Stormont Suspended: The Good Friday Agreement has failed

For the fourth time in its short existence the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended. On Monday October 14, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, John Reid, announced that London was once again imposing direct rule. The whole process has been like a perverse game in which the workers hopes are constantly sent sliding backwards.

As we have consistently explained from the beginning of the "peace process", the Good Friday Agreement, and the institutions of devolution associated with it, could never begin to solve the problems facing ordinary working people from whatever background. It was a cruel deception which promised peace to the communities of Catholic and Protestant workers, but was unable to deliver. It was a lie. There has been no peace. Sectarian beatings and killings have continued. Communities have become increasingly divided.

The government's own figures reveal that sectarian killings rose from 7 in 1999, to 18 in 2000 and 17 in 2001. The divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been wider. This gulf was created and nurtured by British imperialism in order to divide and rule, to protect their system in Ireland from the threat of united working class action. It is an unnatural growth. In carving up the living body of Ireland through partition British imperialism unleashed a carnival of reaction just as the great socialist James Connolly had predicted.

Instead of peace they built lots of "peace-lines". More than a dozen neighbouring estates are divided by these brick walls or steel barriers, testimony to the failure and the inability of British imperialism, or the sectarian politicians on all sides to find a solution to the problems which the former created and the latter feed off.

Figures released by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive show that in 1994 three thousand people moved into areas where the population was overwhelmingly made up of the other religious background, buoyed no doubt by the promise of peace. By 1996 this trend had more than reversed with more than six thousand families moving into areas dominated by their own religion. The 2001 census backs up these figures with the following statistic. In 1991 63% of the population lived in areas that were either more than 90% Protestant or more than 90% Catholic. The 2001 survey found that this figure had increased to 66%.

The greatest crime of sectarianism has been to sow division in the working class. The growing segregation of the population increasingly applies to the workplace too. A survey of 40,000 jobs in Belfast last year found that a mere 5% of the workforce in companies located in areas dominated by the Protestant community are Catholic and just 8% of workers in Catholic dominated areas are Protestant.

Temporary agreements between sectarian politicians to share ministerial responsibilities at Stormont cannot begin to solve the underlying cause of this crisis. That has now been proven. Remaining within the straitjacket of the capitalist system, sectarian politicians and government officials from Ireland and Britain tried to create a better environment for big business to make money in, a better environment in which to exploit Catholic and Protestant workers alike. What none of them can do, because of the limits imposed by the profit system, is build houses, hospitals and schools, create jobs or eradicate poverty pay. These social conditions, which are an inevitable fact of life in capitalist society, serve to fuel sectarian division, fear and hate.

Whether any new agreement can be cobbled together in the present impasse is debatable. It seems unlikely. The Unionists have been 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.

It is not ruled out that they may put together some kind of unstable deal, but it is certain that no such agreement can ever meet the aspirations of the nationalist community for a united Ireland, nor assuage the fears of Protestants, stirred up by the sectarian parties. Such agreements assume the continuation of a sectarian divide, in fact they rest upon that division. At the same time the national and social questions are inextricably bound together. Capitalism can no more offer decent housing or healthcare to the people of Ireland than it can in Britain or anywhere else. None of these problems can be resolved on the basis of capitalism.

The cue for the present suspension, which may well prove to be the last, was the police raid on Sinn Fein's offices at Stormont amid allegations of a spy ring and Provisional IRA intelligence gathering. On Friday October 4, 30 members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI - the reformed RUC) stormed into Sinn Fein's offices. In any other Western European country such an assault on a party in government would be inconceivable. That it can happen in Northern Ireland says much about who is really in charge, despite the advent of devolution.

Paisley's Democratic Unionist ministers then walked out of Stormont demanding the disbanding of the Provisional IRA before they would agree to return. First Minister Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party threatened to walk unless Sinn Fein were excluded.

No mention was made of course of the spying of the agents of the British state who have admitted bugging Gerry Adams' car during earlier negotiations. No mention either of the revelations of a recent BBC Panorama documentary - which we have commented on previously - detailing the collusion between the RUC the British army and loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of lawyer Pat Finucane and many others.

The police raid on Sinn Fein made a mockery of so-called devolved government. In reality London had been in charge all along, and the Unionist veto remains intact. The assembly has staggered from one crisis to the next, while "democracy" has been switched on and off like a tap.

Whilst placing the blame for the division of Ireland squarely where it belongs, at the door of British imperialism, and roundly condemning the reactionary bigots in the loyalist paramilitary forces, we have never been willing to play the role of cheerleaders for the Provisional IRA which many on the left in Britain have. The Provos have played a criminal role. Their actions over thirty years have served to widen the divide between Catholic and Protestant workers. After thirty years of so-called armed struggle, in reality what Marxists define as acts of individual terror, shootings and bombings carried out by small secret groups, they were forced to admit defeat. The tactic did not work. Such actions would not defeat the British state in 300 years, all they could achieve and did succeed in doing is driving a wedge between workers from different backgrounds and communities.

The poisonous weed of sectarianism planted by British imperialism has been watered and fed by the actions of sectarians and bigots ever since. The Provisional IRA has not achieved a single one of its objectives. They vowed to carry on the “armed struggle” until they secured the withdrawal of British imperialism. Now they fight for the reform of the RUC. 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 amounted to an acceptance of British rule and an acceptance of partition. In the face of the current impasse will they disband? Will the three Ds, "defence, defiance and dissent", become instead, "defeat, decommissioning and disbanding"? That seems unlikely. Such an announcement would undoubtedly lead to new splits, and the bolstering of other splinter groups, the Continuity IRA etc.

The example of developments inside the Real IRA tells the same story on a smaller scale. With many of its members still in jail the response of the Real IRA to the suspension of Stormont was to announce their dissolution. In a statement from 41 prisoners in British and Irish jails those who continued with the name of the Real IRA left were described as a criminal element lining their own pockets. This caused an immediate storm with other sections vowing to remain operational and threatening to deal with those who had announced their demise. "People are spitting blood”, quotes The Guardian (October 21, 2002). "They think these guys have sold them down the river to get out of jail early and if they do, they will find themselves on the receiving end from their former colleagues." The new impasse will mean new splits within the republican movement. Remember the Provisional IRA itself was born out of just such a split.

We have consistently condemned the actions of the Loyalist bigots. The increase in their paramilitary activity, their attacks on children at the Holy Cross school, their death threats against Catholic workers and the brutal murder of postal worker Daniel McColgan, were designed to provoke tit-for-tat attacks, to undermine a peace agreement they cannot accept. This despite the fact that the agreement represents little in the way of compromise other than cosmetic exercises. Just imagine the response of these reactionary bigots if there were even a single step towards uniting Ireland in any of these documents.

So, is there any reason to mourn the suspension, or even the passing of Stormont? Well, no doubt the ministers losing their juicy salaries may be upset. No doubt those workers involved in the running of the place will be concerned about their futures. As a solution to the problems of Northern Ireland however, it never had that potential within it. Many people's hopes have been dashed by the failures of the Assembly, and now by its suspension. In reality these hopes were falsely and cruelly raised. Such a body could never begin to solve their problems.

A majority voted for the creation of the assembly. That is not a surprise, it was sold as peace to a population weary of sectarian killing. After the horrors of the last three decades, the majority of people in the North want peace. Of course! Who does not want peace? But the question is: how do we get it? How is a genuine and lasting peace to be achieved? The only way to get peace is by dealing with the real problems facing the people in their everyday lives. This is the only way to tackle the social roots of sectarianism.

There was nothing in the Good Friday Agreement that could achieve that, in fact there was nothing progressive in it at all, and we did not support it, although it got a majority in the referendum. We were in a minority, but we told the truth. Today too, we must honestly say to the people of the six counties: this deal did not solve your problems, nor will any new version.

Whether the spying allegations are true or fabricated provocation, the attack on Sinn Fein's offices was not the real cause of the current suspension. From the beginning Paisley's DUP was opposed to the agreement, and wanted the whole thing renegotiated out of existence. They wanted devolution - in the form of a Protestant Parliament - but direct rule is still second best for them. They remain on the Police Board, not just because Sinn Fein have not taken up their seats there, but in their own words to prevent any further compromise with republicanism, to see that there is “no further damage to the police service beyond what was done in the Patten Report” according to Sammy Wilson a DUP member of the assembly.

The DUP has painted itself as the defender of the union in the face of creeping moves towards Irish unity and too many concessions to republicanism. In reality there were never many concessions made and there was certainly no suggestion of a single step in the direction of reuniting Ireland. Nevertheless the assembly has become increasingly unpopular thanks to its inability to solve any of the basic problems facing ordinary working people. A majority of Protestants, 67% in a recent BBC poll, are now opposed to power sharing. 58% are even opposed to sharing power with the SDLP. No doubt what they are really opposed to is a powerless, toothless assembly which cannot tackle their problems no matter which parties sit in it. The consequence of this growing opposition has been to bolster the hard-liners inside Trimble's UUP. If he had not acted he would no doubt have been removed. He may still be.

Neither the British government, nor the Irish government and certainly not any of the sectarian politicians have any solution to this crisis. All they can offer is occasional false dawns followed by impasse and new crises. Ahern, the Southern prime minister, made clear that there was no place in any Southern coalition for Sinn Fein, bringing mocking cries of derision from Unionist leaders "we are supposed to share power with these people, yet the government in the South want nothing to do with them." This follows the earlier dropping of the South's constitutional claim on a united Ireland. The Irish bourgeois have no interest in uniting with the North, which they see as poverty stricken and politically explosive.

The Unionists meanwhile will never accept any real step towards uniting with the South on the basis of the current system, as their opposition to the current agreement demonstrates. 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 get rid 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 failure of Stormont is proof once again that they cannot solve the crisis they have created. They will now try to put this ramshackle agreement back together again. It is unlikely that they will succeed. Even if they do cobble together new temporary agreements between sectarian parties, this will offer no solution to the problems of the working class.

John Reid, the Northern Ireland secretary, hopes that planned elections to the assembly next May will still go ahead. It is hard to see how you can hold elections for institutions that don't exist! If elections were held in the present climate, no doubt there would be a further polarisation, with growing support for the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP. How this would help matters is hard to imagine. Even then new temporary agreements are always possible, though far less likely, yet as we have always explained, temporary agreement or not, none of the daily problems of ordinary Catholic and Protestant workers would be addressed. Such unstable agreements will inevitably break down.

The sectarian politicians will not negotiate themselves out of existence. The workers of all backgrounds cannot wait for new negotiations to drag out and slither back to square one again, while sectarian killing fills the vacuum. There is only one force capable of securing a lasting peace, only one force capable of defeating sectarianism and protecting all communities from attack. There is only one force capable of taking on and defeating the source of all these problems - the capitalist system - and that is the united action of the working class. The working class and its organisations, beginning with the trade unions must intervene to take matters into their own hands.

In reality the paramilitary cease-fires were in large part forced on them by the anti-sectarian demonstrations of thousands of workers. Here the potential power of the working class to defeat sectarianism was shown in outline. The only solution lies here, in the hands of the working class themselves. We saw a further glimpse of that power on January 18 this year. In a remarkable demonstration of the potential for united working class action, thousands upon thousands of workers, Catholic and Protestant, staged a half-day general strike against sectarian attacks and killings. Such killings were on the increase during the so-called "peace" process, and the final straw was the murder of a young postal worker Daniel McColgan, shot dead by the UFF as he turned up for work. The postal workers gave an immediate lead by walking out.

McColgan came from north Belfast, where a quarter of all the deaths in the last three decades occurred. His neighbourhood is dominated by a 50ft "peace line" dividing it from the Protestant White City area. He was singled out simply because he was a Catholic working in "loyalist territory". The bigots who killed him wanted to provoke a response. The response they got was a united movement of workers.

Under immense pressure from below the Irish Congress of Trade Unions was forced to call a twelve-hour strike to start at noon on Friday January 18. There was an immediate and overwhelming response from workers. Schools were closed for the afternoon and public transport ground to a virtual standstill. Hospitals, ambulance and fire crews were on emergency cover. With 50,000 to 80,000 workers on the streets of Belfast this was the biggest such trade union organised event in decades. Thousands more turned out in Derry, Omagh, Newry, Strabane and across the north. Perhaps 100,000 in total participated in marches and rallies. This from a population of around one and a half million!

What a demonstration of the power of the united working class, and what an answer to the cynics who deny the "practicality" of a united workers struggle! The "practical" solutions of these ladies and gentlemen have brought us to the current impasse. To believe that Blair's school playground diplomacy and pious speeches can solve the problem is utterly utopian. Those on the left who cling to the idea of solving the border question first and then struggling for socialism later have clearly learned nothing from the last thirty years.

The re-unification of Ireland is the unsolved task of the national democratic revolution, which ought to have been solved eighty years ago. But it can never be solved by the bourgeoisie. They were the ones who created the division. Only the coming to power of the working class, as James Connolly explained a century ago, can solve this problem. We are for the unification of Ireland, but we are opposed to the Stalinist theory of stages, which says that we must postpone the perspective of socialist revolution "until Ireland is united". Ireland will never be united until the working class takes power north and south of the border.

The united struggle of the Irish working class alone can offer a future to Ireland. January 18 was a reminder of the great traditions of united working class struggle in Ireland. Tragically, the trade union leaders failed to build upon it. The workers organisations must now mobilise to defend communities from sectarian attack. They must mobilise too to fight against the attacks of the government and the bosses. United in struggle the working class of Ireland can sweep away the filth and poison of sectarianism once and for all.

There would be widespread revulsion against the idea of a return to the terror campaigns of the past at present. But what the media choose to call low-level violence (its low-level being of little solace to its victims) has continued to date and can only escalate in this new impasse. Without workers' unity, there would be a bloody future ahead. All is not black despair however. There is hope precisely in a united movement of the working class.

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 have been dashed, and the consequence will be new splits and divisions amongst Republican and Unionist groups. Ultimately, without the intervention of the working class there will be a new descent into chaos and violence.

Under modern conditions there can be no solution anywhere to the national problem within capitalism. A decade ago the illusion of such solutions was all part of the New World Order. Many similar illusions were created at that time. Today they have all been smashed. This is a new and turbulent period in world history and it will prove just as turbulent in Ireland. The Irish working class will take their rightful place in the struggle for socialism in the coming years. 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.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.