Ireland: ten years on from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement

In looking back at the Good Friday Agreement, Gerry Ruddy points out that it has served to stabilise British rule in the North as Sinn Fein has been absorbed into the establishment. In this situation he stresses the need for republican socialists to focus on working class and socialist policies.

April 2008 was the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. In 1998 the Irish Republican Socialist Party opposed that Agreement mainly on the basis that it institutionalised sectarianism in the political institutions of the North:

"After thirty years of conflict, civil rights agitation and death destruction and mayhem the end result is that we have now got a more sophisticated head counting exercise. There is now no incentive for people to move away from entrenched sectarian positions." (Political Secretary's Report to Ard-Feis 1998).

We also pointed out that the issue of sovereignty was so ringed around with pre-conditions and confusions that unionists and nationalists could interpret the issue of sovereignty in the agreement to suit their own political stance. We pointed out clearly that:

"Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom" (Article one of Annex A of the agreement).

We queried whether the so- called equality agenda would in fact be implemented given that:

"the deputy leader of the Unionists said that nationalists could not expect equal rights to unionist because unionists were the majority." (Political Secretary's Report to Ard-Feis 1998).

[After] 10 years there is still no bill of rights, no Irish Language Act, and the DUP resisting anything that smacks of a nationalist agenda.

We also pointed out that:

"The cross border bodies are not moves towards unity. They are simply pragmatic responses towards the need for capitalist economic efficiency within the context of the European Union. [See "from the media" The border - economic asset for North and South] Does anyone here think that improved co-operation on issues such as ‘animal and plant health... teachers' qualifications and exchanges, waste management, social security fraud control, aqua culture accident and emergency services' (GFA) was what the last thirty years was all about.?" (ibid)

We also did not believe that the RUC would be abolished or essentially reformed. We were wrong there. The RUC became the PSNI and many young Catholics are now joining the PSNI with the strong encouragement of provisional Sinn Fein.

At that time we tried to tell the strong republican base that existed in 1998, that in essence the GFA was a defeat for republicanism and that rather than try to work the new institutions by jointly running the north with unionists (in effect administering British rule), republicans should form a legitimate opposition within the new assembly and oppose from both republican and socialist positions the right-wing policies being implemented under British direction whilst upholding the republican base positions.

Unfortunately few were prepared to listen to us. They were prepared to put their trust in the ‘republican leadership'. In the intervening 10 years many who once scorned our arguments have since come to realise that they were fooled by that same republican leadership and that our initial position was correct. There have been at least two splits from Provisional Sinn Fein since then and a fracturing of republicanism.

Clearly from a Republican perspective the republican position has suffered a serious defeat. MI5 now have a strong physical presence in North Down, British regiments are still stationed in the North of Ireland at the level they were in 1968, a regime still operates from Stormont administrating British rule and also implementing economic policies dictated by the British Treasury. Former armed combatants, it is true, are now involved in running that Administration and that has gripped the imagination of those with only a superficial analysis of politics. But the question has to be asked in whose interests are they administering British rule?

Supporters of the Good Friday Agreement, especially from those who once took up arms against British rule point out the gains they claim [have been] made since the GFA. They point out that it covers a wide range of areas from, "constitutional issues, political matters, institutional arrangements, human rights, equality, policing, justice, language and culture issues" (Gerry Adams, Irish Times April 2nd 2008) and that progress has been made on these fronts.

Yes. There have been changes. Now we have a vibrant catholic/nationalist middle class on an equal basis with protestant/unionist middle classes. In Adams' own words there is now a "level playing field" (ibid). The mantra of "equality" is rarely away from the lips of Provisional Sinn Fein leaders. But what kind of equality? Is it equality for the middle classes? Is it the equality of poverty? Is it economic equality?

In the early days of the Civil Rights movement those of us on the left pointed out that one of the consequences of calling for equal rights on issues such as housing and jobs, under the current economic system would be to create less job and housing opportunities for Protestants thus further feeding sectarianism within those thus disadvantaged. Equality under capitalism meant taking from one group and giving to the other. That simply facilitated the old Imperialist tactic of divide and rule.

The Unionist Aristocracy and bourgeoisie in collaboration with sections of the British ruling class argued forcefully against Home Rule at the turn of the 20th century on the grounds of religion, the economy, the interests of the British Empire, strategic military grounds and racism.

Through the Ulster Unionist Council they created an all class alliance that linked the Protestant proletariat to their industrial masters. Despite the fact that the unionist bourgeoisie was extracting as much surplus value from the Protestant proletariat as they could possibly exploit, the Protestant masses identified with their exploiters and with the reactionary British Empire fearing a loss of, in many cases imaginary, privileges they had, compared to the Catholic masses.

The trade union movement was divided. As early as 1843 skilled workers in the iron shipyard formed a trade union called the "Belfast Protestant Operatives Society" to keep out Catholics from the shipyard. (page 27, "Yes We have No Bananas" Paddy Devlin, Blackstaff press1981).

When the first Northern Government was set up in 1921 the first Cabinet looked "...like an executive committee of Northern industry and commerce", (page 68, "Northern Ireland ; the Orange State", Michael Farrell, Pluto Press 1990)

But it also included two working class members off the Unionist labour Association in minor positions to keep the Protestant proletariat on board. Protestant workers who either opposed partition or preached socialism were described as "rotten prods" and driven out of their workplaces. Thus was created an enormous block to Irish independence, a block it must be said, greatly underestimated and misunderstood by republicanism.

As the 20th century progressed many Protestant workers formerly ‘privileged' by easy access to jobs in heavy industry, found their sector in decline. Resentment, hatred, bitterness based on years of indoctrination about the privileges of being British made many easy prey to bigotry and sectarianism. It took courage to stand up to sectarian hatred and there were many trade unionists, workers and socialists who did so.

James Connolly, Ireland's outstanding Marxist writer in the early part of the 20th century had argued strongly against partition on the grounds that it would create a reactionary bulwark against socialism. And so it has proved.

The Good Friday Agreement, far from being but a stage on the road to a united Ireland, that Provisional Sinn Fein adherents argue, has in fact re-enforced the sectarian nature of the 6-county state by pushing its inhabitants into being either "unionist", "nationalist" or "other" for the purposes of forming an administration. There is now no incentive for mainstream political parties to reach across the divide.

Instead we now have political parties based on communal interests. It is in the political interests of the mainstream political parties to maximise their votes within the Protestant or Catholic sections of the population. So it is in the direct interests of PSF, SDLP, DUP, and UUP to maximise the turn out from their "side of the house". Now as the administration is a coalition there is absolutely no chance of radical measures, never mind socialist measures, being introduced. After all, the budget is allocated from Westminster and must be allocated in accordance with the wishes of the Westminster Government which means implementing neo -liberal economic policies.

So when Gerry Adams of Provisional Sinn Fein argues that, "The fierce opposition from within unionism and the British system to the Belfast Agreement has stemmed from the recognition that the agreement is a powerful instrument for change." (Gerry Adams, Irish Time,s April 2nd 2008), he is being less than honest. The Agreement is an instrument of British policy. It has stabilised the Northern state. And did not the most formidable opponent of change and of opposition to nationalism and Catholicism, Ian Paisley point out that Adams had revised every republican position he ever had and that PSF were now administrating British rule?

"I did smash them [the Provos] because I took away their main plank. Their main plank was that they would not recognise the British government [in Ireland]. Now they are in part of the British government. They can't be true Republicans when they now accept the right of Britain to govern this country and take part in that government." (Interviewed on BBC Radio One "Andrew Marr Show" on March 9 2008).

When Paisley agreed to share limited power with Provisional Sinn Fein he knew that the Union was safe.

The IRSP has advanced the argument that in the current climate there is no basis for republicans engaging in armed struggle. There is little or no popular support, organisations are well infiltrated with people hostile to the national struggle and the prospects of any successful conclusion to an armed campaign practically nil. A military strategy is an elitist strategy at this time.

Republicans need to take a different direction and we have argued consistently that that direction is the class struggle. Needless to say the mere mention of class struggle has the politically sectarian jumping up and down frantically shouting "economists", "reformists", "ant- republicans" and whatever suitable insult they can think up without having to make up a suitably sensible argument. Worst of all in their eyes are those who put forward clear arguments based on a socialist understanding of modern Irish society. They are accused of being trendy middle class intellectuals living in theoretical ivory towers.

Such anti-intellectualism has no place in a revolutionary organisation. It is almost impossible to think of one revolutionary leader from the 20th century who was not also simultaneously a writer and thinker; Lenin, Trotsky, Gramsci, James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Mao tse Tung, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara. Also in the IRSP itself two of our outstanding leaders, Gino Gallagher and Ta Power, were critical writers. One has only to read through their prison exercise books to see the depth of their intellectual thinking. All of the above were thinkers, writers and doers, basing themselves on the class struggle.

The IRSP has argued from its inception that without national liberation there can be no socialism and without socialism there can be no national liberation. So in deepening and developing the class struggle we are in actual fact deepening and developing the struggle for national liberation.

Too many republicans, influenced by the immediacy of armed struggle, think there is a quick solution to political problems whether it is the issue of anti-social behaviour, (kneecap the hoods or more direct community work) or the issue of partition (one more heave). Too often one can hear republicans referring to "my community" when making arguments about lack of resources, interface violence or other local issues. What they actually mean by "my community" is a local Catholic community where they do some community work. Republicans need to remember some wonderful phrases of Wolfe Tone, a founder of Irish Republicanism:

"To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country ‑ these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissentions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter ‑ these were my means."

"To unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irishmen in order break the connection with England, the never failing source of all our political evils, that was my aim".

"If the men of property will not support us, they must fall. Our strength shall come from that great and respectable class, the men of no property".

We republican socialists need to remember that it is not "our community" we owe allegiance to but to our class as stated by the leading founder of the IRSP Seamus Costello: "I owe my allegiance to the working class"

In an examination of the connection between the role of the state and community action another founder member of the IRSP has written:

"...many engaged in community action operate within their perceptions of a civil society and do so in the full knowledge that they subscribe to the hegemonic values of the state. - They become as a consequence an extra-bureaucratic arm of the state." (The State and Community Action, Terry Robson, Pluto Press, London 2000).

The reality is that community politics is no substitute for class politics. Community politics can certainly complement class politics especially when it creates positive links between communities fighting common economic and social problems. Currently there are enough class issues to unite many sections of the working class in Ireland.

The British taxpayer pays out £7billion per year to subsidise the North [with] its 1.7 million inhabitants. That is the equivalent of £4000 per head. Now that stability has been secured future British Governments will want value for money. Having lost heavy industry and seen the failure man-made textiles as a replacement the Northern economy is heavily dependant on the public sector, services and retailing.

Large numbers of people are economically inactive in the North with nearly 40% of the working age population. The education system is socially divisive class based and not fit for purpose. Every year over 1000 pupils leave school without basic qualifications and over 12,000 without GCSE passes in Maths and English. For this pool of labour prospects are bleak as there is an expectation that in the British economy over three million jobs will be shed in the unskilled sector in the next 10 years or so.

Currently households in the north pay out 40% of that paid out by households in Britain. Gas bills are going up. Electricity bills are going up. Water charges are being introduced. Public sector jobs are being axed and replaced by the private sector. Working class families can now not afford mortgages and the state refuses to increase substantially the supply of social housing to meet current needs. There is a slump in the building trade and energy prices are rising dramatically.

In the South of Ireland the economy has slowed down to a 2%growth rate, its lowest growth rate for 20 years and unemployment is expected to rise to 5.5% or 6% this year. House prices are 15% down on their peak in 2006 and as in the North some working class families now find themselves with negative equity. Many now face the prospect of either selling their homes or having them repossessed and moving into rented accommodation to be at the mercy of landlords.

Currently the strong Euro and weak sterling means that the 70% of small businesses that export to the British market could face difficulties. 60,000 Jobs are dependent on UK trade links.

Capitalism worldwide has suffered its greatest shock since the great depression in the1930s. That Depression aided the rise to power of fascism with the subsequent world war. What happens in the world economy directly affects workers in both parts of Ireland. Neither of the two administrations can protect the working class from the effects of a recession even if they were so inclined. Administrations that include the right-wing PD party in the South and the right-wing DUP in the North will have as their first priority defence of capitalism and their cronies in the business world. For all Sinn Fein's professed "radicalism" they are the party that introduced Public Private Initiatives that essentially is privatising the educational system.

For capitalism, that has been one of the outstanding successes of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Fein is now working the capitalist system with a gusto and enthusiasm that would turn the stomachs of those who once believed in their left-wing posturing. We say to those republicans shed away your illusions and work towards republican aspirations by joining with growing sections of the working class in taking up explicit anti-capitalist stances. There is now an opportunity to rally working class forces in a fightback against the cuts now being imposed. Are republicans prepared to join in that fight?

[Originally published in the E-mail newsletter of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, The Plough Web Site Vol. 5, No. 5, Monday 28th April 2008]


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