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Why Socialists Should Welcome the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement

Tony Dale

THE INLA, REPUBLICAN Sinn Féin/Continuity IRA and Sinn Féin dissidents led by the sister of Bobby Sands all believe Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have conceded too much and a deal has been produced which "copperfastens partition". The aim of the IRA’s military campaign was always a united Ireland. The Peace Agreement does not deliver a united Ireland, so is it a defeat, or even a sell out, of the Republican struggle? Also, what attitude should socialists take to the Agreement?

The Agreement does not produce a united Ireland but it does introduce important constitutional changes. An All-Ireland Council will be created establishing the right of the Irish Republic to be part of the Northern Irish political arrangements. The Agreement commits Britain to accepting a united Ireland if that is backed by a majority in the Six Counties. The Agreement establishes checks and balances to prevent Unionism from re-establishing a "Protestant state for a Protestant people". A Northern Ireland Assembly is to be established based on proportionality and consent; both Catholic and Protestant parties will effectively have a veto on decisions. While the Agreement does not create a united Ireland neither are we seeing the re-establishment of Unionist majority rule.

The issue of the prisoners was always going to central to any deal. The moves to release prisoners affiliated to organisations respecting the ceasefire is important. The release of the prisoners is a very big incentive to the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries to agree the deal. It is also important as it is a recognition that their struggles were political and not the actions of criminal gangs. The decision to remove political status from the prisoners ended up in the Hunger Strikes. At the time the prisoners appeared to have lost, but gradually the trappings of political status have been won back and with the peace deal the POWs will be released. This is an important victory for Sinn Féin and the political representatives of Loyalist organisations.

The Agreement is explicitly based on the principle that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland depends solely on the wishes of the majority of the population in the Six Counties. Many Republicans may not be happy with this, but the realities of the situation are that a united Ireland has not been established precisely because of the opposition of the majority of the population in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Irish conflict has for many years been in stalemate. The Agreement represents a settlement to establish a more permanent ceasefire out of this military stalemate. As such the Agreement does not represent any party abandoning its long term goals; it is an attempt to move the fight for these goals out of the dead end of a low intensity civil war into the political arena. Socialists are fond of the famous saying that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This Agreement represents an attempt to establish a politics which is a continuation of the war by other means.

In accord with the theme of consent, the Irish Government is going to recommend amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution to drop the claims of jurisdiction over the whole island. The new proposed Article 3 reads: "It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically express, in both jurisdictions in the island." In practice the existing articles 2 and 3 have been meaningless; they were of no assistance to the Northern Irish Catholics when they faced decades of discrimination, brutality and one party Unionist rule.

In exchange for dropping the constitutional claim over the Six Counties, the Irish Republic will have a constitutional right to interfere in the affairs of Northern Ireland. This is a reflection of the political situation over the last decade in which the British government has regularly consulted Dublin over Northern Ireland. Following the failure of power sharing in the 1970s and the equal failure of attempting a purely military solution in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Dublin government was involved in a new looser power sharing arrangement in which it would act as the proxy political representative of the Northern Irish Catholics. In recent years Sinn Féin’s political strategy has consciously encouraged this with their attempts to create a nationalist alliance involving Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Dublin and Irish America.

The Agreement has resulted in part from Sinn Féin’s leadership taking bold political steps to try to break out of the stalemate situation. The armed struggle has not been defeated and yet at the same time it has not led to victory. Sinn Féin’s leadership has acted on the realisation that a long military campaign has not and will not deliver the goal of a United Ireland. Sinn Féin chairman Mitchel McLaughlin recently stated that the party’s leadership has conceded that the conditions do not exist at present for a united Ireland and a transitional approach was needed. Despite some unease and significant tension within the Republican movement, it looks likely that the IRA’s ceasefire will continue indefinitely and Sinn Féin will back the Agreement. The logic of Sinn Féin’s present political direction is that they should enter the new Assembly to continue the `struggle’ in the new "transitional" arrangements.

From Sinn Féin’s perspective the Agreement is a recognition that the main obstacle to a united Ireland is the opposition of the Ulster Protestants. It is a recognition that the military campaign is not going to "persuade" the Protestants to join a united Ireland. Some socialists and Republicans will continue to argue that the main problem is British imperialism. This argument ignores the existence of a community of one million Protestants who at the present time don’t want to be part of a united Ireland. To ignore completely the views of this community seems to be indefensible from a socialist standpoint.

The analysis which views British imperialism as the main obstacle on the road to a united Ireland also ignores the changing nature of British imperialist interests in relation to Ireland. The Agreement reflects the fact that Britain and British capitalist interests are now effectively neutral on the question of whether the Six Counties remain in the UK or become a part of a united Ireland.

In the run up to partition in 1921 there was a powerful lobby of industrial capital and military interests who backed the Unionists’ campaign against independence for Ireland. Belfast and the north east of Ireland had a concentration of industries which profited from the connection with the British Empire. In the 1920s world economy the link with Britain gave the Belfast industries improved access to markets and resources. In contrast the Sinn Féin movement in the South was adopting economic policies centred on import tariffs and protectionism. Such policies would lead to export industries being hit by retaliatory policies from other countries. In addition, these industries would suffer from losing the patronage and protection of a major world power. In the 1920s the interests of significant sections of northern Irish and British capitalism coincided and united with the opposition of Ulster Protestants to Irish independence.

It would however be a mistake to conclude that the Unionist opposition to Irish independence was primarily either a plot by Belfast capitalists or a logical reflection of differing economic interests. The Unionist movement was grounded in the desire of Ulster Protestants not to be part of an independent Irish Catholic state. The political separation of Ulster Protestants from the rest of the Irish nation was a result of a number of factors: the conscious development by the ruling class of sectarian organisations such as the Orange Order to foster divisions in order to weaken nationalist and labour struggles; the increasing adoption of a Catholic identity by Irish nationalism since the mid-19th century; and the defeat of heroic attempts by the labour movement to develop a united working class consciousness. Partition did not just reflect the uneven development of capitalism; it was also a reflection of the deep communal divisions in Irish society.

After partition, as decades passed, the world economy changed, the British Empire was transformed and the strategic interests of British capitalism altered. By the end of the 1960s, Britain no longer had any fundamental imperialist interest in maintaining the link with Northern Ireland. Britain and the Irish Republic were now on friendlier terms. The South had become or was becoming a more developed capitalist economy. The entry of both Britain and Ireland into the EEC signified and reflected the changes. In the 1960s the discrimination and state brutality against Northern Irish Catholics became a source of embarrassment for Britain in its relations with the rest of the world. Britain’s special relationship with the USA came under most strain when the USA’s special relationship with Ireland highlighted the plight of Northern Irish Catholics.

By the start of the Troubles it was probably in the fundamental interests of British imperialism to get rid of Northern Ireland. But any abandonment of Northern Ireland would be in the interests of British capitalism only if it was peaceful. A unification of Ireland which destabilised the Irish Republic would not be in British interests. Britain was not going to put up with a Cuba just off its shores. A more likely scenario from unilateral British withdrawal, rather than the creation of an Irish Cuba, would be a degeneration into an Irish Bosnia-style bloody civil war with ethnic cleansing, major population movements, repartition and the creation of an independent Protestant state. Again this would not be in the interests of British or international capital. Peaceful reunification from above was the outcome which was fundamentally in the long term interests of British capitalism, but that was not a possible outcome given the level of Protestant opposition. At the same time a return to Stormont and a "Protestant state for a Protestant people" also was not a viable option given the opposition of Northern Irish Catholics and the views of Britain’s international allies.

With no fundamental interests in staying in Northern Ireland, it has been Britain’s aim to find any solution. For this reason British policy has fluctuated between trying to inflict military defeat on the IRA, creating a power sharing arrangement to try to draw support away from the paramilitaries, or direct negotiations with all parties including the paramilitaries. The British capitalist class want any form of solution which allows for peaceful capitalist exploitation. Civil strife such as the Northern Irish troubles are not the best conditions for maximising profits. Capital has no vested interest either in propping up partition or in bringing about reunification.

The one fundamental task the Agreement does not accomplish is to overcome the division in Northern Irish society. However, there is no agreement which at the present time could magically make the sectarian divisions disappear. The most that can be hoped for from an agreement is that it creates a framework for dialogue. The shootings and bombings are not bringing a solution nearer; in fact they are deepening the divisions and making a solution less likely. A framework for dialogue and debate is needed. Sectarian divisions, despite the positive aspects of the Agreement, will remain deep. When the Assembly meets for the first time the newly elected members "will register a designation of identity – nationalist, unionist or other – for the purposes of measuring cross-community support in Assembly votes". To socialists this type of sectarian headcount is an anathema, but at this stage in the conflict it is a necessary evil to ensure decisions will only be taken with the consent of both communities.

It is difficult to see any long-lasting democratic settlement being achieved without some reconciliation within the working class. The key to building such reconciliation is the labour movement. Sinn Féin or the SDLP won’t be able to convince the Protestants to sign up to a united Ireland; at the same time the Unionists and Loyalists will be unable to convince Catholics to accept the Northern Ireland model. If the party political line up remains as it is at present the working class will remain divided along sectarian lines. A divided working class and the unresolved national question will keep socialism off the agenda. The only way forward is if the labour movement re-enters Northern Irish politics by creating a labour party. Labour politics is very weak in Northern Ireland. There has been some recovery in recent years – for example, two candidates from a Labour list were elected in 1996 to the Forum. However this very limited success has not been properly utilised. Most people will be aware that the Unionists, Sinn Féin, SDLP, UDP, PUP, the Alliance Party, and the Women’s Coalition were all in the recent negotiations, but few people will be aware two Labour representatives were there as well!

The Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) played an important role in Northern Ireland’s political history. Many on the left only remember the bad side of that history, such as the NILP’s acceptance of "the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the close association with Britain". However the decision by the NILP in 1949 to become "Unionist" did not make it a toothless campaigner against the Unionists. In 1962 the NILP polled 26% of the vote; the main issue in this election was unemployment. Following this success Brookeborough, the Unionist Prime Minister, resigned in 1963 under pressure from Labour. In the following year Labour polled 103,000 votes.

The NILP in this period mainly campaigned on economic and social issues but they also took up more sensitive issues such as discrimination in housing. It was the NILP who first adopted the slogan "One Man One Vote" which was to be taken up by the Civil Rights movement. The left wing of the NILP were at the forefront of the campaign for Civil Rights. This involvement was not restricted just to the big peaceful demonstrations. Liam De Paor in his book Divided Ulster reported on the situation in Derry: "The brunt of the street fighting has been borne not by any traditional nationalist element, but by the Young Socialists who have shown great courage."

The NILP melted in the heat of the Troubles. The Party failed to maintain working class support because it was unable to advocate a democratic solution to the national question. The Agreement could possibly give the labour movement an opportunity to re-enter politics. The creation of a Labour Party would be a step forward but any such Party would need to recognise that a permanent peace must rest on a consistently democratic settlement. Northern Ireland was an attempt at Ulster Protestant national self-determination. It was fundamentally flawed because the Ulster Protestants were not and are not a nation. Protestant national self-determination turned the minority Catholic community into second class citizens. Northern Ireland as a separate entity collapsed in the revolt of the Catholics against their second class status within this "Protestant state for a Protestant people". A clear majority of the Irish people want a united Ireland. Any permanent democratic resolution to the conflict must be based on ending partition.

Within a united Ireland there needs to be maximum flexibility to acknowledge the distinct identity of the Northern Irish Protestants. Some form of autonomy within a united Ireland for the north eastern area may make some sense. Socialists need to be flexible and open to whatever democratic arrangements are necessary to break down the divisions between the two communities. We should not make a principle of one democratic form over another when our fundamental concern is with how we can make socialism a possibility.

Any trade-union-based Labour Party will inevitably at its creation reflect the present politics of the unions. Its platform would be an amalgam of calls for workers’ unity, jobs, and peace and reconciliation. A Labour Party on this limited platform would still be a big step forward. Socialists would obviously advocate more developed policies on the national question, but we would not make such policies a precondition to our wholehearted involvement in building a Labour Party in Northern Ireland.