Not one bullet

As the dust settles after last week's suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly, it is clearly Sinn Féin that has gained the most from the short-lived operation of the executive.

Despite the party's angry criticisms of Peter Mandelson and the IRA's announcement that it has withdrawn its last-minute offer to the decommissioning commission under general John de Chastelain, the hopes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to carve out for themselves and their organisation a leading role on an all-Ireland level have been greatly enhanced by the events of the last few months. Indeed, of all the Irish organisations, north and south, only SF can be said to have made such major advances as a result of the imperialist-backed peace process.

As The Sunday Telegraph put is shortly before the imposition of direct rule, "Sinn Féin will see all IRA prisoners out of jail by this summer; it has achieved the dismantling of the Royal Ulster Constabulary; it has turned Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness into international media superstars; it has made electoral inroads in the Republic of Ireland; it has accrued millions of pounds in party funds; and has two ministers in the government of Northern Ireland: all without handing over a single IRA gun" (January 30).

Of course the paper could also have listed the minus points: the abandonment of any thoughts of military victory or the achievement by revolutionary means of a united Ireland; the recognition of the Six County statelet; the de facto acceptance of the unionist right of veto to prevent the end of partition. Nevertheless, in terms of its own transformation to an agenda of bourgeois nationalist respectability, SF has made enormous strides.

Nothing could be more telling as an indicator of the British state's inability to impose its terms on the republican movement than the fact that its only recourse as a result of the IRA's refusal to decommission was the reluctant suspension of the institutions it had in place. This, it hoped, would provide the shock necessary to save the day for a new era of stability under European Union hegemony. Supposedly designed to 'punish' SF/IRA alone, the suspension hits the Social Democratic and Labour Party and, more significantly, the Ulster Unionist Party much harder. To quote The Sunday Telegraph again, the UUP was forced "to bring down the very assembly that it insisted was a huge gain for unionists at the time of the Belfast agreement".

While unionism remains deeply divided and demoralised, the unity of SF/IRA is intact. In order to keep it that way, there is of course very little likelihood of any meaningful IRA surrender of weaponry: the 11th-hour commitment "to consider how to put arms and explosives beyond use" made to de Chastelain was actually just about as far as it is possible to get from a promise to start handing over arms, even though it was given "in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday agreement, and in the context of the removal of the causes of conflict".

SF went through the motions of being "outraged" at Mandelson's rejection of the "positive" decommissioning report, but Adams and McGuinness are well aware that even a token surrender of a couple of rusting AK-47s might jeopardise the republicans' carefully guarded unity. "It was never part of the plan and it just cannot happen," one IRA fighter was quoted as saying. "To give up arms would be to accept the British view that they are illegal and that all these decades' struggle was wrong" (The Daily Telegraph February 2).

When it first became clear that Mandelson was serious about suspending the assembly in view of the lack of progress reported by de Chastelain, Adams at last dropped his previous discreet pretence of going along with the idea that decommissioning might actually happen. It was, he said, "something no undefeated army anywhere in the world had been asked to do".

And that is the point. For all the beating of chests within unionism and British conservatism, there is no way that the IRA can be forced to do anything. Decommissioning, admitted Tony Blair, was "a symbol". It was a "voluntary contribution to the process of building trust," said Mandelson, who expressed sympathy for the IRA's difficulties in being asked to comply.

True to form, The Daily Telegraph called on the government to abandon the whole peace process. Instead it should "scrap the Patten report on the RUC, stop the release of terrorist prisoners, and maintain a vigorous military presence in the province" (February 12). As we have pointed out many times, the Telegraph may represent the most reactionary, belligerent and wishful-thinking section of ruling class opinion, but it certainly expresses the frustrations of the whole British political establishment at having been unable to defeat the IRA in more than 30 years.

In reality the peace process may be in crisis, but there is no real threat to the peace. None of the main players - British imperialism and Ulster unionism, the Irish state and republicanism - have an interest in seeing a return to armed conflict, although of course, each attempts to gain the most advantage for their own particular interests. The IRA may have no intention of disarming, but its February 1 announcement was most certainly sincere: "We are totally committed to the peace process. The IRA wants a permanent peace ... there is no threat to the peace process from the IRA."

However, the following day another IRA statement read: "We have never entered into any agreement or undertaking or understanding at any time whatsoever on any aspect of decommissioning." That is surely correct - although the UK and Irish governments, as well as SF, have continually tried to maintain the illusion that the opposite is the case. The statement continued: "We have not broken any commitment or betrayed anyone ... Those who have once again made the political process conditional on the decommissioning of silenced IRA guns are responsible for the difficulties."

As for the unionists, UUP leader David Trimble also looks forward to the re-establishment of devolved power, albeit "on a sound basis". In fact Trimble personally would probably have been willing to continue with the executive - with or without decommissioning - but is unable to carry the majority of his party with him. He also has the 'Ulster says no' rejectionists, headed by Ian Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party, breathing down his neck.

However, the UUP did not stipulate that the commencement of decommissioning must have begun before power-sharing is resumed. This surely leaves the way open for some compromise form of words to allow the resumption of devolution after a suitable break - suspension is for six months, and can be ended by Mandelson after a review.

It is now obvious that the two-year deadline for the fulfilment of most aspects of Good Friday agreement cannot be met - if there was ever any question that it would be. As de Chastelain pointed out on January 31 in relation to the work of his own commission, "A time will soon be reached beyond which it will be logistically impossible to complete our task by May 22."

Yet Mandelson has already prepared the ground for the continuation of prisoner releases (the programme will be complete by July), for the revival of the cross-border institutions and the Northern Ireland assembly and executive - all without any decommissioning of weapons. He told the Commons that it was "not unreasonable" for SF/IRA to take into account the late setting up of those institutions when considering decommissioning. The UUP has sat in the executive alongside SF once while the IRA remained armed: it can do it again.

So wild talk of the collapse of the peace is entirely misplaced. And dire warnings that the IRA is about to launch another bombing campaign is silly beyond words. 'Neither peace nor war' suits Adams and McGuinness down to the ground - SF has bigger fish to fry than fronting health and education in the north-east corner of Ireland. The longer this situation continues, the better it will be for them, they believe - a return to the armed struggle is for the moment ruled out.

Meanwhile the Tories have resumed an uneasy bipartisanship - cooperating with the passing of the government's emergency legislation, while continuing to snipe at Blair and Mandelson for not halting prisoner releases and for stripping the Royal Ulster Constabulary of its "proud name". But William Hague and Northern Ireland spokesman Andrew MacKay are keeping a watchful eye on the unionist mood. A loyalist revolt, perhaps over the RUC, might provide an opportunity to help wreck Blair's entire project, and could see the Conservatives resort to extra-parliamentary methods as the only hope of reviving their fortunes. There is a substantial section of the party which, like The Sunday Telegraph, is half hoping for a "grim alternative" to the peace process, when such measures as reform of the sectarian RUC could force "law-abiding unionists into a position of desperation" (February 13).

Such a revolt is not necessarily probable, but it is possible. However, it is also entirely possible that a united Ireland could be realised - within a couple of decades when the catholic-Irish will form a majority in the Six Counties, if present demographic trends continue. But there would be nothing progressive in a unity which would be imposed from above by the British and Irish governments, as part of the imperialist new world order. Such a united Ireland might delight some green nationalists, but would not represent a single step forward in the struggle for human emancipation. And if it were achieved in the face of resistance by the million British-Irish, that would simply mean a reversal of the poles of oppression.

The obscenity of enforced partition must be ended. But all sections of the working class must be won to fight for its removal and for the achievement of a united Ireland from below - and that must mean an Ireland that enshrines the right to self-determination of the British-Irish.

Jim Blackstock