The huge vote, North and South, in favour of the 'Good Friday Agreement' shows that the vast majority do not want a return to pre-ceasefire violence. Can this agreement get to the root of the sectarian problem and deal with the hatreds, fears and suspicions that have bedevilled our country? Andrew Flood looks at the prospects.

Peace deal offers sectarian war or sectarian peace


The agreement represents a new consensus for Ireland, that the island is populated by two tribes of irrational savages who must forever be monitored lest one side gain advantage over the other. Under the deal the wisest representatives of these tribes, supervised by the British and US governments, will gather on a regular basis to fight for the scraps that are provided.

The agreement offers nothing except a sectarian division of the spoils. From here on politics in the six counties is officially divided into Unionist, Nationalist and Other. In regard to the assembly the agreement states

"At their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity - nationalist, unionist or other"

The 'Other' are very much second class citizens as

"arrangements to ensure key decisions are taken on a cross-community basis;

(i) either parallel consent, i.e. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting;

(ii) or a weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting".

In other words instead of a unionist veto we now have both a unionist and a nationalist veto. This makes it almost impossible to develop any sort of non-sectarian parliamentary party as its vote simply wouldn't count in vital decisions. Anarchists have little time for parliamentary politics, we are against any division into leaders and led but what the peace agreement has created is a system where even a Labour party is almost impossible.

Is it better than an ongoing and increasingly sectarian war? Yes! But it is a step sidewards. It is for this reason that we refused to vote for or against it, choosing to abstain.

The failure is ours!

It is a damning indictment of all who identify themselves as left-wing (or even liberal) how little opposition there has been to this aspect of the deal. Within 'republicanism' the only opposition was based on the crudest of 'four green fields' nationalism and the resurrection of corpses as holy relics to ward off a 'sell out'. Some socialist organisations actually ended up supporting this nonsense, in calling for a no vote without presenting any realistic alternative to the 'back to war' brigade.

The parliamentary 'left' however not only accepted the deal, they tried to present it as the best thing since sliced bread. This dishonesty can only be described as incredible. The agreement as outlined in the first paragraph not only accepts but promotes the most reactionary view of the working class on this island possible. In 1798 the United Irishmen asked "Are we forever to stalk like beasts of prey through fields stained with our ancestors' blood?" Today's 'republicans', whether pro or anti-deal both seem to be answering 'Yes'.

The agreement is a consequence of the failure of republicanism and the left to win over any significant section of northern Protestant workers to an anti-partitionist stance. Right now this failure is so complete that this may seem like an impossibly utopian project. But historically, both spontaneously and catalysed by left activists, sections of the Protestant working class in the north have proved open to such a strategy. Most famously when 500 Protestant workers from Belfast joined the Bodenstown Wolfe Tone Commemoration in 1934.

Such a strategy however required one sacrifice the republicans would not make, that was to 'break the connection with capitalism' and fight for a '32 county workers republic'. In truth though after independence far too many republican activists saw the fight as one to extend the clerical state in the south into the north, albeit with them in the driving seat. In any case making a link with working class northern Protestants would have meant breaking the link with the southern ruling class and the Catholic church.

Since partition, despite executions and excommunications by their 'friends', most Republicans have viewed that link as sacred above all others. So in 1934 Bodenstown those Protestant workers were physically driven off the march.

First time as tragedy, second time as farce?

It is deeply ironic that the agreement comes 200 years after the great rebellion of 1798. It is claimed that during the rebellion the English Viceroy boasted it would be crushed so brutally that the cause of the United Irishmen would be set back for 200 years. This it now appears was an underestimate. 'Republicans' seem to have given up on the great promise of that rebellion "to substitute the common name of Irishman for Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter".

So why have we arrived at such a dead end? There are two reasons, the first in the absolute failure by the left to promote any alternative vision capable of winning people to the fight for a better society. This is not just an Irish problem but an international one as the left promoted one lame duck dictatorship after another.

Secondly the rules of the game are changing. Any conflict between the ruling class of Southern Ireland and the ruling class of Britain is being buried by their joint need to efficiently manage the European workforce. They both pushed the agreement because the question of which of them manages capital in the six counties, is far less important than the removal of an ongoing instability in the European political system.

In many ways the deal is to their advantage. The costs of having to occasionally police the annual confrontation at Drumcree and elsewhere may well be outweighed by the knowledge that northern workers face major difficulties in uniting against the demands of European capital. Early May saw an 11 day strike by Danish workers for one weeks extra holidays, no doubt our rulers are hoping we'll be too busy fighting about who can march where to ever dream of such a thing.

For anarchists looking at the future the old saying 'if I was going there I wouldn't start from here' rings particularly true. It is all too easy to despair that the tiny numbers of anarchists who are active will be unable to point to an alternative. But here is where we are, so here is where we have to start from. Northern workers have united across the sectarian divide in the past to fight on economic issues, this will happen again in the future. We need to be in a position when this happens to turn that fight into a fight for an anarchist Ireland.


This article is from Workers Solidarity No 54 published in June 1998