IT'S EASY to laugh at the Tories. Last week they were going through yet another round in the Life of Brian type internal squabbles that have reduced them to an unelectable rump. Only the saddest kind of political scientist could take a genuine interest in working out what the ideological differences are between Iain Duncan Smith and sacked party chairman David Davis.
But it would be a mistake to underestimate the Tories' capacity to do harm. In the House of Commons last week Quentin Davies, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, attacked his Labour counterpart, John Reid, for the 'extraordinary vacuousness' of a statement he had just made.
Davies and the Tory press are up in arms because of what they regard as the government's failure to promise to exclude Sinn Fein from the Northern Ireland Executive if the IRA is proven to have broken the ceasefire. In fact Reid warned that he would 'not hesitate' to recommend that Sinn Fein is kicked off the executive if 'substantiated information' were produced that the IRA was preparing to break the ceasefire. This threat followed an upsurge in sectarian violence, particularly in northern Belfast.
The most recent victim was Gerard Lawlor-a young Catholic shot and killed by the Loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters on Monday last week. You may think it's a somewhat bizarre logic that causes the government to threaten to punish the Republican movement for Loyalist violence. This Alice in Wonderland situation reflects the fact that too often the Tories still set the British political agenda for Northern Ireland. From the start of the peace process nearly a decade ago the right wing Tory press have fought to sabotage it and slow it down.
They, for example, helped the Unionist leader David Trimble make IRA weapons into an issue that has brought Northern Ireland again and again to the brink. The Daily Telegraph ranted last week that Reid's statement 'reflected the greater precedence accorded by the British and Irish governments to the 'peace process'-keeping the ceasefires going at a very high price-over the inclusive 'political' process of which Unionists of all shades are an integral part. 'Given a choice between the two processes, the government would sooner settle for the former, since at least it keeps bombs out of London and other mainland targets.'
In other words, restoring the old Unionist supremacy is more important than peace. It was the institutionalised Protestant domination of the Six Counties that led to the latest round of Irish 'Troubles' in the late 1960s. During the 30 years of war that followed, far more people were killed in Ireland than in Britain.
It seems as if the Tory right and their Loyalist allies don't care if there's another bout of killing, as long as Northern Ireland stays 'British'. Too often Tony Blair and his ministers run scared in the face of this kind of contemptible thinking. None of this means that all is well with the peace process.
The 1998 Belfast agreement involved the Republican movement abandoning the armed struggle. In effect it also had to accept the partition of Ireland in exchange for a share in the government of Northern Ireland. This power-sharing agreement sought to include all the main strands of Loyalist and Nationalist opinion in the executive.
As a result, the divisions between Protestant and Catholic have been institutionalised and embedded in the structure of the state. Power sharing has involved a number of mainly symbolic concessions to the Catholic minority.
The old Royal Ulster Constabulary, for example, has had a multicultural makeover. But there has been no real improvement in the material situation of working class Catholics and Protestants.
Bitterness is growing among many ordinary Protestants. In a political set-up that is now explicitly based on separate 'identities', they see their side losing out, while their lives haven't changed for the better. Some working class Protestants are drawn into the violence mounted by the Loyalist paramilitaries.
The only way to undercut these divisions is to appeal to the class issues that can unite Catholic and Protestant workers. But Sinn Fein can't do this. Where once it regarded itself as a revolutionary movement, now it is part of the establishment in the North.
Sinn Fein ministers like Martin McGuinness are implementing the same kind of policies of privatisation that New Labour is pursuing in Britain. They participate in implementing PFI schemes for hospitals-while opposing them in the Irish republic.
But the many weaknesses of the peace process don't justify the attacks being mounted on it from the right. On Ireland, as on every other issue, the Tories should be treated with the contempt that, as a bunch of right wing fanatics, they deserve.
Alex Callinicos is the author of The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx and a contributor to Marxism and the New Imperialism. Both are available from Bookmarks-phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com