New ‘peace’ stage reached

It was hardly a surprise when Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam announced last week that Sinn Fein had fulfilled British preconditions for participation in the ‘peace’ talks scheduled for September 15.

SF had shown “in word and deed”, said Mowlam, that the IRA’s ceasefire was “genuine” - it had not fired a gun or planted a bomb for six weeks. Its resistance had stopped “like turning off a tap”, according to British security forces. The previous ceasefire, called in August 1994, had lasted 18 months but was deemed insufficient by the British establishment. The difference this time, we are told, is that the IRA has also called off all ‘punishment’ beatings.

The truth is that the process as a whole has now advanced a considerable way forward since the IRA first indicated in the early 90s that it wanted to find a way of ending its armed struggle. British and unionist opinion has been carefully prepared for the transformation of ‘terrorists’ into respectable negotiators. And of course the general election has removed the disproportionate influence of the unionist parties over the previous government with its wafer-thin majority.

No longer able to dictate the pace of events, the unionists are today under the most intense pressure to cooperate in the negotiations. The British establishment consensus has incorporated the mainstream parties, and William Hague immediately stepped in to welcome the government’s invitation to SF, further cementing the Labour/Tory bipartisanship that has characterised British policy over Ireland for the whole of the century. Internationally too the unionists are bombarded with pleas to ‘give peace a chance’, as the USA puts it weight behind the efforts of the British and Irish governments to find an imperialist settlement.

While Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and the smaller UK Unionist Party have made it clear that they will under no circumstances attend the talks, all the weight of the establishment and international diplomacy has been brought to bear on David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, to keep the main loyalist organisation on board. In the words of The Independent’s editorial, “Mr Blair, quite rightly, is putting pressure on him to compromise on the real-world grounds that there is no alternative” (August 29).

Trimble’s position was not made any easier by the earlier announcement of the British and Irish governments that they had reached agreement for the establishment of an arms commission to oversee the ‘decommissioning’ of IRA weaponry, which will run in parallel with the all-party talks. This represents a confirmation of the substantial retreat from previous British positions: first that arms must be surrendered before SF could be admitted to the talks; then that the IRA must at least agree a timetable for disarming before participation (As we have often pointed out, there was never the slightest intention that the British state itself would decommission a single weapon).

Trimble’s unconvincing response was that the decommissioning agreement was “inadequate”, and that the arms issue must be resolved in the talks before substantial negotiations could begin. But his comments represented a sure sign that he intends to make certain that the UUP will be attending the talks. To cover himself against accusations of a sellout he has set up a “community consultation exercise” which will almost certainly report the undoubted fact that majority loyalist opinion is in favour of unionist participation at the talks, despite the presence of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

Even the Daily Telegraph, which condemned the government’s concessions as “a triumph for terror” and stated that “Mr Trimble would be quite justified in walking away from this debacle” (editorial, August 30), did not go so far as to advise him to do so. Its Belfast reporter, Philip Johnston, complained bitterly that “Europe’s most sophisticated terror organisation” remained intact. “At what stage will guns be handed in, if at all?” he wailed, “and what mechanism exists to force an IRA surrender of arms?” (Daily Telegraph August 30).

Like Johnston the whole British establishment laments the fact that it has been unable to “force an IRA surrender” of any kind - even the Telegraph must, however reluctantly, accept that. That is why imperialism is now banking on ending Irish resistance to its occupation of the Six Counties through negotiation.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that the end of the armed struggle represents a defeat for imperialism. On the contrary the collapse of the Soviet Union - and with it the removal of an alternative centre - has weakened liberation struggles and forced them to turn to ‘peace processes’. Britain’s inability to defeat republicanism and the IRA’s desire to negotiate have coincided with Blair’s strategic plan for constitutional reform to re-establish the UK constitutional monarchy on a firmer basis.

Just as he hopes devolution will weaken the centrifugal effect of Scottish and Welsh separatism, so Blair intends to set up some kind of all-Ireland institution to strengthen Britain’s grip on the Six Counties.

Martin McGuinness told journalists last week: “An internal settlement will not work and the British government has accepted that the status quo is not acceptable.” No one on the British side rushed to contradict him.

Jim Blackstock