WeeklyWorker

28.05.1998
“Ulster stands firm”

Tories wait in wings

Peace process fragile despite referendum success

Last Friday’s Northern Ireland referendum marked a significant step towards a settlement in the imperialist-sponsored peace process. However, in no way does this mean that from here on Blair will have an easy ride. Indeed we should expect new crises.

The 71% ‘yes’ vote, combined with the remarkable 81% turnout, would, in any circumstances other than the Six Counties, have signified a conclusive and successful outcome for the whole project. For example, the almost identical ‘yes’ percentage a fortnight earlier in the referendum for a London mayor and assembly undoubtedly foresees an uncomplicated, virtually uncontested passage for Blair’s proposals in that area - despite the turnout of just 34.6%.

The two referendums were of course closely connected. While the Ireland peace process is hugely more significant than plans for a London assembly, nevertheless both form part of Blair’s scheme for far-reaching constitutional change in order to forge a new consensus, allowing for the more efficient operation of capital over the entire British Isles. But the powerful forces at play in the Six Counties retain the capacity not only to wreck the British-Irish Agreement, but also to provoke deep divisions within the British ruling class itself.

These tensions were illustrated in an article in The Sunday Telegraph the day after the referendum result was announced. Its May 24 editorial stated that the poll had been decisive, bringing “a ray of hope to the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”. However, it went on:

“There is no doubt ... that the loyalist and IRA ceasefires have been bought at a morally expensive price. In public, Conservative and Labour ministers have vehemently denied that their actions during the peace process have constituted appeasement; in private, they are much more honest, conceding that their strategy was based on the premise that the IRA could not win, but that it could not be defeated. The cost has been the granting of grotesque international credibility to Sinn Féin, the welcoming of Gerry Adams into Downing Street, and the revolting parade of released paramilitary prisoners. In practice more concessions were made to the terrorists than to any other group in the negotiations.”

But the editorial continued:

“In constitutional terms however, the republican movement has gained little. As Mitchell McLaughlin, the chairman of Sinn Féin, conceded in a recent interview, the deal ‘does legitimise the British state in Ireland’. Like the constitutional nationalists, Sinn Fein has signed up to the principle - previously heretical - that the status of Ulster cannot change without the consent of its majority. It has also had to accept the new Belfast assembly.”

The Sunday Telegraph, up to this year a scathing critic and die-hard opponent of the whole peace process, still expresses strong reservations. However, its analysis concerning the balance of forces, the concessions to SF/IRA and the latter’s retreat in constitutional terms is accurate. What causes it to wring its hands is the fact that the IRA’s heroic struggle has forced the state to concede in practice that the liberation fighters were not mere ‘criminals’, but soldiers and prisoners of war. Although “nationalist Ireland has been forced to accept ... the democratic legitimacy of partition”, for the Telegraph the moral credibility of the UK state - its right to rule - has, paradoxically, simultaneously been weakened by its concessions to the “terrorists”.

It is these underlying contradictions, combined with the continuing strength of ‘Ulster says no’ loyalism, which could yet produce fissures of crisis proportions within the British ruling class. The referendum result, for all its decisiveness, concealed the fact that the protestant population was split down the middle. Of the 29% ‘no’ vote, only a couple of percentage points at most were accounted for by intransigent republican opponents, which means that in all likelihood there was the narrowest of ‘yes’ majorities amongst unionists.

An accurate breakdown of catholic/protestant voting returns was intentionally prevented by the authorities through its deliberate mixing of ballot boxes from different localities. This obfuscation allowed Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and most prominent ‘no’ campaigner, to claim 56% support amongst loyalists - without fear of authoritative rebuttal. “The Ulster people refused to be bribed and bullied - they stood firm,” he fulminated, promising that this alleged protestant majority, once translated into members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, would block key aspects of the deal. Other DUP leaders were less flamboyant in their statements than Paisley. However they too undertook to cooperate in the assembly’s working, but announced their intention of preventing “democratically” any moves towards all-Ireland institutions.

But the promise to thwart cross-border institutions is no idle threat, as representatives to the assembly, to be elected on June 25, will be asked to declare themselves unionist, nationalist or “other”. Decisions will require a majority of both nationalists and unionists in order to pass.

At present the DUP and its allies are unable to threaten, let alone deliver, an Ulster Workers Council-style rebellion, although such a possibility is not entirely ruled out over the coming months.

The DUP will certainly have a large presence in the assembly, but the single transferable vote electoral system will not be in its favour. Voters will be able to list the parties in order of preference, but already both the Social Democratic and Labour Party and, more significantly, Sinn Féin itself have called on their supporters to consider using their lower preferences in favour of the Ulster Unionist Party, so as to keep out the DUP and Robert McCartney’s UK Unionist Party. The DUP and UKUP can expect very few lower preferences from Alliance Party supporters, and even some UUP voters may consider the ‘catholic’ SDLP preferable to the likes of Paisley.

On the other hand, the remarkable statement of SF spokesperson Pat Doherty, that “those who voted for change” should back David Trimble’s UUP, may serve to turn wavering unionists away from Trimble and over to Paisley. The fact that ‘republican terrorists’ are backing Trimble will in their terms tend to confirm Paisley’s claim that the UUP has sold out. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin’s call to consider backing the Ulster Unionist Party, the historical oppressor of catholic rights, clearly demonstrates how far Gerry Adams has moved along the path that leads away from revolutionary nationalism and towards ‘respectable’ bourgeois politics.

SF’s stress on ensuring the agreement’s success at all costs could logically be carried even further - to the point of advising a vote for those other champions of the peace process, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party, respective political wings of the UVF and UDA anti-Catholic murder squads.

It could also be viewed by the British and Irish governments as a signal that dissident paramilitaries can now be ‘eliminated’ without undue objection from SF, and without risking mass protests capable of destabilising the peace process. Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern is thought to believe that the overwhelming 85.5% ‘yes’ over the whole island gives him the go-ahead to crack down on the ‘real IRA’, the Continuity Army Council and the Irish National Liberation Army. And Tony Blair wrote in the Belfast Telegraph: “I can also guarantee that both ourselves and the Irish government will show no mercy to anyone going back to violence. There will be no fudge between democracy and terror” (May 25).

Over the next week or so Trimble will be pulling out all the stops to ensure that as many as possible of the UUP’s candidates will be pro-agreement. Already a section of the UUP that had joined the ‘no’ forces has started to edge back in the wake of the referendum. Jeffrey Donaldson, one of the six anti-agreement UUP MPs, called for the party to reunite, saying: “If the people of Northern Ireland have voted ‘yes’, we will have to live with the consequences of that.” But this did not help him in his bid to be nominated as a candidate for the assembly. The Trimble leadership stepped in to prevent this possibility. Donaldson said he was “disappointed”, but would accept the decision.

Nevertheless, even if Trimble is able to build on his referendum success in backing the agreement and manages to beat off the DUP challenge on June 25, it is clear that the assembly unionists, whatever their precise party affiliation, could block the establishment of the North-South Council and the setting up of other all-Ireland bodies - even at the risk of seeing the assembly suspended. That would effectively stymie the whole peace project. They will certainly continue to bay for the disarming of the IRA and shout their opposition to the release of republican prisoners.

Like the unionists, the Tories will also insist that the IRA begins to give up its arms before its POWs are freed. Their Northern Ireland spokesperson, Andrew Mackay, called on SF/IRA to first “embark upon substantial decommissioning”. Earlier this week it was announced that the procedure for surrendering weapons had been accepted by all the parties. But that is a far cry from the paramilitaries agreeing to do so in practice. There is no doubt that SF will be expecting and demanding that early releases begin this summer, but a token surrender of outdated weaponry would be unlikely to satisfy either Tories or unionists that “substantial decommissioning” had begun. But moves by Blair and Ahern against dissident republican paramilitary groups could help to deflect some of the pressure on Sinn Féin and allow the release programme to proceed.

Mackay continued: “Members of parties associated with terrorist organisations [must not] be allowed to become ministers within the new assembly unless these and other criteria are met.” It is however improbable that Adams will want to see SF ministers at this stage. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that his organisation could constitute the second biggest grouping in the assembly, outstripping the SDLP as the largest nationalist party. That would entitle Adams to the post of ‘deputy first minister’, but he would almost certainly refuse to take it up, preferring to act as power broker for an UUP-SDLP administration.

How the Tories react will depend very much on events on the ground in the Six Counties. If Paisley is able to conjure up a protestant backlash on the streets, ultra-reactionary sections of the Conservative Party might seize their opportunity to exploit Blair’s difficulties and attempt to wreck his whole project of constitutional reform - reform which looks set to marginalise the Tories through the introduction of proportional representation and the ending of their majority in the House of Lords. A Countryside Alliance-type movement, taking its cue from Blair’s difficulties in Ireland, could even produce a ‘non-constitutional’ opposition.

At present this scenario does not look likely. In fact, according to The Sunday Telegraph (May 24), Tories close to Hague are considering whether the Conservative Party’s close links with the unionists should be broken. In an article headed ‘Tories rethink on unionist ties’, the Telegraph reports that Hague ally Michael Ancram has drawn up a secret paper recommending that ‘unionist’ be dropped from the party’s name. It “has a faintly musty smell,” he remarked. The paper warns that the new assembly will allow Blair to portray Northern Ireland as the equivalent of Scotland and Wales. “Labour may seek to launch a new unionism,” writes Ancram. “We should try to get there first.”

This does show, however, that even mainstream Tories are looking to exploit any weakness in Blair’s project. And Ireland remains his most ambitious, yet most fragile and problematic area. Over Ireland Blair is potentially at his most vulnerable. Difficulties and divisions within the ruling class could yet provide us with our opportunity.

Jim Blackstock