Stormont - photo GFDL-EN/CC
Stormont - photo GFDL-EN/CC

From Socialism Today issue 266 originally published on 15 March 2023 , Niall Mulholland explains the background to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and how the 25 years since its signing have not overcome the fundamental problems underpinning sectarian division in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, British prime minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the ‘Windsor Framework’. The deal amends the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’, which caused significant trade problems for Northern Ireland and the collapse, last year, of the power-sharing Stormont Assembly after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out of the Executive. 

No doubt with an eye on the powerful Irish-American lobby in the Democratic party, US president Joe Biden was quick to welcome the Windsor Framework. Biden stated he was “proud of the role the United States has played for decades to help achieve, preserve and strengthen” the Good Friday Agreement. Chris Coons, a Democratic senator and close ally of Biden, introduced legislation that if approved by both chambers of Congress and signed into law by Biden would give the president the authority to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK. 

An exuberant Sunak announced that the Windsor Framework “delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union, and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.” 

On the contrary, the fact that the power-sharing institutions have barely met for half of the last quarter of a century and that several new ‘agreements’ and ‘frameworks’ have had to be cobbled together to keep the Good Friday Agreement alive, only underscores that long-term peace, stability and prosperity has not been delivered to Northern Ireland. The Windsor Framework is yet another sticking plaster that cannot act as a long-term prescription to remedy the sectarian divisions in society and the unresolved national question in Ireland.

The signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement (better known as the Good Friday Agreement) marked the formal ending of the ‘Troubles’ – three decades of armed conflict involving the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and smaller republican paramilitaries, and the British state forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

The casualty figures for the conflict were just under 3,500 deaths and 48,000 injuries. Compared to wars elsewhere, this may not seem to be very high figures. But the equivalent in Britain would be 125,000 deaths and nearly two million injuries (half the British death toll during world war two). With over 70% of those killed being civilians, hardly any working-class communities in the North were left untouched by the conflict.

The long drawn-out ‘peace process’ saw all sides having to make significant compromises to reach a deal in 1998. Prisoner releases, paramilitary arms decommissioning, and British ‘demilitarisation’ were just some of the contentious issues that took years to carry out.

The Good Friday Agreement also enshrined the ending of institutionalised discrimination – a process already underway largely as a result of the unremitting mass opposition of working-class Catholics to a return to any form of Unionist misrule.

While there has been relative peace for 25 years, Northern Ireland is still a society traumatised by the conflict in many ways, and sectarian division has not been overcome. It has the highest suicide rate in the UK, with the legacy of the Troubles often cited as a factor. The scars of a divided society are still obvious, including corrugated iron ‘peace lines’ dividing many Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast and elsewhere.

Although it was Sinn Fein that gave most ground leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, to many observers it appears to be the main beneficiary of the peace process, having emerged as the largest party in the North, and ahead in the polls in the South.

Republican evolution

Given that Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA were lauded by many on the left internationally as revolutionary socialist republicans, and as part of a series of national liberation struggles that included the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the African National Congress (ANC), it is worth looking again at the republican movement’s political trajectory.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army was the largest of the republican paramilitaries and responsible for nearly half of all the deaths during the Troubles. Martin McGuinness, a senior IRA commander, claimed that at least 10,000 people belonged to the Provos at some point during the conflict. Brendan O’Leary, a journalist specialising on the Provos, said that McGuinness’s claims were probably accurate and “suggests that an extraordinarily high proportion of Northern Irish working-class Catholic males who matured after 1969 have been through IRA ranks”. From the early 1980s, the provisional IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, with the policy of support for the armed campaign – ‘the Armalite and the ballot box’ strategy – regularly won between 30% and 40% of the mainly working-class Catholic vote.

This was a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the republican movement from just a decade or so earlier. The IRA leadership abandoned their ineffective ‘border campaign’ in Ireland in the early 1960s, citing lack of support. The vast majority of Catholic youth considered them out of date. The republican leadership took a turn to the left and instructed its rank and file to turn to agitation in social and economic issues, like the housing crisis.

Although republicans were involved in the mass civil rights struggle in the north, the civil rights movement was largely inspired by international events, including the US black civil rights struggle, the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the revolutionary May 1968 events in France.

However, Marxist and socialist currents in the civil rights movement were not strong enough to stop the drift towards sectarian conflict. Nationalist leaders like John Hume were able to dominate the civil rights struggle, giving it a ‘Green’ colour. Meanwhile, arch-bigots, like Ian Paisley, played on Protestant fears that Catholics would win rights at ‘their expense’.

The situation deteriorated into serious sectarian conflict in Belfast and other areas. In August 1969, the Westminster Labour government put British troops on the streets as civil war threatened. Militant (CWI) supporters in both Ireland and Britain opposed the introduction of the troops and warned that they were deployed primarily to defend private property and capitalist interests. Militant warned that British soldiers would soon be used against the Catholic minority fighting for their democratic and social rights.

The IRA’s failure to defend Catholic areas in Belfast against sectarian pogroms triggered a split at the end of 1969, between the ‘Officials’ (who called a ceasefire a few years later) and the ‘Provisionals’ (the ‘Provos’), who were more nationalist and militaristic. Figures in the Southern Fianna Fail government backed the Provisionals against the ‘Marxist-influenced’ Officials.

A trickle of new recruits joined the IRA, but vicious British army repression turned this into a torrent. Poverty, discrimination and state repression, including internment-without-trial and the Bloody Sunday massacre of 14 unarmed marchers in Derry 1972, drove many Catholic youth into the arms of the IRA.

Individual terrorism

During this time, there were widespread illusions in Catholic working-class areas that the Provos could drive out British imperialism and unify the country. From the beginning, Militant opposed the Provos’ armed struggle. The IRA’s campaign, taking place in a largely urban society, was by Marxist definition ‘individual terrorism’ – ie individual and isolated military actions carried out by small groups against the state.

This secret army or elite, acting ‘on behalf’ of the oppressed, would never succeed in defeating the might of the British state, ending injustice and discrimination, and overthrowing capitalism. This was even more so the case with the IRA’s campaign, as it was based on a minority within the minority Catholic population, and its armed actions repelled Protestants – the majority in the north. The task of ending capitalism and transforming society falls to the working class, using mass struggle, including demonstrations, strikes, mass civil disobedience, general strikes and, ultimately, insurrection.

The IRA’s actions gave the British state the excuse to introduce repressive legislation and methods. This was seen in 1974, when the IRA’s bombing campaign in Britain culminated in no-warning bombs in Birmingham, killing 21 people. The widespread anger that followed allowed the Labour government to rush through the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The republican movement also had a fundamentally wrong analysis. Their main demand was for British withdrawal. Yet Britain’s ruling class has long wanted to leave Ireland, but Protestant opposition and the threat of civil war blocked this path.

The initial upsurge in IRA activity in the early 1970s, when the leadership predicted imminent ‘victory’, gave way to ‘the long war’ rhetoric. While the IRA could not defeat the might of British imperialism, the state could not totally defeat the IRA. Poverty, injustice and state repression meant there were always new recruits to the Provos.

Sinn Fein’s rise as an electoral force, which they stumbled into during the 1981 Maze prison hunger strikes, created tensions within the republican movement. The Gerry Adams leadership hoped Sinn Fein could make a breakthrough North and South. But the IRA’s campaign was a barrier to Sinn Fein’s growth, especially in the South.

General war-weariness amongst Catholics and Protestants, the feeling that ‘neither side’ could win outright victory, and working-class opposition to sectarian killings, formed the backdrop to the eventual ending of the Provos’ campaign in the 1990s.

Road to negotiation

The republican leadership’s path to accommodation had been taking place for some years. In the summer of 1988, Sinn Fein sat down for talks with the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP), the largest nationalist party in the North at that time, to see whether “a national consensus and Irish unification”, as Gerry Adams put it, could be forged. In his 1986 book, The Politics of Irish Freedom, Adams stated that the pressures of electoral competition had “unnecessarily brought out some of the class differences between ourselves and the SDLP”. Adams dismissed “the ultra-left view, which counterposes republicanism and socialism and breaks up the unity of the national independence movement by putting forward socialist demands that have no possibility of being achieved until real independence is won”.

Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders were concerned that an influx of left-wing members from groups like Peoples Democracy after the 1981 hunger strikes was alienating more conservative sections of the republican base. As a symptom of this adaptation, a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (conference) overturned its pro-choice abortion policy.

The Adams/McGuiness leadership would travel a long distance from its core republican objectives. In an exchange with the SDLP leader, John Hume, in the late 1980s, Adams emphasised that Sinn Fein was “totally opposed to a power-sharing Stormont assembly”. Yet the party would go on to share power with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the decade following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

In response to Sinn Fein’s traditional ‘Brits Out!’ demand, John Hume commented, not unreasonably, that British withdrawal without prior Unionist consent could only result in carnage: “Each section of the community would seize its own territory and we would have a Cyprus-Lebanon style formula for permanent division and bloodshed”.

Although the Hume-Adams talks ended without agreement, they opened the way for the Sinn Fein leadership to restore back channel communications with the British government that had been dormant since the hunger strikes. To pave the way to negotiations, the then Northern Ireland Secretary, the Tory MP Peter Brooke, acknowledged in an interview that the IRA could not be defeated militarily.

A leading Sinn Fein figure, Jim Gibney, who acted as an ‘outrider’ for Gerry Adams, counselled that British withdrawal must be “preceded by a sustained period of peace and will arise out of negotiations”. Sinn Fein’s Mitchell McLoughlin made criticism of the IRA’s campaign, once unthinkable by a leading party figure: “One objective reality which must be faced is that many IRA activities from the northern Protestant perspective are perceived to be sectarian”.

Sinn Fein leaders were also not immune from international developments. The collapse of the USSR and other Stalinist regimes from the late 1980s, saw many on the left and anti-imperialist movements adapting to the capitalist system. And the ANC’s entering a ‘negotiated settlement’ with the South African apartheid regime was regarded as a way forward by Adams and McGuiness.

In 1992, Sinn Fein endorsed a document known as the ‘Irish Peace Initiative’ or the Hume-Adams document. This document declared support for the self-determination by the Irish people “as a whole” but admitted it would have to be “exercised with the agreement and consent of the people of Northern Ireland”. This marked a departure from traditional Republicanism that regarded Unionist opposition as a veto ploy used by the British ruling class – a supposed ‘bluff’ that had to be overcome. Neither was there commitment to British withdrawal. The exercise of self-determination, the document said, “could take the form of agreed independent structures”.

This revisionism of core republican demands and principles by the Sinn Fein leadership paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement. Talks between Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments, backed by the US administration, eventually led to the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire, followed by Loyalist paramilitary ceasefires. 

The yearning for an end to the conflict was expressed forcibly and consistently from below. As paramilitary organisations moved towards shaky ceasefires and later threatened to end their ceasefires, many thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers went on protests – often initiated by trades councils and unions – against a slide back to sectarian conflict. And the CWI’s initiative, Youth Against Sectarianism, rallied thousands of school students from both sides of the divide across the North.

After more years of torturous talks, the Good Friday Agreement was made in 1998, which saw the creation of a power-sharing Assembly and Executive based at Stormont buildings, the previous seat of Unionist misrule.

Many republicans were opposed to the Good Friday Agreement – one former close ally of Adams reworded GFA as standing for ‘Got Fuck All’ – and there were several ‘dissident’ splits. But none found the sort of community support that the Provos had previously managed in a period of mass upheavals. After all, if after a long armed campaign the IRA couldn’t achieve its traditional goals, what chance had much smaller splinter groups?

Instability and crisis

While the Good Friday Agreement institutionalised sectarianism, including with the stipulation that Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) officially state they are ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’ or ‘other’, relative peace would, at least, give the working class a much better opportunity to develop class politics. 

So far, a new mass party of the working class has not emerged, though the potential is indicated by important spring shoots, such as the election of Militant Left supporter, councillor Donal O’Cafoigh in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, for the Cross Community Labour Coalition, in 2019. The significant rise in votes for the Alliance Party, a largely middle-class-led party that presents itself as progressive and non-sectarian, speaks of the yearning for a radical alternative to the ‘sectarian dinosaurs’ among many young voters, in particular. Long-fought-for rights, such as same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose, were not delivered by Stormont but eventually by Westminster during a period of Assembly collapse.

From the start, the institutions created by agreement were beset by instability and crisis. Rather than bringing the two communities together, the DUP and Sinn Fein overtook the ‘moderate’ SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party.

In office, Sinn Fein and the DUP have carried out pro-market policies, including education and health cuts and privatisation. Scandals and sleaze, in particular the DUP’s ‘cash for ash’ crisis, have surrounded the executive. Remaining ‘legacy’ issues, like Troubles’ victims’ rights and delayed Irish language rights legislation, are used as sectarian footballs.

While Sinn Fein has since made big advances in elections across Ireland, presenting itself as the radical party of nationalism in the north, and as an anti-establishment party in the south, long gone is any semblance of radical socialist policies. Its remaining left-wing platform is “ambiguous, underdeveloped and at times contradictory”, according to Eoin O’Broin, a Sinn Fein ideologue. In another sign of the journey towards the ‘centre ground’, in 2017, Mary Lou McDonald, a middle-class Dubliner who was previously a member of Fianna Fail, and Michelle O’Neill, in the north, took over the leadership of Sinn Fein. Though O’Neill hails from a family steeped in republican tradition, tellingly, neither she nor McDonald were in the ranks of the IRA. 

Many nationalists believe that Brexit, which has destabilised the situation further in the north and reignited the ‘border issue’, plays into the hands of Sinn Fein. The reality is more complicated. The majority of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in 2016, but a majority of Protestants voted to leave. All the main parties opposed a ‘hard border’ with the Republic, which remains an EU member state. They feared this would lead to economic dislocation and present a powerful propaganda weapon to republican dissidents as physical customs checks were restored to the line of partition.

But a restored Assembly fell apart last year over the DUP’s opposition to the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’ negotiated with the EU by their erstwhile ally, Boris Johnson, while he was Tory prime minister. This saw an ‘Irish Sea border’, whereby goods from Britain were subject to customs checks at Larne and Belfast harbours on the Antrim coast, making Northern Ireland an ‘exception’ within the UK. This greatly frustrated and angered many Protestants, who felt the protocol undermined their place within the UK.

The protocol also caused significant trading problems and higher costs for business. By 2022, checks on goods from the UK at ports in Northern Ireland accounted for 20% of all checks at the EU’s borders.

Windsor Framework

The new Windsor Framework is an attempt to smooth out problems with the protocol and allay unionist concerns. It makes it easier for goods, including food and medicines, to ship between Britain and Northern Ireland via a ‘green lane’ with minimal checks. Goods destined for the Republic, and thus into the EU’s single market, would be subject to stricter controls in a ‘red lane’. The Windsor Framework also gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a say over any new EU rules. In ‘exceptional circumstances’ the Assembly can apply the Stormont ‘brake’ if 30 of the 90 legislative members from at least two parties vote to block adoption of updated EU single market rules, although the final decision will be taken by the government in Westminster.

Most of the main political parties in Northern Ireland have welcomed the Windsor Framework as the basis for a return of the Assembly. Sunak appears to have successfully divided the hard-line Tory pro-Brexit European Research Group on the Framework. As expected, the DUP has, so far, not endorsed the Framework, and says it is seeking clarity from London on a “range of issues”. The DUP may push the Tory government to squeeze more compromises from the EU. 

The party’s leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, is caught between DUP hardliners, who say the Windsor deal is not good enough, and DUP moderates, who see it as the best one available. DUP MP, Ian Paisley Jnr, has said the Framework is “not up to mustard”. Former party leader and First Minister, Peter Robinson, however, urged the DUP to “consider whether in rejecting the framework… we place unionism and Northern Ireland on more perilous ground”. 

The DUP announced on 6 March that it had set up a ‘consultative panel’, made up of former party leaders and legal and business people, to evaluate the revamped post-Brexit trading regime by the end of March. This is just days before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, threatening to spoil the anniversary official celebrations. US President Biden is reported to be planning a visit to Belfast for the 10th April but according to the Financial Times, “Biden is seen as unlikely to want to attend unless there is at least a DUP commitment to restoring Stormont”. 

According to “one well informed unionist”, quoted in the Financial Times, “this is all about edging towards going back [to Stormont] and I don’t see any hard-core sceptics in there”. However, fearing that the more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) can make electoral gains at the DUP’s expense, Donaldson has stated that his party will not re-enter power sharing institutions until after the 18 May council elections. And perhaps the DUP will aim to get over the summer ‘marching season’, when sectarian tensions are heightened, before considering returning to the Assembly, with or without formally agreeing to the Windsor Framework. 

Sunak claims the changes remove “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”. For many DUP members and the TUV, however, any EU role in Northern Ireland is a violation of sovereignty. EU rules will continue to apply in some areas of the economy and the European Court of Justice remains the final arbiter of EU law.  It is possible that a sizable DUP internal opposition can result in the DUP refusing to rejoin the Assembly, for the medium term, at least.

At the same time, pressure continues to mount on the DUP and other parties, as public services in Northern Ireland struggle under the weight of budget cuts. A £1 billion shortfall in funding for public services has resulted in a series of public sector pay strikes. Services are also collapsing, as has been witnessed with the engineered closures of emergency surgery at Daisy Hill, South West Acute, and Causeway hospitals. The pressure on politicians, and in particular the DUP, will only grow.

In the absence of functioning government, the potential is there for the Tories to intervene and take responsibility for regional governance directly into their hands. The possibility of direct rule also sees the nationalist parties calling for a degree of ‘joint authority’ involving the Dublin government. This would be even more problematic for unionists and would only further destabilise the institutions and the peace process.

The DUP will also come under strong pressure from UK, US and regional business interests to agree to the Framework. The US is concerned about long-term stability on the island particularly given the favourable low tax status in the South, where large US corporations are based.

Speaking at a Coca-Cola factory in Lisburn, Sunak talked up the economic advantages for Northern Ireland: “If we get this framework implemented, we get the executive back up and running, Northern Ireland is in the unbelievably special position, the unique position in the entire world in having privileged access not just to the UK home market, which is the fifth biggest in the world, but also the European Union single market”.

Yet, to date, Northern Ireland’s ‘unique position’ has not translated into prosperity. Gross domestic product per head is ranked tenth out of the 12 regions of the UK. High levels of deprivation partly explain why public spending per head is about 20% higher in Northern Ireland than in the UK as a whole, but expenditure on transport, science and technology – regarded as key drivers of productivity by economists – are the lowest. The north is also significantly poorer, with income per head about 25% below the UK overall. 

No amount of fudging the issues will remove the fact that Northern Ireland remains ‘exceptional’ to the rest of the UK – part of the EU single market, as well as part of the UK – and this will be a running sore with Unionists. Added to the mix, demographic changes have taken place, with the last census showing Catholics are now a narrow majority in Northern Ireland. Thus one of the pillars of the state’s very foundation, an in-built Protestant majority, is removed, leaving underlying instability and exposing the fragility of the Good Friday Agreement.

Looking to return to Stormont with the prize of First Minister, and aiming to lead a coalition government in Dublin after the next election, Sinn Fein campaigns for a ‘border poll’ – the provision in the Good Friday Agreement that if invoked by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State allows for referendums, north and south, on Irish reunification.

Catholics in the north have a right to decide their future. But a simple head count will not deliver the peaceful, stable, prosperous united Ireland they yearn for. As the endless wrangling over the protocol indicates, the Protestant working class will strongly resist any sense of further diminishing their British identity and culture, and from being incorporated as a minority into a capitalist united Ireland. 

Without doubt, the working class in the north has benefited from relative peace for a quarter of a century, which has been a relief from the mayhem that daily affected their lives for three decades. But low-level paramilitarism, both republican and loyalist, continues in many deprived areas, as does state repression. The recent shooting of a member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, near Omagh town, which was claimed by the New IRA, shows that armed republican groups remain capable of recruiting and mounting operations despite marginal support and frequent crackdowns against them by the state.

Only a united working-class struggle can show a way out of austerity, poverty, injustice, and sectarian divisions. In opposition to the working class being pulled back into violence and sectarianism, Omagh Trades Council held a rally of several hundred people after the shooting.

Genuine ‘power-sharing’ from a socialist perspective entails working class people, Catholic and Protestant, coming together to democratically agree on new arrangements. A socialist society, based on people’s needs, would see the ending of all coercion against either of the communities and overcoming historic fears and distrust: genuine ‘power-sharing’ in a socialist Ireland, linked to a voluntary and equal socialist federation of these islands and Europe.

The ongoing strike actions by several trade unions in the north over pay are important steps towards building workers’ unity, in practice. And the victory of the Broad Left slate on the general council of NIPSA, the largest union in the north, along with the election, last year, of Militant Left supporter, Carmel Gates, to the union’s post of general secretary, is also a reflection of the growing combative mood of the working class, from which socialists can take great encouragement.