Issue 193 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review

North South divide

The British demand for the decommissioning of arms by the IRA threatens to derail the peace process. But, as Chris Bambery explains, the recent yes vote in the Southern Ireland divorce referendum shows how the working class has the power to force change north and south of the border
Gerry Adams hung out the bunting for Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton's visit to Ireland was hailed by all and sundry as a triumph and one that set the seal on peace. There were few dissenting voices. Just hours before Clinton began the first leg of his European tour the British prime minister, John Major, and his Irish counterpart, John Bruton, had done a deal which had seemed to kickstart the peace process back into life.

A date was set for all party talks in Northern Ireland, including Sinn Fein, while an international commission would begin to examine the decommissioning of arms. Whether those arms were just the ones belonging to paramilitaries or include those that belong to the security forces was fudged over in the communiqué.

Yet as the media hype surrounding Clinton's visit died away it has become clear that fundamental problems remain, centred on the decommissioning issue. Britain is insisting that the IRA has to surrender its weapons prior to any political move forward. The IRA's Army Council has refused to accept this.

The decommissioning of arms was never mentioned in the Downing Street Declaration which officially launched the peace process. It is something which has been dragged in by a British government which is forced to make concessions to Unionist MPs to secure its parliamentary majority, and is also under pressure from the security forces. There is no precedent for a guerilla army handing over its weapons prior to political negotiations--not in Irish history nor in South Africa nor in the Middle East. The decommissioning demand from Britain is one-sided. Not only does it ignore the vast armouries of the British army and the RUC, but the existence of over 100,000 legally held guns which are almost entirely in Unionist hands.

The dispute goes to the heart of why the Provisional IRA was formed in late 1969. Before then, the leadership of the IRA had effectively disarmed. When in 1969 civil rights marches gave way to rioting and then all out attacks by the police and Loyalist mobs on Catholic areas of Belfast, there was no one to defend them. The Provisionals were formed precisely to defend those Catholic areas.

Yet what cannot be denied is the popularity of the ceasefire in Northern Ireland. It will be difficult to restart an armed struggle against that background and following such a lengthy period.

The shape of the proposed settlement in Northern Ireland threatens to change little. The existing Northern Ireland state would remain. Day to day responsibility for it would be in the hands of Nationalist (perhaps including Sinn Fein) and Unionist politicians but with the London and Dublin governments having the final say on key matters. For Protestant and Catholic workers all the realities of high unemployment, low wages and cuts in services would remain, potentially recreating old divisions.

Beneath the whole peace process is an acceptance by all that what counts is an identity, Nationalist or Unionist, which cuts across classes. So, one 'identity' is represented by John Hume and Gerry Adams backed up by the Republic's prime minister, John Bruton, while the other 'interest' is represented by David Trimble backed up by Britain's John Major.

This reflects a consensus on the right and left that class politics--particularly in the North--is not key to solving the problems of Ireland. Yet we can only understand recent developments in both North and South with reference to class politics as the motor of change.

In how many countries would you read a headline like, 'Working classes deliver the goods'? That was the Dublin Sunday World the morning after the narrow yes vote in the Irish Republic's referendum on divorce. However close the vote, this was a defeat for the bigots and the bishops. As such it signals where the force for change lies in Ireland. Even as the divorce campaign posters came down, the spotlight turned onto Clinton's visit. For the politicians and the media the two events seemed miles apart--but they are united by class. It was ordinary workers, who struck and took to the streets of Northern Ireland demanding an end to the killings, who gave the impetus to the IRA and Loyalist ceasefires. It was ordinary workers who secured victory in the divorce referendum.

Those workers are looking towards a new Ireland free from the sectarianism which has traditionally dominated both states. Yet even as the last votes were counted in the divorce referendum the Republic's establishment was signalling that this was as far as reform would go.

Both the divorce referendum and the peace process have shown just how big a retreat there has been from those who once presented the radical hope of change. Most dramatic has been the transformation of the Republican movement, which not only hung out the bunting for Clinton but has grown closer to and more reliant on Washington, the Dublin government and the leadership of the middle class nationalist SDLP in Northern Ireland.

To many this transformation from guerilla fighters to establishment politicians must seem incomprehensible. Yet the Third World is littered with former liberation fighters who made their peace with the system, donned well cut suits and ruled their newly independent countries at peace with imperialism. In Ireland in 1921 it was the most hardline IRA leader, Michael Collins, who brokered the treaty with Britain that partitioned the island and then used British guns on his opponents in a bitter civil war which secured the new state born from that treaty.

At the bottom of Collins' acceptance of the deal was pan-nationalism--the idea of a national community which cuts across class. So as the Irish upper classes began to champion the struggle against Britain 75 years ago, Collins welcomed them and increasingly became their champion. His justification for signing the treaty, that 'half a loaf is better than no loaf', is beginning to be echoed in current Republican rhetoric.

Meanwhile in the Irish Republic the common view is that the driving force for liberal change comes from 'the Dublin 4 set'--the liberal upper classes in the capital. It was certainly the liberals who started to look for change in Irish society. It was they who dominated the unsuccessful campaign in the 1986 divorce referendum which was lost by 63 to 37 percent. But, as the Sunday World reported, this time around the picture was different:

In 1986 many on those estates had not voted. So why the change? A large part must be opposition to the idea that a scandal racked church should try and control people's lives in such a way.

The fact that the referendum result was so close reflected badly on the official yes campaigns. At the beginning of the campaign polls showed the yes vote running at 72 percent. This reflected the scandals rocking the church in recent years. Bishop Casey was exposed for having a grown up son he'd concealed in the US after unsuccessfully urging the mother to have an abortion. The government of Albert Reynolds was brought down after there was an attempt at the highest levels of church and government to prevent the extradition to Belfast of Father Brendan Smyth on serious child abuse charges. This brought other cases of child abuse by priests to light.

The government began the divorce campaign thinking that getting a consensus of all the parliamentary parties would guarantee success. In particular government ministers believed that if they campaigned quietly the no side would respond similarly.

The Labour Party and the Democratic Left accepted these ideas completely. The Democratic Left campaign coordinator announced the party would not canvass as it was a 'moral issue' for its members. One councillor in Dublin led the no campaign in his area. The Labour Party put out posters with no mention of the D word. The established parties, including the left, sought not to challenge the church which has been such a pillar of stability for the Irish ruling class. These tactics almost lost the vote for divorce.

In contrast the no campaign, funded by American Christian fundamentalists, ran a hard hitting campaign centred on the most reactionary and bigoted ideas. It mobilised 1,600 canvassers and put up posters saying, 'Hello divorce. Bye bye, Daddy', and, 'You will pay' (based on the farfetched notion that taxpayers would pay out more on divorced mothers). The more extreme among them attacked the pro-divorce Minister of Equality, who happens to be Jewish, for not understanding 'Christian marriage', while another bigot flounced out of the Dublin count screaming that yes campaigners were 'wife swapping sodomites'!

As the poll tottered on a knife-edge one television political correspondent said that one thing was sure, no political party would ever raise the question of abortion after this referendum! The Irish Times political correspondent went further, saying the divorce vote 'was the final piece of the liberal agenda'. What that was signalling was that the mainstream parties--Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Democratic Left--are content to allow the church to control public education and health care.

Yet the fight to separate church and state has a long way to go. Divorce now exists, after a four year wait, for those who can afford legal costs of £3,000 per person and can prove to a judge they can financially support a second family.

And this is where the result on divorce connects with events in Northern Ireland.

John Hume of the SDLP urged a yes vote to help the peace process. The idea is that the introduction of divorce would decrease Unionist hostility to Dublin. The truth is that Ian Paisley is against divorce himself and, along with the Unionist leader, David Trimble, stands for ideas mirroring those of the bigots south of the border. In Northern Ireland abortion is illegal, the schools are segregated on religious lines and the age of consent for gays is still 21.

None of this will be changed by the political package under discussion. The proposals on the table fail to offer working class Protestants and Catholics any real change.

If the working class was responsible for winning divorce in the South it is to the same class we have to look for real change. The legacy of British rule in Ireland is the two sectarian states. For real change both need to be swept away. Irish workers want radical change but they are being short changed. In the divorce referendum an Irish Socialist Worker poster--'Let the bishops look after their own families'--brought moans from both the liberals and the bigots but it hit the right note in working class communities. The Ireland of The Commitments voted out the Ireland of the bigots on both sides of the sectarian divide and marched on beyond the Ireland of 'Dublin 4'. It's there that hope for peace lies--not with Clinton and those clinging to his coat tails.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page