Hague rallies to Blair peace

Over the weekend the imperialist-sponsored peace settlement for Northern Ireland made another advance. On Saturday, the ruling council of the Ulster Unionist Party voted by 540 votes to 210 in favour of the British-Irish Agreement. After the vote, David Trimble, leader of the UUP, commented that the agreement represents “an end to misrule, an end to direct rule”.   

Then on Sunday at Sinn Fein’s 92nd ard fheis (annual conference) in Dublin, the overwhelming majority of the 1,000 delegates effectively gave a veiled - or some might say tactical - ‘yes’ to the agreement. Gerry Adams claimed that it was the “basis for advancement”. In turn, as soon as he heard of the decision taken by the UUP, he delivered a simple message: “Well done, David.”

Events now appear to be accelerating. There is talk of Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown and William Hague running a joint campaign in favour of the peace deal struck last week. Indeed Hague has used the pages of The Times to propose ‘all-party’ solidarity on the question of the May 22 referendum, if it would be a “helpful step for the peace process” (April 20).

If there was a joint Blair-Ashdown-Hague campaign it would be a near unprecedented step. The last such display of total ‘national unity’ was during World War II and the 1975 referendum on whether to join the European Community. Legislation to set up the Six Counties referendum and the Northern Ireland assembly is being rushed through the House of Commons. And of course Bill Clinton is going to be drafted in to give the peace offensive an extra air of imperialist gravitas. He has plans to visit Northern Ireland just before the referendum.

The peace settlement is not home and dry yet - even if Tony Blair does think he can go to Palestine and ‘do an Ireland’. The Times editorial has already predicted that “a ‘yes’ vote in the May referendum, while not quite a formality, is now overwhelmingly likely” (April 20).

Perhaps. However, there are elements that will not easily be persuaded that a settlement which so clearly entrenches British occupation of the Six Counties is a step towards Irish unity. It was not for nothing that Adams has not explicitly endorsed the agreement - yet. Sinn Fein is to hold a special conference within the next two weeks, which will formally decide whether to accept or reject it. To do this, the Sinn Fein leadership has to change the party’s constitution which forbids such an accommodation - and this will require a two thirds majority. Though such an endorsement is likely, it is not guaranteed, even if Pat Doherty of the SF national executive has made light of opposition, joking: “Dissidents? What dissidents? These are just powderpuffs.” (Perhaps in a move to mollify the “powderpuffs”, it now seems possible that the SF leadership might campaign for ‘yes’ in the Six Counties but ‘no’ in the Irish Republic.)

But the biggest threat to the agreement comes from the unionist camp - particularly from Ian Paisley and his followers. Contrary to what The Guardian has foolishly implied, Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party is most definitely not finished. It retains a substantial base in the Six Counties. The DUP will almost certainly gain hegemony over the ‘no’ movement - in alliance with the Orange Order and the respectable types associated with it.

There is also dissent brewing within the UUP. Five out of nine UUP MPs voted against Trimble and the agreement - it is possible that some of them might actively campaign against it. William Thompson, MP for West Tyrone, has damned the agreement on the grounds that it “repeals the 1920 Government of Ireland Act which set up Northern Ireland”. He has said he might join Paisley’s ‘no’ campaign and has already predicted a major UUP split during the May referendum and June election campaigns. 

Importantly, we must not dismiss the possibility of the ‘no’ campaign coming home to the British mainland: ie, disgruntled Tories, who see the introduction of cross-border institutions as a diminution of British sovereignty and representing a threat to the United Kingdom state itself, bypassing parliamentary channels. The hostility of rightwingers like Norman Tebbitt - he has made plain his opposition to the entire peace deal - could find expression in the mobilisation of plebeian elements on ‘anti-IRA’ marches. As an indicator, the National Front has already called for a ‘March against the IRA’ on May 23 in London. The NF accuses the “Marxist Labour government” of “betraying the loyal people of Ulster” and is inviting “all patriots” to protest against the Northern Ireland settlement. 

Let us not forget either the not-so plebeian House of Lords, which contains its quota of implacable ‘no’ men and women - many of whom will have deep sympathies for the sentiments of the NF even if they will not actually turn up for the march itself.  These ultraconservative elements may well link up with the DUP and UUP dissidents.

After all, this would hardly be a new phenomenon in Irish politics. As we have pointed out, in 1912-14 the Tories illegally conspired to scupper Irish home rule by financing Carson’s armed rebellion against the Liberal government. - and conniving with mutiny amongst the officer corps.

In other words, the main threat to the agreement comes from above - ie, from a section of the old Orange Order establishment in the Six Counties and from within the Tory establishment in the British mainland. That would not of course preclude the possibility of thousands of loyalists taking to the streets.    

So we can see why William Hague has talked about the urgent necessity “to build as broadly based a coalition as possible”. He can see that there are threats to the settlement. Hague must also be conscious that the ever more triumphalist Blair is sidelining the Tories. “The rhetorical and political defence of the United Kingdom behind which Conservatives once sheltered may now become the new home for Blairites and followers of Mr Trimble,” as The Times put it (editorial, April 20). 

It is as clear as day that no revolutionary can back Blair’s imperialist scheme by voting ‘yes’. Neither can we support the status quo by calling for a ‘no’ vote. The only principled position is one in favour of a boycott.

Yet it remains to be seen whether Hague’s “broadly based” coalition around the ‘yes’ campaign will incorporate a large swathe of the nominally revolutionary left. So far, both the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party have remained typically agnostic and slippery about their position on the May 22 referendum. But seeing how these organisations enthusiastically said ‘yes, yes’ during the September 1997 Scottish referendum campaign - and will say ‘yes’ to Blair’s puppet mayor and weak Greater London Authority on May 7 - we will not be waiting on tenterhooks for their decision. 

In fact, the SWP positively desires an imperialist peace. If anything, it thinks British imperialism should be more resolute: “The only way to secure real peace in the future is if the British government stands up to Paisley and confronts the Orangemen during their anti-Catholic marching season. The question is, will Tony Blair have the guts to do it or will the British government once again stand in the way of peace in Ireland?” (Socialist Worker April 18). It goes on to say: “It was the mood for peace from below, among ordinary Protestants and Catholics, which forced a politician like David Trimble to sign up to an agreement he had previously tried to wreck.”           

The SP is oblivious and ostrich-like towards the politics raging around it. While the bourgeois parties and the media fiercely debate the peace deal and the nature of the Northern Ireland statelet, the SP goes into action … against the erection of a BT transmitter for Cellnet mobile phones: “Socialist Party members have helped organise the Omagh Anti-Masts Campaign. This organised a picket on the site, then a meeting of 120 people to discuss the health risks” (The Socialist April 17).

Mercifully, the editorial puts us out of our misery and makes clear its position - almost. The British-Irish agreement is a step forward of course, but just “will not satisfy people’s longing for lasting peace or justice”. Tragically, the Northern Assembly “will have few powers” and “little power over the state machinery”. But - thank heavens - there are some “opportunities” for what it calls “class politics”. For instance, “loyalists close to pro-ceasefire paramilitaries called [Paisley] a dinosaur and criticised Paisley’s wealthy lifestyle. The potential for a class split exists there” - towards the proto-fascists of the Progressive Unionist Party and their allies. Also, the Assembly will give “local politicians, unionist and nationalist, a (small) degree of power for the first time for decades”.    

The response of the left towards the agreement is incoherent, atomised and undisciplined. The workers’ movement needs to take on board the lessons of the revolutionary republican tradition - in order to equip itself with a Marxist programme that alone can inflict a permanent defeat on imperialism.

Eddie Ford