Northern Ireland: Towards conflict or peace?

Not the ‘endgame’ but continuation of ‘Troubles’ in a new form

There are some political commentators who still insist that what is happening in Northern Ireland is the "endgame" of the ‘Troubles’; a drawn out process that will lead to a final resolution of the conflict.

They point to the IRA’s decision to "go out of business" as a huge step towards "removing the gun from Irish politics". What is happening in Protestant areas they generally describe as a self-destructive implosion of the loyalist paramilitaries and as the difficult coming to terms by Unionist politicians with the inevitability of change. Eventually, it is argued, this will lead to the loyalist paramilitaries following the example of the IRA and decommissioning their weapons, while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will "bow to the inevitable" and enter into a long term power sharing arrangement with Sinn Fein.

Most people, especially people who live in the working class communities, no longer hold such an optimistic view. For them, the riots that convulsed Protestant working class communities in September were a more accurate reflection of the current state of the "peace process" than the IRA’s move to decommission which came a few weeks later.

These riots began when the 10 September Whiterock Orange Order parade, which starts on the Protestant Shankill Road, was re-routed by the government’s Parades Commission. The ‘Shankill Bulletin’ described them as "the worst civil disturbance in the Greater Shankill and other areas since the 1970s." Road blocks and riots lasted for almost a week. For the most part, the fighting was between Protestants and the army and police, but, inevitably, these events led to a ratcheting-up of sectarian tensions and to sectarian clashes between rival crowds in some areas.

These events showed how, under certain circumstances, things could escalate into widespread sectarian conflict. They are a warning as to what can happen if a break with sectarianism is not made and a way forward found.

The peace process began when the disillusionment, war weariness and mounting opposition to sectarian attacks in working class areas combined with other factors to pressurise the paramilitaries to wind down their campaigns. It marked the end of the Troubles in the form they had taken since 1969.

But it did not mark the end of the conflict. The decade and a half since this process began has not brought reconciliation, integration of the communities or a lasting solution a single step closer.

Rather, in the hands of the sectarian parties, the paramilitaries and the right wing governments in London and Dublin, this has not been a real peace process; instead the Troubles have continued, albeit in a different, altogether more nakedly sectarian form. This was shown by the September riots. And even the IRA’s decision to decommission the bulk of its arsenal reveals, in a more roundabout way, shows how the basis of the conflict has changed.

When the IRA campaign began in earnest in 1971, it drew mass support from Catholic working class youth in response to state repression, particularly internment, and to poverty and unemployment. Thousands of young people looked to the IRA because they felt that the mass civil rights campaign had not been listened to and that the IRA’s methods of individual terrorism offered a more effective way of fighting back. The silence of the leaders of the labour movement, who drew back from any involvement in an increasingly difficult situation, meant that there was no class explanation on offer that could have provided an alternative to the thousands of young people who were getting caught up in paramilitary organisations at this time.

At this stage, it was the British government who were viewed as the enemy. They were seen to be responsible for propping up the northern state, with all its excesses, using brutal military methods to do so.

In the main, Protestants were seen as mere dupes of Britain’s long history of divide and rule, who would come round once the imperial puppet master was off the scene.

While there was always a direct sectarian edge to the IRA campaign, a majority of those who carried it out saw it as a campaign against the state and did not want to get involved in a sectarian war against the Protestant community.

The only way to overthrow or defeat a modern capitalist state is through mass action by the working class. Individual terrorism substitutes the actions of a small group of individuals for the mass actions of a class and can never succeed.


The Provisional campaign was doubly counterproductive in that it was based on a minority of the population and, no matter what the intent, had the effect of antagonising the Protestant majority and of dividing and weakening the working class.

By the mid to late 1980s, the campaign had effectively run its course. The IRA had the capacity to carry on at a low ebb for a further period but the leadership had come to realise that there was no hope that the military campaign would succeed.

Meanwhile, their political outlook was also undergoing a change that, if anything, was even more significant in shaping their future actions than the conclusions they were drawing about the armed struggle. There was a significant shift to the right with the abandonment of the semi-socialist rhetoric of the 70s and early 80s; a shift that was accelerated by the collapse of Stalinism.

Most importantly, they accepted at face value assurances they were given by representatives of the British establishment that Britain had no "selfish" interest in holding onto the North and would withdraw if a majority wished it.

It is true that the British ruling class would have preferred to withdraw. This had been their position since before the Troubles began. However, they have been unable to move a single step in this direction, aware that the result would be civil war. The irony of the Provisional campaign was that it made Protestant resistance more certain and, in turn, made it more difficult for the British ruling class to even contemplate withdrawal.

The British representatives who met republicans at this time were only restating what had been the standpoint of the British establishment for several decades. The assurances they gave did not signal that they had any real intention of pulling out.

To do so would have provoked upheaval and even civil war in Ireland. More than this, it would have posed a threat to the very existence of the UK. If a majority in Northern Ireland could secede from the union, why not a majority in Scotland, or, indeed, in sh;Wales?

Any serious move to withdraw would have provoked a split in the ruling class with the emergence of a Unionist wing, as was the case during the Home Rule crisis, a century ago.

However the republican leadership mistook what British spokespersons were saying to be a sudden change in policy. This had profound repercussions on their thinking and their future actions. If the British really were prepared to accept the will of a majority and pull out, they were no longer the problem. This left the Protestants as the only remaining obstacle to a United Ireland.

With this, the ideological basis that had sustained the "war" over two decades was gone. The military struggle for "Brits out" was replaced by a political effort to get the "Brits" onside as "persuaders" of the Protestants.

The eventual disposal of weapons, which the IRA had no intention of using, did not therefore represent a recent somersault on the part of Adams and co. The seeds of decommissioning were sown in the 1980s, not in the last few months. The process was stretched out over more than a decade for negotiating reasons and because it has taken that long to convince the IRA rank and file that the weapons will not be needed again.

During this period the leadership have moved further to the right, comfortably (on their part) rubbing shoulders with the business and political elites in Dublin, London and Washington.

Their current stance, apart from the populist rhetoric they use in the working class areas, is not much more than a political reincarnation of the right wing ideas promoted by the old Nationalist Party that were so decisively rejected by the Catholic working class and youth in the explosion of radical and socialist ideas that took place at the start of the Troubles.

But this is right wing nationalism with a difference. The old Nationalist Party was effete and totally ineffective. The nationalism that has emerged in the recent period is of a different character, reflecting both the strengthened position of the Catholic population in the northern state and the current republican view that it is the Protestants, not the British, who are the barrier to progress.

The basis of the war against the state has gone. The current "struggle", fought by "constitutional" means is to wear down the resistance of the Protestants in the belief that a majority will eventually come to accept the inevitability of a united Ireland.

Class struggle

That the Catholics are not prepared to put themselves back into the straightjacket of a state in which they were treated as second class citizens is a positive thing. Under the circumstances of a development of the class struggle, this could be a springboard for a movement that would unite Protestant and Catholic workers in a common struggle for a socialist alternative.

But the period of the "peace process" has been one of general retreat for the labour movement, of decline in the class struggle and of a set back for socialist ideas. This has allowed Sinn Fein to channel the anger and the demand for change among the Catholic working class along narrow nationalist lines. The result has been the emergence of a more confident, more strident. and indeed more confrontational nationalism.

What is still referred to as a "peace process" has, in fact, been a long drawn out sectarian tug of war. On one side, Sinn Fein and other nationalists have attempted to mobilise the Catholic community on issues like parades, to force changes that they see as ultimately weakening the constitutional status quo.

On the other side, right wing unionists have striven to mobilise Protestants to keep things much as they are. The long war against the state has given way to another "long war" but of a different character; a long war fought out by rival sectarians fundamentally over territory.

And because the broad labour movement has been unable or, at the top, unwilling to intervene to cut across this, the result is that society in general, and the working class, in particular, has been left more polarised and divided than at any previous time.

There is almost complete political polarisation, with elections reduced to pure sectarian headcounts with no voice for those who want to resist what is happening. For those who cannot afford to live in affluent upper middle class areas there is little choice but to live in an area that is not just labelled "Catholic" or "Protestant" but which sectarian politicians and most commentators insist on describing as "nationalist" or "unionist".


Attitudes on contentious issues are also totally polarised, including attitudes to the "peace process" itself. In the hands of the rival sectarians, the "peace process" has been what they themselves term "a zero sum game" in which concessions to one side are automatically seen as losses by the other. With only a sectarian explanation on offer this has created the dangerous position whereby people draw conclusions by looking at only one side of the picture.

The real truth is that no section of the working class has benefited from what has happened.

The fact that the IRA campaign has ended and that the brutal campaign of sectarian killings carried out by the loyalist paramilitaries has wound down, if not completely ended, is still seen as a benefit and there would be resistance from all sides to any attempt to wind the clock back to the dark days of the early 1970s.

The ceasefires did not, however, signal an end to sectarian violence and intimidation. In the eleven years since the various paramilitaries called off their campaigns, 14,000 people have applied to be re-housed because of intimidation. Many more would simply have moved without the fuss of going through the Housing Executive.

This period has also seen an incessant litany of petrol bombings and other attacks. Sectarian organisations that are only capable of seeing the stones, petrol bombs and missiles coming from the "other side" have produced dossiers listing the attacks on "their" community.

A majority of the attacks have been directed at Catholics, especially isolated Catholic families living in mainly Protestant areas. Some are random attacks but a great deal are part of a campaign organised by paramilitary and other organisations. But Protestant homes, schools, churches and orange halls have also been attacked. Sectarian violence is not the exclusive preserve of either side.

Most people who supported the ceasefires and ‘talks’, hoped that "peace" would bring jobs and opportunities for a better life. A decade later and the term "peace dividend" that was on everyone’s lips in 1994 has disappeared entirely from the vocabulary of negotiations.

Economic reports issued by Queens University (Belfast) academics at the start of 1995 found that 185,000 households, containing over 500,000 people, were living below the poverty line. One of the authors of these reports, Professor Hillyard, concluded that Northern Ireland was "one of the most unequal societies in the developed world" referring – obviously – not to the gap in income between Catholic and Protestant but between rich and poor.

Statistics show that deprivation is still greater in Catholic areas with, according to some figures, Catholics still twice as likely to be out of work. But economic changes mean that Protestant working class areas are fast catching up.

For fifty years the backbone of the economy was shipbuilding, engineering and heavy manufacturing. Unionist discrimination meant that the bulk of these jobs went to Protestants. By the 1960s, these industries were in decline. The new industries, like man-made fibres that were attracted to replace them, all but disappeared in the recessions of 1974-5 and 1980-81.

Manufacturing collapse

Jobs in manufacturing fell from around 165,000 in the early 1970s, to little over 100,000 in the early 1980s. In the more recent period, the decline has continued, the numbers falling from 105,000 in March 2000 to 86,000 in June of this year. Many Protestant working class areas, where young people could once expect apprenticeships and reasonably paid jobs, have been turned into industrial deserts and are areas of massive deprivation.

In place of manufacturing there has been the development of the service sector, with mainly low paid, often temporary, or part time jobs. 549,180 people were working in the service sector in June of this year.

The only relatively stable source of employment is now the public sector. It offers the only lifeline for many working class people. This sector is now under attack by the government, through cuts and job losses in education, widespread privatisation and attacks on wages, conditions and pension rights. Little wonder that no section of the establishment dares to even whisper about a "peace dividend"!

While the "peace process" has not delivered for either section of the working class, the zero sum game played by the dominant parties has meant that working class Catholics and working class Protestants tend to draw different conclusions from this failure.

The general feeling in Catholic communities is that "their side" has given huge concessions – not least the latest move on decommissioning – and have been met only by foot dragging from unionists who, they feel, are not prepared to treat them as equals. Protestants, on the other hand, tend to see the opposite – concessions by the British government to Sinn Fein which they view as a "sell out" that ultimately points them towards a united Ireland.

So, the general response among republicans, and quite widely among the Catholic community, to all that has been happening is that they need to apply pressure to speed up a stalled process. Meanwhile, unionists, backed by a considerable section of the Protestant population, want to slow things down. The "peace process" is not and, so long as the sectarian organisations hold sway, cannot be about reconciliation. It is a process of setting two communities, especially the working class communities, on a collision course.

If unionists felt that concessions to Sinn Fein represented an immediate threat to the union they would do more than obstruct the "peace process" – they would move to pull the whole thing down. The September riots were an expression of the tensions that have been building up in Protestant working class communities and show where the "peace process" could potentially end up.

The trigger to the rioting was the re-routing of the Whiterock Orange Order parade, but the underlying causes lie deeper. De-industrialisation, economic decline and the consequent deprivation were key factors. So also was the belief that somewhere in the distant corridors of power deals were being hatched that represent a one way street of concessions to republicans at the expense of Protestants.

Apart from a few areas, the numbers of people involved in the riots were not huge. However there was quite broad support for what was taking place. Even the Orange Order hierarchy, who would normally distance themselves from such developments, hesitated from issuing a condemnation.

Belfast Grand Master, Robert Saulters, for example, commented: "For years we have seen nationalists achieve what they want by violence and the threat of violence. In these circumstances, when frustrated and with no other option, we should not be surprised that some individuals resort to violence."

In Protestant working class communities there is now a sense that politics does not work and that other methods are therefore justified. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been given an overwhelming mandate yet they are seen as powerless in stopping the "concessions".


It is on the back of this sense of anger and alienation that the ‘Love-Ulster’ campaign has emerged. This is an amalgam of victims’ groups [from the Troubles], plus sections of the loyalist paramilitaries, of the Orange Order and others, which puts its own particularly sectarian slant on events. In all its calls for "unionist unity" and "rights for Protestants" it has nothing whatsoever to say about the economic decline and poverty that blight Protestant working class communities.

Some of those who encouraged the September riots have drawn back, fearing that if these events were repeated they could spill out of their control. The LoveUlster organisers agreed that their 29 October rally, originally scheduled to march from the Shankill Road to Belfast City Hall, should instead stay inside the "safer" confines of the Shankill district.

Were there to be, at some point, a more general development of Protestant sectarian reaction, it is likely that it would throw up umbrella organisations, such as the LoveUlster Campaign, which could link the largely urban based loyalist paramilitaries, like the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), with the more clerical based forms of sectarian Protestant reaction that exist in the rural areas.

This growing polarisation does not mean that the process of negotiations is at an end. A complete impasse would open the way to the possibility of sectarian clashes that neither the Sinn Fein nor the DUP leadership would be able to keep under control. It is possible that the DUP will try to avoid this by keeping up the pretence of a political process, even if this means talking to Sinn Fein at some point. It is also possible that they might come to some agreement, although there are huge obstacles that they will find it very difficult to overcome.

It is also possible that the UVF, which has been flexing its muscles to try to take effective control of working class areas in Belfast, at the expense of other paramilitaries, such as the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), might follow the example of the IRA and make a public announcement that it is standing down. Like the IRA, however, it would continue to exist in some form, playing a "community" role!

These developments, were they to occur, would not signal an about face and the start of a real peace process. A new Assembly, headed by the DUP and Sinn Fein, would only accelerate the process of balkanisation, with the sectarian division set even more firmly in stone. It would come apart at some point, leaving a greater vacuum, and a potentially more polarised and more explosive situation than now.

The fundamental drift of events towards increased sectarian division will inevitably continue, so long as the "peace process" is conducted by sectarian and right wing organisations and so long as there is no independent class alternative provided by the labour and trade union movement.

Alternative exists

The basis for such an alternative already exists. Most people view the political parties and the "peace process" with deep scepticism. Very few believe that the politicians are capable of coming up with any way forward. People feel themselves pressed into one or other sectarian camp, not because they enthusiastically support those at its head, but because, when the only choice is between two sets of sectarians, it is better to stick with the ‘devil you know’.

Similarly, most people are repelled by sectarian attacks, no matter where they are coming from or who are the victims. But they do not see any way of taking on, isolating and defeating those who are carrying them out.

Most workplaces are mixed, Catholic and Protestants working side by side. By and large, sectarian division has been kept at arms length in the offices, factories, shops etc. When struggles develop around common issues, such as wages, jobs and conditions, Catholics and Protestants have invariably stood together.

This has been the case in all recent disputes – the firefighters’ dispute, the civil service strikes over pay and the magnificent one day strike this April against education cuts are just some examples. The opposition that is developing within all communities to the vicious attacks being launched by the New Labour government, especially to the proposal to introduce water charges, show how class issues can push sectarianism to the background.

Workers have also stood shoulder to shoulder against sectarianism. The peace process itself began out of the mass demonstrations and strikes organised by trade unions against sectarian killings in the late 80s and early 90s.

Trade union power

The problem is not that workers are not prepared to stand together, even on supposedly "contentious" issues thrown up during the "peace process". It is a problem of leadership, or rather of the complete absence of it.

The trade unions remain potentially the most powerful force in the Northern Ireland. Side by side with genuine community organisations, they could take on the right-wing sectarians, and offer an alternative that could unite working class people for a socialist solution.

To do this, the first thing the union leaderships would have to do is recognise that the sectarian parties will never solve anything; that they are only capable of deepening the sectarian divide, not narrowing it.

If they were to draw this conclusion, the trade union leadership would come face to face with the necessity of building a movement to take on the sectarians. Central to this would have to be the creation of a new working class political party able to offer a socialist challenge to both nationalism and unionism.

Instead, the union leaders, right and left, have buried their heads in the sand, resisting pressure for political action. Rather than take on and expose the right-wing politicians, they have employed a timid strategy of lobbying to put pressure on these same politicians to "sort things out."

In doing this, the union leadership are not only leaving the working class voiceless, they are sowing illusions in the sectarian and right wing parties. They are, therefore, in part, responsible for the ongoing sectarian impasse.

War is the continuation of politics by other means. If the present sectarian political battlefield that is called a "peace process" comes to a complete halt, and there is a reversion to war, it will not be a return to the Troubles like the conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, but to a Bosnian-style conflict.

This is still quite a way off and the forces that would resist such an outcome are still much stronger than those who would promote it. However if these forces are not given a voice this could change. Recent events, such as the September riots, show that the building of an alternative to unite working class people for a socialist solution is now a matter of some urgency.

From Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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November 2005