Throughout its existence, the Irish peace process has been defined by seemingly endless negotiations aimed at resolving outstanding issues stemming from our recent 30-year conflict. In December we witnessed another month-long apparent talking shop when US diplomats Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, notable for her involvement in and support for the criminal invasion of Iraq, were summoned to Belfast by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson to broker a deal on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the past. The widespread illusion that the US government – one of the most violent and aggressive on earth – can play a progressive role the Irish peace process is one that is continuously promoted by a passive local media and a generally incompetent and unimaginative political class.
Following the negotiations, Richard Haass outlined a number of modest proposals, including a code of conduct for parades and “limited immunity” for ex-combatants, all of which were promptly rejected by the unionist parties. The lack of agreement was greeted with a mixture of derision, disappointment and frustration. But having occurred after twelve months of unionist disarray, which began in December 2012 with the intimidating Belfast flag protests, followed by serious sectarian violence in North Belfast during the summer months, it should have come as little surprise that the Haass talks ultimately failed to deliver as expected.
2013 was a year in which unionist intransigence led to unionist crisis. Having stoked up a climate of hatred and encouraged throngs of angry working-class people onto the streets following the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag on the same number of days as it is flown in Britain, the middle-class DUP and UUP quickly distanced themselves from the inevitable violence which followed – a common feature throughout the history of the six county state.
Subjectively, unionism has changed little in 50 years. Infatuation with empire, social conservatism, homophobia and sectarian supremacy reflect the reactionary nature of unionism’s main representatives, the DUP and UUP. The Progressive Unionist Party, misguidedly lauded by many on the left, fares little better under any serious examination of its politics. PUP leader Billy Hutchinson was present at a loyalist demonstration against the ICTU’s anti-G8 protest in Belfast last June. His associates heckled trade union speakers with sectarian chants and flaunted Israeli flags. Accusing the ICTU demonstration of being “anti-British”, Hutchinson displayed the bizarre paranoia inherent in the peculiar ideology of Ulster Loyalism.
Objectively, however, unionism has transformed dramatically in recent years. In the past, ‘Big House’ unionism – consisting of industrialists and leading politicians – managed to cultivate an alliance with working class Protestants to form an opposition to Irish nationalism and republicanism, as well as “rotten Prods” deemed to be too left-wing. Secure manufacturing jobs and slight economic advantages over their Catholic counterparts ensured the loyalty of many working-class Protestants to the sectarian Orange state and their wealthier co-religionists. This cross-class alliance has proven more difficult to maintain under neo-liberalism, as the previously secure well-paid manufacturing jobs in Loyalist areas have now been replaced by precarious employment or, in many cases, none at all. Harland and Wolff – once the largest shipyard on in the world, employing thousands of people – is now the facade that is the Titanic Quarter.
In 1992, economist Francis Fukuyama wrote that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the “end of history”. Likewise, the Good Friday Agreement was meant to mark the end of Irish history. Everyone was to “move on”, cast aside their contending national aspirations and forget about Ireland’s bitter past. The economic strategy of successive governments in Dublin which promoted low tax rates and enticed foreign investment at the expense of sustainable indigenous development was to be rolled out in the north. A new, bland “Northern Irish” identity was to be created which attempted to normalise the abnormal, beginning a process of political disengagement on the part of the general public. This was a distinctly neo-liberal peace process.
Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the poison of sectarianism continues to thrive. Hideous “peace walls” – now collectively longer than the Berlin Wall – snake their way through working class districts in Belfast, carving out areas designated for the rival tribes. Religious segregation is part of everyday life: our children attend different schools, we live in separate housing estates and we play different sports. Dissident republicans, to the irritation of almost everyone, continue to cling to the immoral, dead end strategy of an unwinnable and unjustifiable armed struggle, which can achieve only the imprisonment of its members and yet more senseless deaths.
That the Good Friday Agreement failed to eradicate sectarianism is common knowledge. The unspoken truth, however, is that that Good Friday Agreement was never intended to put an end to sectarianism. The aim was to institutionalise it and make it manageable. Elected representatives are required to declare which religious group they belong to, with each tribe possessing a veto over the other – a mechanism that was wrongly used recently to prevent an inquiry into alleged corruption between the DUP and construction firm Red Sky.
Despite being more than half a decade into the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, left-right politics have not taken hold in the north. An impotent Assembly, which is entrusted with the same powers as a local council in England, is unable to fully tackle the insidious effects of capitalist collapse. The most contentious issues of the day do not arise from the fact that the region suffers from growing unemployment and a mass exodus of young people who see no future in an economy offering only lousy wages, debt and precarious work. Flags cause a bigger uproar than a crisis at an A&E. Parades still anger people more than welfare “reform”. The past has not gone away. The past is the present.
Faced as we are with two apparently irreconcilable interpretations of the past, the conflict will continue to be a contentious issue. For mainstream unionism, ‘the Troubles’ was merely a spontaneous outbreak of mindless criminality against a legitimate state. Accepting no responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, unionist leaders have modelled themselves as defenders of a normal western democracy, methodically denying the systematic discrimination in employment and housing allocation which existed under unionist rule as well as disregarding the attempted suppression of a peaceful civil rights movement.
A recurring theme in recent Irish history has been the unwillingness of both mainstream and extreme unionists to accept a society in which sectarian domination of one group over another is no longer a reality. They have failed to embrace that reality. Amidst fantastic myths of an imaginary “cultural war” being waged against them, many unionists seem unable to realise that the union with Britain is stronger than it has ever been at any time in history. Republicanism and nationalism have changed. They are now incorporated into the northern state. Indeed, most Catholics, many of whom would even consider themselves to be “nationalist”, support the north remaining part of the UK.
Partition is here for the foreseeable future, something neither sections of unionism nor republicanism can admit. There is, however, little to suggest that this strange six county state will ever be anything other than a dysfunctional, sectarian colonial outpost.
This article was published in the Morning Star