We are posting two articles from the Socialist Democracy (Ireland) website. The first addresses the current Haas Talks concerning the growing Loyalist challenges to the Peace Process in Northern Ireland. The second highlights Peter Robinson’s sectarianism and capitulation to Loyalist base, something Haas, the British and Irish governments will accept.
1. THE HAAS TALKS
The Haas talks, which have just commenced in Belfast, are promoted as an effort to get a comprehensive agreement on the issues causing divisions between the parties in the north. These are listed on the official agenda for the talks as “dealing with parades, dealing with flags and emblems, dealing with the legacy of the past”. It is expected that a report recommending a mechanism to deal with these issues will be produced by the end of the year.
However, these talks are not a tidying up exercise. They are a desperate effort to stabilise a political settlement that has been put under severe strain over the past twelve months. It is significant that this effort is being spearheaded, not by the local parties, but by Britain and the United States. That recent events in north have drawn the attention of the US government indicates the seriousness of the current crisis. A co-sponsor of the peace process from its earliest days, it now perceives a threat to a settlement that it believed had a firm foundation. This was made explicit in a statement on the flag protests by US diplomat Barbara Stephenson (a former US Consul General in Belfast) in which she revealed that the widespread violence had caused Washington to fear the process “wasn’t as solid as we hoped” and that “a couple of more shocks and we could be in trouble.” She also revealed that Vice-President Joe Biden now has a specific brief to monitor the peace process. The US is also providing the team – led by veteran diplomat Richard Haas – that will be facilitating and directing the talks. Though they are supposedly here at the invitation of Robinson and McGuinness it is clear where the push is coming from.
All this is evidence of the importance of the settlement in the north to imperialism. This is not just because of the strategic value of Ireland but also because the Irish peace process is being promoted as model of “conflict resolution” for other regions such as the Middle East and South America. A failure here would therefore have wider implications for the strategy of imperialism.
Imperialist sponsorship of the talks makes impossible any progressive outcome. Despite what some people may hope for the US and Britain will not force the liberalisation the north. They both support partition and the sectarian foundation on which the current political settlement rests. Their objective of stabilising the settlement is actually more likely to reinforce of these elements.
The political records of the diplomats facilitating the talks also indicate such an outcome. Richard Haas is a former Bush administration official, who as a presidential envoy to Northern Ireland in the early 2000’s, was instrumental in securing the disarmament of the Provisionals. He is the current president of the influential think tank – the Council on Foreign Relations – and has used this position to set out his views on world politics. In a recent article on Syria he argued for air strikes against the Syrian forces and the supply of heavy weaponry to elements of the opposition that supported the US.
His chief assistant at the talks, Meghan O’Sullivan, was an advisor to Haas when he was envoy to Northern Ireland and was also an adviser to the Bush administration on Afghanistan and Iraq. She was an official of the occupation administration in Iraq and has been credited as one of the original advocates of the “surge” strategy. More recently she was an advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Haas and his assistants are representatives of the most rabid right wing current within the American ruling class. Anyone who believes they can produce anything progressive need only look to their legacy in Iraq – where 100’s are being killed in sectarian violence every month – to dispel that delusion.
The British government has exposed the fraudulent nature of the talks by ruling out any outcomes it would find unacceptable. In a speech to the British-Irish Association Conference two weeks ago the Secretary of State, Teresa Villiers, signalled that her government would reject any proposals that that were too costly, were critical of state forces or involved public inquiries. (Only last week she ruled out a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the 1998 Omagh bombing). She also declared that the British Government would “not be a party to attempts to re-write history by legitimising terrorism.” In this schema state violence is legitimised while opposition to it is criminalized.
Another major element pointing towards a thoroughly reactionary outcome is the unionists. This is even more the case after Robinson’s debacle over the Maze peace centre. The leadership of unionism is completely in thrall to the most rabid elements of its constituency. The DUP have even appointed leading Orangeman Mervyn Gibson to its talks team – giving the loyal orders an effective veto over the whole process. The statement made by Robinson after his first meeting with Haass, in which he called for loyalist parading and flag flying to “enshrined and protected”, indicates strongly the direction things are moving.
In mainstream commentary these talks are portrayed as a means of overcoming a legacy of past conflict that is preventing Northern Ireland moving towards a peaceful and prosperous future. The problem with this schema is that the past cannot be safely decoupled from the present because the conflicts are not really about the past. The issues, which are being agitated around (such as the peace centre), are primarily a means to mould the political settlement in the present and into the future.
At the root of all this is sectarianism and how it is used as a mechanism of control by imperialism. When we talk about sectarianism we do not mean people having prejudiced ideas. In the north sectarianism is a whole system of patronage and power designed to manage the population along communal lines. It has a material and political foundation that is reflected in the institutions of the state.
Another critical element of sectarianism is the privileging of one community over another. You can’t have an equality of sectarianism. In order to bind one group of people to the state they have to put one in a relative position of privilege over the other. It is this promise of privilege that is the basis of the northern state and of unionism. In the early history of Northern Ireland this was blatantly obvious with overt forms of discrimination and with political leaders declaring a “Protestant state for a Protestant People.”
While this is not the case today, and while economic inequalities between the Catholics and Protestants have significantly diminished, sectarianism is still in operation. This is evidenced in the furious reaction of unionists to minimal gestures towards nationalists such as restrictions on some parading and flag flying. While it may seem mad to the liberal observer – for a political movement based on defending privilege it is perfectly sane. There is real substance behind these supposedly symbolic issues – for what they reflect is the political dominance of unionism.
In many ways the unionists have a better understanding of how the current political system works than nationalists. There can’t be equality. Instead there must be hierarchies across a whole range of issues – be they parades, symbols or the past. The most that nationalists can aspire to is an expansion of the “Catholic rights” (such as control over schools) that have existed from the foundation of the state. But it must be understood that these are lesser rights than those enjoyed by unionists. Though they may still proclaim equality the nationalist parties have implicitly accepted inequality through their support for the political settlement.
Of course a system based on sectarianism is inherently unstable and gives rise to conflicts. This is particularly the case when unionists react violently to any perceived concession to nationalists. The response of the British Government in these situations has been to try and buy off unionists while reigning in the wilder elements of loyalism. But this has only emboldened hard-line elements – leading to a situation where the position of the leader of unionism is under threat and there are regular outbreaks of loyalist orchestrated loyalist street violence. This in turn is weakening the hold of Sinn Fein in areas – such as Ardoyne – which are the target of loyalist intimidation.
Whatever comes of the Haas talks will not reverse this trend. Even If there is some political fix it is unlikely to survive its first encounter with the reality of the street. While the political settlement will not collapse in the short term – particularly given the determination of Sinn Fein to hold on – it will continue to decay over a longer period.
18 September 2013
(this article was first posted at:-Haass Talks: The illusion of a progressive role for imperialism)
2. UNIONISTS SET THE TONE FOR THE NEW SOCIETY
Sectarian slurs by Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson, aimed at loyalist critic Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice), show both the level of decay and of instability in the Irish peace process.
The slur, an allegation that Allister had been involved in a land deal with Catholics in Fermanagh, is best understood when we consider that the Orange Order was founded in 1796 to prevent Catholics gaining ownership of land. Restrictive covenants in wills to prevent Catholics acquiring were legal up to the 1970s and there are still informal restrictions in many areas. Above all the slur is best understood in terms of the quotation By Lord Brookeborough in 1933, seen as setting the tone for the Stormont regime that he led;
‘There are a great number of Protestants and Orangemen who employ Roman Catholics. I feel I can speak freely on this subject as I have not had a Roman Catholic about my own place … I would appeal to Loyalists, therefore, wherever possible, to employ good Protestant lads and lassies…
This guttersnipe attack by Robinson has provoked a furious row amongst unionism. What of the nationalists? What are they to make of these of these open exchanges showing the raw bigotry of the unionists?
The answer is very little. The nationalist parties have fallen back on the formula that “Robinson has questions to answer.” Robinson never answers any questions, nor do they put any, but it convinces their supporters that they have some role other than onlookers. They are much more reliant than the unionists on the survival of the peace process and dare do nothing to rock the boat.
Yet despite their desperation corruption and decay are everywhere. The peace process ate up the arch bigot Paisley. Robinson was to rule via pragmatism – assuring supporters of his hatred of republicanism while maintaining a business-like approach to the day to day functions of government. Now, as loyalists repudiate anything less than full-blown assertion of sectarian privilege, Peter the pragmatist is pragmatically moving to maintain his leadership.
Nationalist leaders are perfectly willing to ignore demonstrations of supremacy in return for kickbacks and their own share of patronage. What they fear is that the increasingly blatant displays of bigotry, alongside equally blatant displays of capitulation by the state and the British overlords, will wake up the Nationalist workers.
Sinn Fein have kept their distance from the row over Robinson’s guttersnipe behaviour. However on a more general level they are showing signs of panic. An orgy of warnings about a crisis in the peace process have been sparked by a growing realisation that the intervention of U.S. envoy Haass, meant to rein in the loyalist offensive, are actually designed to placate the loyalists.
This is indicated by Haass himself, who has narrowed down his remit, accepted the presence of the Orange Order in the DUP delegation, and hinted at a welcome for submissions from the loyalist paramilitaries. It is indicated by Theresa Villiers, British secretary of state, intervening in support of the unionists and then again to limit the Haass remit. It is indicated in an offer by Irish minister Eamon Gilmore to review unionist claims of Irish government collusion with the IRA – one of the more rabid demands by unionism and intended to establish that there was no validity to the nationalist revolt.
The warnings by Sinn Fein are in fact pleas for protection. They claim a leadership crisis in unionism, as if unionists supported reconciliation. They claim personal bias by the secretary of state, as if Britain did not always sponsor unionism. They call for support for principles of equality, as if the Irish government had any interest above ensuring that the embers of revolt have been extinguished North and South.
Peter Robinson’s bigotry is establishing the tone of Northern society. His followers on the streets are creating sectarian realities that imperialism is willing to concede. The end of the Haass mission will see a new shift to the right that the Sinn Fein leadership will have to accept to keep the settlement alive.
The issue then will be: Are nationalist workers willing to continue supporting Sinn Fein?
26 September 2013
(this article was first posted at:- Unionists set the tone for the ’new’ society)
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