SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 122 - October 2008

Northern Ireland stalemate

THE ‘POWER-SHARING’ Northern Ireland executive (the governing cabinet) has not met since the middle of June. It faces a logjam over a series of difficult issues. In any other advanced capitalist country, the government would collapse if its executive was incapable of meeting for three months. Imagine the consequences if Gordon Brown or Brian Cowen (Irish prime minister) were unable to convene a cabinet meeting for three months. And imagine the consequences if their ministers spent those months gutting each other in the press every day of the week!

A complete collapse of the executive is unlikely in the short term but prolonged paralysis on the key issues is the present-day reality and probable future of the executive. This situation cannot continue indefinitely.

From the beginning of the so-called peace process, the Socialist Party has argued that no lasting solution could be found on the basis of an uneasy compromise between sectarian politicians. The Socialist Party also argued, however, that the relative peace ushered in by the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 would open up possibilities for the development of class politics and greater working-class unity. This opportunity will not last forever.

It is now 40 years since 5 October 1968, when civil rights supporters were battened off the streets of Derry. This event is commonly taken as the start of the Troubles. Despite the paramilitary ceasefires, then the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998, violence has continued. In every year since 1968 there have been deaths due to political and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, including this year. Sectarian division on the ground remains and, in 2008, new ‘peace lines’ are still being created in Belfast.

At some point things will get worse. While there is almost no support in Catholic working-class areas for a return to war, at this time, and the dissident (republican) groups are still small and relatively isolated, there is little doubt that they are growing in strength and confidence. Both the Real IRA and Continuity IRA are attempting to kill a member of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and, sooner or later, they will likely succeed.

If they do, it could precipitate a political crisis. Imagine the scenario: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) calls for internment and shoot-to-kill, implying that Sinn Féin knows who is behind the attacks and could hand suspects over to the police if it so chose. Sinn Féin denies this, denounces any return to severe repression, but continues to call for people to go to the PSNI with information on the dissidents, thus further undermining its own credibility with young Catholics. If, by then, policing has been devolved to Stormont (the seat of local government) the storm generated by the killing of a police officer will be even greater.

This does not mean that Sinn Féin’s electoral base would disappear or even be seriously dented initially. As throughout the last 40 years, the lack of a credible mass working-class party means that there is no electoral alternative and, at this stage, a lot of working-class people may not bother to vote.

However, opposition to Sinn Féin in its heartlands is growing. This opposition is not just based on its perceived failure to deliver on the national question. Large numbers of Sinn Féin voters are disappointed by its failure to deliver on its promises on social and economic issues.

As things stand, the dissident groupings are poised to garner more support, especially among young people. Sinn Féin is increasingly regarded as part of the establishment. Senior figures in the republican movement, including those with an IRA background, no longer hold sway on the ground in the way that they did over two generations.

There has been a period of relative peace since the severe riots in Protestant areas in October 2005, and last summer was relatively quiet. But there have been recent outbreaks of rioting in Belfast and Craigavon town. The rioting in Craigavon in late August was clearly orchestrated by Republican dissidents. They would have had no luck in sparking such rioting, however, if there was not a mood of alienation and anger among young people in the area.

But such a descent into sectarian conflict is not inevitable. The increase in sectarianism is on the basis that there is no alternative. Another way out is possible. If there was a party to represent working-class people, and which offered a socialist alternative to sectarianism and recession, it could tap into the deep disillusionment in working-class communities, both Catholic and Protestant.

That is why the responsibility on the shoulders of the trade union leaders is so great. Instead of standing back and supporting the sectarian-based political parties in the assembly (the local parliament), they should now take immediate steps towards building a working-class party capable of challenging their right-wing policies.

Ciaran Mulholland

Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)


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