THESE ARE early days yet, but, the fact that “peace talks” over the future of Northern Ireland are happening at all is greatly encouraging. Even the split in the IRA/Sinn Fein is encouraging. It is evidence that the people around Gerry Adams are seriously trying to find a way to call off the war they launched 26 years ago. An IRA/Sinn Fein split, if the leaders went for “peace”, was a certainty. The only thing in question was how big a split, and what effect its animosities would have on the prospects for peace.
It is unlikely that the splintering process is at an end. More patient people, who will nevertheless not, at the end of the day, accept a peace settlement short of a united Ireland, wait to see what happens.
Therein lies the danger. For Adams and his friends will not be able to negotiate a deal that will give them any of the fundamental things they have fought for. What they can hope for was formulated in the February 1995 London-Dublin consultation document: restored Belfast self rule — it was abolished after 50 years in March 1972 — but this time with Catholic-Protestant powersharing; and a Council of Ireland to link the Dublin and Belfast Parliaments.
If the IRA/Sinn Fein leaders settle for this, there will be a new hardline Republican backlash against them, and probably a sizeable one. At some point, the Adams group will have to decide to go one way or the other, and, if they opt for peace, face a major split.
Thus the so-called “peace process” is a fragile thing that could break down suddenly. Its essential business is to organise the political surrender of the IRA.
Adams and his friends entered the first ceasefire in August 1994 with delusions that US and European Union pressure on Britain could be mobilised by Irish nationalists in Dublin, Belfast, Derry, and Washington so that Britain would coerce the Protestants into accepting the fundamental demands of the IRA. That was a pipe-dream, as Adams and others quickly found out. They can have no such illusions now. They deserve respect for having the courage to try, nonetheless, to find a negotiated way out of the political and military blind alley.
The Northern Ireland entity is untenable because of the massive Catholic-Nationalist-Republican minority it contains. In some key categories of young people, Catholics are already a majority. It is only a matter of time — and not much time — before there is a Catholic majority. Yet even when the Protestants have become the minority in the Six Counties, the Catholic-Protestant, Irish-British conflict of identity will still be there. It will, of course, be the reductio ad absurdum of the Six Counties and Partition — a Unionist sub-state with a Catholic-Nationalist majority! But anybody who thinks the Protestant-Catholic conflict can then be laughed out of existence does not know Irish reality.
To pretend that the issues in Northern Ireland — no matter which community is the majority in the Six Counties and which the minority — can be reduced to the question of mere undifferentiated head-counting, is to ignore what is fundamental to the conflict there. Northern Ireland can not be made to work according to the majority/minority model of states where the citizens share a common national identity. It never worked according to that pattern. For 50 years it was a one-party Protestant sectarian dictatorship. Then it broke down.
Twenty-six years ago, the Provisional IRA launched a military campaign whose basic premise was the gross delusion that Northern Ireland was nothing more than “British-occupied Ireland”. Hiding from themselves the reality that one million Irish people in Ireland were implacable opponents of Irish unity, they launched a war “against Britain” that inexorably turned into war on the Protestant Irish. Only the British Army has held the six-counties unit under one rule. Without that, intra-Irish civil war would have redrawn the political map of Ireland in blood.
The early Provos were an archaic hybrid political sect in the grip of many peculiar dogmas — “physical force” on principle to “drive out the British Crown forces”, abstention from politics, and boycott, on principle, of the London, Belfast and Dublin parliaments. They made a principle and a fetish out of the gun and the bomb, recognising no other road to salvation but bloodshed and self-sacrifice. They began by a misconceived war that has proved futile and counterproductive. It has worked above all else to destroy the possibility of working-class reconciliation across the communal divide. Some of them, Adams in the lead, have learned from this experience.
But what a comment their present course is on all that has gone before, and on the entire sorry history of the Provisionals as a political force! Everything the IRA did pointed not to a united Ireland, not to something better in Northern Ireland, but to sectarian civil war.
The idea that progress in Ireland can be won by murdering Protestants — and that was for many years, the main substance of the war inside Northern Ireland — is deeply hostile to genuine Irish Republicanism. The root of democratic Irish Republicanism, of secular Irish politics, is the idea that the whole people of Ireland, Catholics and Protestants alike, are equal. Nothing on this earth has been more foreign to the Provisional IRA in the last 25 years than that idea!
We advocate working-class unity, but we have no simple solution. Certain things are clear, however. The Six Counties statelet is untenable. A broader framework, all-Ireland at least, is needed. Closer collaboration and maybe closer formal links between the independent Irish state and Britain would help ease things in northern Ireland towards a solution.
A federal Ireland, with minority rights of self-government for the Protestant-majority areas, is the only possible framework that could replace the present failed Six Counties entity. It will not cease to be necessary when the Catholic Nationalists become a majority in the Six Counties. It will remain the only solution to the conflict of identities that is likely still to exit. It is the only “constitutional settlement” that both Catholic and Protestant workers in Ireland could subscribe to, respecting each others’ rights, and building working-class unity in the process.
In the period ahead, the serious left will use the heightened interest generated by the peace talks to promote discussion on Ireland in the labour movement — on British capitalism’s long-term and ultimate responsibility, on the necessity for a real solution based on consistent democracy, and on ways the British labour movement can help promote Protestant-Catholic working-class unity in Ireland.