UK state: Northern Ireland

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at
Tue May 13 05:48:37 MDT 2003

Domhnall writes:

The current hiatus cannot be ignored, however,
and it would seem to contradict this analysis. I think that the war in Iraq
has strengthened the hand of those who are arguing for a 'victory' in the
north over the RM and this ties into Blair's attachment to saving David
Trimble as the Unionist leader he would most prefer to work with.


MK: The hiatus is current, but it should be viewed in a longer term context,
as I have tried to portray. In other words, it is temporary. There has
obviously been a lot going on behind the scenes, and especially so within
the British state itself, which is the object of my analysis. I cannot and
would not claim any expertise as regards what is happening on the ground. My
portrayal rests upon a consideration of the British state apparatus.
Northern Ireland occupies a very special place in its recent history, and it
is tied up with the ultimate dilemma that has bedevilled British
policymakers ever since 1945: how to reconcile the conflicting priorities
presented by the "special relationship" with the US and by deepening
European integration. I believe that, over the long haul, the pro-European
coalition of interests is the hegemonic fraction within the state, having
usurped power from the empire loyalist fraction, which lost ground during
the 1980s.

If the war in Iraq has strengthened the hand of those who are arguing for a
British "victory" in the North, a couple of well-placed devices in Docklands
or Westminster would put paid to those illusions. British capital is more or
less adamant that such expenses are no longer tolerable. It's what drove
Major towards the Downing Street Declaration and beyond. And the vast
majority of British citizens, never having properly understood Northern
Ireland anyway, are, at worst, indifferent to the idea of Irish
reunification. Only in certain areas of Scotland do you find the sort of
sectarian divide that informs passionately held views of Northern Ireland.
And the loyalist side of that is being undercut as a result of devolution
and an emergent realisation that independence from the Union is not just
desirable but potentially practicable. The biggest thing to worry about is
what input the US will have in the proceedings from now on. Clinton was the
last of the pro-unification presidents. Bush senior himself, while
anglophile, was a product of the tradition in the US that saw European
imperialism as bad, and worthy of substitution by a more enlightened US
imperialism. Bush junior, having painted the world as good guys vs.
terrorists within a manichean reading of protestant evangelical
Christianity, is likely to side instinctively with Paisley et al., while
Bush's more secular but no less reactionary advisers will see great value in
manoeuvring Blair or whoever into a position where partition remains
fastened, thereby derailing the Europe strategy vital to Britain's hopeful
extrication from US hegemony.

As for Trimble, he is the new John Hume of Northern Ireland. He is the man
Britain can "do business with", since he has shown himself to be utterly
pliable in terms of conceding ground that Paisley and the like would never
countenance. Meanwhile Sinn Fein is in the ascendant, as you say yourself --
a fact not beyond the recognition of the British state. For the exit
strategy to work, Trimble is absolutely vital to ensure the viability of
what is intended to be a protracted, negotiated settlement. Think of it as
"peace with honour" -- the honour being reserved primarily for the British
state, while crumbs of comfort are offered to moderate unionists as
consolation, while the post-reunification Irish state gets to clean up
whatever mess is created by lingering loyalist paramility activity. Trimble
can be bought off with a figurehead position of some nominal importance.

You continue:

Quite clearly, if the Brits are engaged in such an exit strategy, then they
will try to build up the parties
of the centre.


MK: Not at all, for reasons explained above. To put it simply, if the idea
of an exit strategy is correct, then Sinn Fein is the ideal vehicle for its
achievement. Yesterday I wrote that it is possible to imagine that there has
been at the very least a tacit agreement between the SF leadership and the
British state to the effect that, subject to a convoluted extraction
process, the British state would ultimately cede control to SF as the latter
handled the transition towards reunification. It is also possible to imagine
that even a tacit agreement would not be necessary (although this would be
by far the riskier strategy) if events could be manipulated in such a way as
to rely upon SF's leaders making certain crucial decisions vital to the
success of the strategy. Then again, who is to say that there do not remain
British state agents within the upper echelons of the SF apparatus,
providing useful information to the British state and influencing events
within the party. Meanwhile, as SF becomes ever more identified with the
GFA -- as is clearly the calculation being made by the leadership -- SF
becomes very reasonable and politically respectable, compared to the
irrational and potentially violent unionist counterparts. What is left for
the SDLP to pick up after all this? Absolutely nothing. Given the
circumstances on the ground, in which SF is viewed as far more likely to
defend the interests of an increasing swathe of those supporting
reunification than an increasingly irrelevant and ineffectual SDLP, why
should the British state waste time pinning its strategy on Durkan?

You conclude:

I am not sure whether you are alluding that SF or Fianna Fail are set for
hegemony in the North. I suspect it is the former that you mean. I think
that the recent crisis in the whole process has demonstrated where political
opposition to Republicans has embraced the entire spectrum of the political
parties both here and in Britain. We saw Bertie Aherne lining up behind
Blair's and Trimble's demands because of a coincidence of interests. Of
course, SF wouldn' allow such an alliance to remain for long, hence the
statements which attempted to meet at least some of the demands made.


MK: I expect eventual SF dominance in the North. Post-reunification, it will
be the base for further SF gains throughout the Republic, although with the
utterly changed political circumstances that such a scenario would entail,
do not be surprised if the thoroughly entrenched apparatus of Fianna Fail
make overtures to "moderates" within SF in an effort to marginalise whatever
truly radical, progressive or just plain threatening elements remain in SF.

As for Aherne, he is engaged in a balancing act. He has to play the
bourgeois game -- good grief, his career is built on it so he's unlikely to
veer too far from the script -- which means that he must, for the most, sing
in unison with Tony, whilst making occasional squeals to the contrary, as
with the postponed elections. Remember also that it is in the Irish
bourgeoisie's interests that as clean a reunification process as possible is
enacted. The last thing they want is a messy counter-insurgency against
determined loyalist paramilitaries, although something along these lines is
likely to be a price of reunification.

Michael Keaney

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