Issue 233 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
The shenanigans over the summer that brought the peace process in Northern Ireland to a shuddering halt re-emphasised two things. Firstly, the leadership of the Republican movement is prepared to bend over backwards, abandon much that was held as sacred in the past in order to carry the process forward.
Secondly, it is clear that the Unionists are hell bent on making the process unworkable. They demand the one thing they know the Republicans can't give, prior decommissioning. Let's be clear: this is not about arms, but about Republicans being forced to grovel, effectively to surrender as a beaten force, and to admit that they were the main source and cause of the conflict in the first place.No surprises there, then. But there is a third element to all this and that is the behaviour of Blair's government. The Unionists reneged on an agreement they had signed up to, an agreement endorsed by a referendum, yet Blair refused to confront them indeed a letter he wrote prior to the agreement, which supposedly offered assurances that there would be prior decommissioning, was used by the Unionists as cover for their intransigence.
Furthermore the one obvious figure missing from all the negotiations this time round was Mo Mowlam. Mowlam is apparently hated by the Unionists (the first good thing I've ever heard about her) and therefore was kept out of the way in order not to upset them.
So once again everything is stalled by a British government unwilling to face down Unionist bellicosity. John Major allowed them to wreck the first ceasefire, but Blair seems to be doing his best to copy him.
This shouldn't surprise us. After all, throughout the whole of the first ceasefire Labour in 'opposition' acted as little more than an echo chamber for Major. 'The IRA must use the word "permanent" about the ceasefire,' demanded the Unionists. 'Indeed it must,' said Major. 'Us too!' cried the hated Mo from New Labour.
When it became clear that it was not possible to stall an entire peace process because of dictionary definitions, the Unionists demanded prior decommissioning. 'An absolute precondition,' said Major. 'Amen to that,' offered Mo. When the Mitchell report rejected this, in order to appease the Unionists Major announced elections to the dismay and anger of Republicans and Nationalists. 'Mmm, elections, spiffing idea,' proclaimed Mo.
Interestingly enough, during the recent tribulations the Tories found no need to reciprocate, but instead began playing the Orange card and criticising Blair.
So both in office and in opposition New Labour have failed to offer any way forward on the Irish Question. In this they have much in common with 'old' or traditional Labour. For Labour has continually played a diabolical role where Ireland is concerned. Indeed you can go right back as far as the 1916 Easter Rising, when Labour was genuinely new and, one would expect, in the first throes of radicalism. Alas no. Labour cabinet member Arthur Henderson is said to have cheered in the House of Commons when the execution of three leaders of the Easter Rising was announced.
Nor do things get better in the golden age of Attlee's postwar government. It was this government that invented the guarantee of permanence to the status of Northern Ireland, effectively underwriting and putting into law the Unionist veto.
Successive Labour regimes, both in government and opposition, turned a blind eye to the blatant sectarianism and sham democracy that existed in Northern Ireland. When the civil rights movement exploded and the Unionist government and Paisleyite mobs attempted to crush it, it was Labour that sent in the troops, whilst allowing the blatant sectarians to remain in government. Though a few reforms were grudgingly given which tinkered on the edges, they couldn't prevent the escalation of the conflict.
Labour in opposition had little to say when internment without trial was introduced, and no words of protest when troops shot 14 unarmed demonstrators dead in Derry on Bloody Sunday--indeed Labour accepted the Widgery Report whitewash of this cold blooded murder.
After Bloody Sunday direct rule from Westminster was introduced. As a result there have been successive Tory and Labour secretaries of state for Northern Ireland. The one most admired and liked by hardline Unionists was Labour's Roy Mason.
When Thatcher bared her fangs and surpassed even her normal level of callousness during the hunger strike to demand political status for prisoners, Labour backed her all the way. Then shadow Northern Ireland spokesman Don Concannon arrived by the bedside of Bobby Sands, just a couple of days away from death, to assure him that he would receive no support from the Labour Party.
Shortly before the 1916 Rising a friend of the great Irish socialist James Connolly tried, not for the first time, to elicit his views on religion. She did so knowing a rising was coming and that people could die. 'Tell me,' she said, 'do you think there will he anything on the other side?', to which Connolly replied, 'The British Labour Party, they won't lift a finger to help us!'
As Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness et al watch Blair gyrate to the latest Unionist tune, they'd do well to remember Connolly's words.