Life in Northern Ireland - The more things change, the more they stay the same


AS THIS ARTICLE is being written, George Mitchell has flown in to Belfast and begun a round of meetings with political parties in the North in a supposed "review" of the Good Friday Agreement. Needless to say this "review" is unlikely to address any of the fundamental flaws in that agreement. Nor are we likely to witness an outbreak of concern for the working class people of the 6 Counties from any of the participants in this review.

If the events of the summer months tell us anything, it is surely that all of the participants in this "agreement" have nothing but contempt for ordinary people (and indeed for democracy). We've had ongoing intimidation of working class communities in the form of punishment beatings and "exclusion orders". (This of course is nothing new, but the media appear to have been in need of a sensational story in late August). On the other hand we've witnessed yet again brutal attacks by the RUC on peaceful protestors on the Lower Ormeau Road as they cleared the way for Orange bigots to strut their stuff through nationalist areas in their usual intimidatory manner.

Mitchell's "review" is aimed at finding a way to allow Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionists to get into government together, without either losing face. Mind you if you had fallen asleep for the last twenty years and woken up on Thursday 15th July, you would surely have wondered what momentous changes had taken place in Northern politics. The Ulster Unionist Party boycotting the Assembly in Stormont and senior members of Sinn Féin accepting positions in Her Majesty's Government for "Northern Ireland". Surely it couldn't really be happening??

Very quickly, however, you would have realised that the more things change, they more they stay the same. Within half an hour the "greening of Stormont" - which saw an Executive nominated which consisted solely of nationalists and republicans - was over. The Sinn Féin ministers didn't even get time to cast a longing eye over the Ministerial Merc.

So what was it all about? And does it spell the end of the so-called "peace process"? In answer to the first question, it seems that Trimble -as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party - is caught between a rock and a hard place. Personally, he is hungry for power and will share power with anyone if it means an important position (and of course a nice salary) for himself.

However there are elements in his party who - to put in bluntly - don't want a Catholic about the place, never mind serving alongside them in government. And for the moment these are the people in the ascendancy, and the whole row about "decommissioning" is simply an excuse to cover up their sectarian posturing.

Sinn Féin's quest for respectability

As for Sinn Féin, their leadership too have invested a huge amount in the quest for power. Long gone is the socialist rhetoric, and great strides have been made in the quest for "respectability". Concessions that could only really have been dreamt about by the unionists have been made and there is no doubt that as far as the IRA is concerned the war is over.

As for the 'peace process' itself, while the events of mid-July may have been a setback, the process itself will continue and - sooner or later - an Executive will be formed. Meanwhile, the people of the Garvaghy Road and other areas will continue to be subjected to sectarian marches and harassment. The growth in poverty and homelessness will continue and the standard of living for working class people in the 6-counties will continue to lag behind the rest of the so-called 'United Kingdom'.

The farce enacted at Stormont on July 15th may have provided us all with a bit of light entertainment, but it was entirely predictable that farce of some sort was on the way ever since the signing of the 'Good Friday Agreement'. The agreement is predicated on the continuation of sectarianism.

Assembly members must declare themselves either unionist or nationalist in order for their votes to mean anything. In the recent European elections, Sinn Féin's main policy stance appears to have been "Catholics united", and the armalite and ballot box has been replaced with a pregnancy testing kit and a ballot box as they wait for a Catholic majority in the 6-Counties.

While the Workers Solidarity Movement welcomed the IRA and loyalist ceasefires when they were first announced, we have always argued that the peace process itself has nothing to offer the working class, north or south. We said then, and we repeat now, that if the peace holds (and there's no reason to believe it won't despite the efforts of the LVF, Orange Volunteers and the Real IRA), "the next few years will be a test of our ability to build a viable alternative to the bosses, north and south."1

We also warned in that statement: "The ending of the armed struggle cannot simply become a part of history. The issue of partition cannot be quietly dropped in the interests of winning over Protestant workers. In the short term it would be possible to build workers' unity on day to day economic issues without mentioning partition but it would be building on sand.

In the past we have seen how instances, some involving very large numbers, of working class unity have been swept away on a tide of bigotry. What is needed is a revolutionary movement, with consistent anti- imperialist policies, that is composed of workers from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds."

Nothing has happened to alter this view. The task facing us is a huge one. Sectarianism is, if anything, even further entrenched now five years later. While the prevarication over the formation of the Executive continues, it doesn't make the task any easier. It is when we see Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and the DUP in government together - presiding over hospital closures, education cuts and the other inequities of capitalism - that it will become somewhat easier to take some of the foundation steps towards the building of that revolutionary movement.

1 Statement issued by the Workers Solidarity Movement, September 7th 1994

This article is from Workers Solidarity No 58 published in Oct 1999