Ireland: weak link
Blair’s entire strategy at risk - Sinn Féin stands to gain
The impasse over the implementation of the Good Friday agreement hangs like a sword of Damocles over British and Irish bourgeois politics and threatens Blair’s entire strategy for a constitutional revolution from above.
The Tories face defeat at the next general election and perhaps permanent marginalisation as a result of a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition under proportional representation, together with the wiping out of their 350 in-built majority in the House of Lords. They have broken the traditional bipartisanship over Ireland and sided with the Ulster Unionists in thwarting the setting in motion of the Northern Ireland executive. Hague may well be prepared to take his backing of the unionists to the point of an ‘ermine rebellion’ and thus provoke a constitutional crisis in a bid to wreck the New Labour strategy.
Northern Ireland is the weak link. Blair’s plans to establish a new consensus through the imperialist-sponsored peace process depends on a radical rearticulation of the protestant ascendancy in the Six Counties, through a balanced institutionalisation of sectarianism: ie, a power-sharing executive. Demographic trends point to a catholic-nationalist majority by 2015. Moreover every concession to the nationalist-republican population sparks a stubborn reaction from loyalism, threatening to cohere a ‘no’ majority amongst the unionists.
This September will see not only the start of the review of the British-Irish Agreement under the chairmanship of former US senator George Mitchell, but also the publication of Chris Patten’s recommendations for the reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A root-and-branch restructuring of Northern Ireland’s police is central to winning the minority to at a least a passive acceptance of the continuation of the Six County statelet. Hated by the nationalist-republican community, the RUC is rightly regarded as a tool of unionism whose prime aim is to keep the ‘croppies’ in their place.
At the same time elements in the RUC, supported by a large section of loyalism, can be expected to go beyond mere vocal protests against the Patten proposals. Apart from the weaponry at the disposal of the official state in the Six Counties, the loyalist population is of course armed to the teeth - there are 100,000 legally held guns. With the Tory right The Daily Telegraph and The Times continuing to egg on the unionists, there could also be rumblings in the army.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the undefeated IRA refuses to decommission its weapons. An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin’s weekly paper, is packed full of reports of daily loyalist assassination attempts, death threats and intimidation of catholics. Some of these have managed to find their way into the British press recently. The Guardian quoted a north Belfast community worker as saying: “If Sinn Féin tried to persuade people here the IRA should give up arms, they’d be hounded out.” In response to numerous provocations an SF representative in South Antrim issued an appeal to “nationalist residents to be calm and not respond to this vicious hatred” (An Phoblacht July 22).
On the facing page the paper carries the long-awaited IRA statement, which led to such mixed reactions in the bourgeois press: “Those who demand the decommissioning of IRA weapons lend themselves, in the current political context, inadvertently or otherwise, to the failed agenda which seeks the defeat of the IRA,” the statement read. While the Irish Independent interpreted the statement with a front page which read, “Provos: we’re still on board for peace”, the Telegraph’s reply was a headline which screamed, “IRA threat to end ceasefire” (July 22). Two Guardian writers - apparently in all seriousness - speculated that the IRA might return to the offensive with a Canary Wharf-type bomb (July 23).
The Democratic Unionist Party pretended to believe this too: “The statement indicates very clearly that the IRA is prepared to go back to bombing just as they did in the past when people in the past didn’t meet their demands,” said the DUP’s deputy leader, Peter Robinson.
The truth is that SF is likely to be the main beneficiary of the present impasse. Relying on continuing unionist intransigence, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are prepared to show sweetness and light, and to tolerate a great deal, so long as they see a long-term advantage for the republican movement. Earlier this month SF representatives in Newry informed supporters that one of the organisation’s main objectives in the Stormont talks was to “create confusion and disunity among their political enemies” (The Daily Telegraph July 5). Blair virtually rewrote the Good Friday deal by rushing through legal powers to eject SF from the Northern Ireland executive if the IRA did not decommission. In another sop to the unionists, Downing Street even suggested that the release of IRA prisoners might be halted. Yet SF continued to engage. Adams sees himself as Ireland’s Nelson Mandela - a world statesman and maybe the first 32-county taoiseach.
The SF leaders have played a canny game, usually employing conciliatory language with occasional controlled outbursts of frustrated anger. Sinn Féin could well soon overhaul the SDLP as the main catholic-nationalist party in the Six Counties, and it is winning steady support in the south.
Far from advocating a return to armed struggle, SF unceasingly calls upon Blair to force through the provisions of the agreement, steamrollering the unionists where necessary. It points out that the executive should have been up and running a year ago, the all-Ireland ministerial council should have been conducting its business and London should have published its ‘overall strategy’ on demilitarisation. An Phoblacht called on the British government to “end its capitulation to unionist wrecking tactics”, and to “acknowledge its overriding responsibility and assert its authority” (July 22). The review of the agreement’s implementation must be “focused and time-limited”, Adams insisted last week, while Mitchell’s return to oversee it was to be “warmly welcomed”.
When the SF leader writes that he is “totally committed to doing everything in my power to maintain the peace process and to removing the guns forever from the politics of our country” (The Guardian July 14), there can be little doubt that this expresses a genuine desire to transform the republican movement from a revolutionary anti-imperialist formation into a respectable mainstream political force. No doubt McGuinness is right when he says that there is not “a snowball’s chance in hell” of IRA decommissioning by May 2000, as laid down by the agreement. But that does not mean that this weaponry will be brought back into use.
Nevertheless, the failure of the state to defeat the IRA’s heroic resistance has left hardline unionists and the Conservative right in a fury. If Adams and co were to be allowed to enter the Northern Ireland executive without IRA decommissioning, fumed The Daily Telegraph, “the power of terror will, for the first time in our history as a free country, be given official sanction” (July 3). Its editorial demanded to know, “How could unionists accept such a thing? Come to that, how could Conservatives?”
Such language is a warning: the threat to Blair’s strategy comes not from an end to the IRA ceasefire, but from loyalism, and its opportunist ally, William Hague.