Province of permanent crisis

?We believe the time for negotiation is through.? Strange words indeed from a prime minister who has invested so much of his time and reputation in what seems now like a vain attempt to breathe some new life into the ailing body of the 1998 Good Friday agreement - hitherto lauded as one of the greatest achievements of his first term in office.

Blair?s exasperation is understandable. Given the fact that they were taking place solely as a result of the ultimatum created by David Trimble?s contrived resignation stunt, and at a time when sectarian tension is always at its highest in the Six Counties, the failure of the Weston House talks to break the deadlock in negotiations between the pro-agreement parties was entirely predictable. Perhaps the two governments, the Social Democratic and Labour Party and even the unionists have finally come to understand that the Irish Republican Army will never allow itself to be cajoled into making unilateral concessions until all the provisions of Good Friday - including those relating to reform of the RUC and British demilitarisation - have been implemented in full?

No prime minister can afford to be personally associated with failure in a major area of policy, though, fortunately for Labour, the Conservative Party?s leadership election has dominated domestic political reporting to such an extent that the latest crisis in the peace process has been consigned to the inside pages of the broadsheets. Against the background of an upsurge in sectarian killings and violence by loyalist murder gangs (largely unreported on the mainland) and a bloody confrontation between the catholic community and the RUC in Ardoyne (misrepresented by the British media), it is all too clear that the problem is not going to go away, so something has to be done.

Hence, the artificial crisis that began back in May with one ultimatum, is now - Blair and Bertie Ahern would have us believe - to be resolved by another, this time from the two governments: ?We are confident we can put through a package for parties to accept or not.? In other words, a non-negotiable fait accompli, with the participants being told bluntly to ?take it or leave it? and let them take the blame if they choose not to accept the imposed ?solution?. In concluding his statement to the media on July 14, Blair was sensibly cautious, stating that, ?We are not coming to you today and saying all this is done. It is not. But it can be done? (The Sunday Telegraph July 15). Can it?

Until we know the contents of the package, there is no way of assessing its prospects of success, but success hardly looks likely. Reports suggest that the package will address all outstanding problems, not just weapons, but the Ulster Unionist Party has already made it clear that, so far as it is concerned, decommissioning is the only subject on the agenda. Jeffrey Donaldson, already beefing up his hard-line credentials as a likely successor to Trimble, told the press: ?Weapons must be rendered permanently unusable and permanently unavailable. Talk of sealed arms dumps isn?t enough. Our bottom line is that there cannot be progress on any of the other issues until there is actual decommissioning, and therefore we will want to see in any paper that emerges whether there are clear proposals for actual decommissioning to occur? (The Times July 16).

If the same newspaper article is correct, the Blair-Ahern package would ?not require moves on decommissioning as a precondition for Sinn F?in?s continued role in government, as Rabid Trimble ... has insisted?, nor will the material specifics of exactly how weapons are to be put out of use find a place in the proposals (ibid). In this case, it seems overwhelmingly probable that the UUP - short of a major volte face involving a serious loss of credibility - could not even contemplate acceptance.

Of course, so far as Trimble was concerned, having staked everything on putting the IRA ?under pressure? - a futile tactic that he must have known could at best buy him a little time to secure his own position in the UUP - from the outset Weston House was not so much about striving to reach an accommodation as about apportioning blame for what all sides knew would inevitably end in another impasse.

No surprise, either, that the bourgeois media, whether out of deeply ingrained anti-republican prejudice or mere journalistic idleness unanimously chose to blame the intransigence of the IRA on the issue of weapons decommissioning as the sole cause for the breakdown of the talks, their line being that, ?If only the IRA had agreed to put its weapons verifiably beyond use, then all would have been well.? As we have consistently argued, however, the truth is much more complex.

In the first place, it was political expediency rather than principle that led Trimble to threaten resignation. With his leadership already under serious challenge from rejectionist forces in his own party, he correctly foresaw that the UUP was heading for serious losses in the Westminster and local elections on June 7, as disillusioned British-Irish defected to Paisley?s Democratic Unionist Party. Hence his decision to embark on a game of Russian roulette - one in which not just his own head but the peace process itself might ultimately be at stake.

Secondly, as a matter of fact, the only moves on decommissioning - however symbolic - that have taken place to date have come from the republican side, in so far as the IRA has allowed representatives of the international commission on decommissioning access to some of its arms dumps - not once, but three times. Senior IRA officers have had a number of meetings with the commission, and have claimed that, subject to the implementation of Good Friday in full, putting their weapons ?verifiably beyond use? is on the table. On the other hand the Orange murder gangs of the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Freedom Fighters and Ulster Defence Association have done nothing whatsoever, except meaninglessly insist that the IRA must declare that ?the war is over? before they even contemplate disarmament themselves. You will wait a long time before Trimble and co, let alone the zealots of the DUP, raise the subject of decommissioning by their own side.

The loyalists still claim to be observing a ceasefire, so who, one wonders, was responsible for the sectarian murders of John McCormick and Ciaran Cummings a couple of weeks ago? - there have, unsurprisingly, been no arrests; who was it who planted the massive car bomb in the predominantly catholic village of Cargan, Co Antrim on July 10, a device that, had it not been defused, would have caused scores of deaths and maimed many more?

Thirdly, leaks from Weston House made it clear that, through Sinn F?in president Gerry Adams, the Provisional Army Council had undertaken to seal three arms dumps with concrete as a gesture of good faith and as a means of helping to rescue the talks. But concrete was not good enough for Trimble and Donaldson, who balked at the idea and insisted that the weapons in question must be destroyed by the use of ?corrosive chemicals?, presumably on the basis that a company of IRA volunteers, equipped with a JCB or even some picks and shovels, could always dig the guns up again - guns that have, it is worth noting in passing, been silent since the IRA?s cessation of the armed struggle some seven years ago; guns that, as everyone knows, could in any event be replaced without difficulty, whatever the method of disposal. No wonder the talks got bogged down, just as the unionists intended.

Yet even The Daily Telegraph, not noted for its sympathy towards the republican movement, let it be known through its usually well informed correspondent David Sharrock that this method of decommissioning had been agreed as acceptable in talks between Blair?s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, and Brian Keenan on behalf of the IRA?s leadership in talks held last December (July 14).

Both before and during the Weston Park talks it suited the unionists? purposes, and those of the two governments, to pretend that decommissioning represented the only real stumbling block in the way of an agreement that would allow Trimble graciously to resume his office as first minister and spare Labour the unwelcome necessity of suspending the Northern Ireland assembly and the other institutions of devolution as of August 12 and returning the Six Counties to direct rule from Westminster. At least the Blair-Ahern package, whatever it turns out to contain in detail, represents a somewhat belated recognition by the two governments that trying to coerce the IRA into making concessions is just counterproductive.

It is in this light that Gerry Adams? statement, when speaking at a rally in Belfast marking the 20th anniversary of Joe McDonnell?s death on hunger strike in Long Kesh, needs to be understood: ?In my opinion, there is no possibility of unionist demands or British government demands on IRA weapons being conceded by the IRA in the time ahead? (The Times July 9).

To what extent, if at all, the peace itself is threatened lies in the hands of the orange paramilitaries and their political friends. When asked, during a recent television interview, whether he foresaw a resumption of paramilitary violence, Jeffrey Donaldson could not prevent a look of fear crossing his face as he stuttered that it was not going to happen. Yet on the eve of the July 12 celebrations, the UFF announced that they were withdrawing their support from the Good Friday agreement, on the grounds that concession after concession was being made to Sinn F?in and the fabric of the loyalist community was being ?torn asunder? (The Times July 11). According to the UFF, ?We can no longer remain silent in our criticism of an agreement which our membership have consistently voiced their opposition to and which the vast majority of the loyalist community have grown to despise? (ibid).

It remains to be seen whether the UVF, the paramilitary wing of the Progressive Unionist Party, will take a similar position, though a verbal declaration would merely confirm that this organisation has never respected the peace process nor hesitated to break the ceasefire when it comes to sectarian murder.

Perhaps the only useful thing to come out of the mouth of David Ervine, leader of the PUP, when he stalked out of the Weston Park talks was a frank comment on a conversation he had held with Gerry Adams. Questioned repeatedly as to what constituted the ?root cause? of the conflict, Adams - according to Ervine - finally answered that it was the border itself: ie, partition.

If Adams did say this, he spoke the truth, for it was partition - the creation of an artificial, protestant-dominated statelet carved out of the old province of Ulster, that set in stone all the injustice and discrimination that led the people of the north of Ireland to where they are today. Under the tutelage of their bosses from the upper and middle classes that formed the bedrock of the UUP, the protestant working class in the north long enjoyed a relatively privileged position in terms of jobs, housing and social amenities. It is the confusion and anxiety occasioned by the threatened loss of this privileged status, together with a British patriotism and hatred of ?Fenians? imbibed with their mothers? milk, not the issue of weapons decommissioning, that has led so many unionists to forsake the UUP for the DUP. They, perhaps even more clearly than their political leaders, can see where the logic of the peace process and sheer demographics ultimately lead - to the reunification of the island of Ireland - and it is something which scares them.

From our perspective as communists, as we have made clear often enough before, the Good Friday agreement itself is not the answer but actually part of the problem, in so far as it brings about not a genuine settlement of the Northern Ireland question, but institutionalises the division of the working class in the Six Counties along sectarian lines, albeit with a notionally fairer deal for the nationalist minority.

A lasting and a democratic peace in the north can only come about through a united Ireland founded on the consent of both communities, a united Ireland in which the interests of the British-Irish minority would be constitutionally safeguarded. Such a situation can only arise when working class people on both sides of the sectarian divide are being won over to the programme of socialism, democracy and internationalism, for then they will see the real source of their deep historical antagonisms: namely the capitalist system itself, through which - be they catholics or protestants - they are all enslaved and alienated one from another.

Michael Malkin