Good Friday on the rocks

Ian Donovan examines the rise and rise of Paisleyism and what it means for the Six Counties

Last week’s Northern Ireland elections have thrown a major spanner in the works of the Good Friday agreement.

Yet the results were not at all unexpected: indeed it has been common knowledge for a couple of years at least what the outcome would be, were the Blair government to allow elections to the Stormont assembly to go ahead. The ‘moderate’ parties on both sides of the loyalist-nationalist divide were weakened in their assembly representation and the hard-line parties correspondingly strengthened. But this of course was merely the translation into parliamentary arithmetic of a shifting relationship on the ground.

The ‘centre’ in Northern Ireland politics is in the process of melting away simply because the Northern Ireland statelet is an undemocratic, fundamentally unreformable entity, based on protestant privilege, or it is nothing. The utopian aim of the Good Friday agreement - ie, to cement the existence of the statelet, while supposedly removing its sectarian, anti-catholic features by means of power-sharing between the two national-religious communities, defined on sectarian lines - could not but lead to further intercommunal polarisation.

On the one side there are the diehard, unreconstructed Orange supremacists in the shape of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, who refuse to countenance any sharing of power with Irish catholics who are not also housebroken and subservient. And on the other side, the now constitutionalist, but all-Ireland nationalist Sinn Féin, which endorses the Good Friday agreement as a means to an end: basically in order to incrementally dismantle the old institutions of protestant Ulster, thus laying the basis, not for a reformed Northern Ireland in perpetuity, but rather a reunification of Ireland in a 32-county state.

Sinn Féin’s position as the now-dominant party of nationalism was confirmed by its gaining 24 seats, largely at the expense of the Social Democratic Labour Party, which managed only 18. But this victory was overshadowed by the ascendancy of the DUP over the main traditional party of bourgeois unionism, the Ulster Unionist Party of Northern Ireland’s erstwhile first minister, David Trimble.

The DUP gained 30 seats, as against 27 for the UUP, which in fact came behind Sinn Féin in terms of the percentage of votes cast for it by the electorate as a whole. Indeed, aggregating the votes of the UUP, SDLP and SF, it is still true that that an overwhelming majority of votes in the province were cast for parties whose official stance at least is one of support for the Good Friday agreement (although many UUP supporters, including not a few of its candidates, are closer to Paisley than to their own leader).

However, the structures set up by the agreement themselves institutionalise sectarianism by requiring the separate consent to virtually everything that is to be decided by a majority of elected representatives defining themselves as either ‘unionist’ or ‘nationalist’. Precisely because the Northern Ireland statelet includes a large nationalist minority that was forcibly incorporated into it as part of a land-grab, gaining the consent of the minority was never going to happen under traditional UUP unionism. Tellingly the slogan of Sir Edward Carson - the founder of unionism - was a ‘protestant nation for a protestant people’.

More than two decades of determined civil resistance by the catholic-Irish population, plus the IRA’s armed struggle, wrecked the old Northern Ireland and its protestant ascendancy forever and forced the British government to concoct a compromise deal - that was the 1998 Good Friday agreement. As a result Northern Ireland enjoys what passes for peace. However, far from bringing about a rapprochement between the two warring communities, power-sharing has alienated a wide swathe of the British-Irish population and in the process placed the unionist veto firmly in the hands of Ian Paisley.

In the overall political climate post-Good Friday agreement, where the Irish republic is an increasingly prestigious and economically successful part of the European Union, and Sinn Féin widely acknowledged as an all-Ireland force, this really brings home the anti-democratic and anachronistic nature of unionism even more than in the past. Paisley is a grotesque figure, whose  aspirations of renegotiating Good Friday, rolling back the concessions to ‘Fenianism’ and restoring protestant Ulster have a desperate, almost farcical, character about them.

However, it appears that there is a lot of wishful thinking going on now that the elections have finally taken place. Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams was quoted as saying that the DUP would be forced to come to terms with his strengthened party: “They are the people who say they want to renegotiate. Who are they going to renegotiate with if not us? We are the lead pro-agreement party” (The Guardian November 30). And the Blair government is taking a similar tack, Northern Ireland secretary Paul Murphy stating: “The agreement is not dead, because most people in Northern Ireland want it to work” (ibid). The problem being, of course, that in order for the Good Friday agreement to “work”, the active participation of the largest unionist party is indispensable. Take that away, and despite all its supposed legitimacy, no deal is possible under its terms. And Paisley has made it very clear that he has no intention whatsoever of sharing any power with Sinn Féin.

Thus what we see here is a kind of rerun - so far in purely electoral terms - of the notorious Ulster Workers Council strike that brought down that previous attempt at power-sharing, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1974. That action, fundamentally an initiative of Paisleyites and loyalist paramilitaries, forced the abandonment of Sunningdale. This time round, in a very different climate after several years of IRA ceasefire, this power-sharing executive has effectively had its operation rendered impossible by electoral means, by an alienated bloc of British-Irish voters. But the net result is rather similar - the executive has become a dead letter.

A prolonged period of direct rule from Westminster and of continued suspension of the executive looms, though this time in a situation where Sinn Féin has crossed the Rubicon to constitutional politics, and at this point there seems to be little prospect of mainstream republican organisations resuming their armed struggle. That notwithstanding, a potentially volatile period of further sectarian polarisation looks to be on the agenda - one that could conceivably offer opportunities for dissident republican elements to make inroads into SF’s base of support.

There are of course contradictions in the position of the DUP as well, which could act in the medium term to undermine its cohesion. Fundamentally, the Paisleyites are demanding an act of outright surrender by Sinn Féin - the disbandment of the IRA - before even considering any power-sharing arrangement with them. The problem with this demand is that it is no more feasible than the corresponding SF demand that the DUP should resume power-sharing with them on the same basis as when Trimble was first minister. Neither of these demands, addressed to the leading elements of the two triumphant parties in these elections, is remotely feasible in the short term.

However, taking a longer view Sinn Féin is probably in the stronger position, simply because of its all-Ireland successes and its social base south of the border, which gives it reserves of support. The DUP is, however, likely to remain politically isolated, without any real bourgeois support from either Britain or anywhere else. Since there are undoubtedly politicians in the DUP who would like to get their hands on the portfolios of the Stormont executive, it may be that a prolonged period of direct rule from Britain, without any hope of change, could lead to a splintering of Paisley’s party. After all, while he may aspire to play a analogous role to Ariel Sharon’s in the Middle East, he does not have any chance of turning his dreams into reality. Equally to the point, it is quite possible that another extended period of direct rule could see a build-up of sectarian tensions and the ‘troubles’ re-emerging in some other form. The IRA has not gone away (nor of course have the loyalist paramilitary gangs) - and in any case it has rejectionist splinters that could conceivably grow if the politics of the ballot box is once again replaced by the politics of the streets.

At the root of the impasse in the north of Ireland is the inability of capitalism, of whatever political stripe, to provide a genuinely democratic solution to the complexities of the national question that the legacy of British imperialism has bequeathed to the working class of whatever community in that artificial and unstable statelet. These democratic questions are twofold and interlocking. There is a genuine, historically evolved division between the two communities that cannot be wished away - and would continue to exist in some form irrespective of the state or states that ruled that territory, prior to the withering away of national/communal antagonisms in general under socialism.

More to the point, the specific form of the state created by the partition of 1921 is the product of an undemocratic annexation of territory that incorporated large chunks of discrete territory where there is and always has been a majority of people who consider themselves Irish, in a state dominated numerically by British-Irish. Elementary democracy demands that the population of those territories with a clear catholic-Irish majority be allowed to unify with the Irish republic itself. But also, consistent democracy demands that the populations of those territories with a clear majority of British-Irish be allowed the right to self-determination.

This means the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British armed forces from the north and a reunified, genuinely secular Irish republic, in which the area, roughly amounting to one county (Antrim) and four half-counties, where there is a clear majority of British-Irish, exercises autonomy, up to and including the right of outright secession if the population democratically so decides. The latter is necessary as a democratic safeguard for the rights of the British-Irish community - while defending their right to so secede, we would oppose the exercise of this right in all but the most extreme and unforeseeable circumstances.

All of the ‘solutions’ produced by the bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties of either community, and indeed the Good Friday agreement itself, fall short of consistent democracy, in either denying the rights of the catholic-Irish population to reunify with the south without the consent of Orange supremacists, or in implicitly favouring a reunification of the island that would appear to take no account at all of the fact that a genuine national division exists in the north.

Nor is it any coincidence that all the parties to the agreement, for all their symmetrically counterposed views of the national question, are up to their necks in the kind of anti-working class, neoliberal bourgeois agenda that prevails in both Britain and Ireland.

That includes Sinn Féin - during its period of tutelage over education and health at Stormont, Blair’s policies of PFI, preparation for foundation hospitals and so forth continued unabated. All this should mean real opportunities for the left in addressing the economic grievances of the working class of both communities, as well as advancing working class solutions to the national/communal divide through the promotion of consistent democracy.

Unfortunately, our movement in Ireland has some way to go in this regard, as indeed is true on this island also, of course. The most prominent socialist candidature in these elections was that of the veteran Socialist Workers Party comrade, Eamonn McCann, who stood in Foyle constituency, Derry, on the ticket of the Socialist Environmental Alliance - an umbrella leftwing ticket whose manifesto bears considerable resemblance to the material of the Socialist Alliance in Britain.

Creditably, it announced its counterposing of working class interests to those of all the bosses’ parties: “Our approach to politics is to put the interests of the working class first. Politics in Ireland has long been dominated by nationalism and unionism, demanding that other issues wait until the border issue is finally settled. The result is two states dominated by capitalism and imposing a corporate agenda - and, within the north, two communities in competition with one another …

“Nationalist and unionist parties are at daggers drawn on issues to do with ‘community’. But they have a common agenda when it comes to the basics.

“Curbs on public spending, private finance in schools and hospitals, and lower taxes for business dominate the programme for government agreed by the outgoing four-party executive” (SEA manifesto, seaderry.co.uk).

This is of course, most laudable in terms of expressing working class aspirations. But at the same time, the SEA seems to have no operative position on the national question itself, an omission that hands the question of democracy to the nationalists. While the SEA manifesto correctly declares its opposition to the agreement because it “entrenches sectarianism”, all it offers by way of a solution is vague ‘unite and fight’ rhetoric - it does not appear to have a position on the constitutional question except in a negative sense:

“Peace will be strengthened by the people on both sides who have been left behind advancing together. Peace is endangered by political elites who have lost touch with those they came from fighting over which community is doing better in the share-out of scarce resources … We see the future lying not in people looking to MLAs [members of the legislative assembly] to deliver things for them, but in people organising to change things for themselves” (ibid).

Which of course is fine in terms of addressing economic discontent, but the job of socialists is not to counterpose economic grievances to questions of political democracy, but rather to offer a road forward for struggles around both the economic grievances and the democratic questions that animate the working class, so as to unite workers’ struggles around such questions within a single, unified movement. Otherwise, economic struggles can easily be derailed when the bourgeois leaders of various communities play the sectarian card - something that has happened many times in Northern Ireland, of course.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, comrade McCann gained a creditable vote - 2,257, or 5.5% of first preferences. However, his fellow SEA candidate, Marion Baur, gained only a dismal 0.4% of the vote in East Derry, suggesting that McCann’s long-standing personal reputation played more of a role here than his party affiliation. The Socialist Party - marginal in the north, though a presence in the south, as recently highlighted by its leadership of the struggle against the hated bin-tax - stood in West and East Belfast. The SP also fared very badly, picking up only 0.5%- 0.6% in each seat.

Thus these elections demonstrate yet again that the working class movement has a mountain to climb in the northern statelet. Opportunities certainly exist, given the obvious bankruptcy of all the rival nationalisms - republicanism, whose ‘clever’ manoeuvring with British imperialism and the UUP has now given the whip hand to Paisley; and unionism, whose main expression, for the moment at least, is the DUP. Paisley’s negative power stems entirely from the hybrid sectarian power-sharing structure - he can paralyse the exercise of power, but he cannot weild it. A bizarre situation, of accentuated ‘neither war nor peace’ is the result, which could eventually lead in any number of directions, as unpredictable as many of them are ominous.

The left needs to put its own house in order and begin to offer a serious alternative to the many workers from both communities who are without doubt desperate for a progressive solution to this impasse.