The Militant on the Framework

By Celia Pugh, Militant, 4 March 1995

LONDON—The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland unveiled a framework document February 22 for all-party talks on the future of the north of Ireland. The 37-page text would establish a cross-border body of representatives elected by the Irish parliament and by a new Northern Ireland assembly. This North-South body is to have executive and harmonization powers in aspects of trade, transport, health, education, and economic policy.

In Britain's House of Commons February 22, Prime Minister John Major outlined a triple lock against any plan being imposed without consent. An agreement would require parliamentary endorsement in Westminster, support by political parties in Northern Ireland, and approval in a referendum. Separate referendums are proposed for the north and south of Ireland.

The framework document states that Dublin will renounce claims to the six counties of Northern Ireland under articles two and three of the Irish republic's constitution. In turn, London would amend or replace the Government of Ireland Act, which confirmed Britain's control over the north with the partition of Ireland. (The island was divided in 1920 after the workers and farmers of Ireland waged revolutionary battles that defeated the British imperialist occupation and established an independent republic in the south.)

The new pact says that terrorist threats will necessitate the active support of the armed services and continuation of emergency legislation under the direction of the British government. Major told Parliament February 22 that he would keep troops on the streets of Northern Ireland for as long as it is necessary. The framework document also claims to protect civil, political, social and cultural rights.

Hailed by bourgeois opinion

The document was hailed as a historic breakthrough by the big-business press. Now a peace everlasting, declared the headline in the London Evening Standard. The media contrasted the current situation to the collapse of previous constitutional changes in Northern Ireland in face of Unionist-organized strikes and mass demonstrations. The February 23 Guardian headline, Unionists out on a limb, captured the general view that there is little support for such protests today.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Northern Ireland also welcomed the document. Growing the economy of the whole of Ireland is in everyone's interest, said chairman Doug Riley, and the CBI Northern Ireland will work together with everyone towards achieving this aim. Belfast businessman Gordon Hamilton told the Guardian that while he would vote to stay in the United Kingdom, he welcomed the document.I look at Ireland very much as a whole, commercially speaking. It's one island, it makes sense to look at it that way.

Labour Party leader Tony Blair told the British Parliament February 22, We have supported the government throughout the peace process. We do so again today without hesitation.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams told his party's conference February 25 that he welcomed publication of the framework document as a clear recognition that partition has failed, that British rule in Ireland has failed, and that there is no going back to the failed policies and structures of the past. Adams appealed to the Unionist parties to consider the framework document and bring their concerns to the conference table.

Angry response by Unionists

The document's reference to the people in the island of Ireland drew angry denunciations from Ulster Unionist members of Parliament like David Trimble and Ken Maginnis. Trimble stormed out of a February 22 live television interview when the show was joined by Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness. Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, blasted the document as a sellout and declaration of war.

While criticizing the framework document as a shattering blow to loyalists, David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party welcomed the all-party negotiations. Ervine served time in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) section of the Maze prison in the 1970s for possession of explosives. The UVF is a rightist street gang known for torturing and assassinating workers who are Catholic.

Gary McMichael, son of a leader of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association murdered by the IRA, welcomed anything that would promote and encourage dialogue. While labeling the proposed cross-border institutions an unacceptable creeping reunification, Jim Dillon, Ulster unionist councilor in Lisbon near Belfast, rejected the idea of street protests. There is no point getting people out on the streets. The time has long gone for just saying no. We must discuss the document.

Media interviews in pubs and streets throughout the six counties reflected similar views. A Unionist demonstration to protest the document at Hillsborough Castle Belfast drew only four people. They huddled under a Union Jack umbrella and battled with rain and wind to burn a mock-up of the text.. Despite heated denunciations, none of the Unionist parties have pulled out of the all- party talks but instead plan to bring their own proposals.

Raid on Sinn Fein offices

An angry crowd of 300-400 people did turn out, however, as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) raided the Sinn Fein offices and the Well Woman clinic in predominantly Catholic Derry. The RUC arrested seven Sinn Fein members, including local councilor Mary Nellis, and spent two hours carting away documents.

As the raid was under way, protesters rocked the police vans and chanted SS-RUC! and Disband the RUC!

In a telephone interview from the Sinn Fein office in Derry, John McLaughlin told the Militant that Nellis and the Well Woman clinic were assisting a 21-year-old woman to get her flat back in a housing project where she had confronted hostility for alleged drug-dealing. The RUC has charged Nellis with false imprisonment and abduction.

The RUC know they can't make the charges stick, McLaughlin said. They are trying to discredit the cease-fire and discredit Sinn Fein.

McLaughlin reported other incidents of RUC harassment in recent weeks. Moreover, British troops continue to be deployed in areas like South Armagh, digging up gardens and detaining people on the pretext of searching for explosives.

In other areas, the British army presence has diminished. In Belfast open daytime patrols have ended and there have been no recent assassinations. Most working people are enthusiastic about the easing of tensions and more relaxed atmosphere. The demonstration to commemorate Bloody Sunday (when British paratroopers shot down 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators in 1968) was larger this year than for many years.

There has also been an increase in street protests. This includes the launching of a campaign called Saorise by relatives of Irish political prisoners calling for the release of these fighters from jail.

John Major returned from the talks in Belfast to another gathering storm over policy toward the European Union, with deepening divisions in the Tory (Conservative Party) ranks and a government majority in Parliament of only 12 seats.

Unionist MPs, who have bolstered the Tory majority for several years, are not likely to prompt a general election by backing a no- confidence vote in Parliament. But speculation as to their intentions adds to the atmosphere of disarray surrounding Major's government. Within days of his Belfast trip, the prime minister hot- footed it to Scotland to respond to growing nationalist demands there for Scottish devolution or independence.

At the international England and Ireland soccer match in Dublin February 15, a rightist group waving Union Jacks and loyalist flags led a riot that stopped the match. They ripped up seats and railings to use as missiles against Irish fans. The Irish police vigorously and indiscriminately charged the English and Irish crowd with batons.

Irish and English fans discussed what had happened in pubs around Dublin later that night. Several English fans who were interviewed said they had spent all night apologizing for what the rightist thugs had done.