Time for the real thing?

The Irish Democrat’s northern correspondent Bobbie Heatley argues that Britain’s failure to construct a framework for partial democracy in the north could stimulate calls for regime change of a different kind

THE BRITISH government remains the sovereign power in the north of Ireland, notwithstanding the Good Friday agreement. On it lies the onus for constructing democracy here.

This is solely its responsibility under Strand 1 of the agreement, which relates to ‘democratic institutions in the north of Ireland’. If it continues to demonstrate its inability to achieve that objective, then it has no case whatsoever for holding on to government.

Something more drastic, beyond the Good Friday deal, will demonstrably be seen to be required. Perhaps it is time to think of regime change --after all, it is a concept which Tony Blair has found himself capable of grasping.

The question will come increasingly to the fore: is it not time for full democracy (ie Irish self-government) to be given a try? British governments have had long enough to prove their credentials, and they have manifestly failed.

The sorry saga began when the British partitioned Ireland back in the early 1920s. A one-party system was installed to manage devolution in the six counties, within the UK, and take on the up-front state security functions necessary to keep the strange, undemocratic and malfunctioning entity going.

The problem was that at least one-third of its population --which has now become 45 per cent -- had no wish to be corralled into it.

Those who were not capable of being codded or coerced out of knowing what was their true national -- Irish -- identity, had to be erased from political and cultural life. At least that is what was attempted.

And so, for 50 years, Ulster unionists were permitted by Westminster/Whitehall to administer what one six-county academic described as a “military and bureaucratic dictatorship”.

The police force, the RUC, and its auxiliary, the B Specials, constituted a private army belonging to one political party, the Unionist Party.

The ‘Ulster’ police lot were there to deploy a phalanx of repressive legislation, such as the Special Powers Acts and the Flags and Emblems Act, which prohibited the display of the Irish national flag, edicts which had been openly coveted by the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

Alongside all of that there was deployed discrimination in the allocation of jobs and houses and the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries. Not a savoury sight, and all happening within Her Majesty’s United Kingdom.

When unionists speak about getting a ‘return to democracy’, this must be what they mean. Also, whenever there seems to be a ‘danger’ (in their eyes) of the Good Friday agreement’s internal reforms getting actually implemented, they rise up in opposition, dubbing them “concessions to the IRA” or to republicanism”.

Invariably, the Northern Ireland Office, has bowed to their pressure. Mandelson and his emasculation of the Patten Report on police reform is but one case in point where stalling and obstructionism has been applied.

But this story is a long one and in more modern times it can be said to go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s with the emergence of the civil rights struggle, initiated in the north of Ireland by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA).

This organisation started out asking for the most modest of reforms, one person one vote, an end to gerrymandering and the repeal of draconian laws. Anti-partitionism was not on its agenda and its programme of activities included public demonstrations conducted peacefully and in a non-sectarian manner.

Liberal-minded people and sections of the labour movement in Britain started to become involved. They responded to the urgings of bodies like the Connolly Association, the Movement for Colonial Freedom, some trade union leaders, the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Labour Party fringe group, the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster.

Before it could get its breath on this issue, the Wilson government was removed from office and, when Heath and the Tories replaced it, repression and the pro-unionist bias was let loose like a flood: one-sided internment of republicans, leading to Bloody Sunday, and a quarter of a century of war.

For those wishing to be briefly updated on the interval between then and now, they could do well to read Brian Feeney’s column in the Irish News of 14 May, which traces the road to where we are now in the story of Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Ireland.

Given Tony Blair’s attitudes and behaviour in the recent past, alongside Clare Short’s depiction of his mindset, it is difficult to be optimistic that he may have learned from the misdeeds and failures of his predecessors.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2003-07-17 12:11:31.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2003 Connolly Publications Ltd