Ireland still matters

David Granville believes it's time for progressives and democrats in Britain to start talking about Irish politics again

IT'S BEEN almost a year now since I "decommissioned" my previous column One Eye on Ireland, which survives here only as a title for short items. After over two decades of campaigning and writing on the Irish conflict and subsequent peace process, it was time for a period of reflection and reassessment.

My conclusion is that, in a post-Good Friday world, where a return to the civil rights politics has again come to the fore and where the gun and the bomb have been, if not eradicated, then pushed firmly to the sidelines, developments with regard to Ireland remain important on both sides of the Irish Sea - hence the name change.

The experience of developments in the British colonial remnant most commonly referred to by people in Britain as Northern Ireland can be like watching a particularly painful and tortuous event replayed over and over in slow motion.

In some important ways, nothing has changed since my last column of February 2008. The Good Friday process lumbers on in a faltering and ill-tempered manner.

Thanks to a change in DUP leadership and a lengthy wrangle between the party and Sinn Fein over the transfer of policing and justice powers - finally resolved in November 2008 - the devolved executive and assembly have only recently began to function again.

Despite the resulting backlog, assembly politicians still managed a full month's break over the Christmas and new year holidays.

The dispute over policing and justice powers provided new DUP deputy leader Peter Robinson with an ideal opportunity to play hardball with Sinn Fein.

Even so, as an attempt to appease his own backwoodsmen, many of whom are enthusiastic about neither power-sharing nor equality, or as an effort to minimise criticism from unionist rejectionists led by Jim Allister MEP and his Traditional Unionist Voice, it may yet prove to be as ineffective as Gordon Brown's cut in VAT.

While the Sinn Fein/DUP agreement over policing and justice powers should be seen as a positive step, unionists soon found a new bone on which to chew on.

IAt the end of December, supporters of an elitist grammar school system announced that they would maintain selection in secondary schools by circumventing Sinn Fein plans to abolish the discriminatory 11-plus exam.

Unionists continue to take an equally intransigent approach towards another key equality issue for nationalists and republicans - support for the official use and teaching of the Irish language.

Unlike the IRA, loyalist paramilitaries have not only failed to decommission any of their weaponry but continue to feud among themselves and make ominous noises about the need to "keep up the fight" against republicans.

In mid-October, a major loyalist arms cache was discovered in north Belfast, while around the same time, a statement by Frankie Gallagher of the Ulster Political Research Group, a group closely linked to the UDA terror group, menacingly referred to a "new battlefield."

Given the UDA's history of sectarian violence, few will have felt convinced by Gallagher's insistence that he was referring to a battle over the "social economy, jobs for Protestant communities and unionist unity."

Threats of violence from dissident republican groups are also still with us and speculation is rife, especially in British intelligence circles, of yet another possible realignment of these tiny, fractious - but dangerous - forces.

Even though such threats cannot be ignored, we must be clear that neither they nor any supposed threat from Islamic sources can justify the presence of the huge new MI5 HQ situated on the outskirts of Belfast.

The final report of the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday remains the best part of a year away, possibly longer, causing anger and frustration all round.

In attempting to set out why all, or any, of this remains of vital interest to people in Britain, we need look no further than the DUP backing of the Labour government's efforts to bring in 42-day detention for terror suspects.

This draconian and fundamentally anti-democratic measure would not have got through the British Parliament had it not been for the support of the DUP.

Despite denials about a "deal," only the credulous will have believed that the £900 million investment package for the Six Counties, announced in November, did not play a part in the DUP decision to back the proposal.

The wealth of information about the involvement of British state intelligence and security forces in Britain's "dirty war" against republicans continues to cause concern and raise important questions.

This is especially true with regard to the British infiltration of and collusion with both loyalist and republican paramilitary groups.

Regrettably, getting the truth of these matters has been made virtually impossible by the Inquiries Act, which must be repealed to allow full and independent inquiries into these most serious of matters.

Does anyone - apart from those involved - think that directing and participating in acts of violence, including murder, against citizens of one's own and friendly neighbouring states is not a democratic concern for everyone in Britain?

Furthermore, although the last British general officer commanding troops has handed over to a mere "brigadier," around 2,000 British troops remain stationed in Northern Ireland on so-called "garrison duty."

Many others have been shipped out to other areas of conflict, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq, where some will inevitably serve alongside and under some of those directly implicated in criminal acts carried out during the Six County conflict.

Finally, after a courtship which goes back to John Major's leadership of the Tory Party, the DUP's main unionist rival, the UUP, has formally rejoined forces with the British Conservative Party, announcing an electoral alliance for all forthcoming UK and EU elections.

The Conservative and Unionist Party divided politically and geographically in the wake of the 1973 Sunningdale power-sharing agreement and, finally, the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985.

Putting their former divisions behind them, political Conservatives in Britain and the Six Counties are once again happily "remarried," having exchanged vows to support the union, with the possibility of a UUP cabinet-seat thrown in for good measure.

Speaking at the annual UUP conference in December, Cameron stressed that his party was "no longer neutral" on the question of the union. He also closed the book on Peter Brooke's 1990 statement in which the former secretary of state said that Britain had "no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland" by stating that the union constitution was safe in Tory hands and that they again had a "selfish and strategic" interest in the north.

The pact with the UUP certainly will save Cameron's team the bother of having to work up anything resembling a distinctive or credible policy on Ireland.

Labour could do worse than follow a similar path - not one of pledging its troth to the union but of returning to its policy, adopted in 1981, of supporting Irish unity by consent. On the other hand, it should think of going one better this time and commit itself to act as a persuader for Irish unity, though the chances of this happening while ever it needs the votes of the DUP are next to zero.

Nevertheless, this column will continue to try to encourage such a change and to encourage solidarity with those forces in Ireland seeking to end Britain's colonial presence there, while doing whatever it can to throw light on those developments, north and south, which have relevance for the wider democratic and labour movement in Britain.

It may be a tall order, but it's a task we must not shirk from. Hopefully, others who agree - or even those who disagree - will feel able to add to the debate by contributing articles and letters to the Morning Star. Silence is not an option. It's time to acknowledge that Ireland matters.

The above article originally appeared in the Morning Star on 19.01.09.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2009-01-23 13:20:34.
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