Martin McGuinness, minister of education: helping to run the Six Counties statelet

Not one bullet

Sinn Féin joins unionism

The long-stalled peace process has taken a quantitative step forward this week with the formation of the Northern Ireland executive.

Less than five months before the two-year deadline for the completion of the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the disjointed administration that should have been set up more than a year ago is to start work. Of course this is no ‘government’ in the normal bourgeois sense, where individual ministers are supposed to work in concert as part of a united whole. In fact, as everybody knows, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds, the two representatives of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, will refuse to sit in the same room as their Sinn Féin counterparts, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun.

The peculiarities of the de Hondt system allowed each of the four main parties to choose a ministry in turn. Without the IRA handing over a single bullet Sinn Féin was able to snap up education. For revolutionaries, democrats and anti-imperialists the reaction of unionism and British reactionaries at the thought of Martin McGuinness, a ‘terrorist’, presiding over the schooling of Northern Ireland children was a source of wry amusement: “The appointment is the political equivalent of child abuse,” raged The Daily Telegraph (November 30).

The Telegraph leader-writer perfectly expressed the impotence of a section of rightwing Tory-unionist opinion at the consequences of the deal brokered by former US senator George Mitchell on behalf of the British, US and Irish governments - ie, the new world order.

Those championed by the Telegraph just cannot bring themselves to accept that the British state - for all its MI5, SAS, its overwhelmingly superior weaponry, its no-jury courts, its manipulation of the media, its huge tax revenues, its parliamentary bipartisanship - was unable to defeat the IRA (it is exactly 10 years since the then Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Brooke, first admitted as much, so setting the initial steps of the peace process in motion). For the intransigent wing of the establishment and Paisleyite loyalists the presence of SF in the executive represents the depths of humiliation for their beloved queen and country.

The same paper gave space to Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator: “This process has been morally flawed from the start,” he wailed.

“It is a protracted capitulation by democrats to terror. First we said we wouldn’t talk to them on principle ... Then we said that formal negotiations couldn’t begin unless the IRA began to decommission ... Then we said that there could be no deal ... unless the IRA handed in some weapons ... we made the men of violence a final offer. We would not spring them from jail unless weapons were decommissioned ... Then we said there was absolutely no way, no way, the IRA - or its representatives in Sinn Féin - could expect to be included in the new devolved government, unless some weapons were handed over ...”

The pathetic alternative, as far as Johnson is concerned, is simply to carry on as before with Britain’s failed strategy: “Nothing will really work unless we stick to our guns and make the IRA give up theirs.” Quite how he proposes to “make” the IRA toe the line is unelaborated. Jeffrey Donaldson, the leading UUP oppositionist, was equally bereft of ideas: “The alternative is to go back to the negotiating table” was the best he could come up with.

However, for the more realistic sections of the British and unionist establishments, the question of arms, while obviously important, is not paramount. The central issue is the gradual establishment of stability under the evolving politico-economic convergence of the European Union superstate. The complete and final ending of the armed struggle, its replacement by ‘normal’ politics under the EU, is the aim. The fact that the ceasefire has held for so long is regarded as vital; the IRA’s arms can be left to rust in their dumps, as has occurred with the weaponry of successive waves of Irish republicanism in the past.

But the arms question was certainly the stumbling block for the rank and file unionists in the British-Irish community. That is why David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, felt compelled to make prior decommissioning the bottom line: “The party policy is, and will remain, quite simply ‘no guns, no government’,” he told the UUP youth wing only last month. After all the previous shifts listed by Boris Johnson, Trimble had a big job on his hands to get his party to accept the truth of the matter: IRA disarmament just could not be achieved. Yet, if the peace process can be kept on track, he believes, the future of Ulster and of unionism could be secured.

Trimble explained his thinking to The Daily Telegraph: “Structurally [Sinn Féin] are operating the institutions of Northern Ireland. We all know this is a partitionist agreement and they’re working the agreement. Now, they may still say that they’re pursuing a strategy of seeking a united Ireland and being 60s radicals. We’ll hear shortly that they’re taking a long march through the institutions - though we all know where that ended!” (November 18). He is, of course, putting a unionist gloss on the British-Irish Agreement. It could equally lead (eventually) to a safe, bourgeois all-Ireland state. Nevertheless, in the short term he is correct: SF is helping to run the Northern Ireland statelet.

So Trimble - fully supported by Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson - had to pull out all the stops. Managing to win over one of the most influential hardliners, John Taylor, who had claimed to be “undecided” right until the last minute but “persuaded” by Mandelson’s assurances, and waving his postdated letter of resignation - to be implemented if decommissioning is not underway by February 2000 - the UUP leader was able to secure 58% backing for the setting up of the executive. Mandelson’s ploy of awarding the George Cross to the Royal Ulster Constabulary played no small part in the battle for the minds of the party membership, as did dire warnings about the danger of a forthcoming bombing campaign on the British mainland by “extremist terrorists” (as opposed to the more reasonable variety in SF/IRA presumably).

Thus, according to the Mitchell formula, “Devolution should take effect, then the executive should meet and then the paramilitary groups should appoint their established representatives, all on the same day, in that order.” If arms have not been handed in by February, the recalled UUP council could in theory authorise the withdrawal of Trimble, together with UUP ministers Reg Empey, Michael McGimpsey and Sam Foster, from the executive - but as things stand now it is unlikely.

There will of course be many difficulties for Trimble ahead. The DUP has openly admitted that it is taking up its ministerial entitlements only in order to sabotage the whole deal. And the defection of just one or two anti-agreement unionists from Trimble’s party would mean that the assembly could be paralysed, formally needing as it does a majority for any major decision from both self-designated ‘unionists’ and ‘nationalists’. However, from the point of view of Britain, the USA and Ireland, the main thing is that devolution is up and running.

It is, of course, uncertain whether decommissioning - meaningful or otherwise - will actually occur. As Martin Ferris, a senior SF negotiator, pointed out (to the embarrassment of Gerry Adams) to supporters in the USA, “If IRA guns are silent, the executive is up and doing business, the assembly is up and doing business, why on earth would Blair collapse all of that over the non-decommissioning of guns that are silent anyway?” Why indeed. Such a move would be “sheer lunacy”, in the words of another leading SFer, Pat Doherty, who also poured cold water on the idea of the IRA handing over its guns. It is now clear that the refusal to decommission has gained SF/IRA much ground. A well timed token surrender of outdated arms could, if necessary, still be enacted to allow Trimble to argue for the continuation of the executive.

Adams and McGuinness now look set to advance their own influence, together with that of Sinn Féin, not only in the Six Counties, where SF can be expected to replace the SDLP as the leading catholic-Irish party in the short term, but in the South too. Here the organisation is taking rapid strides forward, building on the prestige of its central role in the unfolding settlement. Their ambitions stretch far beyond a couple of toy ministries in Northern Ireland: they see themselves playing a central role in the government of a future united Ireland.

Does this mean that the deal is a step forward in the interests of democracy and the working class? Clearly not. We are communists, not nationalists. A united Ireland imposed from above - not least against the will of the million British-Irish in the north - would not advance our cause by one inch. The fact that Trimble and Adams are being praised to the sky by Blair and Mandelson should tell us whose interests are being served by a deal which institutionalises sectarian divisions. The revolutionary situation that gripped the Six Counties for three decades, and occasionally threatened to spill over into the republic too, has been successfully negated.

But the new situation opens up new possibilities. Tension remains high and the Tories could yet seek to take advantage of loyalist discontent in the British-Irish community to provoke a crisis for Blair - using extra-parliamentary methods. More importantly, there will be new opportunities for communists. Our central aim in Ireland remains working class unity - and that can only be achieved voluntarily.

We are for a united Ireland from below. This means forging in these new conditions a strategy capable of winning the British-Irish population from Trimble, Paisley and Hutchinson, and the catholic-Irish population from Ahern, Hume and Adams.

Jim Blackstock