Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson said, "After 30 years of violence Northern Ireland now has an administration that represents all its people, an executive in which former enemies sit together to produce programs and policies to benefit all."
The Irish Independent editorialized that an "equitable settlement" has at last been found, registering "the futility of violence and the art of compromise." TV and radio chat shows featured round-table discussions and call-in shows on what the United Kingdom's head of state, Queen Elizabeth Windsor, described in her Christmas message as "the very welcome progress in Northern Ireland."
The executive, provided for under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, includes leaders of all the main Northern Ireland political parties: the Loyalist forces that backed British rule, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Ulster Democratic Party (DUP); the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which sought collaboration with British imperialism; and Sinn Fein, which fights for a free and united Ireland. The executive is allowed to make decisions on issues such as health, education, and housing.
What is known as the "Six Counties" remain part of the United Kingdom. Budgets and overall political boundaries continue to be set by the Westminster government, which in turn maintains control over all decisive questions such as army deployment and policing.
For over a year the pro-British UUP and DUP had blocked the establishment of the executive under the slogan of "no guns, no government." The Irish Republican Army (IRA), they insisted, would have to give up weapons before Sinn Fein would be admitted. Opponents of the Irish freedom struggle charge Sinn Fein with being the "political wing" of the IRA, a claim Sinn Fein denies.
The UUP dropped this demand at a November meeting of the Ulster Unionist council when 58 percent of the 829 members present voted in favor of joining the council amid public recriminations. In the face of public criticism by the UUP, the DUP continues to maintain its opposition, refusing to sit on the executive when Sinn Fein is present. It has also orchestrated protests by students against Martin McGuinness who was appointed minister of education.
Similar Unionist infighting has been in evidence in the face of demands by local residents to reroute rightist marches by the Orange Order and other sectarian organizations through Catholic neighborhoods. A protest of the rerouting of a march last July by the government-appointed Parades Commission fizzled when a small fraction of the 10,000 people expected turned out and Loyalist leaders divided among themselves over the action.
The future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a bulwark of reaction in the occupied north of Ireland, is an example of the ongoing struggle in Ireland.
As recently as three years ago, Loyalist mobilizations across the Six Counties, which included sealing off Belfast airport, were the foundation for violence against Catholics by the RUC to help force an Orange march down Garvaghy Road, which runs through the middle of a large Catholic community.
This past September thousands of Orangemen turned out when the Parades Commission approved a similar march by the rightist Apprentice Boys targeting the Catholic area along Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast. Resistance by the residents to the march, and the violence used by the RUC to open the road for the Loyalists, simply fueled the fire of those campaigning for disbanding of the RUC.
Christopher Patten, chairman of the Independent Commission on Policing, issued a series of proposals that fall short of the demand by nationalist fighters for disbanding of the RUC. Patten is a former Tory government minister and the governor of Hong Kong who presided over lowering of the Union flag over the ex-British colony.
Patten's proposals are substantial, however. They include cutting the number of cops from 13,000 to 7,500; a change of name to Northern Ireland Police Service; an end to flying the Union flag over police stations and to the oath of allegiance to the Queen; the provision that officers wear their names on their uniforms; and the demilitarization of police stations. Patten also demands the closure of special detention centers for alleged terrorist suspects, famous for torture of Republican prisoners.
The shattering of the once-solid Ulster Unionist bloc upon which British rule over Northern Ireland has rested is an expression of the broader weakness of British imperialism faced not only with the continued resistance by Irish nationalists but also with sharpened competition from its imperialist rivals. This has put the traditional bipartisan approach to the Irish question under severe strain. A united response by the Labour and Conservative parties in Westminster greeted the establishment of the Northern Ireland executive.
But the Conservative Party leadership has, at various times over the last year, sharply rebuked the government with demands to halt the release of Republican prisoners. It has also forced a House of Commons division over alleged IRA violence and a delay in implementation of the Patten proposals on the RUC.
A debate among Tories has opened on Ireland, part of a broader crisis of the party. A number of newspapers associated with the Conservative Party right have warned against the logic of the measures being implemented. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph wrote of Patten's RUC recommendations: "Instead of being rewarded for holding the thin, rifle-green line in the face of tremendous adversity, the RUC is now effectively to be disbanded. Even by the tawdry standards of late imperial retreat this is a great betrayal."
Commenting on the road traveled by Martin McGuinness in taking his executive post, the Telegraph's Philip Johnston writes: "The only possible conclusion is that he believes that the ambitions of Irish republicans can be achieved by entering the democratic forum. He has good reason for holding this view: at every turn, it is the Unionists rather than Sinn Fein, who have had to compromise their position."
To guard its flank the Labour government had the Queen award the RUC the George Cross, the highest civilian medal for gallantry bestowed by the head of state. Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson, has held meetings with the Orange Order over its demand to parade down Garvaghy Road.
The government has also sought to make clear its commitment to defend British imperialist interests in Ireland by authorizing the surveillance and bugging of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams during the negotiation process, and by insisting that British troops remain in the Six Counties indefinitely.
But army deployment is itself becoming part of the debate. Currently 15 percent of the UK's 102,400 soldiers are deployed in Northern Ireland. At the height of the imperialist assault on Yugoslavia last year, a further 47 percent was committed overseas, a postwar high. As Britain seeks to be a player in the European Union's projections for a 60,000 troop rapid reaction force, pressure is building to reduce an over-stretched commitment elsewhere.
In an end-of-year message to readers of An Phoblacht/Republican News, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams wrote, "When this century began Britain had an Empire. As Empires go it could swagger about the planet as well or better than most other Empires. Now it swaggers no longer. The Empire is finished.... Unionism as we have known it is finished.
"The face of Britain's involvement in Ireland as we have known it is finished also," the republican leader said. "Whether these changes amount to no more than the modernizing of British rule and as a consequence the modernizing of unionism is entirely dependent on whether we, An Phoblacht readers and others, are up to the challenges that are coming." Adams posed that the test "is whether we can establish in the opening decades of the next century the republic which was proclaimed at the beginning of this one. I think we can. I believe we can."
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