The Irish peace process is mired in crisis. Despite all the fanfare accompanying the Good Friday Agreement, the people in the Six Counties of the north once again find themselves at an impasse. Phil Mitchinson looks at the issues involved.
The arrest of three suspected Provisional IRA members in Colombia alleged to be training the FARC guerillas in bomb making techniques has been cited as a reason for the Unionists to reject the Provisional's offer on decommissioning, putting their arms "verifiably beyond use." Yet this discovery was made after the Provo's plan, agreed with General de Chastelain, had already been rejected. Hardliners like Jeffrey Donaldson, MP for Lagan Valley, have been gaining the upper hand for months inside unionism. The Unionists fear too many concessions have been made to the republicans already. Just imagine their reaction if at any time there had been any mention of a move in the direction of a united Ireland.
Meanwhile the concessions made by republican leaders have provoked fears too. Graffiti scrawled on a brick wall in South Armagh declares "Ealing is Realing - Smash Stormont." The Real IRA's bomb in Ealing must worry Sinn Fein leaders that any further concessions would put their own positions in jeopardy.
What about Stormont? The devolved assembly, the centrepiece of Blair's plans, is now suspended, now open. Democracy it seems can be turned on and off like a tap.
Secret negotiations between sectarian parties and British imperialism cannot lead to a solution. That must now be clear. The national and social problems of Ireland cannot be solved within the confines of capitalism. That is what the current crisis once again demonstrates.
British imperialism, responsible in the first place for the criminal carving up of Ireland, and therefore directly responsible for the death and destruction wreaked ever since, cannot control the sectarian monster it created.
The latest attempt at a compromise between the Provos and the unionists seemed to have gone a lot further than many previous attempts - yet still it has failed. We take no pleasure in this fact, but a fact it remains. Once again the inability of capitalism to solve the problem of Ireland leaves Catholics and Protestants alike facing an uncertain future.
Unionist leaders are hostages to the hardliners in their own ranks. They cannot back down on the destruction of Provo weapons. Even more, they are demanding the Provisional IRA's abject surrender, destroying their weapons in the presence of a Unionist inspector.
Of course the Loyalist terrorists have been responsible for just as many atrocities themselves, and show no sign of disarming. Sinn Féin has released a report giving details of more than 180 sectarian attacks by Loyalists this year alone. The Unionists don't have to rely on paramilitaries however, when they are backed up by British troops and the RUC.
For the Provos to have handed over their weapons would have spelt disaster for them. They cannot accept the idea of destroying them before one of Donaldson's representatives. If they decommission in this way then the leaders responsible stand every chance of being dead men. But why do they want to keep their guns?
Do they seriously propose to return to the so-called armed struggle, the counter-productive policy of individual terrorism that achieved so little over 30 years? If not, then what method, what policy will they adopt in the struggle to unite Ireland? Is the policy of the Armalite and the ballot box to be replaced by the ballot box alone? Does anyone really believe that Ireland can be united, that British imperialism can be booted out of Ireland by the simple expedient of winning one or two seats at Westminster, which they will never take up? Meanwhile the Unionists and the Protestant paramilitaries will just sit idly by?
The method of individual terror must be abandoned for good, but an electoral tactic alone is not enough. Firstly what will their policy be? Unless it is a socialist programme in the interests of the workers of all backgrounds you cannot hope to have any impact on the Protestant community. Only a movement based on workers' unity, socialism and internationalism can begin to overcome the prejudices which exist on all sides, appealing to Protestant workers and to British workers too. The only point in holding on to weapons would be to defend such a movement from the inevitable and vicious attacks of bigots, and sectarians. Such a movement would strike the fear of god into the British ruling class, more than any taxi-bomb. It would deprive them of the greatest weapon in their arsenal - the division of the workers along sectarian lines.
The method of James Connolly and Jim Larkin is the only route to a free and united Ireland, an Ireland free of discrimination and prejudice, an Ireland free not only of British imperialist occupation but free too from capitalist exploitation, where the political and economic rights of all can be guaranteed, an Ireland freed by the struggle of a united working class for socialism.
Without such a struggle whatever happens today or tomorrow, whether the agreement is salvaged again for a time or not, the tragedy is that there will be a return to violence eventually, nothing will be solved and the working class, Catholic and Protestant, will continue to suffer low wages, bad housing, poor health care and be prevented from successfully struggling against these consequences of capitalism by the sectarian divisions imposed upon them.
What about the Unionists? It is true that Trimble used the excuse of delays in decommissioning to walk out of the Assembly. In reality this was more a matter of defending his own position within an increasingly hardline Unionist movement. They want a devolved assembly which they are confident will be dominated by Unionists. But at the same time they are quite happy to tolerate direct rule. They are desperate to cling on to their privileged position. Discrimination may now be outlawed, but Ulster Unionism remains a bastion of bigotry and reaction. They were forced to make a number of concessions, but it seems they will go no further. Instead they have now forced Blair to suspend the assembly. Sinn Fein and the Provos on the other hand cannot offer any more without disintegrating.
The IRA puts the blame for the breakdown on the British government and the unionists. The result, as Socialist Appeal has explained before, is back to square one - again.
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 amounts to an acceptance of British rule and an acceptance of partition. The Protestants meanwhile will never accept any real step towards uniting with the south on the basis of the current system. 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 be shot of the £4 billion a year subsidy. 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 only solution now lies in the hands not of the professional politicians but the working class. The only force capable of struggling for a united Ireland whilst defending the interests of Catholic and Protestant workers equally is a movement of the working class for socialism. The potential for such workers unity is demonstrated by the trade unions. They remain the only force organised on a non-sectarian basis. The unions must provide the foundation for a political expression for that united working class - a party of labour. Armed with a socialist programme, such a party could win the overwhelming support of workers from both communities. Campaigning for a socialist solution to unemployment, low pay and bad housing, the working class could guarantee the rights of the Protestants in a socialist united Ireland linked to the workers in England, Scotland and Wales.
Of course some will argue that this is utopian. This is always the argument of those who lack confidence in the ability of the working class to change society. Surely what is utopian is to believe that after centuries of raping and pillaging Ireland, capitalism can offer any new way forward. Today they have failed again.
British imperialism created the mess in the first place, and they remain responsible for the mess today. They can play no part in any solution. Nor can the sectarian parties of Unionist reaction or nationalist republicanism. To achieve a peaceful and lasting solution the workers of all communities can trust only in their own strength and their own united class organisations.
There is no doubt that many in the republican movement genuinely want to struggle for the cause of a united Ireland. For them the end justifies the means. Tragically however, the method of bombings and shootings has led them ever further away from their desired end. In this way a generation of young fighters have been wasted, poisoned by middle class nationalist ideas, their courage and willingness to struggle, had it been channelled in a socialist direction, could have brought a real solution much closer.
The IRA's campaign of individual terrorism all along sought to substitute itself for the role of the proletariat. They denied the class question and turned instead to so-called urban guerrillaism. While guerrilla struggle may still have a role to play in more backward countries, though even there only as an auxiliary to the actions of the working class, in an industrialised society guerrillaism has no place. It is not a method of the working class.
Despite all talk to the contrary, the Protestants will remain the majority in the north for the foreseeable future. A million armed Protestants is a guarantee that any new talks between sectarian parties and paramilitary organisations cannot lead to a united Ireland. The only real way out would be through the industrial and political struggle of the working class uniting Protestant and Catholic workers in the struggle for socialism.
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. Now those hopes are being dashed, and the consequence will be new splits and divisions amongst Republican and Unionist groups.
The press speculates that the Real IRA now has up to a hundred members with an impressive arsenal at their disposal. The Protestant paramilitaries are heavily armed too, and they will inevitably retaliate against any attacks by these splinters. There can always be temporary agreements. By their very nature temporary agreements break down, and it will be the working class who will pay.
Under modern conditions there can be no solution anywhere to the national problem. A decade ago the illusion of such solutions was all part of the New World Order. In today's Disorder not only have those illusions been shattered, but new ethnic and national divisions across the planet are exploding to create a more turbulent and dangerous world. Today only the working class plays the progressive role in society required to solve these problems. 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.