Ten and a half years after the IRA ceasefire, six and a half years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, two years after the latest collapse of the power-sharing government in Belfast, the IRA may be about to disarm completely and disband.
It has — according to reliable reports — offered to do this in return for Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose leader has bellowed “no” to every political initiative in Northern Ireland for 50 years, joining Sinn Fein in a new power-sharing Belfast government.
In the last Northern Irish General election the Paisleyites displaced the Ulster Unionist Party of David Trimble as the biggest party on the Unionist side; and Sinn Fein/IRA displaced the Social Democratic Labour Party as the main Catholic Nationalist party.
Right now these putative partners in government still refuse to talk to each other directly. Negotiation is taking place with the London and Dublin governments as go-betweens.
Yet, however protracted and zig-zag-ridden Sinn Fein/DUP negotiations prove to be, the IRA offer to “disband” is an enormous event.
They propose to destroy all their weapons and to have the historic event witnessed by two clergymen. So far they resist the Paisleyite demand that the destruction should be photographed, so that Northern Ireland’s Protestants will be assured that the arms really have been destroyed.
Photographing the destruction of arms has for a while been the big sticking point. The IRA refused, saying that the Paisleyites wanted only to “humiliate” the IRA. That this triviality looms so large is the measure of how far they have gone towards agreement. That it is the last “big” demand of the Paisleyites, who had said they wanted to completely “renegotiate” the whole Good Friday Agreement, shows how far the DUP has moved towards accepting power-sharing with Sinn Fein in government.
It is by no means certain that SF-DUP agreement will be reached immediately. Ian Paisley is old and visibly frail, his once bull-horn voice diminished and beginning to quaver, but he is probably still capable of finding “good” “Protestant” reasons to refuse to go the last logical step into a new SF-DUP dominated power sharing government.
Paisley has publicly said that for their deeds over 30 years IRA-Sinn Fein should be made to wear the biblical “sackcloth and ashes until the sackcloth and ashes wear out.” Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams only admonished him mildly, calling for moderation. That too is a sign of how things are going.
The system embodied in the Agreement of Easter 1998 requires the participation of all the Northern Irish parties and rules out government by an ad-hoc coalition that would bypass the Paisleyite Protestant majority and install rule by, say, SF, the SDLP and the Trimble Unionists. The system thereby puts pressure on the political extremes to accommodate to each other. The DUP and Sinn Fein both want a Belfast government, and under the Good Friday Agreement they can get it only if they work together.
A Paisleyite-SF government would not put an end to sectarian wrangling. Far from it. The whole Good Friday system institutionalises an intricate bureaucratic network of sectarian checks and balances. Sectarian jockeying for advantage will be fought out within the government structures and in the Assembly, for example, around such issues as whether the allocation of a given piece of public spending should be in Catholic or Protestant districts. For the foreseeable future, this system cannot but formalise and perpetuate sectarian division.
Back through the decades the nightmare of work-a-day Unionists willing to work with Catholic Nationalists — the constitutionalist SDLP, or lately, Sinn Fein — from David Trimble to Brian Faulkner in the early 70s, has been denunciation as “traitors” and “Lundies” (Lundy is the ultimate Judas-figure in Northern Irish Protestant history from the 17th century). Paisleyite involvement in government, would remove that.
Ian Paisley as First Minister? Paisley may follow the precedent of Edward Carson, the leader of the pre-World War One revolt of the Ulster Unionists, which first brought the gun into 20th century Irish politics, who pronounced himself too old to be First Minister. Or the example of Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, who has remained aloof from government as the conscience and arbiter for his own side (and also the embodiment of the all-Ireland political aspirations of Sinn Fein).
If the IRA does disband and SF-DUP do go into government together, will militarist physical force republicanism disappear? It is very unlikely.
There are already two splinter groups from the IRA, the “Real IRA” and the “Continuity IRA” as well as INLA, the communalist sectarian, pseudo-left umbrella group for vanguard militarists. Disbandment of the IRA will certainly lead to an influx of dissenting IRA people into these groups, or to the creation of a new splinter group, committed to a military “solution”. It is also not clear that the “warlordism” in both Catholic and Protestant ghettos will disappear.
But there is no mass disgruntlement in the Catholic community, nothing like the alienation from “Good Friday” in the Protestant camp which lifted the DUP into first place in the recent general election. Sinn Fein and the SDLP genuinely support Good Friday, from which the Catholics feel they have benefited greatly.
If and when the Paisleyites and Sinn Fein begin to collaborate as the core of a new Belfast government, that will underline the needlessness of the tragedy inflicted on the peoples of Northern Ireland over the last four decades by anachronistic and reactionary politicians on both sides.
When the Unionist leader Terence O’Neill tried from about 1964, in response to British government pressure, to make Northern Ireland less of a sectarian, Protestant-ruled state in which Catholics were second-class citizens, Paisley did more than anyone else to foment the Stone-Age Unionist backlash which destroyed him and triggered the process which broke up the old monolithic Unionist party.
When Catholics organised and marched to demand “civil rights” — or as some of them said, “British standards” — the Paisleyites tried to crush them by force, and the violent clashes and confrontations that followed created a situation where the Provisional IRA emerged (December 1969/Jan 1970) from the older, decrepit and more-or-less disarmed IRA, control of which had fallen into the hands of manipulative Stalinists
All attempts at “moderate” “compromise” between Catholic-Nationalists and Protestant-Unionists were ground to dust between the upper mill-stone of Paisleyism, backed loosely by Protestant para-military sectarian murder groups, and the lower millstone of intransigent, right-wing armed Catholic Nationalism.
When, at the beginning of 1974, a power-sharing Belfast government was established under the agreement named after Hillsborough Castle, where negotiations had taken place, the Paisleyites, the Protestant para-militaries and the armed IRA combined to undermine it. A Protestant general strike in May 1974 put an end to it.
The difference between Hillsborough and the Good Friday Agreement is that Hillsborough was less rigid, allowing for an ad-hoc power-sharing coalition government that excluded the intransigent Paisleyites and IRA-Sinn Fein.
An SDLP leader, Seamus Mallon, truthfully described the Good Friday Agreement as no more than “Sunningdale for slow learners.” He meant Sinn Fein-IRA.
Everything that SF-IRA and the Paisleyites now involve themselves in was theirs for the taking 31 years ago.
This SF-DUP agreement, if it happens, implicitly promises a very harsh judgement on tboth of them and on the 30-year war which between them they set going. That war was a tale told by all-dominant political idiots, full of noise and blood, leading only to what could have long ago been had without the noise and blood, without three or four thousand people dead and god-knows how many wounded in body and mind.
A large number of those who shaped events in the late 60s and early 70s called themselves socialists, mostly on the Nationalist Catholic side. If working class political unity, and not the twin sectarianisms of Protestant and Catholic workers, had prevailed 35 years ago then an enormous amount of now self-evidently pointless suffering could have been avoided.
The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement work to lock Catholic and Protestants — peacefully — within their communal political identities. Therefore it will make the emergence of working class politics difficult. But working class socialist politics is what the people of Northern Ireland, Protestant and Catholic, need.
The trade unions in Northern Ireland should act now to create a trade union based Labour Party in Northern Ireland.
By John O’Mahony