1980s >> 1986 >> no-978-february-1986

Much ado about nothing: The Anglo-Irish Agreement

By the time this article appears, the “Ulster Says No” election will have passed. The reader will know whether the alliance of “Democratic” and Official Unionists conned enough members of the working class. Did Sinn Fein — who don’t want Ulster to say “Yes” and are opposed to those who want it to say “No” —take enough votes to win a seat at Westminster (which they have refused to accept) or did they simply ensure that the SDLP — who want to say “Yes” — was defeated? Did the so-called Workers’ Party — more-or-less in the “Yes” camp — save all. or any, of its deposits? Did the Alliance Party — strong on unionism but tentatively in the “Yes” group — win a few more votes from imagined “middle-class” Unionists whose political stomachs are upset by the surfacing of anti-British violence in the Unionist camp? In the best tradition of soap operas, all this will have been revealed by now.


Generally, politicians take elections very seriously. It is true that, following an election, irrespective of which group of political con artists get elected, the condition of the great majority of people, the working class, remains unaffected. Be that as it may, before an election it is the business of politicians and their parties to convince us that the elections are about our problems; about unemployment, poverty, slums — indeed, about any of the mass of social ills that affect society in general and the working class in particular.


The fact that all these social ills continue to exist after countless elections and the implementation of the policies represented by all the political parties — somewhere, if not in Northern Ireland — clearly demonstrates the failure of conventional politics and politicians. Nevertheless, unless politicians wish their business to be reduced to the level of a beauty contest or a dog show, they have got to go through the motions of trying to convince us that their election or rejection has some relevance to our problems.


Not about facts
On the 17 December last, the Belfast Telegraph published Thatcher’s views on the Anglo-Irish Accord as given to its London correspondent. Her views are significant in one respect: they reveal that the whole exercise of the Anglo-Irish Accord is wholly unrelated to the facts of life of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. “We are dealing” said Thatcher, “not with facts, but with perceptions”.


It would be difficult to find a more contemptuous way of telling the working people of Northern Ireland that the purpose of the Anglo-Irish Accord is to kid them about the future. Here, straight from the mouth of the messiah of British capitalism is the message: the Accord is not concerned with facts — that is, with the realities of our lives. It is merely concerned with “perceptions” — that is, with the way we see things.


Of course Thatcher is right; the Accord, and the election it caused in Northern Ireland. is not about facts. It is not concerned with the fact that more than one in five people in Northern Ireland have no job or that, in some working class areas, a man with a job is a curiosity; it is not concerned with the fact that those who are working are paid, on average, some £20 a week less than workers in the rest of the UK or with the fact that wages in Northern Ireland are among the lowest in western Europe; it is not concerned with the fact that some 40 per cent of the population are wholly or partially dependent on social security payments in order to live or with the fact that slums and insanitary hovels are more prevalent in Northern Ireland than anywhere else within the EEC. Nor is it concerned with the fact that, if there was real peace in the province and all those currently engaged in jobs associated with the troubles were stood down, the miseries that are facts for the great majority of working people in Northern Ireland would be extended to many more people.


The Accord
The purpose of the Accord is. as Thatcher says, to make people in Northern Ireland see things differently. It establishes a Ministerial Conference under the joint chairmanship of the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs in which the two sovereign governments, the British and Irish, will be equally represented. Both sides will have an input into the Conference which may make recommendations to the British and, effectively, the Irish governments on matters related to Northern Ireland. The British government undertakes to give reasonable consideration to such recommendations but is not bound by the Accord to accept them. Within the Accord, the Irish government recognises the right of the majority within Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom and the British government recognises the right of the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland to identify without proscription or legal encumbrance with their “cultural” aspirations and to engage in nonviolent political activity to promote a united Ireland.


The Accord provides for the Conference to relinquish to the control of an elected Northern Ireland Assembly all or any of the matters within its competence providing that such an Assembly enjoys wide cross- community support — effectively, from catholics and protestants — and is desirous of taking over all or any of the matters within the brief of the Conference. In other words, should the local politicians reach a political accommodation that would allow them to establish a power-sharing Assembly and should that Assembly agree to deal with the matters presently within the consultative competence of the Conference, the latter is agreed to hand over such matters to the Assembly and. should all such matters be handed over, the Conference will become redundant.


Changing perceptions
How do the British and Irish governments see the Accord working? What perceptions do they wish to change and what effect would such change have in Northern Ireland? More importantly, especially since some Unionists and the loyalist paramilitaries have intimated that loyalists should, if necessary, be prepared to sacrifice their lives and freedom resisting it — what real difference will the Accord make to the lives of the working class?


It was hoped that the loyalists would accept the Accord, however reluctantly, because it contained the Irish government’s effective repudiation of its constitutional claim to jurisdiction over Northern Ireland. On the other hand, it is hoped that catholics and nationalists will see their interests protected by the Irish representatives within the Conference and would, accordingly, be more willing, or less unwilling, to identify with the Northern State and co-operate with the forces policing that state.


Given a degree of success in this direction. it is hoped that elements within the northern nationalists who support the IRA will increasingly withdraw their support. Not only would this retard the IRA’s capacity for waging terrorist warfare, it would also help to create a political climate in which the Northern and, more especially, Southern authorities could take the necessary steps to deal with terrorism. This, more than anything else, must be the desired purpose of the Accord; terrorism continues to destabilise authority both north and south of the border and, of course, the ever-present threat of bombings in Great Britain is a constant dread for the British authorities. The cost of maintaining security in both parts of Ireland is now astronomical and is especially damaging for an Irish government beset with persistent economic problems and a growing cash crisis.


The Northern Ireland problem, as far as the various authorities are concerned, is the IRA. In keeping with the naive logic of government, it is unnecessary to deal with the social realities behind political violence; a few cosmetic changes, a simple change in perceptions, and the terrorists will be isolated and banished. This is the why and the wherefore of the Accord; it has nothing to do with the problems of poverty, unemployment. slums or the frightening insecurity which bedevil working class life in the province — the very problems that fuel sectarianism. hatred and political violence.


According to the Accord makers an end. or even a substantial diminution, of IRA activity would be followed by a loss of influence on the part of the more extreme brands of Unionism. The currently enfeebled Official Unionists could regain the centre stage and. freed from the necessity of looking over their shoulders, these “moderates” would be able to do a power-sharing deal with the “moderate” nationalists. A power-sharing government could emerge in Northern Ireland, the Anglo-Irish Conference could be ended and the British and Irish governments allowed to return to the serious business of running a troubled capitalism in their respective territories.


In effect, the perceptions that Thatcher and Fitzgerald are concerned with changing the bigotry, hatred and patriotic rubbish that they wish to adjust — are those that their political forebears, together with the Ulster Unionists, developed out of the slime of Irish history. The perceptions of both Unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland the way the working class see things — was originally fashioned by the English authorities in the interests of English and Irish landlords in Ireland and was refined — if one can use such an expression for the deliberate promotion of hatred and division among the poor — during the 18th and 19th centuries. Later, the political representatives of a divided Irish capitalist class, Unionists, constitutional nationalists and Sinn Fein, developed that bigotry, hatred and patriotic rubbish as a weapon to promote the interests of the conflicting sides of Irish capitalism in the present century*. Now, with a united capitalist interest, north and south, the old slogans and shibboleths that form the present perceptions of the working class have become an expensive embarrassment. It is these, and only these, that the Accord hopes to adjust.


War of the big battalions
If a change in perceptions did result from the Accord and if these proved effective in ending violence and “normalising” politics in Northern Ireland, the World Socialist Party would acknowledge something that kept our fellow workers out of the cemeteries and the jails and. obviously, the difficult task of spreading our socialist image would be rendered easier without the shadow of the gunman official and unofficial — and in circumstances where less emotional bitterness prevailed. Unfortunately, perceptions are hard to change when the economic conditions that underpin them remain and grow stronger every day.


Nor are we impressed by the cynical deception behind the Accord and the contemptuous efforts of its authors to con workers into the belief that it has anything to do with the social realities of working class life.


Perhaps the most disgusting aspect of the Accord is its obvious intention, promoted by the Pentagon, to clear away the difficulties currently preventing the Irish government from becoming a strategically important member of the Western Alliance. It is a typical irony of capitalist authority that an alleged reform is set in the shadow of a grosser evil. Britain, America and Ireland may deplore a shabby tribal conflict in Northern Ireland but, because war is a persistent and glorified feature of capitalism, they will see no contradiction if part of the formula for ending that conflict is to bring Ireland into a war of the big battalions.


Seeing things the way they are
We can with absolute confidence predict the result of the elections as far as working people are concerned. Irrespective of who gets in or the size of their vote, and whether or not the elections have any bearing on the ultimate rejection or implementation of the Anglo-Irish Accord, life for the working class will remain the same. Our poverty, our unemployment. our slums and mean living will still be with us for these are the constant realities of capitalism however we may perceive it.


Richard Montague