Irish peace in deadlock
As Trimble and Adams go to the brink, anti-imperialists need a new strategy
Not for the first time the media are full of stories about the “crisis” in the imperialist-sponsored peace process of Northern Ireland.
In contrast to the alarm that has followed each difficulty since the whole process began, on this occasion there is undoubtedly a real impasse that has been building up for some time. March 10 is the deadline for the setting up of the cross-party Stormont administration, which, according to the terms of the British-Irish Agreement, is to take over all powers from the Northern Ireland office. But the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, the first minister of the new devolved government, refuses to allow Sinn Féin to take up the three cabinet seats to which its 17.6% vote in last June’s elections entitles it.
The reason given is of course the fact that the IRA has not yet begun to ‘decommission’ its weapons, as the Good Friday deal requires. SF retorts that there is no specific linkage between decommissioning and its right to be part of the new administration. The agreement states only that all parties must reject the use of violence and be committed to exclusively peaceful means. They must do all in their power to encourage the disarming of paramilitary groups, which must be completed “within two years”.
In an interview with The Guardian Martin McGuinness, SF’s chief negotiator, showed bitter frustration at the inability of the establishment to understand his predicament. Clearly he would like to be able to give Trimble some token, but is unable to deliver it: “You can talk about symbolic gestures in terms of handing in a few guns, but I think the reaction in the Bogside communities would be: ‘Why has the IRA done that? Why would they surrender? Why have they been humiliated?’” McGuinness is very much aware that SF/IRA must do more than just deal with its enemies: “You should also negotiate with your own supporters” - particularly when you are engaged in a series of compromises over what were formerly regarded as unbreakable principles.
“In South Africa de Klerk was faced with the same dilemma as Trimble, of whether to make a big issue of decommissioning. De Klerk has said that he has made it quite clear that the route he took was not to allow decommissioning to destroy the process, and I think that was a very sensible approach.”
McGuinness is quite right. In the run-up to the 1994 elections, in the last days of the old apartheid regime, legal ANC rallies were openly watched over by Umkhonto we Sizwe liberation soldiers, with AK47s slung over their shoulders, while state forces looked on.
However, there is a difference between the two processes. In South Africa the old regime was facing an eventual defeat at the hands of the revolutionary movement, backed by the overwhelming majority of the population. De Klerk, with full imperialist support, knew that the only way to stave off revolution and open up the possibility of a capitalist stability was to ensure a smooth handover of power. Through agreeing to incorporate liberation fighters into the state armed forces - which were then placed at the disposal of new government headed by Nelson Mandela - he allowed most liberation units the space to disband and disarm.
Clearly we have a different situation in the Six Counties. Far from a victory being achieved, either by imperialism or the liberation forces, what ensued was a protracted stalemate. The overwhelming majority on both sides have given up all thoughts of either ‘driving out the British’ or ‘crushing the IRA’. Neither is a possibility. However, as there is no longer a revolutionary situation, most unionists, along with the Tory right wing, see no reason why they should have to give up their monopoly of power, still less allow ‘terrorists’ out of jail, let alone into government. While such elements might accept the need for reform, they still believe that the existing state forces must reassert their incomplete control over republican working class areas. Like McGuinness and Gerry Adams, Trimble desperately wants the peace process to succeed, but to compromise too much would be to jeopardise his own position, just as it would for the SF leaders.
Of course Blair understands SF’s predicament only too well, although he does not openly say so. He is not helped by the abandoning by the Tories of the traditional bipartisanship over Ireland in the greater interests of British imperialism. Their die-hard approach may strike a chord with some, but it is hardly realistic to halt the release of prisoners, and in so doing strengthen the hand of anti-agreement republicans, who at present constitute a tiny minority. It is left to liberal elements like The Guardian to recognise the difficulty of insisting on disarmament: “To ask these men to decommission is to ask them to accept defeat” (editorial, February 5). Instead The Guardian implores the SF/IRA “to make the gesture, perhaps a new form of words, that will help Mr Trimble”.
For his part the UUP leader was calling on the British to ‘park’ the agreement - ie, put it on hold - and there has been talk of a compromise, whereby a ‘shadow executive’ is set up in parallel to continued direct rule from Westminster. But that would be totally unacceptable to both sides. SF, on the other hand, is holding out the possibility of another intervention by Senator George Mitchell, the “respected” chair of the all-party talks that led to the Good Friday deal, to break the impasse.
Trimble, backed by the Tory press, has seized on the issue of ‘punishment beatings’ to further pressurise SF. Two well publicised cases have been highlighted to back up the claim that, in addition to its refusal to hand over any weaponry, the IRA is actually breaking its ceasefire. In January British informer Eamonn Collins was killed (to the satisfaction of many working class republicans), and last week Paddy Fox, an IRA dissident who believes that the leadership has sold out to the British, was abducted for several hours and given a good ‘tanking’. As one IRA source was reported to have commented, “They know there’s going to be pressure to decommission, so they have to come down hard on people like Paddy Fox.” As we predicted, the IRA has started to police the agreement, while the state in effect turns a blind eye.
Another Trimble ploy was to back the call for a ‘human rights enquiry’ into such paramilitary activity, to be conducted by Amnesty International - although he changed his tune when Amnesty said it would also investigate the work of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The nature of the RUC is very pertinent. As McGuinness wrote on Sinn Féin’s internet news service, punishment beatings, to which SF is “totally opposed”, occur because of “the absence of an adequate police force and the rising levels of anti-social behaviour and petty crime”. (RM List February 9). Indeed many republicans, wanting no truck with the RUC, look to the IRA to provide ‘law and order’ on working class estates. McGuinness’s answer is to call for an “unarmed, accountable police service” - under the existing British bourgeois state.
However, SF is now trumpeting a new initiative, which is clearly aimed as a counter to the unionist/media propaganda offensive against punishment beatings. ‘Community Restorative Justice’ committees are being set up all over the Six Counties, if we are to believe the RM List. Their first job in the event of anti-social behaviour is to provide “mediation”, failing which unspecified “non-violent activity” will be deployed (February 6-7).
With the Continuity IRA making threatening noises once again, and the announcement that the Real IRA had stolen some weaponry before its split last year, the threat to the peace process seemed even more substantial. Certainly rightwing unionists were making a meal of these stories.
But the huge size of the catholic majority in last year’s referendum in favour of the agreement, and the complete marginalisation of such groups following the Omagh bomb, demonstrates that, while they may still be capable of planting explosives or shooting a public figure, a renewed campaign of resistance to the British occupation is for the moment ruled out.
Irish anti-imperialists desperately need a new strategy - one that looks to a future based on the international working class, not deals with imperialism.