Edging towards an imperialist peace
Less than a week after David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, described talk of a new ceasefire as “wishful thinking”, the IRA gave its expected positive reply to Sinn Fein’s ‘request’ to call a truce. Despite all the delays, the obstacles and the hold-ups, the ‘peace’ process remains in place.
In the aftermath of the collapse of ‘communism’ in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and the removal of the only effective counterbalance to imperialism’s global domination, national liberation movements the world over have been forced to sue for peace. In Ireland too freedom fighters gave up all hope of driving the British occupying forces out of the Six Counties, instead seeking to reach an accommodation which would allow them to end their resistance with honour intact.
Clearly the IRA has not surrendered - it remains undefeated. It will not permanently renounce armed struggle until it has wrung significant concessions out of the British state.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, announced in his statement calling for a ceasefire last week that the party would remain “guided by our aim of a united Ireland. We will be seeking an end to British rule in Ireland ...” Significantly however, the statement added: “We will be encouraging the Irish government and others to do likewise.”
The “others” referred to include primarily the US government of course. A united Ireland brokered by Bill Clinton and magnanimously handed down by imperialism would be quite a different thing from one imposed on it through a military victory or a revolutionary uprising. It would guarantee that reaction would prevail, just as it did when an orderly transition to home rule was negotiated in 1922 and anti-imperialists defeated.
But Sinn Fein has lowered its sights. Its “aim” of a united Ireland - however that is achieved - is for the future. As for today, “In any agreed political settlement the political allegiance of northern nationalists must be given expression and effect.” This vague formulation can be taken to mean that SF would settle for some kind of all-Ireland institution under British hegemony.
The organisation implied in its statement that it had received “assurances” from the British government that negotiations would be open-ended and without preconditions, and that they would be “enhanced by specified confidence building measures ... including the issue of prisoners”.
It made clear that it would not sign up to any settlement that did not encompass “a speedy demilitarisation of the entire situation, including the release of all those who have been imprisoned as a result of the conflict”.
The government responded immediately to the IRA announcement of a renewed ceasefire by stating that it must last at least six weeks and must be seen to be genuine “by word and deed”, after which Sinn Fein would be allowed into the all-party talks due to resume after the summer recess on September 15. SF delegates were immediately permitted to enter Stormont in order to set up offices in preparation for the full negotiations.
This certainly provides a sharp contrast to John Major’s inaction in response to the first IRA ceasefire called in August 1994. He demanded a guarantee that it was “permanent” and took no meaningful steps to prevent a resumption of armed resistance, which eventually resulted in the Canary Wharf bomb 18 months later. Despite the huge damage done to the British establishment - both materially and morally - we described that explosion as a “peace bomb”.
The purpose was to force Major’s hand, not resume a full-scale offensive. But the Tories’ slender majority, depending on the votes of unionist MPs, meant that no significant steps could be taken before the general election. The Labour Party’s more rapid response does not mean that Blair is any less devoted to British imperialism than John Major - he backed the Tories every step of the way over Ireland when he was in opposition. It simply means that public opinion’ - in Britain as well as amongst the protestant population in the Six Counties - is now better prepared for the projected transformation of SF/IRA from ‘terrorists’ pure and simple to pragmatic negotiators.
Of course SF’s entry into Stormont met with a predictable reaction from hardline unionists. The tiny UK Unionist Party immediately walked out, while Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party stayed away and announced it would never take part in negotiations with “men of violence”.
The DUP constitutes itself as the intransigent voice of loyalism - a permanent opposition to the Ulster Unionists, but never seriously challenging its domination of mainstream unionism. The ‘peace’ process can proceed without the DUP, but no settlement can be reached without either the UUP or SF. That is why the government pulled out all the stops to persuade Trimble - himself previously considered an extreme hardliner - to stay on board.
The big sticking point for the mainstream unionists was of course over the question of ‘decommissioning’. In 1994 Major insisted that the IRA must at least start to hand over its weapons before it could enter talks, but the Mitchell Commission proposed that the surrender of arms should proceed in parallel with negotiations.
However, as The Independent put it, “The unionists have to accept that the disarmament question is a red herring. It is abhorrent that the IRA holds guns and Semtex. But terrorist organisations through history have rarely handed in their weapons. If peace is negotiated, the weapons usually rust and rot away” (July 21). That is particularly true of Ireland, where yesterday’s ‘terrorists’ have often been miraculously transformed into ‘respectable’ politicians.
Furthermore, as the Daily Telegraph regretfully points out, “It is now clear that the government has no plan to enforce the handing in of the IRA’s formidable armoury” (July 19). How could there be such a plan while the IRA remains undefeated? John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party was correct when he reminded journalists that “the IRA could hand in a thousand guns on Monday and buy a thousand more on Tuesday”.
In contrast to the agonising of Trimble and the froth of the DUP, the smaller working class-based unionist groups associated with the loyalist paramilitaries, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, retained their equanimity: “It’s a decommissioning of the minds that we require,” said David Ervine of the PUP, who spoke of “flushing out” the IRA - through negotiations of course, not through armed raids.
The Daily Telegraph remarked that allowing SF into talks while the IRA remains armed is like “holding a gun at the heads of the constitutional parties” (July 19). However, that does not carry much weight with the PUP and the UDP - they themselves are armed to the teeth. But the most heavily armed forces of all are those of the British occupying troops. The state will not of course be required to decommission a single weapon.
Despite past and future setbacks, the ‘peace’ process is continuing to edge forward. The British strategy remains one of marginalising both the intransigent republicans and the hardline unionists. As Martin McGuinness, SF’s chief negotiator said, “You can see that David Trimble and the unionist parties do not want to go to the negotiating table, but go to the negotiating table they will”.