Nov 17, 1993
There continue to be rumors about secret negotiations on the future of Northern Ireland. Two decades of official denial as to the possibility of a negotiated settlement involving all parties in Northern Ireland came to an abrupt end in October. The British and Irish governments issued official statements, jointly and separately. However carefully worded and deliberately vague these statements were, they outline both governments' approach to negotiations; and this is indeed a new development. So is the fact that politicians on both sides of the Irish Channel went on record not just on the principle of holding talks but primarily on whether the Irish nationalists – the "enemy without", to use Thatcher's term – should be invited or not, something that most would never have dreamed of even hinting at only a few months ago.
Over the past few years, governments across the world have been involved in extensive negotiations aimed at defusing, if possible at settling some of the world's long-standing conflicts, from South Africa to Palestine. By contrast, the British state seemed as powerless and paralyzed as ever when it came to settling the conflict in Northern Ireland.
In theory, since it was carved out of Ireland by Partition over seventy years ago, Northern Ireland has been fully integrated in the United Kingdom. But despite the fact that its population accounted for less than 3% of Britain's, Northern Ireland never ceased being a powder keg lying only a few dozen miles off Britain's coast. It never ceased being a political liability for the British state and an occasional social threat. No amount of bloodshed made any difference. Even the constant policing of Northern Ireland over the past twenty-five years by the most extensive repressive force in Western Europe – one police or soldier for every 50 inhabitants, that is, the equivalent of 1.1 million uniformed men parading in the streets of Britain with armored vehicles and automatic weapons – failed to strengthen significantly the hand of the British state. As Peter Brooke, the then British Secretary for Northern Ireland, had already admitted in November 1989, "military means could contain but not defeat" those opposing Britain's presence in the North.
The British bourgeoisie's impotence at settling this four-centuries old conflict in its own backyard was all the more ironic considering the glamorous pretension of the British Foreign Office to mediate in nationality conflicts abroad, as in the former Yugoslavia for instance. From this point of view, it was ironic too that Prime Minister John Major happened to make his first official statement about the possibility of future talks in Northern Ireland from Cyprus – ironic but fitting, since, thirty-three years after Britain's departure, Cyprus itself is still paying the price of Britain's old "divide and rule" policies in the Mediterranean by being caught in the middle of the regional rivalry between Greece and Turkey and partitioned into two antagonistic micro states as a result. The case of Cyprus would be worth remembering for those who may have illusions in negotiations engineered by the British state. Even where British imperialism did manage to reach some form of settlement, on its own terms of course, its withdrawal did not put an end to the mess it had created, far from it!
Not that there have been no attempts at reaching a political settlement in Northern Ireland, especially since World War II – if only because Northern Ireland has long ceased to be a source of profit for the British bourgeoisie. In addition to being a political liability for British imperialism, Northern Ireland has developed into a huge financial burden weighing more and more heavily on the British state, to the tune of nearly four billion pounds (six billion dollars) in net subsidies for 1993 alone. On balance, funding the parasitic existence of Northern Ireland's privileged and specific state institutions has become increasingly less attractive over the years.
It goes without saying that none of these attempts ever aimed at taking into account, let alone responding positively to the people's aspirations, neither those of the population of Ireland as a whole nor even those of the North's so-called "Protestant" community – even though this community was said to be the social basis for Britain's continuing domination ever since Partition. These attempts were aimed only at ridding Britain of a costly and glaring embarrassment while preserving its interests in Ireland and ensuring the stability of the existing social order.
So far however, every attempt made towards a political settlement has failed. Few British politicians were ready to put their career prospects and party interests on the line by pursuing such attempts beyond a certain point. As a result they failed to propose, let alone to impose, terms that could have provided the basis for an agreement between the various protagonists involved. A prominent reason for this failure has been the ambivalent relationship between the successive British governments and the Unionist politicians representing the North's establishment. Major's present dependence on the nine Unionist MPs' vote in the House of Commons is not new. Such was also the case, for instance, of the last Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan who ended up buying the Unionists' support in exchange for extra safe parliamentary seats in 1978. On the other hand, every British Prime Minister knows, just as does every schoolboy in Northern Ireland, that no settlement can be reached without the Unionist politicians and the constituency they represent being pressurized, to an extent at least, into accepting it. So far, regardless of the intentions expressed by several British governments in the past, parliamentary considerations have always ended up tilting the scale against going further towards a settlement.
Today, however, this could be changing. In any case, even before the recent official statements, there were indications that there might be a new attempt at a settlement. For instance the stepping up of military activities since the beginning of this year, by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) but even more so by the Loyalists, pointed to the possibility that the various paramilitary groups were trying to boost their profiles to gain wider recognition. Then in April came the beginning of official discussions between John Hume, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which represents the Catholic establishment and hierarchy in the North, and Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA. The unusual fact that both the British and Irish governments refrained from making derogatory comments about these talks seemed to point to an implicit agreement with the aims pursued by John Hume, if not to the possibility that John Hume was unofficially acting as a middle-man on behalf of either or both governments. Soon the negotiating fever reached the Northern establishment. The Opsahl commission, set up by personalities belonging to the more liberal layers around the Unionist parties, published its findings, recommending that Sinn Fein should be invited to all-party talks over the future of the North. Shortly afterwards, interviewed in the Belfast Telegraph at the end of August, Michael Mates, a former Northern Ireland Office minister and a prominent figure in the British Conservative party, urged cuts in public expenditure in Northern Ireland, so that "people would be pressing for a settlement". Suddenly more and more politicians were indulging in soul-searching exercises to find a "solution" for Northern Ireland. Finally, in September, a Hume-Adams agreement was announced and described as drafting the shortest way to resolving the conflict.
At the end of October, with all these preliminary steps behind, first the Irish government then the British government and finally both Prime Ministers in Brussels publicly announced a "peace plan". This hardly came out of the blue. For the time being, what is pompously described as a "peace plan" is rather a mere set of guidelines for future negotiations. But in the coded language of diplomacy, this is the usual way for a negotiating process to start.
The question is: how far will this process go? Only the future will tell. But it is already possible to assess, or to confirm, what aims the various political apparatuses have. There can be no doubt that the moral and material interests of the Irish population are of little concern for these apparatuses, least of all those of the poorest layers of the Northern population – the very layers which have provided most of the fighters in the struggle to shake off the status quo imposed by Britain over the past 25 years.
The origins of today's developments can be traced as far back as 1980, to an agreement signed between Margaret Thatcher and the then Irish Prime Minister, Garret Fitzgerald, leader of the right-wing Fine Gael party. This was the first significant official contact between the two countries since the uprising in the Northern Catholic ghettoes in the late 60s. The fact that the resumption of inter-government relationships took place while mobilization in the North was receding, was of course not a coincidence.
Thatcher's aims were similar to those pursued before her by the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in a similar venture in the mid '60s. First and foremost she wanted to get the Republic's government to share publicly the responsibility of the policies implemented in the North, especially in the field of repression against the nationalists.
As to Fitzgerald, he was aiming at re-establishing the links with the Northern ruling layers after the deep disruption caused by the events of the previous decade. While reassuring the Northern establishment by taking sides in the fight against the Irish Republicans, Fitzgerald tried to address the preoccupations of the liberal Protestant middle class by using a language which could appeal to them: "We have created here something which the Northern Protestants find unacceptable... What I want to do is to lead a crusade – a Republican crusade – to make this a genuine republic on the principles of Tone [Wolfe Tone, the 18th century Protestant hero of the struggle against British domination] ... I believe we could have the basis then on which many Protestants in Northern Ireland would be willing to consider a relationship with us, who at present have no reason to do so.... Our laws, constitution and our practices are not acceptable to the Protestants of Northern Ireland".
It must be pointed out in passing that while Fitzgerald and his followers showed so much concern for the liberal Protestant public opinion, especially for their rejection of Catholic bigotry, their concern was never extended to the poorest layers of the North, whether Protestant or Catholic for that matter.
These gestures however were soon interrupted by further political developments in the North. First came the shock created North and South by the death of ten Republican hunger strikers in the Northern prisons and, following it, Sinn Fein's short-lived election successes.
Once the situation had cooled down again, the inter-government process was resumed. The 1980 statements of intent were replaced with a formal framework by the Anglo-Irish agreement signed by Thatcher and Fitzgerald in November 1985.
Once again the "fight against terrorism", in other words against the Irish Republican organizations, was given first place in the media coverage of the agreement. But there were many less well-known sides to this agreement. The Irish government was invited to send observers or even representatives in a number of commissions of the Northern civil service – such as, for instance, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the Fair Employment Agency, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Police Authority Commission and the Police Complaints Board. None of this amounted to a decisive change in the running of the Northern state itself. But the aim of the exercise was nonetheless clearly to create permanent official channels through which senior civil servants and politicians could have a regular co-operation. In short this amounted to preparing the ground for the long-term possibility of a smooth merger between the two state machineries.
This permanent co-operation has been going on continuously ever since 1985, regardless of the electoral mishaps of the ruling parties in the South and despite the subsequent ups and downs in the official relationship with Britain and with the Northern Unionist parties. Not only was this co-operation maintained, it was actually expanded, if in the background. The fine print in the newspapers occasionally revealed the existence of some obscure state-related committees in which representatives from the North and the South worked at evening out existing differences in some area of the civil service, the legal system or the economy.
Therefore while the likelihood of a future all-Ireland state still remains as uncertain as ever, the ground for it is still being carefully prepared.
It took another five years before a new stage was reached with the setting up of the All-Ireland Forum in 1990. These were the days when the British Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke insisted that Britain "had no selfish, strategic or economic interest in remaining in Northern Ireland" and would be perfectly happy to withdraw should a consensus emerge over re-unification.
The Forum's purpose was to give official sanction and even a high profile to the co-operation underlying the Anglo-Irish agreement by creating a high-powered permanent framework in which representatives of all Northern and Southern parties would discuss publicly issues concerning Ireland as a whole, particularly of course the future of the North. At the same time and as a first stage in the talks, discussions were to be held between the British government and the Northern parties about possible forms of devolved government in the North.
Those invited were the so-called "constitutional" parties, by which was meant the parties which publicly rejected "terrorism". Thus Sinn Fein was left out of the Forum because of its refusal to disown the IRA while Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was welcome because it had never officially acknowledged its notorious links with loyalist paramilitaries!
As it happened, the Forum's operation proved rather hectic, mainly due to systematic opposition by the DUP while the British government bent over backwards to avoid a showdown with Paisley and keep him in the talks. As a result, official discussions were soon more or less frozen, but this did not prevent extensive contacts from developing behind the scene.
After two years of these discussions however, the Forum meetings were symbolically transferred from Belfast to Dublin. Unionist politicians protested. But rather than being left out, their leaders went grudgingly to the South for the first time since the 60s, although the DUP only sent "observers".
This relative honeymoon proved to be short-lived however. Soon the DUP threw a wrench into the works. Was Paisley getting worried about the progress made in elections by the more respectable UUP (United Unionist Party) at the expense of the DUP? Did he give in to pressures from a section of the DUP's electorate which had remained hostile to closer links with the South? Or was his aim to strengthen his hand in preparation for the next stage in the negotiations? In any case, by late 1992, the DUP presented the British government with an ultimatum: either the Irish government agreed to abandon articles 2 and 3 of the Southern constitution, which assert the historical claim of the Republic to sovereignty over Northern Ireland; or the DUP would have no more to do with the Forum.
While this blackmail was after all purely over token issues, the DUP leadership knew what they were doing. Coming up to the general election planned for November 1992, the Southern Fianna Fail government, already plagued with all kinds of corruption scandals, could not afford to antagonize the traditionalist nationalism of its electorate. To all intents and purposes, the Forum collapsed as a result. Following in the steps of the DUP, the UUP withdrew to avoid losing out to its traditional rival. The Southern parties were left with only the SDLP and the tiny Alliance party as partners in the talks. There was no longer any point in maintaining the fiction of an All-Ireland Forum which was no longer credible.
While politicians were fighting with symbols, the military apparatuses were firing live bullets and exploding real bombs. The weapons were different, but not the purpose however – the former were striving to strengthen their bargaining position while the latter were striving to get a seat.
As far as the IRA was concerned, this was not a new strategy. Its leaders had repeated for a long time that they expected Britain to take the initiative by forcing the Unionist parties to take part in negotiations with all parties including the Republicans. The original prerequisite of an immediate withdrawal of British troops had even been watered down to a simple commitment to do so. As Jim Gibney, a leading member of Sinn Fein put it at the Wolfe Tone celebration in June 1992, "We know and accept that the British government's departure must be preceded by a sustained period of peace and will arise out of negotiations involving the different shades of Irish nationalism and Irish unionism".
The case of the loyalist paramilitary groups was different. Since the late 60s, they had always operated in the shadow of the security forces as auxiliaries of the ruling parties, rather than as independent forces. It seems however that some of their leaders eventually developed an appetite for public positions, maybe because the traditional Unionist parties, being too concerned for their respectability, were no longer as open to them. In any case, despite their alleged fetichism for the Union Jack, the loyalist paramilitaries now want their own share of the cake within or without the United Kingdom. Thus a leading figure of the banned Ulster Defence Association, the largest loyalist paramilitary organization, interviewed in the Irish News daily, was quoted saying that in the event of a cease fire, the UDA would welcome all-party talks involving Sinn Fein and the Southern parties and would no longer oppose the prospect of a united Ireland in one form or another.
Military campaigns have been stepped up over the past few years. Since 1990, the IRA has waged an unprecedentedly extensive bombing campaign in Britain. The IRA leadership has aimed to prove, as they keep repeating after each attack, that the British repressive machine is incapable of getting rid of the IRA units and that as a result no political settlement can be considered without the Republicans being part of it.
While this reasoning is sustainable from the point of view of an apparatus fighting against another apparatus, that of the British state, it leaves no space whatsoever for the feelings of the population in the middle of which this military activity is taking place and which provides most of the casualties. Some of the IRA's most spectacular attacks against the City (London's financial district) have embarrassed the British government, ridiculed its police and forced it, under the pressure of insurance companies, to introduce permanent road controls at every access point into the City. Such bombings, few in numbers, targeted at big business with few or no casualties, did not antagonize the majority of British workers who have little time for the big financial institutions anyway.
On the other hand while London commuters remained passive in front of the endless delays resulting from the IRA's long series of bomb attacks against the underground and railway stations, these attacks certainly did not enhance the IRA's credit. But bombings such as that in a Warrington shopping center in April 1993, where a four-year old boy was killed, shocked most workers in Britain, and alienated many of them from the cause which the IRA pretends to defend, including those who were in favor of a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.
In Northern Ireland itself, such nuances are meaningless. There, the policies of the military apparatuses appear unambiguously for what they are – fundamentally identical from one group to another, regardless of the rhetorical frills they use.
On the one hand IRA units kill building workers because their employers do work for the British army. On the other hand, those of the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters, the UDA's military wing) kill subcontractors working for Shorts, the aircraft company, on the grounds that they are Catholic and as such they are "stealing jobs from the Protestant unemployed". The difference between these two examples is one of demagogy, not one of policies. Neither of these attacks are mere "accidents", they are part of an explicit policy which involves a social choice – that of dismissing the exploited, to use them at best as cannon fodder and at worst as targets which are declared "legitimate" on the basis of their birth certificate or the alleged crimes of those who exploit them.
True, there is something even more utterly disgusting in the demagogy of the loyalist paramilitaries. For example, one of the UDA leaders was quoted, in an interview with the British daily, The Guardian, on October 19th: "We are out to terrorize the terrorists; to get to the stage where the old grannies up the Falls will call on the IRA to stop, because it is ordinary Catholics that are getting hit, not the Provos [the original nickname of today's IRA] behind the steel security doors".
Disgusting as this nasty piece of demagogy may be, there is, like in every demagogy, an element of truth in it – as was proved in the IRA's Shankill Road bombing on October 23rd, right at the center of one of the poorest Protestant strongholds, where nine people who had nothing to do with paramilitaries were killed; and again in the UFF's massacre at Greysteel near Derry, where seven people died, just because they were at the wrong pub at the wrong time, two of them Protestants. When military apparatuses are warring against one another, their "soldiers" are seldom the victims, if only because they know what to expect, they know how to protect themselves and are constantly on the look-out.
Any war between military apparatuses follows this kind of logic. In the name of this logic, which the IRA accepts just like its enemies do, the UFF, UVF and "Red hand commandos" can terrorize the Catholic areas while being able to claim some legitimacy for the 35 murders or so which they carried out since the beginning of the year on randomly-selected targets.
It is obvious that today, like at many other points in the past, the loyalist paramilitaries are preparing for possible future progress towards a settlement by building a sectarian wall of blood between the Catholic and Protestant communities. By relying on the spiral of terror and counter-terror, the loyalists hope to build support for their own political ambitions. In front of this policy, the Catholic working class is defenseless, because the IRA which speaks and acts in its name has itself no other policy than to whip the Catholic population up against its alleged Protestant "enemy". And while the Protestant workers may have fewer casualties, at least for the time being, they remain just as defenseless as their Catholic brothers, as long as the UDA thugs and their likes, their worst class enemies, rule over Shankill and the main Protestant working class districts.
In the 1920s and '30s, on the strength of the partially successful uprising which led to Partition, the Republicans could retain illusions as to the possibility of a military victory over the British state. But not today's Republicans.
The new generation of militants, who came out of the civil rights movement of the late '60s, soon forgot about the old romantic myth of resurrecting an all-Ireland civil war. They changed direction and, to use Gerry Adams' own expression, considered the "armed struggle" as "armed propaganda".
Today this so-called "propaganda" reveals its true nature, which it always had despite being packaged in radical-sounding rhetoric. It is reduced to a mere bargaining chip for the nationalists in their bid to get recognition from the governments and a seat at the negotiating table. But it can be a bargaining chip not so much because the IRA is able to strike in mainland Britain, but because its military apparatus is probably the only existing force capable of maintaining law and order among the poor layers of the Catholic population, in Northern Ireland of course, but also among the Irish working class in Britain itself.
The insistence of the IRA on gaining prominent media coverage for their policing of the Northern Catholic districts, their knee-capping of drug pushers and even now of joy riders, is not just a ploy aimed at getting the support of more conservative layers of the Catholic population. It is also a way of establishing their rule, day-in and day-out, over the Catholic poor. And the IRA leadership knows that the message won't be lost on the British state: if the IRA can manage to carry out the police tasks that neither the Royal Ulster Constabulary nor the British army have ever been able to carry out, surely British strategists have to consider bargaining for its co-operation.
The problem for the nationalists is to get consideration for their "application to the negotiating table", so to speak, despite the opposition of more established rival forces, such as the Unionist parties. Probably Adams' discussions with John Hume, the leader of Sinn Fein's main rival among the Catholic population, was an attempt at creating such an opportunity by being instrumental in a new peace initiative.
Of course, the agreement that came out of these discussions was not endorsed by either the British or the Irish governments, even though Dick Spring had initially voiced his support for it. But this is hardly surprising: neither government was under pressure to do Sinn Fein any favor, even less so after the Shankill Road massacre. Just as, by the way, stepping up repression against the nationalists today – in particular tightening the media ban on Sinn Fein in Britain, as Major has alluded to – would not necessarily mean dismissing Sinn Fein out of hand as a potential partner in negotiations. After all, the recent disclosure that secret talks have been taking place between Sinn Fein and senior members of the Conservative Party on behalf of the British government shows that there can be a large gap between Major's public language and his actual agenda. Indeed, why should the governments give up their chance to get more concessions out of the nationalists, even before the opening of negotiations, when the relationship of forces does not compel them to forego this? According to basic bargaining logic that would be sheer stupidity!
In this light, within the logic of basic bargaining, it is very likely that the official announcements by the British and Irish governments were, if not triggered, at least precipitated by the Hume-Adams initiative. It is also likely that while strongly denying it, the future moves by the two governments towards a settlement, if there are any, will prove to be closely in line with the Hume-Adams agreement.
Little is known, at least directly, about the contents of the Hume-Adams proposals. They still remain a diplomatic secret, even after Major announced his own "plan" and even among Sinn Fein's own membership – which, by the way, also means that Sinn Fein does not want to risk embarrassing the British government and prefers to leave the initiative to Major. Some indications have been leaked however by Irish politicians. According to these, a cease fire was offered in exchange for the setting up of all-party talks, involving every organizations in the North and the South, including Sinn Fein and the loyalist groups, whose decisions would be biding on the Irish and British governments – an operation similar to the South African CODESA.
Will the British government and the Unionist politicians agree to such a scheme? As far as the British government is concerned, references to a possible settlement have never been more prominent than today. Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland Secretary keeps repeating that the opening of negotiations involving Sinn Fein could be considered on the basis of an unconditional cease fire. The formulation may sound like a refusal since the nationalists are unlikely to agree to a permanent cease fire without a guarantee that they will get something in exchange. On the other hand the mere public repetition by Mayhew and many other prominent Conservative politicians of such a statement is certainly new coming from ministers; and this could be seen as an implicit offer of a guarantee.
As to the Unionist parties, they have already indicated in various circumstances that they were not opposed to sitting at a negotiating table with Sinn Fein. Martin Smyths, one of the UUP's leader, did so at his party conference in September. As to the DUP, it has kept silent on this issue so far. But given the close relationship between the DUP and the UDA, it is unlikely that the UDA comes out publicly in favor of a negotiation involving Sinn Fein without at least a significant fraction of the DUP sharing the same position.
Beyond the subtleties of the politicians' formulations, the possibility of a cease fire and a stepping up of the negotiating process is not to be dismissed. How soon is another question.
The worst thing for the population of Northern Ireland is that it is not necessarily in the interest of the various protagonists to speed up the process. The atmosphere of terror which has developed over the past few weeks in the poor districts, both Catholic and Protestant, may serve the purposes of politicians by demoralizing and demobilizing the working class areas. After all it was the uprising of the poorest layers, from 1968 onwards, which led the British government to drown the threat of social unrest under massive state subsidies. Today, if the British state ends up inviting the nationalists to the negotiating table, it will still be out of fear of a possible working-class backlash.
But terror may also trigger opposite reactions. A thousand or so Shorts workers, mostly Protestant, took to the streets on October 15th in a show of solidarity with Joe Reynolds, a Catholic work mate murdered by the UFF. Many of them may also have been on the demonstration following the Shankill Road massacre, together with thousands of other workers from Shorts and Harland and Wolff, the shipyard. But does it necessarily mean that these workers are taken in by the bloody demagogy of the loyalist paramilitaries? Hasn't 1993 seen more and more of such angry reactions by workers, both Catholic and Protestant, against sectarian murders?
The working class will find no answers to their aspirations and present problems in the reactionary policies of the loyalist groups. Nor will workers find answers in the policies of the Republicans. The role that the Republicans are gearing up to play – the main reason for the British state to invite them to the negotiating table – is that of policing the poor Catholic areas and of imposing the terms of the future settlement on those who may have objections. As to the Protestant workers, they will not easily forget that their areas have often been the targets of the Republicans' bombs and that, at best, they were treated by the Republicans in the way an army treats enemy soldiers.
One may hope that from the ranks of the working class will emerge militants who, having lived through such a period, will reject out of hand the reactionary demagogy of nationalists of all descriptions. Such militants could strive to unite the ranks of the exploited in order to end the bloody divisions created by the British bourgeoisie and subsequently reinforced by the nationalists. Such militants could aim at welding together the forces of the Northern and Southern working class as well as those of the emigrants living in Britain. To this end these militants, together with all those they will have succeeded in leading onto this road, especially among the intellectual youth, will have no other choice than to turn to class politics. For there is only one way for the working class to rid itself of nationalist and religious divisions, as of all similar poisoned remnants of this rotting bourgeois society – it is to side consciously with all exploited against all exploiters and undertake the destruction of the class society.
Over the past 25 years, the poor layers of Northern Ireland have displayed unlimited commitment and provided numerous devoted activists to the nationalist cause, despite its narrowness. Were they to do the same for a party which, being based on revolutionary communism, would offer them a much more generous and richer ideal, that of the emancipation of the proletariat as a whole, then a new hope would be opened for the future.