A new turn in N. Ireland

Submitted by Anon on 27 April, 2004 - 9:27

By Jack Cleary

The Northern Ireland power-sharing executive has now been suspended for 18 months. The polar opposites in Northern Irish politics, Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, are now the biggest parties on the Catholic and Protestant sides.

Under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), a new Belfast government requires a Paisleyite-Sinn Fein partnership. That will be a long time coming, if it ever comes.

Now the first report of the International Monitoring Commission (IMC) on the state of the Northern Irish ceasefire threatens to put new obstacles in the way of a resumption of power-sharing government.

The paramilitary organisations, and in the first place the IRA, it reports, still exist in a state of readiness for war. They are recruiting and training members, and gathering intelligence. The paramilitaries still rule parts of North-West Belfast, for example. They rule by way of beatings and punishment shootings, including murder.

The IMC holds Sinn Fein responsible for IRA activities, asserting that the key leaders of Sinn Fein are also members of the IRA's leading committee, the Army Council. The IMC intends to name them.

The truth of course is that most Northern Irelanders could "name" them - Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams, Pat Doherty, Gerry Kelly…

These findings back up what the former First Minister, David Trimble, and the Protestant ultra Ian Paisley have always said about Sinn Fein and the IRA.

The IMC imposed piddling fines on Sinn Fein - which is the richest political party in Ireland and one of the richest in Europe. It says that if the power-sharing government were still in being it would recommend that Sinn Fein be excluded from government. That too is exactly what Trimble and Paisley have "recommended".

Both London and Dublin know perfectly well that the IRA and the UVF and other paramilitaries rule Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant ghettos.

An unspoken part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and accommodations reached in its shadow was that the paramilitaries would be allowed to go on ruling "their" patches of Northern Ireland.

Six years on the continued existence of the IRA (and two other IRAs, the "Continuity" and the "Real" IRA, together with the "left wing" Irish National Liberation Army, and on the Protestant side the UVF, UDA and other groups) has made a power-sharing government impossible.

London and Dublin have two options in this situation: they can continue indefinitely with direct rule from London (with Dublin advising London). Or they can try to do something about the IRA.

If they choose the second course the possibilities are again only two.

The first is to continue with the failed policy of the last six years and press for IRA disbandment.

The second is that they can abandon the Good Friday Agreement's commitment to all-inclusive power-sharing and, excluding Sinn Fein (and the very small UVF-linked PUP), and try to set up a government of the parties which are not directly linked to para-military organisations.

These are the two big Unionist parties, Paisley's DUP and Trimble's UUP and the Catholic-Nationalist SDLP.

The IMC's report strengthens Paisley and Trimble in their demand for the exclusion of Sinn Fein. Is that possible?

It will depend on the answer to certain questions.

Would the SDLP - which was pushed into second place on the Catholic-Nationalist side in the recent election - dare risk the backlash against their "treachery" which Sinn Fein-IRA would whip up?

Would Sinn Fein's exclusion from government lead to a resumption of the IRA's war?

Would such a decision by London and Dublin put enough pressure on SF-IRA to force it to put itself into mothballs? Or would it lead to a breakdown of the 10-year-old ceasefire?

Would it create conditions for the IRA's militarist critics of the "Real IRA" and "Continuity IRA" to return Northern Ireland to a state of simmering war?

Sinn Fein-IRA has done tremendously well out of the ceasefire and its decisive turn to politics. Unless the activities of the other IRAs and INLA deprive it of choice and manoeuvring space, the IRA is very unlikely to scrap the ceasefire.

They could, however, mobilise a large segment of the Catholic population - which now overwhelmingly supports the Good Friday Agreement and all the good things that have flowed from it - against any Belfast Government that excluded Sinn Fein.

Whether Northern Irish politics might then settle into a functioning parliamentary government, with a parliamentary opposition, is an unanswerable question.

The choice facing London and Dublin is either to reconstruct Belfast Catholic-Protestant power-sharing on a new, majority and not all-inclusive basis, or to keep London rule for the indefinite future.

Any positive outcome depends on the Northern Ireland labour movement - still powerful in trade union terms, but paralysed politically - reasserting itself and generating a new political party which can unite Catholic and Protestant workers around a socialist and democratic programme proposing a federal united Ireland, with some arrangement for local autonomy to provide guarantees to the Protestant north-east.

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