American diplomats Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan , were invited to Belfast by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson to seek an agreement over the issues of parades, flags and the legacy of the past. After a month long marathon of talks and discussions and brinksmanship over the last few days of December Haass produced a seventh version of the draft agreement for the five largest parties to sign up to. Both the Unionist Parties rejected the proposals, while the SDLP and Sinn Féin accepted them. Since then the SF Ard Comhairle has voted to accept the proposals. The position of the Unionist parties and those of Sinn Féin and the SDLP reveal much about the underlying contradictions and divisions in the North.
There are clearly emotive issues. The flag protests and the stand offs and conflicts around marches and parades both illustrate this, while the history of 30 years of armed conflict has impacted on thousands of people across the six counties and beyond. But the problems in the North run far deeper than the immediate issues on the negotiating table.
Over the last couple of years, however, tensions, particularly within the protestant community have become exacerbated, with claims that restrictions on controversial marches and parades and the decision of Belfast City Council to only fly the union flag on specific days represent a threat to the protestant community. The conflicts have threatened to boil over and escalate onto a higher level, a threat not only to catholic communities but to working class protestants also.
But the North is no longer a “grand wee place”; the economy has been devastated over the last 30 or more years. Many of the big industries have closed and the relative privilege of the skilled protestant workers has been eroded away. Ultimately it is the blind anarchy of capitalist economic laws that have undermined the historic alliance between the protestant workers and the unionist bourgeoisie. The figures speak for themselves. There are more people on sickness and invalidity benefits in the North than there are workers in manufacturing. That is perhaps the biggest factor underlying the threat to the way of life of the protestant workers. The catholic working class has also suffered, but never had so much to lose. That explains why the crisis in the North is most clearly manifested as a crisis of unionism.
For a more detailed analysis see: The emergence of dissident loyalism
Under these conditions it is no longer enough for the DUP to try and out bluster the Ulster Unionists for the majority of the protestant vote, they now have to deliver, and under current economic and social conditions that is far from easy. They have to watch their backs within the protestant community, and their strategy is of course to play on fears within the protestant community and to say NO. Martin McGuinness has accused Peter Robinson and the DUP of bowing to pressure from the Orange order the UVF and the PUP.
Sinn Féin have different issues to deal with, but it is evident that they must appear to be making some headway in the negotiations. After thirty years of armed struggle, years of negotiation and the peace process not one blade of grass has been liberated in the North. As has happened many times in the past, the tensions between moral and physical force republicanism will escalate, especially if there is an impasse. The flag protests and the issue of parades represent a threat to the dominant tendency within republicanism also, as the protests have a direct effect on catholic communities, especially where the communities interface with each other. So for Sinn Féin to retain credibility the negotiations have to succeed or at least show some signs of life.
This Easter marks the 16th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. But 2014 has begun with yet another set of failed negotiations to add to a long list. Even today the Assembly remains little more than a glorified County Council with very little power, administering public funds on behalf of the Westminster parliament. The leaders of Unionism and of Sinn Féin wile away the time administering bin collections and car parks, imposing cuts and slashing services in line with Whitehall strategies to balance the budget after the bankers were bailed out. The North remains in a blind alley, with no prospect of a way out on the basis of capitalism.
The extent of the problem is evident from official statistics:
“The seasonally adjusted claimant count rate in NI (6.7%) was higher than the UK average rate (3.8%) and was the highest rate among the twelve UK regions. This is the 44thconsecutive month that NI has had the highest or second highest UK region unemployment rate, on this measure. The monthly decrease in NI claimants (1.1%) was lower than the UK average decrease (2.8%) during the same period. The annual decrease in NI claimants (6.7%) was the lowest decrease of twelve UK regions (the annual decrease in the UK was 19.1%)” Monthly Labour Market report December 2013
Thousands of catholic and protestant youth face an uncertain future, with the return of mass unemployment and very little prospect of a positive change in the economic situation. The North may have escaped the initial impact of the economic crisis when it broke in 2008, but only because of the decisive importance of the state sector in the North. Now that the Assembly is delivering the British Government’s cuts the economic situation in the North has deteriorated.
There may well be further negotiations and talks around the Haass document, but the contradictions in the North won’t be solved by the stroke of a pen. As James Connolly predicted the partition of Ireland provoked a carnival of reaction. The only solution to the contradiction in the North lies as Wolfe Tome explained in the “men of no property”. The problems of the North can only be solved as a part of struggle for a 32 County Socialist United Ireland.
As we explained in The emergence of dissident loyalism
"Alongside the sectarian tradition in the North there is also the tradition of trade union organisation and struggle. There are almost a quarter of a million workers organised in the trade unions in the North. That tradition reaches back to Connolly and Larkin, the Belfast Dock Strike in 1907 and beyond, but it is also present today in the magnificent struggle against the austerity and in defence of public sector pensions.
That is the basis upon which the Marxists and the most active and self sacrificing layers of the workers movement must organise. A Marxist Tendency armed with a socialist programme would tap not only into the revolutionary traditions of the Catholic working class but would also combat the unionist demagogy and reach out to the protestant workers on a class basis. Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party fought for the unity of the working class in a country with a far more complex national make up than Ireland."