GegenStandpunkt main page

Northern Ireland: A British colonial heritage that means nothing but trouble

[translated from GegenStandpunkt: Politische Vierteljahreszeitschrift vol 3-96, Gegenstandpunkt Verlag, Munich, 1996]

After almost two years of peace in Northern Ireland, during which there was already talk of an upswing in investment and the population's growing support for the "peace process," everything has gone back to the way it was. In February 1996, the IRA resumed their war of liberation with bombings in England. In June, the Protestants again announced their "marching season," the traditional victory marches through Catholic districts. The - Protestant - police at first prohibited the marches or suggested less provocative alternative routes to the marchers and blocked the street through the Catholic district in Portadown. After three days of uninterrupted demonstrations at the roadblock they gave up their resistance against the Orange Order, clearing the way for the men with bowlers and orange sashes by beating the Catholics back, for a change. The chief constable justified giving in to pressure from the street on the grounds that the explosive atmosphere made him fear for human lives. When the Catholics rioted in answer to the Orangemen's permission to march, the law-and-order standpoint triumphed once again over the saving of lives. A Catholic was run over and killed by an armored police vehicle during the dispersal of the rioters. Public opinion in Britain and Europe now views the "peace process" to be breaking down.

Obviously, this "peace process" in Northern Ireland could not have been that great. In fact, it has not eliminated any of the bitter hostility that has pitted two nationalistic factions against each other for decades. Protestants versus Catholics it is - but not in a religious war. In this conflict, Catholicism and Protestantism signify nothing other than the will to define oneself either as a subject of the Republic of Ireland or of Britain. The hostile parties are driven by the mistaken idea that life is only worth living under a state ruled by one's own people. The Protestant majority, who feel loyalty to Britain, fight for Ulster's permanent membership in the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland." They defend their rights as genuine Britons when they treat the Catholic Irish, not as Her Majesty's equal subjects, but as the colonially subjugated aborigines they used to be. The disadvantaged Catholics are the nationalistic mirror image of their adversaries. Their sole political will is for the Irish to have their own state, which has already been established in the southern part of the island. The goal of the Catholics' self-determination and fight against discrimination is to be annexed to the Republic.

It does not matter in the least who started it, whether the Catholics responded to Protestant repression by demanding reunification with the people of Ireland, or whether the Unionists countered this desire for annexation, going back to the foundation of the Irish state, by fighting the Catholics and shutting them out of government and business. The hostile parties themselves are only positive that their own standpoint is merely a reaction to the other side's treacherous ways. Nationalism always leads to real inclusion and exclusion, thereby producing the idea of disadvantagedness and humiliation - in a nice circular way - from which it proceeds to derive its socio- moral entitlement and feed its hate. After all, the social hardships which are part of a national class-based society end up being distributed unequally among the various ethnic groups. This certainly doesn't mean that social hardships are the reason for the uproar - if they were, the fronts in Northern Ireland would hardly be made up of fanatical supporters of Irish and British rule, respectively.

Britain: Striving for "normalization" for thirty years

Due to the civil war on its territory Britain feels called upon to establish order. Its interest in pacifying this trouble spot is a matter of course. As long as its national monopoly of force is disputed, a state cannot get any of what it wants from its people, and therefore cannot achieve what it rules them for in the first place. This is why Britain has not - now or in the past - acted as a party within the civil war, even though it has been called upon as such by the Protestant Loyalists and regarded and attacked as such by the Irish Catholic faction. Rather, it has pursued the higher interest of ending the civil war in order to make British sovereignty over the province effective. Ulster was supposed to become a normal province at last and make its contribution to Britain's national product instead of being an everlasting and costly law-and-order problem.

But one thing is certain: Britain was not uninvolved in the emergence of its tricky pacification problem. It laid the foundations itself by creating the political unit of Ulster. The Kingdom released the rebellious Irish willy-nilly from the Union after the First World War, first into the status of a dominion in the Commonwealth as the Irish Free State, and after 1949 into national independence as the Republic of Ireland. While it ended its colonial rule over the island as a whole, it split off and kept six counties in the North. These counties, which are called Ulster today, do not correspond to the old province of Ulster which had nine counties. The six counties were chosen so that the Protestants, who considered themselves British and rejected Irish independence, were secured a majority over the Catholic population which they otherwise would not have had. The right of self-determination that Britain granted was thus set up in such a way that the supporters of the United Kingdom could exercise it effectively. This meant that the same right was denied to the people of Ireland as a whole, as well as to the Catholics in the North. Whoever grants the right of self-determination is also free to determine the composition of the electorate and define the political will that is to determine itself. The Protestants took Britain's dividing line through Ireland - divided self- determination for the 26 Catholic counties in the South and their own six in the North - for what it was: the establishment of their own state within the overall British state. And they acted accordingly. With the population split into two camps, the democratic and highly-praised principle of majority rule was a wonderful means for suppressing the minority and excluding them from all the better positions. The carefully constructed majority situation gave the Protestants a universal legal title: the Catholics had better submit to all the democratic decisions, or qualify as terrorists. The Catholics, of course, contested the legitimacy of this majority altogether and insisted on majority decision by the whole Irish people.

All British governments have sought to pacify this irreconcilable dispute between the two groups since the escalation of the civil war in 1968. However, all attempts at conciliation involve the slightly absurd aspect that Britain must go against its own fanatical supporters when acting as an "arbitrator" between the hostile nationalists. When the Stormont Parliament was dissolved in 1972, ending regional autonomy after the great unrest in the late sixties and putting Ulster under "direct government by London," the British government was admitting that equal rights and opportunities could only be guaranteed in Ulster in opposition to the rule of the Unionists. Institutions such as the Fair Employment Agency, Equal Opportunities Commission, Advisory Commission on Human Rights, and Police Complaints Board, pointed in the same direction. And British soldiers were sent into their first Northern Ireland operation in 1969 as "protectors" of the Catholics against the terror of the Orangemen. But as is to be expected with this kind of intervention in nationalist disputes, thirty years of armed action have not altered the national split in Northern Ireland's population whatsoever. The civil service, particularly the police, are still almost one hundred percent in Protestant hands. The two sections of the population still live in separate cities and districts (the Catholics in the poorer ones). Unemployment - already quite a bit higher in Ulster than on the "mainland" - is still twice as high among Catholics as among Protestants. The British government has been even less successful in bringing the militant nationalism of the majority under control, which would mean breaking with their own fans. They would like to restrain the Protestants from acting in practice as the master race, and force them to practice tolerance. But when there are provocations and confrontations, British state power sees the Unionists simply as "our people" and the Catholics as the disruptive ones. At this year's Orangemen's march through a Catholic district of Portadown, for example, the British did not confront the pro- British provokers. Rather, the police allowed themselves to be blackmailed by the Ulster activists' determination and gave in. In the ensuing riots by the Catholics, they then ran over a Catholic. This destroyed the laboriously built-up picture of "equal esteem" which the British government promised to have for both of the "traditions" and "communities" in Northern Ireland. London will simply not be rid of its peculiar problem that one faction of permanent disturbers of the peace are at the same time the guarantors of Britain being in charge of Northern Ireland.

The attempt to turn an irreconcilable sectarian dispute into a matter for Anglo-Irish negotiation

The dubious successes of its pacification efforts have certainly not prevented Britain from planting its army in Northern Ireland all these years, and acting as if the civil war was nothing but a terrorist riot to be put down by police and military force. However, since the affair was drawing on so long Margaret Thatcher saw a need to negotiate an Anglo-Irish Agreement as early as 1985, no longer defining the "Northern Ireland problem" merely as a "fight against terrorism" but attempting to settle it by Anglo-Irish negotiation. In this agreement Britain conceded that it would bow to a future majority vote on the national status of Northern Ireland even if the vote should be against the Union and for a united Ireland. In exchange the Irish government acknowledged that, despite its constitutional claim to reunification, a change in the province's status could only come about through a democratically declared majority wish in Ulster and that this wish currently did not exist. [Note 1] The purpose of the agreement was to keep the Irish government from tacitly supporting Catholic terror and thereby pacify the province. In exchange, Britain gave Ireland a little bit of recognition for its previously rejected claim to the North, while restricting it to the right to make non-binding suggestions to the British government in matters involving the Catholic minority. [Note 2]

Although Britain's new agreements with Ireland may still be based on the same motive - to improve security and pacify the North - they speak a different language. The Joint Declaration of 1993, and particularly the Framework Document of 1995, speak of "the people of Ireland" or, more cautiously, "the people of the island of Ireland," whose right of self- determination both governments feel a duty to realize. However, they make the execution of this right contingent upon a consensus, not of the majority of the islanders, but of political units on the island - that is, the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland. London now agrees explicitly to what Mrs. Thatcher saw merely as a theoretical possibility:

The British Government...have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland...they will uphold the democratic wish of a greater number of the people of Northern Ireland on the issue of whether they prefer to support the Union or a sovereign united Ireland. [Note 3]
But this condition, which still blocks all change, is not the last word. It is acknowledged that the majority will is not the complete, solely binding political will of Northern Ireland, but that the "substantial minority" disapprove of the status of the province just as much as the majority refuse to change it. The British and Irish governments come up with constructions which appeal to both the minority's desire for reunification and the majority's demand to remain in the United Kingdom. Even though the one completely excludes the other, British sovereignty is to be maintained (until an Irish agreement is made), while the Catholic-Irish claim to reunification advances at the same time:
The diversity of identities and allegiances could be regarded by all as a source of mutual enrichment, rather than a threat to either side. The divisive issue of sovereignty might cease to be symbolic of the domination of one community over another. It would instead be for decision under agreed ground-rules, fair and balanced towards both aspirations, through a process of democratic persuasion governed by the principle of consent rather than by threat, fear or coercion.
To solve this insoluble problem the two governments borrow from the European Union (EU). They are prepared to create new all-Irish authorities composed of delegates or governmental units from the North and South and increasingly hand over political responsibilities to them, thereby removing certain areas from their own sovereignty. In the end, these areas are envisaged to cover almost all state functions, but to start with - significantly enough - only the development of the economy and infrastructure on each side of the Irish border, and the utilization of EU programs for that purpose. The two governments even envisage exerting some pressure against the Unionists in the North, whose consent is still made essential to everything and of course cannot be had: they threaten to push this kind of cross- border all-Irish cooperation even without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, a cooperation between of governments only. The two sides finally commit themselves to an especially strong protection of minorities to be made part of every future settlement of the Irish problem, and repeatedly mention as possible beneficiaries the Protestant population in the North, who might one day be in a minority position - in a united Ireland.

Why is Britain changing its position on Northern Ireland?

It is not often that imperialists cease taking the reach of their power for granted,and no longer resort to any and every means to hold on to their possessions. Britain's first reason for watering down its claim to rule Northern Ireland is the failure of all its attempts to get the place under control, to make it normal so that it could contribute to the nation. Eighty years of merely asserting its sovereignty over the province, thirty years of civil war without any prospect of a settlement, have cast doubt on the nation's imperialist credentials, raising the question as to whether the effort is worth it.

This is especially so now that the British state is no longer a military empire held together by war, and therefore the use of military force no longer makes sense as the acid test and overriding criterion for its success. In hindsight, Mrs. Thatcher's 1980 war over the Falkland Islands looks like a feeble attempt to revive "Britannia ruling the waves." Militarily, Britain is no doubt today an important allied power which rules the globe together, but only together, with the other major capitalist powers. Economically, it is an EU partner and its task and criterion for success is to prove itself as a European location for capital accumulation. In neither regard does a laborious but inconclusive proof of Britain's power in Ulster contribute to Britain's weight. Instead, the third largest EU power offers the picture of an unfinished, unstable state incapable of ending a civil war in one of its provinces and whose rule is not properly based on the will of the people. This also puts the country in a - now - dysfunctional conflict with its neighbor Ireland. It makes Britain vulnerable to attack by other partners and competitors - Thatcher's "international dimension" and "international opinion." While the - more or less equally-ranked - EU partners refrain from interfering, ignore the civil war and treat it strictly as a domestic affair, the United States, which sponsored the founding of the Irish republic in the first place, now poses as the supreme mediator, relegating even Britain's role to that of a mere party to the dispute. At a more mundane level of foreign policy, the US has been busy for some time preventing the province from being pacified according to the British recipe. It allows its own Irish community to collect money for IRA weapons, and makes it clear to the British by diplomatic means that an eternally unresolved sectarian conflict cannot remain an internal British affair. It eased the ban on Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, and allows its chairman, Gerry Adams, to enter the country and spread propaganda for his cause. This is how the US contributes to Britain's urgent need for a solution.

On the other hand, the EU has freed Ireland from its status as a British hinterland and has made it a truly independent state capable of procuring its own national resources. The Republic now confronts Britain as an equal power in the conflict over Northern Ireland as well.

The founding of the Irish republic, involving as it did the partition of Ireland between the Irish Free State and the colonial power, subjected the new state to the prerogatives of its big neighbor, and therefore also damaged Irish nationalism. Ireland acquiesced in the role of underprivileged little neighbor and did not actively push the reunification policy "mandated" by its constitution. [Note 4] However, it never denied the legitimacy of the Catholics' desire for annexation in Ulster. In practice the Republic has been a safe haven and thus a necessary means of existence for the IRA. Since the country's membership in the EU has allowed it to bypass Britain, the biggest purchaser of Irish goods, in the acquisition of markets and invested capital, it has become less and less susceptible to British pressure. Ireland only distanced itself from the IRA's terror, and even helped Britain to a certain extent in its fight against terrorism, in exchange for Britain's acknowledging its right to intervene in Ulster. The agreements of Sunningdale in 1973 and Hillsborough in 1985 up to the Joint Declaration of 1993 and the Framework Document of 1995 mark steps in this direction. Britain's series of attempts to procure police help from Ireland in fighting the IRA, while at the same time exploiting the trust of Ulster's Catholic minority in the Irish government by seeking joint agreements, i.e., agreements acceptable to Catholics, has given Dublin an increasing, legally recognized say in the affairs of Northern Ireland - to the point of Britain acknowledging the legitimacy of Ireland's claim to strive for integration of the Six Counties into the Republic - only by peaceful and democratic means of course.

In the Northern Ireland "peace process," Britain and Ireland have made a common purpose. That does not mean the end of their disputes over Northern Ireland; the abundant quarrels and complaints between the two states instead betray the extent to which each side's demands are taken as interference by the other. In giving up its unconditional claim to sovereignty over Ulster, Britain has not announced its withdrawal from the island; it has not given up its sovereignty over Northern Ireland, not simply left the "Northern Ireland problem" to the Republic of Ireland. But it has watered down its claim by making it a matter for negotiation with Ireland. This has opened up a new round of Anglo-Irish diplomacy over Northern Ireland. Ireland feels entitled to make demands on its big neighbor. It is loudly indignant about Britain's tolerating the Orangemen's marches; its foreign minister and current EU Council chairman, Richard Spring, threatens to bring the dispute before EU committees in case of British intransigence. Although Major's government no longer insists on British sovereignty at the end of the "peace process," it insists on British sovereignty over this process. It does not regard Britain's sovereignty over Ulster as being at all lost, but wants to be fully sovereign in granting the islanders the right of self- determination and in defining and guaranteeing the fair exercise of this right.

The agreement between the British and Irish Governments stokes the fires of nationalist madness even more

From the higher viewpoint of wanting to improve their mutual relations as EU partners, Ireland and Britain have thus agreed on a new diplomatic modus vivendi in the Northern Ireland problem. The only hitch is that this diplomatic path is unacceptable to the IRA and Ulster nationalists both. In fact, the two nationalist warring parties see the agreement between the governments of the nations they each desperately want to belong to, as a danger to their just causes.

The generous offer made to the two warring parties is therefore not an offer at all, but rather a threat to each:

The Joint Declaration itself represents an important step towards this goal [peace], offering the people of Ireland, North and South, whatever their tradition, the basis to agree that from now on their differences can be negotiated and resolved exclusively by peaceful political means.
Too bad nobody in Northern Ireland wants that. After all, the "differences" between the parties are about belonging to Britain or to Ireland, national self-determination for us and national suppression for the others, or vice versa - them or us! Anything less offered by Britain and Ireland cheats each nationalism out of its prime right, national allegiance. The offer to negotiate means to each party that its rights are now in jeopardy and must be defended more than ever. The warring parties only go along with the series of negotiations started by the British and Irish governments because they have to show cooperativeness to avoid losing the support of their particular protecting power.

The IRA ordered a voluntary, unilateral cease-fire on August 31, 1994, but will not accept the British government's demands for all-party talks, renunciation of "armed struggle" and supervised disarmament. This warring party is not prepared to buy diplomatic recognition at the price of no longer being a power to be reckoned with, after having gained its acceptance as a negotiating party solely from its weapons. It is not willing to abandon everything for the negotiation process, which it fears with good reason to be a way for Britain to isolate it, split the Catholic front and finally squash it. After all, the British offer makes all progress contingent upon consent within Northern Ireland, that is, the will of the Protestant majority - a variant of the "internal solution" which the Catholics fundamentally refuse. The British, who meanwhile condescend to negotiate with "former terrorists," refuse to negotiate with active terrorists, "under the threat of IRA weapons." Citing other cases when Britain withdrew from its colonies, the IRA insists on just that; for Britain to acknowledge this analogy would amount to a prior decision on crucial legal issues. These mutually exclusive preconditions for talks prevent the much-touted peace process from getting going at all - and after eighteen months of quiet the IRA feels entitled to start bombing again to force Britain to be "genuinely" willing to negotiate. The all-party talks are meanwhile being held, although without Sinn Fein, the crucial party whose discontent was to be integrated. Sinn Fein is shut out because the IRA will not promise a permanent cease-fire and reserves the right to disarm only after a peace agreement has been reached.

The Protestants stick to the other side of the Framework Document and fight it for that reason. The prospect of increasingly broad all-Irish settlements going as far as the annexation of their province to the Republic is for them paramount to Britain betraying Her Majesty's most loyal subjects. They agitate against the "traitors of Westminster" and fight Britain's policy of British sovereignty over Ulster. Ian Paisley, the Unionists' clerical agitator, preferred to be thrown out of Ten Downing Street by Prime Minister Major rather than accept his promise of not having long since sold Ulster out to the Irish in secret annexes to the Joint Declaration. Britain's lever against the Protestants is that they are dependent on British willingness to stay in Northern Ireland. The Protestants' lever in their fight against London's willingness to make concessions is Britain's claim to sovereignty over the peace process and its precondition of peaceful relations. The Protestants' - likewise temporary - renunciation of terror goes hand in hand with deliberate provocations by members of the Unionist master race in Catholic districts, which can always furnish proof of the need for the British to keep order and of the terrorist nature of the Catholic organizations.

This is how the "peace process" in Northern Ireland will take its course - everyone will be able to regret its "setbacks" from time to time. Unless of course the people on the island of Ireland actually think of asking themselves what they would get anyway from being the most loyal subjects of Britain or Ireland. Which, unfortunately, in all the commotion, there isn't the slightest sign of.


Notes

1. Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which is confirmed in all following agreements:
The two Governments a) affirm that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland; b) recognise that the present wish of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland is for no change in the status of Northern Ireland; c) declare that, if in the future a majority of the people of Northern Ireland clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a united Ireland, they will introduce and support in the respective Parliaments legislation to give effect to that wish.

2. Margaret Thatcher on the Anglo-Irish agreements:

My own instincts are profoundly Unionist. ... Any Conservative should in his bones be a Unionist. ... For the right of those whose loyalties are to the United Kingdom to remain its citizens and enjoy its protection I believe that no price is too high to pay. ... I started [in my diplomacy with the Republic of Ireland] from the need for greater security, which was imperative. If this meant making limited political concessions to the South, much as I disliked this kind of bargaining I had to contemplate it. ... We knew that the terrorists went over the border to the Republic to plan their operations and to store their weapons. We got no satisfactory intelligence of their movements. Once they crossed the border they were lost. Indeed, we received far better intelligence co-operation from virtually all other European countries than with the Republic. ... The best hope on both accounts [banning the IRA in the South and police co-operation across the Irish border] seemed to lie with an Anglo-Irish agreement which would acknowledge in a public way the Republic's interest in the affairs of the North, while keeping decision-making out of its hands and firmly in ours. ... The need for Irish help on security was evident. ... But it was clear that the Irish would expect a good deal in return. ... Most of [their] ideas were impossible, implying some kind of joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland. ... I was not at any point prepared to concede this, but at the end of May [1984] I authorised Robert Armstrong to develop the idea of a consultative role for the Republic in Northern Ireland. ... The Irish always had difficulty understanding that joint sovereignty was a non-starter. ... In [the reply of the then Irish prime minister Haughey to Thatcher's protest against his speech attacking Britain's Northern Ireland policy in the US in April 1987] he reaffirmed in the strongest terms his opposition to terrorism, repeated his commitment to the Anglo-Irish Agreement and conveyed his personal support for security co-operation. But the statement also showed what we were up against; for he made clear that his whole approach was based on the objective of a united Ireland and that he saw the Anglo-Irish Agreement as a staging post to that. That was utterly unacceptable to us. ... It slowly became clear that the wider gains for which I had hoped from greater support by the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland or the Irish Government and people for the fight against terrorism were not going to be forthcoming. Only the international dimension became noticeably easier to deal with as a result of the agreement. ... It never seemed worth pulling out of the agreement altogether because this would have created problems not only with the Republic but, more importantly, with broader international opinion as well. (Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, from the chapter "Shadows of Gunmen," pp 379-415.)

3. This and all the following quotations are from the Framework Document 1995, A shared understanding between the British and Irish Governments on the Joint Declaration of 1993.

4. Articles 2 and 3 of the constitution passed in 1937 and still valid today:

Article 2. The national territory consists of the whole island of Ireland, its islands and the territorial seas.

Article 3. Pending the re-integration of the national territory, and without prejudice to the right of the Parliament and Government established by this Constitution to exercise jurisdiction over the whole of that territory, the laws enacted by that Parliament shall have the like area and extent of application as the laws of Saorstát Éireann [Republic of Ireland] and the like extra- territorial effect.


GegenStandpunkt main page