Issue 179 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

Get out of my sight!

Ireland: what price peace?

Has peace come to Northern Ireland at last? Eamonn McCann and Goretti Horgan report from Derry and explain who benefits from the IRA ceasefire and look to a different solution

The verdict of the Irish media on the IRA ceasefire was virtually unanimous: the gun has been taken out of Irish politics. It's not true, of course.

There are still guns on the streets here, still men in uniform eyeing you along their rifle sights as you walk past. The RUC and the British army are still stopping and searching, still harassing young people, even still carrying out house searches. But, Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew tells us, the security forces have responded to the ceasefire--the soldiers now wear berets instead of helmets when they're on patrol...

Still, most working class people here greeted the ceasefire with a sense of relief. For people in Catholic areas, there was also a sense of release, from a burden which many had found harder to bear than they'd been able easily to acknowledge. Some may have been celebrating a step towards freedom which they believed had been won by the armed struggle, but there was also celebration of freedom from the armed struggle.

The anti-IRA propaganda which has passed for news coverage in much of the media the past 20 years and more has involved the demonisation not just of IRA activists but of the communities in which the IRA was rooted. 'IRA supporters' have been presented as having minds of dark malice which brighten only with glee at somebody on 'the other side' suffering, which is very far from the truth.

For the people of places like the Falls, the Bogside or Ardoyne, the waging of the armed struggle in their midst has meant tension and danger, fear of being harassed and, if they are parents, of their children being harassed and reacting to the harassment by joining the IRA and running the real risk of death or desperately long sentences in prison. So the first reaction to the ceasefire was heartfelt relief. That, as much as a sense of being on the way to some hazily defined 'victory', lay behind the euphoric crowd scenes which greeted the ceasefire announcement. Support for the IRA has been a more complicated and ambivalent and in conventional terms more decent phenomenon than is frequently suggested.

It's also the case that--while there are vicious little bastards everywhere and people on the Falls and in the Bogside who in their own minds have reduced Protestants to an abstraction and who may even have reckoned that the Provos were too 'soft' in their targeting--many of the people who have supported the IRA have had a struggle within themselves when cruel things have been done, as it were, on their behalf.

Few, if any, welcomed the Enniskillen atrocity, the Shankill bomb or the individual killings of Protestants with some unremarkable association with the RUC or British Army. Many who hated this infliction of grief on decent people nevertheless couldn't bring themselves to join in the instant denunciations of media moralists who had no problem with political killings in other contexts.

The IRA was, and is, generated from within the Catholic working class community, precisely by the pressures the community was put under. There was a sort of duty placed upon people by that consideration which has now been lifted, and they walk with a lighter step.

There are some, and they are right, who have doubts about what is on offer in return, but no powerful faction emerged to argue that continuation of armed action was the best way to win more. That reflected another emerging element in Catholic working class attitudes--the feeling that the armed struggle had become counter-productive to the interests of the community in whose name it was being waged.

The Republican leadership's alternative 'unarmed strategy' is based on an alliance with the SDLP, the Dublin government (particularly the Fianna Fail element of it) and the Irish-American lobby around Clinton to which Sinn Fein has been promised direct access. This is an impressive line up in terms of establishment political clout, and the Republicans affect confidence that it can push the nationalist cause ahead. But it is a coalition which can only hold together within the confines of a conservative agenda, and that's already been reflected in small but not insignificant adjustments in Republican perspectives.

When the American ambassador to Dublin, Joan Kennedy Smith, visited Derry some months ago local Republicans were instructed not to join in any protests against US imperialism in Somalia and threats to bomb Bosnia. And nowadays, when elected Sinn Fein representatives talk about the Coalition government in the South, it's not to castigate Labour for being in league with the right wing Fianna Fail party but to predict, not entirely tongue in cheek, that the next Coalition could be between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein.

So far, the Dublin government has done better out of the 'peace process' than anyone else. Commentators who have argued that Reynolds was moving dangerously fast in inviting Adams to meet him within a week of the ceasefire and then authorising a meeting between government officials and a Sinn Fein delegation a week later are missing the point or contriving to confuse it. Reynolds wanted Adams into Government Buildings without any delay so as to have it publicly made clear that Sinn Fein now accepts that authority of the Dublin government. He knows what an enormous move away from Republican orthodoxy this is.

It is also clear that the continued goodwill of what we might call 'official Irish America'--Kennedy, Moynihan, Bruce Morrison--towards the Republican movement is now effectively conditional on the Republicans staying on side with Reynolds. Visas to the US for Republicans, and access to centres of power in the US, are essentially in Reynolds's gift. The Provos have been put on their best behaviour and Albert Reynolds is to be the judge of their behaviour.

This is not to suggest that rank and file Republicans here would accept instructions from Reynolds on how to campaign on a number of issues most immediate to them; on nationalist rights within the North, border roads, harassment or miscarriages of justice.

But the Fianna Fail leader must be confident that if it ever comes to a crunch, he has the whip hand. He could snatch away from them in an instant all, or almost all, that they have gained in terms of their political standing and international credibility. This may not be the path rank and file Republicans want to take, or believe they are taking, but for a certainty it is the path Reynolds thinks he has enticed them along, and he is determined they won't stray easily off the path.

This is what Reynolds, a millionaire businessman with a well-earned reputation for shiftiness, will have meant when he said that the Republican ceasefire and the political realignment it prompted was 'the pinnacle of my career'. He was referring not to the achievement of 'peace' but to his success where his Fianna Fail predecessors de Valera, Lemass, Lynch and Haughey had all failed--in bringing Sinn Fein and the IRA to an acceptance of the legitimacy of the Southern state and the consequent right of the government of the state to be seen as the 'official' leadership of all Irish nationalists, North and South. In historical terms this is a real gain for the Southern state and its government. And in the process, the international standing of the Dublin government--the fact, for example, that Washington now tilts towards Dublin rather than London in determining policy towards the North--has been significantly boosted. It marks the biggest gain anyone has so far made from the Northern Troubles.

The nationalist politics of the Republican movement, putting class questions on the long finger until the 'national question' is resolved, made this inevitable. Within the limits of nationalism the choice facing the overwhelmingly working class Republican constituency, was between a continuation of the armed struggle and an all class alliance under the leadership of the Dublin government.

Given the dominance of nationalist ideas within the Catholic working class it was predictable that in the immediate euphoric aftermath of the ceasefire announcement it would be hard to find an audience for advocacy of any alternative to this alliance. But we live in fast changing times, and already there's an undertow of uneasiness about where we are headed, and a dawning realisation that the prizes which were promised if 'the violence' was called off may be longer in coming than was anticipated.

This is true even in strictly nationalist terms. The Reynolds government may feel able to take a tougher line with London, but it is not after conflict with the British but an enhanced role in the North in partnership with the British. Reynolds, in a recent interview with the Observer made it plain that he didn't foresee a united Ireland for a generation at least.

Martin McGuinness expressed himself 'surprised and disappointed' at this approach. He would have been disappointed, naturally. But he shouldn't have been surprised.

A slogan for our times
A slogan for our times

International kudos apart, the big bonus for Dublin is that the North, if the 'peace process' were to come to full fruition, will pose no threat to the South. As little as ten years ago virtually everyone who wanted an end to the sectarian state up here was at pains to explain that they were not out to extend the remit of the South across the whole island, that, on the contrary, what was wanted was a new Ireland altogether, fundamentally different from society as it stood on the other side of the border. Generally speaking, those in the South who wanted to get to grips with the North were also involved in campaigning for radical social change within the South. But in the present 'process' Southern engagement with the North is controlled precisely by the Southern establishment. No wonder the mainstream Southern media, including elements bitterly hostile to Reynolds across a range of other issues, are now almost embarrassing in their support for him on the North. A Nobel Prize indeed! 'Man of history' indeed!

Putting the dismantling of the Northern state in the context of fundamental transformation of the whole island may have cut little ice with most Protestant workers over the past 20 years, but at least it focused attention on the social content of the society which was envisaged as emerging from the Troubles. It put the Falls in a position, potentially anyway, to discuss with the Shankill what sort of society might suit both. But that's right off the agenda of the process we are now going through. It's taken for granted that what suits one community will discommode the other.

The rioting on Protestant working class streets in Belfast reveals that many there see it this way, too. To be sure, there have been Loyalist paramilitaries stirring the violence up, motivated by murderous hatred of Catholics. But there's also the fact that the Protestant working class has been deserted by Britain--and has been told, almost in so many words, that as a result things will get worse for them, not better, especially as compared with the Catholics.

All this fits in with what the British ruling class wants. Britain wants out of its present entanglement with the North. It wants an end to the opprobrium it experiences worldwide over censorship, shoot to kill, the endless miscarriages of justice and so on. It wants to cut back on the huge subvention to the North. But it is at one with Reynolds in not wanting out now. It will be happy to work with its Southern Irish counterpart in devising a form of power sharing in the short term.

Post Office workers demonstrate in Belfast against privatisation
Post Office workers demonstrate in Belfast against privatisation

Within the North a settlement on these lines will represent advance mainly for the middle classes, particularly the growing Catholic middle class whose political ambitions can find an outlet in a new Stormont assembly and its 'power-sharing' executive and whose 'sense of identity' will be recognised both in the all-Ireland dimension and in other measures which it will be no problem for the British to accept. Formal recognition of the Irish language, for example, will cost next to nothing, in monetary or any other terms.

Most of the talk of a 'peace dividend' has been effectively about a negative dividend. Economists are agreed that any money saved by the British government on security is unlikely to be kept here. And the money promised by Clinton and the EU for 'reconstruction' will go mainly to tourism and employment schemes which are notoriously poorly paid.

In this situation, the settlement envisaged will not end but institutionalise sectarianism. Catholic workers will continue to live on Catholic housing estates, Protestant workers on Protestant estates. Protestant workers' children will continue to go to Protestant schools, Catholic children to Catholic schools. And every decision taken by the new assembly will be judged on a sectarian basis.

There will be demands that every low paid job that US investment creates on the Falls is balanced by one on the Shankill, that every penny of 'aid' on one side is matched on the other. By the same token, politicians on each side will squabble about fair shares of suffering as cut backs and redundancies continue in existing employments and services. All this could happen 'peacefully', of course, but not only would it be a poor sort of peace for us to stumble into in the shadow of the mountain of misery which has accumulated over the past 25 years, it would be the peace of sectarian stalemate, and always with the potential to flare up into fighting again.

It doesn't have to be like this. There are other alternatives. Even today Catholic and Protestant workers do work side by side for the same goals. We do it every day in our offices, our factories, our hospitals. Cuts, privatisation, redundancies affect us all and if we fight back, we have to fight back together.

The way forward is to link these struggles to a campaign of mass opposition to the continued presence of the troops and the RUC. Over the past month Sinn Fein in the North has encouraged a 'return to the streets', marches on barracks and initiatives to open border roads sealed off by the British army for more than 20 years, and lively demonstrations outside watch towers and check points positioned to use working class communities as human shields. While there's been a certain element of cynicism in this--Sinn Fein had to offer its followers activity in order to win their support for the new strategy--any shift towards mass action is a welcome step forward. But a contradiction looms which the Republican movement will be unable to avoid. The street activity can be seen as a cover for political retreat. And the main perspective now is not for mass action anyway, but for consolidation of the alliance with establishment elements.

The new Republican buzz word, the demand on the placards at the demonstrations, is 'demilitarisation'--a vague term, but one which clearly falls short of what the mainly young people who have been mobilised have in mind, which is troops out now. Socialists have to explain that the pull back from that position is part and parcel of the alliance with Reynolds, and that the only way to press on with the demand for an unconditional British withdrawal and the dismantling of the Northern state is to reject the all class alliance and to link up instead with workers across both the divide in the North and the border.

This argument won't be won in the abstract. But it will become more winnable in the months to come than at any time in the last couple of decades, if it is advanced in the context of involvement in all the struggles of the working class here, both against the sectarian state and across the range of 'ordinary' class issues which confront workers here.

The choice facing the Falls is whether to link up with Reynolds at the cost of reining in the demand for an end to the Northern state, or to reach out to the Shankill while pressing on with the struggle for a socialist society across the whole island.

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