The political process which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has once again shown its resilience. Declared dead more times than Rasputin, it was moving into its most advanced stage so far as Workers' Liberty went to press in early December.
By Patrick Murphy
Since June 1998 there has been an elected Assembly in Northern Ireland, and the outlines of a North-South body. The centrepiece of the Good Friday Agreement, a power-sharing Executive which includes members of all parties with substantial electoral support, has proven much harder to establish. That was always going to be the case. The central obstacle was, and still is, the question of IRA disarmament.
Sinn Fein's right to seats in the Executive derived not only from its democratic mandate but also from the legality of the Agreement. There was, as Gerry Adams repeatedly reminded us, no requirement for the IRA to decommission a single weapon in advance of the Executive. On the other hand the Ulster Unionist Party expected some decommissioning to commence long before the May 2000 deadline, and preferably before the Executive was established. Even the keenest Unionist supporter of the deal found it hard to stomach repeated declarations by the IRA that "not a single bullet would ever be handed in" and occasional evidence that new arms and explosives were being gathered in.
The formally correct response from those who backed the deal as the best way forward was to point out that decommissioning was not the central issue. The continuing ceasefire was. Even if the IRA partially disarmed, unless the ceasefire held it could rearm very quickly.
Such formal accuracy counted for very little in an atmosphere in which Unionism was seriously split over the whole deal. The 70% vote for the Agreement in the North hid a large proportion of Unionist opposition. That opposition was consolidated in the elections to the Assembly, and was reflected in the ranks of David Trimble's UUP as well as in Ian Paisley's rabidly sectarian DUP. The strength of the Protestant anti-Agreement forces and their influence over waverers has been the decisive factor in making decommissioning the central issue. Repeatedly over the last year it has seemed that the whole edifice would collapse around that issue.
Then suddenly in the last few weeks there has been dramatic progress, and the Good Friday Agreement has been given a new lease of life. During the review of the Agreement chaired by George Mitchell since September, something convinced Trimble either that Sinn Fein were sincere in their desire to end the war once and for all, or that it was time to put them to the test. He accepted a proposal to set up the Northern Ireland Executive in advance of any IRA decommissioning - a clear reversal of his previous policy of "no guns, no government".
Performing U-turns is a rare skill in Unionist politics, and very few have successfully carried it off. Trimble declared that he would put his new policy to the ruling council of his party at a special meeting on 27 November. He had few selling points. The IRA would appoint someone to the decommissioning body for the first time, Sinn Fein renewed their promise to work for disarmament. There were, however, no deadlines, and the British government continued to avoid any commitment to eject Sinn Fein if the IRA did not deliver.
Despite that Trimble won 58% of the vote with a promise to come back in February and resign if the promised progress on decommissioning had not occurred. He would have preferred more than 60% of the vote, but the victory was enough to proceed. As I write the membership of the Executive has been announced and Northern Ireland is about to have its first government made up of locally elected politicians in a generation.
The crucial new element is the decision by Unionist leader David Trimble and his core supporters to take on the opposition in and just beyond his own party. Once confronted, the poverty of those opponents' arguments is shocking.
It has been decisive, for example, that they simply have no alternative to the way ahead spelt out in the Agreement. The real nature of the opposition has also become clearer, even to Trimble's supporters. Ian Paisley let his own thin mask slip in a press statement on Monday 29 November after the parties had nominated their cabinet members. He warned the people of Northern Ireland that the fate of their children from nursery to University was "now in the hands of Sinn Fein/IRA and the SDLP" (emphasis added). He made this comment not just because Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein had taken the Education post, and Sean Farren of the SDLP had been given responsibility for Higher Education. It was clear that what Paisley found horrifying was that power was in the hands of Catholics.
The position of the hard-liners in Trimble's party is generally the same. The issue for them is, at a minimum, the principle of sharing power with Sinn Fein (armed or disarmed) and, for too many, sharing power with nationalists at all. Decommissioning is a powerful cover for this communalism, and one of the most encouraging things about the last few weeks has been the willingness of Trimble supporters to acknowledge that and tear the cover away.
On numerous occasions over the decisive weekend of 27 November it was possible to hear prominent Unionists on TV and radio pointing out that the opponents of Trimble's latest deal had also been opposed to the peace process, then the Agreement, then the referendum and so on throughout the last few years. Even more startling was the new willingness to confront the emotional blackmail about IRA violence and the memory of the victims. A turning point in Trimble's summing-up speech was apparently when he responded to a heckle about the memory of an assassinated Unionist MP by pulling out and reading a letter from the victim's widow, warmly endorsing the strategy of power-sharing before decommissioning. On radio I heard a power-sharing Unionist silence an emotive diehard by attacking head-on the cynicism of exploiting victims in this way.
What does all this mean for progress in Northern Ireland? The oft-repeated caveat is true: there is a long way to go and there are many problems ahead. The central one for now remains IRA disarmament. Trimble took the only course tactically open to him but, whether by design or accident, has actually put the contradictions of Sinn Fein's recent evolution into a sharp focus.
Are they decisively now a political or a military movement? Do they accept for the time being the existence of Northern Ireland and the implicit requirement to win a substantial number of Protestants to a united Ireland, or are they still involved in "Tactical Use of Armed Struggle"? They have been able to avoid these questions up to now without too much public pressure, but Trimble's decision to test their good intentions and create his own deadline makes life more difficult for them. It puts the diehards and communalists in the republican movement in the same sort of dilemma that their Unionist counterparts faced in recent weeks - that is, it poses the question, what is your alternative? Pessimists might still see their scenarios borne out in February as a result, though the underlying developments here all suggest otherwise.
Within all the limits of bourgeois liberal politics these developments are wholly positive. This is not like the much-quoted Sunningdale period when power-sharing was last on the agenda in Northern Ireland. It is by no means certain that Trimble and his supporters will continue to carry the day, but they are willing to fight in a way that Brian Faulkner, the Unionist leader then, never was, and they are an independent force whereas Faulkner was doing the bidding of the British government with no real conviction. It was significant that Trimble pointedly rejected any offer of help from Blair, whose spin and manipulation in July almost destroyed Unionist faith in the whole process.
Having made the decision to fight alone, however, the Trimble Unionists have had to use the only effective rational arguments available to them, and that has meant a critical review of some of their own assumptions. In the Observer on Sunday 28 November, journalist John Farrelly talked of the development of "civic unionism" and contrasted it to "ethnic unionism". It was a useful and perceptive summary of what has been emerging in Unionism for some years now. The slow growth of the PUP and UDP out of the loyalist paramilitaries was the first sign of this. Mainstream Unionism was lagging behind, frightened by the ghosts of Lundy and Faulkner.
The development of "civic nationalism" is much more advanced, because nationalism is a good deal more confident and assured. The nationalists know they will win in the end, just as the Unionists know they will lose. Much of the republican moderation and democratic rhetoric is born out of that certainty, as is much of the Unionist bluster and defiance. Those are not the features of two opposite forces, one progressive and one reactionary. They are the Jekyll-and-Hyde voice of two nationalisms facing contrasting futures.
There is nevertheless an "ethnic nationalism", and it is now a greater threat to communal compromise than Ian Paisley's DUP or Willie Thompson's potential split from the UUP. The IRA can isolate and defeat fundamentalist Unionism rapidly and bloodlessly. They may have to take account of the rituals and machismo of the long physical force tradition in Irish republicanism, and this may mean that they proceed cautiously and try to avoid reinforcing the variety of splinter groups around their edges. They should nevertheless disarm as quickly as possible. They should certainly do enough to ensure that there is no revival of ethnic Unionism in February, and from then on they should make it clear they have opted for politics and not war.
If socialists advocate disarmament, it is not in order to rescue Trimble or "liberal Unionism". Those are not our concerns. We advocate it because there is no prospect of any democratic settlement in Ireland as long as nationalism and Unionism relate to each other by way of military conflict rather than communal compromise and dialogue.
The power-sharing Executive with its North-South bodies and Council of the Isles is not a democratic settlement, but the process got us this far. The withering away of both revanchist militarist republicanism and "No Surrender" Unionism is welcome and encouraging. It promises infinitely better prospects for the growth of class-based politics than did the simmering civil war of the previous 30 years.
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