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Ireland: The December collapse

Not the death of the Good Friday agreement - the death of its daughter by John McAnulty (Socialist Democracy, Belfast)

The chief theory behind the latest slapstick collapse of what is still called the Irish Peace Process, despite being sponsored by Bush and Blair, the butchers of Fallujah, is what is best called the ‘if only’ theory.

According to the ‘if only’ theory, the proscriptions of British imperialism and Irish capitalism ­ the continuation of partition and the relaunching of a local assembly based around the sectarian designation of its members ­ is the best possible basis for justice, peace and security in Ireland. The process continuously collapses, not because it is unjust and inherently unstable, but because of some minor and unforeseen glitch that can be soon put right and allow the inhabitants of the North of Ireland to enter the promised land. The ‘if only’ aspect is usually some oversight by the IRA, after ten years with their hands in the air, decommissioning, saying they surrender, recognising the northern colony and agreeing to support the state forces ­ if only they could convince everyone that they meant it! Put a little more oomph in their support for the state! A little more verve in waving the white flag!

The ‘if only the Provos’ theory has its minor counterpart in a republican plaint ­‘if only the Unionists’. The latest version holds that Ian Paisley never meant to do a deal at this point in time and find himself going into an election linked to the Provos. It remains an ‘if only’ theory because its supporters believe with equal fervency that Paisley will step forward in the aftermath of the British general election to finally resolve outstanding problems.

Surrender

There are a whole series of reasons why both versions of the theory are wrong. No one could read the documents released by the London and Dublin governments and seriously believe that the Provos had held back in their surrender. In a statement clearly worded by the British government, albeit with consultation, the Provos promise to destroy all their weaponry and essentially disband their organisation. Overall the document commits them to support the Northern state and to support changes to the original Good Friday Agreement that tilt it strongly in the direction of majority rule by the Paisleyites. It commits them to support a police force that retains an RUC reserve as a Protestant militia, retains the hated Special Branch so deeply implicated in sectarian murder and retains the use of plastic bullets so often used in the murder of children.

Its quite clear that the Provos had agreed to photographs of the destruction of weapons and even after the collapse of the deal, the IRA statement is about ‘humiliating photographs’ - a clear hint that, if they were allowed time to cool down their more emotional supporters, some ‘non-humiliating’ photographs could be arranged. Throughout the Good Friday process the Adams leadership has presented their surrender to British imperialism as a series of victories forced from imperialism and their retreats as concessions woven in to a complex negotiating process. To hold to this story Adams had to present the final decommissioning of arms alongside a triumphant return to government in the North. Months of pressure from the British and Dublin governments led to a retreat from these positions. The republican leadership agreed to split the difference. The IRA armoury would be destroyed in December but photographic evidence held back until February and released on the day before the reconvening of the local Stormont Executive and their return to ministerial positions.

The Paisleyite understanding was quite different. Their view was that there would be unconditional surrender by the republicans and that they would then throw themselves upon the mercy of their enemies and agree any terms that the DUP offered them. From this perspective the collapse of the deal was not some temporary glitch, but a fundamental difference on the process that was taking place and the outcomes that it would lead to. The whole episode has been a disaster for the Provos. By publishing the terms of the agreement the London and Dublin governments have essentially banked the Provos’ latest surrender and will use it to force further retreats. They get nothing for their compliance but further demands to make more concessions.

Protestant rule

The alternative view, that Paisley didn’t mean to deal now but will deal in the future, is correct in the former part of the thesis but not in the latter. Paisley told the world that his aim was to humiliate the Provos. Shouting from the rooftops that they must wear sackcloth and ashes for their crimes was clearly meant to obstruct a deal. But it also obscures the fact that DUP programme for a settlement extends much further ­ to the old Stormont of Protestant rule, red in tooth and claw.

The falsity of widespread claims that the DUP was anxious to clinch a deal with Republicans and enter a power-sharing government was shown in the aftermath of the collapse of the talks. Paisley and his supporters showed the complete unconcern the DUP felt, in contrast to the barely concealed panic of the Republicans. Rather than try to save the deal Paisley upped the ante, saying that he now wanted much more detailed photographic evidence of each stage of decommissioning and more unionist witnesses. He went on to break off relations with the Dublin government, announce that he was presenting the Blair cabinet with an ultimatum, and warned of ‘dire consequences’ if the IRA tried to surrender without his permission!

The Paisleyite demand for unconditional surrender is important because it establishes as part of the political discourse that the original colonial Protestant statelet in the North of Ireland was legitimate and the long campaign to overthrow it illegitimate.

It follows as night follows day that ‘democracy’ - that is, majority rule in an Orange bantustan - is the only stable solution and that attempts to impose a forced coalition of Unionist and Nationalist - the central plank of the old Good Friday Agreement - should be abandoned for good.

It is from this perspective that talk of a deal to restore devolved government involving the Democratic Unionist Party should be understood. They do genuinely want to rule in a Stormont parliament. They do foresee a settlement that includes Catholics. What is crucial is that the Catholic role is a subordinate one.

The idea that Paisley, having spent his entire life attacking the Unionist Party from the right, on the grounds that it was soft in the defence of Protestant sectarian privileges; having finally defeated Trimble and become the major force in unionism, was now going to concede a settlement based on equal shares for two sectarian groups is so ridiculous that it should have been dismissed utterly. The understanding that Paisley had to humiliate the Provos to sign a deal was not accompanied by any understanding that he would subsequently have had to humiliate them at every turn in order to keep his own sectarian base at bay. Only the absolute commitment of the Irish and British media to an imperialist settlement has blinded the Provos to this reality ­ that, and the fact that the proposed deal had actually broken completely with the nostrums of the GFA, and did in fact concede to unionism major elements of the majority rule they are seeking.

Daughter of the GFA

This is the significance of the December collapse. It is not yet another routine collapse of the old ramshackle structures of the Good Friday Agreement. They have been pushed and bent out of shape by the British and unionists over a whole series of collapses and crises. This is a new deal - a deal that has, at its core, elements of the majority rule that the original Stormont regime was based upon.

Anyone who tried to understand the latest stage of the stabilisation of partition in Ireland would be well short of the mark if they tried to understand it in terms of the rivalry between Loyalism and Republicanism. The latest collapsed deal, as with all the previous deals, is the work of British imperialism with the enthusiastic support of Irish capital.

The last stable (temporary) solution for British rule in Ireland was the old Stormont: a Protestant parliament and state ruling a (majority) Protestant people and using a mixture of sectarian discrimination, state repression and extra-legal death squads to maintain the undemocratic partition of the island and repress the Catholic population and the small radical socialist tradition amongst both Protestant and Catholic workers.

Over two decades of armed conflict led to a common agreement between London and Dublin (the Hillsborough Agreement). Dublin formally recognised the partitioned state and began to look for a reform that would recognise some Catholic rights within the partitioned state. The Provos climbed on board under the tutelage of Irish capital and the Good Friday Agreement was born.

At the centre of the Agreement was one central British policy. The Agreement must win the support of its unionist base and continue to justify a British military occupation. There was one glaring flaw: the Agreement could not deliver equity of sectarian privilege. One section must be dominant, otherwise there would be little point to sectarianism. Unionist pressure forced a series of crises and collapses until the agreement fell to the right.

That is the central significance of the December collapse. What collapsed was not the Good Friday Agreement but its replacement. The Daughter of Good Friday had been modified to emphasise the totality of the republican surrender, to underscore their unconditional support for the partitionist colony and for the state institutions, especially the sectarian police force on which it was founded, and to give to Ian Paisley what his predecessor, David Trimble, had been unable to win; institutional recognition of Protestant majority rule. The fact that this deal collapsed, and collapsed to the right amid Paisleyite objections that not enough had been given, really is of tremendous significance.

The second and more fundamental problem is that the Agreement was not an agreement at all. The partial nature of the shift to majority rule was such that the loyalists would have continuously attempted to drive a coach and horses through the articles. There was no timeframe for the Provos to ascend to the police boards. Cross-border bodies, which the Paisleyites bitterly oppose, were referred to so vaguely as to ensure their collapse. Even the veto given to the First Minister is roundabout and would have caused crisis if implemented. The vague and ambiguous elements of the document of Agreement are only outnumbered by the elements not listed on which even tentative agreement had not been possible.

Further to the right

Just how successful the Paisleyite strategy has been, and how much further to the right they will be able to force the whole process, is evidenced by the storm of condemnation of the Provos unleashed by the collapse of the deal. London, Dublin, the local nationalists all demand immediate capitulation as the only way to conciliate Paisley, ignoring the fact that the DUP simply make more extreme demands as one set are satisfied.

One straw in the wind was the British recognition of the loyalist UDA ‘ceasefire’ in the fortnight preceding the deal deadline. This is despite the British monitoring committee reporting a catalogue of sectarian intimidation and criminality, violent incidents before and after the announcement and some of the UDA chiefs, who had been shaking hands with Secretary of State, Murphy, appearing in court to cheer on five men charged with kidnapping. There is a simple political reason for the elevation of the UDA and allowing them access to millions in state funds - they act as muscle for the Paisleyites and this was one of Paisley’s demands for an agreement. This illustrates the hypocrisy of Paisley - his condemnations of republicanism have always been matched by cutting deals with violent loyalism. It also carries a grim message ­ a new settlement will involve an acceptable level of violence from the UDA to ensure that Catholics remain constrained about where they live and work.

The final hidden element to emerge from the collapse was the frantic unionism of the Irish capitalist class. The suggestion that IRA men convicted of killing an Irish plainclothes Garda would be released early led to a reactionary outcry. The collapse of the deal led to an outpouring of hatred for the Provos and statements from the Dublin government indicating that they wished to echo the unionist demands and indeed had demands of their own about the wording of a surrender statement to ensure the complete and unconditional disbandment of the IRA. Bertie Ahern then issued a lickspittle apology to Paisley for any suggestion that the Provos might not have to provide photographic proof of their surrender. A new decision by a Colombian court, that three republicans arrested there and then acquitted of terrorism charges were now guilty after all, led to calls from the Dublin government that the victims should surrender themselves to the reactionary Colombian regime.

The last illusion of the Provo leadership ­ that there existed a nationalist family built around Irish capital with friends on high in London and Washington and able to pressure unionism and bring reform in the North ­ is on the point of collapse. What remains is the family of imperialism, united around unionism and determined to force a republican collapse complete enough to act as the foundation of a renewed stability for the sectarian Northern colony.

The fact that, in these conditions, a deal keeps slipping away is support for the Marxist concept that the Northern state is irreformable. Without bigotry and sectarian division it has no reason to exist. The defeat and abolition of the colony is a necessity if socialism and democracy are to advance in Ireland.

John McAnulty