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Assembly collapse reflects growing polarisation

The police raid on the Stormont offices of Sinn Fein and the subsequent allegations of an IRA spy ring operating from there have brought the workings of the Northern Ireland assembly to a shuddering halt. Rather than dissolve it the British government has opted, yet again, for suspension. PETER HADDEN writes.

BY NEXT MAY, when its first five year term of office is up, the assembly will have been in crisis suspension for around half that time. This time the chances of it ever meeting again are remote, certainly not before May and quite possibly never.

The Stormont raid was only the trigger for a collapse that was coming anyway. Support for the assembly and the Good Friday agreement has fallen. Among Catholics there has been a small drop in support but among Protestants the fall has been dramatic. Some recent polls indicate that only around one third of Protestants now support the agreement.

This fall in support was reflected in last year’s elections in an increase in the vote of Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at the expense of David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). UUP members fear that if the assembly elections were to go ahead next May with them still sharing power with Sinn Fein they would face an electoral meltdown, with the DUP emerging for the first time ever as the largest unionist party.

Opposition to Trimble has been growing within his own party. A number of his supporters in the assembly have either announced that they will stand down at the next election or have been deselected, with anti-agreement candidates like Jeffery Donaldson taking their place.

Left with no room to manoeuvre, Trimble was forced to accept a Donaldson inspired ultimatum that UUP ministers would pull out of the assembly unless Sinn Fein met conditions that effectively added up to the disbandment of the IRA. This decision, taken at a meeting of delegates to the Unionist Council, left Donaldson as the leader of the UUP in all but name and Trimble as little more than a caretaker.

Then came the Stormont raid. There can be little doubt that the timing of this was not accidental; that it had more to do with the UUP decision than with whatever information the police and special branch had on what the IRA was up to.

The state was aware of the IRA intelligence gathering for a year, probably much longer. There is even a suspicion that they allowed it to continue and used it to feed misleading information to Sinn Fein to throw them off the scent during negotiations. Their decision to blow the whistle and to do so in such a public and dramatic manner can only have been taken in full knowledge that it would bring the assembly down. With Trimble a prisoner of his own party the British ruling establishment could see that pressure on the unionists would not produce another compromise, that their decision to pull out in January was not a bluff.

So they have turned the screws on Sinn Fein and, through them, on the IRA. By exposing the fact that the IRA was information gathering, albeit in the most part low grade information, they have been able to lift the blame for the collapse of the assembly from Trimble’s shoulders and place it on Sinn Fein.

The aim is to isolate Sinn Fein and the IRA by building a consensus against them that would include the Irish government and the Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). This time the demand is not for some token ‘confidence building measure’ like partial decommissioning. The precondition that has now been set for a return of devolved government is the total disbandment of the IRA.

Is there a chance that this can happen and the ministers can again take their seats in the Stormont executive? If there is it is a slender chance indeed. Gerry Adams and other prominent republicans, clearly disconcerted and thrown onto the defensive by the recent allegations, have subsequently made carefully crafted speeches saying they would like to ‘bring about conditions in which the IRA could disband’ or that for them ‘the war is over’.

The republican leadership have long given up any idea of a return to armed struggle. It is well over a decade since they concluded – correctly – that the IRA’s military campaign could not succeed. Since then they have been sucked too far along the constitutional and capitalist political road to turn back.

At some point they might be prepared to split the republican movement and ditch those elements of the IRA who would not disband. This is not likely in the short term and will become less rather than more likely if the sectarian conflict escalates into worse violence while the peace process is stalled.

But even if the IRA did disband this would not rescue the agreement, at least not for any length of time. The idea put forward by unionists that the whole problem is down to the existence of the IRA and its ongoing activities is as facile as its mirror opposite, the idea put forward by republicans that the sole reason for the day-to-day sectarian fighting is the existence of the UDA and other anti-agreement loyalists.

The current political impasse has much deeper roots. At bottom the peace process, because it has been in the hands of sectarian politicians and paramilitaries as well as the right-wing governments in London, Dublin and Washington, has been a process of division and polarisation.

A process of division, not peace

THERE HAS BEEN an agreement between the main sectarian parties that they would share power, divvying up the ministerial posts, perks and salaries between themselves. Meanwhile, these same parties have done all in their power to make sure the working class communities remain divided, as any coming together of Catholic and Protestant workers would threaten to break down the unionist/nationalist voting patterns and would threaten their existence.

During the negotiations that led up to the agreement and in the years since, they have used issues like parades, policing, decommissioning and now disbandment to divide the communities and, in the recent period, to deflect attention from the right-wing economic policies they have all been implementing.

Instead of peace there has been regular conflict – conflict over parades, over issues like access to Holy Cross school, as well as the incessant petrol bombings, pipe bombings and other attacks taking place on an almost nightly basis in what have become known as the ‘interface’ areas. As the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland warned early in the peace negotiations, what was developing was less a peace process than a repartition process. ‘The Troubles’ did not go away; rather they developed into a long-drawn-out war of attrition fought out over territory.

You do not have to travel far in Northern Ireland to see the result. More areas, including small towns and villages that were once mixed or ‘neutral’, now display loyalist flags and graffiti or else Irish tricolours and republican graffiti, marking them out as either Catholic or Protestant. Two-thirds of people now live in areas that are either 90% Catholic or 90% Protestant.

The polarisation in attitudes is less visible but it is there and has been confirmed, and quite graphically so, in a number of recent surveys. One found, for example, that 68% of 18-25 year-olds have never had a meaningful conversation with someone of the other religion.

The assembly has not gone into cold storage because of this or that incident like the raid on Sinn Fein’s offices. It is not possible to maintain permanently a thin veneer of agreement between sectarian politicians on top of a growing division between the working-class communities. With the suspension politics has been brought into line with the increased polarisation within society.

The underlying issues

THE REAL UNDERLYING problem is that in the political, cultural and territorial sectarian tug-of-war the growing perception among Protestants is that they are losing out. There is a basis for this insecurity. The expansion of the Catholic population has meant that whole areas that once were Protestant are now increasingly Catholic.

A new bombshell is set to burst when the results of the 2001 census are released in December. Most of the findings of this census have already been made public but the figures giving the demographic breakdown between Catholic and Protestant have been held back.

At the time of the last census, in 1991, Catholics were found to make up 38.4% of the population. The new survey is expected to show that this figure has risen to 45% or perhaps 46%. Between 4%-6% are expected to have registered as ‘others’ leaving the Protestant population at between 48%-50% of the total. If these figures are accurate the Protestants could, for the first time, be a minority of the overall population.

Recent election results have confirmed this trend. In the 1992 general election the combined unionist vote was 47.97% while the combined vote of the SDLP and Sinn Fein was 33.5%. In last year’s Westminster election the unionist vote held at 49.3% but the Sinn Fein/SDLP vote was up dramatically to 42.8%.

A confirmation of these projected census figures will have a huge psychological impact especially on the Protestant population. The rise of Sinn Fein, who are set to become the largest nationalist party, perhaps by some margin, coupled with their more assertive and strident brand of nationalism, can only add to Protestant unease.

That Protestants, especially the Protestant working class, feel that they are on the losing side in the peace process does not mean that people in the Catholic working-class areas have any sense that they have benefited.

There has been no let up in the poverty that blights working class areas, Catholic and Protestant. Because of this, the feeling of the Catholic working class that they are second class citizens forced to accept a diet of low wages, dead end jobs with no proper conditions, or else paltry state benefits, is as strong as ever.

For them the message spelt out by Sinn Fein that the assembly can’t work because the unionists will not accept the ‘equality agenda’ and are not prepared to share power with Catholics rings true.

But the ‘equality agenda’ as spelt out by Sinn Fein has nothing to do with real equality. After all their ministers were prepared to privatise services in education and health, increasing exploitation, keeping wages low and adding to inequality among the workforce.

Sinn Fein’s ‘equality’ is not about having proper services available for all or about providing decent jobs with proper pay and conditions equally available for all. It is about making sure that nationalist sectarianism is given equal status to unionist sectarianism.

When Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey became Lord Mayor of Belfast he found a union jack hanging in his mayoral office. His answer was not to take it and all other sectarian emblems down but was to hang an Irish tricolour alongside it. Protestants see things like this as part of a nationalist offensive which, in tandem with the demographic changes, is gradually deconstructing the Northern Ireland state and delivering them by degrees into a united Ireland.

The growing unease of Protestants is the real reason for the suspension of the assembly and is also the reason suspension is not likely to be lifted, certainly not in the short term. Even the disbandment of the IRA would probably not be enough, as the hard line unionists would probably say the same thing as they said about decommissioning, ‘we don’t believe it’.

Disbandment could actually make things worse because it would mean disintegration and the breakdown of discipline, with units coming under local control. Earlier this summer IRA units in North and East Belfast got heavily involved in the sectarian fighting and the leadership had to intervene to cool things down a bit. If the leadership structures were removed such restraints would be gone.

Another attempt at a capitalist solution is coming apart. Efforts to patch it up will not work in the long run. Left to the right-wing governments and politicians the most likely prospect is that a Middle East scenario will develop – not a peace process, albeit one punctuated by periodic upsurges in violence, but a process headed towards conflict and division, this time punctuated by negotiations and possibly by episodic agreements.

What is the solution?

THERE IS NO prospect of a lasting capitalist solution. The various options that have been discussed – a capitalist united Ireland, joint authority, another ramshackle agreement in the north – are merely different routes at different tempos towards worse division, even civil war. Nor can the present situation of direct rule hold things together indefinitely, especially in light of the demographic changes that are taking place.

This peace process is failing because it has been in the hands of sectarian politicians and right-wing governments. What is needed now is a united movement of the working class, rooted in the workplaces and the working-class communities, to build a real peace process.

It is possible for such a movement to emerge despite the polarisation, despite the hardening of attitudes and despite the incessant sectarian attacks. In fact the outlines of such a movement already exist.

It was the working class who provided the momentum for the peace process through strikes and mass demonstrations demanding a halt to the sectarian killings. The largest, and most recent, was on January 18 this year, when 100,000 people attended rallies called by the trade unions against threats and attacks on workers.

The January 18 strike had a huge impact and the number of attacks fell for a period. But there was no follow up from the trade union leaders. Rather than build an independent campaign based on the unions and genuine community organisations which could challenge the paramilitaries and the sectarian politicians, they allowed the politicians to take the initiative.

During the summer Belfast city council, prompted by Sinn Fein, launched an ‘anti sectarian’ campaign. The trade union leadership welcomed the move saying that the politicians must ‘take the lead’ in combating sectarianism. A ‘mass’ rally was called in July to be chaired by Sinn Fein Lord Mayor, Alex Maskey, and with other politicians as well as trade union, business and church leaders on the platform. The working class of the city understand that the idea of sectarian politicians leading a campaign against sectarianism is a joke and stayed away. Despite the media hyping up the event only a few thousand turned up.

The turnout accurately indicates the quite contemptuous attitude most people, especially working-class people, have to all the main political parties. Even Sinn Fein who, because of their history and radical image, have more of a mass base, are increasing seen as little different from the other establishment parties.

The sectarian voting and the lack of any credible alternative mean that the four main parties, the UUP, DUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein have a virtual monopoly in elections. Behind this their credibility in the working-class communities is very thin indeed.

Their record in government has shown their true face and the lesson has not been lost. They may disagree on issues like policing and parades that are used to divide workers, but when it comes to economic policies they are on common ground. They were all at one, Sinn Fein included, when it came to the privatisation of schools, parts of the health service, transport and other public services.

They presided over low pay: Northern Ireland under their rule had more breaches of the minimum wage legislation by employers than any other part of Britain. Yet during the current suspension of the assembly they are quite happy to accept a retainer fee of £29,000 a year for doing nothing.

Class anger over the issues that unite working-class people is never far from the surface. And when workers in Northern Ireland get the bit of struggle between their teeth they display a unity and militancy second to none. The one-day strike by local authority workers over pay in July was completely solid in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants stood side by side on the picket lines.

Union leaders in Britain negotiated a sell-out deal which was then accepted in a ballot. In Northern Ireland the mood was for the struggle to continue. NIPSA, the largest union involved, recommended rejection. More than 70% of its members then voted no to the offer. The same solidarity and militancy has been shown during the build up to the fire-fighters’ dispute. The vote for strike action was higher in Northern Ireland than any other region, with around 97% voting yes.

Two processes are at work in Northern Ireland. On the one side the sectarian polarisation is deepening. But on the other class issues are emerging and a new militancy is developing. This is creating a tendency for workers to come together in common struggle.

This represents the only way forward. It can create the basis for a powerful movement of the working class to combat sectarianism and offer an alternative to the poverty and exploitation that fuels it. This would need to develop into a political movement to challenge the right-wing and sectarian parties.

At the moment these parties have it all their own way. A new party of the working class based on the trade unions and on the grass roots community organisations could offer a real alternative. It could unite working class people against the so-called ‘solutions’ of the orange and green sectarians and for a socialist solution that puts the common interests of the working class first. The idea of a socialist Ireland as part of a voluntary socialist federation of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland, with full guarantees of the rights of both communities, if properly explained could gain an ear among both Catholic and Protestant workers.


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