It’s official. ‘Northern Ireland Secretary’ (ie, colonial governor-general) Peter Hain has been asked in writing by the restless natives to vacate his offices in Belfast, if he would be so kind. A letter to this effect was jointly signed by Sinn Féin and the ‘Democratic’ Unionist Party (DUP), but in the latter case very reluctantly.
After a lengthy period of direct rule from Westminster, prompted in early 2000 by the DUP’s intransigence under its Neanderthal leader Ian Paisley, the Belfast-based assembly envisaged by the 1998 Good Friday agreement is back in business following March elections throughout the partitioned six counties of northeast Ireland. Not only that, but legendary republican leader Martin McGuinness is set to take on the role of deputy first minister.
Seven years ago, Paisley – the notoriously reactionary churchman whose policies draw groans of despair even from many unionists – scuppered the first attempt at setting up a Stormont parliament after just three months. On that occasion, he withdrew his supposed support from the ground-breaking political enterprise on the grounds that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had not fully disarmed. This despite the fact that paramilitary death squads linked to his own tradition were continuing to operate with impunity, largely thanks to the collusion of the British army of occupation and the heavily-armed local police.
This time around, the DUP won 36 of the new assembly’s 108 seats, up by six since 1999. But to Paisley’s very public chagrin, Sinn Féin also increased its vote: 28 seats rather than the previous 24. The prospect of having to work with a strengthened republican movement prompted DUP leaders to try for an extension of the British government’s 26 March deadline for establishing the assembly and nominating a first minister (Paisley himself, as it somewhat unsurprisingly turns out) and a deputy.
The initial refusal by the Paisleyites to bow to the inevitable was never going to wash with the British occupation authorities. Over recent years, they have increasingly been running out of patience with the anachronistic anti-catholic prejudices of the DUP, which gets its main support from bible-thumping small farmers in the rural areas. Indeed, as early as 1994, the British government claimed that it had no particular strategic interest in maintaining direct control over what it continues to call ‘Ulster’, despite the fact that three of that historical province’s nine counties lie to the south and west of a border artificially established in London in 1920.
This makes sense for the dominant sections of the British ruling class. Continuing to maintain an admittedly reduced military presence in the north east of Ireland is an expensive proposition, as is keeping the local civil service running. The financial returns are few, with the economy of the place in pretty bad shape, and a nostalgic attachment to ‘the Empiah’ has little appeal for hard-nosed global capitalists at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Moreover, the 26-county state – which has in the past made various anti-imperialist noises and was for a while associating with dodgy people like the Cubans, via the Non-Aligned Movement – has long abandoned its neutrality in anything but name. As a ‘buffer’, the six counties have lost any importance they may have had; Dublin is an enthusiastic member of the European Union, and, as such, has been enjoying a few crumbs from the table of European imperialism.
Westminster’s contribution to the ‘Agreement Reached in the Multi-Party Negotiations’, as the Good Friday accord is officially known, reads in part: “If the wish expressed [in a referendum] is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish.”
Paisley’s rivals in the Ulster Unionists (UUP) suffered a drubbing in the recent elections, losing nine of their previous 27 assembly seats. But they, centred around the largely protestant petty bourgeoisie in the towns, have taken Good Friday reasonably seriously – so they, too, have little time for the DUP’s instinctively provocative and obstructionist stance.
On the nationalist side, the short-sighted, unimaginative and thoroughly reformist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) lost two of its seats in the March poll, retaining 16, and its traditional supporters have begun deserting it en masse for Sinn Féin.
Eammon McGinty, a former SDLP voter in the County Down border town of Warrenpoint, told Proletarian: “I think they [the SDLP] have lost the plot. Their councillors seem never to show up to surgeries, their newsletter is dull and uninspiring, and they’re looking backwards rather than forwards. I went for Sinn Féin this time as I reckon they combine the longer-term vision of a united, independent Ireland with genuine concern for their constituents’ day-to-day concerns. It was the local Sinn Féin office that helped me resolve a dispute with my landlord over a potentially dangerous gas boiler.”
Minor stuff, perhaps, in the general scheme of things – but vitally important to ordinary working-class people. And Sinn Féin does seem to have been effective in linking its political goal of a “united, democratic, 32-county socialist republic” with fighting on local issues to make Irish workers’ lives more bearable on both sides of the border.
Down in Cork, on the south coast, Sinn Féin was instrumental last year in supporting a group of women whose community centre was under attack by the city council’s penny-pinching accountants. “They don’t preach,” said local activist Siobhán Kelly during an informal interview with Proletarian. “Their contribution to our little struggle was strictly on our own terms.
“They just came along mob-handed to one of our meetings, asked how they could help, and accepted the work assignments we gave them. All of that work got done in a cheery, efficient way, with no party-political strings attached, and our people came to respect them. In fact, we almost certainly couldn’t have saved our building – which we did – without their help.
“The fight to implement the Good Friday agreement and move things forward in the North did, of course, come up in the course of our work together. But it was us, not them, who first raised the question. Several of us have now joined Sinn Féin as a result of our experiences with them.”
Fine grassroots testimony. But of course there have been criticisms of Sinn Féin of late, particularly for its tactical acceptance of the policing regime in the six counties. Until recently it was the view of all republicans that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which succeeded the notoriously sectarian and collaborationist RUC, was merely continuing the old, murderous traditions of its predecessor organisation.
Then, at its last Ard Fheis [congress], Sinn Féin passed a resolution accepting existing policing arrangements as a reality, while at the same time referring its supporters to a highly relevant bit of the text of the Good Friday agreement, in which it is stated that “the British government will make progress towards the objective of as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland”.
This controversial change of tack resulted at the March poll in the candidacy of a number of what the British bourgeois media loves to refer to as “dissident republicans”. In the event, these candidates, running specifically in opposition to Sinn Féin’s policy on policing, received a negligible percentage of the vote.
And, on the face of it at least, the commitment by British imperialism to turn down the heat has been at least partially honoured. In the six counties, you seldom see British soldiers on the streets any more; they seem to have been ‘confined to barracks’, as the old saying has it. There are certainly no longer any roadblocks and watchtowers on the border, at least not that part of the border that members of the CPGB-ML recently visited.
Nonetheless, you still know you’ve crossed from the north to the south or vice versa for another reason, altogether in keeping with the imperatives of global capitalism. There are now dirty great bureaux de change inviting you to change your pounds into euros, or your euros into pounds, at rates that would make even an East End pawnbroker blush.
Back to the future of Stormont, though. It is not the job of the British proletariat, its organisations or its journals to dictate the form that the long-drawn-out struggle of the Irish people for their freedom should take. Will the latest ‘devolved’ government of the six counties last longer than the few months allowed to the last one by the Paisleyites? Will it succeed in making strides towards the united, 32-county republic to which the new deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, and his party aspire?
We don’t know, but the British and Irish capitalist press recently carried a picture of Ian Paisley, who has always refused to deal directly with republicans, sitting next to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams at a historic press conference. We at Proletarian are unanimous as to who looked the more uncomfortable.