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The ghost of promises past: 20 years since the IRA ceasefire
30 August 2014
The 20th anniversary of the IRA ceasefire that began the movement to the current peace settlement arrived on August 31st. It has been marked by a number of commentaries. Almost all are fervently in support of the settlement, yet nearly all are marked by a deep disillusionment and disappointment and also a recognition that, despite continued support from the major political forces, the political structures are in crisis and are likely to collapse in a short period of time.
Many refer back to the ceasefire statement and to the grotesque spin that Provisional Sinn Fein put on the deal, with cavalcades of cars sporting Irish flags and slogans drumming home the message; “The war is over! Victory! We won!” Most commentators say now that they did not believe that the settlement would lead to a united Ireland and in fact Irish unity, an Irish democracy, have never been further away. Unionism is as intransigent as ever and the defeat of republicanism has seen the emergence of a strong strand of Catholic unionism in the North and the triumph of a West Brit mentality in the South, free to make its peace with the British state, with royalty, and with the growing tide of imperialist triumphalism around the 1914-18 war (the 1916 revolt and the 1919 war in Ireland are to be forgotten).
It is not in the absence of a united Ireland that supporters of the peace process are disappointed. It is in their belief that the process would deliver a prosperous and democratic society within the North and that sectarianism would gradually wither away. Yet the peace dividend and mass investment never arrived and recent research shows that the working class base of the resistance has been left far behind in terms of income, employment, lifestyle and even in suicide statistics and is worse off than it ever was. There is a continuing net migration from the North, mainly of the young. The Patton reforms turned out to be a con, with the police facilitating loyalist reaction. Sectarianism is built into every corner of society, with loyalist paramilitaries on community groups and policing boards. The Stormont executive never got beyond a sectarian sharing out of bribes, patronage and resources and even this mechanism has now broken down.
A line has been crossed in the evolution and decay of the Irish peace process. Quantitative decay has now become a change in quality. Its most fervent supporter, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, claims that the process is in crisis. He is immediately attacked by DUP leader Peter Robinson, who however concedes the main point - that there is indeed a crisis.
The two parties sharply disagree about the basis of the crisis. Sinn Fein say that the DUP are tearing up the agreement with the silent support of the London and Dublin governments. Robinson says that Sinn Fein is committing economic sabotage by failing to agree savage welfare cuts.
Both groups are right. The settlement has been in free fall since Robinson tore up a deal for a peace centre at the site of the Maze/Long Kesh prison camp, followed by the organization of widespread "flag" protests by sections of the DUP. For their part, Sinn Fein gave an outline agreement to massive welfare cuts, part of a British programme dismantling the welfare state, but now see little point in surrendering their vaguely left image, the source of great popularity in the Southern state, if the Unionists cannot guarantee the continuation of the agreement.
DUP role ignored
A major survival tactic for supporters of the Irish peace process is to focus in on the tactic of violence. When the unionist groups began to reject elements of the settlement, especially with the start of the flag protests in 2011, they would, as a matter of course, decry all violence and call on the Orange mobs to avoid disorder.
This allowed nationalist politicians, the British and the Dublin government to ignore the fact that the leading party in the administration, the DUP, had in fact organized and led the protests and that all the unionist groups were united in a reactionary campaign to overthrow existing agreements and processes in order to assert the primacy of their sectarian privileges.
It also allowed the state to follow a policy of killing Loyalism with kindness. The police rewrote the law to allow loyalists to take over the streets whenever they wished. The British began to shift policy yet again to split the difference between what the unionists had agreed last time and what they would accept now. The Haass talks were the mechanism for settlement. They foundered, and the follow-up talks saw a unionist withdrawal.
A similar process is occurring now. From all sides there is praise for unionist restraint. The avalanche of hate around the Orange bonfires and marches, the impunity from legal restraint, the fact that the state sponsors these hatefests with multiple grants, all is set to one side.
No-one asks how violence was avoided. although the answer is staring them in the face. The unionist family of politicians, paramilitaries and the Orange mob have united. They will not continue with negotiations if their sectarian privilege is not guaranteed in advance.
A fundamental element of the mechanism of settlement has broken down. The basic premise, "equality of the two traditions," meant an equal sharing of sectarian rights and proved impossible to operate. The history of the peace process has been constant amendment of the agreement to reassure unionism of its relative dominance. State structures have incorporated loyalist paramilitaries and offered them a high degree of impunity.
Now that process is coming up against its limits. Trimble and Paisley saw their careers sink under the weight of the peace process. Robinson is living on borrowed time, with his policy of pragmatism - operating the administration while constantly humiliating Sinn Fein - rejected as too moderate. The administration no longer functions even at the basic level of sharing out sectarian favours and has ground to a halt. The unionist politicians are on the streets with the Orange and the paramilitaries demanding that they march past the nationalist Ardoyne area.
The difficulty is that the Nationalists, the Catholic church and the British have been trying to assist them for years. Last year the Orange were paid £2 million in bribes for a quiet marching season. Millions have been spent on unsuccessfully rebranding the 12th demonstrations as Orangefest. Deal after deal has been struck only to be welched on by the unionists. At the final moment they reject the ideology of "equality of the two traditions." They are the Queen's men (sic), walking the Queen's highway, and will accept no restriction.
The DUP are caught in a deadly spiral.
The leadership live in constant fear of their own right wing and other
parties further right. The Flag protests, which they ignited, fed their
own rejectionist wing. The new burst of bigotry, linked to the state forces
placating the demonstrations and creating a new sense of impunity, saw
increased votes for the DUP's unionist opponents.
The DUP have now asserted their leadership by putting themselves at the head of the Orange monster and asserting their privileges. The fact that sections of the unionist alliance are engaged in a ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing of migrants goes without comment, as does an armed feud between sections of the UDA, represented on the alliance by the Ulster Political Research Group.
The immediate call is for a public enquiry into the operation of the Parades Commission. It is a sign of British anxiety to placate the unionists that Secretary of state Theresa Villiers agreed immediately to discuss the idea.
It is hard to see where the chat with Villiers can go. The Parades Commission is simply a piece of flim-flam. It was set up originally to take the police out of the firing line and prevent Orange attacks on their homes and has evolved into an irrational mechanism trying to win moderation from the Orange while restricting Nationalist protest. Essentially the Unionists are asking the British themselves to tear up what is left of the Good Friday Agreement. That would cut the ground from under Sinn Fein and lead to eventual collapse.
The British can try to make new concessions while persuading the unionists to agree to a new deal. However that was the strategy behind the Haass talks, Haass II (with Haass wisely staying away) and a series of visits from Dublin government reps, the British Queen, and US interventions.
US concern is rising sharply. The Irish peace process is of some importance to them as it is used as a template to absorb former opponents into the structures of imperialist rule - it has been used to demobilise Palestinian resistance and currently it is being used in Colombia to close down the FARC guerrilla movement. The failed Haass intervention was followed by a background intervention by Victoria Nuland, by public criticism from former presidential aide Nancy Soderberg, and by a fact-finding mission on behalf of John Kerry by former US Senator Gary Hart – a mission welcomed by the nationalist politicians but immediately dismissed by the unionists who are much more concerned by the views of their loyalist base than the concerns of the US.
The DUP will find it hard to escape the embrace of the unionist family. Other things being equal, a continued protest movement will eventually lead to withdrawal from the local administration.
Other parties are now operating in the expectation of collapse. Sinn Fein are refusing to sign off on welfare cuts, not because they are opposed to cuts per se – their economic programme is strongly pro-business and in the context of administering budgets set by the British, but because there is no point in losing their left credentials south of the border if there is no guarantee of co-operation from the DUP on the northern side. The stakes a rising daily and the opportunities to back down decreasing. It is not realistic to believe that the unionists will retreat to ensure a budget will be agreed, and it is now growing more difficult for Sinn Fein to agree a budget in the absence of a more general political settlement. We are now in a “blame game” situation where major projects such as university expansion in Derry are being scrapped and an emergency budget for the health service proposed that would collapse many essential services. These are fairly crude forms of political blackmail designed to fix the blame for future collapse on the Shinners.
The British are caught in a dilemma. If the unionists collapse the assembly their demands will be difficult to meet and there will be a long interregnum before any new administration is put in place. If the British suspend the assembly they can force through all the issues that the unionists have reneged on, but the price will be a dramatic weakening of the process as the comic-book sham is packed away and the puppet master walks into the footlights. At the moment a halfway house is being proposed, where London and Dublin consider issuing a joint statement that they hope the Unionists will use to convince their followers that an agreement must be reached. It is a strategy that is unlikely to work.
We are however observing a process of decay rather than any challenge to the existing settlement. The establishment of new "supercouncils" with control over housing and planning, and without the restrictions placed on the Stormont administration, offers a mechanism where politics can continue to be defined as a process of struggling for sectarian advantage rather than around issues of democracy, equity and class - although sectarian dogfighting in Belfast, which is now a majority nationalist area, would reach new heights.
The barrier to a new politics lies with the opposition. Middle class commentators criticise the political leaderships but are blind to the fact that sectarian privilege was built into the settlement by the British. Both Sinn Fein and the trade union leaderships accept unreservedly the argument of the Orange (an argument supported by the peace process) that their activities are traditional and cultural. This is despite the fact that the number of "traditional" marches has doubled in the past few years, that the Orange mobilize to prevent republican and Civil Rights marches, that the demand for constant flying of the British flag continue despite a democratic vote by Belfast City Council ( that involves the flying of the British flag). One could add the attempts to smash up the Alliance party and the constant display of the Israeli flag to telegraph the real programme of unionism and its constant opposition to democracy. A child of two could see that loyalism is not a cultural expression but a sectarian and right-wing ideology that must be confronted. What many do not see is the unswerving sponsorship of this reaction by Britain and by Irish capital.
The IRA ceasefire is 20 years old. The civil rights explosion that set off the troubles is approaching its 50th anniversary. It in turn drew on the inspiration of the struggle for civil rights among Black Americans.
The news from America is that the struggle for civil rights was defeated, that a layer of the black middle class was bought off and the black workers were abandoned to continued servitude. The news from Ireland is that the republican acceptance of a colonial and partitionist settlement left the working class divided, in penury and servitude, at the mercy of sectarian gangs sponsored by the state. The winners were imperialism, unionism and Irish capital.
The old chapter of history is in decay
everywhere. The new chapter awaits a movement of the working class, operating
in its own interests, resolving as it organises the issues of democracy
and human rights rejected by the old order.
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