THE 25th ANNIVERSARY of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has been celebrated by politicians from the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, Britain, and the USA—both those who originally sponsored it, plus their modern successors. Former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams remarked ‘we’re all in a better place and despite current challenges the future looks bright’!
Hosting ceremonies in Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly and power sharing executive, was highly ironic, given that the Assembly has been shut down for over a year thanks to a boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). This is supposedly in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, one of the fruits of Brexit. In fact, since the signing of the Agreement in 1998, the Assembly and the Executive have been suspended for around a third of the time, due to Unionist walkouts.
Nonetheless the architects of the Agreement, plus President Biden during his less than 24-hour visit to the Six Counties, point to the peace that has prevailed in this quarter century. For a generally war-weary population and young people born since the GFA , this has indeed been welcome. The inability of the Provisional IRA’s guerrilla struggle to force the British out, for all the heroism of militants like Bobby Sands and the Hunger Strikers in 1981, and the British Army’s inability to completely quell resistance, made the ceasefire and agreement inevitable.
However, the GFA enabled British imperialism to readjust, and it was able preserve the northern statelet and ensure a Unionist veto over the continuation of the Border. Sinn Fein were its willing accomplices, selling out their Republican principles for a pact with the US, British and Irish states, de facto abandoning the goal of a united Ireland.
Even the GFA’s mirage of a road to a united Ireland, a referendum on the border, remains within the gift of the British government, who alone must decide whether there is a ‘reasonable prospect’ of securing a majority of people in Northern Ireland for such an outcome. Sinn Fein may well think that it is ‘inevitable’ and indeed Brexit has certainly excited many about the prospects of unity, since the Northern Ireland Protocol leaves the whole island in the customs union with the European Union – hence the DUP’s claim that it severs them from the United Kingdom. But the fact remains that under a Sunak or Starmer government the Unionist veto will remain in force.
So, why is the GFA not the answer to resolving the conflict in the North?
Essentially, because the GFA cannot resolve the democratic deficit at the heart of the Northern Irish state. This was built into its foundation by Britain in 1921, by carving out an arbitrary territory with a Unionist majority and calling it ‘Northern Ireland’. The resulting state was an apartheid regime, where systematic discrimination and repression of the then 36% nationalist/Catholic community was integral to its existence. By 2021 these demographics had shifted so that this community is now the largest minority, and protestants/Unionists comprise a smaller percentage.
The tyrannical Unionist regime that represented this apartheid was organised by the Orange Order, with its supremacist culture and provocative marches through nationalist areas. It saw blatant discrimination in housing and jobs and no nationalist politician or party got anywhere near the reins of government. To enforce all this there was a draconian Special Powers Act enforced by a bigoted police force.
The state was a democratic affront to the people of Ireland as a whole, who had never voted for partition. The border was completely artificial, dividing border communities and devastating the economy of those areas. It was even worse for those people in the North that identified with a united Ireland who, having suffered years of oppression, finally burst out onto the streets in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Further repression, loyalist pogroms and failure to address the question of equal civil rights saw the rise of an armed struggle, led by the Provisional IRA, to attempt to smash that state.
That struggle showed the continuing relevance of the unsolved national question in Ireland. To portray that struggle as essentially a ‘tribal’ feud or the result of religious conflict, with the British government acting as an honest broker, is completely false. The root of the problem has been and remains the British presence which includes their vast panoply of state forces and their long history of repression. The GFA cannot resolve the contradiction of having a British border and a British state in Ireland. The future of the North must be free of British interference and be decided by the will of the Irish people as a whole.
Power sharing sham
Faced with the inability of the British Army ad the Orange State to repress either the periodic mass rebellions by the nationalist population or the IRA’s armed struggle, and given the rise in the proportion of catholics in the electorate, Westminster had to change its way of governing, and end the more overt and noxious forms of discrimination. Thus the GFA, for the first time, attempted to ‘share power’ between unionists and republicans at the level of government. This was of course deeply resented by the forces of hardline Unionism.
Used to a monopoly of power, ‘respectable’ representatives of unionism including the DUP had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this peace process. Despite the GFA’s acknowledgement that the union with the UK was safe, so long as the majority supported it, it wasn’t long before the DUP found excuses to backtrack on their formal obligations under the deal. Unionist intransigence on single sex marriage, the Irish language, women’s abortion rights, not to mention their involvement in various corruption scandals like the ‘Cash for Ash’ scam, have all threatened or interrupted power sharing at one time or another.
To call for the DUP to be given ‘a wee bit of space’ as Gerry Adams has done recently really does sum up the hopeless illusions that Sinn Fein has in the process, and indeed in the nature of the DUP. Now, following the last election, they have been relegated to being the second largest party, and Sinn Fein entitled to the post of First Minister. This is the real reason for their boycott of Stormont. The objections to the Windsor Framework is a pretext and little more.
Power sharing is simply a way of concealing the sectarian divide but blows apart whenever the DUP sense their power and privileges under threat. Fundamentally this is because the GFA has preserved rather than demolished sectarianism. Indeed the power sharing Executive is based on a sectarian hand out of resources that benefit the leading political and middle class elements in both communities.
The working class alternative
Thus the GFA reinforces the sectarian divide. It results in Sinn Fein sharing power with one of the most reactionary parties in Europe, plus agreeing with the DUP to implement British government austerity measures, dictated by their paymasters in Westminster.
In addition the promised ‘peace dividend’ in terms of economic development has been undercut by year after year of austerity, which has cut public services to the bone. It is no surprise that Northern Ireland is the poorest region in the UK and the poorest performing in terms of productivity.
Was there an alternative to the Republican Movement’s abandonment of a failed ‘armed struggle’ for a bound-to-fail phoney parliamentarism? Was there a class based and anti-imperialist alternative to this surrender? We believe there was.
First of all, a ceasefire need not have meant disarming. The historic experience of the nationalist population of repression by British state forces and Loyalist paramilitaries has always posed the need for self-defence of the nationalist communities in times of tension. The emergence of Citizen’s Defence Committees in nationalist areas in the late 1960s pointed to the possible creation of mass and democratically controlled defence bodies.
Secondly, the ceasefire provided the conditions to mobilise the nationalist community in a mass struggle against all the features of the sectarian statelet and end of the British occupation. This should have been combined with a working class action programme, which appealed to the many poor and deprived protestant workers against their bosses as well as workers in the South. Such a programme would have exposed the unionists, addressed class exploitation in the Six Counties and posed the need for united working class power throughout Ireland and an end to the border.
It is that kind of perspective that we need right now to cut against the failures of the GFA. Militant strike action must be organised to resist every cut, protect every job and fight for pay rises in line with the rise in the cost of living. To prosecute this battle successfully will mean rooting out the complacency of union leaderships with rank and file accountability and democratic assemblies in the workplace. This is how to beat Westminster cuts budgets!
Of course, common economic struggles alone cannot foster working class unity. Protestant workers are tied to unionism not just by a felt British identity but by the fear of being an oppressed minority in a future united Ireland—a fate which they were happy to see inflicted on their catholic fellow workers for so long. This carefully nurtured division within the working class has impeded unity in action many times before. Protestant workers have to be won to a political position independent of their bosses and the Unionist politicians that exploit them. They need to be won to a party and programme opposed to all privileges and discrimination, all exploitation, that puts power in their hands too, power to build a new and better society.
North or south, workers who fight hard to protect and extend their economic, social and political rights can expect the same response from their respective capitalist governments. When their present ‘allies’—religious leaders and national capitalists—show how little they represent the interests of the working class, protestant and catholic workers should think afresh about who their true enemies are.
That is why we need unity across the sectarian divide, the better to defend against the bosses and to ensure that sweet talk about ‘peace’ is not used as an excuse to screw the working class. Better to throw in your lot with workers across Ireland and Britain and fight for a society owned and controlled by the working class, a united Workers’ Republic in Ireland, as part of a Socialist United States of Europe. .