Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2143

Northern Ireland: the peace illusion

This article is over 15 years, 2 months old
The re-emergence of Republican armed groups in Northern Ireland reflects the deepening disillusionment in the Good Friday agreement, writes Simon Basketter
Issue 2143

The British media were filled last week with weasel words of peace from politicians following a spate of armed attacks on British troops and the police in Northern Ireland.

In one particularly incoherent piece of hypocrisy, Gordon Brown praised “the unyielding resolution to say with one voice that the peace that the people of Northern Ireland are building no murderers should ever be allowed to destroy”.

Ordinary people in Northern Ireland have also shown their opposition to the shootings. But they did not use the cliches favoured by establishment politicians.

Tens of thousands have taken part in protests across Northern Ireland to condemn the return to violence. Veteran civil rights leader Eamonn McCann spoke at a protest in Derry on behalf of the local branch of the rally organisers, the Irish Council of Trade Unions. People were determined not to return to the days of sectarian violence, he said.

“We stood here in protest and in sympathy with the bereaved after the Shankill bombing, the Greysteel massacre, the City of London bombing which broke the original ceasefire and the cruel murder of David Caldwell in the Waterside,” he said in reference to the victims of what is known as “the Troubles”.

“It is our earnest hope that we never have to come here again and stand in protest and in sympathy. The message from this demonstration here today is never again – no more. We stand for peace between our people and an end to the cruel grief inflicted on so many families in this part of the world.”

It’s worth recalling that it was protests by ordinary people that gave the spur for the peace process that ended 30 years of armed conflict between the mainly Catholic Republicans, who want a united Ireland, and Protestant Unionists backed by the British state. Time and time again people took to the streets to push the process forward when establishment politicians were blocking it.

There is a contradiction at the heart of Northern Irish politics. While those at the top herald peace, the peace process they promote has deepened sectarian division and poverty.

Neil, a postal worker in Belfast, told Socialist Worker, “Sectarianism hasn’t gone away. While the politicians play their games, we are left where we always are.

“But the real bitterness this creates is just going into a dead end. I don’t think the paramilitaries have anything useful to say, but do any of the politicians?

“There are a lot of issues we should be rioting about, but some rerun of the armed struggle isn’t going to change anything for the better.”

Working class people in Northern Ireland have suffered the most over the last 40 years. Over 28,000 people have been forced to leave work through intimidation. And 54,000 familes were forced to move home. Some 80,000 people have spent time in prison.

Remarkably some aspects of life have got worse during the period of the peace process. Over the last ten years the overall suicide rate has risen by 31 percent, and the use of prescribed anti-depressants has doubled.

The way that politics and, increasingly, society in Northern Ireland is organised makes it seem like “common sense” to blame the “other side” – which helps stop anyone questioning the growing inequality within their “own” community.

The result is that it is often the poorest in each community that attack each other, while the well-off escape to the leafy suburbs.

Throughout the Troubles, the endemic poverty and poor public services were blamed on “the paramilitaries”. Yet over the last decade of peace most people in Northern Ireland have seen their living standards fall.


Sectarian bigotry is a crucial part of the set up in Northern Ireland. The British state has always boasted of bringing “democracy” to the North, but it far outdid the paramilitaries in its capacity for terror.

Sectarianism is not inherent to life in Northern Ireland. It was created and fostered from the outside.

The violence of the Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict. By the mid-1990s British governments had realised that they could not defeat the Republicans by force (see box).

Britain’s rulers wanted to stabilise Northern Ireland. So they pushed Unionist politicians into accepting that peace talks had to take place and that Sinn Fein – the political wing of the Republican movment – had to be part of the process. Now Sinn Fein is part of the establishment – as are the Protestant bigots of parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party.

Unfortunately, the peace in Northern Ireland is not based on drawing ordinary Protestants and Catholics together, but on policing people apart.

While Northern Ireland has seen the systematic oppression of Catholics, the divide in the working class also holds back Protestant workers.

Managers in Northern Ireland earn 20 percent more than their counterparts in Britain, while average private sector earnings are 10 percent lower.

Ciaran, a Belfast community worker, told Socialist Worker, “I think the rallies show that people don’t want to go back. But we should realise that the divisions make everyone’s life worse. We need to be attacking poverty and sectarianism now, not waiting for politicians to divide up an ever-shrinking cake.”

Mary is a nurse who lives in the Short Strand in East Belfast. She said, “All the hotels and calls centres are on the doorstep, but we can’t get jobs there. People then exploit that as a Protestant-Catholic thing. But the real problem is the class thing and the money thing.

“The whole point of the peace process was to get equality. But we are very much still a divided society. Shooting a policeman won’t solve that.”

There is a growing sense of cynicism about politics from both communities. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended the armed conflict, the number of people who don’t support a political party has more than doubled from 12 percent to 26 percent.

Some 37 percent support neither Unionist nor Republican parties.

The claim is constantly repeated that the establishment has brought peace. In reality the peace process is bringing Protestant and Catholic workers together in poverty while at the same time dividing them politically on sectarian lines.

The events of last week have shown that a few people will look to the gun to challenge the state. They have also shown that many more are not looking for a return to the armed struggle of a minority – but are searching for an alternative to poverty and sectarianism.

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