Ireland: Will the Agreement hold?

 

 

The new Northern Ireland Assembly faces deadlock, says Sean Matgamna


 

Despite a great deal of violence by paramilitaries against civilians in "their own" areas, there is peace of sorts in Northern Ireland. It is still good news that Protestants and Catholics there have more or less stopped killing each other. It will be very bad news if conditions there deteriorate and the old slaughter restarts.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble is prime minister and Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) is deputy. Six cross-border, all-island departments were agreed in December. But there is as yet no Belfast government, and no transfer of power from London to Belfast. On that front, there is stalemate.

According to the Agreement, Sinn Fein is entitled to two seats in the government, in line with its proportion of seats in the Assembly. Those who signed the Agreement committed themselves to "decommission" the weapons of private armies within two years. The Ulster Unionists, however, insist that the Provisional IRA should decommission before its two representatives are allowed to take their places in the government. The PIRA, so far, flatly refuses to do that. Deadlock.

Almost certainly Trimble has no choice. If he were to agree to sit with Sinn Fein in government while the Provos ostentatiously maintain their full potential to resume the war immediately if things don't go their way, then it is virtually certain that his party in the Assembly would split. Trimble would not get the requisite majority of the Unionist bloc in the Assembly - and in that way the Agreement would fail. In the last analysis, Trimble's attitude is a necessary function of the very large Protestant vote (probably near 50%) against the Agreement. As it is, Trimble's majority in the Protestant bloc depends on the two votes of the Progressive Unionist Party/UVF (Billy Hutchinson and David Ervine). Like SF/PIRA, they too reject the call to disarm. They want SF in government "on probation", without prior disarmament. David Ervine is quoted in the press saying: "I'd love to see the day when I could advocate it [decommissioning] and stay alive".

Trimble has, according to one report, warned his supporters to be prepared for the collapse of the Agreement. On 15 February the Assembly will go through the ritual of voting in two separate blocs on a report from Trimble and Mallon. This requires two separate, Catholic and Protestant, majorities. Nobody can be sure it will not trigger a mortal crisis. There are enough dissidents and potential dissidents in Trimble's own party to thwart him. If a new referendum were held now, it is improbable that there would be a Unionist majority for the Agreement.

Sinn Fein is agitating vigorously along the lines of sectarian stereotyping - the refusal of the Ulster Unionists to sit with them until they begin disarming is "the old Unionist refusal to accord equality and human rights to Catholics" in a new guise. If some way is not found to break the deadlock between the demand for SF/PIRA to destroy enough of its armoury (before TV cameras, insists Trimble) to make at least a plausible initial gesture of "decommissioning", big enough to affect Unionist opinion and strengthen Trimble's pro-Agreement hand, then the Agreement is stalled - and not only stalled but unravelling.

And with every day the deadlock lasts, the size of the IRA gesture needed to have any hope of working on the Unionist side grows, as does the difficulty for the IRA in making such a gesture.

Looming five months ahead is another major confrontation at Drumcree. The Grand Lodge leadership of the Orange Order says that if the Orangeists are not allowed to march down the Catholic Garvaghy Road on 12 July this year, then it will call on every Orangeman in Northern Ireland to go to Drumcree and force the issue.

When, three years ago, that seemed about to happen, the British government caved in and the RUC batoned and rubber-bulleted Catholic residents to force the way for a "token" Orange march down the Garvaghy Road. The British government "kept the balance" by later siding with the Catholics in Derry, where they are the big majority.

The British government pushed the Good Friday Agreement through by leaving many of the most difficult things un-settled. Their politicians hyped and their "spinners" span. Using the US government and the US president as a propaganda resource, they bamboozled it through. In the yes camp, Catholics and Protestants thought they were getting and voting for different, contradictory things. Even so, not enough Protestants voted yes or for pro-yes Assembly representatives to give the pro-yes Trimble Unionists freedom of action or much freedom of manoeuvre. That they should choose to try to diminish SF/PIRA as much as possible is natural. That's politics. The point is that the balance of forces within Unionism leaves them no choice. And to survive, the pro-Agreement Unionists need more than was agreed on Good Friday. Unless they get at least a big gesture on arms from the PIRA, they cannot sit in government with Sinn Fein without shattering the shaky pro-Agreement majority in the Unionist/ Protestant bloc and thus collapsing one of the pillars of the Agreement.

The British government, too, is caught in the contradictions it brought together. Nearly 250 of the 400 paramilitary prisoners due under the Agreement to be released by April 2000 have already been released. Workers' Liberty has long called for the release of prisoners. But the British government said that release was to depend on the ceasefire. Only organisations maintaining the ceasefire would have their members eligible for release. This is a very important part of the Agreement. The prospect of prisoners being released exercised great influence for the Agreement, on both Catholic and Protestant sides. In fact, however, in the ghettoes on both sides, the paramilitaries remain in control. The paramilitaries continue to shoot and maim "civilians" on their "own sides", mixing savage and arbitrary vigilante justice dispensed with bullets and clubs - nailed clubs, sometimes - with the edgy concern of warlords to show who rules.

Warlordism is endemic in both Catholic and Protestant Northern Ireland. The Agreement tacitly accepted that warlordism would continue for at least a period after the new structures were working. Last year, despite the ceasefires, there were 219 reported paramilitary attacks. In the first three weeks of 1999, the Provos were responsible for four shootings and 12 beatings, and Loyalists for six shootings and 18 beatings, on members of their own communities. The figures are only eight less than the year before. It becomes a matter of arbitrary political interpretation as to whether or not there is a ceasefire. Is there? Yes there is - the PIRA is not attacking RUC and British Army targets; it is not shooting Protestant workers who "collaborate" with the RUC, or planting bombs in Shankhill Road chip shops. No there is not - for the people living in their own ghettoes under paramilitary rule. The British government has chosen a definition of ceasefire which excludes large swathes of the Northern Ireland population - one that involves the British government in acquiescing in warlordism and covering for it. Tony Blair has responded to Unionist and Tory demands that the release of prisoners be made conditional on a complete ceasefire (on the paramilitaries' "own" civilians as well as on the state personnel) by saying that if the government stopped releasing prisoners, then the Agreement would be finished. The government feels it has no choice but to go on letting out the prisoners. It is a massive confession of weakness, and a massive surrender by the British government to the paramilitary territorial warlords with whom it went into partnership pro tem to secure the Agreement.

The Provos have already gained a great deal. They are publicly accepted by the Dublin, London, Washington and other governments (and Gerry Adams goes on the US lecture circuit for £20,000 a speech). But Sinn Fein's commitment to the Agreement is less than wholehearted. For them it is a means to another end, a stepping stone to a united Ireland.

It is not necessarily in the interests of the Provos' longer-term goals that the Belfast government strand of the Agreement take on life. They want the all-Ireland structures. It is the Trimble Unionists who want the Belfast home rule.

The Good Friday Agreement set up sectarian structures within which all sides would find new ways to pursue the same goals that they previously sought by military means. The question was, who would win the peace? One aspect of the Unionist demand for SF/PIRA to decommission is that so long as the PIRA is ostentatiously armed, this phase of SF/PIRA activity, like earlier ones, still combines the ballot box and the Armalite.

Reports that a more "hardline" PIRA Chief of Staff was elected recently may be important. They may also be part of the game - the PIRA playing hard cop to SF's soft cop. "Our hands are tied; unless you concede what we want, we may not be able to hold back the militarists". Nothing can be taken at face value with SF/PIRA. The best outcome for SF/PIRA and its long-term goal may well be that the Good Friday Agreement collapses and is seen to have collapsed because of Unionist "unreasonableness" and determination to "dominate". It is unlikely that they would then automatically resume full-scale war, but in time they might then "reasonably"even be able to resume the war without losing all the international recognition they now have. Meanwhile they work against the would-be power-sharing Unionists, their partners on Good Friday, and tacitly help the Paisleyites.

The ceasefire was an implicit admission by SF/PIRA that its long war had been completely misguided. The reason it has not shattered the Provos is that they make no such admission explicitly, and the leaders have "sold" the current phase of operations to their supporters as just a different mix and balance in the old formula about combining the Armalite and the ballot box which arose at the time of the hunger strikes at the beginning of the 1980s.

SF have agreed to "conciliate" the Protestants and accept their rights, but their ultimate understanding of that is a unitary state in Ireland with only guarantees of individual civil rights for the Protestants, that is, for the British minority in Ireland, and no national-minority or communal rights for them. The Good Friday Agreement gives them that unitary state when there is a bare majority for it in the Six Counties, as there may be, if present demographic trends continue, within a decade or so.

Unless a "credible" start is made to Provo decommissioning is made soon, the Trimble Unionists will move to exclude Sinn Fein from the new government. The SDLP may rescue the "peace process" by breaking up the pan-nationalist alliance and agreeing with the Trimble Unionists to exclude SF, thus, perhaps, ensuring that Trimble's two vote majority in the Unionist bloc does not disappear and bring everything crashing down. But even, or perhaps especially, if the PIRA did not then begin to lean on its Armalite "leg" once more and resume the war, that policy would involve enormous risks for the SDLP. It has lost electoral ground to the Provos in the course of getting the present Agreement, of which SDLP leader John Hume was the architect. In opposition, crying "cheat", agitating about "equality" for "Catholics", and denouncing the SDLP as "Uncle Pat" collaborators with Unionist "domination", SF might gain more ground. Doubly so if the performance of an SDLP/UUP government disappoints - as it may well do, despite the massive international funding it can expect. That could give SF the majority of Catholic votes at the next election.

For the SDLP to be able to act against Sinn Fein in alliance with Trimble depends on it having a majority in the Catholic bloc. Currently SF have 18 seats, and the SDLP 24. A few more SF seats and, under the dual majority arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement, the SDLP would be paralysed, as Trimble may be by Unionist defections.

The experience of nearly three decades of Northern Ireland shows that in calculating the future there it is always necessary to think the unimaginable. On a number of occasions, it has looked as if the war could not go on. Yet it has gone on. After the Orange general strike of May 1974 brought down the power-sharing executive set up the previous January, the British Labour government organised elections to a Northern Ireland Constitutional Assembly. Those elected would meet and thrash out a constitutional arrangement acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants. For over a year that Assembly met and could not agree. For most of that time the Provos were on ceasefire. Early in 1976 the deadlocked Assembly was dissolved by Britain. The IRA resumed its military activity, gearing itself, according to documents the British captured and released, for a 20 year war. The old leaders of the PIRA and SF were discredited (for the ceasefire, among other things) and replaced by the new leadership of Adams and McGuinness, northern-based (and explicitly Catholic, where the older leaders - David O'Connell, who has since died, and Rory Brady, who heads Republican Sinn Fein/Continuity IRA, had in theory a broader conception of the Irish Republic).

War-weariness is a factor now. But it may not be all-deciding. A renewed war would not depend on the Catholic population at large. Their attitude would be important, but the war would be waged by a few hundred. Warlord rule in the ghettoes would limit and contain Catholic public opinion if it was against the Provos.

What if the Belfast government part of the Good Friday Agreement collapses, and Britain and Dublin try to maintain all-Ireland structures? Billy Hutchinson of the PUP/UVF warns that Orange paramilitaries might attack tourists in the South, in a sort of "economic" warfare, if London and Dublin impose a new version of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, under which Dublin assumed joint political control while Britain retained executive control in Northern Ireland. It is now forgotten in Britain, but that Agreement caused many months of uproar and disorder among the Protestant population. RUC men were targeted by the Protestants and driven out of housing estates in an attempt to turn them against the government. The uproar died down when little on the surface was seen to have changed. Thatcher's reputation for intransigence was a factor here. SF/PIRA's seemingly implacable drive for its long-term goals is a major factor now and it may have the opposite effect.

Whatever happens with the Agreement, the priority for workers in Northern Ireland must be to seek the unity without which they will remain prey to the conflicting designs of the British state and the various communalist politicians. Unity in economic and social struggles is vital, but to gain a grip on the "constitutional" conflicts which so dominate Northern Ireland, a political basis for workers' unity is also necessary, a political programme which allows workers to unite by integrating the rights and concerns of both communities into a policy of consistent democracy. That is not possible in the existing undemocratic partition, but only through a federal united Ireland, allowing autonomy to the British-Irish national minority where they are the regional majority.