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11 July 1996

The sectarian peace process

Mark Ryan looks at the cause of the recent violence in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is once again plunged into violence. The RUC's decision not to allow Orange marchers through the Catholic Garvaghy Road area of Portadown has led to the scenes many thought were a thing of the past. Newspaper coverage has suggested that the bad old days are back, that what we are witnessing is a return to the early days of the war, the 1974 Ulster workers' strikes, burning barricades, Catholics driven out of their homes, sectarian murders.

It is not a re-run of the past however. There is something very new happening here - and something much more dangerous. When the peace process became public knowledge back in 1993, Living Marxism predicted that by giving the impression that real change was taking place, it would inflame sectarian hatreds rather than dampen them down. That is precisely what is now happening. The violence taking place in Northern Ireland is a product of the peace process, not a threat to it.

Living Marxism always repudiated the suggestion that the Irish war was a sectarian conflict. For as long as the republican movement put the blame for the injustice, violence and discrimination in Northern Ireland on the British government and sought to remove that cause, then the struggle was just and democratic. With the peace process, however, all that has changed. Sinn Fein/IRA now want an 'agreed Ireland' which the different factions will negotiate about at all-party talks. The new role envisaged by Sinn Fein for the British government is to persuade the unionists of the benefits of Irish unity - in other words, that the government can now act an a neutral arbiter in the internal feud taking place within Northern Ireland. Shorn of all the sanctimonious calls for peace and reconciliation, this is a perspective which incorporates a sectarian perspective, and one to which just about every party and government subscribes. The problem is no longer the British government, but the divided people of Northern Ireland. The peace process has turned a war of national liberation into a sectarian conflict.

The most immediate focus of the new sectarianism is the Orange marching season. Since the peace process began the ugly spectacle of loyalist sectarianism has taken on a new significance. The traditional paranoia about nationalist conspiracies has been powerfully reinforced by the reconciliation that has taken place between the Dublin government and Sinn Fein. As far as unionists are concerned, the IRA is now pursuing its aims with the help of Dublin. Unionists believe that the Garvaghy parade was stopped at Dublin's insistence. The appearance of three Irish TDs (members of parliament) as 'observers' at Garvaghy Road only reinforces the belief that Dublin is meddling in the affairs of Northern Ireland. Added to all this is the involvement of the Clinton administration. Although unionist MPs have played the supplicant to Washington like everybody else, US sympathies will always be tilted towards Dublin rather than towards the unionists. The strenuous objections from Ian Paisley to US senator George Mitchell's chairmanship of the all-party talks indicated the depth of unionist suspicion.

The tragedy is that there is no pan-nationalist alliance, or at least not one which is aimed at ending British rule. From Sinn Fein/IRA to the Dublin government all shades of nationalist opinion accept the framework of British rule. They accept the lie put forward over the years that Britain is only there to keep the peace, and that it is up to the people of Northern Ireland to come to some agreement of their own. The pan-nationalist alliance no longer even rhetorically aims for a united Ireland, but for the protection of the nationalist community within the framework of British rule.

The acceptance of a sectarian framework is evident in the way Sinn Fein/IRA has turned itself into a community protection service. In the past nationalists always rightly protested at parades of Orange triumphalism through Catholic areas. However in the context of the war against Britain, resisting triumphalism was seen as part of a broader struggle to put an end to the cause of sectarianism. Without that broader struggle, the Sinn Fein/IRA community protection service is just another part of the sectarian landscape.

The worst thing about all this is that the British really do look like neutral arbiters now, a role which they always sought but which nationalists denied them. It is not surprising that the RUC chief constable Hugh Annesley has stuck to his guns over Portadown. A lot of exhausted policemen is a small price to pay for a major propaganda victory. The sight of the once-hated RUC gallantly separating two sectarian tribes hooked on violence can only warm the hearts of the authorities.
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