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If you believe that times have changed

(November 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘The relationship between the British ruling class and the Unionists is now little more than one of paternalistic contempt’

‘I know it’s a sell out’, a friend said to me recently, ‘but I just can’t work out who’s selling out who.’

This was his reaction to the succession of ceasefires in Northern Ireland. I know what he means. Amid all the euphoria and quite understandable relief there is as yet very little of substance to be analysed about the proposed settlement.

The British and Irish governments claim that the Downing Street Declaration is the basis for a framework for a solution, yet Sinn Fein has already rejected it.

Meanwhile the British government promises the Unionists and Loyalists a referendum on any future settlement, but continues to indicate that no settlement can he imposed on the minority (Catholic) population.

The government assures the Unionists that the union with Britain is safe, yet Major and Mayhew refused to how to the raving bug eyed delegates at their conference who demanded that the Tories should actively campaign for the maintenance of the union.

Mayhew went out of his way to refute the mad assertion of the Tory delegates that there was no difference between Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales. It seems that Thatcher’s assertion that Belfast was as British as Finchley doesn’t quite hold the same sway with the Tory leadership as it used to.

Nevertheless James Molyneaux, leader of the official Unionists, in an interview with the Guardian recently stated that he believed, ‘Northern Ireland’s long term future is now safely within the union.’

He went on to say that he ‘did not understand how Sinn Fein misread it [the Downing Street Declaration] so badly, but quite clearly they have or else somebody’s conned them.’

Finally, Sinn Fein demands demilitarisation and the removal of the Northern police force – the RUC – from Catholic areas, and the government says this is never going to happen.

The Unionists (excluding Paisley) and the Loyalists enter the fray saying the union is safe, while Sinn Fein draws from the same process the exact opposite conclusion – that we are seeing the first steps to a united Ireland.

On the face of it it’s all very confusing. Why should the IRA lay down its arms for an agreement it could probably have got at more or less any time in the last 25 years? Why should the Loyalists lay theirs down if there’s more to the deal with the IRA than meets the eye?

Ah, but supposing there’s rather more being said in private. Supposing if, in the words of Monty Python, ‘A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat’.

Supposing nice Albert Reynolds is assuring Gerry Adams the deal means one thing, while nice Paddy Mayhew is assuring Molyneaux it means another.

No, I hear you say, they wouldn’t do that, they wouldn’t lie, cheat or – to use Molyneaux’s phrase – con.

Why not? Wasn’t it the lying, cheating and conning of a British prime minister and his senior cabinet colleagues that helped in the first instance to create the mess that exists today?

Yes, way back in the dawn of the wretched Northern Irish state, with the partition of Ireland in 1921, Lloyd George and cabinet minister Winston Churchill managed to persuade the IRA to come to the conference table and to reach agreement.

Funnily enough, they managed to do all this without upsetting the militant Unionist bigots of the North. How? Because they secretly assured the Unionists that they would now have their own state, to run as they wished, and to exist permanently.

Meanwhile they assured the IRA negotiators that the Unionists were over a barrel, that there would be a Boundary Commission to look at the wishes of the local populations, that the new Southern state would gain at least two Northern counties or possibly more out of this process. The reduced and undermined Northern state would inevitably collapse and therefore partition was a temporary phenomenon.

This scenario led one IRA leader, Michael Collins, to describe the deal he had accepted as a stepping stone to a free united Irish Republic. (Interestingly enough the phrase ‘stepping stone’ has been uttered by more than one Republican in relation to current events.)

In fact, the British ruling class was tied closely to the Unionists at the time and the conning was all done at the expense of the Republicans. The Boundary Commission paid no heed to the views of the local populations. Indeed it threatened to give some Southern territory to the North.

The Southern delegates hastily withdrew, the Boundary Commission was allowed to die an almost unnoticed death, and the Northern Irish state became a permanent undemocratic monument to sectarianism. The rest, as they say, is pure tragedy.

Of course, times have changed. The relationship between the British ruling class and the Unionists is now little more than one of paternalistic contempt. When they say they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, they are telling the truth.

Conversely, when Albert Reynolds says he does not see a united Ireland in his lifetime, this is not a wistful remark but a heartfelt plea.

The friend I spoke of earlier thinks that the biggest victims of the con this time round will be the Unionists. He may be right, but I wouldn’t sleep too soundly yet if I were Gerry Adams.

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