There was always a fragility about the ceasefire. The breaking point came with the Canary Wharf bombing. As everyone knows John Major’s seeming rejection of the Mitchell Report’s main recommendations and adoption of what is perceived to be the Official Unionist Party’s policy of elections to a negotiating body, triggered the bombing. That may have been the final straw. But behind that the contradictions had begun to sharpen.
The ceasefire was sold to the Republican rank and file on what some of us recognised at the time as an unrealistic basis: that the pan-nationalist alliance with the SDLP, Dublin and the Irish-American lobby would provide speedier progress towards a united Ireland than the armed struggle.
Of course the Protestant ceasefire was sold to the paramilitaries on the basis that the Union was safe. So the reasons for the two sides’ ceasefires were obviously contradictory.
Add to this the fact that over the last 18 months there has been footdragging and bad faith on the British side.
Major — right up until the ceasefire began — had refused to believe Albert Reynolds’ assurances that there would actually be a ceasefire. And when it took place he regarded it as a sign of weakness.
So, there were a series of misunderstandings and contradictions underlying the ceasefire.
Northern Irish politics are constructed around communal identity. But from my point of view, as a socialist, this is something I fight against. I deny, absolutely, that this is the only way of understanding Northern Irish politics. The peace process was always inherently sectarian. It is based on the assumption that the only possible way that people can identify themselves is by reference to the religious community that they were born into. That is precisely the type of politics that socialists should be concerned to fight against.
To be specific: one of the suggestions in the Framework Document is that an all-Ireland body might begin to run the health service north and south of the border. The peace process argument is that this will signify some sort of move towards a united Ireland.
However left entirely out of the account is that the nurses in the South voted overwhelmingly last week for strike action — for the first time in their history. There has been a wave of strike action in the Southern health service and massive popular resistance to the closure of hospital units.
Simultaneously, the television news in Northern Ireland is reporting the great anger that has followed the announcement of hospital cuts. This reporting has overshadowed the peace process.
The argument about whether the health service should be run on an all-Ireland or partition basis is meaningless from a working-class point of view, unless the content of the health care is discussed.
It is just not true that everyone sees themselves as either Protestant or Catholic. The political history of Ireland shows this is not true. The Unionist party was not the main party for many years in Belfast. A lot of people who discuss the issues now seem to believe that the fringe parties like the PUP are a new phenomenon. Anything but. The Shankill Road has never, ever, been a stronghold of official, mainstream Unionism. The people there voted — in the 1930s for instance — for people who, by contemporary standards, could be considered radical or left wing. So there are not just two traditions in Northern Ireland.
Nevertheless, if parties like the PUP are serious about fighting for workers’ interests, even just Protestant workers’ interests — and I have yet to be convinced that they are — they must break away from the all-class Orange political bloc which has dominated the Protestant workers for 100 years. And they can not do that if they collude with Trimble and Paisley in denying their Catholic neighbours the right to express their identity.
It is true there are differences between the people. But we must recognise the rights of the nationalist people. The people who must be the arbiters about what is an adequate representation of the nationalist identity are the nationalist people themselves. Therefore, there must be a united Ireland.
Eamonn McCann, a journalist, is a long-time socialist activist. He is affiliated with the Socialist Workers’ Movement, sister group of the British SWP.