Ireland's Peace Agreement

FRFI 143 June / July 1998

On 22 May, in referendums in the north and south of Ireland, the majority of voters supported the so-called Peace Agreement reached by all parties in Stormont on 10 April. In the Six Counties, in a turnout of 81%, over 71% voted for the Agreement. It is estimated that over 90% of nationalists voted yes. The fact that such an overwhelming number of nationalists supported the Agreement, which legitimises the Partition of Ireland, reflects the crisis which has faced the Republican Movement since the defeat of the hunger strike in 1981. Over the last 17 years, there has been no progress towards self-determination, no real prospect of British withdrawal, nor an end to discrimination and economic deprivation for the nationalist working class. On the contrary, the promise of constitutional settlement has been substituted for any anti-imperialist perspective, and in these circumstances that the nationalist working class voted yes is no surprise.

The Peace Agreement sets up a Northern Ireland Assembly which will have full legislative and executive powers and will be elected by proportional representation. It enshrines the Unionist veto over the future of the Six Counties, stating: 'the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people'. The three strands of government - the Assembly, the north-south Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council - consolidate and strengthen British imperialism's control over the whole of Ireland. 

The causes of conflict

Nothing in the Agreement tackles the underlying causes of the conflict - the sectarianism, discrimination and economic deprivation faced by the working class in the north. Even during the 'halcyon days' of the ceasefire Loyalist and British Army repression in working class districts has been the order of the day. For example:

  • Loyalists fire-bombed a Catholic home in Larne, part of an ongoing campaign to drive Catholic families out of the area.
  • In Belfast a loyalist mob attacked Nationalists on the Crumlin Road with bricks and missiles, leaving a 12-year-old child with a fractured skull.
  • In Lurgan, the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) has continually harassed nationalist youth. The father of Kevin Scullion, who has been attacked repeatedly by the RIR, said 'the RIR is out of control. Every time they come on to the Kilwilke Estate, six landrovers at a time, people are assaulted, physically and verbally.'
  • Before the referendum, two nationalists were murdered by loyalist terror gangs: Adrian Lamph was shot as he worked in a council yard in the loyalist heartland of Portadown; Ciaran Heffron, a student, was murdered as he walked home from the pub. Loyalists also set off a no-warning bomb outside a pub in Armagh City on 25 April.
  • In the Newington area of North Belfast, nationalist families have been under nightly attack from loyalists hurling bricks and bottles at the homes. The RUC has shown no interest in the situation, in contrast to its continuing attempts to recruit informers.
  • Complaints against the RUC have risen 22% over the past year, but of 1,161 complaints received by the Independent Commission on Police Complaints, only seven have led to formal disciplinary proceedings.

Unemployment rates for nationalist working class areas of the Six Counties are close to double those of loyalist areas. Job discrimination continues: a survey carried out by Sinn Fein showed that in Belfast, with a Catholic population approaching 45%, the City Council's craft grades are made up of just 16% Catholics, and the manual grades 34.7%.

The Peace Agreement cannot lay the basis for tackling these problems because it reinforces the cause of the problems - the sectarian statelet of Northern Ireland.


Concessions to republicanism?

Much has been made of the 'concessions' to Sinn Fein included in the Agreement, namely the release of prisoners and the restructuring of the RUC. Both however are conditional. Only prisoners who are members of organisations that support the Agreement and keep the ceasefire will be released. They will be released individually and only on licence. Their continuing freedom will depend not only on their own conduct but also the conduct of their organisation - if the ceasefire is breached they could return to gaol. Tony Blair made the British government position clear when he intervened to strengthen the position of David Trimble (Ulster Unionist Party) on the eve of a crucial meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council: 'There is no question of any remission or early release unless the organisation and the individuals themselves have given up violence and are safe to be let out into the community.' The British clearly hope that the ex-prisoners will form a conservative bloc within the Republican Movement.

The RUC will be looked at by an 'independent commission' headed by Chris Patten, former Thatcherite Tory Minister and Governor of Hong Kong. Blair has also set out the terms: the RUC will not be disbanded and its officers will be treated with 'respect, dignity and generosity.' 

A step forward?

Sinn Fein has argued that the Agreement represents a step forward for nationalists: that they are in a transitional process which could, in the words of Gerry Adams: 'provide a pragmatic route to our ultimate goal'. However, in Martin McGuinness's report on the Agreement to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis, he acknowledged Sinn Fein's political weakness and put forward the leadership's strategy for building their political strength:

 'A united Ireland was not attainable in this phase, not just because of Unionist opposition, but because of all the participants only Sinn Fein was advocating and promoting that objective. To the extent that our political strength permitted us to promote all our positions, we did so. A stronger electoral mandate would conceivably have affected the outcome of the talks in any number of ways. We need to learn the lesson of that. We need to build on our electoral mandate to shape the many negotiations which challenge us in the future.' (our emphasis)

On this basis the Ard Fheis agreed to allow elected Sinn Fein members to take their seats in the new Assembly - a historic turnaround for a party which has always refused to take seats in Parliament or at Stormont. The leadership will now concentrate its efforts on winning votes and Assembly seats. Constitutional politics have become the only way forward for Sinn Fein. 

The reformist road

This position has not just appeared out of the blue. It is part of a process which began during the prisoners' courageous struggle in the 1970s. Political status was taken away from the prisoners by the Labour government in 1976. This criminalisation process was opposed and attacked by a mass campaign comprising the prisoners themselves, the IRA military campaign and large street protests and campaigns led by the prisoners' relatives formed in Relatives Action Committees.

Their campaign was for political status - recognition that they were prisoners of war, not criminals. The intensity of the campaign, the courage of the prisoners, and the mobilisation of the republican working class did not just frighten the British - sections of the Sinn Fein leadership were intent on ensuring that they did not lose control. In much the same way that the exiled ANC leadership in South Africa wrested control from leading militants who had led the movement internally, the Sinn Fein leadership took control of the prisoners' campaign, diverted it away from the political status demand and from confrontation, towards a set of five humanitarian demands which would not offend the middle class. As Gerry Adams said at the time: 'for those who are unable to support the armed struggle in the north, there is nothing in the demands put forward by the committee [National Smash H-Block Campaign] which cannot be supported on humanitarian grounds.'

Throughout the hunger strikes of 1980/81 Sinn Fein concentrated more and more on building alliances with the middle class, attempting to force the SDLP and Fianna Fail to support the hunger strikers and thereby pressurise the British government. This was the beginning of the Pan-Nationalist Front strategy. The real route to pressurising the British - a militant working class movement - was sidelined. The denouement came with the death of Bobby Sands. With the explosion of anger sweeping Ireland, north and south, the working class youth of Dublin took to the streets with stones and petrol bombs and the slogan 'Gardai-RUC'. The National H-Block Committee condemned them as 'small and unrepresentative elements'. Events in Dublin were cancelled in order to stop them disrupting the 'peaceful and dignified demonstrations'. A great opportunity to draw an important section of the Irish working class behind the prisoners and in support of the nationalist struggle was sabotaged. The hunger strike was doomed.

A month before his death, Bobby Sands was elected MP in a remarkable by-election victory demonstrating the support for the prisoners' struggle. Danny Morrison, at that time in the leadership of Sinn Fein, and who coined the phrase 'ballot box and armalite strategy', wrote in The Guardian on 11 May 1998:

 'Until that point it was impossible to envisage a set of circumstances which would allow a military-oriented movement to make a smooth transition into politics without splitting and feuding.'

Analysing the 'ballot box and armalite strategy' in 1983 in our book Ireland - the key to the British revolution we stated:
 'The unprecedented electoral successes of Sinn Fein have inevitably generated pressure from bourgeois nationalist and opportunist forces aimed at undermining the revolutionary nationalist strategy of the Republican MovementÉthis pressure has revealed differences of view on the way forward within the Republican Movement.'

The acceptance of the Peace Agreement and Sinn Fein's overt reformist strategy represent, for the time being, the resolution of these differences in favour of the middle class, and to the benefit of British imperialism. It has long been the avowed aim of British imperialism to divide the Republican Movement, isolating the revolutionaries and drawing a section into constitutional politics.

The future

In a statement following the ceasefire of August 1994 we wrote in FRFI:
 'The struggle is not over. The economic, political and social problems which keep forcing the national struggle onto the political agenda still remain. The Six Counties is a sectarian statelet. British imperialism has not left Ireland. The political prisoners are still in gaol. The nationalist working class faces massive economic deprivation and discrimination, with unemployment levels more than twice those of the loyalist working class. Should the Sinn Fein leadership be drawn into any proposed 'New Ireland' administration, in the Six Counties or 26 Counties, and have conferred upon it the status of privileged bourgeois parliamentarians, it will find itself in conflict with the nationalist working class - those people of no property who have always been the bedrock of the anti-imperialist struggle.' (FRFI 121 Oct/ Nov 1994)

The Peace Agreement will be judged by the nationalist working class on what happens on their estates and in their communities. There is nothing to indicate that their daily lives will change. As communists we recognise that the root cause of their problems is the sectarian Six County statelet, and its occupation by the British Army. The reformist settlement will not change this, and so the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle will have to be rebuilt.

It must now be clear that the strategy of 'ballot box and armalite', leads inevitably to the ballot box alone and to compromise with British imperialism. Only the leadership of the nationalist working class can ensure that the movement of the future is grounded not in these phoney counter strategies and slogans, but in the pursuit of independent working class interests, using whatever means they deem necessary. This does not boil down to a simple continuation of armed struggle. The future movement must be built on the political lessons of Sinn Fein's failure.

Our task is, as it has always been, to support the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland. In doing so we recognise that most of the British left has repeatedly failed the Irish movement in a most cowardly fashion, refusing to confront British imperialism's brutal role, and repeatedly covering up for the Labour Party's vile treachery. The RCG is committed to support for the anti-imperialist movement, opposition to British imperialism, and the defeat of Labour's opportunism.

Bob Shepherd


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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