The prospect of a power sharing government in Northern Ireland led by the veteran Unionist bigot Ian Paisley, and backed by the Republicans of Sinn Fein, took a step closer last month.
Sinn Fein is to hold a special conference which will decide that the party can back the Northern Ireland Police force, the PSNI. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams announced the proposal pointedly seated beneath pictures of hunger striker Bobby Sands and African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela.
Since the foundation of the Northern Irish state, Republicans have consistently viewed the northern police as the armed wing of Unionism. Sinn Fein now argues that if the police is fully devolved and under the control of the Northern Irish assembly then it will no longer be a British police force but a Northern Irish police service.
Throughout its existence Northern Ireland has been a political slum characterised by repression, sectarianism and poverty. The police have always been at the front line of that repression.
The PSNI’s predecessor was the notorious Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The RUC was set up as a paramilitary police force in 1922, after the British government partitioned Ireland.
Half its members were recruited from the Ulster Special Constabulary, which was itself recruited from Loyalist paramilitary terror gangs.
In the late 1960s people started to fight back against the treatment of Catholics as second class citizens. The RUC responded by battering demonstrators and joining with Loyalist gangs to terrorise Catholic areas. The Special Branch of the RUC supplied the names, addresses and photographs of Catholic targets to Loyalist paramilitaries.
The argument is that all this has changed. Even though the proportion of Catholics in the force has increased since the introduction of the new policing arrangements in 2001, it was revealed last month that more than 70 Catholic recruits have quit out of a total of 1,800.
The PSNI is an armed police force responsible for upholding neoliberalism in Northern Ireland. Like all police forces, its main activities are directed at working class people.
Sinn Fein use the example of South Africa as an argument for recognising the PSNI. But the post-apartheid South African Police Service has been used to break strikes and demonstrations.
The ANC running a police force is a sign of them making their peace with the system and it is the same for Sinn Fein.
The Republicans aspire to take their place among the constitutional parties of Ireland and to win as prominent a role as possible for themselves as nationalists within the existing structures.
One of the key ways a capitalist state operates is that there is one army, one police and one law. The recognition that the only force allowed to have weapons is the state lay behind the arguments over decommissioning IRA arms. The recognition of the state’s right to decide the rule of law lies behind Sinn Fein’s leaders’ acceptance of the PNSI.
The other way of Sinn Fein proving its respectability is its enforcement of privatisation and other neoliberal measures when they were briefly given ministerial posts in Northern Ireland.
Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein differ as to whether economic policy should be seen in a UK or an all-Ireland context. But that apart, on the economy there is little to distinguish them.
Sinn Fein wants harmonisation of corporation tax across the island. The DUP, seeing the Republic as a rival, wants an end to the “unfairness” whereby the South has lower corporation tax. Both propose to cut tax on businesses.
The peace process in Northern Ireland is based on the assumption that there is a natural divide between people. Working people, Catholic and Protestant, pay the price for that sectarian divide.
Fortunately, there is unlikely to be the resumption of all-out war in Northern Ireland. But that danger will always be there unless working class politics unites Catholic and Protestant workers against their rulers, both Irish and British.