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‘The Long Good Friday’, ‘Red Banner’ reviews the Good Friday Agreement

Joe Craig

1 August 2008

The latest issue of ‘Red Banner’, no. 32, has a review of the Good Friday Agreement on its tenth anniversary and the executive it spawned, arguing that, ‘with modifications’, it ‘seems here to stay’ and that ‘socialists could do with clarifying their attitudes to them.

On the latter point the review is absolutely correct.  The left has generally failed to present any sort of serious analysis of the deal and has been more or less supportive of it, with varying degrees of honesty about their de facto endorsement.  It has blissfully continued on its economistic path, disregarding the big political questions, and confining itself to the ancient view that socialist politics is nothing to do with the state, or the forms it takes, but is only properly expressed in economic questions.

On the former point the author is perhaps on less sure ground.  The many modifications to the Good Friday Agreement in its ten year history culminated in its replacement with a new deal – the St. Andrews Agreement.  It might be argued that all the amendments to it are minor and do not fundamentally alter the nature of the political settlement that has existed since 1998 but to argue this would be a mistake.

The first thing to note is that, as the article states in its very first sentence, while the Agreement may be ten years old the executive to actually implement it is only one year old.  This hardly looks like strength and permanency.  The many changes to the Agreement are further proof that it does not contain within it the germs of a permanent and secure solution.  This is important because there is no reason to believe the current St Andrews deal is the final version of the process and that it too will not continue to decay; a decay that will eventually lead to terminal crisis.


The article notes that Sinn Fein’s entry into the current executive came not from a position of strength but from ‘its weakest position in decades.’  This view stands much against conventional wisdom but it is undoubtedly correct.  So is its assertion that ‘the Good Friday Agreement makes partition work more efficiently by bringing in an unprecedentedly wide range of political forces to run it.’  Again this also testifies to an underlying vulnerability.

In opposition to the prognoses of the economistic left the author argues that far from creating the basis for ‘normal’ class-based politics the ‘Good Friday Agreement has not solved sectarian divisions, for the straightforward reason that it is based on reaffirming, legitimising and perpetuating them.’  If at present sectarian tensions seem abated this rests on exhaustion and fear of a return to past violence; retreat by republicans on almost every important question and the fact that fundamental divisions lie beneath the surface and could still provoke political crisis and violence.

The majority of people in the North are not aggressive and conscious sectarian bigots but they find themselves going along with outrageous sectarian arrangements and decisions because the powers that be promise that the sectarian arrangements set by Good Friday can assure peace.  The absence of any coherent alternative also plays an important role here.  The dismissive attitude of the author to dissident republicans is fully warranted.  Their ineffectual military activities serve only to strengthen the current political settlement.  If their activities were more successful they might only strengthen it further.

Thus the author notes that the number of peace walls has increased in the last ten years and that what has been created is ‘an atmosphere . . not conducive to cross-community harmony but to intensified sectarian competition for scarcer resources.’  This brings us to another reason the process, despite internal contradictions, has not collapsed: there has been, like most other countries, an economic upturn in which unemployment has been relatively low and expenditure also supported by rising debt.  This too is vulnerable, in fact it is now evaporating before our eyes.

At one point in 2007 house prices in the North were rising faster than anywhere else in the world.  This year a report has recorded that of all parliamentary constituencies in the UK the North contains some of the most vulnerable to increased housing costs and the disaster of negative equity.  Increased interest rates caused by the credit crunch thus threatens to undermine this prosperity and reveal the same old structural problems of the northern economy which have not been solved.


The article also examines some of the ideological arguments that have supported the imperialist settlement.  It trenchantly argues against the idea that partition is in any way justified or that Irish Protestants should have their own state.   ‘A worker afraid of being over-run by Catholics, immigrants or gays will be in no position to advance his own class interests.’  The left should not respect ‘people’s right to a British identity.  Unionist or loyalist identity isn’t actually British at all.’  She accurately speculates that the consequences of repartition, put forward by one British left group as a democratic solution, would either be ‘merely tragic or truly horrific.’

In three sentences Maeve Connaughton puts the issue clearly.  ‘The nettle has to be grasped.  Increasingly, the left is falling in with the conventional wisdom that it is best to let sleeping dogs lie.  But the longer this particular dog is left unchallenged, the more ferocious its teeth are likely to be bared.’  She goes on - ‘differences within the working class can only be overcome by confronting them, not by acting as if they didn’t exist.’  The Irish left however thinks only in term of existing consciousness.  Its shared view that what is wrong is a ‘crisis of representation’ leads it far away from tasks which require confronting and challenging conventional wisdom and bourgeois manufactured public opinion.  Nothing could be worse than leaving opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and what has followed it to failed republican politics.

The article notes that there has been a growth in sectarianism among Catholics – ‘the growing feeling in the northern nationalist community that ‘we’ are advancing and getting one over on ‘them’ is pathetic and pernicious.’  When this particular bubble eventually bursts disappointed communal grievances expressed in sectarian terms will not have adjectives like ‘pathetic’ applied to it but will definitely be much more pernicious.  Unless, that is, there is some socialist analysis of the failure of this green sectarianism and a real alternative to it put forward on the ground.

In the latter case there is absolutely no point calling on left unity as a major step to achieving this.  The left is simply not interested in the task of really confronting sectarianism. It acts simply as if it was not important.  The national question, constitutional question or the nature of the state – however one wants to describe it – is simply not an issue for them.  All those who think it is central to destroying sectarianism need to unite, but should not kid themselves that this involves the somewhat larger left groups.  As the author says ‘a socialism that dodges awkward questions will get no more than it deserves.’


The article finishes with a quote from Connolly which I have not come across before or, if I did, did not recognise its significance and importance.  It is in the context of Connolly’s defence of being open about support for Irish independence and questions from other socialists whether he thought this would make their task any easier.  “I answered them that I did not, that on the contrary it would arouse passions immensely more bitter than had even been met here by the Socialist movement in the past, but that it would make our propaganda more fruitful and our organisation more enduring.”

This is exactly right.  This sums up precisely why it is absolutely necessary to fight against the Good Friday Agreement and the imperialist peace settlement.  The method of Connolly is not to avoid hard questions, not to avoid confronting reactionary and confused attitudes and beliefs in the working class but to build a movement that directly confronts them – ‘it would make our propaganda more fruitful and our organisation more enduring.’

To present this in its opposite sense: the continuing attitude that reactionary political views can be overcome by more progressive opinions on economic questions is not at all fruitful and is exceedingly temporary as the history of the repeated (usually very minor) success has shown over many years, in strikes involving Protestant and Catholic workers and in the examples of anti-war activity around Iraq.  The left has not grown on the basis of the many examples of such activity because the political weakness of the workers involved has not been challenged as a matter of policy.

This approach is not limited to the North and neither therefore is Connolly’s method.  At the moment a key task is to politically organise and strengthen the Lisbon No vote.  It is obvious to almost everyone who honestly wishes to understand it that this vote was a confused one and that progressive impulses coexisted with quite reactionary ones.  The first thing is to acknowledge this.  The second is to wage a struggle against those reactionary aspects of No and to draw clear borders between these and more progressive inspirations.  This can only be done by beginning to put a global critique of the EU together and the nature of an alternative.

In our view this can only be a socialist critique involving an internationalist alternative.  This is not currently the priority of much of the left.  Instead they say we must have a ‘new’ left to solve a crisis of representation, to represent the No vote.  In fact there is no evidence that either the people or politics involved in this will be ‘new’ in any sense.

There is every reason to fear that there will be an attempt to build on a lowest common denominator basis that, like on the North, is afraid of facing the hard issues – attacking the Irish corporation tax rate, exposing the State’s fake neutrality, opposing without compromise social partnership and the trade union bureaucracy, proposing an internationalist alternative and opposing narrow Irish nationalism.

As Connolly said, this ‘would make our propaganda more fruitful and our organisation more enduring’ not more easy; but then nothing worthwhile was ever easy.

The latest issue of Red Banner is worth buying for this article alone.

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