Issue 232 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1999 Copyright Socialist Review


The new instability

Ireland: generating sectarian strife

On the march again

Ian Paisley's poll topping performance in the European election--192,000 first preferences--was hugely depressing. It particularly dismayed those who had hoped that the Multi-Party Agreement, despite all the difficulties and missed deadlines, had begun to take hold and was in the process of ushering in a new era of democratic politics.

Paisley portrayed the poll as a rerun of last year's referendum and has argued that if Unionists were split 50-50 then, they are 60-40 against the agreement now. This has added significantly to the pressure on Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble not to give way on his pledge to right wingers to refuse to form an executive inclusive of Sinn Fein without prior IRA decommissioning.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Defence backs a Daily Mail campaign to overturn a ruling by the inquiry into Bloody Sunday that the paratroopers who opened fire should be identified when they come to give evidence. The Orange Order is working towards a mass mobilisation at Drumcree on 4 July, determined by sheer weight of numbers and the threat of mass violence to assert its 'right' to walk all over the Catholics of the Garvaghy Road. Gun and pipe-bomb attacks on Catholic homes continue on a weekly, sometimes nightly, basis.

Against this background, the chances of Gerry Adams persuading the IRA to decommission before the establishment of an executive diminishes by the day.

These are some of the factors in the crisis which, as we go to press, Tony Blair was flying into Belfast in a last ditch effort to resolve before his own arbitrarily imposed deadline of 30 June. The paradox is that, even as events seemingly slide towards confrontation, there is a wealth of evidence that most Catholics and Protestants desperately want a settlement which would put an end to communal hostility. It is this incongruity which leads some commentators toward optimism that the agreement will work, and--sometimes the same commentators in the same article--dread of the disaster at hand. There is a further complication in that some who opposed the agreement because it did not face up to the sectarian realities of the Northern state are now fervently hoping that Blair's rescue mission will succeed--because the alternative seems too terrible to contemplate.

The confusion arises because it is widely taken as self evident that support for the agreement and rising sectarianism are directly opposed phenomena. The possibility that the contradiction may lie not between the agreement and what is happening on the ground but within the agreement itself, does not fit into any mainstream analysis. Even in conventional, bourgeois terms the agreement is flawed at its foundation. A comparison with the South African settlement makes the point.

The South African deal left a lot to be desired. There is gathering disillusion that majority rule has made little difference to disparities of wealth. But the specific problem which the settlement was designed to resolve has in fact been resolved.

The problem was white minority rule, the solution black majority rule. Wearisome negotiations and dodgy dealing were necessary before it was agreed how the transition was to be managed. But there was no confusion that this was the transition required.

But what transition is required in Northern Ireland? An innocent outsider might have imagined it obvious. The problem was that the state had been constructed on sectarian lines, so as to deny recognition or equality to the Catholic minority. This was reflected in all state institutions--most notably in the police--and in a raft of laws and in political and administrative practice. On this reading, the solution would lie in devising a means of incorporating the hitherto excluded community on an equal basis and on terms congenial to itself. The negotiations would have focused on the changes needed in the constitution, the law, the police force and the structures of government to effect this transition.

Such an approach, and acknowledging the sectarian nature of the state and the need for change, would have been backed more or less automatically by an overwhelming majority of Catholics. And it would have had at least as much potential as last year's agreement to attract Protestant support too. Many had long ago woken up to the fact that Protestant workers had also been marginalised under the old sectarian setup.

But Unionist political bosses and their associates in the RUC and the civil service could not admit the sectarian truth for fear of exposing themselves as incapable of filling any acceptable or plausible role in the new era which was envisaged. And Blair, wanting as ever a deal involving as little disruption of the status quo as possible, didn't push them. So a process which was supposed to carry us forward into a state of grace was stymied for fear of change and to save the political skins of the people who had put us through purgatory in the first place.

The argument between Trimble and Paisley was not whether the changes involved in the agreement were tolerable, but whether the agreement involved meaningful change at all. Trimble denounced Paisley as a doom-monger for suggesting that it represented a clean break with the Unionist past. Meanwhile, both the SDLP and Sinn Fein, with differing degrees of enthusiasm, endorsed the agreement as a blueprint for a better Ireland.

The agreement does not challenge the sectarian basis of political allegiance in the North. On the contrary, it acknowledges no dimension to politics other than Orange versus Green, and seeks the backing of both sides on contradictory bases. In these circumstances, the competitive mobilisation of 'the two communities' is inevitable.

It is true that sectarian strife threatens the hope invested by so many in the agreement. But it is true, too, that the agreement itself is generating sectarian strife. Socialists have to argue against the 'two tribes' theory of Northern politics which is implicit in the agreement, actively oppose the sectarian rampage of the Orange Order and its murderous outriders, and continue to search for class initiatives which cut across the religious division.
Eamonn McCann

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