Issue 219 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Peace of the Union?

Chris Bambery

In Britain and Ireland North and South there has been an immense welcome for the Northern Ireland political settlement finally agreed at Easter that reflects a deep desire for peace which is nowhere more evident than in Northern Ireland itself among both Protestants and Catholics. Ordinary working class people bore the brunt of the 30 years of the Troubles. Middle class politicians and their like could always escape to their safe middle class areas which never saw an army patrol or heard a shot fired. Socialists welcome peace.

But the feeling for peace is not universal in Ireland. Six out of ten of the members of the Unionist Parliamentary Party are opposed to the deal. Three Unionist MPs have already joined Ian Paisley on the platform at a 2,000 strong rally against the agreement in Belfast's Ulster Hall. Significantly, the Orange Order has come out in opposition to the peace deal.

Sinn Fein postponed taking a decision at its recent conference. It is expected Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will carry a majority but there was obvious unease. That was palpable at the conference when Adams announced Trimble had won the backing of the Unionist Party for the peace deal commenting, 'Well done, David'. There is a war weariness among Republicans but there is concern that this deal will effectively rule out a united Ireland in the lifetime of most of them. There is also a concern that the deal falls short of past stated Republican aims.

If a settlement brought a permanent peace then working class people everywhere would be delighted. But unfortunately there is little indication that this will be achieved. All through the multi-party talks which were supposed to achieve a final settlement, the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, has not shown the slightest interest in compromise. He repeatedly demanded the expulsion of Sinn Fein from the talks.

The settlement coming from the multi-party talks is a trade off whereby the unionists get back an Assembly and Nationalists are given North-South institutions with limited powers. Sinn Fein have said it is prepared to work this deal by talking about an 'equality agenda' which advances the position of Catholics within Northern Ireland. But far from dismantling sectarianism it threatens to reinforce it. A new Northern Ireland Assembly will be a vehicle by which unionist politics try to reimpose sectarian rule echoing the old days of Stormont rule. So instead of eradicating sectarianism this package is in danger of modernising and adapting sectarianism to new purposes. It will do nothing to end the scandal of Northern Ireland's unemployment or the low pay which benefits both local employers and the multinationals.

Socialists oppose a return to armed struggle. It is a dead end strategy which itself will not lessen sectarian bitterness and division. But neither should socialists support a solution worked out by the British and Irish establishment that can only lay the basis for continuing sectarianism. None of the institutions of the Northern Ireland state which caused the conflict will be dismantled. The RUC will remain intact, fully armed and subject only to an independent commission headed by Tory Chris Patten which will report back in 1999. Harassment by the police of young Catholics will continue. The judges and top civil servants will remain at their posts. There will be no investigation into MI5 involvement in directing Loyalist death squads.

Inside the Northern Ireland Assembly any vote will require ratification by a 60 percent majority. That means that to get anything passed will require unionist votes. It gives these right wing Tories a permanent veto. The whole Assembly is based on a sectarian head count. Each member of this body will have to identify themselves as nationalist, unionist or other. The first minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly will be the head of the Ulster Unionists. As the front page of Irish Socialist Worker asked, 'Would you trust First Minister David Trimble to end sectarianism?'

Trimble has built a career based on sectarianism. In 1972 he was an official of the Vanguard Party, a right wing breakaway from the Unionists which threatened civil war if the old Unionist controlled Stormont parliament was restored. In 1974 he advised the Loyalist strikers who brought down a power sharing executive of the sort he is now expected to head. He won the leadership of the Unionist Party through his high profile support for the right of Orangemen to march in Drumcree despite the wishes of the Catholic residents.

Whoever forms the first government whether it's Gerry Adams, David Trimble or John Hume will have to preside over implementing cuts in social welfare, the introduction of student fees and attacks on single parents' benefit because these will be dictated by the paymasters, the current government in London.

Every institution of the Northern Ireland state encourages workers to accept a communal identity. The whole premise of the peace negotiations and of the new Assembly is that there are two 'tribes' in Northern Ireland each with their separate identities and interests. John Hume and Gerry Adams accept that they represent one 'tribe', David Trimble the other. This idea of two tribes has been promoted for years by the British government. It likes to claim that it is trapped, like piggy in the middle, between them. In this way the British government, the same government which created and sustained the Northern Ireland state and which has controlled its affairs since 1972, would like to wash its hands of any responsibility for what has happened. It is an attempt to blame the very victims of the violence, the ordinary working class people of Northern Ireland, for the troubles.

Socialists reject the idea that there are two tribes hermetically sealed off from each other. The class divide is a crucial fault line which runs through Northern Ireland society like all others. Socialists also reject the ideas of unionism because they promote the idea that somehow all Protestants are superior to Catholics, that they should identify with the British state and accept that right wing Tories like David Trimble somehow represent them. Similarly socialists reject the idea that somehow there is a pan-nationalist alliance so beloved of Sinn Fein. It seeks to create the illusion that a Catholic worker in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital somehow has common interest with a Catholic manager of a privatised National Health Service trust or with the corrupt politicians of Fianna Fail who have run the Irish Republic in the interests of big business.

Against this socialists advocate working class opposition to both the Green and Orange Tories who run both Irish states and to a system which profits from low pay and poverty. The only time that Protestants and Catholics have forged real unity has been in common struggle.

Protestant and Catholic workers face common exploitation. Both have paid the price in full of sectarian divide and rule. Both have a common interest in challenging the rule of capital that oppresses the vast majority of Irish men and women North and South, Protestant and Catholic.

The first test of the new deal came with the decision of Tony Blair to postpone the report of the Parades Commission which was to decide on whether marches should go ahead in Northern Ireland. It was widely reported that the Commission opposed the Orange Lodge marching in Drumcree. Two members of the Commission, a member of the Apprentice Boys, Tommy Cheevers, and Glen Barr, a former leader of the Loyalist Ulster Defence Association, resigned in protest.

Trimble contacted Blair's office to tell them of his opposition to any attempt by the Parades Commission to stop the march at Drumcree and said that any attempt to prevent the Orangemen marching down the Garvaghy Road would be 'lunatic, absolute folly'. There is a lot at stake here for Trimble. He was on the front line at Drumcree in 1996 sporting his Orange sash and openly conferring with the Loyalist killer, Billy Wright. When the British army and the RUC cleared the way for the Orangemen to march, Trimble was there in the van.

For the last four years Drumcree has been a flashpoint. Each time when put to the test Labour and Tory governments have forced a way through for the Orangemen. For 50 years when the Unionists ran Northern Ireland up to the abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972, the police were available to drive Orange marches through any area they wished. They were the most visible symbol of unionist control.

In August 1969 it was the refusal of the then unionist government to halt the Apprentice Boys' parade in Derry which led to British troops being sent into Derry to contain an uprising of the Catholic population.

A taste of the bigotry of the leaders of such marches comes in the comments made two years ago by the head of the Orange Order about Blair. He described Blair as 'disloyal' saying he had 'already sold his birthright by marrying a Romanist and serving communion in the Roman Catholic Church'. When asked on Irish radio to comment on these remarks David Trimble responded by saying, 'Why should I? The Orange Order is an organisation of Protestants.'

It is bigots like these who Tony Blair is deperately trying to appease by suppressing the Parades Commission.

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