Land of the living dead
28th October 2004
This article was written for Fourthwrite magazine.
The Good Friday agreement is gone and no replacement has been found, but all remains calm. Is the new dispensation invulnerable to attack?
Yet again British hopes of stability in the North of Ireland are being disappointed. The final settlement, delayed for so long, has continued to recede since the September talks at Leeds Castle. The British continued to insist loudly that only a few procedural matters stand in the way of a settlement. All the parties are at one. The IRA stands ready to disband. London and Dublin also stand ready to pass immediate changes to the original Good Friday agreement to meet DUP objections. The Holy Grail, which would see Ian Paisley as leader of the Northern statelet, is just out of reach, but all the manoeuvring brings it no closer.
The most likely outcome is that negotiations will fail yet again but that is not the most important element of the talks. The most important element of the talks is the fact that they are no longer in the territory claimed by the Good Friday agreement, with a supposed equality of sectarian rights, but in a post Good Friday scenario where the unionists are to be guaranteed a sectarian edge in order to stabilise the Northern statelet around its raison d’être of Orange supremacy. This parliamentary supremacy will reflect itself in society. The decision by the British not to abolish the RUC reserve means that nationalist dreams of a colonial police force that will someday be 50:50 Catholic/Protestant as per the Patten proposals is no longer on the agenda. After all, there would be little point to sectarianism if it gave equal privileges!
It is quite clear that the outcome of the talks rests entirely with the DUP. They have demanded that the agreement be changed so that they never have to formally support the idea of Catholics in government. They have demanded that they have a final veto over ministerial decisions so that the Paisleyite first minister can ensure that the lion’s share of patronage goes in the right direction. The final seal is the demand that the destruction of the majority of remaining Provo arms be videoed and broadcast to engrave in letters of fire on the republicans and their supporters just how hollow the claims of victory by the Adams leadership are and exactly who won and who lost in the fight against British rule – a lesson rubbed home by loyalist paramilitaries. These government sponsored death squads recently announced that it would be ten years before they could seriously consider decommissioning their weapons! The British Secretary of state responds by agreeing to a meeting with the armed thugs while their campaign of sectarian and racist violence continues.
The DUP have the choice either of entering government with Sinn Fein after having imposed terms so humiliating that even their most bigoted supporters are unable to object or they can alternatively refuse to close a deal in which case the agreement they despise will collapse and there will be a further long period of direct rule in which they and Sinn Fein will remain the major parties, facing each other across the tables of councils and numerous quangoes where unionism will hold the majority.
Those who think the Stormont outcome will succeed are basing their hope on the widespread corruption in both parties. The local councils run successfully because those who are in public sectarian antagonists are able to do deals in private on a very amicable basis. The common activity is milking a system of payments, expenses and grants for the last drop of money – an activity so successful that one MLA is able to support two or three full-time workers on the expense account. (The DUP’s Iris Robinson recently topped the local list of Westminster MPs with the largest claim sheet.) The problem here is that the DUP cannot extend the ad-hoc relations of corruption to government. Their programme is for sectarian dominance and they are unable to make even the slightest public gesture that would suggest they support a government including Catholics. How stable can a government be when the majority party is constantly proclaiming its opposition to the government it leads? The situation is made worse when we remember that the Official Unionist party will be on the sidelines, always ready to criticise the DUP for any backsliding and proclaiming itself the party that truly defends sectarian privilege. A similar situation will pertain to nationalist politics, with Sinn Fein, to an even greater extent than today, proclaiming itself the Catholic party and the SDLP locked in rivalry to show that it is even better placed to assert the nationalist interest.
The other option, of sectarian rivalry in a direct rule situation, has the advantage that it is not as subject to the constant governmental crises that a Stormont regime has been, and would be, subject to and is a much more congenial environment for the corrupt wheeler-dealing that Sinn Fein and the DUP do so well. It does however have the major disadvantage that the shy retiring British government, who would really like to be hiding behind the scenery, and in fact designed the whole process so that they could do so, will in fact remain very publicly as the Northern administration. There is really only one name for that situation. The North of Ireland will remain very visibly a colony under British rule, with the British openly responsible for the crises and injustices that such rule is subject to. In the way of such colonies there will in fact always be an outflow of resources and never enough to go around. The British will have to referee decisions on rights and resources and, as they have done throughout the history of partition, they will be forced to bend the stick, in the majority of cases, towards their unionist base. It will not be long before a certain disenchantment sets in – something that has in fact already led to a substantial layer of the old republican base drifting away from Sinn Fein.
A grim future
A grim future faces workers in the North. The ‘carnival of reaction’ announced by Connolly when partition was first proposed has in fact been magnified by the republican defeat. The supposed reforms of the Good Friday agreement have faded, as all mirages tend to do. The loyalist death squads remain and supplement their attempts to control where Catholics may live and work with a growing offensive against the small Chinese and Black communities. They remain immune from prosecution by the British state, are publicly supported by unionist political representatives and have said that they intend to continue for another 10 years. The Statistics and Research Agency data recently published show that working-class Catholics remain twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestant workers. On top of all this a series of initiatives have been announced by the new Labour government that extend to the North the Thatcherite revolution that the Iron Lady herself hesitated to export when the troubles continued. Rates are to rise, massive water charges are to be imposed as a prelude to privatisation, regional pay is to be imposed and there are to be mass redundancies in the public sector both in the North and in Britain as a whole. Surely this grim future will provoke a response from the workers?
But the British have one big advantage. The Good Friday process was not about a settlement in and of itself. The context was the crushing of the republican opposition – a process so effective that many Sinn Fein supporters can discuss the disbandment of the IRA and the task of persuading the Paisleyites to become the government of the sectarian state without even remembering that they spent their lives supporting a programme opposing the partition of Ireland and fighting for a republic. The structures in the North can be ramshackle, corrupt, unstable and contemptible, but they will not fall without a political opposition, and that opposition will clearly not come from Sinn Fein. Nor will it come from any other existing political formation of any size. Classical republicans have been unable to build a political resistance and focus mainly on failed attempts to revive an armed campaign. The trade unions have a long history of collaboration and partnership with the state. Most of the small socialist groups either openly support the existence of the northern state or claim to oppose it in theory while supporting it in practice. A greater difficulty is the broad unthinking acceptance of the status quo that extends far beyond the political currents. Essentially it is the mass support for the Good Friday Agreement which continues even when the agreement itself has disappeared under the waves.
Nostalgia for Stormont
The most common expression of the low level of political consciousness is nostalgia for the Stormont assembly. For example, Dr Kieran Deeny was elected in last year’s elections on a programme of opposition to hospital closure. He has now formed a political party that cuts across sectarian politics and attempts to defend public service more generally. Almost the first activity of the new party was to demonstrate at the gates of Stormont demanding the return of the assembly! In a similar manner it is almost impossible to speak at any trade union meeting without some small-time bureaucrat expressing nostalgia for Stormont and proclaiming that public services and workers rights would all be safe with a local assembly. A major plank of trade union strategy around the proposals to privatise the water services is to win the endorsement of MLAs, ignoring the fact that the process of water privatisation began in Stormont with the support of all the major parties and that in its brief life the assembly endorsed a whole series of public-private partnerships, with Sinn Fein leading the way in Health and Education.
To think that Stormont might act in the interests of workers in the North of Ireland one would have to blank out completely the horrific history of the original Stormont. It would be necessary to develop amnesia about the short history of the current assembly (now resting) and to ignore the fact that the members were elected through a sectarian headcount and that the assembly itself is built to operate through a system of sectarian headcounts. The majority of MLAs are elected on platforms that are explicitly sectarian and right-wing. Having ignored all these facts one would finally have to ignore the fact that the assembly has no power to raise taxes and that its budget is set by the British treasury – it has as much independence as the current Iraqi government! It would in fact be easier to push cuts through a local assembly than in the current situation where New Labour has to show its hand directly.
Why then is the Stormont illusion so widespread? One reason is that, for the trade union bureaucracy, it provides an alternative to struggle. When the local politicians don’t come through they simply shrug their shoulders in resigned disappointment and surrender. For more genuine militants the problem of imagining a democratic solution in Ireland, let alone a mass workers movement or a workers republic, is so fantastical that belief in the power of a Stormont assembly seems almost rational.
Is there any hope then? Are workers in the North condemned to live with the undead – failed and corrupt political forces that yet refuse to die? For Marxists the idea that internal opposition from within the six-county colony would ever be sufficient in itself was always highly unlikely. If this was the case at the height of the republican insurrection it is hardly surprising that it is even less likely now. To find a strategy for victory it is simply necessary to take a step back and view the island of Ireland as a whole.
Immediately we find that what prevents the unionists from collapsing is not their own internal strength. Paisley’s victory blinds everyone to the fact that he is unable to unite unionism and that the current crisis results from the inability of his movement to propose a rational solution that would allow him to take the leadership in government. What keeps the situation from collapsing is the unswerving support of the British for their unionist base and the increasingly desperate attempts by the Dublin government to bury the question of an Irish democracy in a very deep hole.
Right away we can say that Blair has his own problems. All his other sanctimonious right-wing solutions are becoming unravelled and he is increasingly seen as an incompetent liar. While we are well short of a convincing opposition in Britain, still there is growing disillusion with Blair and his schemes. The Dublin government are in the position of fighting tooth and nail for a Paisleyite government in the North and of converting the agreement into a guarantee to Paisley that he will have sectarian supremacy at every level. They are able to do this because the Provisional republican leadership are in lock-step with them in the ‘nationalist family’ that they always coveted. Fianna Fail openly wave in their faces the carrot of junior partnership in a coalition government while at the same time voicing the threat that some Sinn Fein leaders may well be on the IRA army council (and may have to be denounced if they don’t do as they are told).
One reason for Dublin’s desperation is that they are launching a mass attack on southern workers, again focusing on public services and on mass privatisation. If the Northern settlement begins to fail then Sinn Fein will begin to lose credibility and the unionist programme of modern Irish capitalism will become increasingly highlighted.
In fact the most stable illusion, and the strongest, around which the current attempt to stabilise partition revolves, is the illusion that Dublin have a real say in the North. This illusion arose from the Hillsborough agreement, when Dublin formally recognised the northern state in return for the ability to offer advice and seek patronage for their supporters. It was expressed most recently by Denis Bradley, a right-wing nationalist and deputy leader of the police authority, who argues that the failure of the DUP to seriously advance any solution that would share power means that the Brtish should move on to dual power with Dublin in the North.
In fact any examination of the history from the Hillsborough agreement shows how limited Dublin’s role is – all the major element of the agreement were abandoned almost immediately by London in the face of unionist protest and Dublin were unable to force them to hold the line. Describing the gombeen leaders of the semi-colonial administration in the South as partners with an imperialist power is simply laughable.
In many ways the current impasse in the North is the triumph of belief in the power of Irish capitalism. Building democracy and socialism in Ireland, building an alternative to the sectarian settlement, rest to a large extent in tearing down illusions in that power.