Sinn Fein seeks court judgement
The Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ met with another hitch earlier this week with the imminent exclusion of Sinn Fein from all-party talks in Dublin.
The move to suspend Sinn Fein came a few days after the Royal Ulster Constabulary chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, alleged that the IRA had been responsible for the deaths of two men last week. Brendan Campbell, a drugs dealer, was shot by gunmen from Direct Action Against Drugs, an organisation closely linked to, if not synonymous with, the IRA. The following day Robert Dougan, a prominent member of the Ulster Defence Association, responsible for numerous indiscriminate attacks on catholics, was also killed.
Although no group claimed responsibility for Dougan’s death - it was explicitly denied by the Irish National Liberation Army, while the IRA itself issued a statement saying that its “cessation of military operations remains intact” - Flanagan insisted that the IRA had shot both men.
This was immediately seized upon by David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. He said there could be “only one conclusion and one outcome” to the situation - the expulsion of SF from negotiations, possibly on a permanent basis. “I think the time has come when we must accept they are not going to change their spots,” he said. This was echoed by The Daily Telegraph with its advice to the British and Irish governments that “there is an alternative to the ‘peace process’- a settlement reached by the constitutional parties alone” (February 14).
The Telegraph claimed that SF/IRA had in fact gone out of its way to provoke its own exclusion from the talks: “The reason is they revert to doing ‘what they do best’ (that is, the gun) whenever they are faced with the hard choices on matters of substance: namely accepting the principle of consent by the majority in Ulster to decide their own future, and its institutional expression in the shape of a provincial assembly.”
Therefore, the editorial continued, SF/IRA “are desperate to extricate themselves from a settlement that falls far short of their aspirations”. If that is so, Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president, is a remarkable actor, giving the impression of being “desperate” to remain in the talks. When he appeared on television earlier this week he was clearly furious at the turn of events: “I am absolutely pissed off with trying to make this thing work,” he said, “and those who have no interest in making it work seize upon two men being killed to exploit it and bring this process down.”
As we never tire of pointing out, the positions of Blair’s government and the main republican leaders have in actual fact converged to a considerable degree. On the one hand the IRA wants to negotiate an end to its military resistance to the British occupation of the Six Counties in favour of a settlement that does indeed “fall far short of their aspirations” of driving out the British and achieving the revolutionary unity of Ireland. However, with the balance of forces heavily favouring imperialism’s ‘new world order’, SF/IRA will settle for the best it feels able to achieve.
On the other hand Blair seeks to establish a new consensus in the UK and Ireland through far-reaching constitutional reform. This would involve setting up some kind of all-Ireland institution, while a body such as the proposed ‘council of the isles’ would ensure continued British hegemony over Ireland.
The primary characteristic of the ‘peace process’ is therefore the desire for agreement between the UK state and SF/IRA - the two main players. That is why SF chair Mitchell McLaughlin was correct when he said that without his organisation’s participation there was not “the chance of a snowball in hell” of a peaceful settlement. Blair and his Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam know this too. Even Trimble is aware of this reality.
However, the building of a consensus around a settlement involves drawing in the main forces and marginalising its hard-line opponents. It is a slow process, where all sides are looking over their shoulder at potential rivals. Trimble’s UUP must ensure it is not outflanked by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party with its jibes about being ‘soft on terrorists’ and selling out the union. Neither can the IRA afford to lose ground to Inla or the Continuity Army Council, as far as its hard won reputation as intransigent defenders of the catholic community is concerned.
Despite its desire to bank everything on the ‘peace process’ SF/IRA must demonstrate to Blair as well as to its own besieged community that it remains a military force to be reckoned with. The killing of Dougan also served as a warning to the loyalist murder squads, while veiled threats about the consequences of SF’s expulsion served a similar purpose. As Gerry Adams put it, “The question could be better put in terms of how influential [with the IRA] we would be if we were dumped out of the process.”
For its part Mowlam and Blair must pretend to “maintain the integrity of the process”. It must at least appear to insist that all parties to the talks uphold the Mitchell ‘principles’ to use “exclusively peaceful” means. So, after protracted discussions with the Irish government and telephone consultations with Bill Clinton, it finally made its move against Sinn Fein.
Previously the government had been at pains to demonstrate that exclusion from the official talks would be extremely temporary. The Ulster Democratic Party, suspended last month after its military wing, the UDA, admitted the killings of catholics, is to be readmitted to the negotiations at the end of February. The British and Irish governments are to review its eligibility to participate “with a view to considering whether the necessary conditions had been met to enable the UDP’s re-entry into the process”.
The governments resort to such weighty phrases in an attempt to disguise the fact that the much vaunted Mitchell ‘principles’ are all but dead. A killing now merits the ‘punishment’ of mere suspension from the all-party talks, while in any case all the most important groundwork continues in bilateral, behind-the-scenes meetings, incorporating all concerned, suspended or not.
This episode demonstrates again the comparative weight of both sides. Far from SF/IRA imposing its terms on the British through military victories, as some on the left insist, it is obliged to negotiate with the British state in its guise of ‘impartial arbitrator’. The IRA is neither defeated nor victorious.
Gerry Adams’ most meaningful reaction was not to threaten an immediate, all-out resumption of military activities, but to challenge the legality of SF’s exclusion in the courts.