Britain suspends Assembly

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003

At midnight on 14 October, John Reid, then still Northern Ireland Minister, suspended the Northern Ireland Assembly. According to him, all ‘trust’ the Unionists had in the ‘peace process’ had broken down and he had no other option.

The crisis came to a head after the high-profile RUC/PSNI raid on the Sinn Fein offices at Stormont on 4 October, an event stage-managed for the media and billed as the smashing of an ‘IRA spy ring’. TV pictures and newspaper reports flashed around the world showed the raid as it happened. It later emerged that all the police seized from the raid were two computer disks, both of which were later returned to Sinn Fein! Following on from the raid Denis Donaldson, Sinn Fein Assembly Administrator, was arrested and charged with having information useful to terrorists. Two others have been charged with similar offences. The police have also questioned nearly every Catholic civil servant working at Stormont, releasing the name of at least one to the media to back up their claims that Sinn Fein/IRA were running a spy ring.

The timing of the raid and the subsequent suspension of Stormont came at an opportune moment for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Trimble, who claimed that this ‘spy ring’ was ‘ten times worse than Watergate’.

As we reported in FRFI 169, the leading body of the UUP, the Ulster Unionist Council, had met on 21 September and set a deadline of 18 January 2003 for the IRA to ‘disarm completely’. If the IRA did not comply, Trimble said he would bring down the Stormont government. On its own, the threat meant nothing, but the police raid and media hype over the alleged IRA ‘spy ring’ became a heaven-sent opportunity for Trimble to demand the immediate expulsion of Sinn Fein from the Assembly. The subsequent suspension of the political institutions allowed Trimble to avoid being portrayed as the wrecker of the ‘peace process’.

Since the May 1998 referendum overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement, it has seemed to be in near perpetual ‘crisis’. Ministers did not take their seats in the Assembly until the end of 1999, although the elections took place in June 1998. The British government has suspended the Assembly four times since then. As Gerry Adams pointed out at the end of October, ‘the institutions [had been] fully functioning for only about 20 months out of a possible 54 months or so, the all-Ireland Civic Forum has never been put in place. And the Inter-Parliamentary Forum has never met’! The Unionists have manufactured every ‘crisis’: first over IRA decommissioning, then over verifiable decommissioning, and now it is total disarmament or, in other words, the disbanding of the IRA. In all these ‘crises’ the Labour government has supported the Unionists with Blair explicitly giving his backing to Trimble in the latest round.

All the ‘crises’ follow a similar cycle. First the Unionists complain about an aspect of IRA decommissioning. Adams and Sinn Fein then appeal to British imperialism to push the ‘peace process’ forward. Next the British government backs the Unionist ‘concerns’ and then the Republican movement makes concessions to the Unionists demands. A few weeks or months later there is another Unionist loss of ‘trust’ and the pattern repeats itself. After every round, British imperialism and its Unionist allies are in a stronger position, as any potential revolutionary challenge from the Republican movement becomes more remote. Sinn Fein is completely tied to the ‘peace process’ and the parliamentary way forward. It no longer has the political will to mobilise the nationalist working class in an anti-imperialist campaign against British rule. It therefore has only one political option left – appealing to Blair and the Labour government to rein in the Unionists.

As Labour, the Unionists and the media concentrate on the final humiliation of the Republican movement, Loyalist attacks on nationalist communities continue. A video made recently by the residents of the nationalist Short Strand, Belfast details the continuing Loyalist terror campaign against the area. As we reported in FRFI 168, ‘In the Short Strand 3,000 nationalists surrounded by about 60,000 Protestants have been under attack since the beginning of June. Loyalist mobs have regularly invaded the area, attacking Catholic homes with petrol bombs, bricks, bottles and fireworks packed with shrapnel’. These attacks continue with blast and pipe bomb attacks throughout November.

As Gerry Adams put it when launching the Short Strand video ‘life for the majority has improved with the Good Friday Agreement, for nationalists in vulnerable areas like Short Strand it has become a great deal worse’. Sinn Fein has chosen to represent the interests of the nationalist middle class, who are benefiting from the Good Friday Agreement. Who will represent the interests of the nationalist working class of the Short Strand?

Bob Shepherd

 

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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