Message-ID: <>
Date: Fri, 26 Feb 1999 09:58:44 +0000
Sender: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YorkU.CA>
From: Dave Riley <>
Subject: ART: Ireland: has the peace process failed?

Ireland: has the peace process failed?

By John Meehan, Green Left Weekly (Sydney), #350, 24 February 1999

DUBLIN—The referendum held on both sides of the Irish border on the 1998 Good Friday agreement was carried with massive majorities: by 71% in the Six Counties and 95% in the 26 Counties. Most of the No vote in the North was hardline unionist. The tiny No vote in the 26 Counties was mostly anti-partitionist. These votes reflected a massive desire for peace.

It has been obvious for a long time that republican-minded opponents of the peace process who tried to carry out a new military campaign were on a road to disaster. The armed struggle was in a cul-de-sac before the August 1994 cease-fire. It was right to end it, even though it is right to oppose the alternative course advocated by the republican leadership.

It appears the Omagh bomb of August 1998, which killed 29 civilians in a mainly nationalist town, had to happen before that truth could sink into the minds of some republicans. But things did not have to happen that way.

Military option a dead end

We should go back a few years to the IRA's Canary Wharf bomb of February 1996, signalling the breakdown of the first (August 1994) IRA cease-fire. At that time, the peace process was in trouble over decommissioning—an issue that still causes difficulties.

The January '96 Mitchell Commission report stated, in effect, that IRA decommissioning was desirable but should not be a barrier to Sinn FHin joining all-party talks. British PM John Major ignored this advice and announced internal elections in the Six Counties, giving the Ulster Unionist Party led by David Trimble exactly what it wanted.

Since at least mid-December 1995, the attitude of the republican base was shifting. People still felt the leadership had done its best, but that the negotiations process was dying.

Impatience filtered through the republican ranks, and people were saying to the republican leadership, Now even you must admit the negotiation process has failed; it is time for the movement to go back on the military road, and you have constantly reassured us this was an option. Thus, the Faustian bargain was consummated—with predictably terrible results.

It was only a matter of time before a relaunched military campaign was crushed. Furthermore, when the military option failed, those in the republican ranks on the road to capitulating could run even faster, able to say, quite accurately, that the movement finds itself even more isolated than it was.

The IRA decided to end the August 1994 cease-fire because of a looming split and growing disillusion and demoralisation among the ranks in the republican movement before the Canary Wharf bomb. Resuming the IRA campaign was a short-term way of keeping the movement united.

If the anti-cease-fire volunteers had not gained the upper hand in the IRA leadership, they would have gone to some other organisation. But the hard truth is that a split was preferable to the grim spiral downwards that has now been set in motion.

Some people in the broad republican milieu probably still harbour the view that republicans can solve their problems by going back to what they know best. They should think again.

We know now that the IRA split towards the end of 1997. Maybe a quarter of the Provisional IRA membership defected to the Real IRA, possibly a third or more. The Real IRA thought it could overcome the real setbacks in the Good Friday agreement—which endorsed partition and got Britain off the hook—with a military campaign. It was wrong.

A balanced analysis requires acknowledging that there were some gains from the negotiations process, above all the ending of the loyalist assassination campaign. A cease-fire was essential if the loyalists, directed by the British state, were to be stopped. Of course, other things could have been done, but that is no excuse for not endorsing the republican cease-fire.

Just as night follows day, the British state will again set loose the loyalist terror gangs if any republican campaign starts and intensifies. The Real IRA's decision to call a cease-fire after the Omagh bomb was too late, but better late than never. Any renewed republican militarism will make further retreats by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness from republican objectives much easier. Let us be honest and say, The war is over.

No to partition

So where do socialist and republican opponents of the Good Friday agreement go?

The agreement means accepting the unionist veto. The new wording in the Irish Constitution says consent of a majority in both jurisdictions in the island is needed to secure Irish unity. What does this mean practically?

The Social Democratic and Labour Party has always favoured a bourgeois solution to the national question, which involves accepting the right of self-determination being applied to the Six County area. Privately, SDLP leader John Hume likely put to Gerry Adams that if the two main nationalist parties signed up for an unsatisfactory solution, but tied it into the unionists accepting any majority decision within the Six County area, the nationalists would be able to punish the unionists via an electoral majority within 10 years.

In the short term, the SDLP-Sinn FHin nationalist bloc is allying with the moderate unionist groupings the Alliance Party and Women's Coalition, creating a single bloc worth almost 45% of the vote. If the Alliance Party does not play ball, its (mainly Catholic) voters will defect to the nationalist bloc. This sort of argument was expressed at the last Sinn FHin Ard Fheis (congress) by the leading Belfast republican Martin Meehan.

The scenario is not as implausible as it might have seemed 10 or 15 years ago; all population and electoral surveys suggest there is an increasing Catholic population in the Six Counties.

Considerations like this seems to have inspired some of the republicans' fancy word play around the issue of unionist consent. In fact unity by consent equals unionist veto equals sectarian discrimination forever.

Unionism is not merely a Six County phenomenon; its origins lie in the maintenance of British sovereignty over Ireland. The distinguishing characteristic of unionism is sectarian discrimination directed against the Catholic population—it is a reactionary and racist political philosophy.

Ireland was partitioned in the 1920s so that the anti-Catholic sectarian structure could be preserved and consolidated. The unionists ruled the Six County part of Ireland on behalf of the London government until 1972, when Stormont was prorogued.

The dynamics of this society, faced with the prospect of an internal pro-united Ireland majority, are not difficult to predict: a brutal form of repartition would be on the cards.

In the shorter term, reactionary pressure will be heaped on women to produce extra children for Ireland/Ulster. This is called the demographic argument in polite circles (it was frightening how ideas like this were treated very uncontroversially at the 1998 Sinn FHin Ard Fheiseanna).

Those who say now they only want a united Ireland by consent of course look democratic compared with those who favour the all-Ireland veto. In such a debate, the only honest democratic answer is: Consent is desirable, but not necessary. Partition should be ended.


The basic reason for fighting to end the partition of Ireland (on this we can go back to James Connolly) is that it gives us by far the best chance—a revolutionary chance—to destroy the sectarian structures that shackle the Irish working class. For that reason, the amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution that incorporated the concept of unionist consent had to be opposed.

Despite the Sinn FHin Ard Fheis result—a 95% endorsement of the Good Friday agreement—it is well known that the vast majority of Sinn FHin members in the 26 Counties voted No in the referendum.

There are echoes here of 1921. Michael Collins endorsed the treaty which gave us partition with the argument that it was a stepping stone towards the ultimate goal of Irish unity and British withdrawal. In fact, this settlement was a millstone on our necks.

The current republican leaders cannot use the same language as Collins, so they refer to transitions. The language may have changed, but the content is the same.

A correct political strategy involves admitting that the struggle against partition is on the defensive and has suffered a generational defeat. In general, the social base of the republican movement is strongest today in the Six Counties. That base, won through more than 25 years of bitter revolutionary struggle, is amongst the most deprived sections of the nationalist population. The very small base in the 26 Counties is mainly confined to the most deprived working-class ghettos.

Sinn FHin defined itself in revolutionary nationalist language, but today its political line on coalition with bourgeois parties is dangerously vague and, in general, much worse than that of most far-left groups. Sinn FHin is often seen as a ginger group for the main capitalist party Fianna Fail. The single Sinn FHin member of parliament voted for the Fianna Fail nominee for taoiseach [prime minister] in 1997.

Regrettably, the tradition publicly represented by people like Matt Merrigan in the 1970s—No coalition with bourgeois parties!—is very weak today. Only the Socialist Party MP, Joe Higgins, represents it in parliament.

The Irish revolutionary nationalist movement, in the various forms it has taken since the early 1920s, has directly addressed the nature of the states created by partition. This has meant that it has tended to play a more progressive role than reformist working-class currents.

Today's Sinn FHin is falling back into reformism. For example, while most of the far left demonstrated against the visit of US President Clinton last year, the Sinn FHin leaders welcomed him in Belfast's luxurious Waterfront Conference Centre. Sinn FHin was also absent from the main anti-Clinton protest in Dublin because it was tied so closely to the US administration in the peace process.

A more immediate worry is that the Provisional IRA will become unofficial police officers of potential dissidents. We know that the Official IRA played this role as it began to degenerate politically in the 1970s. There is now a pattern of incidents indicating that the current IRA could go the same way.

After the Omagh bomb, the Provisionals visited about 80 people and read out a statement calling on the Real IRA to disband or face violent consequences. Later, two leading dissident republicans, Kevin McQuillan and Micky Donnelly, say they were badly beaten up by the Provisional IRA. Most recently, on January 31, former IRA volunteer Paddy Fox was kidnapped and beaten up by the Provisionals.

Sinn FHin has a right to disagree with the views and activities of dissident republicans, but it has no right to use or threaten physical violence against them.

Regroupment needed

Over the coming years, the structures of the peace process will fail: we have already seen the promises of human rights improvements made by both the London and Dublin governments in the Good Friday agreement broken.

Unless socialist and republican opponents start to think long term, and begin a process of regroupment in these very hostile conditions, this particular peace agreement will end up in a nasty sectarian end game.

A rebuilt mass movement needs to oppose the repressive apparatus of the states in both parts of Ireland. Thought also needs to be given to giving this an all-Ireland dimension.

The question of opposing coalition government with any of the bourgeois parties is decisive.

A structure which allows for the affiliation of different political currents needs to be considered; the process leading to the formation of the Scottish Socialist Alliance might be worth considering.

Within a long-term perspective of a rebuilt mass movement, the following outline is suggested: the republican cease-fires should stay in place; the British Army must disarm and go; there must be an amnesty for political prisoners; the Emergency Powers Act and Prevention of Terrorism Act must be repealed; the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Royal Irish Rangers must be dissolved; bigoted Orange marches should not be allowed to march through nationalist areas; and the Dublin government must dissolve its Special Criminal Courts, repeal its anti-democratic repressive Offences Against the State Act.

This list is not exhaustive. Social, economic and international issues must also be integrated: an alliance formed on a basis like this should be both socialist and republican, not to mention feminist and ecological.

Finally, in place of the new wording in Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, is there any better suggestions than James Connolly's: Let your motto be that of James Fintan Lawlor. The motto which the working-class Irish Citizen Army has adopted as its aim and object, viz.: ‘That the entire ownership of Ireland (all Ireland)—moral and material—is vested of right in the entire people of Ireland’.