Stepping stone to unity

by Ken Keable

THE RESTORATION of power-sharing in Britain's Irish colonial remnant on 8th May brought expressions of amazement from the world's media and attracted a variety of VIPs to Belfast to witness the re-opening of the Northern Ireland assembly and the swearing-in of the power-sharing executive, with the greatest amazement focussed on its two stars, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness.

Tony Blair came to claim it all for his legacy; Bertie Ahern likewise, as well as hoping it would boost his chances in the Republic of Ireland's general election of 24th May; Senator Edward Kennedy represented president Bush, who was also hoping it would help curry favour with Irish-American voters in the long run-up to the next presidential election; and Ronnie Kasrils, Communist minister in the South African government, made an interesting addition to this exalted company. He has frequently visited Ireland at the invitation of Sinn Fein to bring the benefit of his vast revolutionary experience, especially helpful on the difficult matter of policing.

When Paisley took his ministerial oath of office he swore to do exactly the opposite of what he had done all his long political life. He promised, among other things, "to promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Northern Ireland assembly towards the goal of a shared future"; "to participate fully in the executive committee, the north-south ministerial council and the British-Irish council"; "to observe the joint nature of the offices of first minister and deputy first minister"; "to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination"; and "to operate in a way conducive to promoting good community relations and equality of treatment."

Only last summer Paisley told a 12th July rally that the defence of the Union required "the shedding of Protestant blood" - which was such perfectly normal Paisley-talk that it passed without notice in the media. Yet if he said it now, it would be such a contrast with his current language and behaviour, and such a breach of his oath, that it would cause a stir and perhaps a crisis.

So what has brought this change in Paisley?

First, he has been under huge pressure from the Blair government, the EU and the Bush administration. For the various trans-national corporations whose interests motivate all three, the Irish border is an obstacle to trade, to economic efficiency and to the economic and political integration of the EU.

For the Euro-federalists it is also an obstacle to the atmosphere of internal peace and harmony that is required for their external imperialist wars, conducted, like all imperialist wars, under cover of humanitarian talk. For all three, Ireland's British problem, with its long history of war, sectarian hatred and bigotry and with its recent period of direct rule and political logjam, is an embarrassment. For the British capitalist state, especially, it is an acute embarrassment at home and abroad, as well as being a drain on the exchequer and on military resources needed elsewhere.

From Blair, with a deadline to meet and a box to tick before he left office, the behind-the-scenes pressure was intense. The ambitious Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain, with the same deadline for his own career reasons, skilfully and blatantly used the "carrot and stick" approach. He imposed water charges which were deeply unpopular with all sections of society, with the proviso that they would be cancelled if power-sharing was restored; he convincingly threatened more Dublin involvement in direct rule as 'Plan B'; and he offered investment which was conditional on power-sharing.

Paisley's own ego must have played a part, along with his deep desire to humiliate the Ulster Unionist Party, led by "big-house" or "fur-coat" unionists, to whom he was always an outsider, and whom he loathes and who loathe him.

But the decisive influence must have been the pressure from his party's electorate. They wanted accountable government, which they certainly didn't get from the direct rule team of British MPs. They also realised that a return to the blatant sectarian discrimination of the old Stormont regime (1920 -1972) was impossible, however much they might desire it (and Paisley expressed his desire for it only recently). Besides, the "carrot and stick" approach had worked on them too, to great effect, and they knew that economic improvement required power-sharing and the stability which it ought to bring.

Paisley was able to claim to have bettered what his rivals in the Ulster Unionist Party had achieved: a promise by Sinn Fein to recognise UK law and the police and to enter the Policing Board, the decommissioning of all IRA weapons and a convincing statement by the IRA Army Council that the war was definitively over.

With the St Andrew's talks he also secured more control over what Sinn Fein ministers might do; there will now be very little that any minister can do without cross-party support - which raises interesting questions about what can be done and how any left-right divisions can be expressed. It is bizarre; but that's because Northern Ireland is a failed entity, economically and politically - an entirely British invention that doesn't work.

The British media has greatly distorted the matter, through a mixture of ignorance and prejudice. They speak as though the sectarianism came equally from both sides, which it never did. (This is like equating the reactive "racism" of some black people with the oppressive racism of white people and with institutional racism.) They speak as though Sinn Fein's conversion to power-sharing was as surprising and as recent as that of Paisley's DUP, which is very misleading. Sinn Fein accepted the Good Friday agreement in 1998, whereas Paisley and the DUP still opposed and decried it only a few weeks ago.

Of course, for the Sinn Fein rank-and-file, the acceptance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as legitimate was a bitter pill to swallow, and with good reason. The PSNI is still predominately unionist, and still includes many officers, especially in the Special Branch, who have committed human rights abuses including collusion in murder. Peter Hain has called the set-up "a final settlement" and many others have spoken in similar vein. But there have been final settlements before: the Act of Union of 1800 which created the term "United Kingdom" and gave us the Union Jack; and the partition of Ireland, and of Ulster, on a sectarian basis, in 1920, ratified under extreme duress with the "Treaty" of 1921.

In my view it is by no means a final settlement, but it is a stepping stone to British withdrawal and the re-unification of Ireland. There are two main reasons.

First, there is now little opposition within unionism, or in the British government, to the building of an all-Ireland economic infrastructure; and economic reunification will lead to all-Ireland political thinking and the need for all-Ireland decision-making.

Second, the Good Friday Agreement is an attack on sectarianism. It outlaws much sectarian discrimination and provides legal means of redress for its victims. It sets up institutions for combating sectarianism, such as the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission, and a still-to-come Bill of Rights.

The report of the Police Ombudsman into a very small part of the collusion can of worms was an example of the Good Friday agreement beginning to bite; Paisley's new persona is another.

Sectarianism, though, is the essence of unionism. For unionist workers, the desire to continue benefiting from sectarian discrimination was the main reason for opposing all-Ireland home rule before partition and for voting unionist since then. Sectarian discrimination, imposed on the Irish people for centuries by Britain, is the material basis for sectarian ideology - those who blame sectarianism on religion are completely wrong. As discrimination is eliminated, sectarianism will disappear, and hence unionism, though no-one can say how soon.

The unmentioned background to all this is the dwindling British interest in, or need for, its Irish colony.

What does the restoration of power-sharing mean for us in Britain? I think it offers new opportunities.

Many people who have refrained from saying anything critical of British colonial rule in Ireland, for fear of being accused of giving ideological ammunition to the IRA, will now feel more free to do so. People who have Irish roots will feel much more free to acknowledge and celebrate them.

More truth about state collusion in murdering innocent people will gradually come out, and there should be less reticence than hitherto about discussing it - though the state will continue to cover it up and to deny it. This offers opportunities to expose just what a vile thing the British capitalist state is.

It's high time for the British left, which has had a blind spot about Ireland, to seize these opportunities and to understand that we must free Ireland in order to free ourselves.

Ken Keable's article originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of Liberation

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2007-07-31 12:00:38.
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