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A view from the South

Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh

Like a reluctant wedding, the Good Friday agreement has been on, then off, and then on again.  For a few months in spring the squabbling of the prospective spouses just got more and more bitter.  But then, just as it seemed that the services of the divorce lawyers would be called upon, things were patched up and the partners prepared to walk down the aisle after all.

Of course, it wasn't true love that conquered, or even the fine May weather.  The reason that these irreconcilable differences usually end up getting reconciled is that this process is absolutely in the interests of the powers that be in these islands and beyond.  That fact should in itself set alarm bells ringing in the heads of those who oppose the powers that be.  But those who have decided to make their peace with them have little alternative: if they don't do the deed, they'll be cut off without a penny.

Now that the executive has been given a longer lease of life, the debate over the agreement should be far clearer.  If it does indeed inaugurate an era of peace and plenty for this troubled land of ours, then those of us who oppose it will have to suck it up and admit our mistake.

If, on the other hand, it turns out to be the same old song, then its supporters will have some explaining to do.  In the meantime, the brief flowering of devolved government does allow us to draw some conclusions.

Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún, for example, has become health minister.  Plenty for her to do there, you would think: a desperate health service, starved of resources, run on the basis of profit-and-loss accounts rather than people's well-being, understaffed by underpaid workers. Whatever about eight hundred years of oppression, surely Minister de Brún could start seeing to it that working-class people get proper treatment when they're sick?

Not a bit of it.  Instead the health of Protestant workers has been placed on one side, the health of Catholic workers on the other, and the two set against each other like cats with their tails tied together.  Not once has the minister or any of her colleagues in cabinet or assembly so much as hinted at the colossal amount of money that the Northern health service needs in every area.  No, Catholic illness can only be reduced if Protestant illness increases, and vice versa.  The old sectarian see-saw game is being played and, as ever, it is the working class that loses.

But you'll seldom hear these issues being debated back and forth in the South. People flocked to vote for the agreement and, even after all that has happened since, its opponents are still finding it hard to get a word in edgeways.  No one comes forth with a detailed and informed advocacy of the agreement - indeed, you might find one or two people who think the d'Hondt mechanism is a method of birth control - but there is a general acquiescence in the belief that it has brought peace to the North and a chance to sort things out.

It's too easy to say that this is because people down here couldn't give a toss about what goes on up there.  When your average Southern worker sees the RUC drag people off the Garvaghy Road so that the Orangemen can walk all over them, he or she tends to get angry about it.  When David Trimble appears on the RTÉ news, he isn't listened to sympathetically as the Nobel Prize-winning statesman who represents the legitimately-held views of the majority community in Northern Ireland - he is greeted with a look that could be roughly translated as 'What the hell is your man going to come out with now?' Although the historic tensions between ourselves and the neighbouring island are now supposed to be patched up, Ireland still cheered perfidious Albion's early exit from Euro 2000, and still voted a resounding 'nul points' to the British Eurovision entry.  An instinctive sympathy for the injustices suffered by Northern nationalists still exists in the Southern working class.

The problem, however, is that it goes no further than that. An active engagement with Northern politics, a real solidarity with the oppressed in the North, is seriously missing from the outlook of workers in the South.  The sheer one-sidedness with which the debate is usually conducted has a lot to do with this, without a doubt, but other factors are involved in the way the North has fallen off the working-class agenda.

In part it is due to the direction taken by the fight against oppression.  When it was a matter of defending themselves against loyalist and state murderers, nationalists could rely on a strong level of support in the twenty-six counties.  But when it was narrowed down to a campaign of bombings and shootings that wasn't going anywhere or achieving anything, then the North became more and more something to turn away from, something people just weren't that interested in any more.

Part of the old appeal was that attacking the Northern set-up implied an attack on the Southern set-up too.  If you marched through Dublin against the six-county state, you could be pretty sure of having a  go at the twenty six-county state at the same time, getting up the noses of the politicians and the gardaí.  But those who once lashed the collaborationist Free State, with its Mickey Mouse rulers in the usurping partitionist assembly at Leinster House, have since changed their tune.  It seems that the Irish Government now has a most positive role to play in bringing about progress on the island; that Dáil Éireann is a fine place where Northern nationalist MPs should be advancing the cause; and that coalition with Fianna Fáil is something that cannot be ruled out.

Of course, this is an unrequited love.  The capitalist class of the twenty-six counties haven't a notion of endangering the state they have so painstakingly built up for themselves. That's why they want the release of those who have killed RUC men, but not those who have killed gardaí.  That's why they want Sinn Féin in the Northern executive, but are decidedly reluctant to allow them near the Southern government. Dublin has just as much interest in propping up the status quo, as does London. The two of them might quarrel over the garden fence from time to time, but they will always come together to defend property values in the neighbourhood. But if advancing the struggle for justice up there means loving up to the ruling class down here, then we have a problem.   These are the people we love to hate, and rightly so: they are the people who keep our wages down, who force up the price of a roof over our heads, who make us wait months and years when we need healthcare.  We don't like them one little bit and, given half the chance, we'd get rid of them if we saw something better on offer.  How, then, are we supposed to turn around and embrace them whenever they deal with anything to the north of Dundalk?  It doesn't come naturally to working-class people to agree wholeheartedly with their bosses, and even when we do go along with them, we find it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for it.

If workers in the South accept the consensus on the North, fall in with the attitude of our superiors, then we weaken our ability to defend our interests on other matters.  It's no accident that the latest version of 'social partnership' - that sorry saga of wage restraint agreements between unions, employers and government -contains a clause supporting the Good Friday agreement.  If we're going to play follow-the-leader on one side of the border, why not do the same on the other while we're at it?

The only way the Southern working class can get involved again in the North is by making it a personal matter, something that concerns us directly.  To coin a phrase, we need to take ownership of the process - not the peace process, but a process of really solving the problems we face on this island. If our class is to do that, we are confronted by two states standing in our way, and both of them need to be pushed aside.  When you come down to it, there isn't one struggle in the six counties, and another separate struggle in the twenty six counties.  You can't have one without the other.

At the start of this year, small farmers in the South fought to defend their livelihoods.  Mass pickets brought the state's largest industry to an immediate standstill, High Court injunctions and six-figure fines were ignored, and the beef barons were forced to give in.  The success of the blockade forced the squires of the Ulster Farmers' Union to put up a show of resistance too.  The only mass demonstration to worry the Southerners - hands across the border, no less.

The workers' movement would do well to learn a lesson or two from the farmers' fight, principally that militant struggle against the employers and their state can succeed where class collaboration fails.  If they did so, it is not at all unreasonable to expect that a big strike in one jurisdiction would find an echo of sympathy and solidarity in the other.  But that would be a cross-border dimension of a very different colour.  The proposition that has to be put on the table is not a united Ireland of Celtic Tiger profit-mongering, but a united Ireland of working people fighting against capitalism, and ultimately a united socialist Ireland.

This means that opposition to the peace process needs to go beyond the bounds of republicanism.  The head-the-balls who are trying to get the war going again have nothing to offer. Not only because more Omaghs are waiting to happen down that road, but because even an immaculate armed struggle, that only killed British prime ministers and generals instead of innocent civilians, offers no prospect of forcing Britain out of Ireland.  Rewinding the film of the troubles back twenty five years won't change the ending.  The best republicans have come out and said that both the peace process and a return to war are dead ends.  This development is extremely welcome, although it doesn't lessen the duty to argue for a socialist opposition, rather than a republican one.

The key to replacing the peace process with something better lies with those who currently support it.  Unless the thousands of workers who wish the Good Friday agreement well can be persuaded otherwise, we can get nowhere.   Socialists should be part of the general mood in favour of equality and peace, part of the general frustration against the British and the unionists, while arguing that the agreement and its backers are not part of the solution but part of the problem.  That while covering up the appearance of sectarianism, it leaves the substance intact; that the cross-border bodies will stabilise partition, not remove it; that it won't close the book on the divisions that have bedevilled the Irish working class, but open a new chapter.

The peace process is a bundle of contradictions and is bound to move from crisis to crisis.  Each one opens a gap in the wall of consensus, a breathing space amidst the fog of unanimity.  Socialists have to grab hold of these opportunities to argue that there is another way.  That means putting together something we don't have at present, a socialist movement that isn't afraid to take a principled stand that offers little in the way of paper sales, recruits or short-term popularity.  It cuts both ways, indeed: we need a decent socialist movement to fight oppression in the North, and we need to fight oppression in the North to get a decent socialist movement going. Now, that's the kind of process that really could address the totality of relationships on this island.



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