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Another little difficulty

John McAnulty

5th November 2003

A glitch – a local difficulty – a temporary hitch – these were the terms with which local pundits described the situation on Tuesday 21 October when the current British settlement to the Irish question collapsed for the 41/2 th time (This would have been the fifth collapse, but the scheme did not manage to survive through the launch phase).

Some of the spin verged on the surreal.  If only John de Chastelain, the Canadian General charged with overseeing and confirming the destruction of IRA weapons, had worn different socks! A different tie!  Put more Oomph into his intonation when announcing that heavy ordnance had been destroyed!

Some nationalist commentators let the cat out of the bag.  For example local lecturer and former SDLP representative Brian Feeney, remarking on the unionist demand for a listing of destroyed weapons to provide ‘transparency,’ noted that the right to confidentiality and the role of de Chastelain were part of the agreement and were agreed not only by the two governments and the republicans, but by Unionist leader Trimble himself.  What he was in effect demanding was that the Good Friday agreement be reshaped again at the eleventh hour!  All this however added up only to a sentimental tear for the republicans.  Feeney regretfully concurred with all the other commentators in seeing only one way out.  The Provos must immediately grovel in the dust and release an arms inventory at the behest of Trimble.

After all, didn’t the two leaders, Adams and Trimble, agree about 99% of the deal?  Partition?  The return of a local colonial administration at Stormont? Overall control by Britain?  Support for a slightly rebadged police force based on the discredited RUC?  Why should the issue of ‘transparency’ presented by David Trimble hold things up?

All this was said at the last collapse in April.  Then Adams was said by the British to be ‘one word’ short of a deal.  We then had months of secret diplomacy and of careful structuring where the Provos went considerably further than one word –destroying a significant part of their arsenal and capitulating politically in a hitherto unimaginable way.  Adams, who sold the Good Friday Agreement to his members on the basis that it was a ‘transitional step’ to a united Ireland, now accepts it as a final settlement.  Within this his movement can lobby for Irish democracy in the sweet by and by.  The programme of his movement is now totally identical with constitutional nationalism, based on rosy dreams of progress through lobbying the imperial power.

What’s going on?

From this perspective it is perfectly easy to understand what is happening.  We are witnessing a process of surrender.  One group, the Provos, have only one condition.  That is that the military details of the surrender be kept secret from their base. It is worth noting in this context Tony Blair’s repeated claims that if people only knew what he knew about the arms inventory then they would support the deal.  It could be the Blair is reflexively lying, as he tends to do under pressure.  It is however much more likely that London, Dublin and the unionists have knowledge of this inventory.  They would have been unlikely to agree the whole process without it.  It is only the republican members and supporters who are kept in the dark.

Another group, the unionists, want to continue with their programme of sectarian dominance.  They would prefer if the Provos were not allowed to surrender and instead had been obliterated militarily.  If they must surrender then it is essential that it be as public and humiliating as possible to ensure that they fully accept second class citizenship in the new dispensation.

The major group in control of the process – the British – have themselves a central condition.  That is that ‘moderate unionism’ - the sectarian reactionaries led by David Trimble - must be allowed when necessary to lead the process and determine the conditions.  This is such a taken for granted part of the process that no one noticed when all the other aspects of the deal that were to follow the Trimble statement disappeared from the agenda.  The British had a whole range of gaudy trinkets to shower on the republicans.  More military bases were to be run down.  ‘On the run’ republican fugitives were to be allowed to return.  Elements of the equality agenda, promising some sectarian privilege for Catholic politicians, were to be tweaked to allow republicans to enter the policing board and support the new RUC.  The republicans delivered their part of the bargain, but when Trimble stopped so also did Blair, who immediately made the unionist demand for public humiliation his own.

It’s finally worth mentioning the Dublin government and the local SDLP, who have no demands other than stability in a partitioned Ireland under British rule.  Only they are truly and completely loyal to the spirit of Good Friday.

Does it matter that this hodge-podge of interests, despite constant effort, is unable to put Humpty Dumpty together and produce a stable settlement?  The last attempt by Sinn Fein to put together street protests calling for the return of democracy – by which they meant the re-establishment of the local colonial administration – simply succeeded in whipping up apathy across the North.  Only those on the Sinn Fein payroll bothered to turn up.

The truth is that Irish workers have no great enthusiasm for Stormont or belief in their political representatives.  The IRA’s military campaign has gone and much of the state repression and open grooming and deployment of loyalist killers by the state has been sharply reduced, although both Trimble and the British continue to support the loyalists as a counterweight to the republicans.  (As Trimble was throwing up his hands in horror at the lack of transparency in the IRA destruction of weapons one of his close aids was documenting the need for the loyalists to retain arms for ‘defence’).

An economic mini-boom resting partly on public spending and an influx of grants and bribes has created a feeling of relative prosperity.

Above all there has been a collapse of political consciousness.  Many nationalist workers who saw themselves as opponents of British imperialism now see themselves as rivals of unionists in lobbying the British.

Aren’t these factors alone enough to secure a settlement?

The Future?

The problem is that the British, who claim no selfish, strategic or economic interests in Ireland are constantly acting to preserve an Agreement that divides the country, sets up a northern structure that is unmistakably colonial, massively reinforces sectarianism and retains enormous powers of state coercion.  The main elements of stability are exhaustion following 30 years of war and the widespread corruption of politics and civil society.

In the short term these factors mean that they face no challenge.  All the parties supplicating for their favour will be back following the election and can be accommodated, perhaps in a comic opera assembly without an executive or in a direct rule structure. A process of review will begin to stabilise everything by pushing it further to the right and doing more to accommodate unionism.

The problem for the British is more long-term.  It rests in the fact that, despite having been victorious in the Irish struggle, in the sense that their former enemies now accept their rule and look to them to adjudicate in local disputes rather than forcing them out, they have failed five times in succession to find a stable solution.

Objective circumstances are growing less favourable. A September audit of the economy of the North carried out for the British showed that the ‘peace dividend’ of inward investment by big corporations never materialised.  The economy remains a basket case.  In today’s economy a significant role (around 3% of total) is played by charities and community groups.  By far the largest sector is government spending, with a large section of that going to police and prisons. Behind the mini-boom the traditional economy continues to decline and new investment in high-tech industries is subject to stiff competition and the ups and downs of the global economy.  It has fallen well short of meeting the need for jobs.

The political legs are weakening also.  Trimble is likely to be a casualty of the election, the incompetence and lack of ability of his opponents his only hold on power.  Adams will look for a sympathy vote and while this might pay off during the election the humiliation that the republicans have suffered is a bitter blow to the credibility of the leadership. Much hangs on future developments in the South.  A great deal of the republican collapse has been mediated by their capitulation to Fianna Fail, a movement now seen by a majority of workers in an October poll as corrupt and self-serving.  Strategies based on entering government in the South in coalition with this party don’t promise much popularity but getting into government is the only role the republicans can now seek

The collapse of Good Friday has not yet been accepted by the majority of the participants. Even as they head into a formal review of the process with all its components failed, all but the far right assure us that it remains the only show in town.   Both republican and socialist movements in Ireland have failed utterly when faced with the challenge of presenting a principled alternative.  However the latest farce tells us unmistakably that acknowledgement of the collapse of the British plan is inevitable and that we must face up to the challenge of the nature of a socialist alternative.



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