Look Who's Talking Now


A SCORPION is a creature which stings first and asks questions later. When a boy and a girl scorpion meet and wish to "pursue a wider agenda" they first have to go through a long and elaborate ritual dance until they can establish each others' bona fides. One might think that something similar is happening in the present multi-party talks in Belfast. According to the Irish Times "the talks must be shifted into higher gear if the process is to retain credibility". An Irish government source was quoted by the Sunday Tribune (16/11/97) as saying "there is a feeling that more boldness is required". [In French]

Most of the discussion so far seems to resolve around who is in the same room with whom, are they allowed look at each other, are they allowed shake hands and so forth. Rumour has it that at Mary McAleese's Presidential inauguration ceremony in Dublin Castle, Mo Mowlam went up to Gerry Adams and John Alderdice (of the unionist-leaning Alliance party) and asked if they'd like her to sit between them.

Old Wine in New Bottles

So as the talks drag on what exactly is being talked about? Well of course they're being held in secret but the framework document around which discussions are based seems to offer us a clue. This does not rule out unity by consent in the long run. But in the short term what is being talked about is an internal settlement. Getting rid of partition is not even on the agenda. This means that the arbitrary line drawn through the country will remain.

An accommodation for the six counties is sought with some sort of power sharing arrangement and increased cross border links with the Celtic Tiger. Such a deal might be quite acceptable to moderate unionists and would certainly delight the expanding Catholic middle class in Northern Ireland.

So much for the agenda, what about the parties around the table? At first, there seems to be grounds for optimism as no less than six out of eight of them claim to be socialist, these being the Labour group, the Women's Coalition, the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party. Does this mean that they are committed to some sort of far reaching change - hardly.

The Labour group wants to represent trade unions in Northern Ireland, whose leaders have always accepted partition and believe that any mention of it is automatically sectarian. The Women's Coalition welcomes members of the Conservative Party into their ranks! The SDLP have always represented the Catholic middle class, conservatives on both economic and social issues. Sinn Féin's socialism has never been about mobilising all workers to attack partition in their own class interests.

Gerry Adams' position in his book 'The Politics of Irish Freedom' calls for the development of "an Irish-Ireland Movement" and a "campaign of national regeneration". These ideas are hardly calculated to win Protestant workers from Unionism to socialism! Recently even the lefty rhetoric which served so well in the eighties has been dropped. Last spring, as reported in our previous issue, Sinn Féin held talks with the Confederation of British Industry. The head of this bosses club, Bill Tosh, claimed that "they (Sinn Féin) had a constructive role to play in economic regeneration".

What about the PUP and the UDP? Both of these parties have sprung to prominence since the loyalist cease-fire. But it shouldn't be forgotten that they have been around for a lot longer as mouth pieces for the sectarian butchers of the UVF and UDA. Secondly a socialism which accepts Loyalism is always constrained by this and will always defend sectarianism in the final analysis. David Ervine and the PUP claim to stand in the tradition of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Facing into the general election of 1949 that party declared:

"The Northern Ireland Labour Party, being a democratic party, accepts the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and the close association with Britain and the commonwealth, furthermore we are not seeking any mandate to change it".
(Belfast Telegraph, January 31st 1949)

This "not seeking any mandate to change it" brings us neatly back to the present talks. Firstly, what we are dealing with is a pre-set agenda, neither partition nor anything remotely resembling real socialism are on this agenda as laid out by the framework documents.

Secondly, as we have just seen, none of the parties (we didn't mention the Alliance or the Unionist parties but they would hardly be hotly tipped as the vanguard of a new order up north!) is committed to any real change in the status quo. Unfortunately we must conclude that these preconditions seem to limit the possible results making them almost a foregone conclusion.

What we are seeing in Northern Ireland is an acceptance of territorial divisions and a withdrawal of both sides into their own "territories". There is an emerging consensus, on both nationalist (including Sinn Féin) and unionist sides, that a settlement must be based on orange and green cultures, that are not only separate but opposed.

The result of the talks will almost certainly be to make sectarianism official and institutionalise it. We will see Unionist and Nationalist politicians going into competition for investment from the multinationals and the E.U. for "their" areas. This process, like the cantonisation that occurred in Yugoslavia, will result in the gap between workers being reinforced making the job of socialists even harder. The "carnival of reaction" which James Connolly predicted will deepen.

There is another fundamental problem with these talks for anarchists. Even if the negotiations were for British withdrawal or to set up a united socialist Ireland, what about the people doing the talking? Alderdice, Trimble, Hume, Adams, et al; none of these guys have any real mandate from the community. Of all the parties only Sinn Féin made some pretence of consulting "their community" after the last cease-fire. Even then it was no more than the leadership trying to sell a previously worked out deal to the voters.

We favour direct not representative democracy. This means that mass meetings are held in workplaces, schools and communities and negotiators are elected on the basis of the mandate of these meetings. If they don't obey these mandates they are booted out. Genuine community delegates should be doing the talking.

This is a far cry from Northern Ireland. The IRA's struggle against the British state has always involved a small group "sorting things out" on behalf of the nationalist community. People are called out by both nationalists and unionists for riots and demonstrations but they are reduced to the role of stage armies magically evoked and carefully controlled by their leaders. They have no say in how they are "represented".

We don't ask for much !! Instead of a peace process, we want a united struggle to end partition and build socialism. This won't be easy, we have to build real workers' unity and this means winning Protestant workers away from loyalism and unionism. Although Protestant workers are marginally better off on average, all workers in Northern Ireland lose out with the lowest wages and highest unemployment in Britain.

The recent strike in the Montupet car components factory where 280 workers of both religions held together for nine weeks, against attempts by the bosses to stir up sectarianism, shows that around economic issues unity can be built. The trick is to move beyond this to anti-imperialist unity. Otherwise all we are looking at is more of the same.

Conor McLoughlin
This article is from Workers Solidarity No 53 published in January 1998
The WSM's position paper on the North can be found here.