The Northern Ireland ‘Peace Process’ in crisis – where to now?

FOR A few brief months local government had returned to Northern Ireland. After 25 years of bloodshed, and negotiations that seemed to go on forever, ‘agreement’ was achieved a few weeks before Christmas. The vast majority of working-class people were relieved though weary and a little cynical.

It is difficult to predict exactly how events will play out between now and the 22 May decommissioning deadline. It remains the case that the momentum is still towards accommodation, even if in reality that means an agreement to differ.

This does not mean that the process can survive every crisis. We have pointed out before in The Socialist that a settlement that cements division is ultimately bound to fail.

It is most likely that the ‘peace process’ train will remain on track, not least because of the complete lack of any alternative strategy for the Republican movement.

Reliance on the armalite has been replaced by reliance on the millionaires.

Winning the war has now become a question of out-breeding the Protestants, ensuring maximum unity of Catholics and enlisting the support of US big business for good measure.

The arms issue

THE DECOMMISSIONING issue has most definitely not gone away, despite the fact that it is in reality not of key importance. Everyone is aware guns can be destroyed one day and replaced the next. What is key is that the main combatants have decided that the war is over.

The Republican movement have surrendered nearly all of their previously held principles. Holding on to their guns makes little sense now.

The symbolism of handing over even a few guns however, is immense and the task facing the Adams leadership in persuading Republican ranks should not be underestimated.

For unionists the key change of the last few years is that almost everyone now accepts that they will not be forced into a united Ireland against their will. Given their gains it makes no sense to risk everything over silent guns. Trimble’s strategists are aware of this but face the same difficulties as Adams – delivering a majority of their constituency on this emotive issue.

Despite Sinn Fein’s protestations Trimble is not bluffing when he states that he has taken his party as far as they will go.

The Republican Movement have also painted themselves into a corner. There was a widespread expectation that they had agreed to deliver on arms last November. They did little to disabuse people of that notion.

A token move on decommissioning would have sufficed to take the Agreement past the 12 February deadline.

The Republican leadership may have calculated that they could escape this poisoned chalice. If so they got it wrong. Alternatively they may have planned to deliver but met strong resistance from the ranks and were unable to do so.

Now the stakes are raised and the pressure on republicanism has increased, their options are few indeed. There is little appetite for a return to an unwinnable war.

Stumbling on under direct rule is not very attractive given that this scenario much more favours unionism. The only real option is to give something on arms.

This could take many forms and could be minimised if accompanied by an IRA statement which effectively admitted that the war was over. The Republican leadership are eager to hold onto their electoral gains north and south of the border and to make further progress.

They calculate that decommissioning is necessary to do so. Against it must be balanced the risk of a significant split in their ranks.

It is unlikely now that dissident republicans will find their ranks swollen by large numbers of IRA defections. Why go on this issue if you bit the bullet on every other u-turn? And why go back to war if you have already accepted the legitimacy of the state by entering its institutions?

As we go to press behind the scenes talks continue. Suspension may be avoided though this is unlikely. Something will probably come together to allow the process to continue. If so this poses the question of just what the new regime can achieve and what it has to offer working people.

The Assembly and the Executive in action

FOR THE first time in a generation the political parties have lost the luxury of criticising from the sidelines without proposing an alternative.

Now they must put up or shut up. They have largely chosen the latter path. They have nothing to offer working people, no vision for the future.

It has not escaped public attention that the MLA’s found time to vote themselves a major pay rise, to arrange a long Christmas break after only days in the new job, to grant themselves generous pensions and redundancy arrangements and to appoint junior ministers, special advisors and various family members to help them out.

They only abandoned plans to award the Assembly parties £1.2 million in public grants after a public outcry.

The controversy over Sinn Fein executive member de Bruin’s decision to close the Jubilee maternity unit at the City Hospital in favour of the Royal Maternity illustrates the difficulties in making the new institutions work.

On what basis did the Assembly health committee, the MLAs and de Bruin make their decisions? There are reasonable grounds for suspicion that some voted on the basis of protecting their personal vote, some on sectarian grounds for either the hospital based in a mainly Catholic area or in a mainly Protestant area, and some voted on both criteria.

No one appears to have raised the possibility that both units could stay open.

The Socialist Party proposes a moratorium on all cuts and a determined campaign to force Westminster to increase Northern Ireland’s budget allocation significantly.

This is entirely achievable. In Dungannon, Downpatrick and elsewhere tens of thousands have come onto the streets in recent years to defend their local hospitals.

If it is explained that the money is there, that it has been stolen, that it can be wrested back, the support of working-class communities will be overwhelming. Such an approach is highly unlikely from the present MLAs.

An economic dividend?

THE ATTITUTES of the traditional parties to the economy further serves to illustrate how little they have to offer working people. There is little sign of the predicted “economic dividend” expected to flow from peace. 300 jobs a week are disappearing in traditional industries such as textiles.

New jobs are being created but these are low paid, part-time and temporary. Thousands more are exploited on New Deal schemes.

The declared strategy of the two dominant Executive parties, the UUP and the SDLP, is to play to Northern Ireland’s ‘strengths’, i.e. low wages and industrial peace. None of the other parties have challenged this strategy.

Socialist alternative

THE SOCIALIST Party is small but not insignificant. We have one TD in the Dail, three councillors (including Johnnie McLaughlin in Omagh) and a growing membership.

The Socialist Party will do what it can to provide an opposition to the prevailing consensus on economic and social issues.

To really make a difference however it is necessary to take political action. This is why the advent of local government in the North will sooner or later put the idea of an independent mass workers’ party back on the agenda.