Monday, September 22, 2008

Damning report on Historical Enquiries Team

One of the areas where the peace process has most obviously failed has been in the various attempts to tackle the legacy of the "Troubles". A number of mechanisms and institutions, such as the Victims Commission, the Office of the Police Ombudsman and various ongoing public inquiries, have been established in order to deal with unresolved issues. However, none of them have produced any resolutions, only more discord and dispute.

An insight into why this is the case came this week in a leaked report on another of these bodies – the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The HET is a special police unit which was set in 2005 up by the PSNI chief constable to re-examine murders committed during the Troubles. A report by a University of Ulster academic, who was given unprecedented access to the team for two years, has called now called its independence and effectiveness into question.

The main point of the report by Dr Patricia Lundy is that that the HET has been compromised by the presence of so many former RUC and Special Branch officers in senior positions. This is despite assurances given at the time of the establishment of the HET that it would recruit the majority of detectives from outside Northern Ireland and would limit the involvement of former members of the RUC, particularly Special Branch.

According to Dr Lundy the HET is over reliant on former RUC officers. "It appears that ‘the old guard’ play a key role in the management and access to intelligence and perform a censoring role in respect of disclosure," she writes. "All aspects of intelligence are managed by former RUC and Special Branch officers". At the time of the research, the Intelligence Unit (IU) was staffed by 18 former RUC and Special Branch officers.

In November 2007 the HET had 166 staff, including 67 former RUC officers. Two former RUC Special Branch officers and a former British army soldier hold key senior positions within the HET. It is the view of Dr Lundy’s that such "strategic positioning" of former RUC officers, and particularly those with a Special Branch background, "not only undermines actual but perceived independence".

One PSNI officer who had been seconded to the HET was Detective Chief Inspector Philip Marshall, who was later accused of "deliberate and calculated deception" during the Omagh bomb trial. The British army was found to have regularly failed to pass on the names of former soldiers identified in controversial killings to HET investigators. HET requests to the British army were "invariably returned with a negative trace ", the report said. Only one fifth of senior RUC detectives who originally investigated Troubles-related killings had "positively engaged" with the HET.

While the unit was reported to be investigating more than 1,000 cases during the two-year study, Dr Lundy said the figure actually referred to the number of cases that had ‘gone into the system’. "It is my opinion that a very creative use of language has been employed to describe a process which in the majority of cases is essentially a ‘desktop review’," she writes.
It is also Dr Lundy’s assessment that "political considerations" have impacted HET’s decision-making process. Her report states: "HET are acutely aware of the extreme sensitivity of the cases under review and their likely political ramifications" and that there has been a "reluctance on the part of senior management to make difficult decisions and deliver perceived unpopular findings."

This report is damning of the HET, but the criticisms it makes are applicable to all the other resolution efforts and to the peace process more broadly. The problem is that the past is very much the present, and that any attempt to uncover the truth has the potential to call into question the credentials of those who are holding up the current settlement. This is true for both the unionists and Sinn Fein, but most of all for the British who want to perpetuate the myth that they are above the conflict. They cannot allow efforts to resolve the past to be truly independent and run the risk of producing the "unpopular findings" that would serve to undermine the settlement.

A good example of this came in the same week as the leaked report on the HET, when it was revealed on BBC’s Panorama that Britain’s electronic intelligence agency GCHQ recorded mobile phone exchanges between the Omagh bombers on the day of the attack. This information was neither used to prevent the attack or to aid the investigation into those who carried it out. The victims’ relatives rightly ask why, and reiterate their call for a public inquiry. But the British aren’t going to agree to anything that could expose their complicity in the atrocity. It really shows up the fundamental rottenness of the peace process that its preservation is dependent on the denial of truth and justice.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Searching for Plan B

The growing sense of disillusionment over the peace process among the republican grassroots found expression in this week’s Andersonstown News. This took the form of a letter from one B. Maguire. In the opening paragraph he describes himself as a “life long republican” who “voted for the Good Friday Agreement and supported the Sinn Fein strategy”. But now he is “completely disillusioned and angry”.

He goes on make a number of complaints about the settlement, and to pose a series of questions to the Sinn Fein leadership. His primary complaint is over the existence of a DUP veto. He notes that the DUP have used this to block any movement on a sports stadium, the Irish Language Act and the devolution of policing and justice powers. The fact the DUP “can veto anything thing they don’t like” raises for him the obvious question of what republicans can ever get from the power sharing executive.

B Maguire also notes a change in the Sinn Fein rhetoric on the St Andrews Agreement, which has gone from assertions that it included provisions for an Irish Language Act to a claim that an act will be in place at some undefined date in the future because it is somehow inevitable. For him “the leadership have lost their revolutionary politics for the politics of appeasement”. He cites as an example of this Belfast Mayor Tom Hartley’s opposition to the City Council hosting a home coming parade for the RIR on the basis of his personal opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than the role that regiment, and the British army as a whole, have played in Ireland.

B Maguire rounds off by stating that it is obvious to him that “the unionists are not up to power sharing. Stormont has failed. It will not work”. Rather than continue to prop up Stormont he urges Sinn Fein “walk away now and go to the Plan B” (which he believes to be joint sovereignty). His letter concludes with a plea for Gerry Adams to “give us answers”.

While many of the points in this letter are familiar, and have been made by others, it is now significant that they are being echoed by mainstream republicans who had up until recently supported the peace process. The fact that such people are starting to fall away is an indicator of the declining credibility of the Sinn Fein leadership.

The letter from B Maguire prompted a quick response from Sinn Fein, with a reply of sorts from Gerry Adams appearing in the following edition of the Andersonstown News. Much of this was a restatement of the equality provisions within the settlement, though with view examples of them operating. Adams claims that Sinn Fein had an agreement with the British on an Irish Language Act, but that this was now being blocked by the DUP. He concedes that the DUP does indeed have a veto, but that this is countered by Sinn Fein’s own veto, though they “have little need” to use it because of their “positive agenda”.

Adams says that though unionists may not be up for power sharing, Sinn Fein had a responsibility the make the political institutions work. For him “being strategic, planning for the future, keeping our eyes firmly fixed on the prize is the only way forward.” Adams concludes with the claim that the only way to move unionism is to build “a stronger Sinn Fein”.

This reply is completely disingenuous, ignoring the major points of the original letter, and making claims for the settlement that are completely baseless. The fact is that Sinn Fein signed up to a settlement that has a built in unionist veto. While formally nationalists do have a veto, to use it on any substantial issue would bring the whole edifice crashing down. There is no pressure on the DUP to concede anything, certainly not from the British and Irish governments. An assembly were Sinn Fein had a hundred per cent of the nationalist seats would make no difference. If anything it would hasten the collapse of the settlement as no unionist would be prepared to sit under a Sinn Fein first minister. Its stability depends on unionists having the upper hand and nationalists accepting that.

In his letter B Maguire displayed some naivety in his belief in the existence of a Plan B for joint authority. This does not exist - Sinn Fein aren’t going to walk away. Their only strategy is to hang on to their ministerial seats at all costs and hope that things will get better. If there is a Plan B it is the return to majority rule that has been proposed recently by SDLP leader!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SDLP leader calls for end to power sharing

The call from the SDLP leader for an end of power sharing arrangements at Stormont is another indication of how far the minimal reforms associated contained the Good Friday Agreement have been eroded. Ten years ago power sharing Government was hailed at the centrepiece of the political settlement. For the twenty-five prior to that the SDLP had championed power sharing as a means of resolving the conflict in the north. Now we have the leader of that party calling for it to be abandoned.

This was the message that Mark Durkan delivered at the British Irish Association conference at New College, Oxford over the weekend. He called for compulsory power-sharing between nationalists and unionists at Stormont to be scrapped, and the rules requiring cross community support for legislation to be removed. For him these mechanisms were the "ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice." The assumption is that such mechanisms, which were supposedly designed to protect nationalists from the abuse of power by unionists, are no longer needed in this new era because the peace process has been so successful in promoting reconciliation and stability.

However, any examination of the current political situation exposes such assumption to be baseless. The north is more sectarian and polarised than ever, and the political institutions increasingly unstable. The Executive has not met for months due to disagreements between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

It is this current instability and deadlock, rather than optimistic for the future, that has prompted Durkan’s comments. This is revealed in his appeal for nationalists "to reflect on the dangers of the decision-making protections acting as decision making prevention on more and more important issues". It is recognition that a power sharing government between nationalists and unionists is unworkable. The corollary of this position, and what is being implied by Durkan’s proposed changes to the Agreement, is that nationalist parties give up their right to be in government in order to have a functioning government at all. The fig leaf for this abandonment of power sharing is his call for a 'strong and robust' bill of rights to protect minorities. What this amounts to is an acceptance of a return to unionist majority rule for the sake of stability.

Mark Durkan’s speech is a signal of the desperation of nationalists for the settlement to work no matter how diminished. It is also a reflection of the elitist approach of the SDLP which looks to the law as a counter to sectarianism. But such faith in the law is misplaced. It completely ignores the fact that there was a formal equality before the law under the old Stormont regime that existed alongside rampant discrimination. For unionists the point of being in power is to have the power to discriminate. This is also why the unionists are totally against a Bill of Rights. Sinn Fein strongly attacked Durkan’s comments, but their own strategy, of hanging unto their places in the Executive at all costs, isn’t anymore successful success. Even the minimal gestures in the St Andrew’s Agreement - an Irish Language Act and the devolution of policing and justice powers – are being blocked by the DUP.

Sinn Fein has been reduced to issuing empty threats to bring down the Executive - threats which are immediately withdrawn when challenged. If Sinn Fein wants the Executive to function it will have to subordinate itself the the DUP agenda. Whether nationalists are in of out of the executive unionist will still be ion a dominant position. The comments by Mark Durkan indicate that a section of nationalist population is prepared to accept this as the price of stability. However, is this any different to what existed during the 50 years of the old Stormont regime?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Days Like These No9

Who Are The Irish What Do They Want?

By Guest Bolger Gerry Fitzpatrick
We stand at the beginning of a new brutal era as the world’s Empire’s - old and new fight it out for control of the world’s resources. The invasions of Iraq and Georgia show that the pretence about ‘bringing democracy’ to other counties is well and truly over. Iraq and Georgia have the privilege of joining Pakistan, South Korea and Egypt as client regimes no matter how its people’s are ruled. And what are our interests? That’s not just a question for the conservative President of France it is a question for us all and it is not just because a government has again lost a crucial European vote. (It is also a question for a certain young man sitting under a tree in Africa. We all know him and you should keep him in mind as I will return to him later.)

Some time ago our comrade - Dr Terry Eagleton wrote in a rather mournful way about how the new generation of Irish students had appeared to have forgotten Ireland’s own radical history in their headlong dash to be modern. And it worth quoting his words from 1996:

Modernization in Ireland today means a host of precious things: pluralism secularization, flexible notions of sovereignty [but it can also mean] being shame faced and sarcastic about your historical as to as to leap, suitably streamlined and amnesiac, into the heat of the European order characterized by racism, structural unemployment, urban barbarism, military campaigns against the Third World and abandonment of Irish small farmers and working class to a brutally neo-liberal polity.
(Eagleton, ‘The Ideology of Irish Studies’)

It’s odd then that Revisionists and Tories often joke about how the Irish see themselves as being the most oppressed people in the world and they are probably right about that, for it has consequences and effects that are worthwhile. We aspire to invert imperial chauvinism and that is a struggle in itself which, as we’ve seen - we don’t always succeed, but that did not and should not stop us. Because we share a kinship with those who have been brutally occupied and forced into starvation and emigration.
Let’s return to the youngman sitting under a tree in Africa. He’s there to do the simple and the good – build a school, install a water pump, repair a road, put together a transport link – fight hunger and disease. We shouldn’t romanticise him – he is after all probably there on a gap year and I’m sure he wishes sometimes that he never agreed to travel and work in a place where the great powers cut a swathe to their one interest. But he will stay on - for the rewards will far outweigh the discomfort and the doubts. It is a mission and a duty – political quasi-religious in nature but democratic and just nonetheless. And that is whether we like it or not. Our comrade Dr Eagleton may have despaired of the generation that appeared ready to forget that the cause of Ireland is labour. But our relation to Europe and the world doesn’t end with a government giving taxes to support NGO’s and their faltering programmes. The truth is that countless thousands have gone abroad to labour against hunger, disease and oppression. The cause of Ireland is labour - it is not ‘national’ or practiced by nationalists - it is international. For we stand for and with the starving, the oppressed and against imperial occupation. We have said ‘NO’ twice to those in power who think that an economy works best when regulated in favour of the fantastically rich and which pays farmers not to grow food while the cost of meagre rations is forced skyward. These too are crimes against humanity which we must do all we can to fight and work against.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

They haven’t gone away y’know

‘Nationalist family’ assemble for one last roundup

The Independent monitoring committee is a creature of the British government. It has no independent investigation structures but simply takes government intelligence and presents it in a way most useful to the government. Its report concluded: "The mechanism which they (the army council) have chosen to bring the armed conflict to a complete end has been the standing down of the structures which engaged in the armed campaign and the conscious decision to allow the army council to fall into disuse. By taking these steps PIRA has completely relinquished the leadership and other structures appropriate to a time of armed conflict."

This is a very carefully worded statement. It does not say that there is no army council or no IRA, but essentially argues that they no longer exist in the context of any threat to British structures and that the IRA have done everything that the DUP can expect that equates to surrender and enough to allow Peter Robinson to sign up to the transfer of policing powers

Gordon Brown made this clear when he declared “It is now time for all the political parties to work together to complete the final stages of the peace process - to complete the devolution of policing and justice” Secretary of state Shaun Woodward argued that “This ground-breaking report by the IMC makes clear that the Army Council is now redundant”. Dermot Aherne, Fianna Fail Justice Minister, said that “I hope that the political parties in the north can now complete the process of devolution by assuming responsibility for policing and justice powers.” Paula Dobrainsky, US special envoy declared; “This report underscores the transformation that has taken place in today's Northern Ireland, and signals that all parties should move forward to create a fully-functioning political environment.”

From a distance it all looks very reassuring. All the components of a ‘Nationalist family’ a virtual body imagined by Gerry Adams, comprising Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and the SDLP and stretching out to encompass the Bush White house and even the British – all the forces that were to face down unionist reaction and bring modernity to Ireland – they are all together again to defend Sinn Fein and face down the DUP.

As in the days of yore, Sinn Fein has support. But it is worth looking more closely. The support, as in the past, is designed to allow capitulation. The problem with republicanism is that it offered an armed resistance to imperialism. The solution is that they embrace their oppressors. In the process the problem is defined. The problem is not the bigotry of the unionists, nor the British endorsement of unionist reaction. The problem is the IRA. There is not the slightest hint that, if the DUP refuse to play ball, the British will apply sanctions to them. If the republicans have not done enough today then they must do more in the coming days.

A few questions are in order.

Peter Robinson has already said that 95% disbandment is not enough. Surely the simplest solution would be 100% disbandment?

If the maximum humiliation of Sinn Fein is demanded now will that be the end of humiliation or will it be a routine, unending part of administration in the North?

Will the Shinners get all the elements they were supposed to have already as part of the St. Andrews deal or is the reward of disbandment only a limited, truncated version?

With another victory under their belt, will the DUP then turn the other cheek and aim to tone down the drive for sectarian domination?

To ask these questions is to answer them. Nationalists can have a minor and subordinate role in a sectarian society while supporting a government of some of the most reactionary political forces in Europe. Their role will be to endlessly capitulate to sectarian reaction and in the process lend stability to a process fundamentally unstable. The endemic crises and collapses of the peace process are not minor glitches but fundamental flaws in an imperialist settlement doomed to eventual collapse