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Peter Hadden

On the edge of the abyss

(July 1996)

From Militant Labour, July–August 1996.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

A single week of turmoil has left the peace process in tatters. Bad enough was the Drumcree stand-off and the road blocks, riots and intimidation that went with it. Far worse was the U-turn by the state and the brutal dispersal of Garvaghy Road residents which followed.

A week which began with riots, petrol bombs and barricades in Protestant areas, ended with even more ferocious rioting in Catholic areas. The RUC’s response, firing over 6,000 plastic bullets and the crushing of one rioter to death, has left Catholics with a sense of anger, betrayal and a feeling of alienation as deep as at any time during the Troubles.

Even middle class Catholics, who had been prepared to settle for equality within a reformed state, have drawn the conclusion that nothing much has changed since the old days of Unionist rule – and nothing much is likely to change.

Protestants too feel deeply uneasy about what is taking place. For them the 1,000 plastic bullets fired in their direction is an indication of the joint role of the British and class Irish government in politics seeking to diminish their rights. Even many of those who do not sympathise with the Orange Order now see the demands for rerouting as the thin edge of an attack on Protestant traditions and culture. The bombing of the Killyhelvin Hotel in Enniskillen, no matter who was responsible, will have greatly added to the fear and uncertainty felt in Protestant areas. Any resumption of IRA activity in the North is now certain to produce an immediate backlash.

Overall in both communities there is now a feeling of deep disappointment and a grave concern as to what is to come. The hopes of working people, Catholic and Protestant, that there would be a future different from the troubled past have been buried. What had appeared to be a drawn out end to the Troubles, now threatens to be an explosive beginning to something far worse.

Memories of 1969

The sight of thousands of young people in the Bogside, masked and hurling petrol bombs at the RUC, inevitably conjures up memories of 1969 and the events which marked the real beginnings of the Troubles.

There are parallels but there are also differences – differences which make the present situation much more ominous. 1968–69 came after a long period of relative stability during which the two communities had tended to integrate. The labour movement was a powerful force in holding back sectarianism in the workplaces and in the communities. And the Catholic youth, as they moved into struggle, were turning away from old nationalist ideas and groping towards the ideas of socialism and of united struggle with Protestant workers.

Present events come after 25 years of upheaval. The communities are much more polarised, the labour movement is weaker and the points of common ground are harder to find. In 1969 there were few weapons at hand. Now there are heavily armed paramilitary organisations with hard-liners on both sides pushing for a resumption of activities in Northern Ireland.

Even if things should die down for a period, the marching season is still with us. It was the 12 August Apprentice Boys parade in Derry which really ignited the situation in 1969. It could do the same this year.

Given what happened at Portadown there is no way that Derry’s Catholics will accept that this parade marches along the walls overlooking the Bogside as it did last year. On the other hand were the parade to be banned from going over the Craigavon Bridge to the city centre as is now being demanded by nationalist leaders, the reaction off Protestants is likely to be even more ferocious than over Drumcree.

How is it that the hopes of the past two years have ended in violence and sectarian division? The IRA and loyalist ceasefires were, in large measure, brought about by a determined movement of working class people, Catholic and Protestant, who answered paramilitary atrocities by coming onto the streets saying “enough is enough”.

This created a rare opportunity to make progress towards a solution. The opportunity was squandered by the government and by the local sectarian political parties. Instead of seizing the chance for talks, the government created all sorts of obstacles and pre-conditions.

Eighteen months later came the IRA bombing of Canary Wharf and the end of the ceasefire. Again the response of the working class was to pour onto the streets in massive and united demonstrations demanding “no going back” to the violence. This pressure caused the militarists on both sides to stay their hands and created a breathing space. The government and politicians had wasted the first opportunity for peace. The mass demonstrations after Canary Wharf gave them a second chance.

There followed the 30 May elections and the promise that there would be all party talks on 10 June. The 15.5% vote for Sinn Fein showed that the mood of the Catholic community was to endorse Sinn Fein’s right to be present. Yet when 10 June came the exclusion of Sinn Fein meant the all-party talks became instead the “multi” party talks.

The first month of the talks, only confirmed that the major parties present have neither the ability to, nor any real interest in, bringing about a solution. The interminable wrangling about procedures would be comical were it not for the fact that the fate of half million people is supposed to depend on the outcome of this farce.

Rather than offer any hope of concession the stand of the main Unionist parties has been completely belligerent and intransigent. Within the Ulster Unionist Party there has been a shift to the right orchestrated by the hard-line Craigavon Society and these around it. The results which were publicly visible over Drumcree have been the hallmark of Paisley and McCartney in particular but also of the Ulster Unionists in the Talks.

How could anyone have confidence in a peace process which has produced only stalemate when arguing about procedures all whose participants have been prepared to whip up sectarian reaction on the streets? Even if the talks do keep going what hope is there of any agreement when questions such as policing, North/South relations etc. come up.

In any case there will be no lasting solution unless the underlying social and economic problems are resolved. The one thing which was common in the separate rioting in Protestant and Catholic areas at the time of Drumcree was that in both cases it was the working class areas which erupted.

Two years ago there were huge expectations of the promised peace dividend. This idea has now no credibility in working class areas. Rather there has been more of a “peace deficit” as the Tories have used the period of the ceasefires to attempt to claw back on public spending and to go further with the privatisation of health and other social services.

A system which cannot provide decent jobs and which is based on poverty and exploitation cannot offer any hope of stability. If the discontent simmering in working class areas cannot find a united class expression, it will always be liable to take a sectarian form. The anger on both sides over Drumcree was also anger at the lack of jobs and lack of any hope for a decent future for working class youth whether Catholic or Protestant.

A stark choice now exists. Either there will be a real peace process based on the united interests of working class people or else there will be a renewal of violence, possibly even a slide to civil war. In the long run the choice will become increasingly simple, either the emergence of a united working class movement which offers a socialist alternative to sectarianism or civil war.

Even now there are voices raised on both sides who see civil war as a necessary evil in order to sort things out. This is a dangerous and completely false argument. In fact a civil war would resolve nothing but would lead to a form of repartition, population displacement and store-up new grievances ready to explode in the future. The examples of Lebanon and Bosnia should be enough to explode any idea that civil wars result in neat cut and dried solutions.

What is now urgently needed in the peace process is a new voice, the united voice of the working class challenging the established politicians and campaigning for a decent society. The victory of the Labour Coalition in winning two places at the talks table has been a significant first step, but only a first step, in building this working class alternative.

For the peace process to be put back on the tracks at all certain immediate steps need to be taken. The remaining obstacles to all-party talks must be lifted. This means that Sinn Fein must be allowed to the table on the basis of their vote.

The immediate restoration of the IRA ceasefire must also be demanded. If the IRA do not intend to restart their campaign proper, they should end the suspense caused by their current strategy and reinstate the ceasefire. If their intent is go back to war they do so in the knowledge that they will provoke a fierce sectarian reaction, possibly tip the scales to civil war and must accept the responsibility.

Any IRA resumption, or any breakdown, of the loyalist ceasefires, must be met with massive demonstrations, even greater than after Canary Wharf. The idea of a general strike, which was raised at that time should be immediately put back on the agenda.

Presently the initiative is firmly with the sectarian organisations. All now depends on whether the working class can regain and retain the initiative. At this year’s NIPSA union conference a call for a body bringing together community organisations and trade unions to give the groups a voice in the peace process was passed.

Parallel Forum

This proposal needs to be implemented immediately. Such a parallel forum could involve the Labour Coalition, the Women’s Coalition and possibly some of the other smaller parties alongside the unions and community organisations. It could demonstrate that working class people are able to negotiate and make reasonable decisions on delicate issues such as parades, policing etc. while the politicians are not.

It could also be used to mobilise opposition to sectarianism on the ground, particularly to help communities organise defence of their areas from sectarian attack and to make sure there is no intimidation of any people living within their area.

An either or situation has opened up. Hopefully, there will be a drawing back from the brink as has happened in the past. If there is, the key lesson must be acted upon this time. It is no good leaving things in the hands of the Tory government and the politicians.

A united working class movement must be built. It must be built in the workplaces, the communities and it must offer a political challenge to the right wing and sectarian parties.

To succeed it must be based on a recognition that there can be no solution on the basis of the present economic system and that the real answer is working class unity in the struggle for a socialist solution.

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Last updated: 30 August 2016