Northern Ireland's strange peace
: Sandy Boyer -- July
Rioting in north Belfast in July
THERE IS an establishment myth that there is peace in Northern Ireland.
The conflict was proclaimed over in 1998. The Irish Republican Army
(IRA) abandoned its war, and the British and Irish governments and
Northern Ireland political parties signed the Good Friday Agreement. It
established a local government, including both Catholic and Protestant
Since 2006, Sinn Fein, which used to be described as the political wing
of the IRA, and Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party have
collaborated in a Northern Ireland Executive with limited power.
Yet today, there are daily attacks on the security forces--the police,
British army and even the British intelligence service MI5. Some are
carried out by so-called "dissident" Republicans who are still fighting
to end British rule. Others involve young people throwing rocks or
bottles at the police.
Conflicts between Catholic and Protestant working-class people have only
gotten worse. Protestant and Catholic young people are clashing
regularly at the interfaces between their neighborhoods.
Families--mainly, but not exclusively Catholic--are being burned out of
In mid-July, there were three days of rioting throughout Northern
Ireland. Police have been hit with gasoline bombs, bricks and concrete
blocks. Shots have been fired at the police and bombs thrown at police
stations. At the same time, Protestant and Catholic teenagers have
pelted each other with rocks and bottles.
Still, the majority of people in both communities at least passively
support the Good Friday Agreement. While the turnout was down for the
recent election for the British parliament, the vast majority of
Catholics voted for a nationalist party (Sinn Fein or the Social
Democratic and Labour Party) and the vast majority of Protestants for a
unionist party (the Democratic Unionist Party or the Ulster Unionist
But substantial minorities in both communities are alienated from the
political status quo.
Republicans thought they fought a war to drive Britain out of Ireland
once and for all. Instead, Sinn Fein is, in the words of one of its
elected officials, "enforcing British rule in Ireland." Many people are
infuriated that Sinn Fein is asking Catholics to join the hated local
Ian Paisley told Protestants that the IRA and Sinn Fein were going to be
decisively and permanently defeated. Instead, the Democratic Unionist
Party is in government with Sinn Fein. Martin McGuiness, one of the
IRA's leading commanders, was the Deputy First Minister of Northern
Ireland to Paisley's First Minister. Unionists were horrified to see
Paisley and McGuiness smiling and joking--so much so that they became
known as "the chuckle brothers."
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UNDERLYING THIS alienation is poverty and deprivation in both working
-- Every winter, more than 1,000 people die in Northern Ireland
because they can't afford fuel to heat their homes, and half of
Northern Ireland families live in fuel poverty.
-- Twenty percent of Northern Ireland families are persistently
poor, while 22 percent of children are growing up in poverty.
-- Thirty one percent of the working-age population has no paid
-- The top 25 percent of Northern Ireland families receives 52
percent of the income while the bottom 25 percent gets only 8%.
But worse is coming. The British government is slashing Northern
Ireland's budget by £521 million (approximately $781 million). This
represents nearly 5 percent of the total budget. The British government
dictates the total size of the Northern Ireland budget. Then it lets the
Northern Ireland political parties decide how to divide it up.
These cuts are especially serious in Northern Ireland because more than
30 percent of the workforce is public employees. Many other jobs depend
on government funding.
What is needed is a movement that unites Protestant and Catholic working
people to fight the cuts. It's very unlikely that any of the
establishment parties will work to build that movement. Until now, they
have all accepted budget cuts and tried to lessen the impact on their
own Catholic or Protestant community as much as possible.
In the current round of looming cuts, the Democratic Unionist Party has
already said that there are "bound to be" government job cuts. Sinn Fein
has announced that old age pensioners will lose free prescriptions and
The People Before Profit Alliance is trying to build a united working
class movement. In Derry, Northern Ireland's second largest city, the
alliance has, at times, been able to bring Catholics and Protestants
together to fight program closings. Eamonn McCann, who was the People
Before Profit candidate in the recent parliamentary elections, says:
With People Before Profit, you get what it says on the label. Our
program is based entirely on raising the interests of the people
left behind by the peace process above the interests of the
profiteers who dominate our society.
Both Unionist and Nationalist parties accept the communal divide as
the axis of politics. In fact, they are products of the divide. But
none of them pursue policies to advance the position of people at
the bottom of either community.
Of course, an Irish working class movement can't be built in the North
alone. People Before Profit is organizing throughout the country and has
already elected five councilors in the south of Ireland. There is no
guarantee that it will succeed. But anything else will be a disaster for
Irish working people--Protestant and Catholic, North and South.