First published: February 1998
Unionist politicians and loyalist death squads are doing everything in their power to wreck the Irish peace process. While Ian Paisley boycotts the talks, David Trimble sabotages them from within by refusing to talk to Sinn Féin, and loyalist paramilitaries murder Catholics chosen at random. Their common goal is to block any fundamental change in Northern Ireland’s status quo.
The Unionist programme is very simple. Northern Ireland must be maintained as a sectarian state in which nationalists are treated as second class citizens. Unionism stands for discrimination in employment, housing, education, culture, religion and politics. Nationalist resistance is met with sectarian murders, pogroms and legalised repression. Unionism correctly sees the partition of Ireland and British rule in the north as the guarantees of the privileges and discrimination which cement the Orange bloc.
Faced with demands for change, British governments have always hidden behind the artificially created Unionist majority in the six counties. In reality the London government has the power to dictate to Unionist politicians whose entire position is dependent on British financial, political and military support. An independent Northern Ireland is simply not a viable option.
The problem for Unionism today is that it is no longer capable of enforcing its rule over the nationalist population.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was an attempt to find a way out of this impasse. The common interest of Dublin and London was to try to stop the rise of Sinn Féin as an electoral force in the north and bloc its extension south of the border. While the Agreement’s immediate aim was to isolate Sinn Féin, as the Unionists pointed out it nevertheless marked a further erosion of British sovereignty over Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein continued to advance at the polls, however. When John Major kept Sinn Féin out of the talks for more than a year, the nationalist population responded by increasing Sinn Féin’s vote. In May, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness won parliamentary seats, and in southern Ireland’s recent election Sinn Féin won a seat in Dublin’s parliament and narrowly missed winning two more.
All wings of Unionism believe that progress in the talks will take them a step closer to a united Ireland. Furthermore, for blocking talks and fostering a killing spree of Catholics, Unionism was rewarded with a document from the British and southern Irish governments which watered down commitments to executive powers for new north/south bodies and proposed a Northern Ireland Assembly and a Council of the Isles linking Ireland and Britain.
Sinn Féin rejected the document but remained in the talks. That presents Dublin and the SDLP with a dilemma. If they accept an internal settlement they risk losing even more support to Sinn Féin. If they stand with Sinn Féin against an internal settlement they will help draw larger sections of Ireland’s population into conflict with the British government, increasing the tendency for the fight for a united Ireland to take on 32-county dimensions.
On 25 January, at a London public meeting attended by nearly 1,000 people, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness appealed directly to the Irish community in Britain and to the labour movement to make their voices heard in support of a democratic peace settlement which opens the ways towards a united Ireland. They pointed out that what the British establishment most fears is the kind of society which the Irish may choose to create when Britain finally leaves.
The primary responsibility for success or failure of the peace process lies with the Labour government. It is not an ‘honest broker’ between Unionism and Irish nationalism. It is the force which imposed and maintains partition. It is entirely within its power to force Unionism to come to terms with the rest of the population of Ireland by indicating that the British presence is coming to an end. That is what the labour movement should start campaigning for.