From Socialist Voice, January 2005

The hard road of change

The peace process and the re-establishing of governmental institutions under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are proving to be very difficult. But it is important to remember how far we have come and the changed political landscape that we now operate in.
     The intense armed conflict has ended. That does not mean we do not have isolated acts of violence: punishment beatings continue, and sectarianism has not gone away—it has been part of the political and cultural fabric of parts of the North for a hundred years or more; but there have been no bombings in either Ireland or Britain carried out by the IRA.
     In the main it has been a remarkable transition from a situation of daily bombings and of sectarian violence and political assassinations carried out by loyalists on behalf of the British military and RUC intelligence against republicans and other political opponents.
     We have had the return, if only briefly, of local government with an effective Assembly and Executive. It has been a long and difficult process, not without its stumbles and falls. Elements of unionism were prepared, albeit under external pressure, to work in a constructive relationship with nationalists and republicans. Even the Democratic Unionist Party at least recognised that the Executive was important by the very fact that they took seats in it.
     We had the beginnings of the construction of all-Ireland economic co-operation with the cross-border bodies, which can and will benefit the people of this island in the long term. In any political process, particularly when one key participant is attempting to move from armed resistance to another form of struggle which is primarily political, there are always going to be individuals or small groups who do not see the big picture.
     It is clear that Sinn Féin and the IRA have reached a settled view that the IRA is no longer necessary if significant changes could be made to the present policing structures. Politically, both organisations have agreed the political strategy, which of itself has an inherent logic to it and is the main strategic way forward at this point.
     The raison d’être for the very existence of the IRA in the minds of many northern nationalists is the necessity to have the means of defending themselves, given the history of the last seventy years of unionist domination and of a sectarian paramilitary police force and loyalist paramilitaries.
     Long before the Northern Bank was relieved of a substantial sum of money by an unsolicited withdrawal, the re-establishment of the Executive and thereby the Assembly was very much in doubt. The DUP was blocking progress with its demand for photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning. They would not accept two independent observers to oversee, along with De Chastelain, a major arms decommissioning action by the IRA. In today’s world of digital cameras it is possible to construct photographic evidence out of nothing, so photographic evidence of itself is of no value, and the DUP know this. It was really about producing a photograph to show victory over republicans: to make the point that Paisley delivered to his supporters a long-cherished demand of defeating republicanism and to once again show that he is the only guardian of true unionism and defender of the union. He needed a photograph to wave to the crowds, like Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.” He could only enter the forthcoming British general election in May either as the strong man still holding out, as against the weak and vacillating David Trimble of the UUP, or with a victory over his ancient opponents.
     There will be no movement this side of the British general election, from which Paisley hopes to emerge with the largest unionist party in Westminster, with the return of a weakened Labour Party that will be too focused on other things to put pressure on them to move, and with the forlorn hope of a revived Tory Party. It suits unionism to wait in the hope that republicans, or a significant element, will become frustrated with politics and will return to some form of armed resistance. They do believe that no government is better than a government with republicans in it and with strong all-Ireland structures built in.
     The Irish Government has had a strategy of engaging in the Northern peace process primarily to bring an end to the violence and to contain the political situation within the North. This has not happened. The SDLP has in effect collapsed and has been replaced by Sinn Féin. The influence of Sinn Féin has not been “contained” in the North but instead they have proved that they can win support in the Republic and, most importantly, in the traditional heartlands of Fianna Fáil.
     The political establishment both in Ireland and Britain are not completely sure whether republicans have wholly bought in to the political system and that they are willing to play by the establishment’s rules, as have the likes of the Labour Party in the Dáil. So the fuss over who robbed the bank is just the echo of the battle, not the battle itself.
     People should have a titter of wit and should look at the bigger picture before carrying out actions that give their political opponents the political high ground. You can never underestimate the capacity of your own side to trip you up. All those who see the importance of establishing a national democracy have to take the long view. There will always be people who will take adventurist actions. With them the deed is more important than the process.
     The two forthcoming by-elections in Kildare and Meath will provide the political establishment in the South with an ideal opportunity to go on and on about paramilitary criminal activity and the threat it poses to our democracy. The Government would much prefer to take up where they left off in their relations with unionism when Lynch and O’Neill had talks in the 1960s and to exclude and contain northern nationalists. They would prefer to be the sole voice of Irish republicanism and nationalism, finding its own accommodation with unionism.
     There are a number of dangers if we go down the road now being advocated by both the British and Irish Governments. If we are to accept that the word of the PSNI is to be taken as gospel, where does this leave us? What happened to the Castlereagh break-in, the surveillance in Stormont and other such highly publicised events supposedly carried out by the IRA? Is the police force in the North, or anywhere for that matter, above reproach? Do the police become the determining factor in the political process?
     If today we accept the word of the Chief Constable of the PSNI, Hugh Orde, in relation to the bank robbery it will only be a matter of time—even if we could re-establish an Executive today—before Paisley and elements of the state concoct another “criminal act” linked to some republicans as a pretext for removing Sinn Féin from government, using the unionist majority in the Assembly to push it through.
     The SDLP know this and are rightly critical of the present impasse. They will not go along with the Irish Government, nor are they fooled by Paisley’s ruse.

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