The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA), signed a quarter of a century ago in April 1998, was promoted then and is being celebrated now, as a peace agreement to end the 30-year armed conflict between Irish republicans and the British state assisted by its local militia allies within unionism. Prepare to hear the usual empty political rhetoric as an ageing generation of “international peacemakers” (Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern et al.) return to the world stage in April, with a new generation of acolytes, for a glitzy showbiz encore focusing on the success of the imperialist alliance of the USA, Britain and the EU in “solving the Irish problem”.
The GFA is predicated on the fallacious denial of the role of British imperialism in Ireland, i.e., that it is an “honest broker” keeping the peace between Catholics and Protestants, while ignoring the fact that these divisions were fostered by British imperialism to safeguard its position in Ireland. For centuries, in pursuit of its exploitation of Ireland’s material resources and the extraction of surplus value from Irish labour, the English, then British, ruling class has followed the dictum that might is right as it sought to subjugate Ireland.
However, British rule in Ireland has not been uncontested. While the Irish elites have always put their own class interests first and compromised with imperialism, Irish democratic forces have never accepted that Britain has any right to be in Ireland. During our long national struggle, from the 18th century United Irishmen to the present, a number of basic republican tenets have been developed.
Foremost among these are demands for economic as well as national democracy; for equality, solidarity, internationalism and citizenship. These values are enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation and the 1919 Democratic Programme. They were summed up by James Connolly when he stated that, “The reconquest of Ireland must mean the social as well the political independence of every man, woman and child in Ireland.”
Just over one hundred years ago, facing armed revolt in Ireland, British imperialism was forced to compromise with the Irish bourgeoisie. The democratic demands of the majority of the Irish people for a united, independent republic were rejected and Ireland was partitioned into a neo-colonial state in the 26 counties while the other 6 counties remained as a British colony with an apartheid system of institutionalised sectarianism and discrimination. Maintaining this apartheid system in the north of Ireland demanded ever increasing levels of repression and eventually led to thirty years of armed struggle by republicans and the increased use of state terror by Britain.
The Communist Party of Ireland opposed the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) which developed as a reaction to British State repression. As a party we are not opposed in principle to armed struggle, indeed our party took part in the War in Defence of the Republic in 1922. We opposed the armed campaign because it did not weaken British imperialism in Ireland, but it objectively helped it to increase its grip on Ireland as a whole and increased divisions among the class forces who were objectively anti-imperialist. This position in no way cast a slur on the sincerity, the commitment or the courage of those Republicans who engaged in armed political actions, and it did not belittle those who paid with their lives or were incarcerated in prison. The Communist Party of Ireland thus welcomed the unilateral ceasefire declared by the PIRA, maintaining that the ceasefire did not mean the abandonment of the anti-imperialist struggle, rather moving it to a new terrain, to the possibility of mass mobilisation around demands for democracy and sovereignty.
The “Peace Process” has allowed imperialism to renegotiate itself out of the defence of a failed state and its support of sectarian ascendancy into a new accommodation with its class allies in Ireland, the US and EU, more in keeping with the 21st century. Sinn Féin did not use the new situation to develop mass mobilisation behind demands for national, economic and social advance, preferring instead to take part in “negotiations” with representatives of British, US and EU imperialism.
The Irish government’s role was to reassure republicans that they had their backs and were honest brokers and a guarantor of nationalist interests in the 6 counties, while at the same time ensuring that both the balance of political and economic power and the class status quo in Ireland remained intact.
The institutions and processes established under the GFA represent a high point in British imperial achievement, in not only gaining national and international acceptance of its racial and sectarian narrative about Ireland, but in recruiting large sections of the republican movement to that acceptance. Meanwhile, the Irish state has jettisoned Articles 2 & 3 of the Republic’s Constitution which provided a constitutional underpinning to the democratic right of the Irish people as a whole to sovereignty, unity and independence. The limited economic and political interests of the Irish ruling class had been satisfied with the 1921 political and constitutional settlement – they were only too happy to delete Articles 2 & 3.
The Communist Party of Ireland recognises that the centre-piece of the GFA settlement, the Stormont Assembly, is in fact an institutionalisation of sectarianism, where nationalist is pitted against unionist in the futile pursuit of gaining dominance over each other within a set of institutions designed and incorporated to deny any real control of their respective lives. The GFA’s allocation of the entire population into separate sectarian camps and the institution of mechanisms for ensuring that decisions are weighed to ensure sectarian balance, make competition ‘between the two communities’ the main dynamic for politics in the north. It cements rather than weakens the sectarian division and makes the achievement of working-class unity more difficult. It is also the complete antithesis of the republican principle of unity of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter.
The ‘peace dividend’, promised by the GFA’s proponents in 1998 as a result of British demilitarisation, failed to extend beyond a small section of the nationalist and unionist elites. A 2016 report on educational attainment in the region found that the gap between the lowest and highest skilled was higher than any OECD country. ‘Northern Ireland’ entered the global pandemic with nearly one-in-five people living in poverty. This figure consists of 110,000 children, 190,000 working-age adults and 30,000 pensioners. Poverty is highest among children – around one in four children in the region are living in poverty (24%).
The Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby, said child poverty was a severe problem in ‘Northern Ireland’, where families are bigger on average, meaning the limit on universal credit to two children is acutely felt. The terms of the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 placed a legal duty on the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly “to adopt a strategy setting out how it proposed to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need”. In 2016, the High Court of Northern Ireland, in a Judicial Review, brought by the Committee on the Administration of Justice, ruled that the Northern Ireland’s executive’s failure to adopt an anti-poverty strategy was unlawful. In 2023, this has not been remedied. Thatcher-era anti-trade union legislation has also been retained by Stormont. The starkest evidence of socio-economic inequality, post-conflict angst and generational alienation is reflected in the shocking mental ill-health and suicide statistics since the signing of the GFA.
The role of Stormont is to provide a democratic facade to the continued denial of democracy in Ireland, while executive power such as trading agreements, the granting of border polls, the timing or cancellation of democratic elections and revenue raising and taxation in the six northern counties all remain firmly in the control of the British ruling class.
Sinn Féin has grown in strength in electoral terms north and south. However, its one time open and total opposition to the EU has been replaced with critical support. It has moved from an anti-imperialist position and is now administering the current British settlement which is geared to fostering sectarianism and institutionalising division. Acceptance of this British settlement means now accepting the bogus “consent” approach which endorses the British claim that it is an independent neutral force whose only role in Ireland has been to keep the warring tribes apart. The “consent” formula copper-fastens the unionist veto over national unity. Its acceptance means the abandonment of one of the key tenets of republicanism.
All struggle has now been reduced to elections north and south. All political engagement and demands are contained within the economic and social framework imposed by imperialism. There is no longer any challenge to imperial hegemony either US, EU or British. The British and the EU have created a whole network of economic dependency structures across Ireland, north and south, thereby silencing groups and organisations whose funding is dependent on grants and financial scraps.
The GFA has locked SF into the straightjacket of imperial needs and interests. The negotiations leading up to GFA and subsequent additional agreements that underpin the current situation exposed the political and ideological weaknesses within Irish republicanism. It exposed its weak and underdeveloped understanding of the nature of imperialism as a development of capitalism and of how it controls and determines the lives of our people.
Securing national and economic democracy has always been central to the socialist republican tradition. These are not achievable within the confines of the GFA. Imperialism and the Irish establishment have cleverly manoeuvred the political and ideological discussion around the GFA so that all those who oppose or question it are defined as “dissidents” and who only want a return to a failed strategy of militarism. It is a strategy designed to silence all and every criticism. The last 25 years has seen the reshaping of republicanism to meet the needs and interests of imperialism in Ireland and globally.
The most recent Windsor Agreement further reinforces the marginalisation of Irish democracy. An agreement negotiated and signed by two imperial blocs to satisfy their own interests with no input from any of the forces who claim to represent Irish national democracy. The needs and interests of the Irish people were marginal in the whole process.
The twenty five years’ experience of the GFA has been one of the consolidation of imperialist control and influence. It has reinforced inequality and submission. Partition is still entrenched, if not more so, within the political institutions that control our lives. The struggle for national unity, national independence, sovereignty and democracy continues. British imperialism and imperialism in general can distort and attempt to restrict the democratic aspirations of the people of Ireland, but they cannot stop them.