By Frances Davis
Last week saw an increased level of sectarian loyalist attacks against Catholic nationalist areas in the north of Ireland, accompanying the summer ‘marching season’ and the yearly determination by a minority of unionists to force sectarian marches through areas where they are clearly not wanted by local communities. Although there have been successful resolutions in some areas over contentious parades through local negotiations, the Orange Order still refuses to engage with local residents.
The previous weekend’s events in north Belfast, which saw a police land rover drive at Sinn Féin Assembly Members – and a government minister – who were trying to secure calm in the wake of one such march, also underlines the ongoing difficulties, resistance to change and failure of leadership within unionist political parties has increased unionist intransigence and encouraged sectarianism including from with the state apparatus.
Underpinning all of this has been the role of the British government which is refusing to implement the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in full and even roll back key aspects. There is no doubt that 15 years of the GFA has seen huge concrete steps forward, and a growing dynamic towards Irish reunification.
The GFA has begun to dismantle much of the old sectarian state apparatus which held the six counties together, and there has been real change in terms of equality, not least the creation of power-sharing government and an end to one-party sectarian rule. The all-Ireland aspects of the Agreement have also strengthened the reality of the need for all-island co-operation, and the legitimisation of a united Ireland aspiration is enshrined in the Agreement under the principle of self-determination – all critical steps forward.
However, change has been slower than necessary, due to resistance by unionism and elements of the British state, and the next phase in the peace process has to be a renewed focus on driving forward progressive change and ultimately a united Ireland. The left in Britain has to support this and do its part in solidarity with this struggle in Ireland, which is not, as some may believe, concluded.
The last Labour government, despite its hugely positive role in bringing forward the negotiations which led to the GFA, dragged its heels on key aspects of the Agreement – such as its failure to introduce a Bill of Rights or deal with ‘on-the-run’ cases. The Bill which Peter Mandelson bought forward on policing attempted to gut the Patten recommendations of some of its key aspects in creating a new beginning to policing, which took huge efforts and time to restore delayed this crucial aspect of change. Moreover, it capitulated to unionist resistance to change from the moment the Agreement was signed – resulting in long suspensions of the Assembly. Alongside this it allowed the promotion of a unionist agenda within the Labour Party itself by setting up membership and branches in the six counties. Though doomed to fail in electoral terms, such a move legitimised a partitionist approach at odds with the sentiment of the GFA. Despite this, Labour’s legacy on the GFA is important, but is being set back by the current government.
Predictably, the current British Tory coalition government is playing a negative role, with the issue of the north of Ireland barely on its agenda, and when it is, it is acting to roll back what has been achieved or established and reacting with either ignorance or malice on touchstone issues. Its failure to engage with a serious process of dealing with the past, resistance to finding the truth over cases like Pat Finucane or the recent arrest and incarceration of Donegal republican John Downey, are just a few very serious examples of this.
The next government – and most likely a Labour one on current polls – has to reverse this negative trend and get on with the business of fulfilling the GFA, and ultimately recognising that all trends point to a future united Ireland. Economic, demographic and political trends – explained in articles elsewhere – all underscore the likelihood of a majority for a united Ireland in the not too distant future.
Sinn Féin are pressing for a border poll – as provided for in the GFA – and a Labour government should not be afraid of announcing its intention to call one. Moreover, Sinn Féin’s ongoing engagement with the unionist and protestant communities, and their efforts at a meaningful process of reconciliation, all reinforce the arguments that neither unionists, nor the British people in general, have anything to fear from a united Ireland.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin remain the only major party which is seriously attempting to take forward the next phase of the peace process. In addition they are the only major party on the island which has a thought out alternative set of policies for what a future united Ireland should look like. With a clear economic alternative to austerity, based on state-led investment rather than cuts, and a detailed social platform based on equality and rights, should be strongly supported by the left in Britain. In the south of Ireland its support is growing rapidly on this basis.
Ireland’s reunification and opposing British rule in the north must remain a key part of the left’s platform in Britain. That means supporting the driving forward of this next phase of the peace process. The issue of Irish unity has always been problematic for much of the British left – given the pressure of and capitulation to British imperialism in many cases. The trade unions largely still operate a unionist veto which makes this issue almost impossible to broach in some unions.
However, those leading the political struggle in Ireland on the national question and in resistance to austerity – Sinn Féin – are setting the pace, and this debate has to be put on the political agenda here, involving the Irish community and others. A good place to start is the conference hosted by Sinn Féin on 19 October at the London Irish Centre, which will be discussing all of these issues with an impressive array of speakers, reflecting how things have changed positively.