From Bloody Sunday to Good Friday

The Green, the Orange & the "Peace Process"

The collapse of Northern Ireland’s “power-sharing” government in February, after only nine weeks in office, represented a major setback for the much-touted Irish “peace process.” It took years of maneuvers, ultimatums, horsetrading, deadlines and postponements before Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists finally signed a deal on Good Friday 1998, and it is too early to consign it to the terminal ward. Leading capitalist interests on both sides of the Irish border, as well as in the governments of the United States, Britain and the European Union (EU), remain committed to pushing through some kind of “democratic” resolution to the “troubles” that have plagued the Orange statelet for decades.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is to be governed by an assembly presided over by an executive representing both Protestant and Catholic political parties. All members of the Northern Ireland Assembly must register as Nationalist, Unionist or “other,” and all important decisions need the consent of both Catholic and Protestant legislators before they take effect. This can occur either through “parallel consent” (a majority of both Unionists and Nationalists voting) or a “weighted majority” of 60 percent (including at least 40 percent of votes cast by representatives of each community).

In a nod to Republican sensibilities, members of the executive are not required to swear allegiance to the British Crown, but merely to promise to carry out their duties in good faith. The British government also pledged to reform the notoriously sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and to set up an independent inquiry into the infamous January 1972 “Bloody Sunday” massacre of 14 unarmed Catholic demonstrators by British soldiers.

The agreement also sets up a North-South Council of Ministers and various all-Ireland agencies to oversee trade, fisheries, business development, inland waterways, tourism and other areas of joint economic interest. This ministerial council is designed to facilitate the economic integration of the declining North with the booming “Celtic Tiger” in the South. It is also charged with helping administer European Union programs in Ireland. The EU has earmarked 400 million pounds to fund “cross-community partnerships” of Protestant and Catholic groups on both sides of the border.

Britain acknowledged that the people of Northern Ireland had the right to join the Republic if they wished. In a reciprocal move, the Irish government amended its constitution to delete all territorial claims to the six counties of the northeast. The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged the political aspirations of the two communities as “equally legitimate,” and promised the Protestant majority that Northern Ireland would not be integrated into a unitary 32-county state without the consent of the majority of the population. If present demographic trends continue, Catholics are expected to constitute a majority in Northern Ireland within a generation. The agreement’s backers have sought to allay Protestant concerns by suggesting that the veto given to the present Catholic minority in Northern Ireland under the power-sharing agreement provides a precedent for safeguarding a Protestant minority in a future 32-county Irish state.

Economics of the "Peace Process"

Britain partitioned Ireland in 1922 in order to create an artificial statelet with a Protestant majority. By retaining the industrially developed northeast corner of the island, which kept its privileged access to the imperial market, Britain continued to exert indirect control of the largely agrarian clericalist backwater in the South. From its inception, the Orange statelet was based on the oppression of the Catholic minority and privileged access for Protestants to housing, education and employment.

The political and economic realities on the island have changed a great deal in the 30 years since the “troubles” erupted. The Irish Republic, no longer so dependent on exports to Britain, has become the fastest growing economy in Europe. Massive foreign investment, mostly from the U.S., has been attracted by the combination of low wages, low taxes, access to the European Union, and a young, educated, English-speaking labor force. This has created a “Celtic Tiger” whose GDP grew 8.6 percent last year, compared to a mere 1.7 percent in Britain. Public spending has been slashed to fund corporate tax breaks, and the government actively intervenes to hold down wages. Even though the income of a third of the population in the Irish Republic is below the official poverty line, living standards are still considerably higher than in Northern Ireland. In 1997, per capita gross national product in the Republic was $19,200, compared to $14,350 on the other side of the militarized border (New York Times, 7 May 1998).

Northern Ireland’s economy is in a protracted decline. Its traditional industries are shrinking and its swollen public sector, largely concentrated in military and police functions, is only maintained by massive British subsidies. Unemployment rates in Northern Ireland are almost double those in the rest of Britain.

In short, the political arrangements of 1922 no longer serve the interests of those who created them. The Protestant Ascendancy is an anachronistic fetter on capitalist activity in the Six Counties and a financial drain and political liability for the British ruling class. Each year, Northern Ireland siphons off more than £3 billion from the British treasury—an overhead London is anxious to be rid of.

The growth of U.S. investment in Ireland has increased America’s role in Irish politics. The negotiations that produced the Good Friday Agreement were chaired by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, and the White House has taken a continuing interest in keeping the faltering “peace process” alive. The economic integration of the island is seen as a means to ensure political stability, spur growth, cut state expenditures and increase the labor pool. The prospect of future investments in the North on the scale of those in the South is a powerful inducement to Northern Ireland’s capitalists to put an end to the “troubles” through salvaging the Good Friday Agreement.

The basic calculation for the monied interests on both sides of the communal divide was that, by ending the armed conflict in the North, it would be possible to cut overheads and increase profits. The agreement institutionalizes sectarian divisions within the population through confessional representation in parliament, and the maintenance of separate publicly-funded Catholic and Protestant school systems. By ensuring that sectarian formations on both sides will have a role in the administration of their own communities, the basis is quite deliberately laid for the continuing manipulation of a divided working class.

The Political Calculus

The oppressed Catholic minority no longer believes that the IRA’s military campaign can produce a united (capitalist) Ireland, while many Protestant workers, who have watched as their living standards have been overtaken by those in the Catholic South, have concluded that the Protestant Ascendancy cannot be maintained. A mood of war-weariness in both communities after 30 years of shootings and bombings, barbed wire and security checks, helped set the stage for the agreement, which was pitched to working people on both sides as a guarantee of peace, democracy and prosperity.

After a massive advertising campaign promoting a “yes” vote, the Good Friday Agreement was overwhelmingly approved by Catholics, and very narrowly, by Protestants in Northern Ireland. The Nationalists anticipate that, in the short term, it will end their second-class status in the Six Counties, and, in the long term, result in a united, 32-county Ireland.

Protestant support for the Good Friday Agreement was largely motivated by the calculation that power-sharing would provide a better chance of avoiding incorporation into a Catholic-dominated 32-county Ireland than the dead-end rejectionism advocated by Ian Paisley’s plebeian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the smaller Progressive Unionist Party (closely linked to the Loyalist murder gangs) saw the accord as the best chance to modernize the British connection. Trimble, a certified Protestant bigot, who in 1995 danced a jig with Paisley at an Orange Order provocation at Portadown, represents the leading elements of Northern Ireland’s Protestant bourgeoisie who are willing to take a chance on power-sharing. By giving “moderate” Catholics a stake in the status quo, and alleviating the worst forms of discrimination, Trimble et al. hope to reconcile some of them to the idea of remaining in the United Kingdom.

Sinn Fein & the RUC

The Good Friday Agreement is the latest in a series of attempts to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement that began with the Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. Previously, the British government had excluded Sinn Fein, the political representative of the IRA, from the negotiations. There is still a Tory/Unionist rump within the British ruling class that rejects the idea of talking to Sinn Fein, but the majority is quite prepared to be rid of the Six Counties and recognizes that any deal negotiated without the IRA would not be real.

Sinn Fein has eagerly participated in the “peace process,” despite the fact that the IRA is required to turn over its weapons, while Britain’s army of occupation is permitted to maintain whatever forces it considers “consistent with the level of the overall threat.” The British Army has used the ceasefire as an opportunity to refurbish and expand its presence in the IRA’s stronghold of South Armagh, which was already the most militarized region in Western Europe. Sinn Fein, however, remains enthusiastic about the deal because it sees an opportunity to emulate South Africa’s African National Congress as the administrators of capitalist rule in their own community.

Within the short-lived power-sharing executive, Sinn Fein was awarded the portfolios of education and health, where the largest cuts in social spending are slated to occur. While the pending hospital and school closures will be unpopular, these two ministries will give Sinn Fein control of the bulk of government expenditure outside of security, and the opportunity to make most civil-service appointments.

The stickiest outstanding questions about the “peace process” are posed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, well known for its murderous sectarianism and collaboration with Loyalist death squads. Chris Patten, a former Tory parliamentary under secretary for Northern Ireland, and Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, was appointed to draw up plans for updating the RUC. Patten’s report, released in September 1999, called for changing the name to the “Police Service of Northern Ireland,” removing the crown from its insignia and ceasing to fly the Union Jack from its stations. The report also advocated closer co-operation with the Garda (the Irish Republic’s police), for gradually reducing the number of cops from 13,000 to 7,500, and for ensuring that half of the new recruits are Catholics.

The prospect of getting rid of the Union Jack and integrating Sinn Fein supporters into the police has rankled Unionist bigots, but the leading elements in the Protestant bourgeoisie do not care much about symbols. They are more concerned about the capacity of the police to suppress “disorder” and safeguard capitalist property. They see the proposed reforms as a means to cut costs while raising the efficiency of their repressive apparatus. In a sop to Orange sentiment, Blair had the Queen award the George Cross for “heroism” and “bravery” to the murderous thugs of the RUC.

Orange and Green Rejectionists

The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement hinges on neutralizing Protestant opposition, a task proving more difficult than its architects perhaps imagined. In November 1999, the UUP, under considerable pressure from Northern Ireland business interests, voted to proceed with the power-sharing experiment by a narrow margin, but only after David Trimble promised to resign in February if the IRA had not commenced “decommissioning” its weapons by then. When the IRA rejected this ultimatum, New Labour’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Mandel- son, suspended the executive he had earlier hailed as a “historic institution,” to save Trimble from having to honor his pledge.

The Unionist rejectionists, strengthened by dissent within the UUP, are now supported by at least three quarters of the Protestant population. The Northern Ireland business elites and the British government remain committed to the project, but as popular support among Unionists crumbles, some of Trimble’s supporters have been jumping ship. The annual meeting of the UUP’s ruling council in late March further restricted Trimble’s room to maneuver by adding a demand that the RUC’s name and logo be preserved to its list of preconditions for future power-sharing with Sinn Fein.

Support for the agreement among Catholics remains high, and those Republicans who have broken with Sinn Fein and rejected the deal, have been unable to counterpose any kind of coherent political alternative. The 32 County Sovereignty Committee of Bernadette Sands McKevitt (sister of Bobby Sands, the famous Provo hunger striker), which is linked to the Real IRA, found itself isolated and widely vilified after a 1998 car-bombing in Omagh’s town center, which killed 28 and wounded 220, both Protestant and Catholic. In the aftermath of the bombing, Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, called for the Real IRA to disband. This move was welcomed by the British government, which asked for the IRA’s help against the Real IRA.

The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), the political wing of the Irish National Liberation Army, has criticized Sinn Fein for surrendering, but it can only counterpose a proposal for a negotiated ceasefire between Unionist and Republican paramilitaries (a position perhaps better suited to containing internal differences in the IRSP than providing a political answer to the crisis of Republicanism). Republican Sinn Fein/Continuity IRA remain flatly hostile to the “peace process,” and advocate the indefinite continuation of the low-level “armed struggle” tactics that the Provisionals have abandoned as pointless. So far, critics of Adams’ detente with Blair have been unable to win support beyond their existing constituencies, but this could change in the event of a “Peace Express” derailment.

Workers Power and the 'Revolutionary' Provos

Britain’s ostensibly revolutionary left has traditionally addressed the difficult problems posed by the Irish national question by advocating “self-determination for the Irish people as a whole”; this amounts to supporting the creation of a united Ireland through the forcible incorporation of the Protestant population of the Six Counties into the clericalist Irish Republic. This ersatz Green nationalism is rationalized by labeling as “revolutionary” the Republicans’ armed struggle against the British Army.

Workers Power (WP), the leading section of the League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI), is adept at camouflaging Green nationalism with revolutionary phrases. They combine calls for withdrawing British troops with advocacy of a united Ireland, adding that “the goal of a united Ireland...must be linked inseparably to the fight for a 32 county workers’ republic” (Workers Power, December 1999/January 2000). The problem is that these two objectives are not “linked inseparably,” even in the pages of the LRCI’s press. For example, the July/August 1999 issue of Workers Power demanded “self determination for Ireland as a whole and a democratic 32-county constituent assembly with full sovereign powers!” This simply echoes the Republicans’ call for a 32-county capitalist state.

While in the past Workers Power tended to adorn Sinn Fein’s calls for a “united Ireland” with talk of a workers’ republic, they now complain that “Sinn Fein and the IRA have effectively abandoned their goal of a united Ireland.” In fact, the “peace process” could conceivably result in a 32-county bourgeois Ireland.

In sitting down to negotiate power-sharing with the Unionists, the IRA sorely disappointed Workers Power and its various other leftist admirers. In a 1987 polemic against us, Workers Power made the claim that the IRA was engaged in a “revolutionary national struggle of the oppressed” against imperialism. We responded:

“Today there can be no 'revolutionary national struggle' standing separate and apart from the class struggle in the society in which it takes place. Only the proletariat, led by its conscious Marxist vanguard...can give consistent expression to the progressive national content of national liberation movements. The national bourgeoisies of the semi-colonial countries act primarily as agencies of imperialism within their own nations.”
Trotskyist Bulletin No. 3

We also note that petty-bourgeois nationalists like Sinn Fein:

“have the capacity to betray their followers by seeking accommodation with imperialism....In the epoch of imperialism, when the liberation of humanity demands the establishment of an international socialist economy, no nationalist ideology can play a consistently progressive historical role.”

While denying that they harbored illusions about Sinn Fein, Workers Power advocated an “anti-imperialist united front,” based on the IRA’s program of “self-determination of the Irish People as a whole” through the forcible incorporation of the Protestants. The latter were dismissed as agents of imperialism.

When the IRA agreed to lay down its arms in exchange for the Republicans’ admission to the negotiations, Workers Power was bitterly disappointed:

“[T]he idea that a peaceful road to unity exists through negotiations with the British state, the Southern bourgeoisie and the Unionists marks an historic betrayal of Irish revolutionary democracy by Sinn Fein and the IRA....”
Workers Power, October 1994

Correctly anticipating that the IRA would “in time...take responsibility for imposing bourgeois order on their supporters,” the LRCI declared that “the revolutionary, anti-imperialist threat from petit bourgeois nationalism is at an end.” As we observed in 1917 No. 16, “the only thing the IRA has 'betrayed' is WP’s illusions in petty-bourgeois nationalism.” Yet some illusions die hard, and four and a half years after declaring the IRA’s “revolutionary” role at an end, the LRCI was again proffering free tactical advice to the IRA:

“[A] guerrilla army picking off selected targets in the armed forces continues to be no substitute for a community that organises its own armed defence. Today this is not a matter of each nationalist household being armed to the teeth but of each estate and nationalist area having a permanently on guard, trained and visible militia that can prevent loyalists moving around planting bombs and the RUC giving cover and intelligence for it. If Sinn Fein and the IRA built such a permanent militia—accountable to the nationalist masses—there is no telling how many could have been saved from the death squads.”
Workers Power, April 1999

Unlike these Green nationalists of the second mobilization who want to help the IRA strengthen their links to “the nationalist masses,” Trotskyists seek to polarize society along class lines. To this end, we advocate integrated workers’ defense guards of class-conscious Protestant and Catholic workers to protect the workers’ movement against attacks by Loyalist murder gangs, or by any Republicans who might stoop to sectarian violence.

There is a logic to nationalism, just as there is a logic to Marxism, but there is no logic to centrism. After the power-sharing executive was established, and it became clear that the IRA and Sinn Fein expected a free hand to run things in the urban Catholic ghettos, the political chameleons of Workers Power shifted their position once again, this time taking a step to the left. They indignantly declared:

“[N]either do we trust the Republican movement to police the anti-Unionist communities. That is a job for a democratic militia, accountable to the mass organisations of the working class.”
Workers Power, December 1999/January 2000

The Workers Power scribes coyly avoid the question of whether this reference to the “working class” includes Protestants or just Catholics, although the mention of policing “anti-Unionist communities” suggests it does not. The use of the term “democratic” to describe WP’s projected militia is perhaps even more significant, for this is the language of reformism. Trotskyists advocate workers’ defense guards as a vital step on the road to workers’ revolution, while Stalinists and other reformists routinely posit the necessity for some democratic “first stage” before the struggle for socialism can be put on the agenda. Is Workers Power’s call for a “democratic [Catholic?] militia” merely sloppiness, or does it have some more profound programmatic significance? We look forward to a clarification.

SWP: Defenders of the 'Peace Process’

Britain’s largest left group, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), founded by the late Tony Cliff, seems chiefly concerned that the “peace process” may be endangered by Tony Blair’s tendency to capitulate to Unionist intransigents:

“So once again everything is stalled by a British government unwilling to face down Unionist bellicosity. John Major allowed them to wreck the first ceasefire, but Blair seems to be doing his best to copy him.”
Socialist Review, September 1999

Complaining that “Blair gyrate[s] to the latest Unionist tune,” the SWP scolds the political leader of British imperialism, and demands that he stand up to the Orange bigots to save the imperialist “peace process.” These criticisms, which echo those of liberal boosters of the power-sharing scheme, are tailored to what the Cliffites think will sell. Similar considerations explain why the SWP’s press rarely, if ever, advocates the immediate withdrawal of British troops. Yet unconditional and absolute opposition to Britain’s occupation forces in Northern Ireland is the only possible foundation for a genuinely Marxist program for ending the communal conflict. British “socialists” who fail to advance this demand are not worthy of the name.

The same impulse that today leads Socialist Worker to implore Blair to “face down” the Unionists led it in 1969 to support the introduction of British troops in Northern Ireland, on the grounds that they would provide a “breathing space” for the oppressed Catholics:

“Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists.”
Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969

Only when the initial illusions of the Catholic population evaporated did the Cliffites change their position. Today the SWP supports the demand for “Troops Out” (in theory at least), while generally refusing to advance it. On this question, as on many others, the International Socialist tendency is consistent only in its opportunism.

Not Orange Against Green, But Class Against Class!

One of the effects of almost three decades of direct rule from London is that Catholics have gained access to a variety of jobs, particularly in the public sector, which had previously been the exclusive preserve of Protestants. This has produced a good deal more social differentiation within the Catholic population than existed at the time of the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960s. Yet male unemployment is twice as high for Catholics as Protestants, and Catholics remain significantly underrepresented in managerial positions, even within the public sector.

“Peace-process” publicists project a rosy picture of a future 32-county Ireland as the site of high-tech, low-cost manufacturing within the European Union. This presumes that the capitalist elites will continue to politically dominate the working people of both communities in the future as they have in the past. The Good Friday Agreement is an attempt to update the political framework for capitalist exploitation in Northern Ireland by enlisting Republicans, as well as Unionists, as guarantors of capitalist stability.

While Irish nationalists (and the British leftists who tail them) frame the struggle in terms of Green against Orange, Marxists advance a fundamentally different principle: class against class. Where geographically interpenetrated peoples share a common territory, as Protestants and Catholics do in Northern Ireland, Marxists do not advocate the exercise of self-determination by one people at the expense of the other.

The complex national/communal divisions in Northern Ireland can only be resolved in a just and equitable manner through linking the struggle against Catholic oppression to a rejection of the petty-bourgeois ideology of Republicanism, and hard opposition to the bourgeois clericalist regime in the South. Marxists must put forward a class-struggle program that addresses the common concerns of both Protestant and Catholic workers—for decent housing, good jobs, free quality healthcare and free, secular education—in ways that help transcend sectarian divisions and point to the necessity of overturning the entire system of capitalist exploitation. For example, in addressing the problem of unemployment in the North, revolutionaries must cut against Paisleyite attempts to suggest that more jobs for Catholics must mean fewer for Protestants, by advocating a sliding scale of wages and hours and a massive program of public works to rebuild the infrastructure and eliminate the housing shortage.

The legacy of communalism in England’s first colony can only be resolved through a social revolution that breaks the grip of both the Orange and Green bourgeoisies, as well as their imperial patrons, and replaces the tyranny, brutality and corruption of life under capitalism—which Marx referred to as “the muck of the ages”—with a federation of workers’ states throughout the British Isles.

At this point, the question of what sort of arrangement Ireland’s Protestant minority will choose within such a federation is historically unresolved. One thing that is certain, however, is that a historically progressive solution to the “troubles” that have plagued Northern Ireland for decades requires the intervention of Marxist revolutionaries committed to the creation of an anti-sectarian workers’ party with roots on both sides of the communal divide.

1917 no.22: May 2000