Northern Ireland: can the deal work? A Marxist analysis of the Good Friday agreement

The proposals that have emerged from the Northern Ireland peace process have been hailed as an historic breakthrough. Tony Blair has been lauded with praise for his 'peacemaking' role. Characters like David Trimble, who led the Orangemen at Drumcree, have received praise upon praise for their bravery. But what does any of this mean for the working class people of Ireland who have been subjected to decades of sectarian rule, violence, intimidation and ruined lives? Can it really bring peace?

The agreement will mean the setting up of a new Northern Ireland Assembly based on proportional representation and with a complicated 'power sharing' executive structure, the establishment of North/South bodies linking the new assembly with the Dublin government, and a so-called 'council of the isles' linking the assembly to the Dublin and London governments, along with the new Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. The forthcoming referendum is likely to give the plans a sizeable endorsement.


The first thing to say about the proposals is that they could have been written at any time over the last few years. In fact the so-called negotiations were confined to some last minute attempts by the various sectarian politicians to save face. The 'deal' was already there in outline back in 1994 at the beginning of the peace process. It was cracked not because of the negotiating skills of Tony Blair, or any of the other politicians involved, but because of the intense pressure bearing down on them.

The British ruling class have been looking for ways to extricate themselves from Northern Ireland for most of the post war period. It is an enormous drain on their resources to the tune of £8 billion, and since the stabilisation of the South as a safe capitalist state they do not fear any threat to their economic interests. Meanwhile the capitalist class actually in the North - both home grown and overseas investors - crave stability in whatever form, and will consider any form of rule as long as they can continue to make their profits.

The south's bourgeois politicians, although still using the rhetoric of nationalism, have long given up the idea of uniting the whole island. In fact they would fear such a development - not only the sectarianism and civil strife of the last thirty years, but the economic cost is way beyond them. The 'tiger economy' of the south has public spending amounting to around £14 billion a year. How could it match the £8 billion injected by the British government into the north every year just to maintain the status quo.

More and more the 'mainstream' unionists have been forced towards some kind of accommodation with the nationalists. Despite the blustering of some of Trimble's party, echoing Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, it seems clear that the 'hard liners' have lost a lot of ground. In the seventies Paisley was able to organise a reactionary general strike against the Sunningdale agreement. Today, however, his brand of politics looks increasingly isolated.

Historically, unionism and the Orange Order, represent the interests of the Protestant small businessman. In the recent period, Northern Ireland has been the fastest growing region of Europe - the 'peace dividend,' the strength of the southern economy, the fact that inward investment reached a record £490 million last year, cross border trade up 50% and tourism has grown 25%. So, despite the 'no surrender' bluster, David Trimble has dragged his party to negotiate with the nationalists. When profits are involved the small, bourgeois mentality of the Unionist and Orange hierarchies will run with anything.

In previous issues of Socialist Appeal we have dealt with the position of Sinn Fein at some length. Our analysis has been confirmed by the role played by Adams and McGuinness in the negotiations. They have played little or no role in the final set of proposals, precisely because they have nothing to say. Can anyone see one single clause of the agreement that reflects the position of the republicans? A position that two generations of Catholic youth were prepared to give their lives for. Their acceptance of the agreement represents the final defeat for the idea that the 'armed struggle' could defeat imperialism, or bomb the Protestants into a united Ireland.

Although not signing the deal, it seems likely that they will convince their party to go along with it and to change their constitution in order to stand in the assembly elections. They are the first republican leaders since the days of Michael Collins over seventy years ago to accept partition and the border. Despite their brave-face talk of the deal as a stepping stone to a united Ireland, it represents their final capitulation. For the first time the agreement carves in stone British imperialism's historic crime of partition. How can this be seen in any way as a step forward.

The position of the loyalist paramilitaries is no different from that of the IRA. Intense war weariness, the drying up of their support amongst the youth, the realisation that they are in an impasse with no chance of getting out of it - all these factors forced them into the negotiations and, despite everything, kept them there to the end.

More importantly, the sectarians of both sides came under intense pressure from the working class who wanted peace. The mass movement by trade unionists in 1992-94 with large scale demonstrations and strikes against sectarian attacks played a significant part in driving the sectarian parties to the conference table in the first place. A demonstration of 20,000 called by the Irish Congress Of Trade Unions (ICTU) protested outside Belfast City Hall, there was a succession of trades council demonstrations against the violence. There were also several strikes after trade unionists were threatened by the paramilitaries, including a strike of 5,000 civil servants, and the walkout of Harland and Wolff workers following the murder of one of their Catholic workmates.

Took to the streets

Again, in February this year, after eight murders in the wake of the assassination of LVF leader Billy Wright, trade unionists took to the streets at six venues organised by the ICTU. Thousands turned out for the rally in Belfast and booed and jostled Sinn Fein representatives when they lifted up what the workers deemed to be sectarian banners. Meanwhile the GMB withdrew members working on the gritter teams for the DofE, after Protestant workers had been threatened by the Catholic Reaction Force, a cover name used by the INLA.

Can the deal work? Well power sharing has been tried before, in Lebanon and Cyprus for example. British imperialism can move from a policy of 'divide and rule' to one of so-called 'power sharing' as easily as changing shirts. In both cases it ended in civil war. In Lebanon, power sharing existed between the Maronite Christians and the Muslims for over thirty years. It was hailed as a tremendous success until it collapsed in bloody civil war. In Cyprus it was brought to an end by an attempted coup by Greek Cypriot fascists backed by the Athens junta, an invasion by the Turkish army and the complete partition of the island.

However long it lasts, the agreement in Northern Ireland resolves none of the issues at the heart of the problem. In attempting to square the circle, to resolve the situation on a capitalist basis, it risks further explosions down the road. We only need to think back to last summer's marching season or the days after the assassination of Billy Wright in December to conclude that, despite the agreement, the situation in Northern Ireland remains on a knife-edge.

The Document of Intent published earlier this year claims 'the peace process gives all sides the opportunity to achieve the goals which are of great importance to them without abandoning the values and principles they hold dear.' Yet the 'goals' of the Republicans and Loyalists are diametrically opposed. Where is the common ground? 'Power sharing' is not a recipe for progress, but a recipe for paralysis followed by collapse.

Fortunately, there is another tradition. One that wasn't represented around the negotiating table. The trade unions are the only major organisations that unite people from across both communities. Despite thirty years of pogroms, killings and sectarian strife, Catholic and Protestant workers remain united in the unions. Their protest and action forced the sectarians around the negotiating table - but this is not enough. The political agenda in Northern Ireland is still being set by the sectarians and various strands of bourgeois politicians. This is a recipe for disaster, despite a 'negotiated' peace.

The trade union leaders have been extremely wary of what they call 'excessive politicisation,' fearing a threat to their own unity if they become involved in local or state-wide politics. But this is a recipe for inaction.

No matter how long the trade union leaders keep their heads down, the crisis will not go away. Certainly it would be a mistake to link up with any of the sectarian parties, or merely import the British or Irish Labour Party - but that does not mean they should abstain from intervening. They should look to their strength and form a party of labour based on their 225,000 members. The trade unions are an untapped source of strength, they are the largest organised force in the North.

Rank and file trade unionists have shown the way. The demonstrations earlier this year prove that we can no longer leave 'politics' to the sectarians and bigots. Lasting peace can only be won through the political action of the organised working class.

The ICTU leaders must act now. A conference of labour with the aim of establishing a party before the forthcoming Assembly elections is vital.

The working class of the north have suffered most from the troubles. It is they who faced the brunt of the violence and intimidation. They have also been the main fighters in the interests of peace. It would be criminal if the Assembly was left in the hands of the sectarians. A party of labour, with a mass membership based on the unions, and a socialist programme could unite Catholic and Protestant workers around class demands.

Decent conditions

With the adoption of a programme that could outline how jobs and decent conditions could be achieved for all, both Catholic and Protestant, the tensions between the two communities would dissipate and a united party based on class demands could be formed.

Such a movement would not happen in isolation, but inspire workers both in Britain and south of the border. A movement allied to the seven million strong British trade unions and the one million strong Irish unions would be unstoppable. Sectarianism, and the capitalist system that created it, would be swept away.

In the struggle to construct a socialist society all the antagonisms of the past would go - including the issue of the border - and the formation of a united socialist Ireland linked in federation to a socialist Britain as part of a socialist united states of Europe would be entirely possible.

The so-called peace agreement does not answer one of the fundamental questions posed over the last decades - jobs, housing, discrimination, divided communities, the border. It will not usher in a period of capitalist prosperity. Far from it.

Neither this agreement nor the status quo offer any kind of a future for working class people in Ireland. Socialism and workers unity around class based demands - this is not just some alternative programme for Northern Ireland or some long term dream. It is the only solution open to it.