Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1822

Does suspension of Assembly put Irish peace at the crossroads?

This article is over 21 years, 8 months old
THE GOVERNMENT'S decision to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly is supposed to be a response to alleged spying by a Republican (see below) supporter. In fact, Tony Blair's decision says to Northern Ireland's Unionists that all is well and the Catholics have been dumped on again. When the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998 the vast majority of Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, hoped for an end to violence and some sort of normality.
Issue 1822

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly is supposed to be a response to alleged spying by a Republican (see below) supporter. In fact, Tony Blair’s decision says to Northern Ireland’s Unionists that all is well and the Catholics have been dumped on again. When the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998 the vast majority of Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, hoped for an end to violence and some sort of normality.

But the British and Northern Irish security forces have never believed that Republicans are serious about peace. Amid the fuss about the alleged Republican spying last week, few people mentioned that in 1999 Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had his car bugged at the time of crucial talks.

At every stage of the peace process most politicians and the media have blamed Republicans for the lack of progress. But Republicans have never been the obstacle to peace and justice in Northern Ireland. It is possible that the IRA has names of prison officers and knows what Tony Blair is saying to other ministers about Ireland. Loyalist murder gangs have long had far more important information, and were handed it by the authorities themselves.

In July this year a TV documentary confirmed how the British army and security forces had colluded with violent Loyalist terrorists to murder Catholics. A secret British army unit, the Force Research Unit, and the Special Branch of Northern Ireland’s police supplied names and addresses of Catholic targets to the Loyalist paramilitaries.

Those paramilitaries used this information to carry out at least 29 murders. One of those murdered was Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989. Ten years later another solicitor, Rosemary Nelson, was murdered in similar circumstances. One of the most notorious events in recent Irish history was when British paratroopers gunned down 14 people in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. The troops were given the go-ahead from the senior ranks of the British army with the full knowledge of then prime minister Edward Heath.

For many years the British government was happy to have a Northern Ireland state based on Catholics being systematically treated as second class citizens. This was the case from Northern Ireland’s creation in 1921, until things became unstable after the eruption of the civil rights movement demanding equal treatment for all in the late 1960s (see history below).

By the mid-1990s British governments realised it could not simply defeat either the IRA or the widespread Irish nationalist feelings of the overwhelming majority of Catholics and some Protestants. Britain’s rulers wanted to stabilise Northern Ireland. They pushed some Unionist politicians into accepting peace talks and that Sinn Fein had to be part of the process.

Yet, despite this, Blair has repeatedly conceded to the demands of the Unionists and their cheerleaders in the right wing press. By doing so he has only encouraged them to demand more. The peace process has seemed to some Protestants as if they are losing the position of superiority to Catholics they had been led to believe was their ‘birthright’.

Meanwhile Blair’s policies have offered no real alternative to show those Protestants they can have a secure future while abandoning Unionism. Just as in England, Wales and Scotland, the New Labour government’s policies on jobs, health, education and much more have made things worse for most Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.

That has allowed Unionist leaders to retain support and present themselves as defenders of Protestants. Blair’s response has been to make concession after concession.

Three weeks after winning the 1997 election Blair declared he was in favour of keeping Ireland divided: ‘None of those in this hall, even the youngest, is likely to see Northern Ireland as anything other than part of the United Kingdom.’

After Unionist complaints that Mo Mowlam was too pro-Catholic as Northern Ireland secretary, Blair first sidelined her and then removed her entirely in 2000. None of this has led to peace.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble accepts the need for some limited accommodation with Catholics. He wants to make Northern Ireland ‘stable’ for big business. But his party was built on vicious anti-Catholic sectarianism. Trimble fronts a party whose whole reason for existence is to maintain a divided society where Protestants rule.

Whenever that is threatened Unionists scream for a halt to change, Trimble pleads for Blair to ‘save the peace process’ and Blair obliges by pointing the finger at Republicans.


THE VAST majority of violence during the last two years has come from Loyalists trying to provoke Republicans into going back to armed struggle. In the three months to June this year there were 363 attacks against Catholics. There were 144 bomb attacks, 25 shooting incidents, 151 homes damaged and 42 people assaulted.

The worst offenders are the Ulster Defence Association and the Loyalist Volunteer Force. These are the people who stand for shedding blood in order to keep Catholics down.

In July this year Gerard Lawlor, a 19 year old Catholic with a young child, was shot dead by these killers in Belfast. Five months earlier Loyalists murdered 20 year old postal worker Daniel McColgan, just for being a Catholic. This has happened while the IRA has maintained its ceasefire. Yet none of these Loyalist murders have led to the expulsion of Unionist forces from the assembly, even those with the most intimate links with the killers.

Who’s who

REPUBLICANS or NATIONALISTS: People who want to see a united Ireland – most Catholics and some Protestants in Northern Ireland.

UNIONISM or LOYALISM: A political movement which wants to keep Northern Ireland as part of Britain, and won’t accept full equality for Catholics.

ORANGE is sometimes used to describe sections of Unionism, after the anti-Catholic Orange Lodge.

Roots of problem lie in history of British rule

YOU CANNOT understand what is going on in Northern Ireland without some sense of history. That history is one of British imperialism. English monarchs first tried to impose their rule in Ireland in the 12th century. Britain consolidated its hold over the whole of Ireland in the 17th century, making it the first colony of the British Empire.

Britain defeated a nationalist Protestant-led rising in the 1790s. From then until the partition of the island in 1921, the British ruling class crushed every attempt by the Irish middle classes to set up an independent state. Britain’s rulers also played upon religion, pitting Catholics against Protestants, in order to divide and rule.

British rule was a disaster for the people of Ireland, as it was for people in India or Africa. In the 1840s the Great Famine saw a million die in Ireland as the British authorities exported food while the peasantry starved. But the resistance grew. At the 1918 general election across the whole of Ireland Sinn Fein won 73 out of 105 seats. The British still refused independence and civil war broke out.

More far-sighted British politicians knew they could no longer hang on to the whole of Ireland. They secured their interests by carving out Northern Ireland in the area round the most profitable industries in Belfast. It has an inbuilt Protestant majority.

This state was run for half a century by the tiny group of industrialists and landlords who controlled the Unionist Party. The state boundaries had been rigged to ensure one-party rule.

In the city of Derry, which had 20,000 Catholic voters to 10,000 Protestant voters, electoral districts were arranged so that Protestants managed to elect more councillors than Catholics. There was no reform at all in this society until 1969 when Catholics fought back. They demanded fair voting rights, an end to discrimination in housing and jobs, and other civil rights.

Marches for these demands were batoned off the streets. Instead of stopping the movement, this simply made it explode into mass rebellion in many Catholic areas.

The IRA hardly existed from the 1920s until the late 1960s. It recruited when peaceful protest was met by lethal force from the police and their Loyalist allies, especially after Bloody Sunday in 1972. On several occasions the British state has sought to reform Northern Ireland. Each time it has backed off rather than really confront the Unionists and their state.

In 1969 when British troops went into Northern Ireland some people hoped that they would bring reform and protect the Catholics. But rather than take on the Unionists, the troops added to the violence against Catholics. Today’s peace process has angered sections of the Unionists, but has not challenged the basis of the state.

Assembly members have to declare themselves Unionists or Republicans. Both the Unionists and Sinn Fein have accepted that their job is to battle over scarce resources rather than challenging the poverty of the whole working class. Northern Ireland has seen systematic oppression of Catholics. The divide in the working class has also seen Protestant workers held back while bosses have laughed all the way to the bank.

Division and violence will remain until Unionism is confronted, British troops get out and Irish people are allowed to determine their own future.

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