Northern Ireland

Stunt threatens crisis

Once again, British imperialism?s attempt to constitutionally secure the Northern Ireland statelet looks to be heading for the buffers. Scarcely a year after Peter Mandelson, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, lifted Westminster?s suspension of the legislative assembly?s executive, that body is confronted by a serious impasse that may develop into another full-blown crisis. Now, as then, the immediate issue revolves around decommissioning.

On May 8, David Trimble, first minister of the executive and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, took the assembly by surprise when he delivered what amounted to a crude ultimatum. He informed members that he had handed a post-dated letter of resignation to the assembly speaker, Lord Alderdice. His resignation as first minister would take effect on July 1, ?unless before that date the republican movement keeps the promise it made over a year ago? (UUP website, May 8).

The ?promise? referred to by Trimble was, in fact, a statement made by the Provisional IRA on May 6 2000, in which the IRA leadership undertook to ?initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA arms beyond use in such a way as to avoid risk to the public and misappropriation by others and ensure maximum public confidence?.

Trimble claims that ?full implementation? of the Hillsborough agreement involves decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by the end of June 2001. The onus is, therefore, on the IRA to begin decommissioning immediately. But Trimble knows that, according to the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), a minimum of eight weeks would be required to complete the process, so it is already effectively too late for the IRA to meet Trimble?s artificial deadline - a fact of which he is obviously well aware. He is similarly aware of the fact that there is no reason whatever to believe that the IRA has any intention of ?initiating the process? of decommissioning either now or, indeed, in the foreseeable future.

The hypocrisy of Trimble?s speech was equalled only by its cynical disingenuousness. He preaches that ?there cannot be a moral vacuum at the heart of the peace process? and goes on to say: ?Our inclusive arrangements in this assembly [ie, participation of Sinn F?in ministers in the executive - MM] depend on there being a transition from the violent past to a peaceful, democratic future.?

Until very recently, democracy was not exactly top of the UUP?s list of priorities. Indeed, the defining characteristic of unionism throughout the last century was to maintain the radically undemocratic oppression of the catholic minority in the Six Counties, denying them equal rights so as to preserve the political and economic privileges of the protestant bourgeoisie and its orange labour aristocracy. The first minister omits to mention the fact it was not some magnanimous act of unionist tolerance, but the ballot box - 18% of the vote in the 1998 assembly elections - that led to the inclusion of three Sinn F?in ministers in the power-sharing executive.

He goes on to claim: ?Members will know that neither my statement now nor my resignation on July 1, if it happens, will cause the institutions to collapse.? Really? Neither the assembly members nor anyone else in the north of Ireland knows any such thing. Trimble?s departure could easily make the position of deputy first minister Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party untenable. The possibility of a renewed suspension of the executive and a return (albeit ?temporary?) to direct rule cannot be excluded. It is possible, of course, that some form of IRA ?engagement? with the IIDC could provide Trimble with the pretext for withdrawing his threatened resignation, but he is certainly playing for high stakes.

The motives for Trimble?s gamble should be obvious to all. Under considerable pressure from rejectionists in his own party, and particularly from the hard-line anti-agreement forces of Ian Paisley?s Democratic Unionist Party, he is making what he hopes will be a pre-emptive strike capable of shoring up the UUP?s and his own position during what promises to be a tense and bitter general election battle. If the UUP loses seats, Trimble?s leadership of the party will be the major issue at the annual Ulster Unionist Council meeting scheduled for the end of June.

The DUP has made it clear all along that, by fostering the growing disenchantment of large sections of the British-Irish population with the peace process - specifically with the issue of decommissioning - it will seek to make this election into a kind of second referendum on the Good Friday agreement. Whereas the outcome of Westminster elections in Northern Ireland is normally something of a foregone conclusion, this time it looks uncharacteristically unpredictable in at least seven or eight of the 18 seats to be contested.

Of the nine seats held by the UUP, five are looking vulnerable to DUP attack, despite the fact that some of them are currently held by UUP MPs regarded as rejectionists. For example, the UUP incumbent in Belfast North, Cecil Walker, aged 76, won the Westminster seat with no difficulty in 1997, but his challenger, Nigel Dodds, came top of the poll in the assembly elections in the wake of a serious collapse in the UUP vote, and looks like taking the seat for the DUP. Iris Robinson, wife of DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson, is favourite to take the Strangford constituency from the UUP and the Rev William Macrea, who captured Antrim South from the UUP in a by-election last year - albeit on a very low turnout - has been building support and may deny the UUP the chance of recapturing a key seat in the unionist heartland. The retirement of Ken Maginnis and UUP deputy leader John Taylor from Westminster leaves the UUP fielding relatively unblooded candidates in two more key constituencies.

The situation in Down North is symbolic of the deep divisions within the loyalist camp and the UUP itself. The sitting MP, Bob McCartney, leader of the UK Unionist Party, is a staunch rejectionist. The UUP?s original candidate to fight the seat, Peter Weir, another strongly anti-agreement politician, was deselected by the party because he has consistently defied the party whip in the assembly by voting with the DUP. Then Leslie Cree, Weir?s approved pro-agreement successor as candidate, chose to stand aside after revelations that he fathered an illegitimate child some 40 years ago. The stench of blackmail was overwhelming, but from what quarter is anyone?s guess. The UUP has finally decided to field Lady Hermon, a strong supporter of Trimble and wife of the former RUC chief constable, Sir John. The UUP is devoting considerable resources to taking this seat. Failure to do so, along with potential losses elsewhere, will make Trimble?s position as leader extremely difficult.

In the 1998 referendum, some 71% of voters in the north gave the Good Friday agreement their blessing. At that time it was easy for bourgeois commentators - and quite a few on the left - to dismiss Paisley and the anti-agreement lobby as an unrepresentative bunch of political Neanderthals, isolated from the mainstream and doomed to extinction. Now the picture looks rather different. If the DUP and other rejectionist Ulster Unionists make significant inroads, they may be in a position to claim that a very large number, if not a majority, of unionists reject the accords. Those who are old enough will remember that the authority of the 1974 power-sharing executive was irretrievably weakened by exactly such a development.

Both the British prime minister and his secretary of state for Northern Ireland, John Reid, limited their response to describing Trimble?s move as ?highly regrettable?. The last thing they have time or inclination for at this juncture is getting involved in yet another potential crisis in the Northern Ireland. The Tories have remained silent on the question - but for how long? In the aftermath of what looks like being another serious general election defeat, and at a time when their party will be riven by all manner of internecine warfare, we must expect the Tories, sooner rather than later, to play the ?Ulster card?, especially if the UUP is weakened, Trimble goes ahead with his resignation and perhaps loses the leadership of the UUP in July.

Again, there are sombre historical precedents. Back in the period 1912-1914, it was the Tories who, to defend their aristocratic landed interests and to revive their political fortunes, conspired illegally to destroy the prospect of Irish home rule, bankrolling Sir Edward Carson?s armed rebellion and fomenting mutiny in the officer corps. Nobody is suggesting that history will repeat itself in quite this way, but some determined flexing of extra-parliamentary muscle in an area that represents the main weak link in New Labour?s constitutional revolution from above must surely be expected.

Speaking for the DUP with characteristic vitriol, deputy leader Peter Robinson dismissed Trimble?s statement as a ?pathetic spectacle? and a ?pathetic election stunt, [demonstrating] the complete failure of his strategy and ... the impending electoral meltdown of his party ... This panic step is an empty gesture. The fact that he delays any resignation until after the election indicates the true intention. It is to get him through the election with his party intact and then do what he always does - go back on his word ... If he were serious he would resign now. This shameless election stunt will fool no-one.?

Robinson pressed home his attack by linking the past to the present: ?This announcement leaves David Trimble?s central campaign theme of ?Ulster Unionism delivering? in tatters. Having delivered the destruction of the RUC, the release of terrorist prisoners and unaccountable all-Ireland executive bodies, David Trimble now delivers a bogus resignation letter? (DUP website, May 8).

For Sinn F?in, Martin McGuinness described the resignation threat as ?an absolute disaster? for the peace process, tantamount to embarking on ?a wrecker?s charter ... We had hoped that, in the course of the election, he [Trimble] would come out and bat for the agreement wholeheartedly. Effectively, what he has offered to the unionist people is a negative manifesto. I think the unionist people deserve better. I think many unionists, particularly those unionists who came out in overwhelming numbers to endorse the referendum on the agreement will be disappointed.? McGuinness went on to say that if Trimble persists in his chosen line, then ?in my view, we will never see decommissioning? (An Phoblacht May 10).

In terms of Sinn F?in?s long-term political agenda, the prospect of another crisis, with possible suspension of the new institutions, is obviously a mixed blessing. Sinn F?in journalist Michael Pierse got it right when he wrote: ?While they [the UUP] may be able to manage to sell conflicting pro- and anti-agreement vibes to the unionist electorate in the next three weeks, they will also inevitably light the fuse of a time bomb within the UUP. When that bomb explodes we may see the end of David Trimble and a total realignment within unionism - with the most negative elements coming out on top? (ibid).

Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, it is incumbent on political parties - Sinn F?in included - to reject the use of violence; to be committed to exclusively peaceful means; and to do all in their power to encourage the disarmament of paramilitary organisations. Sinn F?in itself is not expected - nor could it be - to deliver decommissioning. That is a matter solely for the IRA and of course Sinn F?in and the IRA are formally two completely separate organisations. There have, of course, been repeated claims that both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams are members of the ruling Provisional Army Council of the IRA. Such a claim was renewed only last week when the DUP?s Peter Robinson used parliamentary privilege during an assembly debate to list the republicans he ?believed? commanded the Provisional movement. The names of McGuinness and Adams were among them.

Robinson?s ?belief? was apparently based on ?a security document sent to his house?, no doubt by some friendly member of the RUC special branch. In the light of this ?revelation? and McGuinness?s recent admission that he was second-in-command of the Derry City IRA on Bloody Sunday, the DUP put a motion of no confidence in the education minister. It was defeated 45-31. Never one willingly to forego a provocation, Robinson also demanded that McGuinness should be arrested and charged with murder and membership of a proscribed organisation, but it seems unlikely that the gates of the now deserted Long Kesh will be thrown open to accommodate him.

The best way to gauge the IRA?s approach to the current impasse is to look at what happened in February last year. The most eloquent evidence of the British government?s impotence when it comes to imposing its terms on the republican movement was Mandelson?s decision to suspend the executive, as a futile means of ?punishing? Sinn F?in for the IRA?s failure to embark on decommissioning. Paradoxically, it was not Sinn F?in but the UUP that suffered, because it became a party to bringing down the very institutions that it claimed represented a huge gain for unionists at the time of the agreement. To be sure, Sinn F?in made no bones about its outrage at Mandelson?s decision, but it was only too well aware that any real concession on decommissioning would threaten the unity of the movement by giving political ammunition to hard-line dissidents. Once suspension was a fact, Gerry Adams made it pretty clear that decommissioning was unlikely ever to happen. It was, he said, ?something no undefeated army anywhere in the world had been asked to do? (Weekly Worker February 17 2000). It is difficult to see how the movement?s attitude to the question can have changed substantially in the interim.

In the event that the present situation does develop into a crisis for the peace process, there are still no grounds for believing that the peace itself is under serious threat. What we are seeing is the continuation of the jockeying for position by all the parties, none of whom favour any genuinely democratic solution.

The position of the CPGB has been consistent. Whilst the majority of the left piously fell in behind Blair, Trimble, Clinton and Ahern back in 1998 - demonstrating their programmatic weakness by advocating acceptance of the anti-democratic framework of the agreement, we advocated a boycott of the referendum. We did so not as an exercise in passive abstentionism, but in order to draw attention to the need for an alternative, working class, solution based on genuine self-determination. To vote ?yes? was effectively to legitimise partition, institutionalising the loyalist-republican divide, while to vote ?no? was to line up with Paisley, McCartney, etc, in demanding the continuation of the repressive ?protestant government for a protestant people?.

We demand an end to partition and a united Ireland, within which a two-and-a-half-county British-Irish province exercises self-determination. We call for a freely elected, all-Ireland constitutional assembly through which all the people can decide their own future, without British imperialism or anyone else setting the agenda.

Michael Malkin