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Northern Ireland: Another Middle East in the Making?
DECISIONS TAKEN by delegates at last Saturday's Ulster Unionist Council could well spell the end of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Peter Hadden, Belfast
The council voted down hardliners' proposal for an end of November deadline for IRA decommissioning. David Trimble's alternative proposal was passed, winning around 54% of the votes.
However, it was a largely phyrric victory. Trimble borrowed most of the opposition's clothes in order to win and presented conditions on the Assembly's continuation which will be unacceptable to nationalists.
Among other measures he crucially announced that, as an immediate sanction on Sinn Fein, he would refuse to appoint Sinn Fein Ministers to the North-South bodies set up under the Agreement. The Unionists will review progress in January when another Unionist Council meeting will probably take place.
This throws the whole process into potentially terminal crisis. The arms issue has been resurrected by the unionist "no" camp to spike the Assembly and the Agreement. If this issue receded they would choose some other ground to make their stand.
The IRA has already moved on decommissioning. The opening up of arms dumps to inspection and reinspection is unprecedented in terms of republican history. These weapons are now "contaminated" and therefore effectively decommissioned.
The IRA will not go further and hand weapons over to the state, especially not in response to unionist deadlines.
The January deadline is likely to pass without substantial progress. If Trimble did not then pull his party out of the Executive he would likely be deposed.
Either way the Assembly would go, at best into another period of suspension, at worst abolished altogether.
Crisis and breakdown may come much quicker. If Sinn Fein were excluded from the North-South bodies for any length of time they would come under pressure to retaliate and withdraw their ministers from the Executive.
WHILE THE momentum is now strongly against the Agreement, there are powerful forces and vested interests who want the peace process to continue and will try to put together a rescue operation.
Yet, the British and Irish governments have no viable alternative policy. And the US administration has heavily backed the peace process and does not want another foreign policy failure following the Middle East.
Trimble and his supporters in the Ulster Unionist leadership have burnt their bridges and would be unlikely to survive the collapse of the Good Friday institutions.
Sinn Fein's leadership has gone too far to contemplate a return to the military methods which did not succeed in the past. They are looking to the next general election in the South and think that holding ministerial office in the North will broaden their appeal and help them win extra Dail (parliament) seats.
There will be desperate efforts to try to find a way out of the present mess. The problem is that the ground for compromise has narrowed.
The very same politicians who are trying to keep the Agreement have helped narrow it by constantly whipping up sectarian feelings on unresolved, contentious issues. The peace process has also been a process of sectarian polarisation on parades, policing, decommissioning and other matters. It's no surprise that the polarisation within society is now finding its expression in the peace process.
A MAJORITY of unionist voters are now against the Deal. Unionist Council delegates hardened their stance because they fear electoral annihilation.
Catholics are more firmly behind the Agreement but in the working-class areas there is growing disillusionment at Sinn Fein's obvious rightward drift. Although there is little support for a return to armed struggle, the IRA leadership are clearly worried that groups like the real IRA may pick up young people angered at what they see as the betrayals of the republican leadership.
This makes it more difficult for Sinn Fein and the pro-Agreement unionists to find enough common ground to rescue the Assembly. Even if something is patched together it is hard to see how it will survive the setbacks the Ulster Unionists are likely to suffer in the coming elections.
But if there is suspension or breakdown it's unlikely that there will be any serious moves to put anything back together before the Westminster general election - when it may be too late.
This inherently brings the possibility of renewed sectarian violence. Events in the Middle East show that a process strung together tortuously over a long period can come apart very quickly once things start to unravel.
In Northern Ireland the peace process, as conceived by the politicians, was always about reaching agreement at the top while the working class, Protestant and Catholic, remained divided. This could never succeed in providing a lasting solution.
Trade unionists and community activists must again be prepared to take to the streets against a resumption of sectarian violence and for a real peace process driven by the common interests of working people, not the narrow interests of failed sectarian politicians.
In The Socialist 3 November 2000: