By Jayne Fisher
First published via The Morning Star, Monday 24 November 2014
Cross-party talks in Belfast aimed at breaking the political impasse in the north of Ireland are entering their sixth week.
While many could be forgiven for not being aware of developments, given the absence of focus by the media and wider political commentators, it of crucial importance that progressives in Britain keep the issue of Ireland on the political agenda.
Indeed, the huge success of the peace process in recent years has left a general feeling that matters are resolved and that the overall absence of conflict means that solidarity and support are not required. But this is not the case.
There is in fact a pressing need to join forces to defend and build support for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.
There is also a need to unite in supporting those parties, trade unions and campaigns opposing the economic offensive by right-wing governments in Dublin and Westminster.
The achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, built on core principles of equality, parity of esteem and a recognition that a political level playing field was necessary, transformed the situation within Ireland and between Britain and Ireland.
Advancing the agreement, and subsequent agreements, meant challenging the entrenched and institutional sectarianism and discrimination, ending one-party unionist rule and replacing it with genuine power-sharing and many other areas of progressive change.
The resistance to that change has always been an issue but the past two years have seen an anti-agreement axis develop which has been allowed to dictate the pace of change.
The main parties of political unionism have been constantly looking over their shoulder to their rejectionist right, rather than showing clear leadership in taking the process forward.
And the British government has facilitated this through a lack of engagement and indeed acting in a wholly partisan way in essentially capitulating to unionist demands, such as disputes on Orange parades through nationalist areas.
This is an abdication of its responsibility, alongside the Irish government, as co-guarantor of the agreement.
Coupled with this, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government has made a growing crisis worse by forcing its austerity measures on to a society already struggling as it emerges from conflict.
Rather than delivering the peace dividend, which was expected by the vast majority of people who support the peace process, the British government has slashed the block grant given to the northern Assembly executive year on year. It also wants to force through its devastating “welfare reform” cuts.
Sinn Fein and others have been vehemently opposing these austerity measures, arguing for united pressure from all parties for the government to reverse its position.
In the current talks Sinn Fein has emphasised the need for all parties to enter the discussions in a genuine spirit of wanting to resolve the issues.
This includes the difficult issues of dealing with the past, contested parades and flags.
Of course it has been the British government itself which has frustrated efforts to deal with the past, and the role of the British state in the conflict.
The refusal to hold a fully independent inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane epitomises this position.
Sinn Fein has also urged the implementation of the outstanding Good Friday issues, which includes the commitment to hold a referendum on Irish unity — a “border poll.”
Such a poll could have the potential to create a serious debate on Ireland’s future and what a new, united Ireland would look like.
A debate looking at a new united country based on social and economic equality could invigorate public interest and tie in very much with sentiment in the south, where support for a clear alternative to austerity and cuts is gaining ground — as the recent anti-water charge protests show.
Sinn Fein is leading in the polls at 26 per cent. Coupled with the political developments in the north and the need to break out of the current logjam, an all-Ireland alternative is clearly the way forward.
Meanwhile, as the current talks in the north continue, it is vital that a pro-agreement alliance makes itself felt.
International opinion is key to this — and importantly in Britain.
The vast majority of people, and the left and labour movement in particular, support the peace process. This fairly silent majority now has to make its voice heard, especially in the run-up to next May’s elections.
Treading water or acquiescing to those who want to block change cannot continue.
The next government could make a real difference to the process if it has the vision to grasp the opportunity to really drive forward to the next stage.
It may seem that matters are settled over the Good Friday Agreement, but support for it is needed now more than ever.
Sinn Fein is hosting a major public event on Tuesday November 24 to put the issues on the agenda. All are welcome to join the discussion. It is being held at 7.30pm in the Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, House of Commons, London SW1A OAA. Speakers include Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy, former Labour minister Lord Alf Dubs, former Assembly speaker Lord John Alderdice, former Labour minister Baroness Angela Smith and Irish in Britain chief executive Jennie McShannon. It will be chaired by Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew.