Province of crisis

At the heart of the violence in Northern Ireland lies the institutionalisation of sectarianism through the Good Friday agreement, writes Anne Mc Shane

As Belfast exploded into sectarian violence last weekend, the barely concealed tensions underpinning the Northern Ireland statelet once again spilled over. Not that they are ever far from the surface. In the seven years since the signing and subsequent ratification of the Good Friday agreement, bitterness and division have grown, not lessened. So-called moderate unionism has imploded and the Democratic Unionist Party has emerged victorious under the malevolent leadership of Ian Paisley. His role in fomenting resentment and hardening anti-Irish nationalist attitudes is of course legendary. Just last week he gave warning to the government of the impending violence unless the parades commission acceded to the demands of the Orange Order. And, although he has not come out openly in support of the anti-police rioting, he has implicitly backed it by placing the blame on the government for its softness on Sinn Féin. Northern Ireland proconsul Peter Hain tried to dismiss the violence as an aberration in an otherwise united community and assured us that it would be over in no time. But, as the nights of burning barricades, petrol bombs and bullets continued, he was soon forced to do an about-face, putting pressure on unionism to keep its extreme wing under control. He reluctantly stated he now longer recognised the ceasefire of the armed wing of the Progressive Unionist Party, the Ulster Volunteer Force (which has, after all, been engaged in a vicious feud with the Loyalist Volunteer Force and is responsible for numerous deaths over recent months) and called on the leadership of the Orange Order to condemn the violence of its supporters. The response was overwhelmingly belligerent. Robert Saulters, the grand master of the Orange Lodge, argued at a press conference that the order regarded itself as blameless. Instead he declared his disgust at the "the extent to which ordinary, decent and reasonable men have been goaded into behaving out of character by the authorities and their insistence on appeasing and rewarding nationalists at the expense of loyalists". David Ervine, leader of the PUP, argued that resentment had reached extremely high levels because it was perceived by protestants that catholics are receiving favoured treatment by the British government. This 'favouritism' simply consists of the granting of some sops to nationalist-catholics under the Good Friday agreement. That and the fact the British government has been keen to replace some of the more manifestly sectarian institutions like the Royal Ulster Constabulary - a 'protestant police force for a protestant people'. It needs to recruit catholics to the renamed Northern Ireland Police Force. Although Sinn Féin still does not support it and catholics are hardly joining in droves, even such a purely cosmetic change is too much for unionists. So deep is their paranoia they have been condemning the retitled RUC as a nationalist police force! And there has, of course, been a big price to pay for the Good Friday settlement. The 'copper-bottoming' of the union, the formal abandonment of the armed struggle, IRA decommissioning - in fact all the things that unionists had been demanding as prerequisites for any power-sharing. But now they are accomplished, unionism seems to feel even more threatened. Its coherence depended on keeping the 'taigs' in their place. The rerouting of the Whiterock march by the parades commission provided the touch paper to the deep and growing resentment among unionists. The splits among unionism are temporarily forgotten, as they demand their 'civil rights' - to march and bang the drum for unionist chauvinism through their 'traditional route' of Workman Avenue - ie, through a catholic-nationalist area. Unsurprisingly residents protest at this annual show of supremacism, predicated as it is on their oppression. They have become heartily sick of this reactionary jamboree and the attacks on themselves and their homes that accompany it. Perhaps residents believe that the Good Friday agreement has given them more of a say than they had before. But the concessions that have been won are all due to the long struggle from below - the struggle for self-determination. Despite these concessions the peace process is an imperialist one - and one that institutionalises the sectarian divide. It leaves the working class hopelessly split and the unresolved national question simmering. Yet in 1998 with a couple of notable exceptions the British left and their counterparts in Ireland completely fell for the Good Friday agreement. Doubts about the nature of the peace and the imperialist agenda behind it were not allowed to muddy the waters. Irish workers were told to vote 'yes' in the ratification referendum. The following quote from Socialist Worker says it all - "Socialists are for peace in Northern Ireland because it creates the best conditions for catholic and protestant workers to unite. Any return to the armed struggle will heighten the sectarian tension and bring more suffering to working class areas for no possible benefit" (April 18 1998). Similarly the Socialist Party fretted that the Good Friday agreement might not make it through the ratification process. Although it was possible that the new assembly based on the agreement would "further institutionalise sectarianism", nevertheless the "people of Northern Ireland, both catholic and protestant, are relieved that the months of 'peace talks' ended in agreement rather than stalemate" (The Socialist April 17 1998). Indeed the SP and Socialist Workers Party - and unsurprisingly the Communist Party of Britain - actually supported and promoted the idea that this agreement could somehow allow a progressive solution to emerge. It would create the conditions for working class unity through struggles on economic questions. With the thorny old national question out of the way - or so they hoped - the time for socialists would come. Well, the fact that they were wrong is now in no doubt. Their failure to take seriously the need for the working class-led struggle for democracy in Ireland is shameful. They argued that workers should support the Good Friday agreement because it 'creates the best conditions for unity'. Will they now admit that they were wrong? That in fact it is only a working class democratic solution that can provide any answer? That the only way forward is to argue for a united, federal Ireland? Anne Mc Shane