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Plan B for the North unveiled – It’s Plan A with the bits taken out, plus Paisley in power!

John McAnulty

21st July 2005

All the usual mechanisms supposed to bring about a political settlement in the North of Ireland are now in place. Politicians are scurrying from meeting to meeting, statements are issued, Gerry Adams daily promises the crucial IRA statement that will cement the new deal.

All this is a matter of public comment and constant reportage. What seems to have escaped the eagle-eyed hacks of the Irish media is the fact that the proposed framework is no longer the Good Friday Agreement, which collapsed finally and absolutely with the electoral victory of Ian Paisley’s DUP in May.

What is emerging is Plan B. Plan B is like Plan A, the Good Friday Agreement, only with the promises of equality taken out. Also like Plan A, its contents are unlikely ever to become the subject of debate because, like Plan A, the chief argument in its defence will be that there is no alternative.

The Good Friday Agreement attempted to stabilise partition and the sectarian state in the North of Ireland by promoting an equality agenda. The main revolutionary nationalist force, the IRA, would ceasefire and support the partitioned state and the state forces. In return the police, it was promised, would eventually be 50% Catholic. ‘Equality of the two traditions’ meant that the Catholics would get equal shares of sectarian privilege and there would be restrictions on the sectarian triumphalism of the Orange Order. As a sop to nationalism, cross-border bodies around issues such as tourism were set up. The central element of the whole agreement was an enforced coalition of unionists and republicans who would share power in a coalition government in reformed Stormont parliament.

One by one the unionists, supported by the British, tore down all the elements of the deal. The more they were placated, the more they moved to the right and demanded more until right-wing sectarian bigot Trimble was defeated by arch-bigot Paisley and the corpse of the Good Friday agreement could be put to rest.

A way forward without Sinn Fein?

The British formally withdrew their guarantee that they would defend the agreement and the inclusion of Sinn Fein in government.

The first outline of the new policy came from Tony Blair in the days following the May election.

Speaking in Westminster, Blair said there were only two ways forward.

“One is inclusive of Sinn Fein and, for that to happen, there has to be a complete end to all forms of paramilitary or criminal activity as the Good Friday Agreement indicates,” he said. Addressing Eddie McGrady, SDLP, he added: “Or, alternatively, a way forward without Sinn Fein which actually depends on your party.” Inclusiveness was a “far better” way forward, but not possible without an end to all criminal activity, he said.

In Plan B there will be no further pretence that the IRA stands as an equal military power in stalemate with the British, the local state forces and the loyalist death squads. Defeated, it must leave the scene. The fact that, as in nearly every other shift in the process, there is a loyalist feud with nightly attacks and deaths and that the main loyalist groups are still supported financially by the British, merits scant comment.

A political necessity

Disappearing the IRA has now been detached form the political process and the long rounds of secret diplomacy. There will be no reward for its departure. This is now a political necessity and, to underline the point, the British have given the retreating organisation a stroke across the flanks by revoking the licence of ex-prisoner Sean Kelly. (The prisoner releases, part of the GFA, are in fact a form of reverse internment where the British reserve the right to return the prisoners to jail at any time).

Capitulation on the part of the IRA will not lead to any of the elements of the Good Friday Agreement being restored.

Speaking on the 12th of June to the lickspittle bureaucrats of ICTU new part-time secretary of state Peter Hain announced; “I’m confident now, with an imminent IRA statement expected which I hope will be credible, will open a new chapter in Northern Ireland politics.”

But in the same speech he made clear that the Provos would get nothing, that the disbandment must be followed by dramatic acts of decommissioning of weapons. He pleaded with the DUP to see the significance and hinted that, in time, the Provos would win their way into government. The message had a sugar coating added by Dublin. “It is important any IRA statement brings clarity to ending paramilitarism and criminality for devolution to be restored” said Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

So a quite historic decision not simply to stop fighting the British but to declare an end to the tradition of militant republicanism and to rewrite history to declare the current partitionist arrangement as the goal of that struggle will not be enough to gain Sinn Fein seats in government. Nor will even more pressing demands for ‘clarity’ around the police that will almost certainly see the republicans endorse the hated RUC/PSNI and accept a role for already existing ‘community watch’ organisations in supporting state forces.

The grantocracy

There are a few sweeteners. 500 troops are to go, leaving only 11,000. Police chief Orde is willing to close 18 defunct rural police stations (But the police board has already cut this to 9). The British have announced that Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women’s Coalition, is to head the reformed Human Rights Commission and that former RTE head Bob Collins the Northern Ireland Equality Commission. The unionists have protested, but it remain unclear why McWilliams, who shifted between nationalism and unionism on alternate days of the week, and Collins, former head of an organisation at the fore of censoring and witch-hunting republicans, should be regarded as some sort of sop to republicanism.

So what do the republicans gain (besides the disbursement of EU ‘peace II’ funds on 3rd July)? 

These funds are quite important. They are what sustains the grantocracy – the layer of paid officials controlling the community base of the Provos. However, the main political gain is that Sinn Fein will get is a seat at the heart of what Adams used to call the nationalist family – at the feet of Fianna Fail. They will be given their chance to fight for a place in a capitalist government in the 26 counties and they will be included in the Dublin coalition with London and Washington. This coalition will show no mercy. With all guns blazing it will go after Ian Paisley and demand that he become prime minister of the Northern statelet. When he refuses the Provos, Irish capital and the British will unite together in the next step – creating a comfortable environment in which Ian and the DUP will feel relaxed enough to say yes to coalition with the Provos.

What will it require to achieve this environment? What it requires is dumping the Good Friday myth of ‘equality of the two traditions’. As Unionist leader John Taylor long ago pointed out, such a concept of an equality of sectarianism was simply nonsense. Unionists were willing to share power, he said, but not equally. The balance must be tilted back towards an inequality that recognises the supremacy of the bigot.

The next steps

Unionists have not been slow in spelling out the next steps.

The election of Reg Empey as the new leader of the Unionist party on the 25th June was followed immediately by a statement indicating that there could be no political settlement without a ‘settlement’ of the issue of Orange parades, a statement endorsed shortly afterwards by Gregory Campbell of the DUP.

A familiar process began as the unionists began to settle the new dispensation for themselves. In the immediate aftermath of the election a wave of sectarian attacks on Catholic families began, mostly in Loyalist areas or on the interface with Catholic areas. It has continued ever since as a form of low-level ethnic cleansing. A new DUP council had no sooner taken over in Lisburn than it smashed down SDLP and Sinn Fein calls for ‘power-sharing’ in local government and imposed a solidly unionist majority on council appointments. The council then voted to fly the union jack 365 days of the year as opposed to the less than 20 British regulations had proposed after the Good Friday deal. They have been followed more quietly by a number of other councils, including Belfast. The number of days the flag is flown makes no difference to the reality in the North – it remains 100% British – but it was very striking symbolism, especially given that symbolism was all there was to the GFA. Now political unionism in the councils has proclaimed that element of the agreement dead, and their brethren in the Orange order have not been slow to follow suit, bedecking the streets of the North with a sea of sectarian symbols.

Next the state made some ineffectual attempts to restrain the bigots. The British-controlled Parades Commission rolled out a new rule indicating that a single organiser would have to sign parade applications and take responsibility for the march and the Orange supporters. The Orange flooded the commission with applications, some with multiple signatures and some with none. The British quickly backed down.

The next stage was endorsement. Police chief Orde, following initial riots at Ardoyne, declared that the Orange had the right to march and the protestors had the right to peaceful protest – word for word the policy laid down by the Orange leaders themselves in past marching seasons! The new regime was demonstrated in practice when a Catholic priest approached two men putting up flags outside the local parochial house. He called the police but when they arrived they ignored sectarian abuse directed at him at told him that if he did not return the flag he had taken down he could be charged with theft! Later on the 11th of July, when the bigots organise around bonfires, the UVF staged an armed demonstration and fired a volley of shots. A local councillor complained that this might lose £50,000 in state grants to local bonfires, designed to bring the violent bigotry ‘under control’.

‘Historic deal’ in Derry

Political unionism, backed by the British, was marking out the next offensive against Sinn Fein around a call for the right to sectarian intimidation. But Sinn Fein were too quick for them. Under the structure of the old Good Friday Agreement Sinn Fein were careful not to express outright opposition to the bigots. The slogan was ‘No talk, No walk’. They were demanding dialogue to demonstrate ‘equality of the two traditions’ – the GFA, after all, enshrined the legitimacy of Orange ‘culture’.

The new Sinn Fein policy is simply that the Orange walk as long as they indicate a vague willingness to talk to someone. Even this is too much for the Orange leadership but most Orange at the local level are pragmatic enough to talk to intermediaries. So we have an ‘historic deal’ in Derry and the first Orange demonstration on the west bank in 13 years, followed by offers of accommodation to Orange groups by Belfast residents groups. Many on the republican base noted that the ‘historic deal’ did not involve demanding any curbing of the bigots in other areas of the North, although this had been the basis on which another sectarian group, the Black Preceptory, had marched in the past.

But deals have to be enforced, so we have Martin McGuinness policing a protest in Dunloy, Co Antrim and Gerry Adams policing nationalist outrage in Ardoyne. He had earlier indicated that republicans would withdraw from the area because of the jailing of Sean Kelly, but no amount of bluster can free the Shinners from the need to police their deal with the British. The convergence of goals between the republicans and the RUC/PSNI was shown when, in a remarkable statement, Adams said that the violence had intensified because the police had deployed water cannon too early!

For London and Dublin this is the shape of things to come. The most reactionary bigots are to be cajoled into taking power in the sectarian statelet, bribed by the promise that the minority will acquiesce to the continuation of triumphalism and sectarian provocation. Sinn Fein will have a place at the table and a role in policing the new dispensation.

Not the shape of things to come

But of course this is not the shape of things to come. This is simply the wishful dream of Blair and Ahern, supported by Bush, a dream that ignores the powerful contradictions that have already blown Good Friday apart and will certainly blow this ramshackle deal apart.

The party most at risk from these contradictions is Sinn Fein itself. The call for IRA disbandment cannot be met. It cannot be met because the leadership have taken advantage of their militarist bases’ disinterest in politics to tell lie after lie. They are not now in a position to call an army convention and announce that their triumphant march to victory after victory has now led to a forced disbandment. The solution is to announce a formula of commitment to ‘exclusively peaceful means’. The IRA will still exist but it will no longer be an army.

While this formula, indicated at republican commemorations by the replacement of battledress by green blazers, avoids any direct confrontation with their base, it does not save them from the unionist right. The truth is that, while the majority of volunteers can be stood down, an inner core of armed volunteers will have to remain simply to protect the leadership from those sections of republicanism who oppose the settlement. The unionists will be well aware of this and will use the existence of the IRA as justification for refusing to govern with them.

In any case, while the focus of debate is the IRA, the politically important element is the hidden side of the coin. What the British want is not simply an end to IRA force, but the quiet deployment of that force to defend the sectarian colony in the North. It is not simply a matter of IRA members going away, but of the majority being co-opted into an unofficial arm of the police which will find itself increasingly at odds with the disaffected youth of the nationalist ghettoes. One of the reasons for the delay in an IRA statement is the unexpected virulence of local opposition to Orange marches in Ardoyne and the fierce resentment at Sinn Fein’s policing role. The resentment poses no political threat. Such is the apolitical nature of republicanism that those who resist at the base tend to slip into a parochial sectarianism. What it does do is open the possibility of the political demobilisation of Sinn Fein hard-core base.

Finally it should be remembered that the British have already announced a full-scale economic offensive against workers in the North, involving water privatisation, regional pay and cuts in pension rights. It will be impossible for Sinn Fein, in receipt of both government and corporate hand-outs, to pose as the left opposition in this offensive.

But the chief contradiction lies within unionism itself. The British built the Good Friday Agreement around the concept of a moderate unionism willing to do a deal with Irish capitalism and thus ensure the indefinite survival of their sectarian statelet. They got the unlikely figure of Trimble and then his slow fall under pressure from forces to the right of him and now they have the full-blown bigotry of Ian Paisley with Empey, the assassin of Trimble, in supporting role.

The British have built the present plan around the ghost of moderate unionism. There may not be any moderates about, but there is a widespread recognition that the sheer size of the nationalist minority requires a modification of sectarian rule and some accommodation with Irish capital. Reg Empey made a point of recognising this in his acceptance speech. Behind the scenes Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson have made similar noises. The idea is that if unionism is placated they will eventually produce some compromise that the republicans can sign up to.

However the last 30 years carries eloquent evidence of the inability of unionism to advance any compromise, no matter how clearly this would defend their long-term interests and the inability of Britain to consider any alterative to their unionist base. The present leadership of both the DUP and UUP are the outcome of generations of selection where the road to power lay in toppling the leader who showed the slightest ambiguity in their defence of sectarianism.

Placating unionism simply leads to new demands. Decommissioning is replaced by calls for IRA disbandment and then by calls for the isolation of Sinn Fein until they prove their ‘democratic’ credentials. The latest demand is the unrestricted right of the bigots to march. There is an ongoing campaign to get ‘fairness’ in police appointments and roll back the promise that in the sweet by and by the police will be 50% Catholic. Waiting in the wings is a campaign for ‘fairness’ in employment generally. Presumably the unionist demands would end if the old Stormont regime were to be restored, but given that it was the implosion of Stormont with a much smaller nationalist minority that led to 3 decades of violence, the unionist programme will always remain in the dreamtime.

The only sure thing we can say about the shape of things to come is that the daughter of Good Friday will have an even shorter life than its parent.


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