The trouble with Northern Ireland: part 2

Submitted by Janine on 14 May, 2005 - 11:36

Read part 1 here.


The entity designed for majority-Protestant self-rule was to have a new political mechanism transplanted into it.

A statelet designed to let Protestants rule was to be reformed in such a way as to abolish majority rule, and in its place put institutional power-sharing — guaranteed by law — between Catholic and Protestant parties.

But in the 33 years since, majority, Protestant, Home Rule was abolished, stable power-sharing has, again and again, proved an impossible task. The failure so far of the Good Friday Agreement is only the latest in a long list of failures.

The first attempt at power-sharing was agreed upon by Northern Irish political leaders and by London and Dublin in late 1973, at Sunningdale.

The “moderate” Protestant and Catholic politicians would share power; Britain would ensure that only power-sharing governments could rule Northern Ireland. There would be a Council of Ireland, loosely linking Dublin and Belfast.

Under British pressure for reform, the once-monolithic Ulster Unionist Party shattered into fragments. Some tried to do Britain’s bidding, others said they would die to defend Protestant majority rule. Large numbers of Protestant workers began to support Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. Paisley was a long-time and sometimes populist critic of the Unionist-Orange establishment.

An election, in which the pre-March 1972 Northern Irish Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, seemed to promise not to share power with Catholics, produced a power-sharing majority in a New Belfast Assembly.

A government was duly set up, with Faulkner as Prime Minister and SDLP leader Gerry Fitt as his deputy. This government would last five months.

Though a majority of Protestant Assembly members were Faulknerites and in favour of power-sharing, their electors considered them tricksters and turncoat traitors. In February 1974 the British General Election allowed outraged Protestants to express their feelings: of the then 12 Northern Irish seats at Westminster, 11 were won by opponents of power-sharing (the exception was the MP for West Belfast, Gerry Fitt).

The moral position of the Faulknerites was fatally undermined. An attempt to activate the clause in the Sunningdale Agreement stipulating that a Council of Ireland would be set up triggered an Orange General Strike. UDA coercion played an important part in getting it going, but then it gained its own momentum.

After nine days the government resigned. Power-sharing was dead.

Britain now decided to set up an elected Constitutional Assembly. The people of Northern Ireland were asked to choose representatives who would thrash out a constitution acceptable to both Protestants and Catholics.

The Faulkner Unionists were wiped out in the election. The Constitutional Assembly dragged on for a year — with the IRA on ceasefire for most of it — but agreement was not possible. The Orange politicians would not have powersharing and a Council of Ireland — not even voluntary as distinct from statutory powersharing. When the former Northern Ireland Home Secretary, William Craig, leader of a strong quasi-fascist movement, Vanguard, proposed voluntary power-sharing, his standing as a prominent Orange Unionist leader was destroyed.

Britain finally shut down the Constitutional Assembly. The next sustained attempt to set up power-sharing government would not come until the Good Friday Agreement 22 years later.


The Provisional IRA resumed its war. The British Labour government began to take back the de facto status as political prisoners which jailed IRA members had won in the early 70s. Refusing to wear prison uniform, IRA prisoners spent years naked except for blankets.

In 1981, 10 of them starved themselves to death seeking political prisoner status.

The tremendous Catholic support for the prisoners which the hunger strike generated led Sinn Fein to stand one of the hunger-strikers, Bobby Sands, for a Parliamentary seat in a by-election, which he won. The hunger striker, who went on fasting, died a member of the British Parliament.

From that experience grew the IRA-Sinn Fein policy of combining politics with war — the Armalite rifle in one hand and the ballot in the other, as they expressed it.

In November 1985 an Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed which gave Dublin a direct political say, though not Executive power, in the running of Northern Ireland. A sharp Protestant backlash failed to remove it.

During the long war, the IRA evolved politically. They became mildly left-wing. Slowly they moved away from some of the dogmas of physical-force-on-principle Republicanism.

When they decided in 1986 to take seats they might win in the Dublin Dail Eireann, the founding leaders of the IRA, Rory Brady, David O’Connell and others, split off to form the Continuity IRA. The war continued.


Secret talks between the British government and the IRA, with the SDLP leader John Hume (a member of the quasi-secret Catholic cult, Opus Dei) as sponsor and broker, led the IRA to a ceasefire in August 1994. Though it broke down for a while in Britain — Canary Wharf and the centre of Manchester were blasted — the ceasefire has held continually for nearly 11 years in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement followed four years later.

The Good Friday Agreement differed from Sunningdale in that it was to be not power-sharing by some of the political parties, but mandatory power-sharing between all of them.

Where Sunningdale had relied on the centre against the “extremes”, the Good Friday Agreement looked essentially to agreement between the extremes. Britain was not now concerned even to preserve the centre. The 2003 Northern Ireland elections were called in the certain knowledge that the extremes — the Paisleyites and the IRA-Sinn Fein — would grow at the expense of the “moderate” Unionists and Nationalists. So they did.

The experience of the Good Friday Agreement points yet again to the untenability of the Six Counties and of any political system there other than the majority rule it was created to embody.

It created an intricately bureaucratic system of sectarian power sharing. It recognised existing sectarian divisions, but also it froze them.

While the overwhelming majority of Catholics supported it in the referendum of 1998, only a bare majority of Protestants did.

Sinn Fein was understood to sign the Agreement for the IRA also. In practice Britain accepted that the IRA (and, less importantly, some Protestant para-militaries) would continue to exist and rule in “their own” areas. Shootings and beatings by the para-militaries within their own areas were not considered to be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement or the ceasefire.

Thus Britain accepted continued para-military warlordism. They expected that over time the IRA would fade away.

Concessions to the IRA quickly led in the Protestant communities to a sizeable loss of support for power-sharing. The Trimble Unionists, advocates of power-sharing in the Assembly, were at the start a majority of the Protestant representatives, but within less than a year they had ceased to be a majority or to enjoy anything like Protestant majority electoral support.

For most of the last seven years there has not been a Belfast government: for most of that time it was either being haggled over or it was suspended.

Polarisation is as sharp now as seven years ago, and possibly sharper. In the Westminster election of 5 May, as in all Northern Ireland elections, there was not one but two, parallel, elections, reflecting the fact that there are two parallel communities/national identities — one for the Protestant-Unionists and one for the Catholic Nationalists. (One of the three SDLP Westminster election victories occurred because the Protestant vote was split between two candidates; split Catholic votes have in the past produced the same result for Protestant Unionists.)


Within Northern Ireland the process of sectarian segmentation has continued relentlessly. What Sinn Fein-IRA calls the “greening of the west” is more or less complete — the winning by Sinn Fein of the Westminster seats in a wide swathe of the Six Counties along the border.

A central consideration of the Sinn Fein-IRA in agreeing to the Good Friday Agreement was the belief that the Catholics — now maybe 45% of the population — would, because of a greater natural increase, outbreed the Protestants and, within a decade or two, be the majority in the Six Counties. When that point is reached, the Good Friday Agreement commits Britain to hold a referendum and to comply with the wishes of a majority should it vote for a united Ireland.

The Trimble Unionists’ response — “demography is not an exact science” — is true. But the absurdity of the Six Counties and of the political system of juggling an artificially demarcated Catholic minority and a Protestant majority is even more clear if we contemplate such an eventuality.

When a Six County majority wants a United Ireland (as the decisive majority in the island once wanted Home Rule and then an independent Republic) will the Protestants, reduced to a minority in the Six Counties, accept it?

What if they don’t?

What if they do what the Protestant minority on the island did in the past and revolt against it, proclaiming — as the Catholic-Nationalist Irish in the old UK did — that their own identity is more important than a “democratic majority” of people of a different national identity?


The way out of the morass is a Federal United Ireland, linked closely, and perhaps confederated, with Britain.
One of the great tragedies in Northern Ireland over the last four decades has been the virtual destruction of the socialist left.

In the late 1960s a lot of people there proclaimed themselves socialist — the official Republican Movement, the younger leaders of the Civil Rights movement, from Michael Farrell to Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) and many others.

In the 1970 Westminster general election, a young Bogside socialist, Eamonn McCann, standing on a left-wing, class struggle platform, got nearly 9,000 votes in Derry.

In the recent election, McCann, now a prominent media pundit, got 1,649 votes in the same area.
Socialism in Northern Ireland was cut down because the best of the socialists tried to ignore the “constitutional questions”, proclaiming that socialism was the answer to Catholic-Protestant conflicts of identity, to Partition, to everything.

But only real, historically conditioned people — in the first place, working class people — can achieve socialism.

In part because socialists offered them no answers to the constitutional questions that perplexed them when the pre-69 structures fell apart, the workers in Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic alike, bitterly divided, lined up behind their respective communal leaders and their politics.

The political beneficiaries of the separation of Unionist workers from the old Orange-Unionist establishment — a development which socialists had fervently wished for for many decades — were the quasi-populist Paisleyites.
Because they had no answer to the constitutional question, the socialists were politically marginalised.

What might a socialist, working class answer to this question be? Consistent democracy! The Bolshevik Party proclaimed long ago, in 1913, what that means in conditions such as those of Northern Ireland.

“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 privileges 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.”

Against this, the demagogic reply is frequently made that that is a proposal to repartition Ireland. Those who dismiss a federal united Ireland because it would mean redrawing boundaries rationally and democratically allowing the maximum local self-rule are in effect arguing that the existing partition is the best possible partition!

The alternative to such a consistently democratic approach is not a united Ireland, but the existing partition.

A unitary Irish state is not on. Not now, and not in the calculable future. Not, most likely, even if a mainly Catholic majority in Northern Ireland votes for such a united Ireland.

A federal united Ireland, with northern British-Irish self-government and linked more closely with Britain, perhaps in a confederation, is the only constitutional framework in which — and by the advocacy of which — the working class in Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, in the Six and 26 Counties alike can unite and offer political answers to the issues that dominate life in the north, as a direct result of the botched, anti-democratic partition imposed on Ireland in 1921-22.

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