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Sinn Fein in coalition with the Paisleyites: Could it really work?

John McAnulty

8th September 2004

The nationalist festivals in Belfast and Derry have often been used by Sinn Fein to acclimatise their followers to new twists and turns of policy. This August in Derry the key event was the debate with Dennis Bradley off the policing board, a debate which moved forward Sinn Fein's slow progress towards full-blooded support for the police. However the historic announcement was made by Gerry Adams during the West Belfast Festival, when he announced, as predicted some time ago by Socialist Democracy, that the next stage in the Republican capitulation to the British would be the disbandment of the IRA. 

Almost more interesting than the announcement itself was the lack of opposition from within the Provisional Movement. Rank and file IRA members reacted with demoralised bewilderment, while the political cadre of new Sinn Fein responded with quiet but silent approval. A minor element of the West Belfast Festival was a fringe meeting by Socialist Democracy entitled "Do we really want the Stormont assembly back?" We leafleted widely at the political events of the festival, and was quite clear that the answer of Sinn Fein's middle class supporters was Yes ! Yes ! Yes !

These responses can be explained.  The rank and file, supporters above all of a military leadership, simply lack the political training that would enable them to resist. Their experience is of the discipline of a secret army rather than the different currents and debates of traditional working-class organisations.  For the new middle class supporters the return of a Stormont assembly would mean grants and patronage - many of them are already on the payroll of the various community groups that have blossomed as tranche after tranche of 'peace funding' rolls in.  Many full-time Sinn Fein officials are paid directly by the British government as research staff in the Stormont assembly and have a direct interest in the return of that assembly. 

What Socialist Democracy members found harder to explain was the quiet certainty among the Sinn Fein members that it would all work - that the unstable structures of the old Good Friday agreement, collapsed by the bigot Trimble with the support of the British, would be stable with a coalition of Sinn Fein and the even more bigoted DUP.


One major element is that the motor which is driving the process today is the almost unconditional surrender of the Republicans. Gerry Adams speaks of testing the DUP, of removing the excuse that the IRA presents to political unionism. Behind all this gobbledegook is the reality that the testing of Unionism requires nothing from them. All the action falls on the Republicans: decommissioning, disbandment, acceptance of the Northern state, support for the sectarian police force. This headlong surrender is of course widely welcomed by the London government, the Dublin government and by their Unionist enemies. Behind the scenes there are warm words of support and promises and guarantees of reward. Unfortunately for the Republican leadership unconditional surrender is now the price for entering negotiations, not the conclusion of them, and they seem blind to the fact that the cautious public welcome from the DUP leadership is accompanied by stern warnings that the period of negotiation following their surrender will last a long time. 

One would expect that Sinn Fein, knowing the record of the DUP, would be highly suspicious that the time would indeed be very long before they would agree to Catholics, no matter how tame, in government. What the Republicans appear to have done is to put their faith in the corruption of the DUP and in their own practice of corruption and sectarian horse trading in the local councils. In the councils the practice is wholly sectarian, with the two parties working amicably together to divide up the spoils of office and the patronage that flows from it. This sectarian partnership also flourishes in the community organisations, where very often grants have a cross community requirement - that is that the groups pretend they have some common practice to attract funds while in reality splitting them down the middle.

This belief in the corruption of the DUP - that the real DUP places power and the bribes of office above its sectarian programme - has been theorised as the "modernisation" of the DUP. In this theory the party leader, Ian Paisley, has only figurehead status and his rural base has faded into an insignificant rump. The urban leadership under deputy leader Peter Robinson is seen as paying only lip service to the uncompromising sectarianism of the party and to be essentially pragmatic, willing to take any step to guarantee their place in government. 

In addition, Sinn Fein’s confidence in their ability to regain ministerial seats in administering the Northern colony is firmly based on the changing nature of the party and the consciousness of its members. New Sinn Fein is beginning to be mocked as Ogra Fianna Fail. It is more and more seen as a party for defending Catholic privileges within the sectarian state, copying all this dishonesty and clientelist practice of the bigger nationalist party in the Southern state.  As Ogra Fianna Fail, it now fully accepts the sectarian logic of the Northern state and has begun to assume that the sectarian division of society is both natural and stable.

Finally it should be argued that Sinn Fein believe a stable sectarian settlement can be achieved because the Dublin, London and Washington governments want it to be achieved.  The broad coalition that Adams argued had been built against unionism has long ago proved to be an alliance to defend unionism and the partition of the island and long ago squeezed the life out of any democratic sentiments that might have been held by the republican leadership.

Misplaced confidence

To what extent is republican confidence in a settlement justified?

On one element - the extent of their own surrender, the Republicans can be absolutely confident. The constant drift to the right in the terms for settlement and the ever increasing demands on the Republicans themselves was once wittily characterised by former deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Seamus Mallon, as "kicking the dog to see if it was dead". The dog is very definitely dead. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some bewildered band of revolutionaries might not, in years to come, emerge from the corpse off the Provisional republican movement. What can be ruled out now is any mass revolt in defence of the traditional Republican programme of democratic revolution. This is ruled out by the completeness of the republican surrender, by the absence of any sizeable Republican political opposition and by the collapse of consciousness among Republicans supporters. It is true that, as the new middle class support for Sinn Fein has become more fervent, so also their traditional base becomes more demoralised. However that demoralisation has led to demobilisation and withdrawal from politics rather than the construction of an opposition.

It is in their analysis of Unionism and Loyalism that the Republicans go badly wrong.  They draw upon their experience in the councils and see a pragmatic DUP willing to do deals.  They forget that the councils are essentially powerless and were rendered powerless by the British because of the rabid nature of their sectarianism whenever allowed to exercise any influence. The constraints on council business are such that the only way to get anything done is by striking sectarian deals. The republicans ignore the fact that, even on the councils, whenever given the opportunity the DUP immediately revert to type and exercise the rawest form of sectarian privilege. And if this is true in the powerless councils, will it be any less true in a Stormont with some resources worth fighting over?

The very nature of the DUP in relation to the Official unionists is defined by a gradient of sectarian viciousness. The Official Unionists, as the bourgeois party, are under no direct threat from nationalists.  They need sectarianism to keep control of the state and to discipline and divide the working class, but the fact that they operate at a distance from the frontline makes them slightly more dispassionate than the petty-bourgeois DUP who, scrambling for sectarian advantage over their catholic counterparts and charged with the role of foreman over Protestant workers, need to enforce the harshest code of religious hatred and bring to bear the strictest discipline on Protestant 'Lundys' willing to live at peace with their fellow workers.

It's the success of this strategy that has enabled the DUP to become the majority party of unionism and bring down the Good Friday agreement. Why then should they put their success at risk by constructing a new agreement that throws a lifeline to Sinn Fein and puts the republican bums back in ministerial seats? The DUP are able to justify pragmatism in the council on the grounds that there is no alternative.  In their eyes, and the eyes of their supporters, there will always be an alternative to having Sinn Fein in Government.

A ‘modernised’ party of bigots?

That leaves the modernisation argument.  It is true that the DUP has changed over the decades, but it would be a mistake to think that it has evolved.  It began as a party of the rural petty-bourgeois, supported by the lowest dregs of the urban underclass and as essentially a political voice for Paisley's Free Presbyterian church.  The continued decay of Official Unionism has allowed it to expand into the professional middle class and win the support of sections of the working class.  Membership of the party is now no longer co-incident with membership of the church.

The reason why these changes cannot be considered to be an evolution of the party is because there has been no change in policy. The DUP’s programme remains relatively straightforward – Stormont with majority rule, an all-Protestant police force and scrapping even the weak equality legislation enacted by the British. The party is united by its unbending defence of sectarian privilege, by Ian Paisley and by very little else.  Without Paisley the most likely outcome would be a fragmentation of the network, the rural section moving away from the urban and the Free Presbyterians from the other churches. 

It is not the case that a 'progressive' layer would emerge.  Robinson and his followers are not a raucous as Paisley, but they are no less bigoted.

The leadership of Sinn Fein hasn't even thought to apply the Sherlock Holmes test - of the dog that didn't bark in the night. When Peter Robinson makes encouraging noises urging Ogra Fianna Fail to do more his comments are not followed by hysterical outbursts or threats of a split from the rural wing of the party - the 'singing pastor', Willie McCrea is famously even more bigoted than Paisley.  Why is he silent?  The answer is self-evident.  No-one in the DUP believes for a moment that there is any chance of a coalition government with Sinn Fein.

The forlorn hope is that capitalism and imperialism might step in and make the DUP do the decent thing, but history is against us. Never in the history of Ireland or in the recent history of the Good Friday Agreement has capitalism and imperialism played any such progressive role.  The fact is that London, Dublin and Washington are all united in supporting a settlement based around the partition of Ireland.  The unionists are necessary to maintain that partition.  Sinn Fein are not necessary. Imperialist pressure will be applied to Sinn Fein, to ensure they go further and do more.

A place in Stormont – but subordinate

It's through this mechanism that a new deal might emerge.  The DUP are bigots, but they are not stupid.  They want stability.  They want their place in government. They do not stand for holy war.  Their state has a place for Catholics - the thing is - it's a subordinate position.

So, negotiations will start with the disbandment and support for the police, but they will not end there. The DUP will be demanding that their programme be the basis for a settlement and Tony Blair has already indicated that if a settlement is not reached he will support the Unionists, tear up the remnants of the Good Friday agreement in its entirety and disband Stormont.

The DUP offer two alternatives. They can deal with Sinn Fein in the councils, so why not have a supercouncil, a Belfast City Hall writ large?  It won't be a government but there will be plenty of patronage and committees.  If Sinn Fein aren't happy with this then why not a majority rule government? After all it brought stability to the old Stormont! Again the Shinners can have some committees.

If Sinn Fein buy such a deal then the Stormont assembly can live again with the prospect of stability held out as the golden justification for all the lies and betrayals. Unfortunately for the British and their allies neither scheme offers a stable solution. A supercouncil does not meet the needs of the British. Their chief requirement is that the colonial nature of the state be hidden behind the facade of a local democracy. The first plan would leave them as a very visible colonial administration, to blame for all the crises and convulsions that will take place.

On the other hand sectarian supremacy would not be stable the second time round because it was not stable the first time. What kept the first Stormont stable was not sectarian supremacy but a vicious state repression. The Unionist founders of Stormont pored over parish maps to draw up an artificial state with a Catholic minority small enough to be cowed by the repression. They rejected the legitimacy that a nine County state based on the ancient province of Ulster might have given the new structures because they reckoned that repressing a minority of over 40 per cent would lead to permanent instability. 

No happy ending for imperialism

The calculation is that the new structures should be stable because the Catholics would have a share of sectarian privilege. In reality the situation would select for the most vicious defenders of sectarian privilege on each side. Given that there would not be enough resources to go round it would not take too long for the situation to spiral out of control.

Most telling of all, the economic realities of the North of Ireland have not changed. The economy remains a basket case. The present quietude is obtained by bribing everyone in sight, hardly a long term strategy and, in the absence of revolt, workers in the North can add to the endemic poverty a series of new attacks - regional pay for teachers and civil servants and massive bills to pay for the privatisation of public services. A share of sectarian privilege would be worth very little when there are few goodies to dole out.

The task of those opposing the sectarian settlement in the North from the left is not one of trying to chip away at a stable solution. It lies in constructing an alternative that meets the needs of working people and in constructing a working-class movement across the island as a whole strong enough to defeat the capitalist and imperialist sponsors of the current scheme.



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