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Paisley says no, but what of the Left?

Declan O'Neill


For a few days the impossible seemed likely, as yet another “historic breakthrough” was promised.   The DUP and Sinn Fein in coalition, Ian  Paisley as First Minister, Martin McGuinness as his deputy, republicans in control of security and policing powers at a Stormont Assembly – the politics of Northern Ireland are unrecognisable from a decade ago. True some things don’t change; Ian Paisley has yet to say even “hello” to any of his Sinn Fein colleagues to be, and he is still demanding that the IRA surrender.  As he put it in his own inimitable way:

There's nothing wrong with asking a terrorist to surrender his weapon. And there's nothing wrong with asking a person who has been guilty of organising mass murder through the country, and trying to commit genocide of the whole Protestant population of the Border, to say 'Give it up'."

The IRA has stated publicly that it is prepared to give up all its weapons, but Paisley wants more.   His goal was, and remains, the public humiliation of the republican movement.   This the IRA could not accept.  The most likely outcome still remains some form of power sharing with an “Irish dimension”, probably after the next Westminster election when the DUP has reinforced its hold over the unionist vote..   There is no appetite in republican circles for a return to “armed struggle”, and no public support for it either, and even the most die-hard unionist accepts that a return to “majority rule” is a non-starter.  

How should the Left react to these developments?  Few will mourn the end of armed conflict – it was never likely to lead to what was once the republican movement’s avowed goal, a “32 county socialist republic”- and most would support any initiative which would signify a weakening of sectarianism.   But does the Good Friday agreement, either in the mark 2or 3 version, help or hinder the building of a socialist alternative?

As usual socialists are divided.  It may be a long time since argument on the far left focused on whether support for the IRA should be “unconditional” or “unconditional and critical”.  A few may continue to demand “Troops Out Now” – in Ireland that is , not Iraq, -  and some have joined with dissident republicans to denounce Sinn Fein’s “betrayal” of the struggle for an all Ireland republic.  But today, with honourable exceptions, the predominant sound is silence.  Respect, for example, will go into the next election with no policy on Ireland. Only one motion at its recent conference mentioned Ireland, in one on  democracy was the line “ for a united Ireland”.  As with so many other motions at conference there was no debate and the motion was remitted.   Coverage of the current talks in the left press has been minimal at best.

Yet Ireland does matter, not just because socialists as internationalists should support struggles against repression wherever they occur.  Socialists in England have a particular responsibility to oppose the policies and actions of successive British governments which have proved so disastrous for the people of Ireland.   It is also important that we learn from the lessons of history – the state certainly does.  Techniques developed in dealing with the “Paddies” were put to good effect in crushing the miners.  How often do we hear bourgeois journalists spout the nonsense that the British army is the best in the world at dealing with “civil  unrest” because of the “professional manner” it dealt with the situation in the six counties?   As if Bloody Sunday, the numerous deaths of innocent civilians at the hands of British soldiers, the  well-documented cases of military collusion with loyalist murder gangs,  and the torture of prisoners and internees  never happened.  

What of the current negotiations?  The reality is that they offer little to the working class in Northern Ireland.  As a recent report study by Save the Children and Queen's University Belfast illustrated, there are currently 32,000 children across Northern Ireland living in severe poverty - 8% of all youngsters. A summary of the report, published in the Guardian, states that these are children living in "unacceptable circumstances", deprived of many of life's necessities. It says: "One in five do not have fresh fruit or vegetables, and one in seven do not have three meals a day. These children do not have enough clothing or a warm, safe and healthy environment."  Forty per cent of these children live in households where the gas, electricity or telephones have been cut off.   Other studies suggest child poverty is even more widespread and entrenched.  For example, research for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister found that 38% of children across the region are living in low income households. The Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey for Northern Ireland found that 37.4% of children in low income households lack three or more basic necessities, such as adequate clothing - compared with 28% in Britain.

A DUP/Sinn Fein coalition will do nothing to eradicate this poverty.  In fact what the Good Friday agreement is about is managing sectarianism not challenging it.   Eamonn McCann puts the position succinctly.   “the whole purpose of the Agreement is to corral the working class into two separate camps, to pledge that neither side will be worse off than the other”.     Of course there are no easy solutions, but McCann is surely right to argue that only class politics can supply the answers needed.   With others he has helped form the Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA), a coalition of socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, women's rights campaigners, anti-capitalist and anti-war activists.  The SEA has made a beginning in offering a real alternative to working people in Northern Ireland.  They and other socialists, on both sides of the border, deserve our continuing support in their struggle against Green and Orange Tories.


December 2004

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