Ireland: Return to Stormont - No Solution for Irish Workers

The devolved assembly at Stormont was suspended for the fourth time six months ago in October 2002. Now Blair, Ahern, Adams and Trimble are attempting to raise it from its coffin once more. Democracy, or what passes for it in Belfast, can be switched on and off like a tap it seems. The Stormont assembly represents not an attempt to solve the problems facing ordinary working people, but a scheme to share power between representatives of the main sectarian parties.

The devolved assembly at Stormont was suspended for the fourth time in its short and unstable existence six months ago in October 2002. Now Blair, Ahern, Adams and Trimble are attempting to raise it from its coffin once more. Democracy, or what passes for it in Belfast, can be switched on and off like a tap it seems. Established as part of the so-called peace process, the assembly represents not an attempt to solve the problems facing ordinary working people of all backgrounds, but a scheme to share power between representatives of the main sectarian parties. For this reason it can never seriously address the problems of working class people, not the vital problems of health, housing and education, nor the wider questions of the border and the national question.

As we have consistently explained from the beginning of the "peace process", the Good Friday Agreement, and the institutions of devolution associated with it, could never begin to solve the problems facing ordinary working people no matter what their background. It was a cruel deception, which promised peace to the communities of Catholic and Protestant workers, but was unable to deliver. It was a lie. There has been no peace. Sectarian beatings and killings have continued. Communities have become increasingly divided.

Indeed the divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been wider. This gulf was created and nurtured by British imperialism in order to divide and rule, to protect their system in Ireland from the threat of united working class action. It is an unnatural growth. In carving up the living body of Ireland through partition British imperialism unleashed a carnival of reaction just as the great socialist James Connolly had predicted.

Those who created this mess are utterly incapable of solving it. Instead of peace what they have built are lots of "peace-lines" - brick walls, iron fences and barbed wire to divide communities still further. The British and Irish governments and the sectarian parties all represent the past, they have nothing progressive to say about the future.

Temporary agreements between sectarian politicians to share ministerial responsibilities at Stormont cannot begin to solve the underlying cause of this crisis. That has now been proven. Remaining within the straitjacket of the capitalist system, sectarian politicians and government officials from Ireland and Britain have been trying to create a better environment for big business to make money in, a better environment in which to exploit Catholic and Protestant workers alike. What none of them could do, even in a boom, because of the limits imposed by the profit system, is build houses, hospitals and schools, create jobs or eradicate poverty pay. These social conditions, which are an inevitable fact of life in capitalist society, serve to fuel sectarian division, fear and hate. In the next period, a descent into economic recession will only serve to magnify these problems.

A new agreement?

It is not ruled out that some kind of unstable deal could be done to resurrect the Stormont assembly in coming weeks, with new elections taking place even by the end of May - though that seems unlikely. The only certainty is that no such agreement can ever meet the aspirations of the nationalist community for a united Ireland, nor assuage the fears of Protestants, stirred up by the sectarian parties. Such agreements assume the continuation of a sectarian divide. In fact they rest upon that division. One would search in vain for any mention in these agreements for any talk of saving jobs, or investing in public services. They consist of this or that compromise by each sectarian party, to allow them to sit in the same room with each other without causing uproar in their own ranks. Once sat in that room however, they will all proceed to support privatisation, and other anti-working class measures.

In reality the national and social questions are inextricably bound together. Capitalism can no more offer decent housing or healthcare to the people of Ireland than it can in Britain or anywhere else. None of these problems can be resolved on the basis of capitalism. Whatever differences the sectarian parties have, they are all equally wedded to the market economy. It is this system, capitalism, which lies at the heart of all the problems facing all Irish working people.

Whilst placing the blame for the division of Ireland squarely where it belongs, at the door of British imperialism, and roundly condemning the reactionary bigots in the loyalist paramilitary forces, we have never been willing to play the role of cheerleaders for the Provisional IRA, a role that many on the left in Britain relished in the past. The Provos have played a criminal role. Their actions over thirty years have served to widen the divide between Catholic and Protestant workers. After thirty years of so-called armed struggle, in reality what Marxists define as acts of individual terror, shootings and bombings carried out by small secret groups, they were forced to admit defeat. The tactic did not work. Such actions would not defeat the British state in 300 years, all they could achieve and did succeed in doing is driving a wedge between workers from different backgrounds and communities.

The poisonous weed of sectarianism planted by British imperialism has been watered and fed by the actions of sectarians and bigots ever since. The Provisional IRA has not achieved a single one of its objectives. They vowed to carry on the “armed struggle” until they secured the withdrawal of British imperialism. Now they fight for the reform of the RUC. A new deal could even see Sinn Fein representatives sitting on a newly revamped police board.

In reality the establishment of the devolved body itself represented a capitulation by the Provisional IRA. It wasn't even a gesture towards Irish unity. It amounted to an acceptance of British rule and an acceptance of partition. If the devolved assembly is reconvened it can solve nothing and will lead to a new impasse. If they fail to resurrect it, then that too will create an impasse. Either way the new impasse will mean new splits within the republican movement in the next period. The Provisional IRA itself was born out of just such a split.

The leadership of the Provisionals has clearly abandoned all hope of a united Ireland for the foreseeable future. Their goal now is a new installment of the failed power-sharing scheme at Stormont. Whether or not it can be resurrected at all remains to be seen. Even if they succeed in arranging a new deal over decommissioning, policing and an amnesty for the “on the runs” (those on the state’s wanted list), as long as these parties and the assembly they sit in remain wedded to the continuation of the capitalist system, they can never create jobs, build houses and provide healthcare for all.

Meanwhile, with a new round of negotiations underway, Unionist politicians continue to try to press home what they see as their advantage. They not only want the Provos to destroy their weapons, they want a video of them carrying out the decommissioning! Some hard-line elements are clearly determined to rub the Provos’ noses in the dirt. The leadership of the UUP may accept some proof of decommissioning short of an actual video, but now there is talk of introducing a new Protestant Veto into Stormont. Insisting on measures to attack Sinn Fein in the event of any future activity by the Provisional IRA, which they call “sanctions”, some in the Ulster Unionists have raised the idea of replacing the need for cross-community support to expel a party with a 40% rule, meaning unionists could in effect veto Sinn Fein.

The hardliners, who have been gaining the upper hand within Unionism for some time, want a return to the idea of a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people. They are no doubt bolstered by recent opinion poll findings. A poll in the Belfast Telegraph a few weeks ago found that support for Stormont has fallen significantly, especially among Protestants, since suspension last year. But the key question in the recent poll was this one: Do you want the agreement to work? Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes: 92% among Catholics, 60% among Protestants, 75% overall. That is the lowest it has been in four years. A new election if it were to take place would see a further strengthening of the hard-line elements within Unionism. Meanwhile the nationalists have cruelly raised illusions, demonstrated in these statistics, which will inevitably be dashed against the rocks of Stormont’s failure.

Whilst reports suggest that Adams and co have already told the Provos to cease all activity - interestingly, Joe Cahill, the 82-year-old former IRA chief of staff, joined Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at Hillsborough for several hours during the most recent talks - the loyalist paramilitaries find themselves in disarray. We have consistently condemned the actions of the Loyalist bigots. The increase in their paramilitary activity, their attacks on children at the Holy Cross school, their death threats against Catholic workers and the brutal murder of postal worker Daniel McColgan, were designed to provoke tit-for-tat attacks, to undermine a peace agreement they cannot accept. This is despite the fact that the agreement represents little in the way of compromise other than cosmetic exercises. Just imagine the response of these reactionary bigots if there were even a single step towards uniting Ireland in any of these documents.

The UDA has recently declared a ceasefire, following the decision of Loyalist leader Johnny Adair to help the police with their enquiries. However, as usual there is little talk from Blair or Trimble about the decommissioning of the considerable arsenals of the loyalist groups.

Stormont never had the potential within it to solve any of the fundamental problems facing the working class. Many people's hopes have been dashed by the failures of the Assembly, and by its suspension. In reality these hopes were falsely and cruelly raised. Such a body could never begin to solve their problems. New elections and a new period of “power sharing” at Stormont will inevitably raise these illusions once more. The Telegraph’s poll quoted above shows how a huge part of the Catholic population still invests their hopes in the assembly.

A majority of the population voted for the creation of the assembly. That is not a surprise; it was sold as peace to a population weary of sectarian killing. After the horrors of the last three decades, the majority of people in the North want peace. Of course! Who does not want peace? But the question is: how do we get it? How is a genuine and lasting peace to be achieved? The only way to get peace is by dealing with the real problems facing the people in their everyday lives. This is the only way to tackle the social roots of sectarianism. That means fighting against privatisation, fighting for better pay, better housing and against job cuts.

There was nothing in the Good Friday Agreement that could achieve any of these aims, in fact there was nothing progressive in it at all, and we did not support it, although it got a majority in the referendum. We were in a minority, but we told the truth. Today too, we must honestly say to the people of the six counties: this deal did not solve your problems, nor will any new version.

For the last six months since the suspension of the assembly the media has continually speculated over Stormont’s future. For most ordinary workers however the burning questions have been the continuation of sectarian violence, the state of housing, the war in Iraq, and the continued destruction of jobs.

Workers under attack

The latest cataclysm to threaten the livelihoods of workers in the north is the announcements by Short’s that they intend to axe over a thousand jobs.

Bombardier, Shorts' Canadian owner, announced in Montreal it would lay off 3,000 of its 75,000-strong global workforce, 1180 of them in Belfast, to meet "challenging market conditions", i.e. the developing international recession. Shorts, which makes fuselages for a range of Bombardier aircraft, has already axed 1,300 jobs since the September 11 attacks prompted a slump in the aviation industry. Shorts, which now employs 6,200 in east Belfast, has seen 550 permanent employees, and the same number of temporary and contract workers leave since September. A spokesman said the company, which has made a pre-tax profit in each of the past nine years, would see five new aircraft enter service over the next 18 months.

"We are positioning ourselves to take advantage of an upturn in the market. It is essential that the company remains competitive and ready for that upturn when it comes," he said. Bombardier has invested more than £1bn in Belfast in the past 13 years. Of course the purpose of that investment was not to protect jobs, but to make money. They are not making a loss, simply worried that in the international economic climate they will not be able to maintain their profits, therefore they demand that the workers do it for them, with fewer employed, working longer, and harder, for less wages.

The industry of the north, which played a key role (along with major political considerations) in British imperialism’s decision to carve up the living body of Ireland in the past, has been decimated. Harland and Wolff, the Belfast Company synonymous with shipbuilding (the Titanic was built there) has officially become a small business. The world-famous firm is now known as an SME or 'small to medium enterprise'. The former shipbuilder now employs just 135 people, a shadow of its former glory days when up to 30,000 men worked in the yard. At present it occupies just 80 acres of the 360-acre site dominated by the giant yellow cranes, known as Samson and Goliath, which today cast the shadow of gravestones over the industry of the north. As the shipyard awaits news of a vital Ministry of Defence contract, its chief executive was philosophical about the historic change from shipbuilding giant to small business.

“It is a recognition of the new realities of shipbuilding,' said Robert Cooper, as he stared out over the desolate dry dock. 'The Koreans and the Chinese are now the world's leading shipbuilders. It will be a very long time before a ship is built from scratch in Belfast again. 'So we have to move on and market the great engineering skills developed here.' 'We have refitted vessels such as the Stena Line's HSS boats that run between Northern Ireland and Britain. We have up to 10 engineers working on a ship docked in San Diego. Our aim is to market our skills around the world and sell them to shipping and engineering firms. We can only do that as a small business.” In other words this is no longer a shipyard but an engineering consultancy.

Neither the British government, nor the Irish government and certainly not any of the sectarian politicians have any solution to this crisis. All they can offer is occasional false dawns followed by impasse and new crises. Ahern, the Southern prime minister, made clear that there was no place in any Southern coalition for Sinn Fein, bringing mocking cries of derision from Unionist leaders "we are supposed to share power with these people, yet the government in the South want nothing to do with them." This follows the earlier dropping of the South's constitutional claim on a united Ireland. The Irish bourgeois have no interest in uniting with the North, which they see as poverty stricken and politically explosive.

The Unionists meanwhile will never accept any real step towards uniting with the South on the basis of the current system, as their opposition to the current agreement demonstrates. So British imperialism is stuck with the North, whether they like it or not. The irony is that Britain would now like to withdraw. They would like to get rid of the £4 billion a year subsidy, that their continued presence in the north requires. Their problem is that the result would be a bloodbath, the Catholics of West Belfast and Derry would face a massacre and the violence would not be confined to Ireland. Sectarianism, fostered by British imperialism as part of its divide and rule tactic, has become an uncontrollable monster. The failure of Stormont is proof once again that they cannot solve the crisis they have created. They will now try to put this ramshackle agreement back together again. Even if they do cobble together new temporary agreements between sectarian parties, this will offer no solution to the problems of the working class. Such unstable agreements will inevitably break down. The sectarian politicians will not negotiate themselves out of existence. The devolved assembly does not have the power to intervene to prevent the hemorrhaging of jobs in the north by nationalising the industries concerned, even if it was still functioning, and even if the parties represented there wanted to. In reality however Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the UUP and the rest may disagree about the future of Ireland, but they do not disagree over the continuation of capitalism, their economic programmes have little between them. All for example support privatisation in the guise of the Private Finance Initiative.

Elections to Stormont may indeed go ahead at the end of May, yet they could be further postponed by yet another failure on the part of all parties to come to an agreement, or equally by the fear of Blair and co of the outcome, which will surely see a further polarisation, and a strengthening not only of Sinn Fein but also of the hard-line anti-agreement elements of unionism. In the absence of a party of Labour this election will effectively be a sectarian head count. There will be a battle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP on the one hand, and between the UUP and the DUP on the other, to determine which is the largest party on either side of the divide. Sinn Fein may well emerge as the largest nationalist party. Even if the UUP stay ahead of the DUP, the new UUP Assembly grouping will be much more anti-Agreement than the old. Within unionism the overall balance will swing strongly against the Agreement.

The small "middle ground" will be squeezed further. The Alliance Party is not going to disappear overnight but its vote is dwindling with each election, its activists are ageing and it has more or less disappeared west of the Bann. Some of the Alliance Party's vote has transferred to the Women's Coalition, which has two Assembly seats, in South Belfast and North Down, areas where the Alliance Party was traditionally strong. Even if it retains its seats, it is extremely unlikely that it will develop in the future.

The need for a party of the working class

The key however, is that there is no mass party that represents the independent interests of working class and young people in Northern Ireland. The main Assembly parties may squabble and argue on sectarian issues but they have a lot in common when it comes to social and economic issues. None of them are prepared to challenge the profit system, they are all firmly wedded to the continuation of capitalism. Trade unionists in threatened workplaces, in the fire service, teachers, nurses, public and private sector workers in general, are not represented at Stormont. An independent party of ordinary working people, based on the trade unions, with a socialist programme to transform society is what is required. The existence of such a party would bring the elections to Stormont, if they were ever to take place, to life. Such a party will not spring fully formed from the earth before the expected date of that poll however. Trade unionists from all backgrounds should push their own unions to participate in a conference of Labour, with links to both British Labour and the Irish Labour Party, on a non-sectarian basis to begin the process of setting up a real Labour Party in the north, to represent the interests of ordinary workers. Such a party could gain an enormous echo and begin to cut the ground from under the feet of the sectarian parties.

The history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) demonstrates the possibilities. At various points in time it had a huge base in working class areas. In 1962, it gained over 62,000 votes in Belfast, running close to the Unionist Party's 67,000. It won nearly 107,000 votes across the North in the 1970 Westminster election.

Unfortunately, the NILP avoided taking an independent class position on the difficult issues then facing working people, in particular the Civil Rights campaign and on the question of the border. The minute one abandons a class position on such questions a disaster is inevitable. It is simply not possible to avoid these issues. Inevitably, a party that attempts to do so comes to be seen as sitting on one side of the sectarian divide or the other. This was the fate of the NILP, which became identified with unionism and the status quo. It quickly lost its support and had disappeared by the mid-1970s

A mass working class party cannot be wished into existence. A sense of proportion is required. Political consciousness has been thrown back and the majority of working class people do not yet clearly see the need for such a party. Those candidates standing in elections on single issue tickets have given a glimpse of how it is possible to undermine the sectarian parties. However as important as many of these single-issue campaigns are, ultimately it is necessary to take on the established parties on the broader issues. A new mass working class party will be created by events not by decree. Trade union activists and socialists must begin the work of organising such a party. That is the urgent task of the hour.

There is only one force capable of securing a lasting peace, only one force capable of defeating sectarianism and protecting all communities from attack. There is only one force capable of taking on and defeating the source of all these problems - the capitalist system - and that is the united action of the working class. The working class and its organisations, beginning with the trade unions must intervene to take matters into their own hands.

In reality the paramilitary cease-fires were in large part forced on them by the anti-sectarian demonstrations of thousands of workers. Here the potential power of the working class to defeat sectarianism was shown in outline. The only solution lies here, in the hands of the working class themselves. Only united action by workers can defeat the attacks of sectarians, of governments and bosses.

The re-unification of Ireland is in reality the unsolved task of the national democratic revolution, which ought to have been solved eighty years ago. But it can never be solved by the bourgeoisie. They were the ones who created the division. Only the coming to power of the working class, as James Connolly explained a century ago, can solve this problem. We are for the unification of Ireland, but we are opposed to the Stalinist theory of stages, which says that we must postpone the perspective of socialist revolution "until Ireland is united". Ireland will never be united until the working class takes power north and south of the border.

The united struggle of the Irish working class alone can offer a future to Ireland. The general strike against sectarianism a little over a year ago was a reminder of the great traditions of united working class struggle. Tragically, the trade union leaders failed to build upon that. The workers organisations must now mobilise to defend communities from sectarian attack. They must mobilise to fight against the attacks of the government and the bosses. United in struggle the working class of Ireland can sweep away the filth and poison of sectarianism once and for all. Once again the potential for that unity was demonstrated at the magnificent anti-war demo on February 15. All those who have argued that workers’ unity is impossible or utopian have been proven wrong. In fact what has been proven is that the idea that any one of the problems facing Irish workers can be solved by sectarian parties, by Stormont, or by any government or body within the confines of the capitalist system.

Without workers' unity, Ireland would face a bloody future. All is not black despair however. There is hope precisely in a united movement of the working class. We have absolute confidence in the struggles of the workers. Such unity may not be achieved overnight, but it the only way.

All the problems facing Irish workers are interconnected. None of them, social or political, can be solved by the market. Only an Ireland united by the struggle for socialism alongside their British and European brothers and sisters can begin to tackle all these questions. None can be solved in isolation. The current peace process created illusions for many that finally the problems of Ireland could be solved. Those hopes have been dashed time and again, and the same will be the case in the event of a new period of Stormont “rule”. The consequence will be new splits and divisions amongst Republican and Unionist groups.

Ultimately, without the intervention of the working class there will be a new descent into chaos and violence. Under modern conditions there can be no solution anywhere to the national problem within capitalism. We have entered a new period in world history dominated by wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. Ireland will not be immune from this turbulence. The Irish working class will take their rightful place in the struggle for socialism in the coming years. United by the need to struggle over social and political questions, the working class alone can provide the only realistic lasting peace in a Socialist united Ireland linked by a free and voluntary federation to a Socialist Britain and a Socialist United States of Europe.

For Workers Unity against sectarianism!
For trade union action to defend jobs, and protect communities!
For a non-sectarian party of Labour in the north based on the unions and linked to the Labour Parties in the south and in Britain!
For a Socialist United Ireland linked by a voluntary federation to a socialist Britain and a Socialist United States of Europe!