The Socialist 9 October 2004 |
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As Politicians Talk - Sectarian Divisions Deepen
DESPITE THE failure of the Leeds Castle talks last month, the British and
Irish governments are continuing talks with Sinn Fein and the DUP in an
attempt to resurrect the Northern Ireland Assembly and to re-establish an
Ciaran Mulholland, Socialist Party, Northern Ireland
Some media commentators argue that the fact that the nationalist/Catholic
Sinn Fein party and the loyalist/Protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
are now the two largest parties will result in greater long-term stability as
a deal reached between the extremes will be more likely to stick.
Their logic largely rests on the argument that the leading members of Sinn
Fein and the DUP are keen to once again get their hands on the levers of
power. Whilst there is some truth in this, it is a minor factor and will not
determine the course of events in the next period.
There have been strong hints that the IRA are preparing a major act of arms
decommissioning and will stand down over the next period. Sinn Fein clearly
want a return of the Stormont Executive and are prepared to make further
concessions on this basis.
Sinn Fein's thinking is also increasingly dominated by their electoral
prospects in the South. As things stand, they expect to do very well in the
next Dail (parliament) elections.
A coalition government with Fianna Fail cannot be ruled out even as early
as after the next election. A clean, "responsible" Sinn Fein, in government in
the North and shorn of paramilitary links, would be more attractive to Fianna
The DUP have nothing to gain by reaching an early deal with Sinn Fein
however. Of vital importance is the fact that two elections are due (the
locals and Westminster) next year. The DUP sees these contests as
opportunities to emphasise their dominance over the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
led by David Trimble. They will not see any mileage in taking a more moderate
position until these elections are out of the way.
The talks are likely to be dragged out and could eventually run into the
sand. This would create a stalemate and the continuation of direct rule, at
least until the Westminster and local elections are done and dusted.
Deal or division?
It is not entirely ruled out that the DUP and Sinn Fein could eventually do
a deal. Major problems remain however that will prove very difficult, perhaps
impossible, to overcome. This is not primarily because of the personalities
who lead these parties, but because of the deepened divisions on the ground
between the two communities.
Sectarian divisions have been very real on the streets over the summer. In
particular, disagreements over parades continue to cause problems. As some
contentious parades become part of history, others come to the fore. The
changing demography of many areas means that, year on year, more towns,
villages and arterial routes become "Nationalist/ Republican" and a potential
source of conflict.
Over the summer Sinn Fein gave the appearance of seeking to dampen down
sectarian conflict. Gerry Kelly has found himself on the receiving end of
criticism from various Republican dissidents for his role during clashes at
Ardoyne shops. An entire Sinn Fein cumann (branch) in the Rathenraw estate in
Antrim town has resigned, at least in part because of their perception that
the Sinn Fein leadership isn't robust in their defence of the area from
The Sinn Fein leadership are anxious to distance themselves from the more
naked expressions of sectarianism at the moment. Sectarian clashes now
conflict with their strategy of seeking governmental power North and South.
This does not mean however that their strategy and overall direction is not
The "peace process" has not solved any of the day to day problems of
working-class people. There may have been a downturn in the violence but the
gulf separating the communities is wider than ever.
Sectarian parties are part of the problem not part of the solution. The
only way forward is to overcome division and ultimately that means challenging
both the DUP and Sinn Fein and building a socialist political alternative
capable of uniting the working class communities.
This can only be achieved when working-class people from both sides of the
divide move into united struggle. The trade unions, genuine community groups
and campaigning groups such as the 'We Won't Pay Campaign' (against water
charges and privatisation) have the key roles to play in overcoming division
and delivering a real peace process.