Workers' Liberty #64/5


Britain holds the ring

By Martin Thomas

The civil war between Unionist paramilitary groups is not about the Good Friday Agreement. Both support the Agreement, the Ulster Volunteer Force more wholeheartedly than the Ulster Defence Association. The Good Friday Agreement is up and running and looking fairly healthy.

Every month it survives, it acquires some extra weight of inertia and patronage to allow it to survive longer.

It is still beset on many sides. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party is expressing its "opposition on principle" to the Executive by participating in it but having its two ministers resign, and be replaced by other DUP nominees, at each turning point. The "Real IRA" and the "Continuity IRA" are running a campaign of bombing, and it is probably only a matter of time before the bombs kill people.

Sinn Fein continues to push the envelope, its latest demand being that its MPs who have been elected to, but refuse on principle to sit in, the Westminster parliament, should instead be seated in the Dublin parliament, the Dail.

The Good Friday Agreement is strong because it represents the settled policy of the people who hold the purse-strings and the levers of state power - the British state, the USA, the European Union, and the Irish Republic. Republicans aiming to win a rapid united Ireland, and Unionists seeking to block links with Dublin, both know by now that no action within their power against the British state can achieve those aims.

Weariness - or, indeed, disgust - at the long war creates a pressure to make the Agreement work. For Sinn Fein, grabbing available concessions is better policy than restarting a military campaign which they know they cannot win.

The other strength of the Good Friday Agreement is that both nationalists and Unionists can think they can work it to their ends. Sinn Fein and the SDLP can think that British and EU pressure will tie the Six Counties closer and closer to the 26, and then when Catholics have increased to become the majority in the Six Counties they can deliver the coup de grace by exercising their right, guaranteed in the Agreement, to vote in reunification whatever the Protestants want.

The Unionists can think that the Agreement gives them Belfast government and relative security for the Northern Ireland unit. Now that the South is more industrially developed than the North, they do not object to North-South economic integration within the EU, but that need not wipe away the political border any more than the EU has erased the line between, say, Belgium and the Netherlands. In fact, integration of both North and South into a much wider European framework presents a viable alternative both to untenably sharp separation and to a united Ireland. Catholics may well not become a majority in the Six Counties, or not vote solidly enough to force reunification even if they do become a majority. This strength of the Agreement is also a weakness. The British Government has promised the Unionists that they can have their Northern Ireland cake, and the nationalists that they can eat it up. It has re-established parliamentary politics in Northern Ireland - and given it the shape and structure of a community-against-community battle to "win the peace" where neither camp can win in its own terms.

Possibly the British can hold the ring, and enable both camps to think that they are moving slowly and crabwise to their goals, for long enough for today's fault-lines to be decisively overlaid by others. That depends, however, on many delicate conditions. Concessions to the Provisionals must be doled out fast enough to stop the IRA splitting or enough volunteers hiving off to the diehard groups for a large new Republican military campaign to be launched and "detonate" the Protestants - but also slowly enough not to enable Paisley and the anti-Agreement people in Trimble's own party to wreck the Assembly on the Protestant side.

And, probably, the whole enterprise depends on there being no sharp economic slumps or shocks. Northern Ireland has prospered, relatively, since the Provisionals' ceasefire began in 1994 - but that prosperity also depends on world capitalist conditions.

Socialists cannot have confidence in the ability of the British state to see its project through, and still less give political endorsement to it. A different programme - one of consistent democracy, with regional autonomy for the majority-Protestant areas within a united Ireland - is necessary to unite Irish workers to take advantage of the opportunities the new peace opens up.

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