The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Northern Ireland:
For the Working Class, the "Peace Agreement" Holds Impoverishment

May 1, 1998

Is the Northern Ireland "peace agreement" a "blueprint for the future" as Tony Blair's ministers claim? Will it open a "new peaceful era" in Irish and British history? Or is it "not a solution, but the potential for a solution," as Sinn Fein put it, in their weekly paper, An Phoblacht?

For Blair, British Prime Minister, this was indeed a very controlled affair. Having staked so much on his abilities as a "peace broker," he could hardly afford failure. Thus he rushed to intervene in the talks, when it seemed that no agreement would emerge by the pre-set deadline. And the last 32-hour marathon session, with Blair in person at the helm, was devoted merely to patching up a "deal" at any cost, by papering over whatever differences existed.

The resulting "agreement" places only very limited constraints on the protagonists. It has been designed to allow all the parties to continue with the "peace process" even if they have to face opposition from within their own ranks. Moreover, it can also include forces which have remained outside the "peace process" so far, particularly Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, without requiring them to "surrender."

At the same time, this deal aims at implementing in practice what has been the consistent objective of the British bourgeoisie in its numerous attempts to reach a political settlement in Northern Ireland, from Heath's Sunningdale agreement in 1973 to Thatcher's Anglo-Irish agreement in the mid-80s and Major's 1995 "Framework Document." (Just as Wilson's Labour government ended up trying to implement the Tory-designed Sunningdale agreement, Blair's Labour government is now striving to implement the Tory Framework Document – thereby illustrating once again that no matter what changes the electorate expects from the ballot box, the policy that comes out of it will be fundamentally the same.)

Moreover, this deal is consistent with the very basis on which the "peace process" was initiated by the governments of Britain and the Republic of Ireland, and accepted by the Northern Ireland politicians, regardless of the tactical objections these politicians may have today. Whether it works out or not, this deal certainly provides a blueprint of what is in store for the working class of Northern Ireland should the existing political forces and governments have their way.

More Negotiations with Fewer Players

In fact, the document's title – "Agreement between the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the government of Ireland" – clearly indicates that this deal is not a deal between the parties involved in the talks, but only between the Irish and British governments.

The only thing to which the Northern Ireland politicians themselves have actually formally agreed is the first section of the document's appendix, entitled "declaration of support." This includes nothing but their commitment to "strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements" and "work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement." Thus, they "strongly commend this agreement to the people, North and South, for their approval." Two referendums are due to take place in the North and the South on May 22nd.

There are good reasons for this "deal" to be so vague in terms of the obligations of those who signed on to it. The main reason is that the major participants needed to be able to claim in front of their constituencies that there was still room for change in what had been agreed. As a result, the only immediate effect of this deal is to create an institutional framework for the continuation of the same negotiations.

Indeed, just like the Northern Ireland Forum elected under Major in June 1996, the new 108-member Northern Ireland Assembly, due to be elected on June 25th (assuming the referendums return a majority for the agreement), will have no power whatsoever for the time being. How long this transitional period will last remains an open question. The deal links the empowerment of the Assembly to that of all the other institutions sketched out by the agreement – the complex system of committees which are to take over the powers handed over to the Assembly by Westminster, as well as the cross-border and Anglo-Irish bodies. The function of this Assembly is really to set up these institutions and put them in working order. And given the very loose terms in which these institutions are defined, this leaves plenty of space for negotiation to go on for months, or... years.

The Assembly is to be elected by proportional representation within the 18 Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies. No party will be represented in the Assembly unless it is able to win over 15% of the vote in at least one of the 18 constituencies. Moreover, the agreement specifies that during the transitional period, "aspects of the multi-party agreement will be reviewed at meetings of those parties relevant in the particular case (taking into account, once Assembly elections have been held, the results of these elections)."

The two parties linked to loyalist paramilitaries, PUP and UDP, as well as the Labour list and the Women's list, are unlikely to be represented in the future Assembly. As a result, they will also effectively be pushed out of the negotiation process. In other words, the agreement ensures that only the four biggest players will remain in the game, plus possibly the two unionist parties which have remained outside the talks so far, the Democratic Unionists and UK Unionists.

The British government's strategists must have estimated that the "peace process" now enjoys enough support among the population, including in the Protestant working class ghettos, to do without the participation of the "less responsible" politicians of the UDP and PUP. This allows Blair to give the two main unionist parties a chunk of the votes potentially worth around 5% – something which could be important for them.

On the other hand, this disenfranchising of entire Protestant ghettos, which would be the case in areas like East Belfast, may also backfire – either by reinforcing Paisley and his strident bigotry or even the anti-agreement paramilitaries of the Loyalist Volunteer Force. Either way, this is playing with fire. But then, it would not be the first time the British state has played with fire in Northern Ireland at the expense of the population!

Sectarian Politics Entrenched

Like Major's Framework Document, the current agreement will entrench sectarian politics in the operation of the future Assembly by providing that "at their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, unionist or other – for the purpose of measuring cross-community support in Assembly votes."

Delegates will, however, be allowed to register under an "other" identity, which was impossible under the Framework Document. Except that, when voting for key decisions, the "other" votes will be effectively totally or partially disregarded! Indeed, the agreement says that such decisions will have to be taken on a "cross-community basis." This will require either "a majority ... including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations" or "a 60% majority ... including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations."

Great efforts have been put into making the text of the agreement "politically correct." In order to remove any suggestion of bigotry, Catholics are described as "nationalists" and Protestants as "unionists," while the order in which the words "nationalist" and "unionist" are written, is systematically alternated. But these linguistic delicacies, which are borrowed from the middle-class liberals' terminology, do not alter the fact that the demarcation line remains neatly drawn along the old sectarian divide.

The justification for this – maintaining an equal balance between two "communities" of unequal importance – sounds all very fair and democratic, as does the pledge to set up a whole new range of committees in charge of guaranteeing equal opportunity. But such devices are always double-edged.

On the one hand, any political current that refuses to define itself as either nationalist or unionist will have no weight in the Assembly. This can only be an obstacle to the development of cross-community politics. Conversely, in so far as these outdated symbols are tightly intertwined with the defensive prejudices and fears generated by the impoverishment of the poor ghettos, the "community" designations in the Assembly can only be a powerful incentive for politicians to emphasize even more the alleged conflict of interest between communities, and in general use demagogy to whip up these prejudices and fears in order to build up and consolidate their electoral support.

Of course, behind the liberal-sounding "political correctness" of the agreement, this entrenchment of sectarian politics is just the continuation of the British state's divide and rule policy. Not only does Blair need the goodwill of the Northern Ireland politicians. He needs Northern Irish politicians who are able to discipline the province's restless working class ghettos, forcing them to accept the policy that best serves the interests of the wealthy. What better way is there of achieving this in the short-term than by maintaining the "state of siege" atmosphere associated with sectarian politics?

Towards an Anglo-Irish Union?

For several decades, the British bourgeoisie wanted to get rid of the political thorn that Northern Ireland had become in Britain's side, as well as the heavy economic burden it represented, both in terms of policing and economic subsidies. To achieve this, they started by seeking to involve the Irish Republic in sharing the political responsibility for whatever happened in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, particularly since Thatcher's 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, this aim has been increasingly combined with that of strengthening the ties between the British and Irish state machineries in every sphere of activity.

The complex web of cross-border and cross-island institutions laid out by the agreement implements these objectives.

The planned "North-South Ministerial Council" builds on the existing machinery of the cross-border committees which have been in existence since 1985. But it now gives this machinery a single executive head. The sphere of activity of this apparatus is to be considerably expanded, to cover practically every field in which an all-Ireland policy can be defined and implemented, except in what concerns finance, foreign affairs, the police, the army and the justice system.

At the same time there is to be a "British-Irish Council" and a "British-Irish intergovernmental conference." The latter is to bring together the Irish and British governments only. Among other things, the agreement specifies that it will be concerned with discussing all those aspects of policy in Northern Ireland which have not been handed over and therefore remain handled by London. As to the British-Irish council, it will be comprised of "representatives of the British and Irish governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, when established, and, if appropriate, elsewhere in the United Kingdom, together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands."

In other words, what is being set up, is a set of intertwined machineries operating across the three main components of the Anglo-Irish islands.

Paradoxical as it may seem, the political settlement in Northern Ireland, the concessions made there to Irish nationalism and the handing over of some powers to the province, may well turn out to be a Trojan horse with which the British state will tighten its political grip over Ireland for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921-22!

The Nationalist Dead-Ends Exposed

What will this "peace process," which Sinn Fein has been promoting for the past four years, deliver for the population of the Catholic working class ghettos where the Republicans' base of support is concentrated? Assuming, once again, that the plans of the peace agreement do materialize, what difference will this make to the Catholic ghettos?

The peace agreement includes a number of pledges concerning the British military presence, as well as the criminal justice and police system. Thus it says "the British government will make progress towards the objective of as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland consistent with the level of threat." In other words, there is no time-table and no firm commitment. Likewise for the province's criminal justice system. There is no question of an immediate repeal of the emergency laws which are still in force in Northern Ireland. Instead, a "review" is to be conducted, with a deadline for completion set for Autumn 1999, meaning that any change will not take place before well into the year 2000. The same applies to the issue of policing. There is no question of an immediate reduction in the numbers and profile of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in the working class ghettos. Yet another review will be conducted, to be completed by summer 1999. Then the RUC should be re-organized, which will no doubt take a long time. By the end of this process, Northern Ireland will have the "privilege" of a police force in which the proportion of Catholic and Protestant cops will be increasingly equal. Whether this will make it less heavy-handed against working class people is another issue!

But what about the really key issue for the future, the impoverishment of the province? On this, the peace agreement is even more vague: just two paragraphs of empty phrases about "a new regional development strategy," but not one concrete plan or pledge. Not a word either about what will happen to the province's regional subsidy. But there are some hints about what can be expected. On April 17th, the papers reported that Gordon Brown, the British Chancellor, was planning a visit to Belfast in May when he would outline full details of a new economic package. To prepare this package, Brown was said to have had discussions with the IMF and the World Bank to secure loans for Northern Ireland.

Not even a week after the peace agreement, therefore, Northern Ireland is already being promoted to the international financial institutions as yet another Third World country in need of urgent cash. This can only mean that even before the new institutions are in place, the British government has already planned when and how it will forsake its responsibility to subsidize the Northern Ireland economy!

And indeed, it is not just with the World Bank that British ministers are talking about Northern Ireland as a Third World country. When Blair celebrated the peace agreement in Belfast, he just could not stop himself from delivering a sermon to the Northern Irish working class. The task now, said Blair in substance, is to attract foreign investments to Northern Ireland by pushing labor costs down in order to make them attractive to foreign companies – as if the arrogant preacher did not know that Northern Ireland already has the lowest wages in the UK and the highest unemployment rate (and still growing despite British ministers' past tales about a "peace dividend" to come).

Over nearly three decades, British governments handed out tens of billions of pounds to security contractors in order to contain possible explosions in the urban ghettos. But today, while making endless speeches about peace and goodwill, they are already preparing to sever the province's lifeline, when for once it could have been used for a useful purpose, to create jobs in the public sector, in order, for instance, to rebuild the derelict council estates or develop a modern railway network, which hardly exists in the province.

Such is the real face of the autonomy and of the power handed over by the "peace agreement." Northern Ireland is to be relegated to the status of an impoverished and tiny country which has to survive through its own devices, by offering itself to the world capitalist sharks, after having fed generation after generation of British shipyard, textile-mill and foundry owners!

The Republican leaders must be conscious of the doubts that their policy is creating among their supporters, in the light of this peace agreement and what it really means. This is probably why lately they have been resurrecting their old slogan of a "socialist united Ireland," which they had seemed to forget in their enthusiasm for the peace process. Yet regardless of their public reservations, for the time being, the Republican leaders' only plan is to take part in managing the impoverishment of Northern Ireland.

At the same time Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams keeps insisting in his public speeches on the fact that "the struggle will continue." But the struggle for what?

Assuming that the complex machinery laid out by the peace agreement gets off the ground and delivers what it has been designed for, this will make the Irish nationalists' demands for a united Ireland increasingly meaningless.

As to the "socialist" component of Sinn Fein's slogan, this goal has always been postponed to after the reunification of Ireland. So what are the inhabitants of the Catholic ghettos supposed to do now? Should they just sit and watch Republican politicians join the rush for the hundreds of cushy committee jobs which are now being lined up by the peace agreement? Or are they supposed to be satisfied with the pledge contained in the peace agreement, to encourage the promotion and development of the Irish language? The British state is very good at this sort of tokenism – in Wales, for many years, the unemployed have been allowed to take lessons in Welsh.

For a Future Worth Fighting For

The peace agreement and whatever final settlement which can come out of it will not resolve the major problems facing the Northern Irish working class. Even assuming that the British troops finally return to their barracks on the other side of the Irish Channel and that the RUC is down-sized and reformed into a normal cross-community police force, this, in and of itself, will not necessarily end, nor even weaken, the sectarian divisions.

This division may have its roots in the long history of Britain's oppressive rule over Ireland, but the main factor which allows it to be still alive today is neither the presence of British troops in Northern Ireland, nor even the survival of antiquated religious bigotry. It is the degrading social conditions imposed on the majority of the working class. It is this chronic impoverishment of the working class ghettos which has allowed one section of the working class to be set up against the other – by convincing the Catholic minority that the slightly better conditions enjoyed on average by Protestant workers made them accomplices to the exploiters and, at the same time, entrenching the idea among the Protestant majority that their own conditions were somehow threatened by Catholic workers.

The decisive factors in perpetuating the sectarian divisions are the political forces which are themselves remnants of the past, feeding on the sectarian divisions – whether it be the Republican current among Catholics or the loyalist groups among Protestants.

Some of these forces may use a more progressive sounding-rhetoric than others, or may seem to have a historical justification that others do not have, but all have played in the past, and still play today the same fundamentally reactionary role. By maintaining a siege atmosphere among their respective constituencies, on whose daily life they exercised a tight control, these forces have imposed the idea that the only possible option for workers was the kind of militia-based politics which have dominated the working class ghettos for so long.

Today, the survival of these ideas and the predominant role they play among the working class are the main obstacles to its ability to build up the unity it needs to defend effectively its class interests against all exploiters. Neither these obstacles nor the underlying sectarian divisions will disappear as a result of the political settlement. On the contrary, this settlement is likely to entrench and institutionalize sectarian-based politics, as a result of concessions made by the British government to the rival political currents.

This is why it would be important for the working class to make its voice heard and put forward its class demands even before the settlement is finally implemented (which is likely to take a few years at least).

If the existing divisions are to be ended for good, the working class will have to find in its own ranks activists, women and men who have the determination, enthusiasm and commitment to build new organizations on a clear class basis, and to fight without concessions against the strangle-hold that the paramilitaries, whether they be Republican or loyalist, maintain over the working class ghettos.

But these activists have to rebuild the confidence of the working class in its own capacity to deal with its own problems, rather than relying on paramilitary groups it doesn't control to do so on its behalf.

For instance, one of the strongest levers used by the paramilitaries to muster support among working class communities in the past has been to impose their "protection" against the threat, real or assumed, of other paramilitaries. This is an issue that activists who are aiming to build a political organization of the working class cannot afford to ignore or evade – with the misconceived argument, which has often been used by some left activists, that this would be following in the footsteps of the paramilitaries and that, on the contrary, working class activists should "break with the politics of violence."

It is not violence in and of itself which is the issue. It is the violence of uncontrolled paramilitary apparatuses which are pursuing their own agendas, regardless of the interests and aspirations of the working class. On the contrary, in the face of waves of random sectarian killings, the working class could find the resources to protect itself without resorting to the dubious and double-edged "services" of paramilitaries. Instead, it could resort to the conscious mobilization and organization of its own ranks, on a collective and democratic basis, in each workplace and each neighborhood; it could choose the methods and weapons which are best adapted to the threat which has to be dealt with; above all it could and should control the course of action which is taken as a result of this.

The tragedy of the working class in Northern Ireland is not lack of combativity, determination, commitment or courage. Thousands of workers, young workers in particular, have demonstrated such qualities when joining one paramilitary group or another, in the mistaken belief that this would be a way of defending their community. But many among them discovered, usually too late, that they had been misled into fighting for the particular agenda of an apparatus, for which they were no more than a stage army, if not mere cannon fodder.

The real tragedy of the working class of Northern Ireland is to have been used and abused, and to have wasted precious resources of energy and enthusiasm, and far too many lives, in fighting for the interests of others. But yesterday's lost opportunities and tragic mistakes can provide the basis for today's fresh start. A wholly new fighting political tradition can and must be built, based on collective class consciousness, organization and democracy.