The reality is that the Agreement is not a solution or even the basis for a solution. The Agreement is an agreement to carve up power, not to share power. The parties on each side of the sectarian divide differ on every matter of substance, so far as sectarian issues are concerned, though, of course, the parties agree in the main on economic and social policies.
To illustrate the deep divisions which undermine all attempts to bring about a lasting solution, it is worth looking back at the years before and after the signing of the Agreement. It took four years from the first IRA ceasefire in 1994 before the Agreement was signed. Between 1994 and 1998 the violence continued, albeit at a lower rate than before the ceasefire. New ‘peace-lines’ were built as sectarian conflict exploded over the routing of Orange Order marches, in particular the Drumcree parade.
Sectarian division on the ground deepened.
The signing of the Agreement changed nothing – again the violence continued. The worst single event was the Omagh bombing, in August 1998, in which 29 people died. Conflict over parades and clashes at interfaces were the backdrop to daily life. The problems the Agreement avoided or attempted to paper over came back to haunt the main parties and it took nine years from the signing before a “stable” Executive was formed in May 2007.
Alongside continuing violence and deepening sectarian division, the living standards of working people have not improved in the last ten years. Despite all the talk of an economic “peace dividend” in 1998 there are still fewer adults (as a percentage of the total number of adults) employed in Northern Ireland than anywhere in England, Scotland or Wales.
Soon after the tenth anniversary of the Agreement, Brian Cowen and Peter Robinson announced 5,000 finance jobs for Belfast. This announcement was like many others in the last ten years. There have been repeated announcements which have never led to any real jobs, or which lead to fewer jobs than originally announced. The vast majority of new jobs have, in any case, been poorly paid and tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the same period. With the US now in recession, and much of the rest of the world likely to follow, there will be no economic dividend in the next period.
For now there has been a decrease in sectarian conflict. Isolated attacks, including several near murderous attacks in recent weeks, continue but there has been no outbreak of widespread conflict since the violence that erupted after the Whiterock parade in Belfast, in October 2005.
Relative peace but deeper divisions
A period of relative peace, even a prolonged peace, does not mean that division on the ground has gone away. The current situation will not continue indefinitely. Renewed conflict is possible at any time.
And if there is relative peace it is not because the Agreement has “worked” but because the vast majority of working class people are opposed to any return to conflict.
The working class and young people cannot rely on the Assembly to deliver lasting peace, a decrease in sectarian division or improved living standards but must instead rely on their own strength.
The working class created the peace process in the first place through its mass opposition to the paramilitary campaigns and its demands for a better future. This opposition was expressed through a series of mass demonstrations and strikes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the first period, these strikes were mostly initiated by members of Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party. At a certain point, the leaders of the trade union movement came in behind the demonstrations and strikes.
When the ceasefires came the working class lacked a mass independent party of its own and was not represented at the talks table. A mass working class party is still lacking and the leadership of the trade unions has abdicated all responsibility for the lives and the futures of working class people in Northern Ireland, choosing instead to cosy-up to the Assembly parties. The working class deserves trade union leaders who are prepared to fight. Creating such a leadership requires the ejection of most of the current leaders from their positions.
Working class people need their own party: a mass party which attracts support by posing an alternative to the right wing policies of the Executive and which seeks to overcome sectarian division not cement it.