Talks paralysed as elections loom
Whatever slender chance may have existed that the Northern Ireland Assembly would be up and running this year disappeared along with the £27 million stolen from the Northern Bank just before Christmas.
The talks had collapsed before the robbery – over the Democratic Unionist Party’s insistence on photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning of weapons – and there was little likelihood that any serious negotiations would take place until this autumn. Now even that is in question and, even if talks do eventually go ahead, there is much less chance that they will arrive at any agreement.
Both the Dublin and London governments have laid the blame for the bank heist firmly on the IRA, although neither has produced any concrete evidence to back this up. Whether or not the IRA actually carried out the robbery, most people think they are guilty.
This perception that they are responsible presents a potentially insurmountable obstacle in the way of any future negotiations. Decommissioning, even if it is accompanied with reels of photographic evidence, is now not likely to be enough to satisfy the DUP.
They will want the total disbandment of the IRA, and some way of demonstrating that this has taken place. It is hard to see any way this could be done to the satisfaction of Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP. In any case it is doubtful that the IRA has any intention of completely disbanding.
It may not be proven that they were responsible for the Northern Bank robbery, but there have been other recent large scale robberies that they clearly were behind. There has also been a stepping up of punishment shootings carried out by the Provos.
With very little chance of a new deal between Sinn Fein [the ‘political wing’ of the IRA] and the DUP, the two governments are now looking to the local elections on May 5, and the Westminster election, which looks increasingly likely to be on that date also.
They are making sure that the blame for the collapse of the talks is placed fully on Sinn Fein and the IRA, hoping that the fallout from the Northern Bank will damage Sinn Fein and allow the SDLP to regain its position as the leading nationalist party.
If this were the outcome of these elections, the British government could consider the option of a new Assembly election, hoping that a strengthened SDLP would be able to do a deal with the DUP.
All this is likely to prove a forlorn hope. The fact that many Catholics believe that the IRA were responsible for the robbery will make little, or no, difference to the outcome of the election.
Rather than emerged strengthened it is likely that the SDLP [Social Democratic Labour Party – a moderate, pro-capitalist nationalist party] will lose more ground to Sinn Fein. At least two of the SDLP’s three Westminster seats, John Hume’s former seat in Derry, included, could go to Sinn Fein.
On the other side, the dominance of the DUP over Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is also likely to be reinforced and the prospects for the Assembly thrown even further back.
The row over photographs and the bank robbery may have triggered the current crisis, but the underlying reasons for the deadlock run much deeper. The ten years since the IRA and then the loyalist "ceasefires" have not seen any reconciliation or any steps towards a real and lasting solution.
During this period the gulf separating Protestant and Catholic communities, especially the working class communities, has widened significantly. The sectarian polarisation is much sharper and deeper than it was then.
The "peace process", in the hands of right wing and sectarian politicians and the right wing governments, has not been about how sectarianism can be overcome. It has only been about how sectarian politicians can govern a society which they all accept is permanently divided.
The growth of Sinn Fein and the DUP is the political expression of the increased division. Even if they do eventually reach some form of agreement, there is no way that it can last. The deal they nearly reached at the end of last year was an unworkable scheme that would have ended in deadlock and collapse. As a number of journalists and commentators correctly pointed out at the time, it was a proposal for the "balkanisation" of Northern Ireland.
A real solution must be built from below by uniting the working class communities. The potential for this has been shown recently in the support in both Protestant and Catholic working class areas for the fire fighters, civil servants and other workers involved in struggle.
It is also being shown at the moment in the overwhelming opposition to water charges, which the British government are determined to introduce next year. The Socialist Party have launched a "We Won’t Pay Campaign", which has been drawing huge support in working class areas. In some polls, as many as 85% of people questioned have said they will not pay this charge.
Campaigns such as this, which cut across the sectarian division, inevitably come into conflict with the sectarian forces who want working class people to stay in their sectarian camps. Water charges are an especially difficult issue for the politicians as, in the run up to the suspension of the Assembly two years ago, the UUP, DUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein all agreed in principle to introduce them.
Sectarian politics has clearly failed – on all counts. The task now is to build an alternative to the sectarian parties that can unite working class people in the struggle for a socialist solution.