For a united Ireland

Blair’s proposed new settlement in Ireland is part of a wider plan of constitutional reform

We could be entering the final lap of the imperialist-driven ‘peace’ process in Northern Ireland. George Mitchell, the United States senator and chair of the Stormont talks, insists at the time of writing that the Thursday deadline for completion of the talks can still be met. It is almost beyond question that some sort of settlement is imminent. The Independent, for one, certainly thinks so and can hardly wait for the signatures to hit the paper: “We suspect that the momentum and will for peace are now too great to be defeated”. It went on to implore that, this time, all the parties involved make “the peace process a peace settlement” (Editorial April 4).

For anyone who doubts the imperialist sincerity of the British government, just take a stroll around the castle buildings at Stormont or the government quarters in Dublin. British and Irish officials are burning the midnight oil. The current level of diplomatic activity has been described as “feverish”. For the first time in 21 months all the respective parties attended the Stormont talks on Sunday. According to one of the delegates: “More work has been done in the past week than in the previous umpteen months”. Tony Blair is now in Belfast to help the final push for ‘peace’.

The obvious question remains. Will both the loyalists and the nationalists swallow, compromise and accept Mitchell’s terms?

It has not been an easy ride for Mitchell or the forces of imperialism. The ‘peace’ process is inherently volatile. Crisis, setbacks and delays can surface at any time. This is clear. Hardly surprisingly, the US senator has been less than happy with the conduct over recent days of Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister. Last Friday, Mitchell was asked right at the last minute to withhold his 65-page document, which was on the verge of being released. Blair wanted to consult with David Trimble, Ulster Unionist Party leader and Ahern with Sinn Fein (in other words, the SF and UUP leaders are almost certainly negotiating directly through the two prime ministers). Old oppressive habits do not exactly help as well. Unhelpfully - though with an element of black humour - Gerry Adams was stopped at an army checkpoint on his way to the Stormont talks meeting on Friday. 

All this intensive diplomatic toing-and-froing - and British army crassness - demonstrates of course the fragile and complex nature of the imperialists’ peace negotiations. It requires some very deft manoeuvring on behalf of the British and Irish governments. Just one clumsy move there, one awkward or badly formulated phrase here, and perhaps …

But bit by bit, talk by talk, deal by deal, the forces of revolutionary nationalism - and those of counterrevolutionary loyalism - are being drawn into the diplomatic net. After years of hardship and frustration, the carrot being dangled by Mitchell and his backers might prove too hard to refuse. Lord Alderdice of the ‘nonsectarian’, pro-union Alliance Party summed up the collective desires of the pro-imperialist bourgeoisie in Northern Ireland: “Not only are most of the outline agreed, most of the detail is too. We are looking to get there. It’s looking good”. Even David Trimble sounded upbeat and positive: “I think the difficulties can be overcome if people are sensible in their approach to the negotiations.”

Under the aegis of Mitchell, three strands are being negotiated simultaneously: the powers and functions of a Northern Ireland assembly; the scope of cross-border institutions; and the relationship between Dublin, Belfast and London and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies. SDLP wants a power sharing executive, which will have some 90 members, with each community having a veto over all decisions. The loyalists want a committee-style assembly to run Northern Ireland’s six departments.  

Many are dubbing the current negotiations ‘Sunningdale II’. Indeed, Seamus Mallon, the SDLP’s deputy leader, has called the new deal taking shape in Stormont “Sunningdale for slow learners”. However, the differences far outnumber the similarities. The general world situation has changed out of virtually all recognition. The ignoble collapse of the ‘socialist bloc’ left only one superpower on the map - US imperialism. Naturally, the vastly increased clout of American imperialism narrowed the scope for manoeuvre for national liberation movements. Hence the defeat or - usually - the integration of revolutionary nationalist organisations (ANC, PLO, etc) into the imperialist framework. Nelson Mandela and Yasser Arafat are now loyal accomplices to the imperialists’ plans and schemes.

Crucially, at Sunningdale the paramilitary forces were on the outside, frowning and scowling in. Now they are talking from the inside. In addition, Ian Paisley’s intransigent Democratic Unionist Party has been effectively sidelined by the Ulster Democratic Party and the Progressive Unionist Party - at least for the time being anyway.

The differences between then and now were also apparent to The Independent. Discussing Sunningdale, it confidently claimed: “This settlement will be superior. It will, through the twin referendum on both sides of the border, be more legitimate” (April 4).

The sticking point remains as ever on cross-border institutions. The loyalists want to make sure that any such bodies have no executive power. But they might concede that if they are to have executive-powers, then they should be enshrined in legislation at Westminster rather than deriving from the proposed northern assembly. Nationalists, whether constitutional or revolutionary, maintain that the northern assembly - Stormont II, if you like - will have de facto executive powers. It will have an “inbuilt dynamic to grow” executive powers, was how one Sinn Fein delegate delicately put it. There is also the ever thorny question of policing and (the release of) prisoners.

Sinn Fein/IRA might well acquiesce to an imperialist-driven deal. The pressure is immense. If it does, it is important to stress that we are not witnessing a resounding defeat for the forces of revolutionary republicanism in Northern Ireland. The Provisional IRA fought heroically for 30 years against the might of British imperialism - with its death squads, assassinations, internment, intimidation, repressive laws, etc. The Crown forces were unable to defeat PIRA. The peace talks are a recognition of this fact.

But communists understand that PIRA - and, for that matter, Continuity IRA - are not proletarian revolutionaries. As a petty bourgeois nationalist movement it is inevitably pulled between the rock of guerillaism and the hard place of secretive, backhanded diplomacy with the imperialists - with the oppressed masses acting as pawns.

Mitchell proposes a north-south ministerial council, drawing its representatives from the northern assembly and the Dail, with up to 14 implementation bodies operating under a council of ministers - trade; tourism; transport; health; culture and the arts, etc. This fudge will not bring joy to the hearts of Sinn Fein or moderate unionists - but not too much dismay either.  As part of the overall imperialist package, a snap referendum will be held on April 23 both north and south, with elections to the assembly this summer. The Blairite passion for rule by referendum - ie, from above - continues.

Mitchell was very concerned that the settlement details were kept secret for as long as possible. “Lives and deaths are at stake here. It would be incredible and deeply disturbing for anyone in this process to engage in that for short term advantage when we are so close to a conclusion,” he announced. He also told journalists he believed it better that the ‘settlement papers’ be delivered late and right, then on time but wrong.

Whatever deal is made - or not made - this week, the oppressed in the north of Ireland remain undefeated.

Eddie Ford