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A new flag for the North of Ireland?

A white flag?

12 December 2013

Unofficial U.S. representative Richard Haass has been called in to reverse the creeping collapse of the Irish peace process, concentrating on the investigation of past atrocities, the display of flags and disputes around marches. Following a series of meetings he intends to wrap up the process by the end of December.

As he left the last round of talks, Haass asked the local parties to set up a number of working groups and to consider a number of questions. One question set was that the parties consider a new "Northern Ireland" flag.

This proposal is significant. It is not impossible that a new flag be designed - loyalists love flags and, in addition to British, army and a host of Orange and paramilitary flags, have a special love for the Israeli flag. One more will not go amiss.

What is impossible is that the unionists demote the British flag, stop using it as a truncheon to establish sectarian supremacy or pass up any chance to insult the Irish flag.

Richard Haass knows this is not a solution. Rather he is stepping back, empathising his role of facilitator and handing the parcel back to the local parties.

This completes the circle. Sinn Fein originally complained to the British about unionist rejection of the terms of the peace agreement in 2012. The British did nothing but, when Loyalist street mobilizations were encouraged by unionist leaders last November, they passed the parcel to Haass. This would have worked if the local parties were seeking a settlement, but unfortunately the drive to rewrite the settlement is led by the main government party, the DUP, and the British have made it clear that they will continue to placate the unionists.

So Haass is stepping back and the chances of a new settlement guaranteeing stability will not be realized by an external imposition by imperialism, a point that he underlined as he returned for what he suggests will be the final round of talks.

However help is at hand from the nationalist camp. They want the Irish national question to remain safely buried and are perfectly happy with the system of kickbacks and sectarian political patronage that dominates daily life in the North.  The nationalists have clearly signalled that they will endorse a further shifting of the settlement to the right.

The intervention of local Attorney General John Larkin with a proposal to draw a line under past atrocities - especially state atrocities - has been endorsed by leading political figures in Dublin and in the Catholic Church. Local commentators have expressed astonishment at the level of complacency in the Catholic middle class at sectarian displays and marches and at the level of impunity allowed to the loyalist demonstrators and paramilitaries by state forces. The fact is that the unionists remain the political base on which the British presence in Ireland rests. The Dublin government and northern nationalists realize that. Since they have no interest in a confrontation with Britain, stability can only be won by a full-blooded capitulation to loyalism. This was the code behind a recent report on the Haass talks by RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, when their chief political reporter said that a deal was possible if Sinn Fein followed "the example of Mandela".

So the focus of current talks is to obtain some promise from the unionists that indicates that this time they will stay bought while moving society back towards their spiritual home in apartheid 1950s Ireland.

In this framework the difficulties of a settlement are immediately reduced. The issue of state crimes cannot be pursued if the political parties do not support it. Outstanding IRA charges can simply be put on the long finger. Victims’ complaints can be removed from the political arena and treated as a psychological issue of support and seeking closure.

If cases against the IRA are excluded from any deal it would still work. Sinn Fein have stood still for ex-prisoners being barred from advisory posts at Stormont and five of their leading members facing current charges of IRA membership.

The issue of marches remains difficult. For years Sinn Fein have expressed their respect for "Orange culture" and policed nationalist protests. They have seen the small number of republican commemorations restricted. The British and Europe have poured out millions in bribes. In return they have looked for a moderation of the naked sectarianism built into the demonstrations to little effect. 

It seems that the latest proposals involve disbanding the utterly corrupt Parades Commission - however the context would be a shift to the right and local control of demonstrations. Sinn Fein are desperately searching for a mechanism that would prevent the unionists from simply pushing through all the marches.

At first sight the flags issue is also soluble. Sinn Fein has been careful not to oppose the flying of British flags. It does not oppose: "British culture" but wants equal respect for "Irish culture."  Its proposal for a formal flag apartheid where each area flies a single flag is ludicrous, but clearly the thousands of loyalist and paramilitary flags produce their own instability.

However if the unionist leaders see all their demands met they can bring their followers to heel. When the Northern state was firmly established the internment regulations were used to imprison the most irreconcilable loyalists and bring the conflict to an end.

So yet another settlement is possible, but will shift the balance of the class struggle. The weight of sectarian provocation will fall on the nationalist working class and they will find themselves under attack from the Church and middle class. The spotlight will fall on Sinn Fein and their role and the decay of that party will accelerate.

There is plenty of disillusionment and anger amongst workers in both parts of the partitioned island that can only grow. The regroupment of the class, the expression of its own programme and the construction of its own party will grow out of the decay of the imperialist settlement and the corruption of its local capitalist stooges.


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