Northern Ireland: Labour can build common ground

Submitted by Matthew on 21 December, 2009 - 5:39 Author: Jim Kemmy

The ceasefire broke down because of a combination of factors. The IRA felt that they were getting nowhere with peaceful dialogue and they had to take up arms again, or in this case set off bombs. They felt that the Unionist parties had gone back into their bunkers, adopted a siege mentality of delaying and procrastinating, and also that the British government had not been as forthcoming as it should have been in entering talks with Sinn Fein. The background factor is that John Major was on a knife-edge in terms of his majority in the Commons, and he was trying to hold as much Unionist support as possible.

I don’t think setting off bombs in London, killing innocent men and women, is ever justified. It’s a form of intimidation. In a democracy you must accept frustrations. The labour and socialist movement has had to accept frustrations over decades, indeed over centuries, and time and again has had to come back after defeats and build up the movement again. The IRA doesn’t understand that democracy has drawbacks and frustrations as well as positive aspects.

We have to be optimistic and hopeful. There is enough room on the island of Ireland for the Unionist community and the nationalist community to live together. The answer to the problems in Northern Ireland will not be found in a triumph of one community over the other. It will be found in compromise — not in extreme Unionism or extreme nationalism, but in a middle way based on democracy and justice for the ordinary people, both Catholic and Protestant.

It will not be found in a military victory of one community over the other and the subjugation of one community over the other — that went on for too long. It would be a mistake to think that the bomb and the gun is the only way forward. In fact, a step back into sectarian civil war would be a disaster for all parts of Ireland and for Britain too.

At present we have too many inflexible attitudes on all sides. The Unionists must come forward out of their bunkers, into dialogue; they must get rid of the siege mentality. The British government must do all it can to encourage dialogue and communication between the two communities, and encourage compromise and agreement.

And we must let go as well. We must understand the Unionist position. They have been in Northern Ireland for 400 years, as long as the white man has been in America and twice as long as the white man has been in Australia. Whatever faults they have had in the past, whatever undemocratic attitudes they took up to the Catholics, we must go forward. We can learn from the past; we can’t live in the past. It is important for us to hold out the hand of friendship to the Unionists.

The Labour Party here is a non-sectarian party. It has an open approach to the Unionists in Northern Ireland. We have got to put forward a broad socialist, democratic position.

The trade union movement in Northern Ireland has been on the whole a good influence against sectarianism and violence. It hasn’t succeeding in eliminating it from the society up there, but there are strands in the labour movement in Northern Ireland which are progressive.

Unfortunately, when it comes to election times, too many workers, Unionist and nationalist, retreat into entrenched positions, voting extreme Unionist or extreme nationalist. That’s no good. What you have got to do is build a common ground, and the labour movement is ideally suited to do that. We haven’t done so in the past, but we must keep trying. Our movement is based on hope.

Jim Kemmy is a Limerick TD and Chair of the Irish Labour Party.

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