Thoughts on the Six Counties

the_buddy_system-s.jpgYesterday’s attack on a British army base in Antrim by the Real IRA will have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with politics in the six counties or who’s spent even a small amount of time there.

What has always seemed clear is that the peace process in Northern Ireland was cobbled together in state rooms and government ministries. It involved throwing money at the communities involved in a clear attempt to buy their support, hoping that in time the contradiction that lies at the root of the conflict – namely partition – would recede in importance in line with a peace dividend in the form of prosperity and a boom in consumption.

This latest attack, in which two British soldiers have been killed and four injured, comes fast on the heels of the controversy surrounding revelations that the PSNI had requested the help of British special forces in gathering intelligence on dissident republicans, revealing an increase in organisation and activity by people intent on resuming the war. Ultimately, both the news of British special forces being sent to the province, and now this attack, reminds us that the underlying causes of the conflict haven’t gone away. More importantly, it will place enormous pressure on the leadership of Sinn Fein by the British government and unionist parties to cooperate with the security services in apprehending and nullifying the threat posed by any resurgence of physical force republicanism in the province.

The Peace Process was well named given the years it took to get from the IRA’s original ceasefire in 1994 to the formation of a devolved government in the province in May 2007, signed up to by mainstream unionism and republicanism. This process went through a temporary setback in 1996, when the IRA broke the ceasefire due to the stance taken by the then British government, under John Major, on the decommissioning of weapons. It got back on track shortly thereafter, and in 1998 US Senator George Mitchell presided over talks which bore fruit in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. As for the IRA, despite announcing their original ceasefire back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2005 that they formally announced the end of the armed struggle and pledged to decommission all weapons.

In July 2007, two months after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) formed a government, the British Army announced the end of Operation Banner, the name given their military operation in the province that began in 1969.

The significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness working together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont seemed entirely justified. Throughout the Troubles, Ian Paisley personified loyalist intransigence and a commitment to preserving the status quo of loyalist ascendancy in the province. Martin McGuinness was a former IRA commander in Derry, whose status among the ranks was largely responsible for bringing on board the so-called ‘hard men’ of the IRA who were reluctant to end the war.

The mere fact of these two men, each representative of the hardcore in their respective movements, working together in government was proof to many that the war and, more importantly, the hatred underpinning the war, had absolutely and finally come to an end.

But has it?

Passing through the likes of Armagh, Newry, Portadown, Loughgall, small towns the names of which are internationally known as a result of the war, there’s little sign that the separation between both communities lasting generations has in any way dissipated. Marking the entrance to loyalist working class housing estates in every town are an abundance of Union Jacks, Red Hand of Ulster flags, red, white, and blue bunting, lampposts and kerb stones painted red, white, and blue, along with crests of King Billy and various other symbols in deference to loyalist militarism. Orange Order halls are also common, meeting places for an organisation which more than any other in the North represents a tradition of loyalist and protestant domination. Driving into Loughgall, for example, you pass under a massive arch painted red, white, and blue, over which a large metal crest of protestant King Billy on a white horse looks down imperiously, leaving visitors and residents in no doubt who rules in this part of the world.

As for the security apparatus, whilst there are no longer British Army patrols and armoured cars out on the streets, nor military helicopters flying overhead (especially in South Armagh, where the British Army and security forces were forced to abandon the road to the IRA at the height of the conflict), you still get a feeling that a heightened security apparatus is in place. Police stations in every town are more like armed fortresses, replete with high walls, wire fencing and watchtowers. Atop hills and mountains as you drive around the countryside are listening masts, used by the security and intelligence services for surveillance and which still appear operational.

Moving up to Belfast, the contradiction between the modern face of the six counties which the establishment is eager to project, and a past defined by over 30 years of war and conflict, is very much in evidence. The centre of the city is no different to that you will find in any modern European city. It is vibrant, affluent, and judging by the sheer number of construction cranes dotting the landscape, booming (at least in the summer of 2007 just before the credit crunch began). An abundance of cafes, restaurants, designer stores, and upmarket bars clog the streets, and the demographic seems predominately young. Indeed, passing Queens University, the energy and dynamism produced by so many young people out on the street is palpable.

But move out to the outskirts, to West, East, North and South Belfast, and you enter a different world. Despite the peace process, these areas remain citadels of sectarianism in the case of loyalist areas, and uncompromising resistance to British rule in republican areas. The preponderance of so-called ‘peace walls’ separating republican and loyalist communites, and the obvious continued attachment to their separate identities and traditions, rubbishes any notion of a meaningful peace bringing them together. Each community is decidedly off limits to members of the other, and the pride which each takes in their martyrs and the war is immediately evident in the elaborate wall murals which abound.

Clearly, the underlying cause of the conflict, partition and the contradictions it has wrought, still lies at the heart of society in the six counties. That said, whether any return to militant republicanism will enjoy popular support in republican communities, after 12 years of relative peace, is the key question – one that will largely determine whether or not we see British troops once again patrolling the streets of Belfast.

14 comments on “Thoughts on the Six Counties

  1. Ger Francis on said:

    Statement from Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, MP, MLA.
    Published: 8 March, 2009

    Commenting on last night’s attack in county Antrim Mr. Adams said:

    “Last nights attack was an attack on the peace process. It was wrong and counter productive. ”

    “Those responsible have no support, no strategy to achieve a United Ireland. Their intention is to bring British soldiers back onto the streets. They want to destroy the progress of recent times and to plunge Ireland back into conflict.”

    “Irish republicans and democrats have a duty to oppose this and to defend the peace process. Sinn Fein has a strategy to bring about an end to British rule in our country by peaceful and democratic means.”

    “There should be an end to actions like the one in Antrim last night. The popular will is for peaceful and democratic change.”

    “Sinn Fein has a responsibility to be consistent. The logic of this is that we support the police in the apprehension of those involved in last nights attack.”

    “The police also have a responsibility to give leadership and to behave at all times in a transparent and accountable manner. The British Government has a duty to uphold the new political arrangement and the peace process.”

    “I particularly want to appeal to republicans once again for calm, thoughtful and decisive leadership. ”

    “The peace process was built against the odds and not least because of the willingness of republicans to take risks and to be strategic and long sighted.”

    “There are elements within Unionism and within the British system who do not want the peace process to achieve its objectives. Our responsibility is to defend the peace process and the progress that has been made to achieving national and democratic rights. ”

    “We will not be deflected from our republican and democratic objectives.” Ends

  2. To be honest I am increasingly unconvinced that the existence of Northern Ireland as a political entity represents an irreconcialable contradiction or that such contradictions would be resolved by a thirty two county republic. Last time I checked only around 55% of Northern Ireland’s catholics supported union with Ireland. At the end of the day there are two real and legitimate national communities in Northern Ireland – unless of course you are foolish enough to dismiss NI protestants as simply an appendage of British imperialism – and any solution should reflect that.

  3. The Adams statement is hogwash from a man in coalition government with the far right. The real target of this attack was Sinn Fein and it was carried out by a group who at least understand that Republicanism was defeated politically and militarily by British imperialism. But the dissidents are offering nothing but a return to a strategy that got Adams where he is today. The real starting point has to be a critique of Republicanism.

  4. John makes a key point early in the post, that the peace process “involved throwing money at the communities involved in a clear attempt to buy their support”. That strategy can work, to a certain extent, but what will be the impact of the current economic crisis, with the private sector shedding jobs fast and the UK government coffers already bare?

  5. Martin Foster on said:

    ‘…these areas remain citadels of sectarianism in the case of loyalist areas, and uncompromising resistance to British rule in republican areas…’

    The romaticisation of republicanism by some on the left is laughable.

  6. phil on said:

    What is the point of Liam’s comment? Do you not have your own strategy to put forward, other than criticise others?

    And what support is there for your strategy in the north of Ireland?

    It seems to me that there is increasing support for Sinn Fein across the 32 counties, they are continuing to put forward good left reformist economic policies to the electorate and are proposing a progressive alliance with Labour to break the FF/FG circus.

  7. I have to back Phil on this – SF has been able to increase its support across Ireland, largely because the armed struggle has ended and political process is taking place.

    But Liam wasn’t arguing that a return to armed struggle is desirable – rather that in the six counties at least, power has meant accepting neoliberalism rather than challenging it (for example, calls by leading SF politicians for cuts in corporation tax)

  8. Jim Monaghan on said:

    Ther are more ‘peace’ walls now than during the before ‘peace’

    John is right to point out three key facts,

    1. Communities are as divided as ever, if not more. Ther are more ‘peace’ walls now than during the before ‘peace’. It is almost impossible for young people from some areas to move from their enclaves.

    2. There is a significant number of people who havent given up on armed struggle, they see that clearly the British have not withdrawn and a united ireland is as far away as ever.

    3. This attack came on the heels of the announcement of the redeployment of special forces. Ord and others have been stoking this up for weeks. Remember that these special forces are not some “romanticised” Andy McNabb, but are judge jury and executioner. When it was snnounced that they were back to “target dissident republicans” this, to the groups involved, was a decaration that the war was back on.

  9. “This attack came on the heels of the announcement of the redeployment of special forces.”

    True, but CIRA and RIRA have been more active over the last few months – it’s a bit of a chicken and egg question

  10. Jim Monaghan on said:

    Yes and the police operations have stepped up too, it IS a chicken n egg situation.

    But you have to ask whether the claims of “thwarting” or “intercepting” attacks are genuine and not just propaganda to justify a clampdown.

    You also have to ask why these groups were constantly thwarted and intercepted and failed prior to the announcement of the deployment of special forces and yet, this week, they can carry out assasinations with ease.

    It is either a step-up in reaction to the news, or a spectacular coincidence that the only two attacks that the PSNI couldt stop happened a day apart and a week after the news that the SAS were back.