By Thomas Carolan
In mid-September, Protestants fought and shot at police — the renamed and reorganised RUC, the Police Service of Northern Ireland — for four successive nights, in the worst Northern Ireland violence for many years.
That Protestants are in the main disillusioned with the Good Friday Agreement and its aftermath is not news. The scale and seemingly organised nature of these clashes, and the involvement of the Orange Order in them, is.
The findings of a new report by Neil Jarman for the Institute for Conflict Research (March 2005), No Longer a Problem? Sectarian Violence in Northern Ireland, help explain the recent outbreaks: sectarianism is stronger and deeper in Northern Ireland now than it was before the IRA ceasefire of eleven years ago!
None of the high corrugated-iron walls built in Belfast to keep Protestant and Catholic communities apart have come down since 1994, and 17 new walls, or extensions, have been built. Attacks on “symbolic properties” (churches, chapels, Orange halls, Gaelic Athletic Association halls) have increased from 32 in 1994 to around 56 a year throughout 1998.
A survey of “sectarian incidents” from newspaper reports showed a slight drop in 2003 (the last year for which data had been collated), but a steady rise before then from 106 in 1999 (the first year of the survey) to 385 in 2002.
The number of people requesting rehousing because of sectarian intimidation rose from 2837 in 1991-4 to 4553 in 2000-2003.
Without the Good Friday Agreement, to be sure, communalism would probably not have withered and lessened. Under it the political life of Northern Ireland has been organised and structured around competition between the communities. Political representation has been defined and organised as communal, not political, representation. Electoral consent has been measured in terms of the percentage of each community, considered separately. In the periods when the Northern Ireland government structures have been working, everything they did was measured by which community benefited — and denounced as “sectarian” by the community which benefited less.
The principle of doubleness is at the heart of the “new” Northern Ireland. Two elections in one, one for each community. Two governments in one, with the communal representatives jockeying for position and advantage for “their own”. Effectively, two Northern Irelands, messily tied together and permanently rubbing against each other.
The Good Friday Agreement started with the existing communal relations, froze them, and consolidated them into a would-be “fair” set of intricate, bureaucratic, constitutional structures. That all that “on top” should translate into intensified sectarian conflict “at the bottom” will surprise only those who bought into the Blairite misrepresentation and hyping of the Agreement.
Moreover, consent and support for it was never equal, the same in both communities, or anything like it. Only the barest Protestant majority support for the Agreement ever existed, and even that soon ceased to exist.
That was masked, for a while, by the fact that a member of the Assembly, once elected, was irremovable until the next election. There was still an Agreement-supporting majority of Protestant representatives in the Assembly, long after Protestant opinion had shifted. But soon after the 1998 Northern Ireland elections, which produced a majority of both communities for the “new start”, the whole Good Friday operation rested on the fiction of a Protestant majority consent. It did not really exist.
After a while, the defections and realignments of Assembly representatives deprived the Agreement of even a formal Protestant majority in the Assembly.
In the last election, in November 2003, the Protestant electorate swung heavily behind those who were most critical of and hostile-seeming towards the Agreement. In parallel, the Catholic electorate, a big majority of whom supported the Agreement from the start, swung behind the most ruthlessly (albeit hypocritically) communal and sectarian organisation on their side, Sinn Fein/ IRA.
Why was there a shift from Protestant support for the Agreement? To placate Sinn Fein/IRA, London and Dublin bestowed all the big concessions, real and symbolic, on them.
Prisoners were released, and so on. Most important, perhaps, for the progressive Protestant alienation from the Agreement, was that Britain and Dublin tacitly accepted that the militarist “warlords” could continue to rule in the working-class ghettoes of Northern Ireland.
That applied to the militarists on both sides. But the IRA’s control in the Catholic ghettoes was, in extent and intensity, in a different league from its Protestant equivalent.
The truth here is that on the Catholic side Britain and Dublin relied on the Adams IRA to control and repress “rejectionist” Republican militarists who opposed both a cessation of the military campaign against Britain and the Protestant community and the Agreement. Any “political process” that gave Catholics equal weight would inevitably have antagonised many Protestant-Unionists. But that the IRA was still very much in business — that, as Gerry Adams famously reminded the British government, “they haven’t gone away, you know” — made the truth unmissable, that concessions were being won by the threat of the IRA potential for violence. That soured everything for most Protestants, even for people who accept the idea of sharing power equally with those who had been second-class citizens throughout the fifty years of Protestant-majority rule in Northern Ireland until March 1972.
The combination of IRA disarmament and “disbandment” with the biggest upsurge of Protestant street militancy for many years will certainly strengthen the two dissident IRAs, and help them recruit from the Provos, but will it alter the decision of the Provisional IRA to go out of existence?
Most likely no. In the era of the USA’s “war on terrorism”, the pressure on people who have depended heavily on American sympathy and Irish-American money to cease to be definable as “terrorists” in any sense is enormous. The IRA leadership will hold to its decision, though dissent by former Provisional IRA people will be strengthened.
The second question is whether Protestant disaffection will produce an effective “Protestant IRA”, systematically resisting British rule.
Writing in the Irish Tines on 19 September, Dr Graham Gudgin, an academic “special adviser” to the Trimble Unionists in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations compared the present situation in the Loyalist community to that of the Catholics in the sixties, out of which came the Provos’ long war. Though there may not be a continuous escalation of Loyalist riots, as there was of the Catholic demonstrations in the 60s., he says: “It is obvious that Unionist disaffection has been building for some time”, since the referendum on the Belfast Agreement.
“The riots were coordinated and widespread... The general feel was more of insurrection as in 1969 than of the ‘recreational’ rioting to which we have become accustomed”. He thinks conflict will continue.
“Violence from Loyalists will continue for the same reason as it has since the 1840s [when electoral reform had] made Irish nationalism a credible threat to Protestants’ position in the United Kingdom... It will get worse as the Catholic proportion of the Northern electorate creeps towards 50% in the coming decades.”
In fact, it would take something like a British attempt to force the Protestants into a united Ireland to create a Protestant IRA. Britain is committed to make that attempt if in the next decades demographic changes create a Northern Ireland majority for a united Ireland.
If and when it does happen, it will recreate in Northern Ireland, in a smaller arena, the Protestant minority/Catholic majority conflict which, on an all-Ireland scale, ultimately led to the existing Partition of 1921. The principle of self-determination under which Catholic nationalist Ireland justly claimed the right to secede from the old British-Irish United Kingdom also in principle justified a Protestant claim to separate treatment where they were the majority, and therefore, at least as a possibility, an agreed democratic partition of the country between Unionist and nationalist majority areas.
The 1921 partition, which is at the root of the interminable communal conflict in Northern Ireland, had nothing to do with such a democratic settlement. From the beginning it imprisoned, against their will, a one-in-three minority of Catholics. Those who did not want to be part of the Northern Ireland state were the majority in the bigger part of the land area of the state and in its second city, Derry. The result has been irrepressible sectarian and communal conflict.
There is no reason to think that a formal Catholic-nationalist majority in the Six Counties — they are now perhaps 45%, and increasing proportionately faster than the Protestants — will make the Northern Ireland Protestants willing to go into a united Ireland.
The only socialist policy for such a situation — the only “constitutional settlement” around which Catholic and Protestant workers could conceivably unite — is the one outlined in a 1913 resolution of the Bolshevik Party.
“In so far as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making and strife, it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government... the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privilege whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority. This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.”
Both the 1922 partition of Ireland, and the “consistent sectarianism” embodied in the Good Friday Agreement, fly in the face of such democracy.
The usually sensible Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole summed up the experience of the Good Friday Agreement thus (13 September):
“The conflict-resolution side of the agreement included a gamble that was worth trying but that has been lost. It built the internal architecture of Northern Ireland’s governance on a static notion of ‘two traditions’ which were to be appeased and given ‘parity of esteem’. The hope was that even though sectarianism was built in to the power-sharing system by the requirement for simultaneous majorities on the unionist and nationalist sides, the experience of working the new institutions would in fact diminish it.
“But there has been no momentum and the divisions have been formalised, entrenched and deepened.
“The governments can try to restart the process as if nothing had happened, giving us two more years of posturing in which all excitement about the agreement’s radical ideals is stripped away. Or they can acknowledge the futility of trying to build shared governance on mutual hatred and begin a new political process that puts sectarianism where it should be — not as a solution but as a problem.”