Northern Ireland Assembly: Is it gone for good?

As 2005 opens, the Peace Process is once again in deep crisis.

The Executive and Assembly have now been suspended for more than two years.

There is absolutely no prospect of a new deal to re-establish the institutions before the local and Westminster elections in May. There is very little prospect of a deal in 2005. The show just might get on the road in 2006, but it may not, and it will be prone to further collapse at every juncture.

Just how shaky is the whole edifice erected under the Good Friday Agreement is illustrated by events over the last few years. If the institutions do get off the ground in 2006, they will have been suspended for more than three years by then. Prior to this long term suspension there were three earlier suspensions.

In recent months, some have argued that the fact that Sinn Fein and the DUP, "the extremes", are now the two largest political parties will allow more stability in the future. The reality is that the institutions are unstable because of the deep divisions that exist in society. The re-negotiating of the deal has not solved this basic problem but, in fact, has actually introduced elements that will cause even greater instability in the future.

Under the new proposals, if the Executive were to fall again the British government would be duty bound to call new elections within six weeks, rather than simply suspending the institutions. Presumably, it was thought that this proposal would make everyone think twice during a future crisis and would thus shore up the Executive.

The reality would of course be very different. At times of heightened political tension the Executive would be prone to collapse, each side of the sectarian divide blaming the other. Then an election would be fought out not just against the usual background of sectarian division but in a sectarian cauldron as tension exploded on the streets. This could easily happen during any summer if the parades issue once again came to the fore.

If a new deal had been implemented, Sinn Fein would ultimately have joined the Policing Board. The problems this would have caused are plain to see, even before Sinn Fein sign up. If a deal had been agreed before Christmas, it would have involved a series of choreographed moves over a period of months. The Northern Bank raid would have brought that process to a shuddering halt, whether or not it was carried out by the IRA, the most likely, but not the only suspect.

Most working people now pay no attention to the twists and turns of the never ending discussions between the political parties. The ceasefires have meant that the threat from sectarian assassins that once hung over working class areas has largely gone. Working class people see little prospect of the paramilitaries returning to the intensive armed campaigns of the past.

At the same time, it is widely recognised that there is the potential for explosions of conflict at all times and that sectarian division has in fact increased over the last ten years. Working people understand that they cannot take even relative peace for granted and have demonstrated their willingness to act to cut across sectarianism again and again by taking to the streets. They rightly do not expect the main political parties to counteract sectarianism.

The agenda of the hard line Blairite Ministers in the NIO does raise the question of local accountability in the minds of working people however. Privatisation, sharp cut backs in the education service, and above all the planned imposition of water charges cause widespread anger. Some believe that things would be different under a local administration.

However, a local administration made up of the existing main parties, who all have basically the same economic agenda as New Labour, would not be a solution. It would, however, pose more concretely the need for a working class movement, not just to pressurise, but to provide an alternative to these parties. What would be required would be the building of a new party to represent working class interests.

Whether or not there is an Assembly, the building of such a movement is now the key to finding a way forward.

The present impasse shows that the sectarian and right wing parties are incapable of providing a solution. A real peace process means uniting the working class communities, not the sectarian politicians. It means challenging and replacing these parties.

The local and Westminster elections provide an opportunity to do this. The Socialist Party intends to stand a number of candidates in the forthcoming general election and will support other candidates who stand on a genuine anti-sectarian, anti-cuts, anti-privatisation platform.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, the cwi in Ireland.

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January 2005