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A shared future in the North of Ireland?

The Emperor’s new clothes

15 May 2013

There is no mistaking the bookend manoeuvre inflicted on the Northern Irish administration at the start of May. At one end the British Secretary of State, Teresa Villiers, made threatening noises about cutting back the flow of grants unless there was some progress towards a more stable political structure.

At the other end of the bookend is a visit from President Obama, with the expectation that good news will be available about the growing maturity and stability of the Irish peace process.  One of its main uses outside Ireland has been to support processes such as the Middle East peace process and to accommodate Palestinians to reduce their expectations about the future.

Let there be no confusion.  In Ireland itself, despite the absence of any formal opposition outside the small republican milieu and the far right of loyalism, the current settlement is in trouble and its imperialist sponsors are moving in with first aid. The fact is that the recent flag demonstrations have undone years of public relations work aimed at industrialists and the tourist industry and seen claims of impartial policing and a neutral democratic state exposed as false.

It is in this light that the space between the bookends, the latest initiative from First Minister Robinson and Deputy First Minister McGuinness, must be examined.

Despite attempts to talk them up, the new measures were met with disappointment, seen as timid steps that avoided the central problems. Criticism, even from the other capitalist parties supporting the peace process, was so harsh that it provoked a tirade of abuse from the dour First Minister.

In actual fact the situation is far worse than it appears. These emperors have no clothes. The steps announced are not attempts to counter sectarianism but a mixture of hot air and measures that accommodate sectarianism. The more contentious issues are kicked into the long grass, with very clear signs that Sinn Fein will once again capitulate to Loyalism and move the goalposts further to the right.

Many of the announcements focus on education and youth; shared summer schools, shared sporting facilities and shared campuses. They all have a long history, stretching back decades to “Education for Mutual Understanding” programmes. All were designed not to integrate education, but to provide a cover for continuing sectarianism in education.  The main focus today is the “integrating” movement, supported by political parties and the trade union movement. Despite its name, essentially it is a framework to accommodate continued sectarianism. It has absorbed tens of millions around absurd proposals that we continue with sectarian division but build the separated schools on the same site!

Even more absurd are the proposals for shared housing. These are to be brought forward by arch-bigot Nelson McCausland, who engineered the sectarian carve up of a vacant site at Gridwood barracks in North Belfast under the slogan of “shared spaces” and is now proposing that the Housing Executive be wound up with a mechanism that would simultaneously privatise and sectarianise housing stock.

There is a vague proposal for work placement for unemployed youth.  If the proposal involves paying them a wage it will lead to strong opposition from employers who want to drive wages down. It is most like to involve a small dole top-up in an environment where all benefits are being cut. If it follows the usual route the money will be disbursed by “cross-community” schemes that simply carve up the funds in a local religious division.

Most laughable of all is the aspiration to end peace walls separating Unionist and Nationalist communities in a decade.  Robinson gave the game away here when he suggested that at the end of the decade they may be replaced with “peace gates”.  The endemic sectarianism of the current settlement means that the number of peace wall is constantly growing. 

The really immediate and major issues of loyalist triumphalism around parades and flags – threatening widespread violence before the July marching season – has been referred to a powerless cross-party committee that will still be assembling when the parades start and will still be discussing around the notional date that the peace walls come down. Anyone who expects this committee to resolve the issue of Loyalist sectarianism will wait a long time.

The actual mechanism of ''resolving" the flags issue and trying to ensure peace will be the "stakeholders" meeting in Wales. By far the most important of the stakeholders present will be the loyal orders and the loyalist paramilitaries. The process of settlement will be to expand the existing network of bribes designed, not to prevent sectarian provocation, but to keep it within limits so that outbreaks of communal violence are avoided.

The problem with this process is that the stakeholders don't stay bribed, so there will also be a requirement to expand formal recognition of their right to control the streets and intimidate nationalist workers. The loyalists are in a strong position to demand increased cultural rights, given that they have faced down the police and the Parades Commission in the 2012 marching season and in the subsequent protests demanding that the British Flag be permanently displayed at Belfast City Hall. During these protests they established on the ground that they could nullify legal and police controls on demonstrations and also that they could display intimidatory flags and symbols wherever they wished. 

These are not tactical gains but mark public acknowledgements by state forces claiming that there is no framework for controlling Loyalist demonstrations and that the way forward is consensual – that is that the only limits are those agreed by the Loyalists themselves.

Despite pressure by the British government and support from the US, the Irish Peace process that they drew up effectively reinforced the problems of imperialist rule and sectarian division. As the process develops it does not move towards a neutral consensus, but towards the institutionalising and deepening of sectarian division. In these circumstances he mechanism of stability rests not on an imaginary transition to democracy, but on the willingness of Sinn Fein to capitulate to the further institutionalism of sectarianism.

In the absence of an organised working-class opposition the house of cards holds together. It is not however a recipe for long-term stability.  


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