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Haass Talks: The illusion of a progressive role for imperialism

JM Thorn 

18 September 2013

The Haass talks, which have just commenced in Belfast, are promoted as an effort to get a comprehensive agreement on the issues causing divisions between the parties in the north.   These are listed on the official agenda for the talks as "dealing with parades, dealing with flags and emblems, dealing with the legacy of the past".  It is expected that a report recommending a mechanism to deal with these issues will be produced by the end of the year.  

However, these talks are not a tidying up exercise.  They are a desperate effort to stabilise a political settlement that has been put under severe strain over the past twelve months.   It is significant that this effort is being spearheaded, not by the local parties, but by Britain and the United States.  That recent events in north have drawn the attention of the US government indicates the seriousness of the current crisis.  A co sponsor of the peace process from its earliest days it now perceives a threat to a settlement that it believed had a firm foundation.  This was made explicit in a statement on the flag protests by US diplomat Barbara Stephenson (a former US Consul General in Belfast) in which she revealed that the widespread violence had caused Washington to fear the process “wasn’t as solid as we hoped” and that “a couple of more shocks and we could be in trouble.”  She also revealed that Vice-President Joe Biden now has a specific brief to monitor the peace process.   The US is also providing the team – lead by veteran diplomat Richard Haass – that will be facilitating and directing the talks.   Though they are supposedly here at the invitation of Robinson and McGuinness it is clear where the push is coming from. 

All this is evidence of the importance of the settlement in the north to imperialism.  This is not just because of the strategic value of Ireland but also because the Irish peace process is being promoted as model of “conflict resolution” for other regions such as the Middle East and South America.  A failure here would therefore have wider implications for the strategy of imperialism.         

Imperialist sponsorship of the talks makes impossible any progressive outcome.  Despite what some people may hope for the US and Britain will not force the liberalisation the north.  They both support partition and the sectarian foundation on which the current political settlement rests.  Their objective of stabilising the settlement is actually more likely to reinforce of these elements.  

The political records of the diplomats facilitating the talks also indicate such an outcome.  Richard Haass is a former Bush administration official, who as a presidential envoy to Northern Ireland in the early 2000’s, was instrumental in securing the disarmament of the Provisionals.  He is the current president of the influential think tank – the Council on Foreign Relations – and has used this position to set out his views on world politics.  In a recent article on Syria he argued for air strikes against the Syrian forces and the supply of heavy weaponry to elements of  the opposition that supported the US.  His chief assistant at the talks, Meghan O’Sullivan, was an advisor to Haass when he was envoy to Northern Ireland and was also an adviser to the Bush administration on Afghanistan and Iraq.  She was an official of the occupation administration in Iraq and has been credited as one of the original advocates of the "surge" strategy.  More recently she was an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  Haass and his assistants are representatives of the most rabid right wing current within the American ruling class.  Anyone who believes they can produce anything progressive need only look to their legacy in Iraq – where 100s are being killed in sectarian violence every month - to dispel that delusion.     
The British government has exposed the fraudulent nature of the talks by ruling out any outcomes it would find unacceptable.  In a speech to the British-Irish Association Conference two weeks ago the Secretary of State Teresa Villiers signalled that her government would reject any proposals that that were too costly, were critical of state forces or involved public inquiries.  (Only last week she ruled out a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the 1998 Omagh bombing). She also declared that the British Government would “not be a party to attempts to re-write history by legitimising terrorism."   In this schema state violence is legitimised while opposition to it is criminalized.  

Another major element pointing towards a thoroughly reactionary outcome are the unionists.  This is even more the case after Robinson’s debacle over the Maze peace centre.   The leadership of unionism is completely in thrall to the most rabid elements of its constituency.  The DUP have even appointed leading Orangeman Mervyn Gibson to its talks team – giving the loyal orders an effective veto over the whole process.  The statement made by Robinson after his first meeting with Haass, in which he called for loyalist parading and flag flying to “enshrined and protected”, indicates strongly the direction things are moving. 

In mainstream commentary these talks are portrayed as a means of overcoming a legacy of past conflict that is preventing Northern Ireland moving towards a peaceful and prosperous future.  The problem with this schema is that the past cannot be safely decoupled from the present because the conflicts are not really about the past.  These issues, which are being agitated around (such as the peace centre), are primarily a means to mould the political settlement in the present and into the future.  

At the root of all this is sectarianism and how it is used as a mechanism of control by imperialism.  When we talk about sectarianism we do not mean people having prejudiced ideas.  In the north sectarianism is a whole system of patronage and power designed to manage the population along communal lines.   It has a material and political foundation that is reflected in the institutions of the state. 

Another critical element of sectarianism is the privileging of one community over another.  You can’t have an equality of sectarianism. In order to bind one group of people to the state they have to put in a relative position of privilege over the other.  It is this promise of privilege that is the basis of the northern state and of unionism.  In the early history of Northern Ireland this was blatantly obvious with overt forms of discrimination and with political leaders declaring a “Protestant state for a Protestant People.”  While this is not the case today, and while economic inequalities between the Catholics and Protestants have significantly diminished, sectarianism is still in operation.  This is evidenced in the furious reaction of unionists to minimal gestures towards nationalists such as restrictions on some parading and flag flying.  While it may seen mad to the liberal observer - for a political movement based on defending privilege it is perfectly sane.  There is real substance behind these supposedly symbolic issues – for what they reflect is the political dominance of unionism.   

In many ways the unionists have a better understanding of how the current political system works than nationalists.  There can’t be equality.  Instead there must be hierarchies across a whole range of issues – be that parades, symbols or the past.  The most that nationalists can aspire to is an expansion of the “Catholic rights” (such as control over schools) that have existed from the foundation of the state.  But it must be understood that these are lesser rights than those enjoyed by unionists.  Though they may still proclaim equality the nationalist parties have implicitly accepted this through their support for the political settlement.

Of course a system based on sectarianism is inherently unstable and gives rise to conflicts.  This is particularly the case when unionists react violently to any perceived concession to nationalists.  The response of the British Government in these situations has been to try and buy off unionists while reigning in the wilder elements of loyalism.   But this has only emboldened hard-line elements – leading to a situation where the position of the leader of unionism is under threat and there are regular outbreaks of loyalist orchestrated loyalist street violence.  This in turn is weakening the hold of Sinn Fein in areas - such as Ardoyne – which are the target of loyalist intimidation.   

Whatever comes of the Haass talks will not reverse this trend.  Even If there is some political fix it is unlikely to survive its first encounter with the reality of the street.    While the political settlement will not collapse in the short term – particularly given the determination of Sinn Fein to hold on – it will continue to decay over a longer period. 


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