Stalemate in Northern Ireland

As predictable as a law of physics, when government is set up in Northern Ireland, we can be fairly sure that it will come down again. For the fourth time, that which the masters at Westminster have established, they, without any democratic input from the people of Northern Ireland, have disempowered. That may have been the traditional problem in Ireland when Britain had a strategic interest in maintaining political domination; republicans may say that is still the case. But it is not. It is the extremes of Unionism and Republicanism that have forced a reluctant British government to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly, even if the obvious British hegemony that permits that suspension demonstrates the undemocratic nature of Northern Ireland politics.

Stormont – shut again

The IRA cease-fire and the partial cease-fires of some of the protestant paramilitary organisations, is the most broadly welcomed result of the so-called peace process. There are still sectarian shootings, pipe bombings and arson attacks mainly from protestant paramilitary organisations like the UDA and LVF, neither of which succeeded in establishing a political base with the electorate. The intense urban warfare, however, carried on by the Provisional IRA is no more and the political experiences of the last four or five years make it highly unlikely that there could be a return to that kind of struggle.

The complex strategy that underwrites the Sinn Fein plans for its future development in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic, is inextricably linked to the progress of the “peace process” in the north. Equally, their erstwhile enemies of the Ulster Unionist Party have, in the main, accepted that the only option open to them is power-sharing with nationalists (which includes republicans). The British government, with the active collusion of the Irish government, has made this a condition of devolved government and the more pragmatic Unionists now realise, as do some of their republican opponents, that violence and counter-violence is futile and desperately harmful to the generality of interests within the province.

Given this consensus, it is fair to ask why the Unionists, by withdrawing from the power-sharing Executive or threatening to withdraw, have caused the Westminster government to repeatedly, and reluctantly, suspend its preferred option. That question is given emphasis by the fact that it is generally accepted on all sides that the local constitutional assembly has proved markedly more efficient than the British ministers delegated by London to administer direct rule from London.

Sectarian nihilism
The answer is that forces outside the parties co-operating in the power-sharing government have imposed on those parties the need to make demands of each other which cannot be met or which, in being met, invite dangerous and serious consequences.

Trimble acted reluctantly and under severe pressure from Paisley’s miscalled Democratic Unionists Party (DUP) and key figures within his own Party. For more than thirty years, the arch-bigot and fundamentalist firebrand, Ian Paisley, has resisted every attempt to bring politics in Northern Ireland out of the slough of religious bigotry. Ironically, his strategy of sectarian nihilism has proved completely counter-productive. Not only did he and his cohorts help to create a fecund climate for the reappearance of militant republicanism but almost all the things he has opposed have been strengthened by his opposition and are now facts of political life in Northern Ireland.

The indications now are that, despite Paisley himself and his backwoodsmen, more pragmatic, career politicians have emerged in the DUP. These are ambitious political careerists who realise that, while wrecking policies can win the hearts and votes of disillusioned protestants, there has to be a political arena where votes bring power and that that arena will not come without a willingness to share it with the representatives of the catholics.

Trimble is an astute and ambitious politician who has undergone such changes of political attitude as were needed to become the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. Once a hard-line protestant activist, a member of the neo-fascist Vanguard Party and, later with Paisley, a partner in a victory jig when the police were forcing an Orange march through a catholic area, he became a “moderate” when that was the price of becoming First Minister. Adams, too, has made the journey from hard-line, militant republicanism to “moderation”, along with the rest of the Sinn Fein leadership most of who were active in the IRA.However, while the path to “moderation”, or political acceptability, brings rewards and new friends, it also can turn old friends into new enemies, and this has been the experience of both Trimble and Adams. The indications are that the new partners in government, while sharing no personal attraction for one another, are both pragmatic enough and ambitious enough to espouse the concept of power-sharing.

On the other hand, the IRA has provided ammunition in abundance to the DUP and those of similar mind in Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party. As if to show its independence from Sinn Fein, the IRA continuous to carry on the most brutal forms of punishment beatings and shootings and now stand accused of carrying out spying activities against politicians with whom Sinn Fein is supposed to be working in partnership. Leaders of Unionism understandably object to Sinn Fein, who have ministerial roles in the Executive, having a private army behind them. The Sinn Fein leadership know that the realisation of their political strategy requires the standing down of the IRA. But loyalist murders of catholics and a campaign of anti-catholic violence, undoubtedly fuelled by the mistrust provoked by the DUP and renegade Unionist Party members, continues to give the IRA its necessary power base among catholics.

Adams and Sinn Fein too have their enemies within. Finding “treachery” in its leadership has been a frequently recurring problem with the various IRA organisations over the decades. The current crop of republican leaders are alive to the problem; there are already in existence two other IRA’s claiming the mantle of the genuine article. Both have made little impact but there is a real danger that precipitate action in relation to rapid disarmament or disbandment could give rise to a re-run of the absurdly futile IRA campaign of violence.

Macabre game
It is like a macabre game of political tennis but each side knows the other is not going to go away and that the old forms of Unionist domination have gone forever. Essentially the conflict is now centred on the struggle between the divided forces of Unionism. It is a struggle between self-interested politicians for protestant votes and a troublesome Sinn Fein is the instrument of each in that political struggle.

Eventually, in a month or two, or a year or two, they will patch up the old Good Friday Agreement or bring on a Mark 2 version. Socialists would be stupid if we did not hope that they end the tragedy of working class internecine warfare but, otherwise, we know that the old problems of our class will remain.

There is, however, one lesson to be drawn from 25 years of workers killing workers over the political issues thrown up by capitalism or its obedient instrument religion, a lesson that will become increasingly obvious as, hopefully, the years of conflict recede: the utter futility and irrelevance of such conflict to change or improve the class position of the working class.

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