundred sectarian attacks on nationalist premises over the past few months, all downplayed by the British media to highlight the benefits of "peace". Sectarian responses by the nationalists have increased, culminating in the call to "burn the Protestant shops" in Derry during the clashes on 14 August. This is a consequence of the depoliticisation of the struggle by Sinn Féin and the abandonment of the fight against the main enemy, British imperialism. Sinn Féin’s continual calls on Britain to force the Loyalists to be reasonable and abide by the Belfast Agreement encourage the nationalist poor to view imperialism as a potential ally and to misidentify Loyalist intransigence as the central problem.

The Loyalists now see the sole result of the long war as hampering their ability to discriminate effectively, and the Belfast Agreement as simply hastening the day when nationalists are in a majority. Queens University became so anti-discriminatory (relatively) that it is now a nationalist university, while increasing numbers of Protestant students are going to England and Scotland for education and not returning. More and more of the professions are becoming nationalist dominated. If the RUC was reformed to anything like a 50/50 divide, if the criminal justice system was reformed, and if blame was laid for Bloody Sunday, then how could the Protestant state for a Protestant people be maintained?

Voting patterns, which reflect demographic shifts, show big changes over the last twenty years. In the 1969 Stormont elections the Unionists got 67.4% of the vote. By the 1999 European parliamentary elections they were down to 53.4% and the nationalists got 46.6%. These 10 June European results are the most ominous figures ever. Politics has really been reduced to a sectarian head-count by the nature of the Belfast Agreement. The percentages were calculated after the elimination of the four minor candidates and the redistribution of their votes. This reveals the wholly reactionary nature of the settlement.

On the night of the election count when the Catholic vote (and that unfortunately is what it has now become) passes 50%, the outraged neo-fascist Loyalist gangs will begin ethnic cleansing in earnest. That could come within five years. This is the inevitable outcome of accepting, compromising with and legitimising reaction for the sake of "peace".

The logic of this movement is undoubtedly towards ethnic cleansing. Already nationalists are congregating west of the Bann, and Loyalists to the east and north of Belfast. Belfast itself cannot be peacefully divided, hence the intensifying of Loyalist sectarian attacks in the south and north of the city. The world-wide neoliberal offensive of imperialism, which involves the imposition of a formal bourgeois democracy reduced to sectarian head-counts, has had a terrible consequence in ex-Yugoslavia and its logic is working its way through in the north of Ireland also.

Yet the Orange capitalists hanker for a bigger share of the 26-county Celtic Tiger as the boom goes on south of the border. The brutal nature of this boom was spelled out in the United Nations Human Development report. The south of Ireland was second only to the USA in the industrialised world in levels of poverty (with Britain a close third – incredibly, Britain’s child mortality rate is now the worst in industrialised Europe, close to Albania’s). Here the secret of the ’90s capitalist boom is starkly revealed. The rich and powerful multi-national corporations are hoovering the wealth of the entire world into their coffers. The three richest men in the world now own more than the 600 million poorest people. Since the Thatcher/Regan period the economic and political strategy of the world’s ruling class has been to advance by increasing this terrible inequality. In the south of Ireland, 26% of the population bought shares in the flotation of Telecom Éireann but 23% are semi-illiterate, so they could not even fill out the application forms even if they did have the money. This is what is supposed to attract the poorest of the Loyalist working class. It can never do so.

The marginalising and ridiculing of those on the left, like Bernadette McAliskey, who oppose the Agreement has made life very difficult on the ground for principled anti-imperialists seeking to organise resistance to the peace process. A Republican Congress is still the only clear perspective that can draw the various opponents of the Agreement together to hammer out a common strategy of opposition. British unconditional withdrawal must top the agenda of this movement. It must reject the individual terror tactics of the elitist "active service units" of the IRA and turn to mobilising the working class and poor against imperialism and its allies. Only a revolutionary programme can draw the best of the Loyalists away from Unionist reaction and towards a socialist united Ireland, a Workers’ Republic. Only Europe-wide and worldwide co-operation of the working class can counter the divide and rule tactics of the international capitalists. For that to begin, Trotskyists on the ground must fight for this orientation whilst providing a way forward in every struggle.

From What Next? No.14 1999