Drumcree threat to peace deal

Northern Ireland Assembly

The imperialist-sponsored peace process made another tentative step forward last week with the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Although 80 out of the 108 candidates elected belong to parties which formally support the British-Irish Agreement, that does not mean that its implementation will now be plain sailing. Under the terms of the deal, elected candidates must declare themselves to be unionist, nationalist or “other” and all decisions made must be backed not only by an overall majority, but by a majority of both unionists and nationalists separately. Unfortunately for Blair the pro-agreement majority among unionists is very slender indeed.

The June 25 elections, conducted under the single transferable vote system, resulted in the Social Democratic and Labour Party receiving the highest number of first-preference votes (22%). Sinn Féin also increased its share - to 17.6%, beating its previous all-time high in last year’s Six Counties local elections, when it gained 16.9%. The SDLP, with 24 seats, and SF, who won 18, will constitute a solid pro-agreement nationalist bloc in the assembly.

However, on the unionist side there is a different story. David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, despite gaining only 21.3% of first preferences, ended up with 28 seats, thanks to the transferred lower preferences of defeated candidates. Trimble has put his political future on the line by backing the agreement and managed to ensure that almost all of his assembly members are at least reluctant supporters of the overall settlement. Firmly in the pro-agreement camp alongside the UUP are David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson, both former Ulster Volunteer Force prisoners who represent the Progressive Unionist Party.

Opposed to these 30 are 28 ‘Ulster says no’ loyalists, headed by Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. But to describe this majority of two as fragile would be a huge understatement.

The UUP is split down the middle over its attitude to the British-Irish Agreement. Six of its 10 Westminster MPs sided with Paisley in the May referendum, and many other prominent UUP supporters also campaigned for a ‘no’ vote. One of these, Jeffrey Donaldson, whose selection as a UUP assembly candidate was blocked by Trimble, is now threatening further divisions. If the party agrees to participate in the new Six Counties administration alongside SF before IRA arms decommissioning has begun, Donaldson has said he will lead yet another unionist breakaway.

The reaction of even the most ‘enthusiastic’ pro-agreement UUP assembly representative will be instinctively hostile to the release of ‘terrorist’ republican prisoners, and active cooperation with the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will go very much against the grain. The setting up of cross-border institutions will also give these defenders of the union severe problems of presentation. Clearly Trimble will have an impossible task in trying to control his ranks to ensure an assembly unionist majority on all issues.

The UUP leader has blamed his present predicament on the British Conservatives, who, despite their own internal divisions over the question, refused to back the government’s Northern Ireland (Sentences) Bill at its third reading two weeks ago. The Tories suspended the traditional bipartisanship of the imperialist parties over Irish questions and demanded that IRA prisoners should not be released early unless decommissioning had begun. Trimble himself was also forced to vote against the bill because of the Tories’ antics, but he would have preferred the matter to have been passed over with the minimum of fuss. He regards their decision to ‘make a stand’ on this issue as playing into the hands of those loyalists who want to wreck the whole deal. The Tories did not realise “the damage they were doing in the election timetable”, he said. “They were more interested in making short-term party political gains.” As a result, said Trimble, “we have to continue to drag behind us this dead-weight of people who have difficulty moving into the future”.

The decision of the Alliance Party not to register its six elected members as “unionist” for the purpose of assembly voting was another blow for Trimble, although it could hardly have been unexpected. Whereas the Alliance - like the Women’s Coalition, who won two seats - picks up the overwhelming majority of its votes from middle class Protestants, both groups claim to be “non-sectarian”: ie, they call for the national question to be dropped from the political agenda - in effect backing the status quo and the union. They have placed themselves firmly in the “other” category, despite intensive pressure on the Alliance from the British government to join forces with the UUP/PUP assembly grouping. The Alliance leader, Lord Alderdice, did however agree to act as the assembly’s ‘presiding officer’ - the speaker. Despite unionist divisions Trimble was elected first minister by a majority on both sides of the assembly earlier this week. The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon was confirmed as second minister.

Another de facto unionist grouping was the Socialist Party, whose three candidates were, like the Women’s Coalition and the Alliance, also even-handed in their equal condemnation of both loyalist death squads and republican anti-imperialists. However, they did rather less well than these more respectable, British-backed, bourgeois “non-sectarians”. While the SP’s Johnny McLaughlin won 570 first-preference votes (1.2%) in Tyrone West, his comrades in Belfast West and Mid-Ulster could manage only 28 (0.1%) and 91 (0.2%) respectively.

Both the SP and the Socialist Workers Party - in Britain as well as Ireland - call on republicans to end all armed resistance to the British occupation. “Then the politicians of Northern Ireland can start behaving like politicians everywhere else ... developing policies to improve their voters’ lives, arguing over issues like health and education.” No, the phrasing is not quite what you will read in The Socialist or Socialist Worker, but replace the words ‘politicians’ and ‘voters’ with ‘workers’, and you could be forgiven for confusing this Observer editorial (June 26) with the pleas of our economistic friends.

Their calls for Irish anti-imperialists to forget their nationality, their revolutionary opposition to the state, and take up ‘normal’ trade union-type questions dovetails perfectly with the bourgeois consensus. For example, David McKittrick of The Independent welcomes “the important sign of the developing new civil society struggling to come into existence alongside the old tribal patterns” (June 29).

The Socialist Party in the Six Counties at least had the imagination to realise that the electoral system adopted allowed for a potentially effective left intervention. With six candidates elected in every constituency, only 14.3% of first-preference votes guaranteed success. Many of those elected received under 10% of first preferences, as voters had to decide which of three or four candidates representing the same party would receive their initial backing. This left the way open for a single candidate from smaller groups. In fact, after receiving the transferred lower preferences of eliminated candidates, the lowest successful candidate in each of the 18 constituencies needed the backing - no matter how grudging - of only around 12% of voters to be elected.

This system was carefully designed so as to ensure that smaller groups with a modicum of support could be represented in the assembly. In this way British imperialism hoped that groups associated with paramilitaries would be encouraged into mainstream politics and would reject unconstitutional methods. Despite Blair’s best intentions Gary McMichael of the Ulster Democratic Party (political wing of the Ulster Defence Association) narrowly failed to make it. Although he gained eight percent of voters’ first preferences, he finished only seventh in Lagan Valley.

The left failed to take full advantage of the opportunity. The possibility of promoting the idea of working class independence should never be spurned by communists. If a platform can be won in a bourgeois parliament, so much the better. Yet the Irish Republican Socialist Party, despite its claims of adherence to revolutionary socialism and of grassroots support, once more refused to contest elections. Rather than put its ideas to the test in this way, it preferred to announce its continued existence through its military wing, the Irish National Liberation Army, who exploded a bomb just before polling.

While we unconditionally defend the right of anti-imperialists to take up arms to win self-determination, it is legitimate to criticise such actions. In present circumstances, when clearly the great mass of the republican/nationalist population is in the process of giving its consent to being ruled in a new way, we are seeing the end of a long-drawn out revolutionary situation. Armed actions by Inla, the Continuity Army Council or the Real IRA are at present more likely to receive the condemnation of the republican/nationalist community than any degree of support. The peace process has aroused hopes and expectations, however misplaced.

Now more than ever the prime task of revolutionaries must be a programmatic/strategic one. A token bomb is no substitute for the painstaking development of new political means, the patient winning of support for the idea of workers’ self-liberation. Isolated from any popular backing, republican groups who continue to try to physically blow the peace process apart risk becoming mere bandits. Moreover both the state and IRA/SF are claiming a mandate to press ahead and will no doubt cooperate to end the irritation of republican armed opposition.

SF/IRA have made it abundantly clear that all military resistance to the British occupation is to be abandoned. “It is time for justice; it is time for equality,” said Martin McGuinness as the results came in. “It is time for Sinn Féin to go into government,” he added. SF will not look kindly on anything that destabilises the process by which it hopes to get there.

An immediate obstacle to SF’s ambitions of bourgeois respectability is the insistence of unionists, both pro- and anti-agreement, that IRA decommissioning must first be “underway”. While McGuinness once again dismissed this as a “red herring”, we should not be surprised if a few items of outdated weaponry were suddenly handed over to the relevant commission. Such a move would pull the ground from under the unionists’ feet.

Meanwhile, with the assembly election safely out of the way, the government has moved quickly to re-route Sunday’s Drumcree Orange march. The Parades Commission, having allowed a smaller march to follow its traditional route in Belfast last weekend, despite the opposition of the catholic residents of a cluster of houses it passed, announced that the Portadown march would not be permitted into the nationalist Garvaghy Road. In contrast to last year, when it was the unionists who had to be kept sweet in preparation for SF’s entry into the all-party talks, Blair calculates that the peace process’s momentum is swinging against die-hard loyalists. However, this is about to be put to the test, as the Orange Order immediately announced it would defy the ban.

This situation puts enormous pressure on Trimble, who was elected UUP leader on the basis of his record of stubborn defence of Orange ‘rights’, including those of the Drumcree marchers. Nothing would ease his task in his bid to marginalise the Paisleyites more than a well timed decommissioning gesture from the IRA.

Jim Blackstock