Northern Ireland’s Troubled Compromise

Against the Current, No. 113, November/December 2004

John O'Connor

AUGUST 31 MARKED the ten-year anniversary of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s (IRA) cease-fire, and a turning point in the recent history of Northern Ireland.

For almost three decades, Irish republicans sought to destroy the Northern Irish state as they aimed to reunite the partitioned Northern six counties with the Irish Republic. At its best, Irish republicanism aspired to a new, independent, and socialist Ireland — an Ireland free of British dominance and Southern Catholic conservatism.

Prior to entering into a complicated and shaky peace process, in resisting British occupation (and their local pro-British colonial settlers, the unionists) Sinn Féin (the main republican political party) and the IRA employed a combined strategy of electoralism and militarism.

Against difficult odds, the IRA could only fight the British army to a military standstill, while Sinn Féin achieved only limited electoral representation on both sides of the border. Being politically isolated and feeling pressure from its base, the republican movement changed course, signing a peace agreement in the late 1990s that ended an ugly and prolonged conflict.

The pressure the republican leadership felt was real. With more than 3,000 deaths linked to “the Troubles,” the IRA’s armed struggle fueled British and unionist intransigence as it hurt the working-class communities that supported it.  Similarly, Sinn Féin’s vote stagnated and declined after the initial excitement of contesting elections wore off in the early 1980s.

After years of sacrifice, the Gerry Adams-led republican leadership calculated that the movement could win more within the state than by operating outside of it.

The Content of Compromise

The decision by Sinn Féin to enter into negotiations, and to support a peace deal, has been criticized in many quarters. However, it is not the act of compromise but the content of a compromise that demands critical scrutiny.

Unlike the republican movement itself, which celebrates its partial gains and ignores its real setbacks, our revolutionary tradition has a yardstick by which all political compromises should be assessed. Compromises with imperialism — whether they are in South Africa, Palestine, El Salvador, Guatemala or Ireland — must be evaluated according to their overall impact on the liberation movement. That is, do these compromises diminish or advance a movement’s devotion to, and readiness for, further struggle?

Sadly, the political balance sheet in Northern Ireland is clear, and the negative impact of a “treacherous compromise” with imperialism is being felt within the entire republican community.

The (Bad) Good Friday Agreement

In suspending its armed struggle, the leadership of the republican movement acted in a responsible manner. The limited effectiveness of the IRA’s campaign had played itself out.

This correct decision, however, was communicated to the larger republican community in a politically demoralizing and demobilizing fashion — a defeat was presented as a victory.

As republicans scrambled to find an alternative to armed struggle, they shifted to the right and ignored the left. In situating themselves within a “Pan-Nationalist” front, republicans empowered Dublin’s ruling elites, northern constitutional nationalists (the Social Democratic and Labour Party) and Irish-American capital, all at the expense of their own movement.

One of the many problems with this “unarmed strategy” was that Sinn Féin’s new friends were not remotely interested in seeing the island reunited. Successive Dublin governments (whether they involve the Fianna Fail, Labour, or Fine Gael parties), John Hume’s SDLP, and the United States did not coalesce around the idea that Northern constitutional change was desirable or necessary. For them, and most importantly for the British, the Irish peace process was an opportunity to stabilize and strengthen the Northern Ireland state.

With Sinn Féin engaging in all sorts of ideological and political gymnastics to remain within the nationalist consensus, the British and Irish governments, after a long drawn out process, produced the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA).

The GFA is a brilliant legal document — it is all things to all people. In 30 short pages, it promises constitutional and community change at the same time that it ensures that no constitutional or community change takes place.

Operating on three levels, the Irish peace agreement attempts to settle constitutional issues between the British and Irish governments; it guarantees equality of opportunity among the people of the North; and it establishes agreed upon security arrangements.
The most important constitutional provision in the GFA is the acceptance of the unionist veto over Irish unification. Against the republican movement’s long held arguments regarding national self-determination (i.e. the entire island North and South must decide together), both governments affirmed that constitutional change in the North will only come about through the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.

In short, the GFA established as a principle of British and Irish law that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom as long as the unionists desire it.
Additionally, the republican movement also agreed to enter into a devolved parliament. The makeup of this local Stormont Assembly, which strengthens the legitimacy of partition, is supposed to reflect both proportional party strength and cross-community support.

By accepting this provision, the republican movement agreed to administer a state they had spent thirty years trying to demolish.

Stepping Stone?

In selling the agreement to its supporters, Sinn Féin pointed toward what they saw as “stepping stone” measures to Irish unity embedded within the agreement. These included a toothless North-South Ministerial Council (cross-border cooperative institutions) and ambiguous British-Irish Arrangements (intended to further relationships among peoples of the islands).

For the Adams leadership, these elements of the GFA gave an institutional expression, and a starting point, to the nationalist aspiration of Irish unity.

The GFA further specified rights and safeguards intended to respect the identity, and the parity of esteem, of both the nationalist and unionist communities, as well as outlining the way forward for policing, prisoner release and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.

When put to a vote in parallel (but different) referenda, the GFA was endorsed overwhelmingly by the populations of the North (71%) and the South (94%). The support of the GFA indicates that both the nationalist and unionist communities of the North were tired of violence. Sinn Féin did not ignore this fact, and negotiated an agreement they described as being “transitional.”

Again, the issue is not compromise, but the content of a specific compromise on the liberation movement’s future struggle. It did not matter that Gerry Adams could not tell his supporters how and in what ways the agreement was transitional. What did matter was that the republican leadership demoralized its own supporters by proclaiming the GFA an advance — that the agreement itself represents a republican victory.

Everyone knows this is not the case, as republicans were offered similar (maybe better) deals in 1973 (the Sunningdale Agreement) and in 1985 (the Anglo-Irish Agreement). In accepting the agreement, republicans like Brendan Hughes, a former IRA commander and 1980 hunger-striker, were forced to ponder a difficult question: “Does thirty years of struggle boil down to a big room at Stormont, ministerial cars, dark suits and the implementation of the British Patten Report [the GFA reform of the Northern Ireland police force]?”

The Contours of Defeat

By embracing the GFA, Irish republicans won little and lost a lot. Rather than continuing the struggle by other means, Sinn Féin ended the republican struggle, and restyled itself to be a player in local, go-nowhere reformist politics. It is important to be clear about the scope of the defeat.

Irish socialist John McAnulty has described the peace process as a major imperialist offensive, and he is correct. The GFA not only reestablished British rule, partition, and the unionist veto on the island, it derailed and de-radicalized the liberation struggle. And adding insult to injury, the Irish government formally abandoned its constitutional claim to the North.

Caught between dubious British declarations that it had no “colonial interests” in Ireland and their own concrete failure to forge a mass all-Ireland independence movement, republicans seized the GFA as the only game in town, hitching their entire political project to its successful implementation.

In so doing, Sinn Féin wrecked republicanism as an ideology and as a movement for generations to come.

First, as a price for sitting at the peace table, republicans were required to repudiate their own analysis and political principles. For decades, republicans maintained that Britain’s partition of Ireland denied the Irish people their right of self-determination. Now, as enshrined by the GFA, Sinn Féin agrees that the unionist community in the North is the sole impediment to Irish unity.

In accepting that Britain is a neutral party to the conflict, republicans have absolved the British of any role in creating and maintaining communal divisions, and they now agree that Britain has no political, economic, or strategic interests in the island.

Yet British rule and control still persists in the North. The fact that Britain has suspended the Stormont Assembly four times, that it has postponed local elections, that it maintains an armed force in the Six counties, and that it continues to patrol nationalist areas makes this fact obvious.

Divorced of its anti-imperialist and socialist content, republicanism now is nothing more than polite nationalism.

Secondly, since Northern Ireland was established as “a Protestant state for a Protestant people,” Irish republicans always maintained that the state could not be reformed. Since the GFA does not change the parameters of the state, its political makeup in no way changes either.

As such, the devolved political power promised by the agreement will remain in the hands of the pro-British unionist majority. In another shift from its long held assumptions and ideals, Irish republicans will now help staff a state that they once declared as being beyond reform, ending principled opposition to the Northern state.

Finally, because of the horse-trading and carrot-stick logic of the peace process itself, the republican movement has been steadily pacified and tamed. Sinn Féin’s partners in the process (the British, Irish, American governments, as well as the unionists) have engaged in a “salami” approach to the republican movement, taking it apart one thin slice at a time.

Politically, this could be seen very early on when Dublin forced Sinn Féin to back off from promised street protests to move negotiations forward. Similarly, access to the White House, fundraising in the United States, and promises of American investment into nationalist areas were all premised on republicans behaving themselves.

Even the act of sitting down and talking about peace turned on republicans signing on to the Mitchell principles of non-violence. Needless to say, questions concerning Britain’s commitment to peaceful means were not even posed.

Militarily, the story is the same. In order for Sinn Féin to sit at the peace table, the IRA has been pushed and pulled in all sorts of directions. It has had to silence its guns, declare that its war is over, and then decommission its weapons (which it has done on three separate occasions).

Of course, none of this is enough for the Ian Paisley-led Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who refuse to enter into the Stormont Assembly with Sinn Féin until the IRA disbands.

Both ideologically and organizationally, the GFA has hollowed out the culture of resistance that once defined republican communities. The republican movement’s political principles and organizational autonomy have been traded away for political inclusion. In order to secure their real and imagined gains, Sinn Féin now must defend and operate within the Northern state.

Politics of Defeat

For the last few years, Sinn Féin has taken to the job of administering and stabilizing the six counties with great enthusiasm.  In declaring that the full implementation of the GFA represents “a full and final closure of the conflict,” the republican movement has descended into sectarianism, gangsterism, and neoliberalism.

Apart from the retail sectarianism (communal violence and religious discrimination) that still defines life in the North, the GFA has unleashed a new form of wholesale sectarianism, in which communal blocks are encouraged to compete for economic resources and political advantage.

Because members of the Stormont Assembly must declare themselves as unionists, nationalists or “other,” the new politics of the old colony is one of a sectarian tug of war.  Political success on issues such as policing, housing, education, nominations to all-Ireland bodies, human rights and unemployment turns on which community is more “tribally assertive.”

This struggle for sectarian privilege has resulted in two developments.  First, the GFA is nothing but crisis prone; its entire existence is one of staggering from one crisis to another.  In formalizing the unionist refusal to share power with nationalists, politics within the GFA framework is nothing more than an exercise in crisis management — community grievance, government response, unionist demand, republican concession.

Second, because the GFA enshrines sectarianism, the electoral landscape has changed in that direction as well. Sinn Féin and the bigoted DUP — the extremes of the pro and anti-agreement parties — have won ground vis-à-vis the SDLP and David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party. In surpassing the tired SDLP, Sinn Féin is now the main nationalist party in the North (it also has made great strides in the South).

Of course, this new found electoral success of both republicans and the DUP guarantees a future of sectarian, status quo politics. Rather than being a force working against sectarianism, republicans appear to have adopted it as a legitimate avenue for political advancement.

Furthermore, in accepting the GFA, Sinn Féin has taken a page out of the Yassir Arafat playbook — they have been more than willing to politically police their own community. The Adams-led republican leadership has denounced, beaten up, shot, killed and disappeared republicans who disagree with them. It is obvious that Sinn Féin is committed to defending and normalizing Britain’s occupation by violent means.

Sinn Féin’s political police have been so active and successful that on May 31, a group of more than 20 republicans published a letter in the Irish News protesting against what they called the “tyranny in our midst.” This tyranny has taken the form of intimidation of republican peace-process critics and violence against dissident republicans associated with armed splinter groups (e.g. the tiny Real and Continuity Irish Republican Armies).
If sectarianism and gangsterism were not enough, the former socialists in Sinn Féin have shown — as member Gerry O’Hara recently declared — that they “have no problem with capitalism.”

In dismissing what he once believed about capitalism, Gerry Adams has done his bit to celebrate neoliberal globalization, including ringing the New York Stock Exchange’s opening bell, rubbing noses with the elite at the World Economic Forum, and accepting Coca Cola party contributions.

Within Stormont itself, Sinn Féin’s ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún, have followed Adams’ example and pushed a neoliberal agenda. Like the other governing parties, socialist Sinn Féin accepts the private financing of public services; allows hospitals to be closed; safeguards handouts to multinational corporations; celebrates the privatization of education; and lobbies Westminster to lower corporate tax rates.

Given this record, Catholic and Protestant working-class communities might consider themselves lucky that the Stormont Assembly has been suspended so often.

While Adams still maintains that Sinn Féin is “a party of the broad left,” it acts and talks like a party of the broad right.

Alternatives to Defeat?

Sinn Féin’s participation in the peace process ended with an imperialist victory for Britain. The Good Friday Agreement broke the dynamic of the republican movement; it concluded the republican struggle.

The GFA, despite all its empty promises and all its international support, has resolved nothing in Northern Ireland. By refashioning Britain’s partition and unionist domination, the GFA actually brings us back to the starting point of the Troubles — the primacy of British rule and a Northern state that cannot be reformed —  and with its British connection intact, the unionist factions can afford to remain inflexible.

Through Sinn Féin’s political capitulation, Britain finally broke the republican community’s anti-imperialist struggle. Thankfully, though small in number, there are others in Northern Ireland who refuse to compromise with imperialism, and this lot will not make the mistakes of the past.

First off, the GFA debacle makes clear that forging links with reactionary elements on the island (or outside it) is a recipe for disaster.  And secondly, the military elitism of small armed groups, such as the Continuity and Real IRAs, leads nowhere. The disastrous August 1999 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 civilians, ended any hopes of a renewed armed struggle.

Instead Irish republicans need to reconsider why there have been five military campaigns to achieve independence in the twentieth century, and all five of these have failed.

The way forward for Irish republicanism is to be found in forging a mass movement that speaks to the interests of Protestants and Catholics, Northerners and Southerners, unionists and nationalists. Because British imperialism has deeply divided the people of the island, only an all-Ireland socialist agenda could possibly unite them.

In order to build a broad, unified and militant left force, Irish republicans must make political alliances and regroup with progressive elements in both the workers’ movement and the revolutionary left. While this will be a long, difficult process, there are signs that the political landscape is shifting in a positive direction.

For example, around and within publications like Fourthwrite, The Blanket, and Forum Magazine, Irish republicans are rethinking and redefining what republicanism means for the 21st century. Refusing to fetishize the tactic of armed struggle, these republicans want to stress the ideology’s socialist roots, and its commitment to justice, democracy and equality.

At the same time that republicans are critically assessing their own history, there has been an interesting development within the Irish workers movement. Tired of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ collaboration with capital, a new Independent Workers Union (IWU) has been formed that promises to stand in opposition to the trade union bureaucracy and government dictates.  While it is difficult to determine where the IWU will end up, its emergence is important and worth watching.

Finally, although it has been difficult to achieve unity on the Irish left, there have been discussions toward that objective. Socialist Democracy, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Socialist Party, if at all possible, must find common ground and produce a programmatic and strategic alternative to the failed GFA.

Bernadette McAliskey, the heart and soul of Irish republicanism, sums it up, “When I steady myself and regroup this time, I’m regrouping with the socialist left. I have had it with you armed social democrats and would-be radical nationalists.”

The political alternative is clear. Gerry Adams was correct when he used to argue that you could not build socialism in a colony. And it is the responsibility of republicans, workers and revolutionary socialists, together, to rebuild a mass anti-imperialist movement.

ATC 113, November-December 2004