Northern Ireland: New developments in the peace process

The only way out, the labour movement

Recent events in Northern Ireland have shown the volatility and underlying weakness inherent in the 'peace process.' Despite the ceasefire, despite hours and hours of talks between all the various sectarian politicians and the governments in London, Dublin and Washington, little or nothing has changed.

The assasination of loyalist Billy Wright, leader of the the UVF breakaway group the LVF, seemed to throw the whole process into reverse. Loyalist prisoners in the Maze prison withdrew their support for the 'talks' as they believed they were being sold out by the new Labour government, it was being far to 'soft' on the Republicans. Whether it was the negotiating 'skills' of Mo Mowlam, some secret deal on concessions, or just the fear of what might happen if the ceasefire really did break down, the prisoners retracted their withdrawal of support and the talks began.

Almost immediately the British and Irish governments have thrown in a document outlining a proposed basis for the talks: much to the consternation of Sinn Fein, from their point of view it is actually a retreat from the 'framework document' of 1995 produced by John Major and John Bruton, two conservative and supposedly pro-unionist politicians. However, despite condemning it as a sop to the unionists, Sinn Fein's leadership are prepared to stay in the talks and discuss it.

Brinkmanship and posturing are always the hallmark of the sectarian politician, but it is no coincidence that the loyalist prisoners, then the Sinn Fein leadership have been prepared to back down.


The sectarian politicians were only forced to the conference table as, on the one hand, the futility of the methods of individual terrorism became evident to even the most hard nosed sectarian and, on the other hand, both Republicans and Loyalists feared losing support from 'their' respective communities as workers became weary of the endless round of sectarian murders. This war weariness became vocal opposition in the 1992-94 wave of strikes and demonstrations by trade unionists, which concentrated the sectarians' minds further. Indeed the latest IRA ceasefire was called only three days after the mass protests against ETA in Spain - the Republicans feared a similar upsurge in Northern Ireland could occur, undermining their social base even further.

These are the major reasons the loyalist prisoners stood back from the brink. And that is why Sinn Fein's leadership has had to accept what is widely seen as a retreat by going into the talks to discuss the new proposals.

All the parties involved are now prepared to negotiate around the new 600 word document's proposals. It outlines a new devolved assembly in the North, a council of ministers between the North and the Republic and a 'council of the isles,' that is a new intergovernmental body made up from the the new Northern Irish assembly, the London and Dublin parliaments, the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. Of course the relationships between and within these bodies is now to be negotiated. This could present endless stumbling blocks to the talks as one side threatens to quit then another.

The stance of the loyalist prisoners points to the underlying pressures. Fear of being sold out, tempered by the fear of the 'doomsday scenario,' a reversion to the so-called armed conflict which could lead rapidly to a situation that would make 'the troubles' seem like a picnic.

Fissures are also there in the Republican leadership. Martin McGuiness at first objected to the inclusion of the proposal of a new 'assembly' in the talks, while Gerry Adams has said Sinn Fein would participate in such an assembly albeit as part of a 'transitional process.'

As Socialist Appeal explained at the outset of the very first IRA ceasefire in 1994, "Any agreement they can cobble together will... in the long run not solve any of the underlying problems facing the working class. If the workers' organisations do not act then the frustrations can bring new acts of terrorism to the fore." (see Ireland after the ceasefire)

Workers throughout Ireland and Britain were relieved at the cessation of violence. It was they who were the main victims, whether from the paramilitaries or the British state.

But the violence was not some historical aberration, but the direct consequence of the material conditions created by British imperialism - partition, poverty, mass unemployment, sectarianism.

For all the talk of 'progress' being made in the peace process, not one of these conditions have changed one iota. The economic boom in Northern Ireland gave some respite, giving some sections of workers the hope that a 'bright, brand new day' had dawned. More importantly, for the business class peace meant prosperity - there was an unprecedented level of inward investment; the bosses have put pressure on their Unionist political representatives to 'keep the peace.'

But even now this upturn is beginning to falter. October 1997 saw the first rise in unemployment in 14 months. Even with the boom, with male unemployment still the highest in the UK currently running at 10.7%, conditions of poverty in Northern Ireland have been little more than dented.

For all the jostling at the conference table by the sectarian politicians - both parliamentary and paramilitary - nothing has changed.

Last legs

The 'peace process' was on its last legs as the Tories staggered out of office. There were hopes that the election of the Labour government would breathe new life into the process, but the Blairite right wing merely took over the reins from Major, offering nothing new. As Socialist Appeal warned last March, before Labour's election victory: "For all the 'New Labour' rhetoric, unless it breaks with its bipartisan stance, a Labour government will end up with the same old depressing cycle of violence."

The stark fact is that the question of Northern Ireland cannot be resolved on a capitalist basis. Britain partitioned Ireland in 1920 to put a brake on the growing social revolution that was accompanying the struggle for national liberation, and to wreck any chance of an independent Ireland becoming a serious capitalist rival, while maintaining the profitable businesses and strategic military bases in the North.

All that changed in the boom years of the post war period; Britain's policy has been to offload the costly Northern Ireland state onto the South, which it now views as a safe capitalist satellite.

Yet it had created a legacy of a sectarian monster that discriminated against Catholic workers - in the absence of a labour movement intervention - looked to a United Ireland to alleviate their miserable conditions.

But at the same time the one million Protestants of Northern Ireland fear unification on a capitalist basis, as they know the South could not maintain the North and it would be they who at worst would become the oppressed minority, facing even greater levels of unemployment and poverty, or at best faced 'equality of deprivation.'

It was these ingredients that led to the explosive events of 1969; and which have plagued the state ever since. On a capitalist basis, where is the 'common ground? where is the room for compromise? That is why the peace process - despite welcome brief respites from the killings - have gone nowhere.

But as Marxists have explained, such working class pressure cannot be maintained forever - political action by the labour movement is needed.

It has tragically not been forthcoming from the labour and trade union leaders, while the sectarian 'leaders' have produced nothing from their endless rounds of negotiations. In such a vacuum it is inevitable that reaction - in the form of sectarian conflict - would return.

The way out of the deadlock is for the labour movement to intervene. Indeed, it is an outrage that the largest organised section of the Northern Irish society - the trade unions with 225,000 Protestant and Catholic members - have not been invited to the conference table - and equally outrageous that Northern Ireland's Labour leaders have not been banging on the door demanding entry.

The election of a Labour government in Britain should provide an opportunity for the presentation of socialist policies. Rather than attempt to 'carry on regardless' with the failed Tory initiatives, Labour should use its commanding position to - along with their counterparts in Southern Ireland - do all they can to assist the Northern Ireland labour movement in forming its own independent party of Labour, based on the trade unions.

Class party

If such an independent, class based party was formed, it could adopt a socialist programme which, through the taking over of the commanding heights of the economy, could provide jobs, decent homes and conditions for all workers, both Catholic and Protestant, sweeping away the cancer of sectarianism. It would not only inspire workers throughout Britain and Ireland - if not the world - making the reunification of Ireland on A socialist basis a reality and with it the creation of a socialist federation of the Britiain, Ireland and Europe. That is the programme of socialism - that is the only programme that can guarantee peace.

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