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Not a bullet, not an ounce?
We should be clear about the significance of the October announcement by the IRA that they had undertaken the decommissioning of part of their arsenal in line with the procedures agreed with the international decommissioning body. The significance was not that the republicans had sold out, as street graffiti by their republican critics immediately suggested. After all, how can a movement that supports the Good Friday agreement, has ministers in the Stormont executive and is in bed with Irish, British and American capital be said to have sold out? The political capitulation of republicanism happened long ago.
No, the historic significance of the decommissioning step is that it is sell out in the republican's own terms. The one thing that they swore to their members would never happen. Even more historically significant is the scale of the capitulation. After all, Irish history is littered with the defeat of republican organisations and their eventual accommodation into the state structures that they once opposed. However never in that history has the movement had to publicly sanctify the politics of its opponents and denounce it's own struggle, which is the actual political significance of the decommissioning step - we should remember the huge disparity between the British and the IRA arsenals and keep in mind at all times that it is a political event that we have witnessed. We should also remember that this is not the end. The IRA will have to do more and humiliate themselves further on the arms issue. In addition, as a number of their bourgeois friends have been quick to point out, they are left with no real political alternative to supporting the 'new' RUC as the state defence for nationalist areas in the north in a situation where that force has already, in the Holy Cross intimidation, proved its unwillingness and inability to carry out such a role.
We know the journey that Sinn Fein will make now. Again it is a path trod in the past by other republican movements. They will continue to seek incorporation as a capitalist party and claim victory the more successfully they achieve incorporation. The precise form of the project hinges today - in fact decommissioning was largely driven - around the need to make electoral gains and seek membership of a coalition government in the Southern state. The belief of their more gullible members is that if they get into government in both the Northern and Southern states this will convince imperialism that it should support a united Ireland.
Usually the incorporation project fails and the former republicans are eventually absorbed into one of the bourgeois parties. It's unclear if this will happen in the North. Sinn Fein have adopted so readily to their new role as a right-wing party of Catholic rights that they are likely to displace the old SDLP. In the South their strategy is to garner votes by posing as a party of the left in order to enter coalition government. The landscape is littered with parties applying this strategy and achieving a brief period in Government overseeing reactionary policies followed by a return to electoral oblivion. Even this will be difficult for Sinn Fein, given an end-of-year statement by Fianna Fail leader Bertie Ahern that republicans would have to dispose of the vast majority of their arms before Sinn Fein can be considered for a minor place in a Fianna Fail coalition.
The precise form of Sinn Fein’s final journey into bourgeois politics is of largely academic interest. It quite clear that the future of Sinn Fein will have nothing to do with revolution or representing the interests of Irish workers. It should also be crystal clear that traditional republicans will make a strenuous effort to garner recruits and relaunch the old militarist strategy and that they will fail, unable to explain how a policy that failed so totally will succeed with their small, isolated and politically incompetent movements.
What became evident almost right away was that the republican surrender, no matter how unprecedented and historic, was simply not enough and that the problem for the British was that the unionist right had decisively rejected the whole peace process. Up until the act of decommissioning the sectarians had posed this as the major problem. This turned out not to be the case. Pauline Armitage who, along with fellow official unionist Peter Weir, voted down Trimble’s re-election as first minister and thus posed the collapse of the Stormont institutions, said that she was doing so because she felt her Britishness threatened. She then listed some of the elements of this; the untrammelled right to sectarian Orange marches through Catholic areas and the right to the RUC as a private unionist police force. Armitage and Weir, and behind them a majority of unionism, fear that any sharing out of sectarian privilege will eventually spell the end of their privilege. They want a ‘democratic’ government – that is, an Orange government without a Catholic, let alone a Sinn Feiner, about the place.
The technical aspects of the situation were as follows. The Stormont assembly, at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, enshrines sectarianism. MLA’s designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. At crucial votes only the Unionist and Nationalist votes count. Trimble was elected first minister in tandem with deputy first minister Durkin of the SDLP. In order to succeed they had to win a majority of the votes and also a majority in each of the unionist and nationalist camps. Trimble could not muster this unionist majority and so the procedure initially failed.
The technical aspects were overcome. Initially the pro-agreement Womens Coalition had redesignated one of its members as unionist and just failed to save Trimble. The Alliance Party then declared a number of its members unionist and saved the day. .
Yet behind all the procedural wrangling lies an outcome on the same level of significance as the republican surrender. Instability is piled on instability.
Trimble failed to get a unionist majority, even when returning in triumph with the republican weapons under his belt.
The result had to be fixed – more instability and a major weakening of the credibility of the Stormont regime.
The British had to intervene at every turn - bending and twisting the agreement out of shape and showing yet again that the setup is not some independent democratic settlement but rather a colonial structure wholly controlled by themselves.
The British built the whole scheme around guaranteeing a unionist majority in support. This majority does not exist and so the Good Friday agreement will drift to the right again as the British attempt to reassure and conciliate their unionist base. The ‘settlement’ of the Holy Cross intimidation was part of this conciliation of bigotry, along with a speech by secretary of state Reid where he called for healing of the bigots ‘hurt’. In fact not only will the settlement become more and more reactionary, but Sinn Fein will have to endorse the reaction by mounting only the slightest and most token of resistance – a process already well under way in their ‘resistance’ to the new police force.
Finally, and most significantly, the British, having crushed the republicans and forced their surrender, are unable to produce a stable solution. Their solution enshrines sectarianism and thus guarantees continued crisis. Even in their triumph the whole scheme founders on the reality that the northern state is irreformable. If it did not hold a sectarian headcount or guarantee sectarian privilege there would be no need for its existence.
The smell of decay surrounding the Good Friday agreement extends to the streets. Holy Cross – sectarian intimidation of school children dressed up by the British as a community dispute – is but the tip of the iceberg. Low level ethnic cleansing is a constant feature of life as Catholic families, under the illusion that the state has been reformed, move out of the ghettoes only to find the loyalist gangs of the UDA and UVF waiting for them.
Just before the vote which re-installed Trimble a local newspaper poll accurately recorded the fall of unionist support for the deal. It also recorded, for the first time, a fall off in nationalist support. The decommissioning of arms unsettled many of the republican base. The fact that it did not immediately bring the reward that was supposed to justify the act – Sinn Fein bums on ministerial seats –unsettled more and continued loyalist attacks with state collusion will unsettle still more. The day when the Sinn Fein project falls and nationalist workers again take up the issue of resisting the sectarian state has come closer.