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Clinton rebuffed on policing - the Palestinian model holds sway in Ireland

John McAnulty

10 October 2009

In the days before Hilary Clinton's visit to Ireland a local cartoonist summed up the political situation around the transfer of policing by showing DUP leader Peter Robinson tip-toeing forward, looking fearfully back at the larger, bullying figure of the even more reactionary Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) movement. He in turn is looking over his shoulder at the enormous figure of Hilary Clinton, moving up quickly on his rear.

The cartoon sums up nicely the deluded imaginings of Irish nationalists and former republicans. In this scenario the DUP leadership are pragmatists, moving reluctantly towards accommodation with nationalism and their Sinn Fein partners in government. Fear of the TUV on their right is holding them back, but the power of US imperialism will force unionism to see sense. 

Sinn Fein have held tightly to this view. A recent intervention involved a call on the DUP leader to overcome his fear of the right and to face down the opposition within his own party. This is despite the fact that Robinson and the so-called opposition are totally united in facing down Sinn Fein and their only difference with Allister and the TUV is around the question of which strategy will most effectively topple the Provos from government. 

Strict logic would have required the presence in the cartoon of Gordon Brown, representing British imperialism, but his presence would have thrown into sharp relief the sheer implausibility of the whole scenario - he has just spent a large proportion of his time in a month that included his party conference and initial strategy decisions on the coming election trying to sweet-talk the DUP. The attempt ended with a massive bribe of over half a billion which grew finally to one billion and an assurance to the DUP that more would be available in an emergency.

Clinton tried to pressure Robinson to sign up to policing during a recent US trip. The DUP leader responded with a promise that he would try to persuade unionists to support devolution of justice - this a decade after the Good Friday agreement, which included the transfer of policing, and with Robinson head of a government supposed to be implementing a modified form of that agreement!

On October 11th the Clinton visit went ahead. Months of pressure had failed. The US secretary of state, normally only called to rubber-stamp gains already brokered, smiles broadly and assures the DUP that the US "will not meddle" to stymie their foot-dragging on the policing issue. Sinn Fein are left with no option but to join in the celebration of failure proclaimed by all. Rather than showing gratitude two DUP MLAs from the comic-book assembly walk out of Clinton's speech.  Following the US visit Brown returned to frantic negotiation and made the £1 billion offer, followed by a reluctant DUP acceptance. Even then Robinson asked for a promise of emergency funds if the billion ran out and on the Conservative opposition to countersign the cheque.

Even this sum of money isn’t the end of the story.  The DUP have further demands that would have the political effect of ensuring continued dominance by their supporters within the state forces.  The devolution of policing will be delayed for some time and, if it occurs, will contradict the Sinn Fein fantasy that they will then control the police. 

So what gives? What's wrong with the nationalist analysis and how is it that a bunch of small-time bigots can so seriously obstruct the plans of major imperial powers like the US and Britain. 

The idea that US and British imperialism are campaigners for peace and justice is clearly nonsensical. A glance at the bloodshed and mayhem they cause around the world should disabuse anyone of that idea. Irish nationalism gets around this difficulty by arguing that imperialism's goal in Ireland is stability, that their plan for stability includes completion of the Irish settlement and that they will pressure unionism to agree. 

This analysis ignores a number of factors. It is true that imperialism is anxious to see the devolution of policing. Hilary Clinton described it as "the last piece of the jigsaw" that would copperfasten the attempt to bury the Irish question. Of greater importance is the reality that this is an imperialist settlement that maintains the partition of Ireland and a British presence on the island. 

Central to the nature of the settlement is the role of unionism. They represent a mass base for the British presence that must be preserved. The British can pressure the unionists, but they must avoid a direct confrontation that would damage or weaken a valuable asset. This relationship is best described as the Israeli model and closely parallels, on a small scale, the relationship between the US and their Israeli clients. The US knows that the Palestinian leadership and its Arab allies can be bought off with almost nothing, but they are also aware that the Israeli base is central to their control in the region and that the stability of their Israeli allies comes first. So, when Israel rejects US calls for an end to illegal settlements, it is Obama and not the Israelis who backs down.

The Israeli model explains the behavior of Britain and the US - constantly cajoling their clients and offering new bribes but never breaking with them.

It also explains the behavior of the DUP. As clients of imperialism they usually avoid outright defiance, temporizing, foot-dragging, inventing new conditions and obstacles - never advancing their real program, based on the military repression of their opponents.

This model explains the behavior of Sinn Fein. The Palestinian Authority, led by Abbas, has joined with Arab capitalism in an alliance with imperialism. That automatically makes them junior clients of imperialism. The limited reforms they thought they had been promised continuously recede into the future, while the need to support imperialism becomes ever more pressing. The Palestinian Authority were in the background supporting the Israeli attack on Gaza and the legitimate HAMAS government and the authority has now been publicly exposed supporting the US in covering up for Israeli war crimes. Instability increases as support for the former revolutionaries decays.

Sinn Fein hail as a giant step forward the latest bribe offered to the DUP. They ignore the enormous shift to the right involved in the DUP package of demands and they are especially careful to ignore the long history of retreat on their part that was supposed to have already delivered devolution of policing.

It’s worth exploring in some detail the demands of the DUP. The massive bribe, after administration costs are deducted, is aimed mainly at former members of the RUC. A large sum is to be set aside to meet hearing loss claims by people who spent their adult lives firing plastic bullets at demonstrators. Many of these people have already received compensation packages and very generous retirement payments.  The DUP is making these demands because, as with many far-right parties, the members of the state forces are the members and supporters of their party. 

This indicates the real difficulty with the transfer of policing. In the days of the old Stormont the RUC was a private militia for unionism. The British used them as attack dogs, but made sure that they put their own people at the top. Today the DUP have enough of their own people at every level that they have a very real influence on what happens. As a result of the peace process they have a presence in the British Privy Council and access to intelligence reports on their republican "partners" in government.

They have nothing to gain from the transfer and stand to lose disastrously if  their supporters believe for a moment that nationalism in general, and Sinn Fein in particular, have gained any power in a state apparatus they regard as their own and necessary to ensure their continued sectarian privilege.

The DUP have already been given a panic button – an assurance of an 18 month settling in period. They have gone on to present a long shopping list of demands that sit alongside the monetary demands. Among other things they demanded that the RUC retirees retain their personal weapons, that the 100% Protestant RUC reserve be retained and that any restrictions on sectarian Orange parades be abolished. So to win their support for the transfer of policing the British must provide evidence that unionism retains sectarian privilege that the transfer of policing would supposedly remove! 

The fact that the funding blockade has been broken might lead observers to believe that the result was slow progress. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole episode has been a stupendous defeat for Sinn Fein –they must openly support this immense handout to their former enemies and the fact that there is no settlement means that they will have to make further concessions – the retention of the Protestant militia in the RUC reserve has apparently been conceded and Sinn Fein will have support this, and any other concessions the British make to salvage the agreement. The defeat is all the more crushing because of all the retreats so far - from republicanism to the Good Friday agreement, from the GFA to St Andrews, from the concessions promised to them at St Andrews to the promise that devolution of policing would arrive.

The victory of the peace process was proclaimed when Martin McGuinness denounced the republicans who killed two British soldiers and a policeman as traitors and called on his supporters to mobilize behind the state. This position did not deliver DUP acceptance of Sinn Fein They in fact stepped up their attacks on their nationalist partners. The Sinn Fein stance was made more difficult by the failure of unionism to reciprocate with a similar denunciation when a catholic civilian was beaten to death.  In the long run unconditional support for the state can only be justified by the settlement actually delivering the equal society that Sinn Fein claim they have won and which keeps receding beyond the event horizon.

Nor can Sinn Fein make a 180o turn and denounce the settlement. That would mark suicide for their movement. They must, as they did with policing, keep claiming that every new defeat is a victory. Martin McGuinness summed this up when he was asked what they would do if Robinson continued to obstruct the devolution of policing or refused to implement it. “Sinn Fein will not walk away (from the assembly and state institutions) – we are committed to them and they mark enormous gains.”  In other words they are trapped in the assembly, cannot leave or apply real pressure and are absolutely dependent on imperialism to exert pressure on their behalf.

Just as in the US-Israeli talks the Palestinian authority found themselves called to talks that continued to demand surrender from them but no longer have a precondition that Israel halt further building in the occupied lands, so Sinn Fein find themselves the target of endless demands for further transformation of the northern statelet closer to the Unionist dream of sectarian rule while anything that they might claim as victory recedes from them.

The situation in Ireland is much worse than it looks. The DUP are staging an offensive not only on policing, but across the board. Robinson has declared that the current joint government approach is unworkable and demanded that the mechanism be converted to one of voluntary coalition where Sinn Fein could be excluded. They have had support from David Cameron and the British Conservative party, likely to be in power in Britain.

The US and Britain have proclaimed another success. Sinn Fein cheer faintly in support. As with all recent events the reality is a constant rightward collapse of the Irish settlement, disguised only by the willingness of Sinn Fein to capitulate and of the vast majority of political activists to close their eyes firmly to reality.


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