Northern Ireland: a hidden history of class politics

Submitted by Matthew on 21 December, 2009 - 5:14 Author: Henry Patterson

The end of the ceasefire was brought about by a shift in the balance of forces inside the Republican movement against the Adams leadership. That change has been coming during the past few months because of the lack of progress towards all-party talks.

There was always a section of the Republican movement who were not keen on the new direction in which Adams is leading them, and who do not really believe that their objectives can be won in this way.

Nevertheless the opponents of Adams’s policy shift had to accept that by the end of the 1980s their strategy had run up against a brick wall. The IRA had not been defeated, but neither had the British, nor were there any signs that the British could be forced to leave.

Sinn Fein had become a relatively successful political force in the North, but there they were not dominant, and they had not made inroads in the South.

The Republican movement had reached the limits of its strategy.

So inside the movement the Adams group managed to persuade people to try a new policy: shelving the military campaign in return for political support from Dublin and Washington. Those who were sceptical were at least persuaded to tolerate it. For example, I do not think that Martin McGuinness has ever really believed that the Adams strategy would work, but he was prepared to see it tested.

One of the problems has been that Adams oversold what could be expected from the British. His group encouraged the belief that all-party talks would be arranged quickly. But I do not believe that there actually ever was a deal with the British to get into talks within three months, which is the period Adams has mentioned.

And the British government have not helped. There were areas that the British could have moved on relatively easily — for example, on the question of the prisoners. But they did not.

On other issues the British government were always going to have difficulties. The fundamental constitutional reforms the Republicans want are going to be very hard to arrange.

It is also going to be hard for the British to fix all-party talks. I do not know if Adams ever really believed that the British would act in this way. But he at least hoped they would, and led others to expect they would.

I think that Adams had become persuaded that the Anglo-Irish Agreement indicated that some sort of accommodation might be reached with a section of the British political elite for a gradual process of extrication. In other words Adams now accepts that the British are not going to say that they will leave in five or ten years. However he believes that it is possible to create “interim structures” which will amount in effect to joint British-Southern authority over the North leading up to British withdrawal in — perhaps — two decades time.

That was the new strategy. It is a move away from the idea that the British can be forced out, and it represents a recognition by Adams’s group that Britain has no real interest in being in Northern Ireland. That is why the parts of the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document which say that Britain has no selfish economic or strategic interests in the North were so important for the Republican movement.

One of the ideas behind the Anglo-Irish Agreement was that the conflict could best be “managed” at an inter-governmental level, rather than trying to get the local politicians to agree. However the present process — if it has not totally fallen apart — does involve giving a bigger role to internal political forces. The Framework Document envisaged quite developed political structures in Northern Ireland. The idea here is to make agreement easier for the main Unionist parties.

Adams believes that the Protestants can not be forced into a united Ireland. On the other had both he and John Hume are looking to the British to pressurise and educate the Protestants.

At the core of Adams’s strategy is the idea that the British must take up this active role. And this itself is a major problem with the Adams strategy.

It is possible to imagine a bourgeois interim-solution: some sort of regional Á government in Northern Ireland based on power-sharing; North-South institutions as envisaged in the Framework Document. I would not have a problem with this if it could actually be made to work. However, my basic doubt about the feasibility of such an arrangement is that it is difficult to see the Unionists accepting any solution with a strong North-South dimension.

Over the past decade the rift between communities has actually deepened. This makes the internal basis for this type of agreement very difficult to construct.

There is a hidden history of class politics in the north of Ireland manifested in both communities. It was embodied in the Northern Irish Labour Party (NILP) during the post-war period up until the early 1960s. That tradition was essentially destroyed by the Troubles.

Organisations like the PUP and the DUP look back to that type of politics, but they are different in important respects. In theory, if not in practice, the NILP tried to transcend the sectarian divide. But the PUP and DUP should really be seen as a reflection of class politics within the Protestant bloc. They do not really look to go beyond their community. They are strongly influenced by community politics, which almost necessarily in Northern Ireland means communal politics.

Nevertheless these organisations do at least talk a language of compromise and may be, for some people, a step away from sectarianism.

The emergence of the PUP comes — to some degree — from the crisis of the Workers’ Party. After the demise of the NILP the Workers’ Party represented the re-birth of social democratic politics, albeit on a largely Catholic basis. Since the Workers’ Party split across Ireland the Party in the North has lost influence and retreated into its traditional, most-easily mobilised, Catholic, old-Official heartlands.

The other half of the split, the Democratic Left, continues to have considerable support in the Irish Republic, but has failed to take off significantly in Northern Ireland.

So the non-sectarian alternatives in the North are currently weak — outside some very small socialist groups.

Henry Patterson is a professor of politics at the University of Ulster.

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