Northern Ireland: Back to the Future?

Ruling Sinn Fein/Democratic Unionist Executive in stalemate

The ‘power-sharing’ Northern Ireland Executive (the governing cabinet) has not met since the middle of June. It faces log jam over a series of difficult issues.

In any other advanced capitalist country, the government would collapse if its Executive was incapable of meeting for three months. Imagine the consequences if Gordon Brown or Brian Cowan (the Irish prime minister) were unable to convene a cabinet meeting for three months. And imagine the consequences if Gordon Brown’s or Brian Cowan’s ministers spent that three months gutting each other in the press every day of the week.

A complete collapse of the Executive is unlikely in the short term but prolonged paralysis on the key issues is the present day reality and probable future of the Executive. This situation cannot continue indefinitely.

From the beginning of the so-called peace process, the Socialist Party has argued that no lasting solution could be found on the basis of an uneasy compromise between sectarian politicians. The Socialist Party also argued however that the relative peace ushered in by the paramilitary ceasefires, in 1994, would open up possibilities for the development of class politics and greater working class unity. This opportunity will not last forever.

It is now forty years since October 5th 1968, when Civil Rights supporters were battened off the streets of Derry. This event is commonly taken as the start of the Troubles. Despite the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in 1998, violence has continued. In every year since 1968 there have been deaths due to political and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, including this year. Sectarian division on the ground remains and in 2008 new peace lines are still being created in Belfast.

At some point things will get worse. Whilst there is almost no support in Catholic working class areas for a return to war, at this time, and the dissident (republican) groups are still small and relatively isolated, there is little doubt that they are growing in strength and confidence. Both the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA are attempting to kill a member of the PSNI (police) and, sooner or later, they will likely succeed.

If they do, it could precipitate a political crisis. Imagine the scenario – the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) call for internment and shoot to kill and imply that Sinn Fein actually know who is behind the attacks and could hand suspects up to the police if it so chose. Sinn Fein deny the latter, denounce any return to severe repression, but continue to call for people to go to the PSNI with information on the dissidents, thus further undermining their credibility with young Catholics. If ,by then, policing has been devolved to Stormont (the seat of local government) the storm generated by the killing of a police officer will be even greater.

Sinn Fein’s support

This does not mean that Sinn Fein’s electoral base will disappear or even be seriously dented initially. As throughout the last forty years, the lack of a credible mass working class party means that there is no electoral alternative and at this stage a lot of working class people may not bother to vote.

However, opposition to Sinn Fein in its heartlands is growing. This opposition is not just based on its perceived failure to deliver on the national question. Large numbers of Sinn Fein voters are disappointed by Sinn Feins’ failure to deliver on their promises on social and economic issues.

As things stand, the dissident groupings are poised to garner more support, especially among young people. Sinn Fein is increasingly regarded as part of the establishment. Senior figures in the Republican Movement, including those with an IRA background, no longer hold sway on the ground, in the way that they did over two generations.

There has been a period of relative peace since the severe riots in Protestant areas in October 2005, and last summer was relatively quiet, but there have been recent outbreaks of rioting in Belfast and Craigavon town.

The rioting in Craigavon, in late August, was clearly orchestrated by Republican dissidents. They would have had no luck in sparking such rioting, however, if there was not a mood of alienation and anger among young people in the area.

But such a descent into sectarian conflict is not inevitable. The increase in sectarianism is on the basis that there is no alternative. Another way out is possible.

If there was a party to represent working class people, and which offered a socialist alternative to sectarianism and recession, it could tap into the deep disillusionment in working class communities, both Catholic and Protestant.

That is why the responsibility on the shoulders of the trade union leaders is so great. Instead of standing back and supporting the sectarian based political parties in the Assembly (local parliament), they should now take immediate steps towards build a working class party capable of challenging the right-wing policies of the sectarian parties in the Assembly

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September 2008