Loyalist killings fail to derail ‘peace’ process

UDP ‘suspended’ from Ireland talks

Beneath the wave of killings and seemingly unending series of crises besetting the Six Counties settlement negotiations, the ‘peace’ process continues to exert its centripetal force.

Earlier this week the Ulster Democratic Party, political mouthpiece for the Ulster Defence Association, walked out of the Lancaster House all-party talks, pre-empting its imminent expulsion. This followed the admission by the UDA, acting under its Ulster Freedom Fighters nom de guerre, that its terror gangs were responsible for the deaths of three Catholics, whose killings had previously been claimed either by the Loyalist Volunteer Force or by no group at all.

This disclosure had been an open secret, for it was well known that Eddie Treanor, shot dead on New Year’s Eve, had died at the hands of gunmen operating from a UDA stronghold. The killers had provided an LVF code word, but this cover was finally blown last week. Royal Ulster Constabulary chief constable Ronnie Flanagan was paraded before the press to confirm that the RUC believed that the three Catholics, including Treanor, had been shot by the UDA/UFF murder squads.

Until then they had claimed to be abiding by their ceasefire, thus allowing the UDP to continue its pretence of fulfilling the Mitchell ‘principles’, whereby only parties committed to “exclusively peaceful” means can participate in negotiations. On the other hand the LVF - despite all the obvious signs to the contrary - insisted that the ‘peace’ process will inevitably end in a united Ireland, refused to back the talks and continued its indiscriminate attacks on Catholics. Obviously the group was enraged by the audacious killing of its founder-leader, Billy Wright, by three Irish National Liberation Army volunteers inside the state’s ‘top security’ Long Kesh prison camp.

Wright’s death led to an immediate launch of the present LVF campaign, aided and abetted by the much bigger UDA. Eight Catholics have been killed and others injured in their attacks. But Inla struck again, shooting dead prominent UDA activist Jim Guiney, while the Continuity Army Council planted a ‘protest’ bomb in Enniskillen.

The bourgeois media have unanimously labelled these actions “tit for tat violence”. They equate random killings carried out by loyalist paramilitaries with Inla’s targeted assassination of Wright and Guiney, or the attacks on loyalist or state property, preceded by telephoned warnings, by the CAC.

No matter how they are described, these comparatively small-scale incidents do not threaten the ‘peace’ process itself. As we have repeatedly pointed out, despite the ability of both the loyalist paramilitaries and the Northern Ireland constitutional parties to exert pressure and hinder the path to a settlement, the main players are the British state and those who have led the resistance to its occupation of the Six Counties - Sinn Fein and the IRA. The ‘peace’ process is about a negotiated end to armed or violent resistance, and the SF leadership has not been distracted from this goal by the loyalist murder squads. Gerry Adams has so far been able to contain opposition to this strategy from within his own ranks.

Undoubtedly the ‘propositions on heads of agreement’ put forward by London and Dublin have a distinctly pro-unionist orientation. After initial prevarication SF declared that the proposals could not be considered a basis for serious negotiations. Nevertheless the organisation stated its intention of remaining in the talks and has since begun to negotiate. The IRA issued a statement condemning the British-Irish proposals for having once again “succumbed to the Orange card” and encouraging “continuing assassinations by loyalist death squads”. According to The Independent, the statement “exudes an unmistakable air of menace” (January 22).

Yet there is a degree of convergence between the two main players on the main features of a new constitutional arrangement, and it is likely that the British state’s next major shift will be in a decidedly ‘pro-republican’ direction. Unless this occurs, SF/IRA will not be able to portray any settlement as a step on the road to a united Ireland. It will not be able to claim that the struggles and sacrifices of the past three decades have been worthwhile. The IRA’s “air of menace” is for the benefit of any wavering supporters just as much as it is designed to keep up the pressure on Blair.

None of this means that SF/IRA is on the verge of a victory over imperialism, as some on the left maintain. Far from it - Northern Ireland will remain under the imperialist domination of Blair’s redefined UK state. The IRA, although undefeated, has been forced to concede that it cannot hope to drive out the British and is now prepared to settle for something less ambitious.

However, if the two main players are to come to an agreement, most of the other actors must also be pulled towards it, or at least neutralised. That is why secretary of state for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam showed a marked reluctance to follow the logic of the Mitchell principles and expel the UDP from the all-party talks. For several weeks the government turned a blind eye to the UDA/UFF involvement, hoping that the killings would be called off. Even after it was established as a fact and could no longer be ignored, Downing Street ludicrously claimed that it was up to the talks participants themselves to decide which of their number remained qualified to be present, while the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein all passed the buck back to the government and declined to express an opinion on the matter.

Mowlam expressed her dilemma in this way: “It’s competing moralities. We have the competing morality of the integrity of the talks, the three murders and the Mitchell principles on non-violence on one side, versus trying to hold the talks together and making sure more lives are not lost.”

The Guardian was even more blunt: “It is an ugly truth, but the whole point of this peace process is not to achieve an agreement among moderate democrats on both sides - but among the men of violence who have made Northern Ireland a war zone. If one side is absent, the negotiators can agree what they like: their accords won’t stick” (January 27).

UUP leader David Trimble did a lot more than mouth the usual platitudes, condemning the loyalist killings. He was clearly enraged by what he views as an attempt by ultra-loyalists to sabotage a settlement acceptable to unionists. He denounced the UDA/UFF as “criminal gangs” who “are doing the work of republicans”. From completely different starting points, SF and the UUP are being pulled towards an accommodation.

In the event the UDP effectively agreed to be suspended from the talks. The UDA/UFF reinstated its ceasefire, declaring obscenely that it had completed its “measured military response” (the indiscriminate murder of Catholics) to the death of Billy Wright. The loyalists have now to prove “by word and deed” that they are once again committed to “exclusively peaceful means” before readmittance after a few weeks.

The Mitchell principles have certainly been devalued over these past months. Originally they were intended to cover the state’s retreat from its previous refusal to openly treat with Sinn Fein as long as the IRA retained the means to strike at the state. Now they are being interpreted as merely providing for the temporary exclusion from the main negotiations of any party associated with current violence. Even that does not preclude face-to-face bilateral talks with the suspended party.

The whole ‘peace’ process remains fraught with uncertainty. It is continuing to cause new tensions across the board in the Six Counties - tensions that could be replicated within the British state itself. As a settlement nears, the possibility of increased violence becomes ever more likely.

Jim Blackstock