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Mandelson caves in to Trimble

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Issue 1684

Northern Ireland

Mandelson caves in to Trimble

PETER Mandelson suspended the new Northern Ireland Assembly on Friday of last week. He put all the blame on the IRA for threatening the peace process. But Mandelson’s real motive was to save the skin of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble. Mandelson’s actions prompted the IRA to pull out of talks about giving up weapons.

But Mandelson unnecessarily increased the risk to peace in order to appease the Unionists. Before he imposed direct rule he was informed of a new report from the head of the decommissioning body, General de Chastelain. The report argued that there was a real prospect of the IRA decommissioning its weapons before the 22 May deadline contained in the Good Friday peace agreement.

The Irish government reportedly urged Tony Blair to reverse the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but he refused. One government official admitted, “We have to let David Trimble know where he stands before he meets his party.” Trimble had threatened to resign as first minister at the Ulster Unionist Party council on Saturday if the IRA had not started decommissioning its weapons.

Around half of Trimble’s party are opposed to sharing power with Sinn Fein and want to scupper the peace agreement. Trimble has tried to unite his party around decommissioning and opposition to the IRA. But the Unionists who are opposed to the peace process do not speak for ordinary Protestants in Northern Ireland. The suspension of the assembly will not necessarily mean a return to full-scale war in Northern Ireland. But the uncertainty can create a vacuum which the Unionists can attempt to fill by stirring up sectarian tension.

As a teacher at a Protestant school in Belfast told Socialist Worker, “No one wants to see a return to violence. People don’t think the war will resume. But there is a sinking feeling that things could go back to square one, that we’ve got to go through the whole process again. We have been campaigning for the scrapping of the 11-plus, which fails so many children in Northern Ireland. These kind of issues, plus the fight against tuition fees or the fight to stop hospital closures, have come to the forefront of political life in the last few weeks. That’s raised people’s hopes. People I work with see the need for unity between different communities. Arguments have been raised about integrated education. Class questions have been easier to raise. Mandelson and Trimble seem prepared to throw all this away to appease a minority of hardcore bigots who represent no one.”


Frozen division

By Eamonn Mccann, socialist writer and one of the founders of the 1960s civil rights movement

IN THE end, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended amid scenes of confusion and near farce. Peter Mandelson, the supposed master of the black arts of presentation and spin, made his move last Friday afternoon, apparently unaware that the ex-Nato general John de Chastelain, head of the decommissioning body, was again talking with the IRA. Within hours a report based on these talks confirmed that the IRA were closer than ever to agreeing to get rid of their guns.

The IRA shift was announced by Gerry Adams, who hailed it as a “major breakthrough”. When de Chastelain delivered his report Mandelson in effect agreed with Adams, declaring, “This is a development of real significance.” The sequence made no sense other than as confirmation that Mandelson’s priority was to save not the peace process but David Trimble’s skin. The Ulster Unionist Council-with its huge bloc of Orange Order delegates opposed to equal citizenship for Nationalists-was to meet the following morning and had to be allowed to feel that the Catholics had been dumped on again. So nothing was resolved, even as everyone was agreeing that a resolution had never been closer.

Despite the IRA pulling out of the decommissioning body, the Republican leadership sees armed struggle as a thing of the past. They may need time to coax some of their membership along. But they are now too far down the constitutional road mapped out by amon de Valera in the 1920s to turn back. An indication of this had come in a profile of Martin McGuinness in the Observer the previous Sunday. Asked whether the IRA would continue to exist if the assembly and the cross-border bodies were working smoothly, McGuinness replied, “That’s a matter for the IRA.

“The old IRA existed in the South for years. They attended commemorations, they buried their own comrades, and they did so in peace.” The IRA would continue, then, but not as an army-more as an old soldiers’ association. However, recognising the role of Mandelson in ditching the assembly to placate Trimble’s Orange critics does not mean glorifying the record of the assembly while it lasted. Some commentators, and many Republicans, have been painting a picture which bears little resemblance to reality. In fact, there has been confirmation of the socialist argument that the agreement was based on the consolidation of sectarianism. This is reflected in the institutions.

The single most publicised action in the assembly’s lifetime was Sinn Fein health minister Bairbre de Brun’s decision to close the Jubilee maternity unit in mainly Protestant South Belfast and expand the unit at the Royal in Catholic West Belfast. The Assembly opposed the decision 53 to 37. The breakdown showed 52 Protestants and one Catholic backing the Jubilee, 36 Catholics and one Protestant supporting the Royal. The two members who “crossed the divide” were from the “centre” parties. Every member of the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists and Paisley’s DUP voted the straight sectarian ticket. This was despite the fact that everyone, including Bairbre de Brun, admitted that the medical and social arguments were very finely balanced.

More significantly, by approaching the issue on this basis, they all, Sinn Fein included, completely ignored the argument for keeping both units open. The cut in Belfast’s maternity services went unchallenged. The only dispute was about on which side the axe should fall.

IRA is not cause of ‘troubles’

THE GOVERNMENT, the media and the Unionists claim the IRA is to blame for everything. They talk about the need for the IRA to decommission its weapons as though the IRA is responsible for all the violence in Northern Ireland. This ignores the way the British government and the Unionists created the violence in the first place. For the last 30 years Northern Ireland’s sectarian police force, the RUC, and the British army have used every illegal and undemocratic method they could think of in their war against the Republican movement. That repression included using informers, MI5 agents in Loyalist assassination squads, shoot-to-kill policies, the firing of plastic bullets against unarmed demonstrators, and the mass internment of “suspects”.

There are still 15,000 British troops stationed in Northern Ireland in 65 army bases. Despite a new inquiry, no government ministers or army general will be prosecuted for their part in the massacre of 14 innocent Catholic demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in 1972. The sectarian RUC police force continues to escape justice for collusion with Loyalist murder squads.

No police officers will be prosecuted for their role in the murders of Robert Hamill in 1997 and of civil rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson last year. Loyalist terror groups have attacked over 100 Catholics over the last year and a half. Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland need to unite to fight for class politics. But in doing so they must also fight to dismantle a state based on sectarianism and discrimination and stop seeing Republicans as the main problem.

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