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
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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