Arms compromise

Irish peace process

As yet another ‘deadline’ came and went, Tony Blair and taoiseach Bertie Ahern last week dreamed up a new formula to keep the long drawn out Northern Ireland peace process on track.

Bourgeois pundits have been claiming that “the Good Friday agreement is dying” (The Guardian March 25) for some time. The continuing impasse over decommissioning left the same newspaper bewailing, “If there is no IRA decommissioning soon, the agreement seems certain to fall” (April 2). That statement appeared immediately after the Blair-Ahern declaration. The previous day Hugo Young had taken this short-sighted scepticism a step further: “If Good Friday fails, then some kind of terrorism will resume” (April 1). Another Guardian writer, Kevin Toolis, warned: “Unless the British and Irish governments start furiously backtracking, the entire Northern Ireland peace process is going to collapse in 10 days time” (April 6).

It is a good job from the point of view of imperialism that Blair, Ahern, David Trimble and Gerry Adams are not so easily deflected from the aim they all share: a settlement based on the permanent ending of nationalist armed resistance to the British occupation of the Six Counties. Of course within that shared aim there are huge differences of emphasis reflecting distinct and opposing interests. Nevertheless, overwhelmingly all the parties want to avoid a return to armed struggle like the plague.

So the peace process itself is very much alive. The fact that Adams, the Sinn Féin president, is having regular meetings with Ulster Unionist Party leader Trimble, the fact that the IRA ceasefire is absolutely firm, and the fact that British and US imperialism, the Irish government, the UUP and SF all want the agreement to succeed - all these truths point to the likely achievement of a settlement. Only Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, Robert McCartney’s UK Unionist Party and a tiny minority within republican opinion are still hoping to thwart a deal.

Having said that, it is hardly surprising that there have been many difficulties, obstacles and crises. Blair and Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam have tended to react to these by imposing deadlines at every stage. In fact Good Friday 1999 is more than five months beyond the date by which the Northern Ireland executive was supposed to have been set up - October 31 1998.

Although the whole process has clearly been sponsored, backed and driven by imperialism in the interests of the New World Order, that does not mean that compromises have not been, and will not continue to be, made. The biggest single contradiction to be resolved revolves around the fact that the ‘criminal terrorists’ who so heroically resisted the imperialist occupation are now central to the success of a settlement, although they are still armed. It is this that lies behind the continuing row over the decommissioning.

SF’s chief negotiator Martin McGuiness put this most aptly in an interview with the BBC in February: “It’s effectively all about being unable to accept that in the course of 30 years that they hadn’t the ability to militarily defeat the IRA.” In an article on SF’s internet news service he added:

“The Ulster Unionist leadership under David Trimble need to divest themselves of the notion that you can bring about what essentially is a military objective against the background of comparative peace in the north” (RM List March 2).

However, there is no doubting that Sinn Féin is “completely and unambiguously committed to contributing in an entirely peaceful and democratic process of discourse with all shades of political opinion” (SF chairman Mitchell McLaughlin); that it is “totally and absolutely committed to democratic and peaceful means” (Gerry Adams).

Nevertheless, the prominence of SF/IRA in the process - despite their refusal to decommission up to now - is indeed a bitter pill for many in both the unionist and British imperialist camps to swallow. The fact that most of the IRA’s prisoners of war have been, or are in the process of being, released while not a single bullet has been surrendered is the source of almost uncontrollable fury in some quarters. When Michael Caraher, Bernard McGinn, Seamus McArdle and Martin Mines laughed contemptuously after being sentenced to a total of 435 years in jail last month, this was more than The Daily Telegraph could stomach. These IRA soldiers “will be loosed in 16 months to resume their daily business, terrorism”, it raged, under an editorial titled “Laughing at Britain” (March 20).

Such a seething reaction gives anti-imperialists not a little pleasure. But that should not blind us to the fact that, while SF/IRA look likely to pull off what in their terms is an honourable deal, it is imperialism that will be the main winner, as these most intransigent of former enemies are drawn into bourgeois respectability. Large sections of establishment opinion have come to the pragmatic conclusion that leaving powerful weaponry in IRA hands (at least in the short term) is a small price to pay, taking into account the overall picture.

One unionist politician who would clearly like to openly embrace such pragmatism is Trimble himself, but of course he knows only too well that he must move slowly in order to keep his right wing on board and Paisley’s DUP at bay. That is why he was adamant that SF could not enter the devolved Northern Ireland administration unless IRA decommissioning had first begun. But Adams has his own constituency of militant republicanism to consider. As Belfast’s ‘red priest’, Des Wilson, put it,

“Democrats are being asked now to leave themselves naked to the protection of the RUC and the British military in all its forms - regular army, secret army, territorial army, unofficial armed groups, armed clergymen - and hope for the best, without any of these bodies making even the slightest promise that their war against democrats is over. We have had the smell of burning houses in our nostrils far too often” (RM List March 4).

Put another way, SF/IRA cannot surrender their weapons - not until majority republican opinion is won to believe that the new government institutions set up are in some way theirs. As a result of this deadlock Adams and Trimble needed to be seen to move simultaneously, so that neither would be viewed by their supporters as having sold out. Adams said:

“I want Mr Trimble in the loop, before I stretch the republican constituency once again, because we have in the last year taken a number of initiatives. Because there has been no meaningful response it has tended to undermine the credibility of our leadership, so I am prepared to stretch, I am prepared to reach out, but I want to make sure that Mr Trimble and I jump together on this.”

In the event the Maundy Thursday deadline was marked only by the Blair-Ahern Hillsborough declaration, not yet agreed to by the Northern Ireland parties. It contains several points which can be portrayed as minor victories by both SF and the UUP, if they are so minded. In order to meet SF’s objections that there is nothing in the Good Friday agreement which specifies that decommissioning must have begun before the Stormont executive is formed, the two prime ministers propose that the composition of the 10-member executive is agreed - including the two seats to which SF is entitled as a result of the June 1998 elections.

But the named representatives will be ‘ministers-in-waiting’, for there will not even be a ‘shadow executive’, let alone a fully devolved administration. Within a month, after a “collective act of reconciliation”, “some arms” will be “put beyond use, on a voluntary basis, in a manner which will be verified by the independent commission on decommissioning”. As another carrot Blair promised to remove more troops from the Six Counties - “demilitarisation in recognition of the changed situation on security”.

Of all the parties attending the Hillsborough talks, only SF seemed less than pleased with the declaration. Yet, despite militant and defiant noises from IRA leader Brian Keenan, Adams conceded that it “may have merit”, while McLaughlin stated that some “good work was done”. It was noticeable that some unionist hard-liners were already dismissing any SF/IRA move as insufficient. Peter Weir, a dissident UUP member of the Northern Ireland assembly, said: “If the Provos handed over two guns tomorrow, that would fulfil the terms of the declaration, and you could find yourself in the position where they’ve got more guns than they had a year ago and be in government.” Most unionists had previously been won to the position that IRA decommissioning need only have ‘begun’ before SF took up its executive seats.

In reality it may never happen fully at all. But the whole history of Irish republicanism is one of former rebels making their peace with imperialism and the Irish establishment and simply leaving their guns to rust.

Despite the scepticism of the pundits, the peace process continues to edge forward. It will no doubt encounter many more difficulties, but, as long as both Trimble and Adams can still persuade most of their supporters that their interests will be served in the long run, and rejectionists on both wings remain marginalised, imperialism looks set to achieve the stability it yearns for.

Jim Blackstock