Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sat down together for the first time at the end of March and agreed to share power. Sinn Fein has given its support to the police service in Northern Ireland while the Democratic Unionist Party looks forward to leading the Assembly in May. The number of violent deaths has declined, city centres are being revamped and nightlife is thriving. For Tony Blair this is a historic moment, a vindication of ten years of effort and a triumph for democracy over terror: “In a sense, everything that we’ve done over the last 10 years has been a preparation for this moment. This won’t stop republicans or nationalists being any less republican or nationalist, or making unionists any less fiercely unionist. But what it does mean is that people can come together, respecting each other’s point of view, and share power, make sure politics is only expressed by peaceful and democratic means.” (Guardian, 27/3/07).
What do these developments mean? Why have they happened and how real are they? To answer these questions it is necessary to look back over the years and also to look outside Northern Ireland.
America uses the ‘peace process’ to punish Britain
There have been frequent efforts to resolve the conflict in the past through secret negotiations and proposals for power-sharing. Between the Executive that fell in 1975 and the IRA ceasefire of 1994 there were a number of attempts, but they all failed. In 1985 the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish agreement giving Dublin a consultative role in the affairs of the North in exchange for recognition of the existence of Northern Ireland. Today these attempts are portrayed as the building blocks towards the ‘peace process’; but, in fact, they were part of the diplomatic struggle that ran alongside the military one. In the late 1980s the IRA was confronted with the reality that its armed struggle was not succeeding while the British state had to recognise that although it could contain the IRA it could not stabilise the situation.
It was the collapse of the imperialist blocs at the end of the 1980s that created the situation that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. As we have argued on many occasions, the collapse of the blocs unleashed the imperialist appetites of all of the powers that had previously been kept in check. Britain began to challenge the US and Northern Ireland became one area of conflict. In 1993, as the peace process began to get under way, we noted: “…the present stage of the ‘troubles’ is another expression of the break up of the blocs and every man for himself. In a period where the US/UK worked in relative harmony under the US ’umbrella’ there was no possibility of Southern Ireland being used as a base for Russia for example. But now, in the ‘new world order’, it has a far greater weight on US/UK relations…Without speculating we can say that there may have been some US push to the latest ‘peace’ talks” (WR 170, “Resolution on the National Situation”). As the ‘peace process’ was pushed forward by the US towards its culmination in the Good Friday agreement in 1998, this analysis was confirmed: “The Good Friday agreement confirms a US-sponsored process…of undermining the hold of Britain over this part of its territory…By supporting the political wing of the IRA, Sinn Fein, the US is punishing Britain for its pretensions at playing an independent role on the wider imperialist arena […] The Peace Agreement…permits Sinn Fein to participate in a regional assembly and government of Northern Ireland […]The agreement…commits Britain to reduce the number and role of the security forces…it gives substantially more power to Sinn Fein without any real likelihood of the ‘decommissioning’ of their weapons” (WR 214, “Imperialist ‘peace’ means further bloodshed”).
Britain tries to regain control
Britain’s response was to try and frustrate this, particularly by mobilising the Unionists who did everything they could to slow down and derail the process. It was not that Britain wanted a return to widespread violent conflict but rather that it wanted to regain control over the situation. The Assembly did not meet until the end of 1999, only to be suspended the following February. It was only restored after the IRA stated that it would completely and verifiably put all of its arms beyond use. Two years later, at the end of 2002 the assembly was suspended again after allegations of IRA spying within the Assembly building.
Throughout this period the US continued to push the process on. During the Good Friday negotiations Sinn Fein was in constant contact with Washington. Later the involvement of US Senator George Mitchell in trying to break the deadlock between the parties guaranteed that US interests would come first. Nor did the replacement of Clinton by Bush lead to any fundamental change in the US approach since throughout the late 1990s and opening of the new century Britain continued to challenge the US
Once again, it was the evolution of the international situation that led to change. After 9/11 the US launched its global ‘war on terror’ offensive and focused first on the invasion of Afghanistan and then of Iraq. Faced with this offensive Britain moved towards the US, posing again as its most reliable ally. Both developments meant that Ireland no longer had the same significance for Washington’s strategy and Britain has taken full advantage of this to restore some of its control over the situation. Its strategy is not simply to frustrate the ‘peace process’ but to take it over and bend it towards its imperialist interests. In particular, it has had some success in turning the IRA and Sinn Fein’s previous enthusiasm for the peace process back against it. The major steps in this have been the decommissioning of the IRA’s weapons some 18 months ago (although undoubtedly some were kept back) and Sinn Fein’s recognition of the Northern Ireland police force this January. The DUP has been used to call Sinn Fein’s bluff by grudgingly accepting the possibility of power-sharing, culminating in the spectacle of Paisley and Adams sat at a table together.
The persecution of the working class continues
It might be said that all of this manoeuvring is unimportant if the threat of death, maiming and destruction has eased. It is true that the figure for the number of deaths from violence has reduced from 80 or 90 a year in the early 1990s to ten or twenty in most of the subsequent years, reaching a low of 1 in 2006. But things are not as peaceful as the politicians and media make out. The reduction in deaths has been matched by a rise in the number of beatings and shootings, which went from about 200 a year before the peace agreement to around 300 in the years up to 2003. These figures are likely to be a serious underestimation of the real level given the reluctance of many to come forwards. Of these a significant number have been children and young adults, including people with learning difficulties. The terrorist gangs have, if anything, tightened their grip on the communities they pretend to protect, leading the author of a report in 2001 to conclude that “It is little wonder, therefore, that some commentators on Northern Ireland, including this one, fear the consolidation of a patchwork of Mafia-style mini-states, of orange or green complexion, operating vendetta-style justice and sustained economically by extortion and other forms of racketeering” (Liam Kennedy, They shoot children, don’t they?). Kerbs are still painted in sectarian colours, children are abused as they walk to school, while families of the ‘wrong’ faith are still driven from their homes. Most people live in areas that have a clear Catholic or Protestant majority, which, with factors such as the rarity of inter-faith schools, reinforces the divisions within the population, including the working class.
The changes that have taken place in Northern Ireland are not the result of any ‘peace process’ but of the changing shape of the conflict between Britain and the US. Thus the current peace in Northern Ireland results from a confrontation that contains within itself the possibility of renewed conflict. The working class might escape renewed bloodshed, but another turn of events might make them all targets once again.
However, there is another possibility within the situation. This possibility was shown last February in a strike by postal workers in Belfast across the sectarian divide. United struggle holds out the possibility not just of an end to killing but an end to the violence, fear and tension altogether. This is the possibility of socialism, of the world revolution in which capitalism and imperialism will be thrown aside. They would genuinely be a historic day in Irish and world history. Then the ‘troubles’ really would be over.