‘Peace’ train back on track

Blair hopes that a ‘council of the isles’ will secure a new imperialist stability

A significant step towards the negotiation of a constitutional resettlement in Britain and Ireland was taken earlier this week.

After London and Dublin announced their ‘propositions on heads of agreement’, the Stormont all-party talks were given a new boost and the main Six Counties parties were united in their expectations of a breakthrough. Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble stood side by side with a beaming John Hume, head of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Sinn Fein leaders too were looking forward to the start of genuine negotiations.

The British-Irish plan hinges upon the creation of an intergovernmental ‘council of the isles’, “to include representatives of the British and Irish governments, the Northern Ireland administration and the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales”. The creation of such a body is the brainchild of the Ulster Unionist Party and, as we commented at the end of last year, “Such a scheme would dovetail perfectly with Blair’s plans to forge a new consensus under a reformed UK state, while simultaneously reinforcing British imperialist domination over the whole of Ireland” (Weekly Worker December 18 1997).

The propositions also allow for a Northern Ireland assembly based on a new version of ‘power-sharing’; a north-south ‘ministerial council’ - the all-Ireland dimension necessary to create the illusion among the nationalist population of a step towards a united Ireland; changes to the Irish constitution, whereby the republic will finally renounce all claims of sovereignty over the Six Counties; and a Bill of Rights, for so long the main campaigning plank of reformists and ‘official communists’ - a smokescreen to conceal their disdain for the struggle around the central question of self-determination.

The proposals also aim to “establish and consolidate an acceptable peaceful society, dealing with issues such as prisoners, security in all its aspects, policing and decom-missioning of weapons”. This clause has been carefully phrased to give the impression that the release of prisoners of war is a top priority, while “decommissioning” languishes at the bottom of the list. This is certainly a far cry from the previous insistence that the IRA must hand over all its weapons before Sinn Fein would be permitted into the talks. Nevertheless, this concession to republicanism pales into insignificance when compared to the overall package - what could be described as “more or less a modernised version of partition”, as a leader of the 32-County Sovereignty Committee put it before Christmas.

Just how far removed these proposals are from progress towards the liberation of Ireland can be judged from the reaction in the bourgeois press. The Independent’s warm welcome for Blair’s “bold stroke” was carried under the headline, “Not just a peace process any more, but a daring vision of new Britain” (editorial, January 13).

Most interesting was the response of The Daily Telegraph, whose previous line was to call for the ending of “the long-running farce called the ‘peace process’” (January 10). Instead of even contemplating negotiations with the “terrorists”, whose challenge to the integrity of the United Kingdom should be crushed by whatever force necessary, the Telegraph demanded an agreement with the “constitutional parties”.

This wishful thinking suffers from the obvious drawback that it is based on precisely the strategy which has failed so dismally for the best part of 30 years. The more realistic wing of the British bourgeoisie realised long ago that the IRA could not be defeated militarily, but was nevertheless ready to settle for far less than a sovereign, united Ireland.

However, instead of coming to the conclusion that such an agreement is now in sight, The Daily Telegraph has persuaded itself that the government has come to its senses at last. Its correspondent, Tony Harnden, writes: “The plan is based on accommodating the aspirations of Ulster’s constitutional parties and an acceptance that the agreement of the IRA cannot be secured” (January 10). He adds: “Mr Blair’s plan, as one which copper-fastens the union, cannot be acceptable to the republican movement.”

On that basis the editorial in the same edition of the paper gives the scheme its stamp of approval: “The proposal is one around which sensible unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland could gather. It could, just, turn the terrorist-driven ‘peace process’ into a democrat-driven peace plan. It could even, unlike Labour’s other devolution ideas, actually help the union.” The Daily Telegraph concludes: “Sinn Fein/IRA ... will surely now consider ending their own ceasefire quickly, and quitting the talks.”

Strangely though, there was barely a murmur of protest from Sinn Fein. True, SF spokesperson Mitchel McLaughlin assured the press that his party would not sign up for an “internal agreement”. However, SF would put the proposals “to the test” in the Stormont talks. Its clear priority is to lure the UUP into serious negotiations so as to establish itself as the main ‘respectable’ republican party in place of the SDLP. McLaughlin also stressed the importance of making rapid progress so as to prevent the loyalist death squads from wrecking the ‘peace process’.

After Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam’s ‘audacious gamble’ of marching into the Long Kesh prison camp to win over the loyalist paramilitaries, Sinn Fein leaders will now have the opportunity of addressing death squad leaders in the flesh. Mowlam’s “inclusive and human” style (The Independent January 9) was apparently enough to win over members of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association. As a result their respective political wings, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, remained in the Stormont talks. After Tuesday’s session all the participants agreed to accept the two governments’ proposals as a basis for substantive negotiations, due to begin next week.

Only Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and the smaller UK Unionist Party are still declining to take up their seats. The DUP, still hoping to win a bigger space for itself by crying ‘sellout’, claimed forlornly that it represented the majority of unionists. Its co-thinkers of The Daily Telegraph, while completely misreading SF/IRA’s likely reaction to Blair’s plan, have assessed the scheme’s orientation rather more accurately.

Jim Blackstock