John McNulty of Socialist Democracy (Ireland) examines the Hillsborough Agreement, the latest retreat in the ‘Peace Process’ following the earlier St. Andrews and Good Friday Agreements.
The immediate response of the world’s media to the latest Irish settlement, a common response when they shy away from any analysis, was to carry out a series of vox pops – interviewing members of the public to establish their response.
People absent-mindedly fed back the garbage fed to them. The crisis had been a crisis of personal relations that had now been resolved. Asked about the details, they expressed confusion. The talks had been conducted in secret. The published details were vague in the extreme. The agreement was ringed with “side deals” that will never be published. Those in the know will be kept up to date. It is the working class who will be kept in the dark, in case the utter corruption involved provokes revulsion and revolt.
What was relatively new was the rapidly growing disillusion and disgust with the political process. Long gone are the days of enthusiasm for the deal and for the parties such as Sinn Fein who endorsed it. As yet the public mood is simply negative. Workers, unhappy about the glaring failures and corruption, largely accept the background claim that the process will lead to a better future. They do not yet reject the claims made for the agreement or see the need to construct their own alternative.
Whipping up support
Those claims were made again as part of the ballyhoo designed to whip up support for the latest version of the settlement. Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the deal marked the “basis for the future stability and success of democratic institutions which we all have worked so hard to create.” The achievements being unveiled at Hillsborough were, Gordon Brown said, “as great as they are inspirational”. “This might just be the day when the political process in the North came of age,” said Martin McGuinness. Peter Robinson said the deal was a “good day” for Northern Ireland. He added: “No future generation would forgive us for squandering the peace that has been so long fought for. I believe that we have taken a considerable step to secure the prize of a stable and peaceful Northern Ireland.”
All the claims are untrue. The British and their allies claim that there is no alternative, even as their scheme breaks down yet again and they cobble together yet another alternative. They claim that failure would mean a return to violence, yet their own strategy reinforces the risk of violence by building sectarianism at every level of society and installing loyalist death squads into civic society. They say that the latest deal will bring prosperity, announcing yet another investment scheme from America, after a decade of the failure of similar schemes, and just weeks after the collapse of the latest nostrum from the US – the Emerald Fund.
So if not peace, prosperity and stability, what was the latest crisis about? The media, unable to discuss anything about the North of Ireland outside of their “two tribes” scenario, say it was about a lack of trust and a falling out between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over parades and policing.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that the St. Andrews Agreement had broken down. It had broken down because it ran counter to the program of the DUP and they refused to implement it. In desperation Sinn Fein appealed to London, Dublin and Washington to set a bottom line. This they duly did but, because the bottom line involves keeping Loyalism in power, it involves a new agreement much more sympathetic to the demands of the DUP. In the process it lays bare a central contradiction of the Irish settlement. It’s claims to equality and compromise stand against the necessity of basing the settlement on unionism and its program of sectarian domination, on the fact that Britain is determined to preserve its unionist base and on the willingness of the Irish government and sections of the Catholic to support the status quo.
So the original Good Friday Agreement had to be moved to the right to gain the signature of David Trimble. When that became too much for unionism it had to be rewritten to gain the signature of Ian Paisley. Now it has been rewritten as the Hillsborough Accord and was only agreed by the DUP after a midnight meeting with Gregory Campbell, the nearest thing to a representative of fascism in a party of the extreme right. To copper-fasten the deal the DUP offered a veto to the Orange Order in secret background meetings.
It must be stressed yet again that the Hillsborough Accord is not an example of Loyalism imposing its own demands. They did not draw up the Hillsborough deal. It was drawn up by the British to give Loyalism 95% of their demands as the price of keeping them in government. It was endorsed by Sinn Fein and the Dublin government.
A few minor concessions were made to Sinn Fein. The prison hospital at the centre of the hunger strikes is to be preserved. All other signs of the long period of resistance to the British are to be expunged. The Irish Language Act, and any pretence of equality, is dead in the water. In what is now a standard element of the talks, the British slipped £20 million to Sinn Fein for Irish broadcasting and another side bribe of £5 million for the imaginary language of Loyalism. Adams boasts of the bribe, apparently unaware that it is compensation for the final abandonment of any pretence of equality. Hundreds of millions in bribes are to line Loyalist pockets. The RUC reserve, a 100% Protestant body, is to be integrated into the police at a time when the 50/50 Catholic/Protestant recruitment rule is to be dropped. British security chief Paul Goggins said the 50:50 recruitment process had delivered “significant change”. “It has been necessary to introduce these temporary provisions in order to deal with the historic imbalance, but of course it is important that as we move forward.”
The British have published a consultative document on a Bill of Rights so reactionary, so geared to a minority unionist position within the consultation body that denied its main conclusions, that its most frantic supporters in the trade union leadership have launched an anonymous lobbying campaign against it.
And we should not ignore the breath-taking endorsement of corruption involved in the settlement. First Minister Peter Robinson, mired in stories of financial corruption following his wife’s involvement in obtaining money for her lover from property speculators, hired a barrister who declared him innocent. Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, immediately added the endorsement of the British state. Sinn Fein deputy minister Martin McGuinness, whose role had been to nod his head sorrowfully and say that questions needed to be asked, kept silent. Apparently all the questions had been answered. At least in earlier versions of the settlement Ian Paisley had gone when his involvement with property speculators had become an issue.
But the central issue was the issue of Orange marches. Sinn Fein have been locked into a subcommittee with DUP ministers who are also direct representatives of the Loyal Orders. They have three weeks to find a solution which will be acceptable to the Orangemen. Absence of that solution will mean that the Sinn Fein demand for the devolution of policing will not be met. If the Shinners attempt to go back on their word Peter Robinson says that he has a “device” – believed to be a post-dated letter of resignation.
So the Good Friday Agreement has reached it limits. A process which promised the gradual decay of sectarianism now depends for its survival on ensuring an unrestricted right to sectarian intimidation for the Orange marches. Only the forced coalition government remains. If it is removed then we would end up with a system very like the old Stormont – an impossible solution given the size of the Catholic population. The settlement is unstable in the short term as well as the long.
The minority SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party, barred from the talks, have sniped from the side-lines to weaken the larger parties. Absorbing the reaction of their own supporters, the Sinn Fein leadership has indulged in some fanciful rhetoric. McGuinness said that the best solution would be for the Orange Order to agree that it would not march again on the Garvaghy Road. Fat chance! Gerry Adams said that if they marched he would be sitting on the road opposing them – ignoring the fact that ineffective protest is the preferred solution of the unionists and also the way in which Sinn Fein smothered nationalist resistance to sectarian coat-trailing in Belfast.
This disingenuous reassurance of their supporters led to a furious reaction from Orange members of the parades subcommittee. Nelson McCausland of the DUP said that the sectarian coat trailing involved the right of assembly and was non-negotiable. He accused nationalist objectors of cultural apartheid – a somewhat curious turn of phrase for someone involved in working with the state to ensure a very real form of housing apartheid in North Belfast, where bursting Catholic ghettoes co-exist with half-empty derelict areas designated Protestant and enforced with peace walls.
Perhaps the most telling comment is at street level amongst nationalist workers, where many have remarked grimly that an Orange march on the Garvaghy Road is not something that is within the gift of Sinn Fein. Active support for Sinn Fein has fallen and will continue to fall sharply. Electoral support will lag, but if nationalists become convinced that Sinn Fein is unable to defend them from sectarian erosion then that will eventually collapse too. In the meantime a substantial section of the DUP are unwilling to accept anything less than total victory and the unreconstructed loyalists of Traditional Unionist Voice are bound to make gains. All the parties would like the local administration to continue, but at the moment it rests completely on Sinn Fein’s desperate need to claim defeat as victory.
Meanwhile, outside the talks the unionists were making it crystal clear that they had no intention of moving away from sectarian domination. In secret talks with the Orange Order the parties discussed how to maximize the Protestant vote. British politicians exposed their own role when the Tory party indulged in a similar conspiracy. The “non-sectarian” Alliance party, not for the first time, indicated that it would re-join sectarian unionism to prevent a Catholic being nominated as Justice Minister. The result was a flight of Catholics and non-sectarian Protestants from the nascent Tory party and a call by a prominent supporter of the peace process for middle-class Catholics to give up and move across the border.
In newspaper polls it had been indicated that unionist divisions mean that Sinn Fein would emerge as the biggest party. The Unionists have responded by indicating that they would not join such a government. That would require a further fix from the British to gerrymander a unionist majority that would keep the show on the road but ensure even further instability.
Just as the British settlement began to give up the ghost we were given the strongest indication yet of the incapacity of the traditional republican opposition in the form of the INLA decommissioning its weapons. Given that this group made its name by being the most ruthless of the republican groups and claimed the highest level of political radicalism, there seems very little justification for running the physical force movie again if the end result is an ignominious surrender of weapons to the British and absorption into the community movements that they fund. The Irish peace process is reaching its limits. Many workers are growing more hostile and cynical as the promised reforms of the sectarian society never emerge. It is no longer possible to argue that there is no alternative as the British keep coming up with alternatives to their decayed and increasingly unstable settlement.
There is a long way to go, but the potential for an alternative program, an alternative working class movement, now exists.