Civil-rights approach remains best option for peace and unity

David Granville looks at the unlikely coalition of forces working to undermine the Good Friday agreement and argues that, whatever its shortcomings, the historic deal continues to offer the best prospects for a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Ireland and an end to partition

WHATEVER THE current hiatus in the Good Friday review process resulting from the DUP's determination to scupper the entire deal and the onset of political campaigning for both EU and local council elections (the latter, in the twenty-six counties only), few commentators are preparing for a satisfactory outcome or a swift revival of the Good Friday institutions.

Optimistic voices have, understandably, been thin on the ground since the Democratic Unionist Party’s eclipse of the Ulster Unionist Party in last November’s assembly elections.

In pursuit of further securing their position as new unionist top dogs, and with the June EU elections firmly in their sights, Paisley and the DUP are sticking to their objective of ‘renegotiating’ (for renegotiating read ‘scrapping’) the current deal, angling for the exclsion of Sinn Fein and calling for a ‘moratorium’ on any future poll on the Irish border for at least a generation.

Trimble, who recently fought off yet another leadership challenge from opponents within the UUP, has all too predictably opted for the trusted path for unionists under fire from within their own constituency: step up the anti-republican, hardline rhetoric in an attempt to show that you are ‘more unionist’ than your unionist rivals.

However, those with a bent for maintaining unionist hegemony in six of Ulster’s nine counties are far from being the only ones eager to see the demise of the Good Friday deal.

On the other side of the political coin stand an array of ultra-leftist and dissident republican forces, which, while numerically small, are equally vociferous in their opposition to the political direction of ‘mainstream’ republicanism and the Good Friday path.

These include Republican Sinn Fein and the Thirty-two-County Sovereignty Movement, breakaways from Sinn Fein linked to military organisations usually referred to in Britain as the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA respectively, and the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), the political wing of the INLA.

There is also a growing body of former Sinn Fein members disillusioned with their the party’s political turn and critical of the internal democracy -- or, as they see it, lack of it.

While all these groups continue to be a thorn in the side of the majority republican party, they are likely to remain marginal for one significant reason: none have been able to articulate a viable alternative to Sinn Fein’s political strategy for achieving equality and the ultimate republican objective of a united Ireland.

For those still hoping for a ‘military solution’, a return to war is attractive to precious few - especially those who have fought the British state to a stalemate and paid the price in terms of personal loss or imprisonment.

An article by IRSP’s Gerry Ruddy of IRSP, posted on the dissident republican website The Blanket (, candidly admits to the absence of a coherent strategy amongst republican opponents of the Good Friday agreement.

By far the most articulate mouthpiece of the dissident republicanism, The Blanket has become the mouthpiece a variety anti-agreement republicans and ultra-leftist socialists.

Some of the criticisms raised are clearly grounded in personal experience and cannot be dismissed out of hand. However, while much of the material and debate is both relevant and worthwhile, it’s prime objective appears to be to criticise and undermine Sinn Fein.

It is an objective shared with both the British and Irish governments, reactionary forces within the British state machine and the other mainstream parties on the island of Ireland, all of whom have something to fear from the political gains made by Sinn Fein.

The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland have also set out their stall in opposition to the Good Friday deal, which they insist prevents class unity and promotes sectarianism, and to Sinn Fein, which they accuse of having ‘gone unionist’.

A regular contributor to The Blanket, it was civil rights movement and doyen of the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland, Eamonn McCann, who inspired the derogatory branding of the mainstream republican party as ‘Sinn Fein the unionist party’- a description now widely used by dissident republicans - which smacks more of cheap political opportunism rather than of any thoughful or justified political analysis.

The party’s characterisation of the Good Friday agreement as a ‘sectarian settlement’, however, is far more serious. The complex d’Hondt system operated in the Northern Ireland assembly - originally created to ensure that unionists were unable to dominate the assembly and block reform - has resulted in sheer farce on a number of occasions. However, to suggest that the Good Friday agreement and the reform programme which accompanies it entrenches sectarianism and encourages communalism is both mischievous, misleading and politically dangerous.

The SWP’s appeal for for working class solidarity, in itself both laudable and desirable. However, in the context of Northern Ireland the party appears to prefer to ignore the legacy of British imperialism, eight decades of sectarian domination and an the unresolved national question - the very issues which continue to divide the working class in this part of Ireland.

As if opposition from these quarters was not sufficient to pose serious problems for the success of the Good Friday deal, there remain powerful forces within the British state, political, police, military and intelligence-community, who wish to continue the ‘traditional’ war against republicans and while supporting unionism and the imperial ‘integrity’ of what’s left of the British empire.

But what of the Good Friday agreement itself and the possibility of it playing a vital role in bringing about a peaceful and just settlement in Ireland - one which contains the best possibility for bringing about the republican goal of a united Ireland.

Republican critics have put forward the argument that the text of agreement ‘copper-fastens’ the union by introducing acceptance by mainstream republican of the ‘consent’ principle ie that the removal of the border can only come about when a majority of the people of the six counties, with its current in-built unionist majority, agree to such a move.

However, rather than a sterile examination of text’s wording, an examination of the political process that the agreement has unleased is what is required in terms of understanding its true potential.

The Good Friday agreement set out a peaceful path towards power sharing and the introduction of civil, democratic and human-rights reforms in the six counties of Northern Ireland under British rule. In doing so it gave notice to unionists, formally, by way of an international treaty endorsed by large majorities in separate referenda north and south of the border in (71 and 90 per cent respectively), that a return to the era of reactionary unionist hegemony was no longer an option.

The historic deal did not mean that Britain was abandoning the union and putting in place a process which would inevitably lead to a united Ireland. It did not address the question of Irish national democratic rights of Irish nationalists in the north of Ireland, denied as a result of Britain’s illegal and forcible partition of Ireland in 1921.

The cessation of conflict, accompanied by fundamental democratic reforms was for Blair and his ministers part of a wider devolutionary plan aimed at modernising, and securing, the union as a whole.

Yet, the wording of the agreement itself is neither pro-unionist nor pro-Irish nationalist. Significantly, however, it does not rule out the possibility of a united Ireland and has helped to create the political conditions whereby supporters of Irish national democracy can work towards such an outcome, politically, in the belief that this objective is attainable within a ‘realistic’ time frame.

While few would argue that any fulfillment of the republican and wholly progressive objective of Irish unity is not immediately on the cards, it is far from wishful thinking to suggest that such an outcome is be possible, for example, within a generation.

To a considerable extent, the success or failure of the Good Friday deal in paving the way for such an outcome will depend on political development on both sides of the Irish Sea and to some degree, on both sides of the Atlantic, especially as these relate to national democratic forces throughout Ireland and their supporters throughout the world, including in Britain.

A reform process based on principles of ‘equality’ and ‘parity of esteem’ -- essentially a continuation of the civil rights strategy of the mid- to late-1960s -- has played a key role in weakening and destabilising Irish unionism, for which opposition to such concepts had been a central plank of their previous hegemony and domination.

To a significant extent, this has been a key underlying factor in unionist opposition to a speedy and full implementation of the agreement and to the faltering and uneven progress made to date.

From the early 1960s Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association correctly identified and advocated, a civil rights approach Northern Ireland, that most corrupt, reactionary and inequitable fag-end of the British empire, as the best path to bringing about a just and equitable solution to the Irish question, undermining unionist hegemony over a period of time. Like the Good Friday agreement, which is essentially a resumption of the civil rights campaign of the 1960s - 30 years on and over 3,500 death later - it had nothing directly to say about the national question. It was focussed on securing those fundamental civil and democratic rights enjoyed by ‘British citizens’ in England, Scotland and Wales but denied to a particular section of the population in the north east corner of Ireland.

However, Greaves and the Connolly Association saw the wider national democratic implications of a campaign for ‘British rights for British citizens’, equal treatment for nationalists whilst they were kept against their will inside the British state. As former Connolly Association general secretary Sean Redmond indicated in his pamphlet Desmond Greaves and the Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (Connolly Publications 2000), there was an on overt political aspect to the campaign against civil rights abuses in Northern Ireland. Greaves argued that a campaign to expose the corrupt and reactioary nature of the six-county state “would place a question mark over its very existence”.

It is no coincidence that unionists from the nominally pro-agreement UUP leader David Trimble to the out-and-out DUP rejectionists led by Ian Paisley remain fundamentally opposed to the civil-rights agenda set out in the Good Friday agreement. The only difference between the two parties is one of degree and a more-or-less pragmatic understanding on the part of the Trimblite unionists that there can be no return to the golden days of unionist domination.

Despite the apparent even-handedness of the agreement, its supporters in the progressive and republican camp see both the legitimacy and necessity of its civil rights agenda while recognising that the political process that this has unleashed has the potential to challenge the political, economic and social ediface upon which unionist hegemony has been based - and lead, in the fullness of time, towards the goal of Irish unity.

The Good Friday process, wherever it leads, needs the continued support of progressive opinion in Britain. Indeed there can be no legitimate reason for opposing the extension of fundamental democratic civil rights to all in the six counties. Ultra-leftist efforts at convincing British and Irish workers that the Good Friday agreement is in itself ‘sectarian’ should also be rejected.

The normalisation of politics in Ireland - north and south - must and will come about, but to suggest that socialist nirvana is on the horizon if only the working class could simply break free of their sectarian constraints, ignores political realities, bypasses the need to resolve the national question and absolves British imperialism of its responsibility for visiting this sorry, reactionary and bloody mess upon its former and current colonial outposts on the island of Ireland.

A slightly shorter version of this article originally appeared in the Morning Star

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-05-26 14:34:49.
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