Return to Peace Process menu
The final piece of the jigsaw?

 John McAnulty 

1 December 2008

The resumption of executive meetings at Stormont on the 20th November and the news that Sinn Fein and the DUP had reached agreement about the devolution of policing in the North of Ireland led to immediate claims of final triumph by the Irish and British governments.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said the executive needed to address pressing economic and social issues due to the global economic downturn. 

"It is of great importance that devolution of policing and justice powers proceed. Its successful completion will be the final piece of the jigsaw of the peace process," he said. 

Secretary of State Shaun Woodward said:

"This is homegrown, it is something authored by the politicians of Northern Ireland. It will mark a maturing of the political process, and a maturing of democracy here which shows the politicians of Northern Ireland can assume control," he said. 

In fact any examination of the details casts all of the above into doubt.

Perhaps the most extravagant claim is Cowan’s claim that the executive will have to address pressing economic issues, closely followed by Woodward’s claim that the latest deal is homegrown.  It is of course nonsense to suggest that a colonial administration with no taxation powers can direct what passes for an economy in the North.  A big element of the settlement was in fact the transfer of a promised £900 million from Westminster to swell the ocean of patronage on which the Stormont administration floats.  The bribe was only part of a range of overwhelming pressures brought by Britain, Dublin and the US. 

The pressure was not equal on all the parties, nor did it lead to a resolution of all the issues or even to a credible resolution of the central issue that led to the de facto collapse of the executive.  In fact the foundation of the latest attempt to shore up the peace process is what it has been throughout the process – the capitulation of Sinn Fein and the further strengthening of sectarianism and reaction.

The original basis of the Good Friday agreement was that there would be a sectarian sharing of privilege around “equality of the two traditions.”  That collapsed into the St Andrews deal, where unionism was guaranteed that it’s sectarian rights would be more equal than the nationalists, that they would have a veto over decisions and that the Shinners would have to pay for their place in government through unconditional support for the state and police. In the latest arrangement the DUP have been allowed, with the full support of London and Dublin, to veto the minor concessions made to Sinn Fein at St. Andrews and even to endanger the whole settlement by in fact failing to put in place the devolution of policing and complete the jigsaw. 

In the process the mechanisms that were supposed to guarantee equality have been abandoned.  The D’Hondt process, that was to provide for sharing of ministries, has been scrapped in relation to the justice ministry. In practice, despite a “sunset clause” that offers to revisit the issue, nationalists will not be able to take up the position. Equality has gone, the nationalist veto has gone, what is left is the supposed protection that the parties are “minded” to nominate a Catholic solicitor as the local attorney general (no matter that the individual concerned is a unionist – the local parlance, a ‘Castle Catholic’). 

Irish democrats and socialists will stand aghast at the endless retreats by Sinn Fein or by its conversion into a Catholic party - where in Irish history has membership of the Catholic religion been synonymous with defense of democracy?   But that’s not the issue.  The issue is the claims by London and Dublin that this is the final piece of the jigsaw.  Does this retreat allow a stable political process involving Sinn Fein and the DUP?  Will a stable society, no matter how sectarian and unequal, follow this settlement? Is this a final climbdown, with no further ultimatums by unionism? 

It should be remembered that Sinn Fein's boycott of executive meetings was an attempt to force the British and the unionists to meet a whole series of concessions designed to justify the republican's unconditional acceptance of the Northern state summed up in the St. Andrews agreement.

The Shinners wanted the removal of the 11+ primary school transfer test to lead to a non-selective education system. They were promised that the history of the Irish hunger strikes would be recognized in a 'conflict transformation centre'. A new language act would give legal recognition to the Irish language. Policing and justice powers were to be devolved to the Stormont administration.

Of these issues three were of central importance to Sinn Fein and the last issue of policing and justice of central importance to the British.

Sinn Fein hoped to prove that their decision to support British rule in the North could be justified by demonstrating that reforms could be wrung from the system. 

In this they have failed entirely. Their failure to win educational reform was illustrated by a Unionist vote calling for the resignation of their minister, Catriona Ruane, preceded by an announcement by the Catholic church, whom Sinn Fein had fondly imagined were allies, that they would support entrance exams organised by the grammar schools. More recently Deputy first Minister Martin McGuinness has been dropping hints of a common consensus around a transfer to secondary education at 14 – so the 11+ will become the 14+!

Background negotiations continue around a conflict transformation centre, but it's clear that any concessions will be derisory. An Irish language act is clearly a non-starter, given that the British have already given Sinn Fein £16 million in compensation for it's absence.

So the Sinn Fein bluff has been called. They are not about to pull out of the local administration. The unionist base for British rule is of far greater importance than they are, and they may knuckle down to second-class status, hiding reality from their supporters as best they can.

Much more important is the issue of central importance to the British themselves - the devolution of policing and justice. This really would give justification to British claims to have achieved a final settlement, allowing them to tiptoe away and disclaim all responsibility while retaining full control of their colony.

The evidence for movement in this area is not strong. A lot of concessions have been thrown at the DUP. All the mechanisms of the state have been moved firmly out of the Shinners reach. In return the DUP have agreed a series of steps (no-one is foolish enough to call it a roadmap, given the fate of these schemes) supposed to lead to the devolution of policing. There is no deadline, and the DUP are to receive state help to persuade their members to support this sacrifice. 

The British exerted considerable pressure on the Unionists. That pressure didn't lead to the Unionists bending to their wishes. All Peter Robinson had to do was point dumbly at the spectre of Ian Paisley, who used up the credibility of 40 years of bigotry in just 10 months in office and was forced to retire as leader of the DUP.

As it is, devolution of policing is unlikely before the next European election, and not even then if the DUP's critics in Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) do well.

Does any of this matter?  What emerges from the skirmish over the abandonment of the St. Andrews deal is the frantic support of Irish capitalism for the northern settlement and the absence of any requirement that there be any element of justice or democracy. 

The final straw was Sinn Fein's attempt to raise the ante by demonstrating against the triumphalism of a victory march by the local British regiment, the Royal Irish Rangers (RIR). 

The attempt demonstrated that Sinn Fein's capitulation had demobilised their base and they were no longer able to organise significant numbers on the streets. It also showed that the right wing of the movement were opposed to the adventure and prepared to criticise the leadership in support of the status quo. Finally it showed that Unionism, rather than being demobilised, was growing in strength. The Unionist mobilization in support of the RIR showed that the Orange monster was alive and well and ready to run rampage.

After that the pressure on Sinn Fein mounted rapidly. The Catholic cardinal, Sean Brady, issued a major statement indicating that the duty of Catholics was to support the police and the state forces. The main nationalist daily paper called for a campaign of repression against the tiny republican groups. (More recently there has been hysteria and a week of official mourning from church, state and media following the accidental deaths deaths of four policemen in a traffic accident - the unconditional support of nationalists for the northern regime could not be clearer). 

Sinn Fein were summoned to meetings in Dublin and Washington and told to end their posturing.

It was as Gerry Adams left Washington that the new line was spelt out. The task of Sinn Fein was 'nation-building'. The way to bring in the lost tribe of unionism was to oppose the 'Afrikaaner' Unionists of TUV and the way to do this was to capitulate to the DUP.

This tosh no longer represents any sort of policy. It is merely the noises that the Shinners make as they rush forward, led by a culture of grants and prodded from behind by capitalism and imperialism.

An Irish capitalist class determined to ensure the success of the imperialist settlement, towing Sinn Fein in it's wake, is a powerful weapon in the hands of the British. Does this represent a stable settlement?

In fact the settlement remains riven by contradictions.

It is driven by the constant capitulation of Sinn Fein. This process is reaching a conclusion, with the Shinners unable to convincingly argue that they are a party of reform. The result has already been a hollowing out of their activists and a gradual decrease in their hegemony over nationalist workers. This is not a sufficient basis for a new resistance, but it is a necessary one.

A second issue is the authority of Irish capitalism itself. The days of the Celtic tiger are long gone and the capitalist class are leading a full-scale offensive against workers. The emergence of a working class resistance in the 26 counties would dramatically change the situation in the North.

A major difficulty is the fact that no section of Unionism supports the settlement. From their point of the sectarian headcount in the artificial statelet gives them the 'democratic' right to unrestricted rule. The claim today is that the pragmatic leadership of the DUP is willing in practice to share power, yet the most recent crisis was based on a totally contrary reality - their fear of being seen to concede anything.

Above all the settlement, because it is based on maintaining sectarian division, does not contain within itself the grounds of future stability. Sectarian rivalry permeates everything, threatening to break into violence and chaos at any time.

It is not the case that at some future time the Northern settlement will decay. It has been decaying from day one, has just been revived after its fourth terminal crisis, and is in an advanced state of corruption. As in many other areas, it is the absence of a coherent socialist opposition that gives the sectarian Frankenstein the continued appearance of life.


Return to top of page