Ireland North: What lies behind the Assembly’s collapse

AS WE go to press, it seems almost certain that Northern Ireland’s Executive and Assembly will collapse this week. New Labour’s Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid will probably suspend the institutions in the hope that they can one day be resuscitated.

Each side of the sectarian divide is loudly denouncing the other as the culprit. According to Sinn Fein the problem is that Unionist politicians (and their allies in the British establishment) really do not want "any Catholics about the place". Many Catholics accept this argument.

The evidence is however that a narrow majority of Protestants reluctantly lined up behind UUP leader Trimble and initially gave the Agreement a chance. The reality is that most Protestants are now against the Agreement and Trimble’s room for manoeuvre has consequently long gone.

According to Unionist politicians, the problem is that Sinn Fein have not broken from their past and remain wedded to the dual strategy of bomb and bullet. Most Protestants accept this argument.

Whilst the Republican movement retains its armed wing, there is no evidence whatsoever that it intends a return to war against the forces of the state – in this sense its ceasefire and its commitment to democracy are genuine.

As the Socialist Party has pointed out since the beginning of the peace process, it is not ’lack of goodwill’ or politicians’ ’inability to compromise’ that has brought us to this point. The problem is that the whole basis of the agreement has been flawed from the outset.

Uneasy peace

THE AGREEMENT is based on an acceptance that division is permanent. It is an agreement to differ and an attempt to govern through compromise at the top and an uneasy peace on the ground.

The Agreement has actually strengthened division. As the Executive and the Assembly took their first tentative steps, the long-standing low intensity war of attrition over territory intensified, initially around the issue of parades.

The political process is now catching up with events on the ground. The institutions will be suspended and the next Assembly elections will be postponed – to hold elections in the present climate would only worsen the situation.

Talks will splutter into life in an attempt to put it all back together again but this will almost certainly be a fruitless task- rather like trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

"IRA disbandment" is set to be the new precondition for negotiations let alone agreement. But, as was the case with the previous "pre-condition" of decommissioning, even if disbandment were offered it would not be enough. The sectarian conflict over territory that is set to continue will mean that any move by Sinn Fein will simply not be believed by unionists.

A dangerous political vacuum is about to open. In an atmosphere of mutual recrimination and mistrust, and with little hope of a political way out, the ongoing low-level conflict has the potential to explode at any time.

The nightly shootings resulting from the present inter-loyalist feud are just one manifestation of the nightmare that could open up for the working class. The lessons must be drawn.

Any peace process left in the hands of sectarian and right wing politicians will fail. Yet even now there is an alternative. 100,000 people supported the anti-sectarian rallies called by the trade unions in January.

Unfortunately this massive united movement of the working class wasn’t built on and that is one of the reasons for the present impasse. A new peace process is urgently needed.

Instead of an attempt to bring right-wing sectarian politicians together this should be based on the unity of working-class people against poverty and exploitation as well as against sectarianism.

Such a peace process cannot be built hand in hand with the sectarian parties or the paramilitaries but in an all-out struggle against them.

Police raid Sinn Fein offices

ON FRIDAY 4 October, 30 members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stormed into Sinn Fein’s offices at Stormont in Belfast.

In any other Western European country such an assault on a party in government would be inconceivable. That it can happen in Northern Ireland says much about who is really in charge, despite the advent of devolution.

The top reaches of the British state including Tony Blair must have authorised this action. The PSNI claim that they have been investigating an alleged IRA espionage operation for over a year.

There is no doubt that the IRA were busy gathering intelligence. But the state has also been spying on Sinn Fein, they even bugged the car used by Gerry Adams during the negotiations.

And other parties, especially the loyalist DUP, have regularly produced confidential Northern Ireland Office documents without having their offices raided to find out their source. If the state knew what the IRA were up to for over a year why did they act now, rather than acting six months ago or six months from now?

The answer can only be that the raid was politically motivated. It has been crystal clear since the decision taken by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Council meeting two weeks ago to set an 18 January deadline for either IRA disbandment or Sinn Fein exclusion that the writing was on the wall for the Executive and the Assembly.

Understanding this the British government may have decided on one last throw of the dice. By putting the blame for the collapse on Sinn Fein they are effectively supporting the unionist demand for IRA disbandment as the only basis for a continuation of the Assembly.

Their aim may be to try and isolate Sinn Fein in order either to split some of their leadership from the IRA or else to build a case for their total exclusion hoping that the SDLP will be strengthened and will be prepared to stay in the Executive without Sinn Fein.

If this was the purpose of the raid, its effect has actually been to drive a final nail into the coffin of the institutions established under the Agreement.

Sinn Fein’s position will be bolstered as most Catholics resent the raid and will blame unionism and the British government for the collapse.

The DUP will crow that they were right all along and the anti-agreement wing of the UUP will be in the ascendancy (it is probable that Trimble will go as UUP leader in the near future).

Without condoning or defending anything that the IRA may have been involved with, the Socialist Party condemns the PSNI raid. In the future such actions will be taken against anyone who threatens the status quo, including the Socialist Party.

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