Northern Ireland: Sectarian impasse

As the Good Friday Agreement stumbles from one crisis to another, hopes have been raised that the new "concessions" given by the provisional IRA on weapons will be sufficient to draw the Unionists into another power sharing executive and assembly with Sinn Fein.

The new proposal from the IRA on May 6 to "allow a number of our arms dumps" to be "inspected by agreed third parties" and to "completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use", is a realisation that the 25-year bombing campaign by the Provisionals has been utterly futile. Both the British and Irish governments have exerted enormous pressure to get this deal after the collapse of the assembly earlier this year.

Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, whose position was undermined by a recent challenge to his leadership, has come out in favour of a return to government. However, he has a stiff fight on his hands with his anti-agreement wing. He has used this threat to squeeze concessions out of the British government on the flying of the British flag and changes to the RUC.

Adams and McGuiness are also under pressure from IRA hardliners who are sceptical about giving up the armed struggle in favour of a power-sharing assembly and some cross border bodies. The leaders of Sinn Fein now realise that a military solution is not possible and want to enter the realm of parliamentary politics. But in the words of Trimble, the IRA's campaign is over because "it was beaten", which has stuck in the throat of republicans.

However, there are many irreconcilable issues that will render the Good Friday Agreement unworkable. The issue of policing, for example, where the RUC being 88% Protestant, is not acceptable to the Catholic population. Despite the changes stemming from the Patten report, the government has bent to Unionist pressure to retain the name of the RUC.

Adams has already said Sinn Fein cannot endorse this line given the sectarian nature of the police force. According to An Phoblacht, "This is as good as it will get. For an undefeated army to make this remarkable concession is commendable... Moves to retain the name of the RUC in any form will wreck this initiative."

It is clear the government is treading a fine line between satisfying Unionists over the RUC and alienating republicans towards the new force. It is the dilemma that the British government has in reality faced for 30 years. They wanted to grant some kind of independence to the North in the 1960s. There was no political, economic or strategic reason for the British ruling class to maintain its hold.

The problem has been the sectarian monster that has been created by imperialism since its conquest of Ireland, and its use of the Orange Card. The division of Ireland in 1922 was to cut across the social revolution that was developing. The sectarian state created, dominated by Unionism, could never be an attraction for Catholic workers, faced with discrimination.

However, the campaign by the Provisional IRA has only served to drive the Protestant population into the arms of the Orange bigots. These are the only people terrorised by the IRA's actions not the British state. As a result the cause of a United Ireland is further away now than when their campaign began. A new period of partially devolved government will not satisfy national aspirations, nor ìon the basis of the marketî will it solve one of the social problems facing Catholic and Protestant workers alike.

The main reason for the IRA ceasefire and the endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement was the overwhelming sense of war weariness in the population. There was a desperation for a way out of the bombings, shootings and violence. Unfortunately, the labour movement has allowed the sectarian parties - both Green and Orange - to maintain centre stage.

This blind alley can only be broken by the workers' movement armed with real socialist policies. The whole situation cries out for the building of a genuine Labour Party based on the trade unions. In this way the grip of the sectarian parties can be ended, and a new alternative offered to the working class, both Catholic and Protestant. Class unity can be forged in action in fighting for jobs, decent wages, better housing and education.

James Connolly once said that "the cause of Ireland was the cause of Labour". The conditions that give rise to sectarianism can only be answered by a socialist programme. The only way the border can be eradicated is by a united working class in the struggle for a new society. A socialist united Ireland can be a stepping stone to a federation with a socialist Britain, and the end once and for all of sectarianism in all its forms.