As the British and Irish states take on yet more draconian powers, the momentum of the peace process continues to accelerate
The few weeks since the Omagh bomb have seen a rapid advance in imperialism’s plans to impose a new stability for the more efficient operation of capital in Ireland.
Not only is there an ever growing consensus in the Six Counties to steam along the course outlined in the British-Irish Agreement, but London and Dublin have managed to acquire new legitimacy for crushing any vestiges of resistance to the Good Friday deal using anti-democratic methods.
Exploiting the universal condemnation of the August 15 blast to the full, parliaments on both sides of the Irish Sea were recalled to rush through the necessary legislation. Only 17 MPs voted for an amendment to block the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill, but when this was unsuccessful, the second reading was unopposed. There was a great deal of hot air over the failure of the British government to allow sufficient time for the right honourable members to debate the proposals, but that did not stop them from giving the bill their whole-hearted support.
Tony Benn reserved his fiercest comments for the way in which the legislation was being processed. It was the curtailment of parliament’s precious powers allowing MPs to vent their pompous opinions and fine-tune the detailed clauses, rather than the measures themselves, which constituted an “attack on civil liberties”. It was an “absolute affront” that the legislation was forced through in that way, “whatever the merits of the bill”, he complained.
In order that the queen would not have to stay awake into the small hours, she gave her ‘royal assent’ before the proposals had completed their passage through parliament. Benn also criticised this “total breach of constitutional practice”, accusing the government of manipulating the monarchy.
Conviction of membership of a proscribed organisation can now be obtained solely on the basis of the evidence of a senior police officer - whose word has so often been used in the past to help frame victims such as the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. Failure to mention “material” facts under interrogation can also be interpreted as evidence of guilt. The courts can confiscate the property of those convicted if the judge claims that it may be used “in furtherance of or in connection with the activities of the specified organisation”.
The government took advantage of the occasion to add clauses relating to conspiracy to commit offences overseas. People who are alleged to be planning an illegal act abroad can be convicted provided such an act would also be illegal in the UK. This is irrespective of whether any illegal act has actually been committed and applies even if the regime against which the conspiracy is alleged is the most authoritarian of dictatorships.
Many Tories and Ulster unionists complained that the measures did not go far enough. They would have preferred the re-introduction of internment to match the powers still in place in the Irish Republic.
Sinn Féin’s objections to the legislation were relatively mild and short-lived. Technically the powers could be used against the IRA - still of course an illegal organisation, despite its complete backing for and increasing compliance with the terms of the British-Irish Agreement - as well as against those responsible for the Omagh blast, the Real IRA. But SF/IRA knows that use of the legislation against itself is now just about impossible. SF leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have their sights set on the two Northern Ireland executive places to which their party’s 18 seats in the June 25 elections entitle them. The executive will take over the functions of the Northern Ireland office in February 1999.
In other words, in spite of the latest batch of anti-democratic legislation, SF is well on the way to participation in the running of an arm of the British state. As if to hammer home the fact that it is no longer an enemy, but an ally of British imperialism, the IRA has been paying visits to the homes of Real IRA and 32 County Sovereignty Movement supporters, threatening them with the consequences of a failure to end all armed actions and dissolve their organisations. It is likely, however, that the British and Irish states will get in first - arrests of the suspected leaders are expected within days, now that the “extremely draconian” legislation is in place. In a desperate bid to dig itself out of this hole the Real IRA announced earlier this week that its “suspension of military activities” had now been converted into a full-blown “complete ceasefire”.
In addition to the new measures, the past week has seen a significant acceleration of the peace momentum, further boosted by the presence of Bill Clinton. Adams made his statement that violence is “a thing of the past” and nominated Martin McGuinness to liaise between the IRA and the International Commission on Decommissioning. McGuinness has already had “highly satisfactory” talks with its chair, John de Chastelain.
The SF moves were widely welcomed. A spokesman for Tony Blair, reacting to Adams’ announcement that violence must be “over, done with and gone”, said: “It confirms the prime minister in his view that Sinn Féin deserve to be taken seriously in their commitment to exclusively peaceful means.” David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, said the statement was “a move in the right direction”.
Within days Trimble appeared to be clearing the way for SF’s participation in the executive. He said: “I say to those who are crossing the bridge from terror to democracy: every move you make towards peace, I welcome. Every pledge you make to peace, I will hold you to it. As first minister, I will work with anyone who has the interests of peace at heart.” By last weekend he had secured the agreement of the UUP leadership to hold face-to-face talks with SF, whose leaders were represented at the first preparatory meeting, which Trimble chaired, for the Stormont government.
Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party seems out-manoeuvred. Despite all the evidence that SF/IRA has permanently ended its armed resistance to the British occupation of the Six Counties, DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson said Adams’ statement was just a “word game”. He claimed it fell “far short” of a declaration that the war was over. Clearly the ultra-unionists will have to rethink their tactics, which appear to fly in the face of reality.
At present though Trimble still has to move very cautiously for fear of losing ground to the DUP and his own right wing. That is why he announced that he would not be shaking Adams’ hand when the two men met. “When he holds forward his hand,” Trimble declared, “it’s got two tonnes of Semtex, 600 AK47 rifles and god knows what else in it.” This does not apparently contradict his earlier statement that Adams is “crossing the bridge” to peace.
In fact Blair has made it clear that he sees decommissioning primarily as a symbol of change, and Trimble is well aware of this. Irish history is littered with republican weaponry that has simply been left to rust. Nevertheless, a gesture to surrender some IRA arms looks increasingly likely, if not imminent. That would pull the carpet from underneath the unionists who still oppose the Good Friday deal.
Rather than pretending that SF/IRA has not changed its spots, a more promising line of attack from the ultra-loyalists’ point of view would be a campaign to ‘defend their protestant heritage’. Last weekend’s violence around the ‘right to march’ demonstration showed that there is still life in the anti-settlement forces. They still have the potential to mobilise thousands around this issue, claiming that the banning of Orange parades through catholic areas constitutes an attack on ‘basic democracy’, in the name of forcing through an imminent united Ireland.
Anticipating the release of the first 17 republican prisoners of war this week, Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam ordered that two Scots Guards should be freed less than six years after their life sentences for the murder of a catholic youth in 1992. The idea is to demonstrate that the peace process is ‘even-handed’. In that sense the anger of the youth’s family and of the nationalist community at the soldiers’ release was a useful counterbalance to the expected reaction to the subsequent freeing of IRA fighters.
In the absence of a working class alternative the imperialist peace process looks more and more secure. The ultra-loyalists are wrong-footed and intransigent anti- imperialists marginalised.
But the real loser will be the Irish people’s right to genuine self-determination.