The failure of the negotiations chaired by the US diplomat Richard Haass is a significant failure. This can be seen for three reasons.
Firstly there was widespread initial expectation that an agreement would be reached – these talks are always carefully choreographed and why else had the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein set it up? . Later it was equally widely assumed that some fudge would emerge. In the event no agreement was reached.
Secondly, all the participants declared that the talks were not a failure; all keen not to be seen to be the party responsible for the failure. If they were unimportant this would not have mattered.
Lastly their importance can be seen by recognising why they were required in the first place – because the issues they were to deal with have led to a year of low level conflict and proved the last bit of grit that was gumming up the works of the Stormont administration. Over the last year it has been increasingly impossible to maintain the pretence that the governance put together by the Good Friday Agreement was working even minimally. Ministers were taking each other to court, the smell of corruption was getting more rancid, meetings were not taking place and one representative from the DUP tweeted her approval of the killing of a fellow Sinn Fein MLA in Government.
The latter was a direct result of the bitterness created by a year of loyalist demonstrations against the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the union flag over City Hall on only designated days instead of all day, every day. Apparently this was the last straw; a challenge requiring a demand for No Surrender; a provocation that required movement by not an inch; the final step in the war against the Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist People; one that required that this people stand in defiance because they could do no other. In other words this supposedly existential crisis, like every other of Irish loyalism, invites ridicule before everyone is expected to take the grossly exaggerated claims seriously before then being gently told by the British State that they should be accommodated.
The three issues that the talks dealt with were the legacy of the past, flags and emblems, and parading. The past is not about the past but about the nature of the present. Flags are the symbols that represent this present and parades are the street-level reality of the symbols.
It was widely reported that the talks collapsed because the most extreme fringe of loyalism that has been behind the flag protests would not accept a code of conduct for parading, something the DUP and Sinn Fein had previously agreed to in principle. Such a code might have outlawed paramilitary displays and other unacceptable behaviour. The unionist parties were not quick to deny this. The right to parade past Catholic areas by loyalist paramilitaries, while they are also engaged in drug dealing, extortion and intimidation – mostly of the communities they live in, is the apparent reason for the failure of the Haass talks.
There is some truth in this despite what it says about the character of the Northern Ireland State, which cannot function with any sort of consensus because this consensus must reconcile itself to the most blatant displays of naked bigotry. This cannot be too openly admitted but what we see is the proverbial emperor’s new clothes.
Go to any loyalist parade, say on the 12 July, and you will see serried ranks of smug and arrogant suited men (sometimes women) in bowler hats marching behind temperance banners led by uniformed flute bands, sometimes named after a sectarian killer, playing sectarian tunes to the beat of drums pummelled as violently as it is possible. Surrounding and following the parades will be hundreds of drunken youths in various stages of stupor. This is what you see and appearance faithfully corresponds to essence.
Loyalist parades contain the worst of the petty bourgeoisie and what Marx would have called the dangerous classes. The make up of the latter can be seen in newspaper reports of the court cases dealing with those arrested at loyalist parades. These include middle aged men miles from home who have sunk enormous quantities of beer and cannot remember what they have done. They include Scotsmen who couldn’t get enough of their sectarian fix from attendance at Ibrox every two weeks following the new Glasgow Rangers Football club but have to come to Belfast to worship at the Mecca of bigotry. It includes bandsmen whose reason for failing to stop playing sectarian tunes is that they are so illiterate they could not read the feet-long neon signs put up by the police telling them to stop.
Such classes exist everywhere and are a tribute to the worst aspects of capitalist society. What differentiates Northern Ireland and makes its politics so incomprehensible to outsiders and so intractable inside is that these classes and their reactionary political representatives are sponsored by the State because they are the most vocal and enthusiastic supporters of the State’s existence. This is not so much important as vital when the existence of that state is explicitly or implicitly continually in question.
The main force behind the crisis thrown up by the flags dispute has been the Ulster volunteer Force, which must have hundreds of members and a few thousand followers. It has been repeatedly accused of sponsoring the riots surrounding the dispute, especially in East Belfast, and the conspicuous lack of action by the State’s police force has led even supports of the police to question just exactly what it is up to. Collusion between the police and loyalist paramilitaries is not so much suspected as assumed and mountains of evidence in the recent past has shown the police arm, direct and facilitate loyalist murder gangs. Even after massacres of plainly innocent civilians agents of the police responsible have had their payments from the police increased.
Most recently murals on house walls of armed UVF men have been painted while the police claim there is nothing they can do about it unless someone complains. Such action is of course illegal – try painting your neighbours wall magnolia and you will soon find out. The approach of the Police Service of Northern Ireland however, if consistently pursued, would leave murder as a legal activity unless the victim made a complaint.
The lack of action has emboldened loyalism. When they come under some political pressure because of their drug dealing (or shooting of a young woman reported to be an ex-girlfriend of a UVF boss) the police have issued statements, after much delay, to state that although such and such an attack was carried out by members of the UVF it had not been sanctioned by the organisation’s leadership. So that’s all right then. The police present public alibis for the criminals that the criminals don’t even claim.
Just how they know this is rarely asked and never answered. However it is obvious that only by having agents within the UVF leadership could this be the case. Since the organisation remains largely intact the only conclusion can be that the agents of the police are not there to destroy this organisation but to bend it to the police’s will and this requires that it continues to exist and exercise the power that it does. Loyalist paramilitaries have their uses and these aren’t to help old ladies across roads or collect litter.
I have explained before how relatively small loyalist organisations appear to exercise undue influence on unionism as a whole and in this case the failure of the Haass talk’s is put down to the upcoming electoral cycle in which being the most extreme defender of sectarian privilege is rarely the road to failure.
The talks failed not only on the issue of parades but also on that of flags and dealing with the past. The past includes what all the previous peace process deals have represented – not an accommodation with nationalism but a recognition that unionism had won and thus simply stepping stones to majority rule within the North and the retrieval of all the sectarian powers unionism once held at Stormont.
Close acquaintance with Sinn Fein has demonstrated to unionism that deals can be broken; republicans arrested, threatened and insulted; their ministers taken to court and prevented from implementing policies of their own, and Sinn Fein will do nothing. Nothing except agree with the DUP to call in a couple of Americans and watch while that DUP walks away from its own initiative.
The DUP now say that what nationalism has agreed is nothing but the starting point for new negotiations that will shift the result further to the right. And when the unionists don’t like that street mobilisations, stewarded by the armed forces of the British state, will shift things further right again.
In a society in which over 40 per cent are Catholic and many Protestants are shamed by the antics of the Orange Order and repelled by loyalist paramilitaries this might seem irrational. It leads only to increased political instability in the State they seek to defend. Only the accommodating position of the British rulers, who are the real objects of unionist pressure, make this strategy continue to appear to be realistic. Unionism cannot use a modern day B Specials or army mutiny to directly enforce its demands. It can only succeed where the British allow it.
The problem for unionism is that the British will accommodate the most extreme loyalist actions when it feels it is necessary, and it will provide for increased loyalist privilege, but it will not provoke a crisis that will exclude nationalists from any role in administering the State. This role can become smaller and smaller but the Catholic population is not prepared to accept a return to the old Stormont regime and this is what unionism wants.
In this situation Northern nationalism is not an opposition but merely an obstacle. The difference? With an opposition the possibility of defeat exists or perhaps retreat. With merely an obstacle the possibility of victory is always there. Sooner or later the obstacle might be removed.
There is an opposition but both the British State and loyalism are blessed by its character. Republicanism, real Irish republicanism in the shape of what is termed the dissidents, is the major opposition to both but they have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from a quarter century of armed action. Such action has not, cannot and will not achieve its aim of destroying partition.
In the past it played a parasitic role on the political struggle, appearing to offer a more militant road to freedom, but ultimately collapsing into the arms of imperialism. When the gap between its methods and objectives was eventually closed this led not to a re-evaluation of methods but a ditching of the objective. The building of a united Irish working class movement North and South and within the North itself is therefore a task for socialism. Only it seeks the liberation of people, the class that will liberate all classes, while republicans seek the liberation of an as yet to exist Irish Republic, in other words a new State machine.
For republicans workers are instruments for revolution while for socialists they are the subject of revolution. For republicans workers might sometimes be the best fighters for a Republic while for socialists the liberation of workers is the purpose, the means and the objective.
In concrete reality the adherence to militarism by republicans continues to be the alternative that makes the crumbling peace process – that the Haass talks have failed to shore up – attractive. The prospect of violent political action that substitutes for a political strategy is not at all attractive, except to ideological republicans irreconcilable to British rule and poorer working class Catholics who have gained nothing from the peace process.
This is not an insignificant support but it is not enough to move to a position that threatens British rule. Instead its actions appear provocative in that they easily allow the British not only to hold them up as the horrible alternative to their own sectarian stew but also to justify whatever repression they consider necessary. They also provide threadbare cover to loyalist actions.
In this way the armed actions of republicans have only reactionary consequences. Whether such provocation is meant or is merely considered an acceptable by-product is ultimately of no importance. The result is the same. While socialists must continue to debate with those republicans that might listen on their mistaken road of armed action we cannot do so without patiently explaining their failures, the reactionary consequences of their actions and the alternative strategy.
This alternative involves complete opposition to the sectarian parades of the Orange Order, the claims of unionism to sectarian privilege and the protection of loyalist paramilitaries by the British State.