In the few months since Towards division not peace was written, its basic conclusions have been reinforced, in some cases quite dramatically so. A number of surveys have confirmed the increased sectarian division during the years of the peace process. As the document explains, in the early years of the peace process immediately following the IRA and loyalist ceasefires there was a feeling of greater optimism, people were more open to new ideas, new political forces started to emerge. There was also a tendency towards the breaking down of the sectarian barriers. According to Housing Executive figures, between 1994-1996 3,000 families moved into areas dominated by the opposite religion.
As is also explained, the opposite trend both towards physical segregation and the reinforcement of sectarian attitudes has been in force since 1996 and continues to the present day. The peace process had come to mean little more than a fragile agreement between political enemies at the top while society, especially the working class areas, has become more sharply and bitterly polarised.
Again, the Housing Executive figures bear this out. In the five years following the 1996 Drumcree confrontation, 6,000 families moved out of mixed areas or areas where they were in a minority into areas predominantly made up of people of their own religion. The result is that, whereas before the peace process 635 of famili9es lived in areas that were either 90% catholic or 90% Protestant, the latest surveys show this figure has risen to 66%.
Throughout the troubles the workplaces, by and large, remained areas where Catholic and Protestant could meet and mix. This has always provided a foundation for the development of working class unity in struggle. Most workplaces remain mixed but there are indications that, even here, the growing polarisation has had some impact. A recent and well publicised academic report by Peter Shirlow of the University of Ulster, records that only 5% of Catholics and 8% of Protestants work in areas that they would regard as dominated by the other community.
Another recent report comparing attitudes among different age groups found that the least sectarian were the pensioners, those people who had been adults before the start of the troubles and remembered the greater integration that existed during the fifties and the sixties. That views are more polarised among young people is also borne out by facts revealed in Dr. Shirlow’s report. It records that 68% of 18-25 year olds have never had a meaningful conversation with someone of the other religion. 62% say they have been victims of either verbal or physical abuse at some time since the IRA ceasefire.
Dr Shirlow’s report is based on the yet unpublished findings of the 2001 census. Although the full census results have not yet appeared, the facts that have been leaked confirm that a significant demographic change has already taken place. Figures based on the preliminary findings of the census vary but all show an increase in the catholic population. Some put Catholics now at 45% of the total, with Protestants only a few percentage points higher. Others estimate that the Catholic figure may be slightly more than this and that Protestants may already be less than half the overall population.
Whatever the precise figure there is no doubt about the trend. There are currently 173,000 catholic children in schools, significantly more that the 146,000 Protestants. On this basis, the day when the Catholics are in a majority will come sooner rather than later. The trend is reinforced by the geographical compression of the areas of Protestant majority into a small part of the North East, with the territory of the river Bann and along the southern borders becoming increasingly Catholic.
These demographic changes will eat away relentlessly and inexorably at whatever arrangement, agreement or ‘solution’ the British and Irish governments and the sectarian politicians may enter into. They have already contributed to a growing feeling of insecurity among Protestants, matched by a greater confidence among nationalists, who sense that the basis of the Northern Ireland State is being irrevocably eroded.
On the ground the expansion of the Catholic population has been at the heart of the low intensity territorial war that has been raged especially since 1996. These points are dealt with at length in Towards division not peace. The figures that are likely to emerge with the eventual publication of the 2001 census results will reinforce the analysis and add a new urgency to the conclusion that unless a united working class movement can be built to cut across the sectarian divide, the outcome will ultimately be civil war and some form of repartition.
2001 ended with a marked increase in sectarian violence which continued into the start of this year. Nightly rioting along the sectarian interfaces, especially in North Belfast, was accompanied by threats against workers and then by sectarian attacks, culminating in the murder of Catholic postal worker, Daniel McColgan. Towards division not peace argues against the illusion that partial IRA decommissioning, the restoration of the Assembly or the agreement to suspend protests at Holy Cross, would defuse the situation and stabilise the peace process. It warns that issues like decommissioning, parades and disputes over school access might subside for a time but have the capacity to re-ignite. The events leading up to the murder of Daniel McColgan confirm this argument and do so in a particularly brutal and ugly manner.
As well as the intimidation and daily fighting across the interfaces, there was a marked increase in attacks on workers, especially on those delivering services to the communities. Bus drivers, ambulance personnel, fire fighters, postal workers, health workers and school staff were particularly vulnerable. Some attacks were directly sectarian, others took place as fire fighters and ambulance staff were forced to intervene in riot situations, In other cases public and service sector workers were the victims of anti-social behaviour at the hands of an increasingly alienated section of the youth in some of the most impoverished working class areas.
Towards division not peace carefully accesses the prospects for a movement of the working class against sectarian attacks, against the paramilitaries and eventually the sectarian politicians as well. It also deals with the possibility of a new movement of the working class on industrial issues. The question of a shake up of the unions as a new generation of activists emerges and pushes them to the left is also considered.
If its conclusions on the dangers of sectarian polarisation and conflict have been borne out in recent weeks, what is said about the working class once again taking to the road of struggle and being able to cut across the sectarianism had been even more vividly and dramatically confirmed. More than that, while Towards division not peace anticipates that the working class will move into struggle and that workers will battle to reclaim the trade unions from the suffocating grip of the bureaucratic and right wing leadership, the speed at which this has begun could not have been foreseen.
It would not have been possible last November to project that within a few weeks there would be a half-day general strike demanding a halt to the threats and attacks. Yet this is precisely what has happened. Sectarian reaction acted as a spur jolting the working class into action. What emerged was the biggest united movement of the working class since the start of the troubles, and one of the biggest demonstrations of working class power ever seen in Northern Ireland.
There were some early indications of the anger that was welling up among workers at the attacks. Late in 2001, bus drivers refused to continue night services to parts of West Belfast and for a period these were withdrawn. Further attacks on drivers including the hijacking of buses prompted the Citybus drivers in Belfast, angry at management’s inability to come up with any measures of protection, to stage a token strike just after Christmas.
Attacks on ambulances created a mood for similar action from drivers and paramedics. Faced with a growing demand for action from their members, UNISON officials were compelled to call a mass meeting of ambulance personnel. The mood for strike action was narrowly sidestepped by the union leadership and the meeting agreed that a strike would be postponed for a month while further negotiations took place on the security of staff.
Meanwhile, the fighting at the interfaces continued. School students from both Catholic and Protestant schools found themselves under attack, with stones and other missiles hurled at busses in north Belfast. Faced with impossible working conditions, teachers put pressure on their unions to act. It was agreed that a date would be set for a protest strike with schools closed from 2 pm.
Then came the murder of Daniel McColgan and the threat issued by the Red Hand Defenders/UDA against all Catholic postal workers. A massive movement of opposition began to develop from below. Postal workers across Northern Ireland immediately stopped work. A twenty-four hour strike was called to coincide with Daniel McColgan’s funeral. This was then extended by a packed and angry mass meeting which decided unanimously to stay out until the threat was lifted.
Meetings took place with the UDA through intermediaries and the specific threat to postal workers was withdrawn. This was signalled publicly with a farcical declaration from the UDA that the RHD should disband – which they obediently did! Under the pressure of the postal workers’ action and facing demands from school staff – also under threat from the UDA – and from other workers, the union leadership in the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions issued the call for a half-day strike starting at 12 noon on January 18th . The fact that they made a clear call for a strike as opposed to just a lunchtime protest and also that this time they acted independently of the employers, the politicians and the churches increased the support. The gravity of the situation – with loyalist threats and counter threats from the INLA and others – gave an added impetus. ICTU’s call echoed the mood in the workplaces that decisive action – following the lead of the postal workers- was now needed. Even though the strike call was only half implemented by the union leaderships, who in most cases hesitated from issuing a clear instruction to members to stop work, there was a massive response. Around 80,000 people thronged the streets at the front of Belfast City Hall for a lunchtime rally. Most stayed only a brief time because the PA system was so bad only those at the front of the crowd could hear any of the speeches. It didn’t matter because the size of the crowd made a much more emphatic statement than anything that was said from the platform.
Elsewhere, at rallies in Derry, Newry, Omagh, Cookstown, Enniskillen and Strabane, there were also impressive turnouts, especially in Derry where around 10,000 people filled the Guildhall Square, over spilling into surrounding streets. A strong contingent of postal workers provided an impressive backbone to each of the demonstrations.
The movement did have an impact. Sectarian clashes continued in the weeks that followed. There were ongoing attacks on homes, families still faced intimidation and some workers still faced threats. However, none of this was on the scale of what had been taking place at the end of 2001 and in the weeks leading up to January 18th. The working class gained confidence from the CWU action [postal workers union] and from the half-day strike. People who had felt isolated and impotent in face of the growing polarisation now saw that tens of thousands of others shared their apprehension and revulsion. They also saw that mass action could isolate the bigots and drive them back; at least for a time.
This confidence could now overspill and give an impetus to struggles on other issues. For more than a decade workers have felt hesitant about taking strike action, discouraged by the memory of past defeats and by the role of a union leadership that more often than not was acting cap in hand with management. But the CWU action showed that strikes can be solid and successful. If determined action can have an impact on paramilitary organisations, why not on the employers or on the government?
Strikes over pay and conditions, or struggles against the pro-business policies of the Blair government or the Assembly, can in turn strengthen class unity and weaken the grip of the paramilitaries and the sectarian politicians. They can also throw up a new layer of activists who can challenge the stranglehold of the right wing bureaucracies in the unions and speed the shift to the left. Two conflicting tendencies are clear in the unions. The right wing continue to move in the direction of ‘company unionism’ with cosy ‘partnership’ arrangements with the employers and the government and with the witch-hunting of activists as described in Towards division not peace. The points that are made about the co-operation between unions and management in attacking the more militant MSF shop stewards in Shorts have been taken a step further, Every single shop steward in the key MSF branch, along with those former shop stewards who had been victimised and derecognised by the union, have been put on redundancy lists and are now out of the company. All this with a ‘silence that denotes consent’ from the union officials and the right wing shop stewards in the factory.
But the opposite trend – a shift to the Left and in the direction of struggle – is also underway and is gathering pace. This is in tandem with what is taking place in Britain as disillusionment and anger at the Blair government begins to turn into organised opposition especially form public and service sector workers. The rail strikes and the action by civil servants in benefit offices over the issue of workplace security are indications of what is to come during Blair’s second term.
Elections in a number of unions have seen an important shift to the left. Left candidates – or more accurately candidates who are at this stage just slightly to the left of the old leadership – have won elections for leading positions including general secretary positions in unions like the PCS (Civil Service union) and the RMT. Most significantly, the elections for the General Executive Committee of the T&GWU, held at the beginning of 2002, saw the left make gains, ending just one seat short of a majority. Left candidates from Ireland who made the demand for the reinstatement of Regional Secretary, Mick O’Reilly, and northern regional organiser, Eugene McGlone, the central demand of their campaign did particularly well. These results could be a stepping-stone to a ‘left’ victory in the General Secretary election due to be held in the second half of 2002.
Locally, the election for the NIPSA General Council, held in the immediate aftermath of the January 18th strike, produced an even more clear cut victory for the left. The left ‘Time for Change’ slate won an absolute majority, taking 13 of the 25 General Council places. Within ‘Time for Change’ the six Socialist Party members who ran were all elected, one topping the poll. NIPSA is the biggest union in Northern Ireland. It represents civil and public servants; the people most directly affected by the decisions of the Assembly, especially the moves to privatise services through the Private Finance Initiative. If a fighting leadership can now be consolidated in this key union, this can have important consequences in exposing the four main parties in the Executive and accelerating opposition to their policies.
The conditions that give rise to sectarianism remain. The paramilitary organisations and the sectarian parties have merely ducked, hoping that this wave of workers’ anger will wash over their heads. In the weeks that followed the strike, the attacks and the fighting at the interfaces may have been less intense but, unless the general strike is followed up with an ongoing campaign against the attacks and against the poverty that fuel sectarianism, the situation will inevitably arise back.
January 18th delivered a blow against sectarianism and demonstrated the power that a united movement of the working class can have. But it was a partial blow. The rallies were huge but there were still large parts of the north that were largely unaffected, including some of the areas where there have been systematic threats and attacks, In some workplaces, especially in rural areas, there was a mixed response.
The tens of thousands who turned up at the rallies did so in disgust at the attacks and because they understood that the situation could get out of hand unless action was taken. Beyond this, the consciousness of what needs to be done is still at an elementary level. The ideas of unionism and nationalism still weigh heavily. Most of those who took part would probably put themselves, at least loosely, in one or other of these two camps.
Workers learn form experience and the experience of an ongoing struggle against sectarianism and on other issues can lead to a dramatic development of class-consciousness. An ongoing movement against threats and attacks can draw wider layers of the working class behind it and can eventually penetrate those areas that were untouched by the January 18th strike.
The key now is to maintain the momentum begun by this action and to follow it up with an ongoing campaign. This means preparing for further action if workers are threatened or attacked. It means taking the campaign beyond the ‘neutral’ town and city centres into the working class communities. Strikes alone will not stop the attacks. They need to be combined with initiatives bringing local union representatives of those providing services or working in areas together with genuine community organisations to work out how communities can be mobilised to stop what is happening.
More than this, it means uniting workers, not just in struggle against sectarian attack, but against privatisation or the run down of services and facilities and against the poverty that blights the working class communities. It also means taking political action. Working class unity will not be consolidated so long as the main sectarian parties maintain their undisputed monopoly. The unity demonstrated on the streets on January 18th needs to be extended into a political unity. A new party of the working class, based on the unions, community groups and socialist organisations is now urgently needed. Successfully launching such a party is not a matter just of organisation. To challenge the nationalist and unionist parties and break the hold they have on working class communities it will be necessary to counter their ideas with an alternative analysis and programme. A socialist explanation will be needed. Without an understanding of the character of the conflict, of where it is headed, of the real lessons that are to be drawn from the peace process and of the past mistakes that have allowed sectarian ideas to take hold in working class areas, the movement will be acting blindly and will be liable to repeat these mistakes.
Towards division not peace provides this analysis. After January 18th its conclusions are more relevant, more immediate than ever. Those who agree with this pamphlet should immediately join the Socialist Party and/or Socialist youth and help us build support for these ideas in the working class communities, in the workplaces and among young people.
The term “peace process” is increasingly becoming a misnomer to describe developments in Northern Ireland. The political process, which grew out of the peace process, is in almost permanent crisis.
Whether or not the Assembly stays in place and the sectarian politicians stay united around the Executive table the underlying process is not towards unity or peace but towards division and conflict. The warning we gave a few years ago that what was beginning to develop could more accurately be described as a “repartition process” than a “peace process” has unfortunately been confirmed.
We are now in a new situation in the north. It is very different from what existed in the 1970s and even the 1980s. It is also in the context of a very different world situation. Those who examine current events through the distorting spectrum of an old political perspective that they learned ten or twenty years ago will get very little right.
A perspective is not a blueprint but a guide to action. And in order to be able to intervene in a situation the first and absolutely fundamental prerequisite is that we understand and analyse correctly what is taking place. Only then can we draw correct conclusions and put forward correct slogans.
The first task of this pamphlet is therefore to explain this changed situation and to define the nature of the current conflict. It is not to try to answer the unanswerable; will the Assembly survive? And for how long? Will the IRA hand over all their weapons? etc. Rather it is to clarify the underlying processes, to determine the main direction of events and to explain the real nature of the forces involved.
When the peace process began journalists and academics produced a forest of literature confidently describing this as the “endgame”. This was no more accurate than the far blown claim made just a few years earlier by Francis Fukiyama that the collapse of Stalinism marked the “end of history”.
The Socialist Party countered the illusions that were being sown in the peace process, explaining that there could be no lasting solution on the basis of capitalism. The form of the conflict could be changed, there could be interludes brought about by war weariness and exhaustion, above all the development of the class struggle could cut across nationalism and sectarianism for a whole period. But, so long as capitalism remained, the underlying problem and with it the basis for ongoing sectarian conflict would remain also.
Against the background of Drumcree, Holy Cross and the nightly battles in the so called “interface” areas there are as few takers now for the “endgame” idea as there are for Fukiyama’s view that history has ended. The peace process marked the end of the Troubles in the form they had taken for more than two decades. It did not, however, mark the end of the conflict but rather the start of a new and potentially even more tumultuous and dangerous chapter.
A particularly sectarian phase has opened. This has been a setback for the working class. The ideas of class unity and socialism have been thrown back. Sectarian ideas are now dominant especially in the working class areas. It has been an ideological as well as a physical setback. In terms of an explanation and an understanding of what is taking place there has been a triumph of the irrational over the rational. Truth and reality has been clouded in the sectarian dust storm blown up by both unionism and republicanism.
The best way to clear this ideological haze is to examine how this phase of the conflict developed and how it differs from what went before. By drawing an outline of events since the start of the Troubles in 1968 we can see where the contours of the current conflict have bent away from the past outlines. By seeing the changes we can identify more clearly the real basis of what is now taking place and the direction in which it is headed.
Part one: Phases of the Troubles
1968 – Revolutionary opening
The start of the Troubles in October 1968 took the form of a mass movement of the Catholic working class and youth against the unionist government. The demand was for civil rights but the real fuel was anger at poor housing, unemployment and poverty.
This was not a sectarian movement. It was in part inspired by the wave of radicalisation taking place internationally, particularly by the revolutionary general strike that had paralysed France in May of that year. It was a revolt against the discrimination and repression that was meted out by the unionist establishment but it was also a revolt against the nationalist hierarchy; against what were looked on as the archaic and ineffective ideas of right wing nationalism, and was a movement in the direction of socialism.
This movement touched a chord of sympathy and support among layers of the Protestant population. Sections of the Protestant youth – and not only the middle class youth – were also moving in a radical direction. Some supported and participated in the early demonstrations for civil rights.
Among the working class there was an increased militancy and a growing radicalisation. There was a powerful and confident shop stewards movement capable of acting independently of the trade union bureaucracy – as the number of unofficial strikes, most of them victorious, demonstrated. The Northern Ireland Labour Party was also growing and its ranks were shifting to the left. Its roots were in the industrial working class, still mainly Protestant, but its membership and electoral support crossed the sectarian divide. There were working class Catholic areas in Belfast -Ardoyne for example – where virtually every house contained Labour voters.
From October 1968 until the spring of 1969 the potential existed to build a powerful and united class movement of Catholic and Protestant workers and of youth. This would have been possible if the demands for equal rights for Catholics were linked with the struggle for jobs, homes and decent wages for all. A united movement that could have shaken unionism and nationalism to their foundations could have been built, but only under a socialist banner.
This potential was not fulfilled – not because the working class would not support socialist ideas. It was because the leadership of the workers movement failed to put forward and fight for a socialist alternative. The trade union and NILP leaders ducked the civil rights issue and kept their distance from the mass movement. This meant they were powerless to influence it in a class direction.
The Stalinists who were held influential positions in the civil rights campaign led the charge against socialist ideas, arguing instead for limited demands that they believed would keep the Catholic middle class on board. Those on the genuine left of the movement who were pushing the ideas of class unity as opposed to “Catholic unity” had a powerful support but were inexperienced and were influenced into elementary mistakes by the infantile ideas being put forward by the various ultra left sects who were around at the time.
The net result was that the moment was lost. The various strands of opposition to the Unionist government and to the unionist and nationalist establishment could not be brought together. A revolutionary portal had opened but was missed. History always extols a price for such missed opportunities and in this case it was a particularly heavy price.
1968-1971 Countdown to the Troubles
The pogroms of August 1969, which led to the troops being put on the streets, were a turning point. August ’69 laid the seeds of the violence that was to follow. The fundamental direction of events was no longer to the left but was towards sectarian conflict. Still the wave of radicalisation that had convulsed the north after October 1968 was not completely broken: in fact the coming to power of the Tory government of Ted Heath in 1970, was followed by an upsurge of industrial militancy that swept Northern Ireland just as it swept Britain.
The difference was that these events now took place in a changed context. The working class could still have cut across the drift to conflict, but to do so they would have to make up the ground lost in August ’69 and its aftermath. They would have to regain the initiative from the sectarian forces that were already beginning to assemble.
That they proved powerless to do so was again primarily down to the role of the reformist leadership of the trade unions and to the sectarian tinged variant of reformism at the head of the NILP. The ideas of Stalinism and of ultra leftism meanwhile continued to play a baleful role.
As a result the unspent wave of radicalisation could not find a class channel and over spilled in other directions. In particular many of the catholic youth who had consciously turned their backs on what they saw as the spent ideas of nationalism and republicanism, moved into both the Official and the Provisional IRA.
This did not represent a rejection of either the socialist ideas or of the methods of mass struggle that had dominated the earlier period. The split in the republican movement originated in the August ’69 pogroms and the failure of the old, Stalinist influenced, leadership to defend Catholic areas in north and west Belfast from loyalist attack.
The people who led the split and formed the Provisionals were right wing nationalists who were as much in rebellion against what they saw as the socialist domination of the movement as they were against the fact that the guns were not in the areas to offer defence. They represented precisely the conservative strain of nationalism that the workers and youth who had flocked to civil rights banners had explicitly turned their back on.
The youth who now joined the Provisionals retained their radicalism and, in the main, did not swallow the old republican ideology. In fact for a whole period the mainly southern leadership had to disguise its right wing and sectarian ideas with a camouflage of socialist sounding rhetoric in order to stay in tune with the northern youth who were filling out the ranks.
Nor was there an immediate basis for a return to an offensive military campaign. The civil rights struggle came after the humiliating defeat of the IRA’s border campaign of the late 1950s. Throughout the 1960s the ideas of individual terror were discredited by this failure. The civil rights struggle was a mass struggle mobilising tens of thousands.
August 1969 was also a mass uprising with whole areas sealed off, street committees formed and the involvement of virtually the entire population in the running of the barricaded areas and their defence. When the upheaval subsided the issue of defence remained central. There was no thought of going out and mounting any kind of assault on other areas. The people in the Catholic working class areas at this time would not have tolerated a campaign of bombings and shootings carried out in their name and would have shunned those who perpetrated it.
1971 – 1980 The first cycle of the Troubles
It was state repression that changed the mood and for a period gave the Provisionals a mass basis of support among the Catholic working class youth. The decisive change came with the introduction of internment in August 1971 -a colossal miscalculation on the part of the ruling class – and then with the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in January 1972.
Individual terrorism is not an extension of mass struggle but its antithesis. It most often emerges when there appears to be no basis for mass action; when mass struggles appear to have failed or when a mass movement begins to ebb. For the youth in the Catholic working class areas the mass struggle for civil rights seemed to have achieved nothing. There was no let up in the poverty; mass unemployment remained, and the repressive methods of the state had intensified. Meanwhile the leaders of the unions and of the NILP were at best silent on the brutal treatment being meted out by the state.
At this time the ultra left sects in Ireland and Britain bent to the prevailing mood in the Catholic areas and, to one degree or another, backed the Provisionals. By contrast we stood against the mood and explained that the methods of individual terrorism could never succeed in overthrowing any modern state.
Although aimed at weakening the state these methods invariably strengthened it, providing an excuse for the introduction of repressive “emergency” legislation. Worse a campaign of bombs and bullets, no matter who they were aimed against, would completely alienate the Protestant working class, driving them in the direction of reaction.
It was not the intention of the majority of the Provisional rank and file to whip up sectarianism or to get drawn into a war with loyalist paramilitaries. There were times when they decided to respond to the loyalist assassinations in kind and when they were drawn into tit for tat sectarian killings. But in the main the young volunteers saw the campaign as directed against the state, against the British government and the army. They saw themselves as “freedom fighters” involved in a legitimate struggle against oppression and drew comparisons with organisations like the ANC in South Africa.
When it comes to politics and to war it is not motivation and intent but effect that ultimately matter. No matter what the intention, the effect of the IRA campaign was to provoke a furious opposition from Protestants. This was soon clear for all to see with the rapid growth of the loyalist paramilitaries in the last months of 1971 and especially in 1972. The forerunners of groups like the UDA had existed for some time. They had been responsible for the pogroms of August 1969. But up until the beginning in earnest of the Provisional bombing campaign they were relatively isolated.
The intensification of IRA activities after internment, above all the bombing of pubs in Protestant areas, dramatically changed this. A reactionary mood developed, especially in the more traditionally hard-line areas in and around Belfast. Thousands joined the UDA. Most joined in order to defend their areas, but a reactionary core, encouraged by some unionist politicians, decided to respond to the IRA with a campaign of counter terror. By 1972 loyalist bombings and brutal assassinations were begun in earnest.
The IRA campaign was based not only on false methods but on false ideas also. Those who launched it adhered to the traditional republican outlook. Britain, to them, had partitioned Ireland and was determined to hold onto the north for economic and strategic reasons. The Protestants were “dupes” of Britain who had been bribed with privileges. Once Britain was forced to withdraw the majority would come to their senses, recognise their true “Irish identity” and throw in their lot with their fellow countrymen and women.
Nothing of this was true. By this time the British ruling class would have preferred to withdraw from the north and allow reunification so that they would dominate the entire country by economic rather than direct political means. They were unable to take a single concrete step in this direction because to do so would have provoked massive Protestant resistance. Any attempt to coerce a million hostile Protestants into a united Ireland would have led to a civil war which would likely end in repartition.
The irony underlying the Provisional campaign was that by whipping up Protestant anger it was buttressing the opposition to reunification and making it even less possible for the British ruling class to contemplate moving down this road.
The IRA leadership’s military evaluation was as flawed as their political analysis. In 1972, by far the bloodiest year of the conflict, they killed around 100 British soldiers – about 90 of their own members were also killed. The military strategy, as Chief of Staff Sean MacStiofain put it, was to “escalate, escalate, escalate.”
They estimated that the British ruling class was buckling under the political and military strain and was about to withdraw. So, in July 1972 when a brief truce was called, an IRA delegation travelled to England for talks with Secretary of State William Whitelaw. The delegation did not negotiate but rather presented a list of demands which were more like surrender terms to the bemused British representatives.
This failed attempt to deal with the IRA leadership left the ruling class back with their previous policy of trying to contain them by military means. To achieve this they adopted a dual approach. With one hand they maintained an iron grip of repression on Catholic working class areas. Meanwhile, with the other they offered political concessions aimed at winning over section of the Catholic population, bolstering the SDLP and in this way isolating the IRA so as to make the military task easier. It was the strategy of the velvet glove and the iron fist.
The British ruling class had no interest in maintaining an “orange” state. From the earliest days of the civil rights agitation they had pressurised the Stormont government to make concessions in order to defuse the protests. Changes were introduced on electoral reform, on policing and in other areas but, by that time, it was all too little and too late.
With the fall of Stormont in 1972 the British government took direct charge and the state effectively became the British state. The new administrators began a process of dismantling the old practices of the “protestant state for a protestant people” which the unionists had created. From that moment discrimination on the grounds of religion was no longer an active policy of the state.
Instead important changes were introduced, the Housing Executive was set up and made to operate on strict criteria in housing allocation. The 1976 Fair Employment Act was intended to prevent discrimination in employment. Of course it would take more than legislation to end discrimination, especially during a period which saw a massive contraction of manufacturing jobs, not because of local factors but because of the world recession that began in 1974.
The worst unionist excesses in employment had been in the public sector, especially in local government and in the civil service. During the 1970s there was a massive expansion of public service employment. The twelve thousand employed in the civil service in the 1960s had doubled by the 1980s. The religious balance was also significantly adjusted. There were 50,000 Catholics employed in the public sector in 1990 representing 36% of the total – or 40% if jobs in the security forces and their offshoots were excluded.
True, unemployment among Catholics remained higher. Even at the start of the 1990s Catholics were still twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants although there is evidence that this gap has since narrowed. This was due to a number of factors. In part it was the residue of past discrimination. But probably the key factor was the reluctance of private companies to invest in the less accessible areas west of the Bann and along the border where a large section of the Catholic population is concentrated. As with the corresponding areas in the South this was discrimination on the grounds of profitability, not religion.
With one hand the British ruling class was delivering change aimed at removing Catholic grievances. Meanwhile with the other they were tightening the screws of repression on the Catholic working class areas and creating a whole new set of grievances in the process. The British state, intervening from the outside, adopted the old adage of the US military that if you have to intervene in a civil war pick one side to lean on – and, not just that, pick the stronger side, the one most likely to win.
While balancing to some degree between the two communities the overriding concern of successive British governments was to crush the IRA. It is true that they did take measures to rein in the loyalist paramilitaries and that from time to time Protestant working class areas were given a taste of repression. It is also true that, when it suited their political and military interests, the ruling class were prepared to use the loyalist paramilitaries to carry out assassinations, bombings and other actions.
In general the State chose to lean on the Protestants and direct the bulk of its repressive arsenal against Catholics. They did this for pragmatic reasons, not out of religious prejudice. The fact of this repression, bearing down mainly on Catholic areas, obscured the other side of what they were doing – the step by step removal of the sectarian excesses of the old unionist state.
To the mass of the Catholic population it appeared, and for understandable reasons, that nothing had changed. The ending of active discrimination in employment did not overcome the inability of capitalism to provide jobs. Under Stormont the batons of the Protestant RUC and B Specials had been reserved for Catholic skulls. The one sided use of the army shattered illusions that under Westminster control things might be different. Catholics were left to conclude that British policy was just more of the same – brute repression to prop up Unionism and through the unionist “puppets” to keep hold of the north.
This was the conclusion drawn by the Provisionals, and it is a view they have largely stuck to ever since. They have used this analysis to convince working class Catholics that they are second-class citizens and to persuade them that they have to struggle as Catholics for rights rather than fight alongside working class Protestants who, in reality, endure the same deprivation. When they argue for a struggle to achieve “equality”, they ignore the fact that, apart from the need to dismantle the repressive apparatus built up to crush the IRA, the “equality agenda” was conceded in principle three decades ago.
The Sunningdale negotiations were part of the strategy of concessions on political rights and on equal access for Catholics to what houses, jobs and services were available. What was agreed at Sunningdale in 1973 anticipated much of what the republican movement eventually signed up to in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, if anything with less constitutional concessions to unionism.
While the Irish government and the SDLP embraced the position of no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of “a majority of the people” the British Government accepted that “If in future the majority of the people of Northern Ireland should indicate a wish to become part of a united Ireland, the British Government would support that wish.”
The attempt at new political structures failed; the 1974 Assembly was brought crashing down by the Ulster Workers Council strike in May of that year and the government was forced back to a policy of repression with not much of a political veneer to disguise it. By this time the explosive wave of mass anger that had swelled both the republican and loyalist paramilitaries after 1971 had begun to wane. In its place there was a growing mood of war weariness which began to express itself in open opposition to the paramilitary campaigns.
The IRA illusion of a quick military victory was dashed. Instead of a battle with the British army and British government republicans were increasingly being drawn into a conflict with the loyalists. By the end of 1975 sections of the loyalist paramilitaries were determined to escalate their campaign of sectarian assassinations and sectarian atrocities and sections of the republican movement showed they were prepared to act in a similar manner.
They did this in opposition to the general mood which was one of disgust at the seemingly endless pattern of killings and of fear that the whole thing could overspill into civil war. At this point the working class intervened with the strikes and local general strikes against killings that gave birth to the trade union Better Life For All Campaign, begun in response to a series of atrocities carried out by republicans and loyalists at the start of 1976.
The impetus came from the still powerful shop stewards movement. When the trade union leaders took charge they placed the dead hand of bureaucracy on the Campaign. As a result this movement of the working class against sectarianism never reached its full potential.
The mood of big sections of the working class remained anti sectarian. It found other means of expression – the 1976 peace movement and the sullen indifference with which protestant workers greeted the attempts by loyalist paramilitaries and politicians to repeat their 1974 success with their failed attempt at another stoppage in May 1977.
The dropping away of support and the lack of any clear strategy left the paramilitaries isolated and floundering. Splits and feuds were on the order of the day: clear indications of the crisis that affected both republicans and loyalists. This was the period when Labour Secretary of State Roy Mason boasted that he would squeeze the IRA like a toothpaste tube. Repression, in the context of falling support, did have an effect.
The IRA was forced to reorganise, adopting a more secretive cell structure. This was more than a change of organisational form, it was an admission that the “escalate, escalate” strategy had failed, that the British were not about to withdraw, that instead of “one final push” the movement faced the prospect of a “long war” of attrition. The cycle of mass upheaval begun in the aftermath of 1969 had run its course.
1980-1990. From exclusion to inclusion – Rise of Sinn Fein
After she came to power in 1979 Margaret Thatcher continued with the hardnosed policy of Roy Mason. During the hunger strikes of 1980-81 she squeezed too hard and gave the republican movement a significant boost. The callous attitude of the government in allowing the deaths of ten hunger strikers angered and alienated the Catholic community and ploughed a fertile political furrow for Sinn Fein.
Up to this point the republican movement had had little or no electoral support. The IRA had paid scant attention to electoral politics during the 1970s. Then, in 1981, the movement took the first steps towards a serious and determined political strategy.
They did so, not because of any worked out policy, but because they accidentally stumbled on the potential for electoral success – through the death of the abstentionist MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone. This gave the opportunity to stand Bobby Sands and appeal for a vote for the hunger strikers.
Sand’s victory and the follow up victory of his election agent, Owen Carron, demonstrated the possible political support that was there for Sinn Fein. Out of this the dual strategy, “the ballot – bomb”, was born. At the time we pointed out that the electoral and military tactics, one relying on secretive organisation the other on mass mobilisation, were mutually exclusive, not complimentary. Sooner or later one would come into collision with the other. What was not so clear at the time, given the long military history of republicanism, was that it would be the political methods that would come out on top.
Sinn Fein developed its support through subsequent elections by projecting a radical semi socialist image. It put forward an uncompromising position on the national question but combined this with a focus on poverty, unemployment and other social questions. It is a notable that the term “nationalist” was avoided in the election material put out in the urban working class areas. The consciousness in these areas was to the left, the “struggle” was seen as for some form of socialist Ireland. “Nationalism” still inferred the right wing and ineffective ideas that had become thoroughly discredited in the pre Troubles period.
Most of the ultra left were carried away by the rise of Sinn Fein. Some joined it believing it could be developed into a new left force. The SWP supported it in elections. Their main criticism was not its policies but the fact that republicans were turning from “struggle” to electoralism. We argued that, despite the socialist rhetoric, Sinn Fein remained at best a radical nationalist organisation: that in terms of its real content it was a reincarnation of the old ideas of nationalism albeit presented in a different way.
The rise of Sinn Fein challenged the political hegemony of the SDLP among the Catholic community. In the October 1982 Assembly election Sinn Fein were already on 10.1% of the vote as compared to the SDLP’s 18.8%. If the trend continued the ruling class strategy of isolating republicanism by bolstering their more moderate rival could end in tatters.
Anglo Irish Agreement
The first reaction of the ruling establishments in Dublin and London was to try to take measures to shore up the SDLP. The setting up of the New Ireland Forum, involving the main parties in the south and the SDLP, was an obvious example. The aim was to give the appearance that it was the SDLP and not Sinn Fein who were at the centre of political progress. The Forum report, which paid lip service to a united Ireland and then went on list the alternative options of a Federal State or Joint Authority, was dismissed out of hand by Sinn Fein.
Margaret Thatcher was even more dismissive, making her now famous “out, out, out” remark. But even she was persuaded that some lifeline needed to be thrown to the SDLP. She entered talks with Irish Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald. The outcome was the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. This offered concessions – such as a consultative role for Dublin in the north – while the return for Thatcher was greater cross border cooperation on security. It was a new menu but made from the old 1970’s recipe of concession and repression combined.
If Thatcher’s arrogance had antagonised the Catholic community during the hunger strike, this time it was the Protestant community that felt enraged. She had deliberately not consulted with the unionists, but merely presented the deal to them as a fait accompli. Protestants felt alienated and betrayed and the strength of feeling was shown by a huge rally, the biggest in the history of the Troubles, called outside Belfast City hall in protest.
The Protestant reaction did not force Thatcher to scrap the Agreement. But it rendered it stillborn. The two governments could maintain it on paper but they were left in no doubt that a settlement would have to come via some other route and that the Anglo Irish Agreement was more of an obstacle than a staging post on the way.
The Agreement, the manner in which in was imposed by way of a deal with the Dublin government and the fact that it remained nominally in place, did affect the psychology of the Protestant population. The huge crowds at the anti agreement rallies demonstrated anger – but also insecurity. This was the beginnings of the sense of isolation and of the feeling that Protestants were now a political minority surrounded by hostile forces in Ireland and internationally. It was the sense, as some unionists put it at the time, that they had been left on “the window sill of the union”.
After the Agreement loyalist paramilitaries tried to step up their indiscriminate attacks on Catholics. The IRA too was trying to escalate. During the summer of 1986 they announced a widening of their range of “legitimate targets” to include all civilian workers who in any way helped the state forces.
With the danger of tit for tat killings dramatically escalating it was once again the working class who intervened to partially cut across the mounting sectarianism. Working class areas were by now more segregated than ever but the workplaces remained mixed. Within them sectarianism was by and large kept at bay.
When workers in dole offices were threatened the entire workforce across the north, Catholic and Protestant, walked out. Our members in NIPSA played the leading role in organising this action. Other workers took this up until the paramilitaries got the message and called at least a partial halt to the threats and to the direct attacks on those at work or on their way to and from work.
Sinn Fein shifts ground
Sinn Fein completely rejected the Anglo Irish Agreement. Just before it was signed Martin McGuinness dismissed it as an attempt to “rationalise and sanitise” partition and said that settlements that “ignore reality, that ignore history, that do not confront the real issues, are not solutions at all, but devices that enable Britain to refine its repression of republicans and its partition of Ireland.”
Referring to the possibility of alternative negotiations he added: “The only talks that will ever have any relevance and hope for Ireland will be talks that involve the Republican Movement, talks with two items on the agenda – namely the disengagement of Britain from our country and self determination for the Irish people.” An Phoblacht 7.11.85
There is not much difference between this and the ultimatist position with which the republican movement approached the British government during the 1972 negotiations. But by now the swagger had gone and the public words of defiance belied their growing uncertainties and disguised the profound changes in ideology and strategy that were already taking place.
The “ballot bomb” strategy was sold on the basis that there could be an escalation of the military campaign alongside political successes both north and south. Already by the mid 1980s it had started to unravel, the needs of the political arm of this struggle were in collision with the military needs and visa versa.
The electoral breakthrough in the south did not come. The leadership blamed the abstentionist policy, which indeed was an obstacle, and – on the promise that without this handicap the party could take five Dail seats – succeeded in getting rid of this at the November 1986 Ard Fheis at the cost of only a small split away by what was left of the old guard southern leadership.
The breakthrough still did not come and it was clear that the military campaign was an obstacle as great if not even greater than abstention. Meanwhile the promised military escalation foundered at Loughgall where military intelligence and a ruthless “shoot to kill” policy taught a powerful lesson – that an all out frontal assault against a much superior military force would lead to rapid defeat.
The only alternative was a long war of attrition. Again the state had learned from its experiences in the 1970s; had sophisticated its techniques. With no mass movement in the Catholic areas to provide cover or recruits, the IRA campaign could be contained with relative ease.
Worse, the “Ulsterisation” of the security forces, a policy begun in the late 1970s when the state wanted to give the impression of a return to “normality” meant that the British army was a less available military target. It also meant that, whether they liked it or not, the IRA’s campaign more and more was targeting Protestants, those in the RUC and RIR, or those who built their bases and supplied them. It was increasingly a campaign against local Protestants not against British soldiers.
To escalate meant to kill more Protestants. One event brought this home in a particular forcible and brutal manner. This was the no warning bomb at a Remembrance Day service in the centre of Enniskillen which killed eleven people. Republican leaders subsequently issued ringing condemnations of the atrocity carried out by the Real IRA in Omagh just over a decade later. In some ways the Enniskillen attack was even worse.
There may be some confusion about whether the Real IRA intended to give a proper warning in Omagh. This is no consolation to the victims and offers no excuse for what they did, but in Enniskillen there was deliberately no warning, the idea was to kill as many people as possible. Moreover, whereas Omagh was indiscriminate, the nature of the target in Enniskillen meant that only Protestants would be killed. To proceed with a military campaign of this character would be to declare war on the entire Protestant community.
A big section of the republican leadership recoiled from Enniskillen. It was a turning point emphasising the move away from military activity and was a decisive milestone on the road to a ceasefire. Within weeks of the attack Gerry Adams commented: “There is no military solution, none whatsoever. Military solutions by either of the two main protagonists only mean more tragedies. There can only be a political solution.” Hot Press December 1987
The republican leadership may have publicly dismissed the Anglo Irish Agreement as more of the same: another deal on repression. Privately the agreement had knocked them ideologically off course. The British government’s willingness to do a deal with the Dublin government behind the backs of the unionists raised a question mark over the republican view that the basis of the whole conflict was Britain’s imperialist interest in holding the north.
At this time the “go it alone” ethos of Sinn Fein was also under question. With every aspect of their strategy pointing to a dead end, to stalemate and – in the sense that change had not been achieved – to defeat, the leadership began to cast around for allies. The Hume-Adams dialogue, which began in 1988, arose from this and initially centred around a debate on Britain’s role and therefore on the real basis of the conflict.
Hume’s position, that the British government would be prepared to withdraw and that the task was to win a majority in the north to this position, was much closer to reality than that of Adams. He held to the traditional republican view that Britain was determined to maintain their grip on the north for economic and strategic reasons and that the Protestants were being deliberately whipped up to provide a local basis of support for British policy.
The view was set out in a document. “Towards a Strategy for Peace” that Sinn Fein presented to the SDLP at the outset of the talks in January 1988. This stated bluntly: “The claim that Britain is neutral ignores their role as a pawnbroker and guarantor of Unionist hegemony. It ignores the basic political fact of life that Unionist hegemony was created by the British, to maintain direct control over a part of Ireland and a major influence over the rest of it. Britain’s continuing involvement in Ireland is based on strategic, economic and political interests.” (Our emphasis)
This was still the main line of thought of the republican leadership. It was a line of thinking that was increasingly obviously at odds with actual developments. Behind the public restatement of old lines of argument the theoretical roots from which these arguments stemmed had already begun to loosen.
On the issue of Britain’s real policy objectives Hume won the theoretical argument and could report positively to the two governments that it might be possible to bring about a substantial shift in the position of the republican movement. The British government were able to interpret Hume’s arguments and also the feelers that at the time were being sent out by the republican leadership from a position of relative strength.
The violence had not been halted but was close to the “acceptable level” talked of by Home Secretary Reginald Maudling at the start of the 1970s. The Republican movement were effectively checked on all fronts, and its leadership were clearly forced into a revaluation of both ideas and strategy.
Changes in loyalism
Among loyalists a certain rethink was also taking place. This was significant given that these organisations drew the bulk of their recruits from the most backward lumpenised and semi lumpenised layers of the Protestant population. They no longer had the mass base of support that drew thousands to the UDA and local “defence” organisations in the early 1970s. Much of their activity involved racketeering and gangsterism. The UDA, and at least some within the UVF, were heavily involved in drugs.
Loyalist violence stemmed from various sources. Some of those involved were motivated by pure bigotry, by the growing sense of Protestant insecurity and by a desire to hit back against Catholics. Others saw the violence as a part of a military strategy of counter terrorism. The idea was to terrorise the entire Catholic community by responding to IRA attacks with random assassinations. Eventually, or so it was reasoned, this would drive Catholics to put pressure on the IRA to stop.
Another strand of loyalist violence was the targeting of individual republicans. There is no question that this policy of selective assassinations was encouraged and assisted by the state. At what level of the state apparatus the decision to pass intelligence on republicans to loyalists was taken we do not know for sure. What is beyond question is that there was collusion; that the loyalist paramilitaries were used to supply one of the fingers of the vice like grip that the state placed on republicanism
Yet even within this milieu more sophisticated ideas, even class ideas, began to emerge. In the prisons there had been ongoing discussion since the early 1980s about whether their military campaigns should be continued. This was especially the case with UVF prisoners some of whom had come to realise that there could be no going back to the days of Protestant hegemony and who were no longer prepared to act as foot soldiers and working class cannon fodder for middle class politicians.
The idea that working class loyalism would need to emulate republicanism and create its own political voice was being considered. Even within sections of the UDA there were signs that a rethink was taking place.
The protracted nature of the Troubles, the increasing alienation of Catholics from the state and then the blow delivered by Thatcher in the form of the Anglo Irish Agreement, caused even militarists like UFF commander John McMichael to look towards a political solution. In 1987 the UDA produced a document entitled “Common Sense” which went further in accepting the need for change than either of the main unionist parties was prepared to go.
“Common Sense” rejected straightforward majority rule and argued for a convoluted form of power sharing. It accepted that “we live in a deeply divided society with a large disgruntled and separatist minority which is not going to disappear nor be wished away” and argued that the answer is to find ways of ensuring that “Ulster Catholics will not continue to be “alienated” nor “excluded from playing a full role in the affairs of Northern Ireland.”
All these factors combined to bring about a major change in strategy on the part of the British ruling class. On the one hand they were in a stronger position than at any time since the start of the Troubles. The violence was fundamentally contained. However a “solution” was no closer. Every attempt at an initiative to break the political deadlock had failed. Sunningdale, the Convention and the new attempt at an Assembly in the 1980s had all been swept into the dustbin of political failures. The Anglo Irish Agreement was stillborn and un-implementable.
Now the signs of a rethink on the part of republicans offered the possibility of a different approach. The fact that some of the loyalists were also prepared to contemplate change raised the possibility of negotiations that would be doubly inclusive, bringing not only the IRA but also the UDA and UVF leaderships in from the cold.
So there was the beginning of a step-by-step abandonment of the concession- repression strategy that had been in place since the early 1970s. For the first time since the failed attempt to negotiate with the IRA in 1972 – apart that is from the more half hearted efforts by Merlyn Rees to negotiate with republicans through the “incident centres” that had been set up in the Catholic areas in 1975 – the ruling class began to embrace the idea that the republican movement might now be prepared to sign up to a deal far short of what they had originally been demanding.
From “exclusion” the ruling class moved to the strategy of “inclusion” that was to dominate politics for the next decade. The British government set out to tempt and entice the republican leadership onto a purely constitutional road. In 1990 British Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, said that it was “difficult to envisage a military defeat of the IRA”.
Then, in a carefully crafted speech given in his Conservative constituency association at Westminster, but really addressed to the IRA leadership, he rebutted, for the sake of this leadership, the points they had argued to the SDLP in their 1988 document: “The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interests in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain’s purpose, as I have sought to describe it, is not to occupy, oppress or exploit, but to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice. That is our way.”
Students of the rapacious and bloody history of the British ruling class would justifiably wince at the idea that ensuring “democratic debate and free democratic choice” was ever the way that class pursued its colonial interests. However what Brooke said was at least part true. More accurately he might have said that the selfish, strategic and economic interests that always underline the policy of the ruling class were, at this time, best served by withdrawing from Ireland with the hope that they could continue to dominate this, their oldest colony, by economic means.
That was as things stood at the time and this reasoning was then accepted in full by the SDLP and eventually was to be accepted in practice by the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership. However in swallowing this line of argument they leaned from one incorrect position to another, from the “war” against Britain’s “imperialist” interests to reliance on Britain to implement their declared wish to withdraw and to push the Protestants into a united Ireland.
The fact that the British ruling class for an historical period preferred the option of withdrawal does not mean that this could ever become the active policy of any British government. Withdrawal suited their interests, but only in the abstract. Protestant opposition and the threat of civil war meant that any steps to put it into effect would threaten their interests.
Nor is a policy that generally reflects the view of the main sections of the ruling class fixed and for all time. As things change and as crises develop cracks and divisions tend to open up in ruling circles. What seemed to be in their interests under one set of circumstances may no longer seem so and attitudes can change.
During the 1960s the British ruling class favoured getting rid of the Falkland Islands and actually opened negotiations with Argentina over the terms of an eventual handover. While giving public guarantees to the 2000 Islanders that there would be no sovereignty transfer against their wishes, the Foreign Office was privately bemoaning their “fossilised attitudes” and trying to work out a way of getting rid of them.
Yet fourteen years later, with Thatcher in charge, and with British prestige wounded by the Argentine invasion, the government went to war with Argentina supposedly to “safeguard the rights and uphold the wishes” of this “fossilised” community.
The British ruling class were also reasonably united in support of the ultimate idea of withdrawal from Northern Ireland during the 1960s. But any serious move to implement this today would reopen old divisions. There is a unionist wing of the establishment that, while it is not particularly concerned with keeping hold of Northern Ireland, is extremely concerned that allowing it to split away through a referendum would provide a huge fillip for nationalism in Scotland – and perhaps later in Wales – and might speed the complete disintegration of the United Kingdom.
Brooke was not declaring that Britain would withdraw. His message to republicans was simply that it is not us who are the obstacle to a united Ireland, it is the million Protestants – and if you want progress you will have to convince them not us. A myth has been built around this statement – and the subsequent peace process – that it was the IRA campaign that brought the ruling class to this position. Many supporters of the mid nineties IRA ceasefire still argue that the IRA campaign was justified in its time but, having shifted Britain, there is no need for it now.
In fact what Brooke said represented no change on the position of the ruling class over more than twenty years. The idea of withdrawal had been an aspiration that the ruling class had long recognised could not be put into practice. Brooke merely stated that, provided the conditions existed that would allow withdrawal, his government would do so. The only difference by the time he made this speech was that these conditions were even more remote than they had been before the start of the Troubles.
1990-1997 The peace process
Sinn Fein shifts to the right
The changed world situation after 1990 gave all these processes a further impetus. The collapse of Stalinism was followed by the display of US military might in the Gulf war. This was the “new world order” in which one world superpower appeared absolutely dominant.
In the previous era national liberation movements – and groups like the Provisionals – felt that the dominant conflict between the two superpowers gave them a certain space in which to manoeuvre. Now, in the uni-polar world created by the process of capitalist restoration in the former Stalinist states, they felt this space contract.
The feeling that there was little choice but to do Washington’s bidding was an important factor in the Middle East. It influenced those Palestinian groups who had previously leaned to Moscow. Their leaderships began to buckle to US pressure and shifted more and more to the idea of a negotiated settlement brokered by the US. The same pressure bore down on the republican movement. It confirmed and reinforced the drift to the right that was already underway, especially at the top.
The republican leadership had already abandoned the “go it alone” stance of the first decade and a half of the Troubles. The talks with the SDLP were aimed at creating a broad nationalist bloc that could put pressure on the British government. Beyond the SDLP they were trying to court favour with the southern political establishment for the same ends. Sinn Fein’s initial response to Hume suggested: “That Sinn Fein and the SDLP join forces to impress on the Dublin government the need to launch an international and diplomatic offensive to secure national self determination.”
Ultimately they reacted to the fact of one dominant world power by striving to bring the weight of that power on “their side”. Elements within the US establishment encouraged this trend. Over a period of years Sinn Fein leaders were shown the benefits of doors opening onto the Washington gravy train.
They were courted by prominent US business men, people like Bill Flynn, Chairman of a multi million dollar insurance corporation and Chuck Feeney, a billionaire who had build a fortune out of the airport duty free business. The Sinn Fein leaders quickly accepted the overtures and, as the political path from Connolly House to Capitol Hill became well worn, they ended, not just accepting US involvement, but encouraging and praising its “positive contribution”.
The fact that an organisation, nominally conducting a struggle against “Imperialism” could try to enlist the “benign” intervention of the greatest Imperialist power on earth indicated the ideological shallowness of the republican leadership and confirmed their rapid evolution to the right. Any references Adams or other leaders might make to “anti-Imperialism” or to a “national liberation struggle” were starkly and obviously at odds with the new pragmatic course they were on.
The final missing piece that would complete this ideological change would be Sinn Fein’s acceptance that Britain was prepared to withdraw. If the British government could also be brought “on side” there would only be one obstacle to be broken to bring about a united Ireland – the resistance of the Protestants.
If Westminster could potentially become an ally and if the real enemy are identified as the people they formerly dismissed as the “dupes” of Westminster the basis of the conflict becomes very different. Sinn Fein’s evolution along these lines over the course of the 1990s is fundamental to understanding how the nature of the Troubles changed during this period.
The initial round of discussions between Hume and Adams stalled over how Irish self-determination could be exercised. Sinn Fein still refused to accept the idea of consent by the people of Northern Ireland before there could be any constitutional change. Nor had they fully come round to the view that the British, but for Protestant opposition, would prefer to withdraw or that this had in fact been the case since before the current IRA campaign even began. Their reluctance to quickly draw these conclusions is not surprising since to do so meant to destroy the entire ideological foundation on which the republican movement had been built since the split in 1969.
The contacts with the SDLP were maintained. So were the secret explorative conduits that had been set up with intermediaries acting on behalf of the British Government. From their point the British were by now seriously probing the possibility that the IRA might declare a ceasefire. The Irish government, tutored by Hume, were also looking in this direction. A big section of the loyalist paramilitary leadership were also prepared to explore the possibility that a permanent IRA ceasefire could be delivered and that this might open the prospect of a negotiated settlement.
The greatest hesitancy was on the unionist side, especially – and predictably – from the DUP. But things had moved on from 1985 when the rage of Protestants at the Anglo Irish Agreement had briefly united the leaders of the two main unionist parties in opposition. The Agreement remained, albeit only on paper.
Flowing from the Agreement the Tory government at Westminster introduced changes, such as the Public Order Act and the repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act: both looked on as concessions to nationalists. A section of the UUP leadership concluded that if they did not make some concession to try to get a deal that would “secure the Union”, they would end up having a less favourable deal imposed upon them.
In 1992 the Major government made one last attempt to come up with a settlement through talks that did not include Sinn Fein. The Brooke-Mayhew talks involved the UUP, DUP, SDLP and Alliance Party. The loyalist paramilitaries responded with an undeclared ceasefire to provide space for negotiations.
On the agenda were the same proposals, in outline form, that would provide the framework for the discussions that eventually led up to the Good Friday Agreement. But in the absence of Sinn Fein – or of an IRA ceasefire – it was a little bit like Hamlet without the prince. The talks eventually broke down, leaving the ruling class with only one option – “inclusion” not “exclusion”.
At the top, among the governments, the political parties and the paramilitary leaderships, the main leaning was now to a “peace process” that would involve Sinn Fein as well as the loyalist paramilitaries. The precondition had to be a ceasefire by the IRA and by loyalists. For the first time since the start of the Troubles there was a possibility that both could be achieved. Contacts between the British and Irish governments and the various paramilitary organisations were aimed at preparing the ground for ceasefires and inclusive talks.
Role of the working class
But a change in attitudes at the top of society, among government ministers or in the leaderships of the political parties would not in itself create the conditions for ceasefires and talks. More fundamental was what was taking place within society and, most importantly, within the working class. In fact there were two contradictory processes at work. One was in the direction of sectarian polarisation and conflict. The other was towards accommodation and peace.
Twenty years of conflict had greatly deepened the sectarian division. The tendency towards new integrated housing that had existed in the 1960s had been thrown into sharp reverse. By the 1990s most people lived in areas that were almost entirely Protestant or Catholic. The working class areas were the most polarised.
The sectarian division was not only physical. Years of upheaval had profoundly affected attitudes. The IRA campaign had left a deep mark on the Protestant population. The Protestant sense of insecurity that had emerged with the Anglo Irish Agreement had deepened. Demographic changes that had been underway for some time were now clearly altering the sectarian balance in favour of Catholics. The idea of a Protestant State for a Protestant people was gone and gone for good. Instead there was a growing feeling of uncertainty and a sense that the Protestants were becoming an embunkered minority.
In this climate of growing insecurity the loyalist paramilitaries were able to recruit a new layer of working class youth. Although the sectarian excesses of the paramilitaries repelled most Protestants, in the more polarised atmosphere there was a greater acceptance of their existence than at any previous time. Working class Protestants would commonly talk – for the first time – about “our paramilitaries”.
Catholics emerged from twenty years of repression, from the trauma of the hunger strikes and from the sectarian murder campaigns of the UDA, and UVF, with a much-deepened sense of alienation from the state. Virtually the whole weight of the conflict had fallen on the working class areas and it was here that the sense of alienation was greatest.
Sinn Fein was the main beneficiary. In the absence of a sustained class movement, either locally or internationally. To provide an alternative reference point, it was the nationalist ideas of Sinn Fein that became the dominant ideas in the main Catholic working class areas.
The one common factor underlying the anger, insecurity and alienation in working class areas was the poverty that affected both Protestants and Catholics alike. This poverty could have provided the foundation for a united class movement that could have cut across sectarianism and would have had a profound effect on consciousness. The basis for such a movement existed throughout the Troubles, even during the worst years of conflict.
Despite the increased polarisation the workplaces, in the main, remained mixed. The trade unions, with only a few exceptions, united Catholics and Protestants in membership. During the 1970s, when we were virtually a lone voice on the left in defending the idea of working class unity, we pointed to the fact that strikes almost invariably brought Catholics and Protestants out together and that no strike had been broken by sectarianism.
The opportunity to develop this embryonic class unity into a powerful mass movement against sectarianism, and also into a political instrument to challenge the right wing and sectarian parties, had always been there. There had been times when very favourable opportunities to do this had opened – as in the mid 1970s on the back of the Better Life For All Campaign or in the early 1980s on the back of the big public sector strikes in the north and of the class battles against Thatcher in Britain.
That these opportunities were missed was down to lack of leadership, more precisely to the fact that the leaders of the Northern Ireland Labour Party capitulated to sectarianism and to the criminal role played by the trade union leadership in holding back struggles. As a result, while working class resistance acted as a permanent brake on sectarianism, it was only a partial brake and the fundamental tendency over the two decades to 1990 was to the reinforcement of the sectarian division and a corresponding decline in class-consciousness.
During the last half of the 1980s there had been a falling back of the class struggle internationally. This was particularly pronounced in Britain where the defeat of the miners was followed by a series of other defeats. The one exception was the magnificent struggle against the Poll Tax which eventually saw off Thatcher.
But even this did not prevent the erosion of a big part of the layer of shop stewards who in the past had been able to organise struggles with some degree of independence from the trade union bureaucracy. Nor did it prevent the shift to the right in the Labour Party and its transformation from a working class party, albeit with a bourgeois leadership, into an openly bourgeois party, a process similar to that which was taking place with social democracy internationally.
The health strikes and movements of other public sector workers at the start of the 1980s were a highpoint of class struggle not to be reached at any time again during the following two decades. Workers on both sides of the sectarian divide gave massive support to the miners in the epic battle of 1984-5. But there were no miners in Northern Ireland. The strike had an impact, but from a distance.
Even Thatcher had understood that the Poll Tax would be un-collectable in Northern Ireland and had made no attempt to introduce it. So the massive non-payment campaign, which would certainly have united Protestant and Catholic working class communities with important and lasting repercussions, did not reach across the Irish Sea.
Then came the collapse of Stalinism. This cast a long ideological shadow over much of the following decade. The ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites allowed the ideologues of capitalism to proclaim that “socialism” not Stalinism had failed, that the market was the only possible system and, in this sense, that it marked the “end of history”.
The decline in class struggle and fall in class-consciousness had the negative effect of strengthening sectarianism in the north. The general law – that in periods of heightened class struggle the working class in the north, because of the sharpened political and social conditions, can move quicker and draw far reaching conclusions more readily, whereas in periods of ebb in the class struggle this retreat can be more pronounced because of the added pressure of sectarianism – revealed itself at this time, and revealed itself even more forcefully at the end of the decade.
All of this pointed to greater polarisation and to huge obstacles in the way of those representatives of the establishment and those political and paramilitary leaders who wanted to put together a peace process. Had the mood in the working class areas been uniformly for confrontation the pressure from the governments and the politicians for peace would have likely come to nothing. But against the tendency to division there was a countervailing tendency against sectarianism and against a continuation of the violence.
The former arose from two decades of conflict and from the inability of the working class to show a way out. The latter also arose from the conflict, but from a growing weariness at what, by now, most people regarded as the futile campaigns of the paramilitaries on both sides. Even many of those with strong leanings to loyalism or to republicanism saw that the violence as a dead end. The Troubles appeared to have reached stalemate point. For either side to break this would have required a huge military escalation. This would inevitable provoke a sectarian response and, unchecked, a wider sectarian conflict could develop.
From the other side of Europe the spectacle of unfolding civil war provided a sobering backcloth. The collapse of Stalinism was very quickly followed by the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the bloody re-Balkanisation of the Balkans. The secession of Croatia and Slovenia altered the ethnic balance with Yugoslavia, led to greater Serbian dominance of what was left and inevitably triggered the horror that was to follow in Bosnia. These events provided a graphic illustration of what escalation towards civil war would mean and gave an added impetus to the peace process.
Despite the setbacks, despite the decline in activity and in struggle, the working class had not been decisively defeated. The stubborn resistance of the working class, even if it was most often a passive resistance, was still a powerful factor preventing a slide to civil war.
This was shown in 1992 and again in 1993 when the workers took to the streets, answering trade union calls for protests against sectarian killings. These events provided a not to be forgotten example of the importance of the subjective factor; the key role that a revolutionary party that has points of support within the working class can play at decisive moments.
When the IRA blew up a minibus full of Protestant workers at Teebane in January 1992 we used our leading positions on Mid Ulster Trades Council to call a protest general strike against this and against the murders being carried out by the Mid Ulster UVF. The protest, called in this way, cut across the moves by loyalists to call a strike of Protestants that would have divided the workers in the area.
It also applied pressure on the trade unions who were compelled to call a huge demonstration demanding a halt to all killings in Belfast. It was our initiative and pressure that succeeded in forcing the unions to answer the UDA murder of five Catholics in the Sean Graham bookies on Belfast’s Ormeau Road with protest action that briefly united Protestant and Catholics in this area.
There was an intense flare up of sectarian killings, atrocities and counter atrocities in October 1993. An IRA bomb in a fishmonger’s shop on the Shankill Road – justified by the thin excuse that the UDA/UFF met in an upstairs room – killed ten people. The UDA’s response was the Greysteel massacre, the killing of seven people in a County Derry bar. In all 37 people died in October, the highest death toll in a single month since October 1976.
The trade unions responded – under rank and file pressure – with a massive lunchtime demonstration of around 75,000 in Belfast city centre. This was a key event in cutting across the bigots and providing space for a peace process.
Towards the ceasefires
The Sinn Fein leadership had, by this time, shifted ground significantly. Their 1992 document “Towards a Lasting Peace In Ireland” moved beyond the idea of a nationalist bloc to pressurise the British Government.
Significantly it put the responsibility to achieve progress on the British and Irish governments and called on the British to “join the persuaders”. It was a distinct nod in the direction of the Hume analysis that the people to be convinced were the Protestants, not the British.
In October 1993 John Hume and Gerry Adams issued a joint statement setting out the progress towards agreement they had made in their resumed discussions. This included a fudge on the previous republican position that “self determination” must be on an all Ireland basis, in other words that the Protestants must be outvoted into a united Ireland. It proposed all Ireland self-determination, but conceded that the way this would be exercised was a matter to be negotiated by people in Ireland. In practice this was a blurred acceptance of the idea of separate consent by the people of the north.
Two months later the British Government responded with the Downing Street Declaration which said that they would “encourage, facilitate and enable”, not “persuade”, but which, nonetheless, was aimed at encouraging republicans to take a purely political road. Eight months later in August 1994 the IRA, although they had formally rejected the Declaration, declared an open ended ceasefire stating, as they did so, that “A solution will only be found as a result of inclusive negotiations” and that “others, not least the British government, have a duty to face up to their responsibilities.”
The loyalists followed suit in October, the UDA and UVF combining briefly as the Combined Loyalist Military Command to declare an end to their campaigns on the basis that the IRA ceasefire would remain intact. Within both the IRA and the loyalist groups there were dissidents who wanted to maintain the “war” but they were relatively isolated for now.
The ceasefires did not mean a complete end to paramilitary activity. Punishment beatings, in particular, continued. But this was more about the efforts of the paramilitaries to control their own areas than a continuation of what had gone on before. By and large the IRA campaign against the state came to a complete halt, as did the loyalist sectarian assassination campaign.
All this did not mean reconciliation or a sinking of differences. The IRA called off its campaign with celebrations and a statement noting the “many gains and advances made by nationalists” while the loyalists ended theirs with a straightforward declaration that “the union is safe”. Both could not be right and the testing of which was the more accurate position pointed to future conflict, not to lasting peace.
Paradoxically the ceasefires and the prospect of negotiations also added to the insecurity and were potentially a destabilising factor. True, the old certainties felt by Protestants that the state was on their side against the IRA and in defence of the union had been breaking down for some time before this.
Now, with the IRA campaign over, with the British government clearly making overtures to bring republicans fully into the world of establishment politics, and with the likelihood of talks in which all issues including a united Ireland would apparently be on the table, the Protestant sense of foreboding was reinforced. Talks that were nothing more than a constitutional tug of war between unionism and nationalism could only have the effect of deepening the sectarian polarisation.
An opportunity missed
This could have been avoided – but only if some alternative could be put forward. The ceasefires also brought a tangible sense of relief. Among the mass of people there was a hope that the Troubles might at last be over. The fact that the killings had – more or less – come to an end was a real benefit. Working class people and young people who had stayed in their own areas were more prepared to go out and socialise together. There was the possibility that from this greater openness the sectarian barriers might start to be broken down from below.
The greater openness extended beyond social life. For a period there was a thirst from people on both sides of the divide for new ideas and for a new political direction. The emergence of the Progressive Unionist Party – because it appeared as the articulate voice of working class unionism and because its spokespersons were prepared to consider ideas that the fur coat brigade would not contemplate – came as a breath of fresh air to many, including to quite a number of Catholics.
Later there was the formation of the Women’s Coalition and the Labour Coalition. Although small the initial interest shown in both indicated that the basis existed for an alternative to the old sectarian parties. For these openings to develop into a real challenge to the major parties and to sectarian politics in general would have required a broader initiative from the trade union movement to build a new working class party.
There was no prospect of such a move from the trade union leadership. Across Europe and beyond the general tendency at the tops of the unions was to the right, towards an increasing incorporation into the state. To reverse this would require new struggles and the forging of a new generation of activists to challenge the leadership. The lingering effects of the collapse of Stalinism, and of past defeats together with the ongoing world economic boom meant this perspective was delayed for a period.
In Northern Ireland the integration of the unions into the state went further than in most countries. Throughout the 1990s the trade union leadership failed utterly to play any independent role. Even the huge mobilisations against the killings that were forced on them by rank and file pressure were called in conjunction with the churches and with the employers.
The Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU was becoming an invisible component of a bloc forged between themselves, business organisations, the voluntary sector and the churches, all in the name of “civic society”. Beyond this the connections that had existed for some time between at least some of the union leadership and the security apparatus of the state were maintained. The mantra of the bureaucracy was “partnership” – partnership on the sectarian issues, on social issues but beyond this partnership deals with employers in the workplaces.
The downturn in the class struggle and the wearing away of the activist layer within union branches and the workplaces allowed the union leaders to get away with this naked class collaborationism. Cause then became effect and the role of the bureaucracy further disillusioned the ranks and dampened the mood for struggle.
The broader initiatives needed to build on the openings brought by the ceasefires would not come from the tops of the movement. A class challenge capable of cutting across the sectarian polarisation would have to come from below, from the workplaces and from the working class communities. The objective conditions for such a movement did not exist at this time, neither locally nor internationally.
The long road to talks
After the ceasefires the peace process took an exceptionally tortuous route. This was due to many factors but the underlying reason was the time lag in the class struggle. The initial impetus had come from the working class. But, with no leadership to build on this, the initiative was handed back to the sectarian parties and to the right wing governments in Dublin and London.
The ceasefires did not lead to negotiations but to three years of obstinate procrastination in which the various parties manoeuvred for position before Sinn Fein were included. From the word go the British government put forward a series of delaying measures. First they wanted the IRA to declare the ceasefire “permanent” – then they made the question of decommissioning a precondition of Sinn Fein involvement.
These delaying tactics may have been to assure the unionists, or it could have been that the British establishment had calculated that Sinn Fein was now on a constitutional hook from which they would be unable to wriggle free and that they therefore could be cut down to size before the door to talks was opened. In some part it was also a legacy of British history for, while the sun had long set on the empire, the shadow of the past lingered in the form of the imperial arrogance that was displayed by the Tories and their aristocratic Secretary of State, Patrick Mayhew. Whatever the reason the effect was to draw out and complicate the process.
On February 4th 1996 IRA exasperation at the delays and the shifting goalposts was loudly expressed with the bombing of Canary Wharf in London. The main effect of this attack was to demonstrate that, despite the lack of progress, the mood in the north was still strongly behind the peace process. The attack took place on a Friday. The following day we went on the streets with leaflets and with the slogan “No going back”.
The response was overwhelming. We launched the “No going back” campaign and organised further demonstrations. The slogan entirely coincided with the mood. Whatever the problems with the peace process a return to the conflict that people had hoped had come to an end in 1994 was unthinkable to the vast majority of people.
We linked the slogan to our criticism of the sectarian politicians and our call for an initiative by the trade unions and community organisations to make sure the voice of the working class was heard in the peace process. This was sympathetically received but the main mood at the time was that preconditions to talks should be dropped and pressure should be put on the politicians to “sort things out”.
Once again, under the pressure of demonstrations that we had initiated, the trade union leaders – hand in hand with their “social partners”- called a massive demonstration in Belfast City Centre. If there had been a danger that Canary Wharf would have been followed by a sustained campaign and that the loyalists would have retaliated it was this mass demonstration of opposition that blocked that particular road. Those who were in favour of a return to sectarian military activity were left in no doubt that they would be met with ferocious opposition from the working class and would risk isolation.
Action by the working class reopened the way to negotiations. But the hurdles that had been constructed by the Government had to be overcome. So the Entry to Negotiations Act, with its complicated scheme of elections to a Forum, which in turn would elect the delegates to the talks, had to be rushed through. The British also accepted the Mitchell Report on arms decommissioning, and began to soften their stance on actual decommissioning before negotiations.
Elections to the Forum were held in time for a June date set by the governments for the start of the talks. Still, for another year, the “all party talks” were of all parties except Sinn Fein. It took another IRA ceasefire and government pressure on the UUP before Sinn Fein was allowed in. The change of strategy, from “exclusion” to “inclusion”, a change that had first been considered in the aftermath of the Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985, had taken a decade to put fully into effect.
Good Friday Agreement
With the involvement of Sinn Fein alongside the other major parties, and with the outlines of an agreement having already been drawn in the Framework Document drafted by the two governments, the way was opened to a possible deal. Despite this it took a year and a half of walkouts, exclusions, obstruction, filibustering and eleventh and three quarter hour compromises before the Good Friday Agreement was eventually put together.
The deal was signed in a fanfare of press euphoria. It was declared an “historic breakthrough” that would create the conditions for a peaceful future. Sinn Fein signed it without endorsing it, but only to give them time to convince the republican rank and file that this was a good deal and, to use a now standard Sinn Fein cliché, that it “contained the dynamic to bring about an end to partition”.
More significant was the unionist opposition, not so much the predictable opposition from the DUP, but the reservations of a big section of Trimble’s UUP who chose to concentrate their fire on the issues of prisoner releases and decommissioning.
We took a very different position. We explained that the Agreement would not bring about a solution. In fact very little had been agreed. Issues like policing, parades and decommissioning had been fudged; left over for future negotiation and future conflict.
The sectarian parties were dominant around the negotiating table had used the talks to put their case to their supporters so as to build support and consolidate their base. In the absence of any alternative this inevitably meant that the drawn out process of negotiation had left society, especially those living in the working class communities, more divided than before.
This was an agreement at the top only. It was a pact between sectarians to keep working class people divided. The real problem was and is the division within society and especially within the working class. Far from pointing to this being overcome the underlying premise of the Agreement was that this division was permanent, that people would always be either unionist or nationalist – in other words that there would never be a solution.
The Agreement proposed an Assembly in which key decisions would require a majority of both unionist and nationalist members before they would stand. It proposed a power-sharing Executive to be made up of the main unionist and nationalist parties. In short it institutionalised sectarianism.
This convoluted arrangement could not work in the long run. It was an inbuilt recipe for paralysis. It was also fundamentally undemocratic – no matter what parties people voted for there could only be one government, a unionist/nationalist coalition. For fifty years there had been a one party unionist state. Now again there was to be only one choice of government, a “one coalition” state with the same parties permanently in power.
We explained all this at the time. Nonetheless we argued for a “yes” vote in the referendum that quickly followed. We did so, not to sow illusions in the Agreement, but because a “no” vote would have strengthened the camp of sectarian reaction and would have put the peace process in jeopardy. The key was not support for the arguments of either side but was to build an alternative to right wing and sectarian politics.
The difference between an unworkable agreement but a continuation of the peace process and no agreement and the possibility of an immediate return to conflict may only have been a matter of timing. In both cases the end would be breakdown and conflict but in one case this would come later, possibly much later, than the other.
Although secondary this was still a crucial difference in that what the working class movement needed at this moment was precisely more time to build an alternative that could challenge both sectarian camps and, in doing so, could cement a real peace process based on the unity, rather than the division, of the working class.
An Assembly and an Executive with the four major parties sharing power would also throw a spotlight on their policies. So long as they held no responsibility these parties could concentrate on their sectarian agendas, and at the same time occasionally rail against the economic policies of Westminster. Giving them responsibility for local services would make it much easier to expose the Blairite neo liberal agenda common to them all.
The issue that most clearly revealed the real nature of these parties was the long running dispute over payments to term time workers in education, a dispute that had been initiated and was led by Socialist Party members. With Martin McGuinness the Minister in charge of Education this dispute was a severe embarrassment to Sinn Fein. Our activity on low pay was also a thorn in the side of the Executive, especially when we were able to get a motion backing our £5 call through the Assembly.
Bairbre De Brun, as Health Minister, soon ended up presiding over a severe crisis in health care with waiting lists at record levels, regular photos in the press of patients on trolleys, closures of acute services in local hospitals and severe budget limits imposed on Health Trusts. De Brun, McGuinness, along with all their “colleagues” in the Executive embraced the Private Finance Initiative and other steps towards the privatisation of public services.
This does not mean that the working class completely saw through these parties. We have had examples of what would happen if the Executive survived for an extended period and if there was a general development of the class struggle. Instead during the Assembly’s first years the class struggle was still at a low level.
In Britain the Blair government was able to go through it’s first term without significant resistance to its pro market policies from the working class. A key factor in this was the rotten role of the union leaders who acted as a prop to Blair and concentrated their energies on preventing opposition to the government among their membership over spilling into action. The trade union leadership in the north played a similar role in relation to the Assembly.
They also maintained their course towards invisibility and – as far as the mass of the working class were concerned – to complete irrelevance on everything to do with the conflict. They further cemented their relationship with their “social partners”: the business organisations and the churches.
In 1997 George Quigley, then Chairman of the Ulster Bank, took the initiative to set up an organisation linking the unions with these forces. They chose a somewhat ironic title -G7 – especially in light of the anti capitalist demonstrations that were to follow. From then on the public position of the unions to the upheavals over parades and other contentious questions was most often in the name of G7 and consequently went unheard among the working class.
The inability of the working class to challenge and reverse the polarisation on the ground or to register alternative ideas to those of nationalism and unionism negatively shaped the future course of events. For working class people the final phase of the talks and the on/off functioning of the Assembly that followed was a period of disappointed hopes.
No peace dividend
In the early stages, as the peace process was being put together, the idea that there would be a substantial peace dividend, that US dollars would flood in, even that there would be a mini Marshall Plan to underwrite the peace, were all encouraged. There were big illusions that the money from the US, the European Union and the International Fund for Ireland, would make a substantial difference to the lives of ordinary people. As with the similar illusions that existed in the Middle East at the time of the Oslo agreement in 1993, these hopes have been dashed.
There was economic growth during the 1990s. But, as was the case internationally, the effects of this growth were lopsided. Inequality increased. For the working class the boom plus weakened resistance on the part of the unions meant greater exploitation, a worsening of conditions in the workplaces and the extension of part time work and of dead end, low paid “yellow pack” jobs.
Nonetheless there was real growth and, although unevenly distributed, there was a rise in real living standards. Average GDP growth over the decade was 3%. Over the same period nominal GDP per head increased by 70%. These were important factors underpinning the peace process. Growth and even modest improvements in living standards for a layer of the working class did provide a certain underlying stability.
But the growth was due to the boom then taking place in world capitalism, especially in the US. The fact of a peace process had, at best, a marginal effect. Money from Europe and the US did help sustain jobs in the community sector where most community organisations were transformed into semi NGOs, with organisers financed out of state grants and by “peace” money. These effects were completely secondary to the overall impact of the global upturn.
This was seen in manufacturing. During the last five years of the decade growth in manufacturing output exceeded that of Britain. This was not the “peace” effect but was due to the extension of the world boom, especially in the high tech sector. Output in the Electrical and Optical equipment sector rose by 229% over this period – as compared to a rise of 41% in this sector in Britain.
In examining figures such as this it has to be borne in mind that in a small economy; and therefore a small statistical base, growth in one or two companies can have a marked impact on the overall figures. Other sectors also expanded during this period but none came close to this figure. The only sector to experience a decline during the boom was Leather, Textiles and Textile products where output fell by 16%.
While manufacturing output grew the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector actually fell. In the ten years to 2000 the total workforce grew in size by 16.7%. Yet the number of manufacturing jobs fell by 3.3 % over the same period. The increase in output was due to an increase in exploitation not any real expansion of the manufacturing base. Productivity rose significantly, in fact at a faster rate than Britain and it is this that explains the more rapid growth in output. Between 1995 and 1999 productivity in Northern Ireland rose by 18.4% as compared to a 2.8% rise in Britain.
In part this was down to new investment but more significantly it was due to changed work practices, extra shifts: to extra use of existing machinery and to an increase in the rate of exploitation of the existing workforce. At the end of the decade the manufacturing base was actually smaller in relation to the overall economy than at the beginning. Manufacturing output accounted for 20.1% of GDP in 1989. Ten years later this had contracted to 18.5%, this despite the extended boom in the world economy, despite the benefits that over spilled from the Celtic Tiger across the border and despite the growth in output locally.
When the Troubles began there were 160,000 people employed in manufacturing. Thirty years later, at the close of the century, the figure of 103.220 showed no recovery from the recessions of 1974 or from the devastating recession of the early 1980s which together had wiped out much of the local manufacturing base.
In the past, especially during the 1970s, the expansion of public sector jobs had partially cushioned the blow from the loss of manufacturing jobs. The 1990s was the era of neo liberalism, of the penetration of the market into the public sector through privatisation in various forms. Between 1990-2000 the total number of public sector jobs fell by 1.6%. This contraction, mainly due to privatisation, did not alter the over dependence of the economy on the public sector. Despite the fall, this sector in December 2000 still employed 201,254 people, 31.5% of the total workforce.
The main area of expansion during the decade was the service sector. An additional 90,000 service jobs were created, mainly in areas like retail, and in the “hospitality” trade, in hotels and restaurants. These were overwhelmingly low paid “yellow pack” jobs paying the minimum wage – or less – un-unionised, and in many case with even the minimal legal employment rights denied to workers. A high percentage were part time. Of the 52,320 jobs created during the “peace dividend” years, 1995-2000, more than half were part time and almost invariably low paid.
Unemployment did fall. It was down to 6.2% in April 2000. In the main this was due to the boom. It was also because government restrictions made it much harder to claim benefits and were successful in massaging the figures downwards by forcing people either into low paid jobs or else into “training schemes”. At the start of 2001 almost 23,000 people were participating in the schemes, more than half of them on the cheap labour Job Skills programme.
Living standards still lagged behind Britain at the end of the decade. In 1989 Gross Domestic Product per head had been only 74.7% of that of Britain. During the first years of the decade – before the anticipated “peace dividend” – there had been a slight catching up and by 1995 the figure had risen to 79.2%. After 1995 the trend was actually reversed and by 1999 it had fallen back to 77.5%. In April 2000 average weekly earnings in Britain were £410 while in Northern Ireland they were £40 less at £360, the lowest figure for any region of Britain.
These figures do no tell the full story. In the past lower earnings in the north had been partially offset by lower housing costs. One effect of the boom – and also of the overspill of the property boom in the south – was a significant rise in house prices. Since 1993 property prices in Northern Ireland have risen faster than any UK region apart from London and the South East.
The increase was particularly steep after 1995. In that year the average price of a home in the north was only 65% of the British average. Four years later that figure had risen to 76%. Higher housing costs meant that, despite a nominal rise in earnings, a big section of the population, especially those on lower earnings where the pay gap with Britain was greatest, were worse off in terms of actual spending power than they had been in 1989.
A new sectarian war
If people in the working class areas were disappointed that the peace process had failed to deliver any perceptible economic benefit, they were even more disappointed when it also failed to deliver either stability or peace. The ceasefires were a real benefit; the only tangible gain for working class people from the peace process.
The IRA’s campaign was ended and, as far as the majority of the leadership was concerned, was ended “permanently”. Even if there was less certainty about the ending by the loyalist paramilitaries of their sectarian counter terror campaign the fact that the assassinations were stopped for a time brought real relief to Catholic working class areas.
But paramilitary activity continued and continued in a particularly sectarian fashion. For republicans there was no longer even nominally a “war” against the state. What now developed was a struggle conducted by all the paramilitaries and the parties linked to them to achieve absolute hegemony and control over working class areas. The increase in punishment beatings and eventually in punishment shootings provides a brutal indices of how this was stepped up on both sides.
To maintain a controlling influence over a community it is necessary to do more than break arms and legs. The paramilitaries and their political acolytes had to create, as far as possible, homogeneity not just of religion but also of political outlook and of “culture” within these areas. In order to get a whole community to march to a single political and cultural beat they needed a mentality of “encirclement”, a view that those on the other side of the interfaces and “peace lines” were hostile and threatening forces.
The greater polarisation meant that it was much harder for working class people to live in mixed communities. It also meant that within the areas that now became routinely known as “nationalist” or “unionist” it was much harder for any alternative form of thought to find expression.
With these thoroughly reactionary developments the Troubles degenerated into a sectarian conflict over territory. It became a low intensity war fought not only with pipe bombs, stones and other physical weapons but also with flags and murals, and with other tools of ideological and cultural identification.
The motor of this conflict was and remains the ongoing demographic changes; that is the relative increase in the Catholic population. The population expansion creates a pressure from Catholics for housing. With existing Catholic working class areas bursting at the seams there has been an inevitable overspill into Protestant or else mixed areas.
Under different circumstance this could have led to an intermixing of the population and a breaking down of suspicions and prejudices, as happened with the development of new mixed housing in the late 1950s and 1960s. Under the highly polarised and volatile circumstances that existed in the 1990s it led to an increase in tensions and to widespread sectarian clashes.
The main effect of the Troubles and of demographic changes on the Protestant population was to further shatter whatever confidence and sense of security they had enjoyed under the old Unionist state. Protestants felt themselves becoming a demographic as well as a political minority. On this basis it was just not credible to think that a larger and ever more assertive Catholic population could be pushed back to where they were before 1968.
In the early stages of the peace process the fact that there was clearly no going back to the Stormont of old led to a greater openness and a search for new ideas among a significant section of the Protestant population. Dialectically it was working class Protestants including members and ex members of the paramilitaries, the people who had once been the stoutest and most militant defenders of the status quo who were the most willing to consider radical alternatives.
It was from this greater openness, and from the reluctance of former paramilitary prisoners to once again serve as the unthinking cannon fodder of the unionist establishment, that the Progressive Unionist Party emerged. The PUP articulated the feelings of many working class Protestants and drew support far beyond the milieu of the UVF from which they emerged.
But like many previous radical working class offshoots from unionism they occupied a half way house. They had shifted from a sectarian position and moved in the direction of socialism. To go all the way would mean breaking with the unionist bloc and standing firmly with both feet on the ground of class politics.
Had the formation of the PUP been followed by a development of the class struggle it is possible this party, or significant sections of it, would have shifted to the left and could perhaps have broken from loyalism to play a role in the creation of a new party that could unite the working class. Instead they emerged at a time when the working class were in retreat and their trade union and political leaders were moving to the right.
With no alternative pole of attraction to gravitate towards, the PUP remained a wing, albeit a critical wing, of unionism. Rather than hold to an independent position in the talks they tended, at each critical moment, to line up behind David Trimble in order to defeat the DUP.
Although key party spokespersons like David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson were able to get an attentive and even a sympathetic ear among some Catholic workers their inability to break out of the camp of unionism and loyalism meant they could not concretely build any kind of united class movement out of this. Working class unity can only be forged on the, in sectarian terms, neutral ground of the broad labour movement not in the territory either of “left unionism” or of “left republicanism”.
When the loyalist ceasefires were called the pressure from the working class for a halt largely silenced those members of the UDA and UVF who were opposed. Within both organisations there was a thoroughly reactionary core who wanted the killing campaign to continue. These people were motivated by a mix of extreme right wing ideas and by their drug dealing and racketeering.
On the one hand they were opposed to what UVF dissident, Billy Wright, denounced as the “socialist” PUP. On the other the military campaigns made it easier for them to control working class areas and make money from drugs and other illegal activities.
Even when Wright broke from the UVF and linked his rural based support with dissidents in the UDA to form the LVF the mood of the working class against killings prevented them from openly declaring a return to war. Hardliners in the UDA who opposed the Good Friday Agreement were similarly checked by this mood. The ideas of the UVF leadership as expressed through the PUP and of the pro ceasefire sections of the UDA held a tenuous grip for a further period.
But the drift of events was pulling against those trying to urge restraint. Young working class Protestants saw no improvement in their prospects for a decent job and future coming out of the peace process or the Agreement. In the absence of any struggle from the labour movement they were open to the same sectarian explanations and sectarian solutions that had motivated the previous generation.
At the time of the Agreement a small majority of Protestants had been in favour. The following three years saw this support slip away as the Assembly failed to deliver. Meanwhile the sectarian polarisation increased. All of this weakened the arguments of the pro Agreement loyalist parties.
The PUP found themselves fighting a rearguard action as hardening attitudes in key Protestant working class areas like the Shankill threatened their support. Had they previously held to a consistent class position, and not attempted an impossible mix of loyalist and socialist ideas, they would have been able to answer the doubts of working class Protestants – on the Agreement, on the peace process, on the Blairite policies of the Assembly.
Instead they had adopted an uncritical stance on the Agreement and were left to defend it in the working class areas. Their assurances that the Agreement “made the union safe”, as with their similar assurances that the “war is over”, ran against the growing sense of insecurity felt by Protestants on these issues.
The PUP’s first key electoral objective had been to capture the DUP’s base of support in working class areas. Initially they made big inroads into this support especially in East Belfast, North Belfast and on the Shankill. Their appeal, as the foot soldiers who were no longer prepared to march to the tune called by tin pot generals like Paisley and Peter Robinson, got a big echo.
But as they found themselves defending an Agreement that was not delivering anything in the working class areas, and, worse, appearing through this to be defending David Trimble and the UUP against the DUP challenge, the momentum of their political advance faltered.
In the three years following the Agreement the growing disillusionment and uncertainty felt by Protestants and most particularly felt by Protestant workers has expressed itself negatively. Its political expression has been the strengthening of the anti agreement voices within UUP and in the – at times dramatic – increase in the support for the DUP at the expense of the UUP.
Its paramilitary expression has been the step-by-step breakdown of the UDA ceasefire, and a more open disregard by the LVF of their “ceasefire that never was”. By the summer of 2000 and again 2001 the anti agreement loyalists were conducting a sectarian military offensive. This has been a vicious campaign targeting Catholic homes and families with intimidation, petrol bombs and the latest favoured weapon of sectarian hatred, the pipe bomb.
Nationalism on the rise
While the 1990s added to Protestant insecurity, among Catholics a very different sense developed. The feeling of being an oppressed minority remained. But this became increasingly overlain with a growing confidence and assertiveness, both of which flowed from the same factors that have developed the opposite feelings among Protestants.
The expression of this assertiveness was not just a rise in nationalism but a rise in nationalism of a particularly strident kind. This was coupled with a general rise in sectarian attitudes and moods – of at times quite explosive and strident sectarian moods – among the Catholic population. In fact, if it were necessary to identify the single feature that most clearly distinguished the latter half of the 1990s from what had gone before, that feature would be the rise of Catholic sectarianism.
The increase in sectarianism was not uniform. At times sharply sectarian and confrontational moods have developed and have then subsided as events have temporally defused the situation. On other occasions the threat that the conflict could overspill out of control has caused a pulling back and generated a reaction against sectarianism. No process, least of all the development of a mood or a change in consciousness, takes place in a straight line. That said, the change that has taken place over a period of years in the broad outlook of the Catholic community is unmistakeable.
At the outset of the Troubles the movement that erupted in Catholic areas was against discrimination and for equality. It was a movement that gravitated in a socialist rather than a nationalist direction. The mobilisations of Catholics that took place in the 1990s increasingly had a different character. The earlier movement had been fundamentally anti sectarian, an assault on the State, not on Protestants: those of the 1990s were increasingly against Protestants.
This does not mean that the Catholic community did not – and do not – have grievances. Above all the issues that created anger and discontent in the working class areas were the problems of poverty, low wages, inadequate services and, on top of this, the social problems of crime, drugs, joyriding that breed out of poverty. They were the problems of working class life under capitalism and were no different from what existed in Protestant areas.
Added to this there was the ongoing problem of sectarianism. Intimidation, attacks on homes, and vicious sectarian beatings, remained a fact of life through the “peace process”. At particular times, especially when tensions heightened over parades, the attacks intensified. With the unravelling of the UDA ceasefire what had been random, mostly sporadic incidents were co-ordinated into a systematic campaign. The petrol and blast bombs also bring the fear that the past horror of random assassinations could very quickly return.
Not one of these problems could be resolved by building a movement only of Catholics to confront them. In fact this could only worsen the situation and invite more attacks given that it only serves to deepen the sectarian division, to reinforce the Protestant view that there is an aroused Catholic community organising itself against them.
Only a united movement of the working class, Catholic and Protestant, could successfully fight to end the poverty and social deprivation that exists in both communities. And, as past movements against sectarian killings and atrocities showed, the way to isolate the paramilitaries and halt the attacks is through mass united action, not through a response by one “side”.
A united class movement would not only deal a blow against loyalist sectarianism. It would strike against all forms of sectarianism and by putting the common interests of the working class to the fore would challenge the ideological, political and paramilitary grip of nationalism in Catholic working class areas. Put more succinctly it would threaten the stranglehold of Sinn Fein and the republican movement in these communities.
Well able to sense the threat that class unity would pose to them Sinn Fein consciously and energetically intervened to nip every move in this direction in the bud. When workers began to move together on issues sectarian attacks they quickly hoisted a green standard of “nationalist grievances” to rein back the Catholic working class and prevent united action. They strove to maintain a ghetto mentality and to cultivate the sense that the Catholics are a community under siege.
There are many examples. While the parades issue has always been a running sore in Northern Ireland, the argument of republicans and some of the Catholic residents leaders that the recent upheaval over this issue is nothing new, is simply untrue. Bigots on both sides whipped up the issue during the 1990s, but in the Catholic community it was Sinn Fein and those around them who turned it into a central issue. They did so – initially at least – very largely to deepen the sectarian division and to cut across the elements of class unity that had begun to develop.
The united movements that took place against the killings, beginning with the local general strike organised by members of our party against the atrocity carried out by the IRA at Teebane, were a direct challenge to Sinn Fein. When the Sean Graham bookies massacre was carried out by the UDA we again intervened and, through Belfast Trades Council, succeeded in organising a lunchtime protest on the Ormeau Road that was attended by Catholics and Protestants from all parts of the district.
Sinn Fein, who had tried unsuccessfully to discourage Catholics from the lower Ormeau supporting this protest, responded with a meeting of Catholics in that area to discuss “their” grievances. At the meeting Sinn Fein members launched an attack on the Trade Unions for “coming in to the area”. The central “grievance” they raised was the problem of Orange marches coming down the road.
The call for a protest to prevent these marches passing the Ormeau Bridge, which separates the supposedly Protestant upper part of the road from the mainly Catholic streets closer to the city centre, was made at this meeting. It was made days after Protestants and Catholics had stood together on that same bridge and was made consciously to break up that unity.
It is true that the obscene five finger gesture, signifying the five people murdered in the bookies shop, that was made by Orangemen as they passed the spot enraged the people of the area and stiffened their determination that the marches should be stopped. But this gesture was not, as is often claimed, the reason why parades were initially opposed. It was made in July 1992, five months after the meeting called to make the rerouting of Orange marches the central issue for the Catholics of the lower part of the Road.
Later, when the unions organised the mass rally in Belfast city centre against the Canary Wharf bombing, Sinn Fein provocatively intervened putting themselves at the front of the protest with placards demanding that they be included in the talks. It was a similarly calculated attempt to create division and to marshall Catholics behind demands that were raised in a one sided and sectional manner.
On a smaller scale there was a more recent example of the same thing when Sinn Fein intervened in an anti globalisation protest outside the Gap store in Belfast city centre. The protest obviously involved Catholic and Protestant youth. Sinn Fein’s intervention was to hand out a leaflet on parades with a headline attacking “Clockwork Orangemen – programmed to intimidate”. Whether it was a conscious and deliberate attempt to inject sectarianism, or whether it was simply that sectarianism has become the instinctive and natural approach of Sinn Fein. matters little as the effect is the same.
The general response of Sinn Fein to the increase in sectarian attacks, where they had a base to intervene, was to attempt to organise the Catholic residents and launch campaigns by “nationalists” to stop the attacks. Instead of trying to unite both communities to have all offensive flags and graffiti removed they mounted “nationalist” campaigns to have loyalist flags and slogans removed.
In other words Sinn Fein have tried to organise Catholics moving into new areas, sometimes against the resistance of the people involved, as a kind of sectarian bridgehead. As the sectarian composition gradually altered, tricolours and other nationalist symbols would be displayed. Once a certain point was crossed, the slow exodus of Protestants would tend to become a flood and the character of the area would change. This is a pattern that to one degree or another has been repeated across wide areas of the north.
Nationalism develops as a force among the working class by taking real problems and real grievances and placing them on a foundation of ideological myth. It gets away with it when the working class movement fails to provide an alternative rational explanation of what is happening and fails to fight for a class solution.
The tapestry of half-truths and mythology into which the real grievances of working class Catholics have been intricately worked has been carefully woven by Sinn Fein and unfortunately has had a huge effect in changing – more accurately in lowering – consciousness. The central myth put forward by republicanism is the denial that there has been any change in the north since the 1960s.
During the talks and through the peace process Sinn Fein have played up the need for the “equality agenda”, that is the demand for Catholics to have equal treatment, to be met. They took the facts of poverty in Catholic areas, and of past examples of State collusion and injustice to prove their false claim that things, for Catholics, still stood where they were in 1968.
This claim ignores the fact that the British state which has been in charge, in reality since 1969, has – in order to try to achieve stability – set about dismantling the inbuilt discrimination of the Orange State and that, while vestiges of the past still remain, has largely succeeded in doing so. It also completely ignores the fact that, through demographic, political and other changes, the Protestants are not in the position they were in thirty years ago and that, for them, there is no possible route back to that situation.
When the dispute over access to Holy Cross Primary School broke out in the summer of 2001 Sinn Fein spokespersons were quick to draw a comparison with Alabama and the struggle for black civil rights in the 1960s. Their Dublin news sheet (Autumn 2001) set out the argument: “Loyalists demand that the children use the back door entrance to Holy Cross school. This has been the unionist attitude to the nationalist population since the foundation of the Six County state – Catholics and nationalists should neither be seen nor heard………………..The Northern State structure and all of its agencies, including the police, have held firm to such an ethos for eight decades.”
This idea, that Catholics are in the position that blacks in the southern states of the USA were in the 1960s, is a fable, but a fable composed out of the real problems that are faced by the people of the Catholic working class areas. The objective is to place the ideological straightjacket of nationalism around the Catholic working class and to prevent people recognising that those on the other side of the “interfaces” suffer basically the same problems as them.
The paradox is that this deliberately cultivated sense of grievance coincides with a rising confidence and growing “nationalist” assertiveness. This dangerous mixture has coloured much of the conflict during the 1990s.
In dealing with the national question Marxists distinguish between the nationalism of those whose rights and culture have been suppressed and the nationalism of those who want to implant their culture on others and who are prepared to restrict others’ rights in doing so. The one is the nationalism of the oppressed, the other that of the oppressor or would be oppressor.
The line between one and the other is never clear or rigid. Within one there are elements of the other and visa versa. But no matter how difficult a task, it is essential to draw a line of distinction and to be able to draw it in the right place.
Marxists not only stand on the side of oppressed nationalities, but also fight alongside them to end this oppression all the time pointing out that in this epoch it is only on a socialist basis that this can be achieved. If this is skilfully done it will reduce the grip of nationalist ideas on the working class.
Conversely Marxists oppose every attempt by any would be national ruling elite to in any way restrict the rights of others by imposing their culture, their “way of doing things” on them. At all times the aim to cut across nationalism. If we are unable to differentiate the various forms of nationalism we will be in danger of cheering on a reactionary form. This is the mistake made by most, if not all, of the ultra left groups in Northern Ireland as, for example, is shown by the one sided, in fact sectarian, position they have taken on the contentious issue of parades.
It is the reactionary and sectarian side of nationalism that has been most on view in the 1990s, especially in the latter part of the decade. At various times and on various issues the line has been crossed from a defensive movement opposing oppression and demanding equal rights to an offensive movement that not only asserts the rights of Catholics, but also infringes and curtails the rights of Protestants.
This has been seen most clearly during the confrontations over parades. We have taken a careful position on this that has been unique among the left but which has been vindicated by events. We agree that the Orange Order is a reactionary organisation with a long sectarian history. But we stop short of the exaggerated view held by most republicans, and shared with groups on the left like the SWP, that it is a neo fascist organisation akin to the British National Party or the Klu Klux Klan. As with the comparison of the Holy Cross situation with Alabama, this is a case of facts becoming embroidered by nationalism, and by its ultra left echo, into myths.
The myth is then used to justify the demand that Orange parades should be halted. For the SWP this is a straightforward matter – all Orange parades should be opposed. Residents groups and republicans, who live in the real world, have had to put a more sophisticated position. However when people like Gerard Rice of the Lower Ormeau group say that “Protestants should find some other way of expressing their culture than by marching”, it very much amounts to the same thing.
We have put forward a balanced position. We are opposed to the Orange Order, as we are opposed to many right wing and sectarian groups, but, in general, we support their right to march. This does not mean supporting their right to conduct coat trailing exercises through Catholic communities. Residents also have a right to prevent such marches going through estates. But when it comes to the disputed parades, which are along main arterial routes or into town and village centres, we have to put a cautious position.
We are for negotiation to settle the disputes over these routes. In advocating face to face discussions we completely reject any declaration that town centres or villages are “nationalist” or that “no orange feet” will walk along certain main roads. This goes beyond the question of an orange march to the real underlying issue, the sectarian composition of areas. “No orange feet” means more than “no Orangemen”, it means “no Protestants” and it means this all year round, not just when there are parades.
When nationalists put forward such ideas they have crossed the line of justification on the national question. They have gone beyond defending the right of Catholics not to have to suffer sectarian abuse to a position that curtails the rights of Protestants especially of any minority Protestant communities that may live in these areas.
Parades have been the epicentre of the developing sectarian conflict. And in turn Drumcree has been the epicentre of the parades conflict. Every year since 1995 Drumcree church has been the scene of a sectarian confrontation that has cast a very long shadow across the rest of the north.
Portadown is a nerve centre of right wing unionism and loyalism and a place where Catholics have suffered systematic discrimination as well as physical attack. The town centre has long been a no go area at night for the Catholics who live only a few hundred yards away in the Tunnel and Garvaghy Road areas.
In 1986, in the aftermath of the Anglo Irish Agreement the return leg of the Drumcree parade was rerouted away from the Tunnel onto the then mixed but, even then, mainly Catholic Garvaghy Road. Over the following decade the sectarian geography changed, the Catholic community expanded and became more assertive. From this troubled mix came the series of tense standoffs that, more than the Good Friday Agreement, were the defining events of the late 1990s.
The first confrontation in 1995 dramatically heightened tensions across the north. It ended without real agreement, but with the scene set for further confrontation. At the last moment the residents agreed to let the parade pass, believing, wrongly, that they had an agreement that it would never go along the Garvaghy route again. The sight of David Trimble awkwardly dancing a victory gig with Ian Paisley when the march reached the town centre enraged Catholics and ensured that the march would be even more bitterly opposed in future.
1996 brought another standoff and even greater tension right across the north. With thousands, among them right wing loyalist paramilitaries, gathering at Drumcree and with the clock ticking towards the huge Orange marches on 12th July the scene was set for widespread violence. The army and police held the line between the marchers and the local community.
To allow the protesters to break through would mean a pogrom on the Garvaghy Road, an event that could have triggered civil war. If they had shot Protestants in order to hold the line this could have triggered pogroms elsewhere with the same result. In the end the state chose the “softer” option, lifted the ban on the march, and battered residents to create a way through.
Again Catholics were enraged and the perception that this was still a “unionist” state that would always do the bidding of Protestants gained further ground. There was a general feeling that the State could and should have cracked down on the Protestants and that the fact that it didn’t do so was just “more of the same”.
In fact the political and military rulers took their decision on pragmatic grounds to prevent the risk of civil war, not out of sectarian prejudice or religious bias. But this was not how Catholics saw it at the time; especially when within hours the Lower Ormeau Road was sealed off in order to prevent Sinn Fein mobilising Catholics from across Belfast to block the local Lodge’s 12th July march.
1997 brought an even worse situation. With the New Labour government just elected and with a new Secretary of State, Mo Mowlan, who appeared more sympathetic to the residents, there was an expectation among Catholics that this time the Protestants would be taken on. Their hopes were quickly dashed. In order to prevent another standoff and a repeat of what happened the previous year Mowlam, despite contrary assurances she had given the residents, bowed to military advice, sent police and troops in at night to seal off the Garvaghy Road, and allowed the march through the following day.
Her decision caused an electric reaction in the Catholic community. There was widespread rioting and also attacks on Orange Halls and Protestant property. This mini uprising was of a very different character to the upheaval that had swept Catholic working class areas in the early years of the Troubles. At that time there was undoubtedly a sectarian edge to what was taking place but the anger in the areas was directed overwhelmingly against the State.
This time it was the reverse. Part of the anger was against the government because they had backed down under Protestant pressure and part was against the police and army for the way they had behaved on the Garvaghy Road. But overwhelmingly the angry and confrontational mood was directed against the Orange Order and through them against the Protestant community. For the first time in the history of Northern Ireland there was a quite general feeling that Catholics should mobilise and “take them on”.
The focus for this mood was the major Orange march due to take place in Derry on 12th July. If the Catholics in Portadown had lost out because they were a minority there was a feeling that in Derry the shoe was on the other foot. The republican inspired residents groups began to mobilise Catholics from all over the north to go to Derry to physically stop the Orangemen from entering the city centre.
This could have resulted in a double standoff with thousands of Orangemen and their supporters lined up on one side of the river facing thousands of Catholics on the other. The RUC drew up plans to evacuate the small Protestant community from the mainly Catholic city side of the river. Some unionist leaders were drawing a comparison with what happened in Mostar in Bosnia.
Far from defending Catholics living in isolated areas like the Garvaghy Road or guaranteeing their rights, blocking the Apprentice Boys from Derry would more likely have unleashed pogroms against these communities. Full scale and unstoppable sectarian fighting could very quickly have spread across much of the north. The Socialist Workers Party’s position was not just verbal support for the blocking of the march; they even tried to organise a bus from Dublin to swell the numbers. As with the rest of the ultra left who are stuck in a political past they made the cardinal mistake of confusing sectarian reaction with revolution.
The situation was defused on the eve of the parade when the Orange Order, acting on advice from the police that at least one march was likely to be attacked by snipers, called off the Derry parade and cancelled other contentious marches in Armagh, Newry and on the Ormeau Road. The confrontational mood subsided as quickly as it had arisen, giving way to one of relief.
I997 was a turning point. And in a different way so was 1998. This time the State had decided to hold the line. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed and the Assembly had been elected. From this moment Drumcree became a rallying point for the anti agreement unionists and loyalists. The Orange leaders locally were anti agreement and neither they nor those who backed them in other areas had any interest in reaching any kind of settlement with the residents. Instead they looked on Drumcree as the most powerful weapon at their disposal to try to smash the Agreement.
Drumcree became much less about the rights and wrongs of parades and more a test of strength between pro and anti agreement unionists. A repeat of what happened in 1997 would threaten the withdrawal of Sinn Fein and much Catholic support from the Agreement while, at the same time, it would hand a victory to the most hard line, anti Agreement sections of unionism.
Up until 1998 the State had balanced between the marchers and residents but, in the final analysis, had come down on the side of the marchers. In 1998 and in every year since, it continued to balance and to seek an agreement but when this proved impossible, came down – and came down heavily – against the Orange Order.
By the time the Orangemen arrived at Drumcree in 1998 military preparations had left the area below the church looking more like a World War 1 battlefield. Massive fortifications were erected blocking every possible access from Drumcree church to the Garvaghy district.
Once again all attempts to negotiate a deal failed and there was yet another standoff. Across the north there was a week of riots, sectarian street clashes, hijacking, arson attacks and shootings. 1000 Orangemen blockaded the Catholic village of Dunloy. All this was a build up to the 12th July parades due to be held on the 13th – as normally happens when the 12th is a Sunday.
As in 1997 the tension was defused in an instant by a single event. Not a back down by either side or an intervention by the State, but the horrific murder of three children, burnt to death in a loyalist petrol bomb attack on a Catholic home in Ballymoney. When they heard this news the vast majority of Protestants simply no longer had the stomach for what was certain to be a violent protest. There was a subdued mood on the 12th parades which passed off fairly peacefully.
The State’s resolve was not fully tested in 1988. In subsequent years the fortifications were put to the test and the Orangemen and their supporters failed to break through. The situation settled down into a ritual attempt to march and a protest. About the only difference from one year to the next was the addition of some new technological innovation to make the fortifications even more impenetrable.
Drumcree did not overspill into all out confrontation any year mainly because the State was able to hold a line keeping the two sides apart, sometime fortuitously, sometimes by the skin of their teeth. Stalemate is not to be confused with a solution. The Orange Order may have been checked but the situation has not been defused. There has been no reconciliation. Instead the two sides are now further apart on the issue, and through it on other issues, than they were in 1995.
As with Drumcree so with other parades. And as with parades so with other issues. No single issue spilled over into all out conflict. More than once disputes and confrontations went towards the edge of a sectarian abyss but each time there was a pulling back at a critical moment. But the pull back was not because there had been any resolution. It was not just a drawing back it was a drawing even further apart, a further retreat into two sectarian camps that carried with it the residue of each conflict in the form of more polarised opinions and harder attitudes.
On top of this sat the Assembly and the Executive, a thin panoply of narrowing agreement spread over a widening sectarian division. At some point politics has to catch up with social change and this is what happened during the Westminster and Local Government elections that were held in the spring of 2001.
This was the most polarised result of any election in the history of the State with the possible exception of the first elections when the State was founded in 1921. Seven years earlier the ceasefires had brought about a certain opening up of politics with new forces starting to emerge and with the potential for this to go much further. These elections erected a tombstone over most of these forces.
It effectively reduced the political landscape to the four major parties, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the UUP and DUP. These parties between them got more than 90% of the Westminster vote. Without exception the smaller parties including the smaller sectarian parties did badly.
The Women’s Coalition only managed to field seven Local Government candidates and got only one elected. The PUP saw its Council representation slashed from seven seats to three. The UDA linked Ulster Democratic Party didn’t even manage to get itself registered as a party, didn’t appear on the ballot sheet and has largely disintegrated. It’s former councillors stood as independents and only one, its chief spokesperson, Gary McMichael, was elected in the party name.
The Alliance Party was reduced to a few pockets of support among the middle class in areas like East Belfast, North Belfast, Lisburn and Carrick. Outside these areas it is virtually non-existent and its future as a party must now be in doubt.
The only independents to make any real impression were former Socialist Party councillor, Johnny McLaughlin, in Omagh and hospital campaigner, Raymond Blaney, in Downpatrick. Johnny McLaughlin had unfortunately bowed to some local pressure and agreed to run as an “independent community” candidate. The fact that he not only retained his seat but increased his vote to 10% in a election in which the smaller parties and independent candidates were being severely squeezed was partly due to his association with the Socialist Party and our record on issues like low pay and the struggle of the term time workers.
Raymond Blaney, a former unison shop steward, ran on a “save the Downe Hospital” ticket and also got 10% of the vote, winning a seat. These results were the only real chinks of light in an election that was otherwise a dull monochrome of sectarianism.
The four major parties became more or less the only four parties. Among them there was also a swing from the more “moderate” to the more hard-line parties and candidates. The DUP ate into the support of the UUP, in a quite spectacular fashion in some areas. Within the UUP anti- agreement candidates opposed to Trimble did particularly well and this wing of the party was strengthened.
Sinn Fein made significant advances and for the first time nosed ahead of the SDLP in terms of the percentage vote. The votes reflected the more polarised attitudes and the erosion of Protestant support for the Agreement. They also reflected the demographic changes. After the Westminster count every seat along the entire border and to the south and west was nationalist. Unionism had retrenched to the north and east.
1968 had been an explosion to the left that was cut across by sectarianism. Thirty-three years later Northern Ireland is headed towards sectarian conflict and some form of repartition, unless, that is, an alternative to capitalism is found.
Part Three A problem without a solution
During the 1980s, before they began to contemplate the idea of an inclusive settlement, the British ruling class had come to the conclusion that Northern Ireland, as The Economist at that time put it, was “a problem without a solution”. By the 1990s they were more optimistically considering that the strategy of inclusion might indeed bring a lasting settlement. A year and a half into the new millennium – and seven Drumcrees wiser – they are more soberly coming to the view that the Economist may have been right after all.
On a capitalist basis it is indeed “a problem without a solution”. The “constitutional question” is irresolvable under the present system, more so now than ever. The antagonistic aspirations of Catholics and Protestants on the national question are irreconcilable under capitalism.
Not one of the range of “solutions” from reunification at one pole to independence at the other will work. Each one is merely a different route, albeit at a different pace, to civil war and repartition. Nor will the status quo hold indefinitely. Unless the working class movement emerges to provide an alternative the current arrangements will break down as the demographic and political scales shift in one sectarian direction or another – with disastrous consequences.
No capitalist reunification The option of a capitalist united Ireland is completely unattainable. The million Protestants would fight rather than voluntarily cut their ties with Britain and become a minority in an all Ireland state.
While this is the reality it is an idea that cannot be comfortable accommodated in nationalist thinking. If Protestants can’t be convinced to join a united Ireland the choice for nationalists is either to abandon the idea or else to goose-step them into it at rifle point. But civil war would not bring a clear result any more that it did in Bosnia. The end would be some form of repartition, not really the “end”, only another beginning, a re-siting of the trenches in readiness for the next battles.
Nationalists have always had to find arguments to convince their audience – and themselves – that Protestants will eventually come round. Hence the idea that the Protestants have been bribed and duped by Britain and that the privileges they have received have blinded them to their true “Irish” identity. A declaration from Britain that they were going to withdraw and a determination to carry this through would act like a political and cultural antibiotic and all their “confusion” about identity would “clear up”!
Gerry Adams, in his 1995 book “Free Ireland. Towards a lasting peace” strongly argues this case: “Their (Protestant’s) political philosophy expresses loyalty to the union with Britain precisely and solely because that union has, to date, guaranteed them their privileges and their ascendancy….What republicanism has to offer loyalists is equality…The loyalists have a desperate identity crisis. They agonise over whether they are Ulster Scots, Picts, English or British…. Yet they are not British. Loyalism is not found in Britain itself except as an Irish export. There are no cultural links between the loyalists and the British, no matter how much the loyalists scream about their ‘British way of life’ …….The loyalists are Irish.” (Our emphasis)
It follows, as the Sinn Fein document presented to the SDLP in 1988 argues, that: “faced with a British withdrawal and the removal of partition, a considerable body of Loyalist opinion would accept the wisdom of negotiating for the type of society which would reflect their needs as well as the needs of all other people in Ireland.”
Wishful thinking is a dangerous base on which to build a political, never mind a military strategy. Sectarian wishful thinking is even more dangerous. Sinn Fein’s concentration since the late 1980s on getting the British to join the “persuaders” is based on the idea that, if the “puppet masters” in Westminster pull the rug from under them, the Protestants will eventually shrug their shoulders and join a united Ireland. There is no acknowledgement that there could be any genuine basis to Protestant opposition to reunification on a capitalist basis. The idea, for example, that Protestant’s fear becoming a minority that would suffer systematic discrimination, is not even considered.
These fears have always been present and have always ruled out a peaceful path to a united Ireland. They have been greatly reinforced by what has happened over the past decade and a half. As far as the majority of Protestants are concerned the more assertive nationalism that they have confronted in the 1990s, especially as articulated by Sinn Fein, is just a flavour of what things would be like in a united Ireland.
If Orange marches and other expressions of what they see as their culture are challenged in a state that is still part of Britain and in which they are still a majority, what would it be like in a 32 County state? Protestants fear that the attack on their rights would not stop at Orange marches or the flying of flags but would extend to what is taught in schools, how they would be run, to jobs, to facilities and to access to services.
As to culture and identity there is no possibility that Protestants will willingly ready themselves for the straightjacket of cultural uniformity being advocated by Sinn Fein. It is true, as Gerry Adams says, that Protestants are ‘Irish’, but it only true as long as there is a broad and diverse attitude to what this means. It stops being true when it means acceptance and adoption of the narrow definition of “true” Irish culture promoted by nationalists.
It is not true that Protestants, while being Irish, have “no cultural links” with the British. This “either one or the other” approach simply does not fit with the more complex reality. There are cultural links between Protestants and British people as, just as there are also links between Catholics and the British, between Protestants and Catholics and between the people of the north, Protestants included, and those across the border.
Beyond this there is a class identity. The day-to-day life of working class people in any part of Ireland is closer to that of each other and to that of workers anywhere in Britain than it is to the way the members of the Establishment, British or Irish, live their lives.
Events will determine which aspect of Protestant identity is strengthened, or whether the class struggle and a development of class-consciousness will push all this to the background. It will not be decided by republicans assuming the role of ringmaster and laying out a set of ‘cultural’ and ‘national’ hoops for Protestants to jump through.
Protestants – and Catholics – have a right to define their own culture and their own identity and not to have someone determine it for them. When nationalists attempt to do this, and to do it in a hostile way, the only effect is to make Protestants recoil and assert their Britishness even more.
A British declaration to withdraw would not lead Protestants to “accept the wisdom of negotiating” what would in effect be their surrender terms. It would provoke an armed revolt and civil war. If the British government were to cut them adrift and the choice was between a capitalist united Ireland and an independent state, established on the parts of Northern Ireland they could hold by force, the Protestants, en masse would choose the latter.
The 1990s stiffened Protestant resolve to oppose any move towards reunification. The next period is likely to stiffen it further. In one sense the 1990s was the most favourable opportunity for nationalism to win over a significant section of Protestant opinion. This was the period of the Celtic Tiger when the economy of the south roared ahead at a much faster rate than the north.
Wages in the south also grew faster; living standards improved and overtook those in the north. The character of the state changed. It was more urban, more modern. While the Catholic Church was still influential it was no longer the all-pervasive force that it had been in the past.
There was another side, ongoing poverty, corruption, a housing crisis and a creaking infrastructure, but overall the benefits of the boom were clear even through the siphon of the northern media. If ever there was a time when the argument that a united Ireland might materially benefit people in the north could have been made this was it. Yet the fact of the Celtic Tiger made not the slightest impression on Protestant opposition to reunification.
Now the Tiger is beginning to lose its shine. The developing world recession has already had a severe impact. It is most likely that there will be, not just a slowdown from the 9,10 and 11% growth rates that have recently become ‘normal’, but that the southern economy will come to a shuddering halt and will pitch immediately into recession. The tigerish boom is likely to give way to a tigerish bust.
In the context of what is likely to be a prolonged and severe economic crisis in the south it will be very hard for nationalists to sustain any illusion that Protestants can be gently cajoled into a capitalist united Ireland. While the argument that Protestants can be “persuaded” continues to be advanced as the public position of most nationalists and republicans the case is made with less and less conviction.
Yet, despite the weakening of the old argument, Catholics generally have a stronger than ever sense that a united Ireland is on the cards – not immediately but not in the very long term either. This is an expression of the greater confidence felt within the Catholic community. It doesn’t come from the old nationalist arguments. The new more convincing argument comes from the changing facts on the ground.
It may not be clearly formulated or articulated, certainly not publicly. It is more of an instinctive sense that the Protestant community is in retreat, its ideology is in tatters, its territory is shrinking and that overall its position is untenable. It is a simple sectarian argument that, in the drawn out tug of war. The Catholics are steadily making progress while the Protestants are losing ground; that a salami style advance to a united Ireland is underway.
The idea has two aspects. Most straightforwardly there is the legalistic argument that demographic changes on their own will bring a united Ireland by constitutional means. It is now accepted that, on present demographic trends, there will be a Catholic majority in the north at some future point; in fifteen, twenty, thirty years; no one knows for sure. At that point a democratic vote, so the reasoning goes, could end partition. Then there is the less “constitutional” variant – that, as the State that was once a fortress of Protestant rule crumbles piece by piece, a point will come where Protestants throw up their hands and surrender themselves into a united Ireland.
Neither of these scenarios is possible. Unionists today defend the “principle” of consent by a majority in Northern Ireland. This will remain a “principle” for so long as it delivers the right result for them. If there was a nationalist majority that seemed prepared to vote for reunification more than one thing would turn into its opposite.
Nationalists would demand a vote on the “principles” of consent and majority rule. Unionists would insist that their minority rights should be protected and should not be overridden by the simple “consent” of a majority.
Protestants would not participate in any referendum they would be likely to loose on the border issue, and would not accept the result – just as nationalists dismissed the 1973 border poll as a foregone conclusion and organised a boycott. In any case it is likely that the threat of an imminent Catholic majority would blow the State in its present form apart long before that majority was actually realised.
The idea that Protestants will wait peaceable for the day of their political execution or that they will just surrender when they feel they have conceded too much ground is completely false. There is a critical point on the road of retreat when Protestants would indeed see that the game is up for the State as it is.
This would not bring surrender but revolt, and civil war. The scenario, under capitalism, is not that Protestants will bow to the “inevitability” of reunification. It is that they would end up in the position of the Tamils in Sri Lanka and that they would react in a similar manner.
No accommodation of Catholics
Understanding that Protestants will not accept a capitalist united Ireland, the only alternative open to the ruling class is to bring the Catholic population to a de facto acceptance of the status quo. This is really what the peace process has been all about. In return for concessions on equality, on demilitarisation, on some southern involvement and, with a paper ‘assurance’ that a constitutional route to a united Ireland would be left open, it was hoped that Catholics would, in practice, come to accept partition.
Those who advance this modern version of the old policy of “killing home rule with kindness” fail to take in account the deep sense of alienation felt by virtually the entire Catholic community, but especially and most crucially by the Catholic working class.
For Catholics the Northern Ireland state has meant a half-century of discrimination followed by several decades of brutal and bloody repression. All this has left a deep mark on consciousness, a mark that was never likely to be erased by the concessions that have been offered through the peace process.
Middle class Catholics, especially the better off sections, would be prepared to make do with what has come out of the peace process. For the working class it is a different matter. While Protestants increasingly feel themselves a minority, and a minority whose influence is slipping, working class Catholics continue to see themselves as part of a minority; an oppressed minority who are still very much second-class citizens within the state.
This view has a real foundation. In the past this was the blatant discrimination in jobs and housing. During the troubles it was the military repression that was concentrated most severely in the working class areas. More recently the intimidation, the pipe bombings, the beatings and the shootings carried out by loyalists have reinforced the feeling of being a beleaguered minority. And at all times this sense has arisen from the poverty, the dead end jobs and the low wages that have been an unchanging factor for working class Catholics.
There has been no discernible benefit from the peace process in Catholic working class areas. The only jobs boost has been in “community” work in the NGO type projects that have been encouraged by the state and which proliferate everywhere. When the policy of the ruling class was ‘exclusion’ there was a crackdown on such funding. Such community money as was channelled into Catholic areas was funnelled the Catholic Church and similar ‘safe’ institutions.
When ‘inclusion’ became the aim money was suddenly diverted to a multitude of “community organisations”, most with some link to the republican movement. All sorts of organisations found that grants were available to let them employ full time workers. These openings have mainly gone to people “in the know”, especially to ex prisoners and others with connections to the republican movement.
For the mass of ordinary Catholics, outside the public sector, there is very little choice but dead end low paid jobs. In some ways, by allowing greater penetration by the state into the Catholic working class communities, the peace process has actually left a lot of people worse off.
This is not just because taxes like TV licences that were uncollectable in the past are much harder to avoid. More crucially there has been a crackdown on the black economy. In the past a significant number of Catholics were forced into the black economy by the lack of proper jobs. Now some of these avenues have been closed by the New Labour crackdown on benefit entitlement, and by cheap labour schemes like JobSkills and New Deal.
There is a sense in which the Catholic working class are second-class citizens – as are Protestant workers. This is in the sense that all workers are second-class citizens under capitalism. The poverty and hardship that is endemic in Catholic working class areas is the product of a system based on private property and run for profit. Religious discrimination is now only a marginal factor.
True, a genuine “equality agenda” has not and will not be implemented because genuine “equality” including equality of opportunity is impossible under a system whose very essence is inequality and exploitation. The only way the true interests of both Catholic and Protestant workers can be served is by building workers unity in struggle around the problems that are common to all workers.
But in the current circumstances the objective need for the working class to stand together to find a way out has been obscured from common view by the history of the Troubles to this point and by the decline in class-consciousness. The seething anger in the Catholic working class areas has had to find another outlet. In the main it has expressed itself more in a nationalist than in a class manner.
Among the Catholic working class the peace process has not even led to a begrudging acceptance of the constitutional status quo. But neither is consciousness as it was ten or fifteen years ago. There is the same alienation from the state but alongside this there is also a feeling that the state is weaker, and that the changes that are being introduced will undermine it further. And on the other side there is a sense that “nationalists” are more powerful, more capable of forcing the pace of change.
The end result has not been greater integration but greater separation from the state. Whole areas in which nationalist flags, symbols and “culture” are predominant and in which “policing” is partly carried out by paramilitaries now have one foot lifted out of the state. The changes brought about through the peace process have not pushed nationalism to the back of people’s minds as “something for the future”. Nationalism has been strengthened and the possibility of a lasting internal settlement based on securing Catholic allegiance to a Northern Ireland state has been reduced even further.
What has happened demonstrates that there can be no lasting solution on a capitalist basis. But it demonstrates more than this. After a decade which has seen the construction and partial deconstruction of the peace process it is clear that it is also unable of even coming up with any interim agreement that can stabilise the situation for any length of time.
The peace process, because it was based on the exhaustion of the paramilitary forces that had been central to the conflict, and because there was general feeling of war weariness among the population, was about the best chance for this. Yet the peace process, while it saw an agreement at the top, saw also the sectarian polarisation increased to an unprecedented degree. All it has done is construct an even more sectarian landscape on which future conflict will be all the more sharply fought out.
The events of the 1990s took place against the background of a period of economic growth. The effects, as is explained earlier, may have been marginal but such benefits that there were will be much harder to come by in the period that is now opening up.
Now the world economy is entering a recession that could well turn out to be deep and, rather than give way to a new upturn, could usher in a protracted period of stagnation and crisis. While the capitalist class would like to blame this downturn on the September 11th attack on the US the reality is that the slide to recession had begun before this.
This is more than a cyclical “correction”. Despite the boom of the 1980s and the extended 1990s boom that is now coming to an end the reality is that capitalism has been in a period of acute crisis and stagnation since the end of the long post war upswing in 1974. A feature of this depressionary period is that while the cyclical rhythm of capitalism, of boom and slump, has been maintained the tendency, even through boom periods, is towards the aggravation of the contradictions of the system.
The accumulated contradictions built up through the 80s and 90s point to a period of severe crisis, of economic dislocation and of a contraction of the productive forces. This is now a structural crisis; what Marx referred to as a crisis of overproduction and over investment.
It is not possible for capitalism to find a way out of this crisis through micro economic measures like lowering interest rates or pumping money into the economy. It is not that these measures have no effect, they can extend the life of a boom, but, so long as the fundamental contradictions are unresolved, this is always at the expense of worse pain later.
The only even temporary way out is through the destruction of the forces of production that have been built up, through a process of recession and even slump that will create mass unemployment, lower wages and, by wiping out the Capital that was accumulated during the boom, can over a period create more profitable conditions for new investment.
Capitalism offers only a catastrophic way out that means heaping misery on millions on working people and in turn strains political and social relations to breaking point. In face of the overwhelming economic forces that are pulling the world into recession the efforts of those like Alan Greenspan of the US Federal Reserve who has been elevated to the point of infallibility by some capitalist economists are puny by comparison.
Almost 130 years ago Frederick Engels gave what is a very modern description of capitalist crises: “Commerce is at a standstill, the markets are glutted, products accumulate, as multitudinous as they are unsaleable, hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed, the mass of the workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence; bankruptcy follows upon bankruptcy, execution upon execution. The stagnation lasts for years; productive forces and products are wasted and destroyed wholesale, until the accumulated mass of commodities finally filter off, more or less depreciated in value, until production and exchange gradually begin to move again.”
The present crisis began in 1997 with the collapse of the Asian tigers and the economic meltdown that then swept this region. This was followed by the collapse of the rouble and a similar catastrophe in Russia. That a general crisis was averted at that point was because the capitalists intervened, especially the Federal Reserve, pumping in money to shore up the financial system and maintain the boom.
But this was merely postponing the inevitable while adding to the price that would eventually have to be paid for the boom years. In the recent period the final factor sustaining the growth in the world economy has been the strength of consumer spending in the US.
The strong dollar, kept artificially strong by the flight of capital from other countries to the “safe haven” of the US, has meant that the US consumer has been able to buy imported goods that are cheap in the US market. This is turn has boosted production and allowed growth in other countries. Two fifths of the increase in global demand over the last five years has come from the US.
There is a limit as to how long the world economy can rest on the single prop of US consumer confidence. Most economists initially feared that the most significant economic effect of the September 11th attacks would turn out to be the blow it delivered to the confidence of the US consumer. Whether this turns out to be the case a blow to confidence is bound to come anyway, if not from the World Trade Centre attack, then from some other source. Even before September 11th redundancies and closures were already mounting into the shape of recession. At some point consumers will decide that the time has come to stop accumulating debts and to cut spending.
What is developing is likely to be a simultaneous world recession. The economies of the US, Europe and Japan are marching in synchronised step towards downturn. The consequences for the rest of the world are likely to be devastating.
How deep the recession will be or how long it will last are questions that cannot be definitively answered at this point. There could be a partial recovery and then another downturn. Or there could be a prolonged crisis, an L shaped recession that would leave the world economy bumping along the bottom for a period of years.
While it is not possible to be definitive when it comes to economic perspectives all the key indicators point in the direction of a downturn that, perhaps through more than one recession, will be deep, and to a protracted period of stagnation. It is possible that there could be a Japanese scenario, a particularly depressing prospect for world capitalism.
Just as the current boom has been extended due to consumer optimism, which in turn has been partially based on the falsely inflated values of stocks on Wall Street and other exchanges, so, during the late 1980s, Japanese consumers had a sense of wealth that was also falsely inflated; in this case by the massively fictitious land values and the idea that credit secured against land was safe because land prices could not fall.
The bubble inevitably burst and when it did the Japanese economy plummeted into a period of stagnation from which, despite the overall growth in the world economy in the 90s, it has been unable to escape. A series of re-flationary packages, with billions of yen pumped in to try to kick-start the stalled economy, have failed. Japan is now moving into what will be its fourth recession in ten years.
How recession will hit the local economy
Whatever the actual course of the current downturn the effects will be felt in Northern Ireland. Indeed it is clear that the effects are already being felt. Just as the growth in manufacturing during the 1990s was at a faster pace in Northern Ireland than in Britain so the first stages – at least – of the contraction have been steeper. Between the first and second quarters of this year manufacturing output fell by 4.8%, as against an average fall for the UK of 2%.
The high technology industries, where most of such growth in manufacturing employment as did take place in the 1990s was concentrated, has not escaped the global contraction of these sectors. 2001 saw 1000 jobs lost in the electronic and technology sector with firms like Daewoo, Nortel, Valence, AVX, Radix Telecom and Fujitsu all announcing redundancies. In addition many of the 7000 high tech jobs that, according to the IDB were in the pipeline, have been cancelled as multinational companies have dropped their expansion plans.
On top of this there is the continued crisis in the textile sector where the pace of decline has quickened with the latest fall of 17% representing the steepest drop since 1980. 2000 jobs are under threat at Shorts where the Bombardier owners are using the events of September 11th as a cover for cutbacks.
Agriculture has gone through a period of depression from which it has not been able to recover. The Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre (NIERC) estimate that, coming on top of a slump that saw farm incomes plummet at the end of the 1990s, the effects of the Foot and Mouth crisis will not be overcome until 2003. They expect agricultural output to fall by 1.2% in 2001 and by 3.7% in 2002.
Tourism was looked to as the underdeveloped area of the economy that would blossom in a peace process. Even today some economic pundits point to this sector, as a recent (October 39th) article in the Financial Times put it, as “just one facet of an economic surge that has come as a benefit of the peace process.” This article argues that: “if new hotels are an indicator of a city’s health, then Belfast is in remission. In recent years at least six, including a Ramada, a Hilton and a Posthouse have appeared on the skyline, and employment in hotels and restaurants has risen 50 per cent.”
This was written in the wake of what it refers to as “the IRA’s momentous arms move” and is an attempt to talk up the “feelgood factor” among the business community by pointing to the possibility of political stability. Yet even the figures it gives show that, whatever the changes to the downtown Belfast skyline, the growth of Tourism during the peace process has been extremely limited. Its contribution to the domestic economy has risen from 1% to 1.7%, a figure, as the Financial Times acknowledges, that is “meagre compared with the Republic of Ireland or England.”
Leaving aside the fact that the jobs created have been low wage, often part time and menial, those who paint a rosy picture of the future growth of the hospitality sector do so on the false idea that the sectarian conflict being waged on a daily basis on the streets is going to give way to “stability”.
They also ignore the general effects of the world recession – and the specific effects of September 11th – in cutting the numbers of outside visitors likely to fill the new expensive Hotels in Belfast and elsewhere. While it is impossible to precisely predict what effect the attack on the Twin Towers and the subsequent “war against terrorism” will have in persuading US citizens to stay at home, the NIERC estimate that its effect will be to knock at least £45 million off revenue from Tourism in 2002.
It is not ruled out that the British Government will put in some additional money in order to try to keep some semblance of a peace process in place. The heavy dependence on the public sector is likely to continue. Both the Westminster Government and the local Executive -if it continues to exist – may be forced to some degree to step back from their present economic canon of privatisation, PFI, PPP etc. so as to allow the public sector to provide a partial buffer against the impact of recession.
What is clear is that the economic backcloth to the next stage of the “peace process” will be less favourable than before. The effects of any funding that may be put in will be more than countered by the effects of recession, especially the loss of skilled, better paid jobs in manufacturing.
There will be no regeneration or even sense of regeneration of the impoverished working class areas where the conflict is sharpest. Services like Health, Education, Housing and Transport are likely to continue to suffer from massive under funding.
Recession creates much less favourable terrain for new negotiations and new efforts to keep the Assembly and the Good Friday agreement from collapse. Yet it was not just the Financial Times that hailed the decommissioning by the IRA of some of its weapons as a major breakthrough that would put the peace process back on track. Most other newspapers hailed this “historic step” and, for the first time in a month, the “war against terrorism” was not the headline news.
Even Colin Powell, short of good news given what was taking place in Afghanistan and the Middle East, held up what was happening in Northern Ireland as an example of how “peace processes” should work. This reasoning is based on an illusion that, after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, there were a number of issues outstanding, especially policing, decommissioning and parades, and that once these hurdles were crossed there would be both a comprehensive settlement and lasting peace.
This ignores the underlying destabilising factors, the growing insecurity of Protestants, the undiminished anger of the Catholic working class, the changing demography and the poverty, all of which together mean that the national antagonisms are set to increase, not diminish, on the basis of capitalism. The old disputes over parades and policing, the new disputes over access to schools and the future disputes on other issues that have not yet arisen, are all symptoms of the more fundamental problems. None can be fully resolved on the basis of this system.
Even the decommissioning issue is not about to simply melt away despite the fact that, in republican terms, the step taken by the IRA is hugely significant. As long ago as the lead up to the Good Friday Agreement the leadership of the republican movement were probably reconciled to the fact that some form of decommissioning would be needed.
This is why they went to the lengths of negotiating a procedure that would allow this to happen away from the cameras, verified only by the International Commission, and were also careful of the language, agreeing that arms “would be put beyond use”, not handed over.
For the leadership there has been no question but that the “war is over”. They have long recognised that the “long war” was un-winnable and, once the ceasefire was in place, had no serious intention of going back down this road. Their sights are now fully set on strengthening their electoral base, especially in the south.
They hope to make a significant breakthrough over one or two elections, expecting that at some point they will be able to enter a Coalition government leaving them as the only party to hold Ministerial positions, north and south. With this in mind the weapons of what to them is a former war are just unnecessary ballast that weighs against their strategy and that would be better discarded.
The problem – and the delay in decommissioning – has been largely down to the fact that the rank and file of the republican movement were not ready for such a gesture. In the years since the Agreement the Adams leadership has gradually prepared the ground for movement on weapons without provoking any significant split.
Two recent events have left little or no room for any serious opposition. First there was the arrest of three republicans in Colombia and the subsequent revelations of IRA links with FARC. This would not have caused much concern in the working class areas where Sinn Fein is strong. In some ways it may have helped counter the notion that the leadership has “gone soft” and reinforced the belief that they have been cleverly pulling the wool over the eyes of the British Government all along.
But – whether they knew about the FARC links all along or not – these public revelations caused a predictably hostile reaction among the US administration and those members of the US establishment with whom Adams, McGuinness and co had long been trying to curry favour. It is possible that sections of the British security services, who must have long known about the FARC connection, may have helped set up these arrests so as to increase the pressure, especially from the US, for decommissioning.
Then came the September 11th attacks on the twin towers. This was an event that has reshaped history. The twin towers when standing may have cast a physical shadow over lower Manhattan. In the method of their destruction they have cast a political shadow over the globe, altering world relations. That shadow has extended to Northern Ireland.
One consequence has been to erase, at least for a period, any possible basis for a return to a sustained campaign of individual terrorism. While many workers have deep and growing reservations or are opposed to the so-called “war against terror” conducted by the US against Afghanistan they remain deeply revulsed by the horror that was inflicted on New York in September.
The mass of workers in Ireland, north and south, share this sense of revulsion. This has drained the possible reservoir of support – already quite dry after the Omagh bomb – for any future acts of individual terror whether carried out by the IRA or by one of the republican splinter groups.
Republicans who hold to the idea that there should be a return to armed struggle against Britain face the difficulty that, if the New York attack did not weaken the US administration, but only succeeded in provoking the US and Britain to go war, the much smaller scale activities of republicans could not hope to force the hand of any British government. In any case the first question asked if there is any future attack in London or any British city will not be which wing of republicanism carried it out but whether it was the work of Bin Laden’s Al Qaida network.
The September 11th attack was a reactionary act of mass terror designed to cause the maximum number of civilian casualties. It was different in character, scale and objective from the individual terrorism of the IRA, the PLO and other similar groups. Without prettifying these campaigns all of which resulted in the deaths of many civilians this was never the central objective. Nonetheless any future actions by republicans will place them, as far as the mass of people are concerned, in the Bin Laden school of terrorism.
After September 11th a return to armed struggle was no longer an option and not just for the IRA leadership; it was not something that could be seriously contemplated by the republican rank and file. With the focus of attention diverted for a period to world events the leadership were able to break with a central tenet of republican philosophy and put some arms “beyond use” – with hardly a ripple of opposition from even “traditionalist” areas like South Armagh.
This does not mean that the decommission hurdle has been crossed or that the issue has been laid to rest. After decommissioning the issue for anti agreement unionists will be “more decommissioning”. There will be the demand not just for details of what arms are now “beyond use” but for assurances that decommissioning is a continuous process and for a deadline by when it will be completed.
It is quite possible that the IRA leadership, perhaps through an uncomfortable process of fits and starts and of further cliffhanging crises in the peace process, may put the bulk of their stockpiled weapons “beyond use”. This would create some political breathing space but, even then, the decommissioning question would probably not go away entirely.
The war as it has been fought may be definitively over for the IRA but the conflict is not over, nor is the IRA about to dissolve itself. It will retain some weapons come what may. With a sectarian conflict intensifying on the ground and with systematic attacks taking place against Catholics, republicans are not likely to leave themselves open to the charge made against their forebears after August 1969 that the areas were left defenceless. If the peace process further unravels there will be a tendency for the republican movement to get drawn into a new war of a different character, a sectarian war against Protestants. The outlines of what would then happen are already present in what is taking place at the sectarian interfaces in Belfast and in towns and villages across Northern Ireland.
There have already been shooting incidents, some of which have been put down to republicans, although the bulk may have been carried out by the INLA or by dissident groups. Should this continue, as is likely if the situation worsens, and should evidence emerge that the IRA is involved, anti agreement unionists will set out to ensure that the loud noise of republican weapons in use on working class streets weighs heavier in Protestant thinking than the silent and invisible decommissioning of weapons in arms dumps.
Just as crossing the decommissioning hurdle is likely to present more decommissioning hurdles so with other contentious issues like parades and policing. Unable to get full agreement from Sinn Fein the British government have decided to go ahead and introduce changes to policing largely based on the recommendations of the Patten report. They calculate that Sinn Fein, like the hard line unionists, will put up little more than token opposition.
The new policing structures represent no fundamental change. True, it is intended that the blatant sectarian features of the RUC be erased over time. If this can be done what would remain would still be a centralised police force: more professional; yes, less sectarian; yes, but still a repressive arm that the state can extend into working class areas.
If a renamed and revamped police force has to deal with rioting or with disputes over parades and other questions – as is certain – whatever new image it presents for itself will quickly become tarnished. Its sectarian make up will be a secondary question to the role it plays and the methods it uses. The fact that the RUC is a Protestant force has not prevented it coming into collision with people in the Protestant working class communities on many occasions. Nor has it diminished the anger that has been directed towards it from these areas.
“Even-handedness” in clamping down equally on Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and republicans, is unlikely to build support or make a new police force acceptable to both communities. More likely, were such a policy to continue, it would end being viewed with increasing hostility and suspicion by both.
If Protestants feel the brunt of police repression it will increase suspicions that the state is turning against them: that the RUC has been done away with so that a new police force could implement the agenda of “creeping republicanism”. On the other hand if the police are used to clear roads for Orange parades or implement other decisions that are opposed by nationalists the view in Catholic areas will be that nothing has changed: that the RUC has reappeared in slightly different colours and with different emblems and a new name but with the same riot shields, the same batons and the same methods.
Sinn Fein is initially likely to keep an arms length attitude to the new policing arrangements, refusing to endorse them, but at the same time careful not to mount enough opposition to prevent them coming into being. This will colour the attitude of the Catholic working class and make it less likely that there will be a flood of applications from the youth in the more hard line areas.
Over a period the Sinn Fein leadership may soften its position and nominate a representative to the new Policing Board using the argument that this is necessary in order to exercise control and achieve change from within. This might soften also the hostility of Catholics to joining for a period.
In the long run even if Sinn Fein were to line up with every other party in giving a ringing endorsement to the new “Police Service of Northern Ireland” it would not make a fundamental difference. If they held to such a position they would find themselves increasingly out of touch with their own grassroots support.
In 1970 John Hume and those who were emerging as the leadership of the SDLP had an immense authority in Catholic areas. They not only fully endorsed the decision to replace the B Specials with the Ulster Defence Regiment, they issued a call for Catholics to join the new force. Years later the UDR had to be abolished after a history that had made it every bit as hated in Catholic areas as the B Specials.
We can leave open the question whether all the proposed changes in the policing will ever be fully put into effect – although it is very difficult to see how this will be done. The question cannot be considered in a vacuum. All the proposals in the Patten report assume a degree of stabilisation – over a prolonged period – that is extremely unlikely to come about. Even the proposal to drastically cut police numbers can only be implemented if the violence subsides.
The idea that there will be a gradual increase in Catholic recruitment until the police reflect the overall demographic balance also depends in what is happening in society in general. There was a similar intention with the UDR but this was entirely cut across by events.
As far as the ruling class is concerned the RUC have been professionalised and are doing the job that is necessary. The problem is one of image and of composition. Patten was set up to come up with proposals for a force which would have a new image and a changed religious composition, but which would carry on doing exactly as the RUC is doing.
It may be that they will go some way with this in the short term and that they can hold together a police force that is lifted above the conflict and comes down against both sides. But, as the 1970s showed, it is very difficult for the State to balance between two sides in an escalating conflict. Even if it is purely for pragmatic reasons there is an unavoidable tendency to come down on one side, to deal with one problem at a time.
When it comes to the British army the ruling class can more easily turn it in one direction or another. The army is a direct instrument of the British state and is made up of people from outside Northern Ireland with little or no connection with either local community.
With a locally recruited police force it is different. The recruits are drawn from the working class communities and no matter how much they are inoculated by professional training and big salaries they are ultimately subject to the pressure of those communities.
The strains of ongoing sectarian conflict will reflect themselves inside the police. Should this conflict escalate, the police, no matter how successfully it had changed its image or balanced its recruits, would tend to lean in one sectarian direction or the other. The more balanced its composition the greater the likelihood that it would come apart under this pressure.
The issue of parades has been the most divisive and destabilising question to emerge during the peace process. Even more than policing and decommissioning, and despite some illusions to the contrary, it is not an issue that is set to die away.
Each year the police issue statistics to “prove” that in the vast majority of cases parades are uncontroversial; thousands pass off without protest or incident while only a handful are contested. If only a few disputes could be resolved, so the argument goes, there would be no difficulties.
This wishful thinking ignores what the whole thing is about. There are rights on both sides – the right of marchers to march and the right of residents not to have their lives disrupted by parades they find offensive. Our position – for these rights to be upheld and, where they conflict with each other, for negotiation to arrive at a compromise acceptable to both sides – is the only solution.
It would not be difficult to work out the terms of a compromise – if it really was only a dispute over these rights. In a few cases, where there has been a willingness to negotiate, there have been agreements that have held and the issue has died down. .
Even at Drumcree the Orange Order on paper accept most of the conditions on marches that we have advocated as reasonable. And the residents have on occasions said that they would be prepared to allow the proposal that there should be a parade, under certain agreed conditions, along the Garvaghy Road.
But in general there have not been agreements, even when face-to-face negotiations have taken place. The few glimpses of light that have occasionally registered at Drumcree have soon faded into the sectarian gloom. The reason is that, for the people on both sides who are whipping this issue up, it is not really a dispute over rights; it is part of a much broader sectarian agenda. That is why we have gone further and demanded that the working class movement in the form of local shop stewards and genuine community activists should intervene to put pressure on the sectarian intransigents on both sides to settle the issue.
The disputes over parades stem from a number of things, the opposition to the Good Friday Agreement for example, but fundamentally they are about territory. This is a battleground, the most pronounced and obvious battleground, on which the long drawn out war over territory is being fought. It is this that makes complete nonsense of the idea that it is only a problem of a handful of disputed parades.
As the front lines in the territorial war change so the areas where parades are disputed and “not welcome” will change also. Areas where there was no controversy will become controversial. It is not a problem of four or five bitterly disputed parades, it is a problem of a virtually unlimited number of potential disputes.
Drumcree provides an illustration of this. Whatever uneasy stalemate has been reached through steel, concrete and miles of razor wire will inevitably break down. The outward leg of the Drumcree parades, presently uncontested, goes along the Corcrain Road. The Corcrain Road is mixed but the clear trend is for the bottom end, closer to Portadown town centre to remain Protestant while the upper part of the route becomes Catholic.
Meanwhile the Craigavon area plan has designated land for building 400 homes on sites between the Garvaghy Road and Drumcree church. One is to be built on the side road used by the Orangemen to get to the church. On present trends these will, without doubt, become Catholic estates. So the Achilles heel of the Protestant bigotry that keeps Catholics away from the town centre is that this is fast creating an extensive Catholic quarter that will within a short period cut off every access route to Drumcree church.
The point has already been raised in the recent attempts at negotiations. The Garvaghy residents passed a document to the Orange Order offering a “compromise”. This was that, provided the Order accepted that it would never again march along the Garvaghy Road, the residents would agree not to object to future marches along the Corcrain Road. This was accompanied with “advice” that the Orange Order would be better accepting this now before demographic changes leave them on weaker ground in the future.
The offer may have been intended as a concession but the Orange Order took it as a threat and refused. If the sectarian polarisation continues to intensify as it has done since the mid 1990s the yearly standoff could be in Portadown town centre as the Orangemen find their outward march to Drumcree blocked. Rather than Drumcree the word Corcrain could be flashed around the world as a new epicentre of the sectarian conflict.
What is being enacted in Portadown is being enacted, perhaps less visibly and dramatically, in a whole number of areas across the north. Population changes in Belfast already mean that there are very few main routes in and out of the city that do not pass through what are now mainly Catholic areas.
Unless there is a movement of the working class to cut across the sectarian division the demographic changes are bound to fuel further disputes over parade routes. The intensity of these disputes may vary but until such times as a united working class movement can cut across sectarianism the issue itself is irresolvable.
Repartition – a real danger
Parades, policing, decommissioning, and other similar issues that will arise are all symptoms of a much deeper sectarian conflict that has been intensifying through the peace process. The survival of the Assembly for a further period would not mean that there would be any real political stabilisation.
Rather it would be a return to things as they were – to sectarian mud slinging and brinkmanship on one issue after another. A fragile and volatile agreement may remain in place at the top. Meanwhile the process of division is likely to continue at the bottom.
Beneath whatever wafer thin agreement is reached between politicians at the top the conflict is set to continue – and is likely to intensify – in its current form as a war between rival sectarian camps over territory. Demographic changes provide this “war” with a perpetual impetus. They act like a cancer eating away at the foundations of any temporary agreements that may be reached.
Sooner or later, unless a movement of the working class intercedes to cut across sectarianism, the increased polarisation will bring the whole thing crashing down. This could come through paralysis over some sectarian issue that may arise. Or it could come when future election results bring a shift to the more hard-line sections of unionism and nationalism and make it impossible to elect the First Minister, never mind his deputy or the Executive.
In the absence of a class alternative disillusionment with the Assembly and the peace process would take a sectarian form. It would mean a hardening of attitudes and a strengthening of the more hard line forces on both sides. This would not be a uniform or an even process but over a period, if no alternative were provided to cut across the sectarianism, it would be an unmistakeable trend.
On the Catholic side this would likely take the form of the development of confrontational moods and the strengthening of those voices that echoed these moods. If the Sinn Fein leadership continued on the present “constitutional” road, putting their relations with establishment figures in the US and elsewhere, and their desire to end up in government in the south, above the pressures of the Catholic community, they could end up out of touch; much as Yassir Arafat has ended out of touch with the increasingly combative Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.
If this happened divisions would open within Sinn Fein, but not in the form of an opposition developing and moving to the left. Nor would those dissidents arguing for a return to the armed struggle gain much of an echo. Rather the main opposition would be from the most trenchant sectarians; those engaged in the day to day confrontations at the sectarian interfaces and over issues like parades, and who would be opposed to any pulling back by the leadership on these questions.
It is looking too far ahead to try to judge whether Sinn Fein as a whole would respond by pulling back from the search for a political accommodation in the north or whether the dissent that would develop would lead to serious fractures. What is certain is that the Sinn Fein leadership will not be able indefinitely to tie the Catholic community to support a political and “peace” process on the promise that it contains a “dynamic” for change that does not come.
Likewise on the Protestant side – and again unless class issues come to the fore and throw the tendency to increased polarisation into reverse – the future unravelling of the peace process is likely to see hard line voices strengthened at the expense of the message that was put forward by the PUP in the earlier, more hopeful, period when they emerged as a force. As has already been explained it is clear that the more polarised situation that developed since the mid 1990s has thwarted the PUP’s rise.
An uneasy stand off has emerged between the UVF and the UDA/LVF. No clear victors emerged from the bitter feud that was fought out mainly in North and West Belfast in the summer of 2000. Rather it resulted in a clearer division of territory between these groupings, an inter-factional repartition within the context of overall process of creeping repartition along the fault line of religion. Although this feud was called off the bitter rivalry and the struggle between these groups for territory continues to be fought out in low intensity clashes and occasional killings across much of the north.
Individual PUP leaders like David Irvine and Billy Hutchinson have been able to retain a significant base of support but the party was not able to make significant inroads outside their constituencies. Among the mass of the Protestant working class Ervine and Hutchinson have far more respect than the anti agreement loyalists regrouping against them in the UDA and LVF. The broad view of Protestants is correctly that these are mainly thugs who are run by drug dealing barons who have grown rich out of the Troubles.
But among the alienated Protestant youth, the constituency where the UVF competes for recruits with the UDA/LVF, there is clearly a drift to the more hard-line organisation. Young people who are spoiling for a fight are more like to join the organisation that appears to be fighting – as the Official IRA found after their 1973 ceasefire.
Unless the working class offers young working class Protestants the hope that, through a different kind of struggle, they can achieve a decent future, there is a danger that the lumpenisation of areas and the penetration of drugs will tilt the paramilitary balance towards the UDA/LVF. Alternatively the UVF may feel compelled to put themselves forward as the real “defenders” of Protestant areas and their cease-fire may come under impossible strain
Capitalism has no answer, neither for the short term nor for the long term. Only the working class, uniting in struggle for a socialist solution, can offer a way out. It this is not done the present “repartition” process will continue. Again unless this is cut across it will lead ultimately to civil war and actual repartition.
Thirty years ago a civil war would have meant the expulsion of most of the Catholic population from the north and the creation of a truncated state with an overwhelmingly Protestant population. Many of the Catholics would have ended up, Palestinian style, as refugees living across the new border in a southern state that would have been unable to absorb them. And Middle East style instability would have been the result.
Today the changed demography means that there would be a somewhat different outcome. Depending on where the boundaries are drawn a majority of the population of Belfast are now Catholic. Civil war would more likely end in the border areas and much of the west separating from the state but elsewhere in a Bosnian type patchwork including the possible partition of Belfast.
This nightmare scenario would be a massive defeat for the working class movement throughout Ireland. It would throw back the movement in Britain also. The question of questions is whether or not the working class will be able to prevent this disaster from taking place.
Part Four – Can a socialist alternative be built?
The period since the late 1980s has been one of general setback and retreat for the working class movement on an international scale. There has been a decline in the levels of struggle and a general throwback of consciousness.
The fact that in a period of acute social crisis the working class has not been able stamp its influence on events has allowed other forces to fill the vacuum. As a result in many countries history has charted a peculiar course and the anger of the working class and the oppressed has found a variety of expressions. This has particularly been the case in areas where the situation is complicated by the national question.
In Northern Ireland the retreat of the workers movement has expressed itself in the aggravation of the national question and in the deepening sectarian polarisation. What has happened represents a defeat for the working class. It is not a crushing defeat on the scale of that suffered in 1933 in Germany or in 1973 in Chile.
Nonetheless the movement has been thrown back. The working class no longer has a political party of its own. The trade union tops have become largely incorporated in the state. The shop stewards movement has declined and its confidence has been dashed.
Much of the authority that the trade unions once enjoyed in working class areas has evaporated. It exists to some extent among the older generation but as far as the youth are concerned it is something that has to be re-earned. This means for example that the idea that the unions could intervene on issues like parades or policing to uphold working class interests is not accepted as it once was.
The unions, and the working class movement generally, are less equipped to intervene and provide an alternative to sectarianism than at any time during the Troubles. This situation can be turned round. Ground that has been lost can be recovered. New struggles can restore much of the confidence that has gone.
Class struggle can also cast a new light on the sectarian parties and the paramilitaries, opening rifts within them and loosening their grip on working class areas. Above all a new wave of struggle can throw up a fresh layer of shop stewards and other activists who can carry class ideas into the workplaces and working class estates.
Such a recovery requires two things. Firstly it will take events: big class battles on jobs, wages, privatisation or other issues will be needed to forge a new generation of activists and to allow the working class to think in different terms than nationalism and unionism.
A drawn out process
If it were likely that there would be a rapid descent to sectarian civil war the outlook would be difficult given the throwing back of class-consciousness and the weakening of the shop steward layer that has taken place. Fortunately this is not the most likely perspective. It is more probable that the conflict will have a drawn out character and this will provide the working class movement with the precious ingredient of time to allow some of the past wounds to heal and to prepare for a new offensive.
Elements of civil war are already present in the situation, in the fighting at the “interfaces” and in the nightly sectarian intimidation and attacks. This is of a low intensity character, a trickle of sectarian lava that most people can sidestep and not yet a pyroclastic cloud that engulfs all before it. We are still a long way from what happened in the Lebanon or Bosnia.
While the unmistakeable direction of events has been towards deepening sectarian conflict and ultimately civil war this has had and is likely still to have a drawn out and protracted character. A common feature to what happened in Bosnia and the Lebanon was that the central state collapsed. In Bosnia the trigger was the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. In the Lebanon the power sharing arrangements between Christians and Muslims that had existed for decades, but which no longer reflected the population balance, came apart.
Ethnically based armed militias fighting for territory filled the vacuum of central authority in both cases. In Northern Ireland the state, especially since 1969, is the British state. The “armed bodies of men” who defend the interests of the ruling class are under the direct control of Westminster. Their actions are determined by the interests of the British ruling class and not directly by the interests of either unionism or nationalism.
This is a decisive difference. The British ruling class do not want to see the situation overspill to a sectarian civil war which would destabilise Ireland and which would have massive repercussions in Scotland and among the huge Irish communities in every major British city.
For them the best defence against the sectarian unravelling of the whole situation is political rather than military. Hence their efforts to bolster the faltering peace process and to continuously prop up the sagging political arrangements. But when politics fail, when negotiations over disputed issues break down into confrontation – as is more and more the case – they are prepared to commit considerable resources to ensure that a Drumcree style line of military containment is held.
Through a policy of containment and with constant efforts to achieve some political deal the ruling class can play a role in regulating the sectarian war. The effect is not to resolve anything or even to diminish the conflict but merely to stretch it out over a prolonged period.
So long as the violence is relatively sporadic and the issues that provoke confrontations are relatively isolated the state can position itself between the two sides and hold a line. There is likely to be a long drawn out process that will see confrontations, moves to agreement, even periods where the whole thing seems to have settled down only to be followed by new upheavals.
Containment, even containment over a protracted period, should not be mistaken for a solution. Military methods to patch up the gaps in the political process may keep the violence at a sporadic level but they can no more eliminate it today than they were able to do over the thirty years of the Troubles.
Even this is not guaranteed. The army and policy can hold a line of sorts so long as the conflict is confined to a few areas and has a low intensity character. Should it become more generalised they would very quickly be stretched beyond capacity. During the Drumcree crises in 1996 and 1997 they came within a whisker of this. Again this summer (2001) they were able to keep only a partial lid on the fighting in North Belfast and would have been impotent if this had spread to other areas
In the long run, if the sectarian polarisation increases and the violence intensifies, the state will be incapable of preventing civil war. At a certain point they would probably be able to do no more than ring fence whole areas and act as a buffer along the new lines of division that civil war would create.
While there is no ground for complacency given the volatile and uncertain situation it still remains the most likely perspective that events will take a somewhat protracted course. The working class will have time to recover from the blows it received in the late 1980s and especially through the 1990s. In turn a development in class-consciousness and a recovery in the confidence and combativity of the working class would create more sluggish terrain for sectarian ideas and sectarian organisations.
Changed world situation
Future events in Northern Ireland will unfold against a very different world background than that of the 1990s. The ideological offensive by the apologists for capitalism that was aimed at further disorientating the working class after the collapse of Stalinism has run into the sand. The “free” market system that was declared triumphant is teetering into recession. September 11th has been a turning point in world relations bringing centre stage the violent and unstable world that this system has created. The “new world order” has undisputedly become the “new world disorder”.
And after a prolonged period of relative quiescence the mighty giant of organised labour is beginning to stir again. It would be an exaggeration to say that the working class has already moved decisively into action. The peculiar and distorted course taken by events in the neo colonial world reflects, on the one side, the anger of the masses at the effects of more than a decade of neo liberal “free market” policies and, on the other hand, the fact the working class still does not appear able to offer an alternative way out.
But this is now beginning to change. A new period of radicalisation is opening. In this period the ideas of “struggle” and “socialism” that the rulers of the world, during the 1990s, tried to place in the same grave as “history” will come back onto the agenda, probably with a vengeance. Just as the 1990s acted as a drag on the working class movement in Northern Ireland – and boosted sectarian reaction – so a changed world situation will have the opposite effect.
The revolt of the youth against the institutions and effects of global capitalism that began in Seattle at the end of the 1990s was the first sign of a more radical period. While workers have been involved in the sizeable trade union contingents on some of the anti capitalist protests in the main this has been a movement of sections of the middle class youth and intelligentsia who have begun to shake off the ideological debris left by the collapse of Stalinism and the 1990s boom.
During the 1990s opposition to the effects of globalisation concentrated on single issues. Seeing no alternative to the market the youth held back from more general conclusions. Now, at the very least, an anti capitalist, if not yet a socialist, consciousness has developed. The tens of thousands who have been involved in the mass demonstrations and the many more who have been affected by these protests have moved towards the idea that capitalism does not work. This in and of itself poses the question – what alternative is there to this failed system.
These events have drawn the attention of an important layer of the youth in Northern Ireland. Although the attempts to organise similar protests have been quite small and dominated by the infantile antics of the SWP and other ultra lefts, the outlook of a much broader section of the youth has been affected by these international developments.
Whether consciously or unconsciously many of these youth have turned away from local politics, seeing only what seems to be a never-ending sectarian conflict. They have focused instead on the radical ideas that are beginning to surface internationally. The fact that they completely recoil from what is happening around them means that, dialectically, they are more prepared to draw far-reaching conclusions from world events. For the first time in more than a decade an important section of the youth are wide open to the ideas of Marxism.
This is why the decision, taken just over twelve months ago, to launch Socialist Youth was such a timely initiative for our party. Socialist Youth has been able very successfully to tap into the layer of youth who will come to meetings on topics like “Globalisation” or “Che Guevara” but who, at this stage, would not be attracted by subjects like “sectarianism” or the “peace process”
As is the case internationally this is in the main this is a middle class layer. Working class youth live closer to the conflict and find it more difficult to duck either its physical effects or the prejudices that go with it. Nonetheless this is a very important development.
New workers movements
The worldwide radicalisation of this layer of youth is the first indication of the beginnings of a shift to the left within society. As Trotsky once commented, the wind tends to blow the tops of the trees first. The stirrings among students and school students are a portent of the much bigger movements of the working class that lie ahead.
Already the outlines of these movements are visible, albeit still faintly in some countries. In Latin America the last two years have seen a series of strikes, general strikes and even insurrectionary movements. Earlier this year the Greek working class gave a vivid demonstration of their power in what was one of the most solid and successful general strikes since the movement that followed the fall of the Junta in 1974.
And while the core of the anti capitalist movement worldwide have been the youth, the 300,000 strong protest against the G8 summit that was held in Genoa in July 2001 was overwhelmingly a workers demonstration. This reflected the more advanced state of the class movement in Italy and also the existence of the PRC (Communist Refoundation Party), a party that defied the 1990s by maintaining a left reformist programme and a significant base of support among the working class.
The opposition to Bush and Blair’s war against Afghanistan drew in many of those who had been involved in the anti capitalist movement and has consequently begun on a higher level than the campaigns against the Gulf war and the bombing of Serbia. Again this was mainly a movement of the youth.
The degree of opposition varied country to country. In the ex colonial countries there was deep hostility to Imperialism. In the advanced countries the situation varied but the working class, while increasingly sceptical, generally held back from the protests. Again Italy, in part because of the role of the PRC, was somewhat of an exception. Just weeks after the bombing began a huge demonstration of 500,000 voiced their opposition.
These are all indications of the beginnings of what will be a new upturn in the class struggle. It is impossible to measure precisely in advance how this movement will be affected by the recession that is now beginning. Most likely this will also vary although the general effect could be to stun the working class for a period, especially if the downturn is particularly sharp. Even if this should happen there are certain to be defensive battles – especially against closures and redundancies – and many of these are likely to be bitter in character.
Over time a new generation of activists will be tutored in this harsher school of class struggle. These will come into conflict with the current leaderships of the trade unions who have accommodated themselves to the capitalist system. They will also come into opposition to the current class collaborationist mantra of this leadership – the idea of “social partnership”.
Fundamentally it is events that shape and reshape consciousness. In particular the working class draws conclusions primarily from experience. The experience not just of struggle, but of bitter struggle that openly exposes the true class nature of society and which takes place against the background of the period of instability and upheaval signalled by September 11th, will most certainly have a profound impact on consciousness.
The working class, starting with the more active class conscious layer, will begin to draw conclusions not just about the need to struggle but about the need to take political as well as industrial action. In the class war, as in any war, ground that was previously conquered sometimes has to be recaptured. Before the setbacks of the late 1980s and 1990s the idea that the working class needed its own political parties independent of and in opposition to the parties of the establishment, was broadly understood, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries.
The downturn in the class struggle, the falling back of consciousness and the shift to the right on the part of the leadership of the industrial and political organisations of the working class, means that this lesson has largely been erased. A new period of heightened class conflict, of victories, but also of defeats that seem to bar a way forward by industrial means, will once again direct workers towards a political road.
New broad working class parties are likely to emerge in the next period. The first steps towards their formation may be confused and tentative. They may not initially have a socialist programme. But the pressures of the class struggle will tell and the ideas of left reformism that, with a few notable exceptions have not had any mass base of support for more than a decade, will emerge within them.
Just as the world movement of youth against globalisation and against capitalism had an impact among sections of the youth in Northern Ireland, so the even more striking industrial and political movements of the working class internationally that lie ahead will have a huge effect on workers. Events internationally will leave their mark but the most particular impact will be from a revival of the class struggle and the re-emergence of the ideas of socialism among the working class in Britain and the south.
This does not mean that the working class movement in the north will necessarily trail in the wake of the movement in Britain, the south or internationally. The same factors that are beginning to reinvigorate the class struggle across Europe also apply in the north. Historically the working class movement in Northern Ireland, precisely because of the sharpness of the political situation, has had a tendency to move more explosively and to draw conclusions more quickly than workers in other northern European countries.
The working class in the north, because they have been partially paralysed by sectarianism, can set out from a starting point behind the movement elsewhere. Events outside can act as an initial inspiration and a spur, but then, in part because of the need to counter the threat posed by sectarianism, the movement in the north can be thrust into the front line of the class struggle.
Even in the present very difficult situation the outlines of what can happen in the future are visible, even if not always clearly. While sectarianism has weighed down the workers movement and while the shift to the right has deprived it of leadership, the effect has been to numb the movement rather than atomise it.
Basically the working class movement is anaesthetised but intact. Inevitably the increased polarisation has penetrated the workplaces to some extent and recent surveys have shown this to be an increasing problem. However the underlining unity of the working class at the place of work has not been broken. And when class issues have come to the fore this unity has time and again overridden the sectarianism and isolated those who promote it.
Society in Northern Ireland is covered with a disfiguring sectarian mask that hides everything that is not directly related to the conflict. But behind this there is massive discontent and seething class anger. We have brought this to the surface in the support for the activities of the End Low Pay Campaign. The response to the “name and shame” tactic shows a hatred of employers that is fed, not just on low pay, but on long hours, ill treatment and lack of conditions, and which runs very deep.
But it has been the issue of Health cuts, especially the threat to cut acute facilities from local hospitals. that has sparked the biggest opposition. The explosive movements that have developed in defence of hospital services have given a glimpse of what can happen in the future when the working class regains confidence and moves more decisively into struggle.
Recent years have seen huge demonstrations in Downpatrick and Dungannon opposing the threat to acute services in the local hospitals. One immense demonstration of 50,000 in Downpatrick mobilised virtually the entire active community in the Down area.
In some senses the more recent demonstration, of 20,000 in Omagh in October 2001, was even more impressive. The Downpatrick demonstrations were on a Saturday while the huge protest in Dungannon took place on a weekday but after working hours. But the Omagh demonstration was on a Monday lunchtime.
Hospital workers marched to the town centre rally. Other workplaces did the same, some in direct defiance of their employers who tried to restrict their attendance. The demonstration – the largest in the history of Omagh – had some of the features of a general strike.
Anti sectarian movements
There have not been major movements against sectarianism or for an end to violence since the big demonstrations against the breaking of the IRA ceasefire with the bombing of Canary Wharf at the start of 1997. There have however been indications that the potential for such movements is still there.
To acknowledge this is not to deny the increased polarisation or the fact that this rise in sectarianism has seeped into the consciousness of the working class. To understand consciousness we have to deal, not in fixed categories, but with contradictions and processes. The same workers who now stand poles apart on issues like policing, parades, access to schools and the national question can stand together, not just on social and economic questions, but against sectarian violence and against a return to the Troubles.
During the summer of 2001 the UDA – under various titles – carried out two killings* that were brutally reminiscent of the sectarian assassinations that the vast majority of people, Catholic and Protestant, hoped had ended with the loyalist cease-fires. In both cases there was widespread revulsion, which, in the absence of any call for action by trade union or community leaders, showed itself in small incidents rather than mass protests.
*The latest indications are that one of these killings – that of Ciaran Cummings in Antrim may have been carried out by dissident members of the UVF
When news reached his workmates in the FG Wilson factory that their teenage workmate, Ciaran Cummings, had been gunned down while standing at an Antrim roundabout waiting for a lift to work, they downed tools and went home. People from all parts of Antrim – Catholic and Protestant – turned up at the spot where he was killed with flowers and other tributes.
There was a similar mood of disgust when another teenager, Gavin Brett, a Protestant who was taken for a Catholic, was murdered in Glengormley, Again there were no organised protests – apart from a vigil held by members of our party and of Socialist Youth.
Nevertheless workers from the nearby Mallusk Royal Mail sorting office came out in small groups – an “almost demonstration” – and walked the few hundred yards to the scene of his murder. The call raised by us for a day of action to demand a halt to the killings was taken up by the media and was publicly echoed by one of Gavin’s uncles.
On the industrial front the working class has been pushed back but the capacity for action has not been eliminated. Figures for days lost due to strikes are at historically low levels. Nevertheless when there have been disputes there has also been solidarity and determination just as in earlier periods of greater militancy. The one-day strikes against British Telecom in 1999 and 2000 were an example – workers voted almost unanimously for a series of one-day strikes on issues of conditions and against the use of agency staff. When the strikes went ahead they were completely solid.
Fire fighters showed similar resolve when they were balloted for strike action over the threat to withdraw the Northern Ireland allowance. So overwhelming was the vote to strike that the employers backed off and the allowance was retained.
The suspension of two Royal Mail workers in Belfast in the run up to Christmas 2000 provoked a walkout that took both the management and the union completely by surprise. This was a spontaneous action. It took place because, with increased workloads and constant management harassment, one relatively minor incident was enough to ignite the anger of the workforce. The strike was completely solid and, when it spread from Belfast to the main sorting office at Mallusk, threatened to paralyse the Christmas mail.
A senior union official was sent from Scotland with one objective – to bring about a return to work. The local branch representatives by and large supported his intervention and argued that the strike should end. Without any leadership the workers were left angry but disorientated and, several stormy mass meetings later, agreed to go back to work.
The Royal Mail workers could have won an important victory but for the fact that the CWU leadership locally and nationally mounted a successful rescue operation for a management that was on the ropes. Instead of an outright victory there was a setback that dampened the mood for action for a period.
Role of leadership
After years of defeats workers have less confidence that strikes can be won, certainly that they can be won without a massive struggle, and so the question of leadership has become more decisive than ever. Workers are generally cautious about taking action and are doubly cautious if they have no confidence in their union leadership.
This doesn’t mean that without leadership there will be no struggles. There is a limit to how far workers can be pushed before they are driven to fight, leadership or no leadership, as the action of the Royal Mail workers, and of the Montupet workforce in 1997, showed.
The working class will be forced by circumstances onto the road of struggle even against the resistance of right wing or worn out shop stewards and the union officialdom. But where there are militant and fighting shop stewards, even in a few workplaces, the process will be very much easier.
It is no coincidence that, in the majority of cases where disputes have taken place, and particularly where these have been fought through to a successful conclusion, there has been a left wing local leadership. In the case of the fire fighters the fact that the FBU has both a left regional leadership and strong local organisation was a key factor in encouraging the membership to vote overwhelmingly for strike action.
Neither is it coincidental that a big proportion of the most determined disputes in the last two or three years have led or heavily influenced by Socialist Party members. The fact that a small party should be at the heart of such a high percentage of the struggles that have taken place indicates the current weakness of the left and the absence of any significant layer of shop stewards capable of playing a role independent of the trade union bureaucracy. On the other hand it illustrates the correctness of our ideas and methods and the effect that even a few individuals trained in these methods can have.
CWU members in British Telecom have a strong union branch whose key organiser is a member of the Socialist Party. As with the fire fighters the fact of a determined leadership was crucial in encouraging these workers to vote almost unanimously for strike action and for the solid turnout that eventually forced BT to back down.
Socialist Party members also played the key role in organising disputes by social work staff involved in childcare in North and West Belfast and in Derry in 2000 over the demand for extra staff. Faced with impossible workloads these workers were angry but, at the outset, were also modest in their demands and their expectations.
Once the huge votes for strike came through and once they began to take action their determination increased and their sights were raised. What they might have settled for before the action was no longer enough. Both disputes ended not just in victory but in a settlement that was more than the original claim; an outcome entirely untypical of a period still characterised by setback and retreat.
Term time dispute
All the main features of industrial struggle in this complex period were present in a condensed form during the historic term time workers dispute. What erupted into the biggest industrial relations headache for the Assembly in its first period, and especially for the Sinn Fein Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, began on a small scale when one term time worker brought a complaint about not being paid for school holiday periods to the branch officers of the South Eastern Education and Library Board branch of NIPSA.
The officers, who are members of the Socialist Party, took the issue up. Term time workers were consulted and came up with a claim for the payment of a retainer fee to cover holiday periods. This led to a protracted and bitter dispute involving regular protests, lobbies, pickets and demonstrations all of which attracted considerable press attention.
The dispute spread across the five Education and Library Boards but the epicentre was the South Eastern Board where the Socialist Party led NIPSA branch was strongest. In other Boards union organisation was at a low level in the schools. Some branches had right wing officers who did all they could to obstruct the moves towards industrial action.
Term time workers across all the Boards, on the other hand, responded enthusiastically. Many of them had not even considered joining a union let alone going on strike, but when they at last saw the union doing something there was a flood of recruits. This was especially so in the South Eastern Board where there was the strongest leadership. By the end of the dispute the South Eastern NIPSA branch had more term time workers than the other four Boards put together.
In some of the other branches right wing officers who did not want a flood of militant term time workers challenging them in their own domains played an obstructive role from the start. They were not alone. The right wing leadership, including the full time officials responsible for the dispute, also did all they could to stop the term time workers taking industrial action.
The NIPSA leadership initially turned down demands for a ballot. Instead senior NIPSA officials, along with officials from UNISON and other unions conducted secret negotiations with Martin McGuinness’s Department. Behind the backs of the term time workers and their representatives they put their names to a shoddy deal – that the workers should accept their existing salary spread over twelve months. They assured the Department that all the “trouble” was the work of a few Socialist Party members who could be isolated and the deal sold.
Only a massive campaign within the union and among term time workers in all Boards, spearheaded by Socialist Party members, prevented this agreement going through and forced the union to ballot term time members on it. For a “yes” vote was Martin McGuinness and, in reality, the leadership of all the main unions involved. Against was the Socialist Party led South Eastern NIPSA branch. The result was a shattering rejection – across the whole of Northern Ireland only one person voted to accept the deal!
This was a turning point in the dispute. The term time workers had become a cause celebre in NIPSA. Other branches rallied behind them against the union leadership. The June 2000 NIPSA conference was dominated by the dispute with speaker after speaker lambasting the platform for the role they had played. The call for a strike ballot could no longer be resisted.
Faced with the certainty that a ballot would result in a resounding “yes” for a strike that would close schools and cause a major crisis for the Assembly the employers capitulated. As with the disputes in child care the offer that was finally accepted went further than the original claim. Instead of a retainer fee, which might only been half pay, it offered staff the right to choose to switch from term time to full time contracts with full pay.
This was a huge victory achieved by a group of workers with no history of industrial militancy and scattered across dozens of workplaces. It was a victory that was only possible because Socialist Party members at the hub of the dispute in the South Eastern Board area were able to provide the direction that was needed.
The term time and other recent disputes are still very much the exception not the norm. They are isolated outposts of solidarity in a period in which the working class has still not recovered from the recent legacy of defeats. But all of them, above all the term time victory, had an impact on other workers, particularly those in the public sector. Since it ended other groups of public sector workers have either balloted for action or taken action, having seen that the way to get results is through struggle. not through the tame methods of the bureaucracy.
These are just the first signs of a revival of the class struggle. This process could be complicated by the recession that is now beginning to develop. As could happen internationally, a severe downturn could have a stunning effect, especially on workers in the private sector. But even if an offensive movement is delayed for a period there is the possibility of defensive battles over redundancies, closures or over attacks on wages and conditions.
Recession is likely to have less impact on public sector workers. Because the public sector is a relatively larger part of the economy and public sector workers are a bigger percentage of the total workforce, their struggles could play a critical role in helping the movement revive.
It is not possible to predict over what period or in what manner the movement will develop. It may be that it will have an abrupt and explosive character with one or two major battles rearranging the industrial landscape. Or it could be a much more long drawn out process with the working class, weighed down by the handicaps of a reluctant bureaucracy and by the effects of recession, being able only hesitatingly to regain its feet.
Whatever way it happens the period of relative class peace, of “partnership”, of the unions being largely incorporated in the capitalist state, will eventually be thrown into reverse. Recent struggles are the stirrings of the future. Inevitably those have put themselves to the forefront of these movements and who are an advanced guard of this future have met with resistance from those who represent the past; from the bureaucratic crustacean that formed at national and workplace level during the period of industrial inertia.
The basic instinct of all bureaucracies is self-preservation. Class-conscious activists with support among the union membership represent a fundamental threat to the perks and privileges that the top bureaucrats especially, but also the petty bureaucracies in the workplaces, have become accustomed to. In many unions and workplaces “partnership” has taken on a new meaning: not just sell out deals on wages and conditions but a union/management conspiracy to get rid of “troublesome” shop stewards and officials who, in the words of the former managing director of Shorts “don’t understand the modern role that trade unions have to play”.
A witch-hunting atmosphere has developed in many workplaces and in a number of unions. In some cases this has involved disciplinary action by management – with very often a large degree of union connivance. In other cases it has been the union bureaucracy who have taken disciplinary action against their own members – with the hand of employers and at times of the government visible in the background.
Most of the union officials who have not bowed deeply enough to the employers or the government have either been pulled into line or disciplined by the right wing bureaucracies. The two senior officials of the TGWU, Mick O’Reilly and Eugene McGlone have been suspended on trumped up and quite ridiculous charges mainly because O’Reilly’s opposition to social partnership in the south upsets the relationship between the ICTU and the Irish government and also indirectly challenges the cosy rapport between the TGWU and Tony Blair.
Joe Bowers, a full time officer for the MSF and a leading member of the Communist Party is facing dismissal by the right wing MSF leadership. This is part of a witch hunt of left officials that has been carried out in order to pave the way for a merger with the right wing led AEEU. Even more ominously there is clear evidence that part of the pressure to get rid of Bowers came from the management of Shorts who insisted that he should not be involved in any way in negotiations with their company.
Pressure also came from right wing shop stewards within the company. The union convenors in Shorts, some of whom have connections to the loyalist paramilitaries, now work closely with the management both in promoting the company and in developing “good” industrial relations.
Attacks on senior officials are very often a prelude to broader attacks on shop stewards and other activists who resist the trend to what is in effect company trade unionism. In Shorts the management and the senior union reps have also cooperated to victimise the branch officers of the MSF branch, the one union organisation in the factory to have stood against the attacks on conditions that were tamely accepted by others on the works committee.
Shorts is not only the largest employer in Northern Ireland, it is a company with a long history of strong and militant trade union organisation. It has been somewhat of a standard bearer of trade unionism in the north and what is happening is therefore a blow to workers in the rest of the private sector in particular.
The removal of the senior officials of the T&GWU, if this goes ahead, would also be a blow. Since Mick O’Reilly became its Irish regional secretary the T&GWU has stood out in the south as the main opponent of the national “partnership” agreements. In the north it has meant a certain opening up of the union although, to the bulk of the members, it has made little difference.
But the suspensions and threat of dismissal are not just an attack on two individuals. It is an attempt by the right wing leadership in Britain to clamp down on the left in the union. Already it has been accompanied by threats to other officials in the Belfast office, by an attack on the left led Regional Committee, and by attempts to restrict the rights of some individual activists.
Members in the north may not have noticed much difference when the O’Reilly/McGlone leadership took over but they would notice a clear difference if a new right wing leadership is installed. The former may have done very little to encourage a fight back against the employers, the latter would do all they can to discourage one.
There is no clearly defined front line to the class struggle particularly in this complex period. It doesn’t only take the form of a direct assault on the employers but is fought out within the organisations of the working class as well. In fact one of the sharpest edges of this struggle is within the trade unions between those who are trying to represent the interests of the working class and those who, in effect, act as agents of the employers.
In broader historical terms the witch-hunting actions of the right wing bureaucracy may be seen as Canute like gestures by those who represent things as they were in the 1990s and who are trying to resist events that are no longer flowing in their favour. In more immediate terms they can cause setbacks, can temporarily reinforce the dictatorship of Capital in the workplaces and can slow up the class struggle.
The attacks of the right can be successfully resisted but only by a counter offensive taking the issues to the membership. Right wing leaderships locally and nationally have no real basis among the members. More often than not they are viewed with deserved contempt. They retain their positions through membership inertia; because workers, even activists, who see no way of getting rid of them tend to lapse into activity or in some cases leave the union altogether.
As workers become more involved and more active so the grip of the right will loosen. Witch-hunting methods, if opposed properly, can have the opposite than intended effect by turning the membership against those who implement them – provided, that is, that correct tactics are used to resist them.
After the term time dispute, Eimear Duffy, a Socialist Party member now active in the right wing controlled Belfast Education branch, was sacked by management on a spurious pretext. There is evidence of collusion between at least one branch officer and management over this. The right wing branch officers responded to the sacking of a member of their branch committee by going to ground and were nowhere to be found for almost a week
It was left to Socialist Party members, along with other activists, to conduct a fight. They began to take the issue to the branch membership – and to other sections of NIPSA – calling for protests and also for a ballot on industrial action. Within days management had more or less completely backed down. This affair has seriously weakened the right wing in this important branch, opening the possibility that one or two individuals, who have become almost fossilised in their positions, could be unceremoniously thrown out.
This attempted witch-hunt backfired on its authors only because it was strenuously opposed. But where the left make serious mistakes the right wing can get away with their attacks and the movement can be weakened.
When the MSF branch in Shorts came under attack from the union bureaucracy and when it was faced with the prospect of merger with the AEEU, which had a right wing and compliant leadership in the factory, they took the decision that the best solution was to leave MSF and join the T&GWU. This was understandable under the circumstances but looking back it was probably counterproductive.
The MSF leadership accused the branch officers of organising to undermine the union and were able to use this as evidence. Eventually the key organisers of the branch were stripped of their union positions. This was a pincer attack from the union and from management who followed up by derecognising them and then shifting some of them to areas of the factory where they would be unable to act even as unofficial organisers.
The coup de grace as far as the company and the bureaucracy are concerned may now be to include these key activists in the current redundancy package so that the rebellious MSF members are left completely leaderless. In the meantime the T&GWU took no steps to follow up on whatever steps may have been taken to sign up the MSF membership in the factory.
There are circumstances in which it is tactically correct to leave one union and join another. If, for example, all roads to change within the union are blocked and are likely to remain blocked for some time, or if there is a danger that the membership is no longer prepared to put up with the consequences of an undemocratic right wing regime and might vote with their feet and resign their membership, a sideways step into another union could possibly free things up and might be justified.
This is a risky manoeuvre – it could end in splitting the membership. If the least active and more conservative workers stayed in the old union it could reduce the influence of the more militant sections on them and make it more difficult to bring everyone out together in any future strike.
It is a manoeuvre that should only be undertaken when all the potential pitfalls are understood by the membership. They should be forewarned that joining another union is no panacea to solve their problems. The difficulties they encountered with the old bureaucracy they are likely to encounter again, to some extent at least, with the leadership strata of whatever other union they choose. There is no substitute for strong shop floor organisation and no alternative to a campaign to democratise the unions around demands that all officials not only be elected but that they receive only the pay of the members they represent.
There are cases where a move from one union to another is justified. But in general the easiest and best course is to stay and fight. In Shorts the proposed merger with the AEEU could have been a double-edged sword. Yes, it risked becoming submerged in a right wing union dominated at local level by right wing and sectarian shop stewards.
But a problem can be looked at from more than one angle. Viewed from a different perspective the merger would have allowed the MSF activists, who had a powerful reputation in the company, access to the shop floor members of the AEEU. By campaigning systematically among this membership the basis might have been laid over time for the ditching of the right wing thus creating a powerful position for the left in the factory. This more patient strategy might well have paid much greater dividends in the longer run.
A new union
It is important to draw the lessons from such experiences otherwise mistakes that have been made tend to be repeated. A much riskier venture, with much greater potential pitfalls, is now being considered in the form of a proposal to organise a breakaway mainly from the T&GWU and MSF and form a new union.
A great deal of denial and double speak has surrounded this issue but it is clear that Mick O’Reilly, Joe Bowers and others in the south see that one way of responding to their suspensions and sackings would be by launching their own union. This is mainly an issue for the south where they hope to link up with the breakaway train drivers union, the ILDA and to attract disaffected members of SIPTU.
Even if the potential base is mainly in the south there would be repercussions in the north where some attempt would be made to get this union off the ground as well. As with the question of moving from one union to another this is a tactical issue. There are circumstances where the launching of a new union can give a massive impetus to the class struggle.
The development of “new unionism” in Ireland only fully came about after Larkin broke away from the British based National Union of Dock Labourers to form the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. Although the split complicated the situation in Belfast across the rest of the country it paved the way for the union organisation to spread beyond the skilled and semi skilled.
This only came about through a series of titanic battles. The 1913 Dublin lockout was fought over the issue of recognition and was really a drawn contest. It took the huge wave of struggles that followed the Russian Revolution, the most revolutionary period in Irish history, to firmly establish the ITGWU as the pre-eminent force among the working class.
In the US there was a similar development during the 1930s with the split from the conservative and craft based American Federation of Labour (AFL) to form the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO). This presaged a mighty movement of the US working class with the violent wave of sit down strikes and occupations that forced the unionisation of the motor industry and other corporations.
These were situations where a developing mass movement of the working class could no longer be contained and restrained within the confines of old organisations. The new unions were thrown up by a wave of struggle that extended the boundaries of trade union organisation beyond its original craft base.
Circumstances today are different. The argument put forward to support the idea of a new union is that the existing unions have moved so far to the right they no longer fulfil the functions of unions. A large section of the membership is disillusioned and would support a new formation. The general bowing to the employers has left huge areas of the workforce unorganised. All this, it is argued, provides fertile territory for a new and more radical union to grow.
There is a certain basis to this line of reasoning. However, for a new union to be successful it would have to develop, not just from splits at the top, but out of the pressure of sections of the working class determined to fight to build it, as those who built the ITGWU fought in 1913 and after.
It would also have to show itself to be qualitatively different from the existing right wing and bureaucratic unions. Otherwise why should workers be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to win the battles that would be needed to bring it into being? Having elected officials on average wages might not be a precondition of success but it would certainly help.
Even if all these factors were in place it would still be necessary to think and think again before taking such a step. Unlike the former mass workers parties that have become openly capitalist parties and have severed their direct connection with the working class the nature of trade unions means that, despite the incorporation of their tops into the state, this link is retained.
Generally speaking it is easier to transform the existing unions than it is to create new formations. And generally this is the better road for the working class to take because it avoids the pitfalls and risks associated with any attempt to win recognition and recruit members to a new and untested organisation.
A new radical union would meet fierce resistance from the employers, the government and from the trade union establishment. To win recognition it would have to take on all three. This would only be possible on the basis that it could win a majority of the workers in a number of key and important workplaces where it could force recognition. Perhaps this could be done if these workforces were prepared for what could be a long struggle.
But if this was not possible – or if such a struggle ended in defeat – there is the danger that the leading activists could be victimised. Not only would the embryo of the new union be stillborn, what would be left behind would be a weakened trade union organisation with the right wing even more entrenched.
There is very little in all this that points to the new union being considered by Joe Bowers, Mick O’Reilly and others having much chance of getting off the ground in any serious manner – in the north at least. Most of the pressure for this initiative is coming from sections of existing union leaderships. Undoubtedly there is intense anger among the rank and file of many unions at the rotten role played by the right wing bureaucracy. What is not so clear is whether this anger has developed into a positive mood for a breakaway.
It is possible that such a mood could develop. However this is much less likely in the context of a recession when the mood of the working class is likely to be defensive. Workers in factories facing redundancies will be less confident about taking on the employers on a recognition issue.
In the north the issue is complicated further by the fact that a split would be a breakaway from British based unions to join a union based in the south. Right-wingers would use sectarian arguments to cut across its support. Faced with the prospect that it could introduce a sectarian division into the workforce even the most sympathetic activists would hesitate and hesitate again before taking any steps to set it up.
We can be slightly more open about the prospect for the proposed new union in the south but in the north it is extremely unlikely to develop any real support. If it is formed it could end up as more of propaganda group, a meeting point for activists, rather than a trade union. Even if this is all it amounts to we should not completely ignore it. It could possibly play a certain role in the rebuilding of a political voice for the working class.
Changing the unions
Whatever happens it will not divert the main strategic line of advance of the working class, which will be through the existing trade union structures. This is the more straightforward road with the least pitfalls and it is the one that most workers will take.
What happened in NIPSA on the back of the term time dispute shows what can happen in every union in the future. The right wing has always controlled the leading bodies of NIPSA and in recent years this control has been more of a stranglehold. But the term time dispute electrified the union and exposed the role both of the bureaucracy and the right dominated General Council in the eyes of a broad swathe of the activists.
Shortly after this dispute was settled elections were held for the incoming General Council. Those opposed to the old leadership, including members of the Socialist Party and those who had led the term time struggle put a “Time for Change” slate forward.
The elections saw the biggest shift to the left in the union’s history. Of the 16 “Time for Change” candidates11were elected. For the first time the right failed to gain a majority on the Council. The highest vote went to a term time worker from the South Eastern Board who was standing for her first election to any position outside her own branch. Four members of the Socialist Party were elected. The left also took two of the three officers positions including the Presidency.
What has been achieved, as a consequence of the term time and childcare disputes is a partial transformation of the union. Enough members were enthused by these victories and enraged by the obstructive role played by the leadership over term time to bring about a major upset in the elections. It has vividly demonstrated that it is through struggle that the stranglehold of the right on the unions will be broken
Still, a sense of proportion is needed in registering what has happened. The election victories, while extremely important, do not mean that NIPSA has been totally transformed or that the right have been routed. The recent disputes have directly involved only a small section of the union’s membership. Only a few branches, which in most cases already had a left leadership, were involved.
The change that has taken place has been in a small minority of branches and at the top of the union. The broad membership may have followed what was happening but a large majority of them have never been involved in any serious struggle. Across the union many branches are defunct, others are controlled by the right wing and have a very low level of activity.
The real transformation will come when issues arise that involve many more branches, including civil service branches, in action; and when a process of displacing the right wing from the positions they hold in these branches really gets underway. The victory in the 2001 elections establishes a bridgehead for the left at the top of the union. It is a bridgehead that will only be held if the process of change is carried down through the branches into the membership.
If the “Time for Change” victory can be repeated in the next elections – and this is by no means guaranteed – the influence of the left at the top can accelerate the process of change at the bottom. Branches that want to take industrial action can be encouraged and given backing, not made to jump through various shades of bureaucratic hoops as would have happened before.
Issues like cuts, wages, but especially privatisation or part privatisation that the previous right wing dominated General Councils have ducked and avoided are there in abundance. If even one or two of these are taken up in a campaigning way they can open the door to struggles that will challenge the role of the right wing at branch level and help promote a new layer of younger activists.
What has happened in NIPSA can take place in other unions, the MSF and the T&GWU included. This will require events, struggles that activate and radicalise the ranks that are now largely dormant. There is no substitute for events in bringing about change. But if we can develop a base of even a few key activists in the main unions we can speed this process, just as the work we have carried out in NIPSA has quite dramatically accelerated the shift to the left that has taken place in that union.
It is now most likely that the period we are entering will bring about a new upturn in the class struggle and the beginnings of a recovery from the past period of retreat. It is not possible to predict the timescale or the tempo of this movement. History will combine objective conditions with the subjective role of individuals and organisations to determine this. At this stage we can only point to the main processes and draw general conclusions.
A working class party
Increased working class struggle – whether through the unions on industrial matters, or from within the communities on social questions, or in some other form – will mean a development of class consciousness that ultimately will challenge the narrow sectarian outlook that has been vastly reinforced by the downturn of the workers movement.
A significant and sustained rise in class-consciousness would necessarily mean a change in political outlook. It would give weight to the idea that the working class have particular political interests that cannot be served by sectarian and right wing parties all of whom, in the last analysis, defend the interests of the ruling class.
A by-product of the Troubles was the political decapitation of the working class to the point that sectarian parties, for the first time in the history of the north, managed to gain a complete monopoly in working class areas. A new period of intense class struggle would bring the working class into collision with these parties – and would pose once again the need for an alternative.
The idea that has been off the agenda for a whole historical period – that the working class needs its own political party – can resurface and, provided the movement is not thrown back by sectarian upheaval, can resurface with some force. This idea can grow from being the property of a few relatively isolated activists to become part of the consciousness of a broad layer of the working class.
Whether, at what point, and in what manner this understanding will move beyond an idea and take a serious organisational form is an open question. It will depend on how the movement will develop. The first steps could be taken if campaigners on single issues – the campaign to save local hospitals is the clearest immediate example – decide to put up candidates. There was a dry run in the 2001 local elections with Raymond Blaney’s victory in Downpatrick.
Or a union or group of unions shifting significantly to the left could decide to defend their members’ interests; for example on issues like privatisation by directly fielding candidates or else endorsing candidates. Or moves to break the sectarian political monopoly could begin in ways that it is impossible to foresee at this juncture.
As with the fight to end the right wing control of the unions the subjective factor in the form of our party can play an important role in making sure, as far as our resources allow, that every avenue that opens towards the building of a political party of the working class is taken.
Can the sectarian parties be exposed?
The task of combating and exposing the powerful sectarian vested political interests will not be easy. Each of the major parties will use every weapon at their disposal to keep the working class divided and protect their political terrain. If the Assembly were to stay in place for a further period it would easier – but still not easy – to expose the real class nature of these parties and to loosen their ties of support among the working class.
Since the fall of the old Stormont in 1972 and the imposition of direct rule – apart from the few moments when new political institutions were put in place and before their collapse – all the major parties have had the political luxury of being in permanent opposition. They were able to concentrate on their own sectarian agenda while distancing themselves from any unpopular measures introduced by governments at Westminster.
The Good Friday Agreement and the Assembly changed all that. Sinn Fein, the SDLP the DUP and UUP shared out responsibility between themselves for economic development and the administration of public services like Health, Education, and Transport.
What was notable was the speed with which the euphoria about an Assembly, in which normally warring adversaries agreed to cooperate, evaporated and how quickly any illusions about what this body might deliver began to dispel. It did not go unnoticed that the first act of the Assembly, agreed in an instant by parties who had spun the peace negotiations out for years, was to grant themselves a huge pay rise. Or that the next measures were to sort out their pensions and then to work out severance payments just in case the whole thing quickly collapsed.
Once up and running there was the usual discord on whatever sectarian issues the main parties choose to flag up. But there was complete harmony on social and economic matters. On one or two issues local pressure forced them to step back from some of New Labour’s most unpopular measures. The imposition of fees on third level students was modified, not completely abolished.
There was also some kudos for the review and probably the abolition of the hated 11 plus examination and the granting of free public transport to pensioners. But any positive impact of these measures was more than negated by the crisis in Health care, the closure of local hospitals, the impotence of the economic development Minister in face of factory closures, the depression in Agriculture and the continuation of privatisation under schemes like the Private Finance Initiative.
From virtually the word go the attitude of workers was one of mistrust in the Executive. There were very few illusions that left to themselves the politicians would deliver anything, Rather than sit back and leave it to these parties the instinct was to lobby, protest and apply pressure in whatever way possible to force them to deliver.
The fact of the existence of the Executive encouraged a large number of demonstrations and rallies, most of them on class issues. In a very short space of time the front steps of Stormont became the stage for all sorts of protests. The term time workers organised a number of mass lobbies, as did other groups of workers. Farmers and farm workers staged what was the biggest demonstration during the Assembly’s first period when thousands turned up to protest against the virtual collapse of the agriculture industry.
With the Assembly back in place after the IRA’s decommissioning move – at least for a period – the politics that the four Executive parties will come up with will be more of the same – very public sectarian brawling but behind it close cooperation on pro business anti working class measures.
The “Programme for Government” which is to be agreed by the start of 2002 sets out its stall clearly when it states that the private sector is the “motor of economic development”. The policy is for increased use of private finance in public services meaning – unless recession and mass opposition forces them to pull back – worse conditions for those who work in them and a worse service for the public.
All the parties are fully behind this. Sinn Fein, despite the radical image it still likes to project, has joined the chorus of “pragmatism” when it comes to this and other economic policies. Writing in their West Belfast newsletter – under the misleading heading “Developing our public services” – local Sinn Fein MLA, Alex Maskey accepts that “we will need to fund an even greater portion of our public sector capital building programme using PPP (Public Private Partnerships)”.
He argues that “Private Sector Finance can help accelerate building and investment” and concludes that “we will have to take responsibility for some difficult decisions and rhetoric will not help when the reality hits us that we need to find billions to invest in restructuring our hospitals or our railways.”
Sinn Fein will have to answer to its working class base for these policies which will be increasingly unpopular. So will the DUP which has a stronger base in Protestant working class areas than its UUP rival.
This is especially so since the next period of the Assembly will take place against the background of recession. Whatever advantage it gained from the continued growth of the economy when it was first set up will no longer be there. If the Executive manages to stumble on for a lengthy period its policies will face opposition from the working class. It is possible that big movements could develop against it.
What it did in its first period caused problems and divisions in those parties that rely on working class support, especially Sinn Fein. These did not go to the point of open cracks or splits because of the glue of the national question and because the Executive was not in place long enough.
Nonetheless it was clear that many Sinn Fein representatives on the ground found some of the decisions being taken by the two Sinn Fein Ministers impossible to sell. Health Minister Bairbre De Brun has recommended the Hayes decision that would remove emergency services from Omagh.
Yet the Sinn Fein councillors in Omagh could not do anything else but support the anti closure campaign and back the mass demonstration against Hayes – and against De Brun. Newly elected Westminster MP for the area, Pat Doherty of Sinn Fein, also called for acute services to stay in Omagh.
The Omagh council campaign has a parochial view – that if there is to be a new hospital it should be in Omagh and not in Enniskillen. The Hayes report is recommending instead that Enniskillen should be upgraded and Omagh run down.
While their party colleagues are taking to the streets in Omagh to oppose Hayes the no less parochial and blinkered local politicians from all parties in Fermanagh have welcomed the report. Pat Doherty, representing West Tyrone, is against Hayes. Across the constituency boundary in Fermanagh/South Tyrone his newly elected Sinn Fein colleague, Michelle Gildernew, agrees with the report.
It may be that Bairbre De Brun will be forced to bow to the pressure and make a concession over Omagh. This would get Sinn Fein off this particular hook. But what has happened on this happened also over the term time dispute and will occur again over many other questions – provided that is that the Assembly stays in place.
Divide and rule
All other things being equal this would inevitable lead to an erosion of support among the working class for the parties in the Executive. It would also prepare the ground for an alternative to emerge. However this would not be automatic. The task of reconstructing mass parties of the working class will be difficult in every country with many obstacles left behind during the 1990s still there to cross. In Northern Ireland it will be more difficult again because of the hugely complicating factor of the national question.
Not all the anger that will develop against the policies of the Executive will take a class form. Whatever support seeps away from the main parties will leave a vacuum in the working class areas. This is a vacuum that a new working class party could fill. But the ground will not be uncontested.
There are powerful forces on both sides that would do everything possible to make sure the working class drew sectarian and not class conclusions. The main parties themselves would throw up a sectarian dust storm to prevent any class opposition from coalescing. We had a glimpse of this in the way Sinn Fein used the issue of parades to cut across class unity on the Ormeau Road in 1992. The unionists of all shades would do the same but under different colours and on different issues.
Behind these parties are the recalcitrant and reactionary forces that are active on a day-to-day basis in whipping up sectarianism within the working class communities. On the Protestant side anti Agreement unionists and loyalists – the DUP and a section of the UUP included – would try to channel discontent with the Executive into sectarian opposition to the Agreement.
On the Catholic side the more strident and more sectarian voices – within as well as outside Sinn Fein – would also try to dig a sectarian channel along which to direct the disillusionment of working class Catholics. They would encourage nationalist conclusions – that an “internal solution” won’t work, that the Assembly’s policies are dictated by Britain, that the lack of money is the fault of the British Exchequer and that only an all-Ireland economy could prosper etc – and would step up the efforts to deconstruct the State from below.
That such voices will be raised doesn’t mean they will be successful in keeping workers divided. Nationalism and sectarianism offer an irrational outlet for class anger that cannot find any other expression. They flourish when, as at present, there is no alternative and will continue to develop unless an alternative is built.
But the emergence of a movement, even in its early stages, that is capable of uniting Protestant and Catholic workers and of showing another way of fighting back means that the discontent of the working class can be rationally expressed. Under these circumstances, when the working class have a choice and a better option, the efforts of sectarian politicians and their foot soldiers to whip up division can backfire.
Historically the attempts to divide workers have been successful in periods of downturn of the class struggle. When workers unite in action to take a struggle forward the divide and rule tactics of governments, employers or politicians have, more often than not, acted to drive the movement forward, to further cement unity and to isolate the sectarians. They act like the whip of counter-revolution, which applied at the wrong time, can produce revolution, not reaction.
We have often given the example of what happened during the 1974 unofficial strike by workers in the milk industry in Belfast. At one point a dairy with a mainly Protestant workforce went back to work while the dairy next door, with its overwhelmingly Catholic workforce, stayed out. Loyalist paramilitaries saw this as an opportunity and mounted a gun attack on the mainly Catholic picket line. Strike leaders responded by calling a meeting of the neighbouring Protestant workforce who, in their disgust at the attack, decided to rejoin the strike. Once again it was the whip of counter-revolution driving the movement forward.
This may be a small-scale example but it illustrates a process that can be repeated on a much bigger scale. If united workers movements develop in opposition to the policies of the four party Executive, attempts by these parties – or by others – to throw sectarian dust in the face of these movements could have the opposite effect than that intended. If could expose the sectarians for what they are in the minds of a broad layer of the working class; it could reduce their influence and could cement the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers that had emerged up to that point.
If the Assembly collapses
The best scenario from a socialist point of view would be that the Assembly would survive for an extended period, not because this will bring any stability but because it will help expose the true nature of the four main parties. This doesn’t mean that if the Assembly collapses there is no hope of the real class character of these parties being uncovered.
Unless there is a rapid descent into a sectarian war, which would represent a crushing defeat for the working class, there will be a new upturn in the class struggle. This will come about because of objective factors, not because the Assembly is there. True, the Assembly does provide a more accessible target and, because of this, may encourage workers to struggle. Without it struggles would still take place. Perhaps workers would hesitate a little more but the strikes and mass movements that have taken place over the last thirty years of direct rule show the ultimately irrepressible nature of the class struggle. The only difference would be that the political sights of these movements would shift from Stormont towards the Westminster government and its local overlords.
This does not mean that the local politicians, with their hands clean of responsibility for unpopular measures, would be let completely off the hook. Struggles in the workplaces or in the communities would, by necessity, draw workers together. And these workers would learn vital lessons from this experience. They would learn that they have common interests and that the best way to protect those interests is to act together.
Every sustained struggle that brings Protestant and Catholic workers together lays down a challenge to the stranglehold that the sectarian organisations, the main parties included, try to maintain over “their” communities. Any tendency towards class unity is a tendency away from sectarianism; away from the narrow outlook promoted by these organisations. The more developed it becomes the greater the threat it poses to them. When confronted with class movements, with strikes and mass protests, those sectarian politicians who rely on working class support might be forced to give some verbal support. But they will do nothing to promote and extend these struggles; rather the main aim of any intervention they make would be to bring them to an end.
If a prolonged upsurge of class struggle reinforced working class unity the sectarian parties, orange and green, would try to whip up sectarianism to divert the attention of the working class and cut across it. Divide and rule methods used against a developing class movement could boomerang on their authors, just as they would if the Assembly was in place. The real class nature of the main parties, rather than becoming blurred, could be put into sharper focus.
In the immediate period the sectarian conflict is set to continue and could well intensify. But at the same time there could be a parallel development of the class struggle. It is possible for contradictory processes to develop side by side. It would not be the first time that this has happened in Northern Ireland.
The first years of the 1980s were dominated by the hunger strikes and the upheaval that they provoked. Bobby Sands’ election, his subsequent death and the deaths of nine others staggered over a period of months, massively polarised society along sectarian lines. These events were the real beginnings of the political rise of Sinn Fein, which polarised things even further.
Yet this was also a period of class militancy. Workers in Northern Ireland marched in tandem with workers in Britain to resist and oppose the monetarist policies of the recently elected Thatcher government. There were strikes in the private and the public sector. The highpoint of this movement in Northern Ireland were the health strikes of 1982.
These saw determined picket lines with hundreds of workers at hospital entrances. Many thousands took part in the colourful and lively demonstrations and the angry, foot stamping rallies. Other workers lined up behind the health workers and there was sympathetic action with solidarity strikes by workers in Shorts, the Shipyard and other workplaces.
But the most significant feature of this struggle was the emergence of a powerful shop stewards movement. The local union committees in each hospital set the pace throughout the dispute. When these committees were linked up they became the real leadership, and, to a large extent, were able to elbow the much more hesitant union bureaucracies to the side
In Britain the Labour Party shifted to the left; Tony Benn came within a whisker of election as Deputy leader. In Northern Ireland the movement also began to overspill in a political direction. A number of Trades Councils stood candidates in the 1981 local government elections. For the first time since the early 1970s there was a serious discussion about how the working class could build its own political voice.
This class movement began on a parallel but separate track to the contradictory events that surrounded the hunger strikes and the rise of Sinn Fein. But although sectarian and class forces can be strengthened in tandem for a period at some point they are bound to collide. Both are competing for the same base of support among the working class and the reinforcing of one ultimately must mean the corresponding weakening of the other.
By the mid 1980s, especially after the defeat of the miner’s strike in Britain, the class movement began to fall back. The moves towards political action came to nothing. With the working class organisations unable to provide an alternative the various sectarian forces stepped into the vacuum. In turn the growth of sectarianism made the prospects for class unity and a socialist solution seem ever more remote.
It is possible that the next few years could see a repeat of what happened in the first years of the 1980s. The sectarian polarisation will remain and could well increase. The conflict could intensify as the peace process unravels even further. Yet alongside all this there could also be a development, perhaps a significant development of the class struggle driven by international and by local factors.
The Middle East provides a contemporary example of what can happen. Just over a year ago the outbreak of what has become known as the Al Asqa intifada signalled a dramatic escalation of that conflict. Since then the region has teetered perilously close to the edge of all out war.
Yet, despite a background of bloody military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, of systematic assassinations of Palestinian activists and of suicide bomb and gun attacks inside, there has been a very significant industrial movement of the Israeli working class. In recent months there have been strikes by Dockers, Fire-fighters, Land Registry workers, University lecturers, Ministry of Labour workers and other public servants to name but some.
There is no exact parallel between Northern Ireland and the situation in the Middle East. Nonetheless the growth of class anger at cut backs and the first effects of recession in Israel is an indication that, even a quite dramatic worsening of the sectarian conflict here need not necessarily dampen the determination of the working class to struggle.
A socialist programme
Most likely a new upsurge in class struggle will begin on industrial or social issues: wages, job losses, privatisation, cuts in services etc. The first instinct even of some of the best workers involved is likely to be to stick to these issues and avoid the more “divisive” and “difficult” questions like parades, policing and above all the constitutional question.
However these issues cannot be ducked or avoided. They will not simply go away and if the working class movement does not take them up in a way that will unite workers the sectarians will continue to do so in a way that will keep people divided.
It is possible to unite workers even on questions like parades and on the national question. We are unique in having developed a programme that is capable of doing this. Our ideas on parades are now accepted by a wide layer of workers, Catholic and Protestant. On the question of the border and partition we are alone in having a position that does not bend into either sectarian camp, but upholds the rights of both sections of the working class and puts class rather than sectional interests first.
We are opposed to all capitalist “solutions” as completely unworkable. This means we are against any attempt to force Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland, just as we are against attempts to coerce Catholics to accept the status quo. We advocate a socialist Ireland as an equal and voluntary part of a socialist federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland which in turn would be part of a wider European socialist federation or confederation.
A socialist Ireland means a single socialist state, not a continuation of partition. But in putting this forward we have to take account of the doubts and reservations that are very deeply felt in the Protestant community. It can only be advanced if, alongside it, there is an assurance that Protestants would not be coerced into a single socialist state against their will. Should they remain opposed even to a socialist united Ireland they would be given the right to opt out and some other political arrangement could be put in place; at least until the doubts of the Protestant working class were allayed.
Any class unity that starts out on social and economic questions will only be cemented if it is extended to the so-called “sectarian” issues. A sustained class movement would inevitably be driven in a political direction as workers draw political conclusions from their experience and as it starts to come into direct collision with those who have a vested interest in maintaining the sectarian divide.
To ultimately succeed in eroding the working class support for sectarian ideas and organisations it would have to offer a socialist alternative. Events will push the movement in this direction, especially as socialist ideas begin to resurface internationally.
Role of Marxists
However when a new mass workers movement develops the long historical gap separating it from previous movements means that it will start out on a low level of consciousness. Lessons that were learned or part learned in the past about how to tackle sectarianism, about the need to go beyond economic issues, about the need for political as well as industrial action will have to be relearned. . Those who retain the traditions of the past can shorten the path to the future. It is the advanced layer of the working class, the shop stewards and class-conscious activists, those who remain active when mass struggles subside, who carry the best traditions and whatever lessons they have absorbed from those struggles into future movements.
Above all it is the role of Marxists to consciously assimilate the lessons of past movements, of defeats as well and as much as, of victories. The revolutionary party acts as a memory for the working class using its history to help work out a strategy,
The last decade and a half of general retreat has meant that the activist class-conscious layer of the working class has been thinned dramatically. It is now more the case that there are pockets of activists, maintaining class ideas in some workplaces and some communities, but there is no longer a strata capable of directing and drawing the working class behind it.
This places a double weight of responsibility on Marxists. The Socialist Party has a dual task in this period. On the one hand we have to defend the far-reaching conclusions that flow from the history of the workers movement: the inability of reformist ideas and methods to resolve the national problem and overthrow capitalism. On the other hand we face the more elementary task of defending the idea of struggle, of rebuilding combative trade union organisations in the workplaces and of helping the movement take the first steps towards independent political action.
These tasks are complementary – we do not first work with others to rebuild independent class organisations and then, only when this done, build our own party. The revolutionary conclusions we have drawn flow from history and experience. They represent, in the last analysis, the only way forward for the working class. Our ideas are the only ideas that offer a way of solving the national problem and of uniting workers on all of the complex and potentially divisive issues that area associated with it.
The mass of the working class will come to these conclusions through experience. But our intervention can speed this process. This means standing alongside the working class in every struggle, advancing step by step with the workers movement, attempting to consolidate every gain but, at the same time, always pointing to the need to overthrown capitalism and to build a party that is committed to this task.
The emergence of a new generation of class activists, above all the growth in support and influence of our party, will accelerate the class struggle. Even now workers are much more likely to take action where they have confidence in their local leadership. And important strikes or other struggles taking place even in one or two workplaces or affecting one or two groups of workers can have far reaching effects in encouraging other workers to take action.
A leadership with roots in a few key areas can have an influence and effect far beyond its numbers and, in Northern Ireland, can even have a decisive impact on the overall political situation. Initiatives taken by members of our party have in the past led to massive united movements of Catholic and Protestant workers against sectarianism.
By contrast there was an opportunity in the summer of 2001 for similar action against the assassinations carried out by the UDA. The killing of Ciaran Cummings in Antrim did provoke a walk out of sorts by his FG Wilson workmates. But it was unorganised and barely noticed by the mass of the working class.
Had there been a active and confident union organisation in the factory, above all if the Socialist Party had had a presence, we could have responded to the news of his death with a mass meeting of the workforce and a decision to walk out. This, if it was coupled with an appeal to workers elsewhere to take protest action, could have triggered a movement that would have forced even the UDA to hold its hand for a period.
The subjective factor of leadership will be build from the movements of the working class and in turn, as it develops, will have an effect in shaping and strengthening those movements. Thus the development of our party is not something for the future, for “better times” when there is a more smoothly contoured objective landscape. It is an urgent immediate task both because of the impact even a small organisation that has real roots in the working class can have in helping push the working class into action and also to ensure that we have the forces to be able to intervene in those movements when they take place.
Building the party
Just as the tempo of class struggle can rise even in a period of rising sectarianism so the forces of Marxism can grow significantly even when the mass of the working class are not looking in a socialist direction. There are those who can see the dangers of the current sectarian drift of events and who are increasingly aware that an alternative is needed.
This may be a small layer at this stage but it can still provide the forces to allow our party to develop our base among the working class and especially among the youth. Within the workplaces and the communities there are a small – very small at this point it is true – number of activists who are repelled by sectarianism and who want to put the class issues to the fore. As struggles develop this layer will grow.
For now it is a matter of developing points of support, of consolidating and building around whatever bridgeheads we can establish. Key positions that are won today even in a few areas can, when struggles take place in these areas, become a focus of attention for much wider layers of activists.
The base that we have already carved out in the public sector, especially in NIPSA, can be a vital stepping-stone to building our influence in the trade union movement generally. We need to concentrate on developing this work. This is not to ignore the industrial working class, the powerful “big battalions” who are key in the long run.
However the public sector can be the more immediate key. Public sector workplaces are generally more mixed. Many have played a key role in the movements against sectarianism in the past and the residue of these movements remains. Issues like privatisation, as well as the chronically low wages and erosion of conditions, means that they can be a battleground. Also the fact that the local politicians are now the “employer” means that political conclusions can more easily be drawn from struggles.
We need to pay particular attention to the recruitment of women workers. Women are an increasingly important part of the workforce. At the start of the Troubles the female participation rate was 33.5%. By 1989 this had risen to 46.3%. During the 1990s female employment rose by 19.7%. By 1999 the economic activity rate of women had risen to 64.8%.
This dramatic rise means that women provide a relatively fresh layer of the workforce. Many are in low paid part time jobs especially those in the service sector. The simmering anger that exists among this section of the workforce is shown every week at the End Low Pay stalls. The majority of those who sign are women. as are most of those who report the worst conditions and lowest pay. The important role that women will play in future struggles was also shown in the term time dispute which was overwhelmingly a struggle of women workers.
Women will play a vital role in the rebirth of the working class movement. As well paying attention to the recruitment of women, especially working class women, in all areas of our work we need to take up issues that are more specific to women. We need to increase the participation of women at all levels within the party.
But overall the most important area of work for us is our youth work. Youth are the most dynamic section of society, those that will most readily draw revolutionary conclusions. The point made earlier that a section of the youth are now open to socialist and Marxist ideas cannot be overstressed.
We need to intervene energetically to win these youth to our ideas. It may be middle class youth that are more open to radical ideas at the moment but, if we recruit and educate from this stratum and then orientate them to the working class, they can play an indispensable role in the building of our party.
We have competition in this area. Sectarian organisations of both sides are also paying attention to youth. Sinn Fein does not have a large active youth membership and they are trying to redress this by promoting their youth wing, Ogra Sinn Fein. On the Protestant side, the UDA are active in the schools trying to build the Ulster Young Militants.
It is only the ideas of the Socialist Party and of Socialist Youth that can provide an alternative to the sectarians and can win the best of the youth, Catholic and Protestant. In 1968-9 a mass movement of the youth stood society on its head. The old political structures crumbled before it.
The potential existed to build a socialist movement that could have changed society. That potential was lost and the youth who had scratched a deep notch in history either dropped away or ended up joining the paramilitaries. A bitter price has been paid for this.
If this generation of youth is also lost to sectarian ideas and organisations the working class will pay an even more terrible price. It would be a long way back from a defeat of this character. But if the new generation can be won to socialist ideas and to the struggle to bring these ideas about, it can stand on the shoulders of the best of what happened in 1968 and will be able to deal a decisive blow at sectarianism and at capitalism.
A difficult and dangerous situation has opened in the north. Unless the working class intervenes there will be a slide towards civil war. But there is also an opportunity for to build the Socialist Party, developing important points of support among the working class and the youth. To do this we need to concentrate our forces, to orientate to the areas where we can make gains. If we are successful we can have an impact on events, even in the short term. But every task must be imbued with urgency. We are in a race against time to build our forces so that we can prevent our sectarian enemies dragging us into a Bosnian quagmire.