Issue 242 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2000 Copyright Socialist Review





Mandelson's monsters

Trimble waves goodbye to the peace process?

A tiny group of bigoted Loyalists were once again holding people's hopes for peace to ransom in Northern Ireland at the end of May. And they were being given a helping hand by New Labour's Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson. David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party was split down the middle over whether to accept the IRA's unprecedented offer to put its arms beyond use and allow inspectors to check its arms dumps.

Such was the crisis that Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble had to delay a meeting of his 850-member Unionist Council because he thought he would lose the vote to accept the offer.

The crisis revealed how hardline Unionists are prepared to sabotage the whole peace process because they do not want Catholics to have any say in the running of Northern Ireland. At every turn for the last two years the Unionists have blocked the Good Friday agreement, on the pretext of demanding the decommissioning of IRA weapons. But when the IRA effectively met that demand, the hardliners demanded even more concessions--this time to stand against any change to Northern Ireland's sectarian police force, the RUC.

David Trimble represents a section of Unionists who see the peace process as a way to shore up Unionism and make Northern Ireland an attractive investment for business. Despite building his own career on anti-Catholic sectarianism, he is prepared to make minimal concessions.

But the hardliners in his own party reject any kind of change and want to turn the clock back to the heyday of Unionist rule, when they held the monopoly of power in every area of life in Northern Ireland. As the Independent's David McKittrick put it, 'That faction does not believe that any accommodation with Republicanism is possible or desirable. Furthermore, a fair number regard all Republicans, Nationalists and Catholics as unacceptable.

Mandelson made key concessions to the Unionists when he published the Northern Ireland Police Bill in May. Tony Blair is on record as promising to implement the Patten report into reform of the RUC in full. Patten's report itself was a compromise, which went nowhere near disbanding a force that is sectarian and reponsible for brutality and repression against Catholics. But Mandelson has diluted even that. He has reserved his power to rule on the renaming of the RUC and, in a leaked letter to Trimble, said he would try to provide a way to enable the RUC to fly the Union flag over police stations. He also announced the setting up of a Royal Ulster Constabulary George Cross Foundation to 'honour' the RUC.

Mandelson made such concessions for the same reason he suspended the assembly early this year--to save Trimble's neck so he could placate the hardliners in his own party. Seamus Mallon of the moderate Catholic SDLP wrote in the Irish Times that Mandelson 'has allowed himself to become a political crutch for Ulster Unionism'.

Yet the hardliners do not even represent the opinion of most Ulster Unionists, let alone the opinion of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. An opinion poll, conducted before Mandelson's latest concessions, found that two thirds of ordinary Ulster Unionists thought Trimble should re-enter the executive of the assembly with Sinn Fein.

So where does all this leave Sinn Fein? Under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein has staked all its play on the peace process. It has followed the path of trying to enter conventional constitutional politics. But despite the huge shifts and compromises, including the effective abandonment of their goal of a united Ireland, the agreement has offered it very little.

Even the Patten report on reform of the RUC has been so watered down that Gerry Adams said Sinn Fein could not accept it and would not recommend Catholics join the police. This is all causing considerable discontent in the Republicans' own ranks. One quarter of Republicans in a recent poll thought the IRA's decision to dump weapons amounted to surrender. That does not mean there is any stomach for a return to the armed struggle, but it does show the crisis facing Sinn Fein's leaders, who have no other alternative to offer.

Even if the assembly is resurrected huge questions remain unresolved. Neither are any of the main parties addressing the real hopes for change of working class Catholics and Protestants who want peace but who also want action over job losses, health and social services cuts, and the underfunding of schools.
Hazel Croft


  • Leading lights of the Zimbabwe Democratic Trust (ZDT) are former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, director of Ashanti Gold Fields (Zimbabwe's largest goldmine) Chester Crocker, and Malcolm Rifkind, ex Tory minister, who now works for the BHP mining company. The aim of the ZDT: 'to help the democratic will of the people flourish.'
  • Wondering where all the buses have gone? Over 22,000 journeys a week are cancelled because the three main operators--Stagecoach, Arriva and First Group--find their profits squeezed by a sharp rise in oil costs and wage demands from bus workers.
    Bus--behind bars?
  • Comic strips are a microcosm of society. A recent study of comic strips since the Second World War, showed only 5.1 percent featured a black figure as a main character. Cartoon families tended to be middle class, with single parents rarely depicted.The proportion of comics with parenthood as a theme rose to nearly 25 percent in the 1990s.

  • Middle East

    The military withdrawal comes 18 years after Israel invaded Lebanon. Most Israelis under the age of 30 have little recollection of the relationship between the two countries prior to the invasion, and countless others consider the occupation of Lebanon to be completely normal. It didn't take long, however, for Hezbollah to expose the deception. With the support of Syria and Iran, the fundamentalist resistance group mounted a guerrilla war against Israel, making sure that every month Israeli soldiers were sent back from Lebanon in body bags. Since the early 1990s, about 25 soldiers have been killed in Lebanon each year.

    Over the years the government has used these deaths to convince the Israeli public that Israel, rather than Lebanon, is the victim in this relationship, thus justifying the occupation. Although this distorted logic continues to hold sway, public opinion began to change about five years ago after a group of parents whose children had been killed in Lebanon decided to challenge Israel's Lebanon policy. Since then thousands have joined their ranks, creating a strong grassroots movement whose sole objective is the complete withdrawal of all troops from Lebanese territory. In his election campaign, prime minister Barak sensed the public mood and promised he would 'bring the boys back home'.

    It is important to keep in mind that these advocates of withdrawal have never challenged the 'victim syndrome' propagated by the Israeli government. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the current debate within Israel eschews the question concerning the legitimacy of occupying a foreign land, or the destruction that Israel has wrought inside Lebanon. The focus has instead been on questions such as how the withdrawal will affect the security of Israeli citizens.

    Jumping out of bed at two or three in the morning in order to fire a few mortar bombs was routine in 1986, the last time I was in Lebanon. From time to time we also conducted 'deliberately designed operations', raiding houses or villages which, according to Israeli intelligence, were hiding arms or 'terrorists'. The work that I was involved in did not change much over the years. Israeli soldiers continued to control the region, patrolling the roads day and night and carrying out ambushes. Civilian life was constantly disrupted inside the 'buffer zone' as the population was subject to the whims and regulations of the occupying power, and outside the zone hardly a week passed by without the Israeli air force bombing targets.

    An essential element of the occupation was Israel's mercenary forces--the South Lebanese Army--which function as the governing power in the 'buffer zone.' The details of how much Israel spent on arming the SLA are a state secret, and the exact character of its relationship with the SLA has always been presented in vague terms.

    One day I was told by my commander to serve as a bodyguard for a man I now believe was an Israeli secret service agent. Driving a Mercedes that had been confiscated from a local resident, we travelled through villages in South Lebanon. Towards the middle of the day we stopped in a small village, and the man whom I was guarding met with the elders. Not knowing Arabic I didn't understand the discussion: I asked the man about what had transpired. 'I told them that I need three additional men for the SLA,' he said, adding that in return he had offered them construction material for a new mosque. Most villages within the buffer zone had to fill a quota to remain in good standing with the Israeli military.

    According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, in March about 1,500 SLA fighters were currently registered employees of the Israeli military. Their direct income for service ranged from $500 to $900 a month. In addition, about 2,500 Lebanese labourers entered Israel each day to work for Israeli farmers or industrialists. In order to cross the international border, these low wage labourers required entry permits, which they could receive only from the SLA. The SLA soldiers, in turn, received remuneration for each labourer who worked inside Israel. Ha'aretz estimated that 20,000 Lebanese made their livelihood directly or indirectly through Israel's presence in Lebanon.

    These people's fate was tied to their southern neighbour not only because they were dependent on Israel for their livelihood, but also because they collaborated with the occupying power and committed atrocities in its name. Amnesty International reports that since early 1985 the SLA had been actively operating in the now notorious interrogation and detention facility Al-Khiam. No warrants, court hearings or sentences were used in South Lebanon. Torture methods were employed at Al-Khiam, including electric shock, suspension from an electricity pole, beating with an electric cable and sleep deprivation. Recently, a number of Israeli human rights organisations petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding the release of the estimated 160 detainees. They claim that Israel was ultimately responsible for the prison compound.

    As it prepared for withdrawal, the Israeli military tried to determine what to do with the SLA. In the beginning of April it asked estate agents to locate 1,000 apartments in Israel's Galil area to be ready for SLA members and their families. Israeli Arab citizens immediately announced that they did not want 'collaborators' in their midst.

    Recent events have demonstrated that the SLA was a tool of the occupying power, and that neither the Lebanese nor the Hezbollah guerrillas would consider Israel's withdrawal complete without the full disbanding of its mercenary army.


    Carry on regardless

    After their latest triumph in the London and local elections, the pointy-heads at Millbank have instantly turned their uncanny talents to other sure-fire vote winners--like privatisation of the London Underground and the Civil Aviation Authority. They must have been spending such time and effort trying to convince Frank Dobson not to keep his trousers up with string that they missed what has been going on in the privatised utilities over recent weeks.

    A few short years since control of the water, gas and electricity supply industries came within the grasp of the wizards of private enterprise, a total fiasco is beginning to unfold. Two of the largest multi-utilities formed after the break-up of the nationalised water and electricity supply industries are currently in the process of being dismantled. And a combination of pressure from industry regulators for further cost reductions, and from shareholders for consistently high returns, has been quite enough to convince the industry hierarchy to look elsewhere in the quest for a bigger and faster buck.

    For the first few years we kept being told that vast benefits to the ordinary punters could be achieved if the existing resources of the water, gas and electricity firms could be merged and we all got our supplies from a single source. In fact, all that happened was that thousands of workers immediately got the sack, mainly through rationalisation of administrative functions or the subcontracting of the least profitable operations, such as meter reading. Meanwhile bosses in the utilities earned a reputation for fat-cattery second to none.

    The two companies which progressed furthest and fastest up the multi-utility avenue were Hyder in Wales and United Utilities in the north west of England. You might have thought that in two areas of the country where it never stops raining it would take some doing to make a shambles out of water supply. Nevertheless, discussions are currently taking place over the sale of Hyder after the management managed to stack up losses clocking 1.9 billion

    There has been remarkably little mention of this in the news, given that Hyder was not only the most highly valued company on the London stock exchange but also the biggest private sector employer in Wales, with about 9,500 workers. Nor has there been all that much mention of United Utilities' decision to sell off both its electricity and gas supply businesses. The explanation given was that, since it would be difficult to get enough customers through 'organic' growth, 'we thought better value for our shareholders would be to sell it'.

    After selling off two of their core activities, shares in United Utilities rose by 14 pence. Thus liberated, the management can focus their attention on the money to be made from telecommunications. The sudden flight into telecoms is by no means unique to United Utilities. British Gas, for example, has just announced that it plans to demerge its Transco gas pipeline operations so that it can build a national fibre-optic network through the same pipes. By good fortune, this network extends to virtually every home in the country and, thanks to unbridled competition, is under the sole control of Transco.

    Two key factors have influenced this move into telecoms, which virtually all of the big utility companies are now involved in. One is that other telecom offshoots have appeared to provide a licence to print money. The other is that in the autumn of last year a government review of the utilities reported that, though considerable cost reductions had already been achieved by companies operating in the sector, further cuts (averaging 30 percent) needed to be undertaken. And, to ensure that companies did not shirk their responsibilities, the industry regulators would be keeping a close eye on things.

    For public consumption, the role of the regulators is to keep prices down and protect the consumer. In fact, it is to encourage employers in the industry to take a much more vigorous approach towards cost savings. But the scope for further cuts is limited--in many cases workers are now having to be taken back on to cope with demand.

    The Walrus

    For this very reason, the big telecom companies managed to wangle their way out of the new regulatory regime, after intensive lobbying, leaving the more heavily regulated energy supply side of things looking like an even less attractive option for private investors. The first signs of where all this might be leading have already emerged in the important dispute now brewing at Scottish Power and Manweb, where the logic of the regulator's demands is that further cuts now mean not only further job losses but a barefaced assault on basic terms and conditions.


    The tide is turning

    Union membership is on the way up

    Anger against the Blair government and the free market has hardened over the last year if the mood of delegates at recent trade union conferences is anything to go by. This was most spectacularly demonstrated at the PCS civil service conference last month when delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of a resolution against the World Trade Organisation and calling for the scrapping of all Third World debt. A motion condemning the WTO was also passed at the recent conference of the teachers' NUT union.

    It is quite unprecedented to find such a generalised mood against the system as a whole in union conferences. This mood has found its way into other conferences in different ways. At the recent conference of the Unifi banking union, an invited Zimbabwe trade unionist got a fantastic response when he declared, 'I read a statement in a book recently that said, "Workers of the world unite." The bosses unite with globalisation, so this is what we must do with workers' power.' And at the TSSA train drivers' conference there were motions condemning the WTO as well as a motion discussing the removal of trees near train tracks which ended up being a discussion about the destruction of the environment. There are also signs of a need to fight back against the consequences of the system. At the MSF conference three Rover workers appeared on the platform and declared, 'The fight goes on. We're not going away.' They recieved a standing ovation.

    There has also been growing vocal anger against the Blair government. Three branches of the normally moderate union Bectu put forward motions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party. And over one third of delegates voted in favour of reviewing the union's relationship with Labour. Delegates also instructed the union general secretary to write to Ken Livingstone congratulating him on his victory. Many of the big unions have yet to meet but there are real possibilities that there will be open discussion about the union's relationship with New Labour. This also comes at a time when the latest figures show a growth of 0.6 percent in union membership, representing 50,581 workers. It is the first increase in 21 years, and comes before the most recent employment legislation becomes law on 6 June, which will allow more possibilities to unionise.

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