Northern Ireland: The Long Good Friday

Since the signature of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the Northern Ireland peace process has encountered a series of crises, teetering several times on the brink of outright collapse. With the start of IRA decommissioning and the re-election of David Trimble as First Minister, the institutions set up by the Good Friday Agreement have been saved once again. But a peaceful future for the province's two communities is far from assured, as David Archibald explains in the following article.

GLEN BRANAGH was 16 years old when he died. His funeral took place the day before his seventeenth birthday. Glen was about to throw a pipe bomb. It exploded as he raised it to head-height severing his arm and inflicting severe injuries to his head.

The teenager lived in the loyalist Tiger's Bay area of North Belfast. Tiger's Bay is a deprived and depressed area. Many young people of Glen Branagh's age feel alienated and powerless. They have few ambitions for the future. Some teenagers on the nearby Shankill Road in West Belfast have ambitions. Not to get a good job, get married, settle down and live in a nice house: a recent survey on the Shankill revealed that many young people aspired to become ex-prisoners. Ex-prisoners are regarded with esteem and respect in their communities. Glen Branagh certainly held that ambition. Had he lived it is likely he would have become an ex-prisoner.

What type of society creates young men like Glen Branagh? A few days before Glen Branagh met his death, David Trimble was re-elected as the First Minister of the governing Northern Ireland Executive. This only came about as a result of the IRA's act of decommissioning a few weeks earlier. Given the events unfolding on the ground, has the Good Friday Agreement passed its final hurdle?

Glen Branagh was born in 1984, one year before the British and Irish governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That Agreement was hatched without any negotiations with Northern Ireland's Unionist parties. Its main purpose was to weaken and defeat the IRA, but unionists feared that it would lead to a united Ireland. The following few years saw massive unionist and loyalist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.


In the end that Agreement was scrapped as the present peace process developed in the early 1990s. In August 1994 the IRA declared a ceasefire. Six weeks later the loyalist paramilitaries followed suit. Despite the rocky road that the peace process has travelled, the initial mood in both communities was one of euphoria. There was a feeling that Northern Ireland society had emerged out of the darkness and a new period of peace and prosperity was about to beckon.

New parties emerged. Two new loyalist parties, the Progressive Unionist Party [PUP] linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the Ulster Democratic Party [UDP] linked to the Ulster Defence Association:/Ulster Freedom Fighters (UDA/UFF) took seats in the Forum elections of 1996. A Women's Coalition also got two members elected, as did the left-wing Labour Coalition. The loyalist parties, especially the more radical PUP, presented themselves as a working class, even a socialist, alternative to the established unionist parties. They argued that the union was safe and considered that the IRA had surrendered.

These parties, and the SDLP (moderate nationalists), Sinn Fein, Alliance and the Ulster Unionists, came together to endorse the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998. In the referendum which followed 71% of Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement. The 'No' camp, the followers of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party were seen as representing the past. However, the referendum did show that a significant minority of the Protestant community had voted against the Agreement.

Three years later the situation has changed. There is enormous disillusionment with the Good Friday Agreement within the Unionist community. This was illustrated by results for the Westminster general election and the local council elections held on June 7th this year.

David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) lost four of its ten seats, while Ian Paisley's hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) increased their seats from the two they won at the 1997 general election, to five. The DUP's share of the vote also rose from 13.6% in 1997 to 22.5% this year, although in 1997 they did not stand against sitting Ulster Unionist MPs. The UUP's share of the vote declined from 32.7% to 26.8%. The local council results mirrored the general election results.

Many Protestants now fear that the Union is not safe. Rather than witnessing the defeat of the IRA, Protestants see a resurgent Sinn Fein, which has become the major nationalist party. Sinn Fein now have 4 MPs to the moderate nationalist SDLP's three. Sinn Fein took 21.7% of the general election vote to the SDLP's 21%. In the local elections Sinn Fein took 20.6% of the vote compared to the SDLP's 19.4%.


Large swathes of the Protestant population are disenchanted by the peace process. The 'No' camp attempted to use the parades dispute at Drumcree, Portadown to mobilise Protestant opposition to the peace process, to the Agreement and also to David Trimble's leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Ironically, Trimble had marched hand-in-hand with Ian Paisley down the Garvaghy Road in 1995. That march came after a compromise through mediators between the Garvaghy Road residents and the Orange Order. The residents had conceded the Orangemen's right to march. Paisley and Trimble dismissed the idea of a compromise as rubbish and arrived at their destination in a triumphalist fashion. The whole episode made future concessions by the local residents much more difficult. In 1996 and 1997 the Orangemen were forced down the Garvaghy Road after several days of stand-offs. Before the parades, the residents were brutally removed from the road by the RUC. The images of RUC officers beating peaceful protestors provoked anger within the Catholic community.

In 1998 the New Labour government refused to concede to the Orangemen. Once again Northern Ireland was plunged into chaos and disorder. The Orange Order confronted the RUC at Drumcree Hill while loyalist protestors attacked RUC lines.

Moderate unionism was incensed by the nightly attacks on the police. The sight of loyalist paramilitaries directing the violence led many Orangemen to abandon "the field". But it took the brutal murder of the three Quinn children in Ballymoney on the eve of 12th July 1998 to force the relatively moderate wing of the Orange Order to call a halt. A senior Orange chaplain declared that the walk down Garvaghy Road was not worth a life and called for the Orange protest at Drumcree to end.

The Portadown Orangemen were not defeated by the Garvaghy Road residents or by nationalists. They were defeated by their own self-confidence and arrogance. Since 1998 the Portadown Orangemen have not walked down the Garvaghy Road.

The defeat of hardline Orangeism and Unionism over the parades issue has added to the disillusionment, anger and the sense of bewilderment within a section of the Protestant community. The truth is that the Orange Order can no longer parade in a nakedly sectarian and triumphalist fashion. The Orange Order have trouble accepting the fact that Northern Ireland no longer has a Unionist government at Stormont or that Northern Ireland no longer has "a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state".

There is also disillusionment amongst a large section of the Protestant population with the Patten Report and the change of the RUC to the newly established Police Service of Northern Ireland [PSNI]. They see the abolition of the RUC as a concession to Sinn Fein, something which the IRA could not achieve through 30 years of "terrorism".

The creation of the PSNI is seen as the dismantling of "their" police force, the RUC. The scrapping of the RUC's name and badge is deeply hurtful. There is little recognition that the RUC played a repressive role within the Catholic community. There is little understanding of the need for changes in policing.

Many within the Protestant community also feel ill at ease at the release of IRA prisoners, and the fact that the IRA has still not decommissioned its arsenal of arms and explosives, when Sinn Fein has entered government.

The announcement by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning [IICD] on Tuesday 23rd October 2001 that an act of IRA decommissioning had taken place has acted to ameliorate the mood within the Protestant community.

That decision allowed David Trimble and his Ulster Unionist party to return to their posts within the Northern Ireland Executive - not without a battle. The furore over the election of the First and Deputy First Minister underlined the divisions within unionism. After the vote NI Secretary of State John Reid announced that the next elections to the NI Assembly would take place on 1st May 2003.


But the Agreement has other hurdles to overcome before that. The anti-agreement wing of the UUP has forced the convening of an Ulster Unionist Council meeting where 860 delegates will be present. At this meeting anti-agreement MP, Jeffrey Donaldson will move a motion calling for the UUP to withdraw from government should the IRA not complete decommissioning by February 2002. Even if David Trimble can overcome this new hurdle, he and his supporters in the UUP look to the next Assembly elections with fear and dread.

Unless a major change in the mood of the Protestant community takes place the Democratic Unionist Party will emerge as the major party within unionism. In these circumstances it would be difficult to see how David Trimble could survive as First Minister. The most likely outcome is that Ian Paisley would become First Minister with Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

The DUP are opposed to Sinn Fein in government. However, there is no possibility that they could form an Executive without Sinn Fein. As the smaller nationalist party, the SDLP would commit electoral suicide if they entered a pact with the unionists that kept Sinn Fein out of government.

The DUP have argued that the Good Friday Agreement needs to be re-negotiated. But could they negotiate a better deal for unionists than David Trimble did in 1998? By May 2003 Sinn Fein could be a junior coalition partner in a government in the Irish Republic. Sinn Fein ministers in an Irish government could be discussing Northern Ireland matters with the British government ministers.

There is no doubt that Sinn Fein is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the present agreement and the Stormont institutions. But would the emergence of the DUP as the largest unionist party scupper the Good Friday Agreement? That remains to be seen. Senior unionists at Storming are quick to point out how the DUP are enthusiastically working the institutions of government. However, events over the next few years will test and re-test the foundations of the agreement.

Events on the ground will be pivotal for the future of the Good Friday Agreement. On the one hand there is a confident and expanding Catholic community. The same confidence is lacking within the Protestant community. In North Belfast where the UFF have been very active, the Protestant population has been declining for thirty years. There are now large housing estates where rows and rows of houses lie empty. These are the Protestant Interface communities in North Belfast - Tiger's Bay, Glenbyrn, Lower Oldpark, Torrens. In other Protestant working class areas the peace process has delivered very little on the ground.

The truth is that the Protestant parliament and the Protestant state delivered very little to these people. However, even the illusion is gone. They believe the Protestant community is on decline and the Catholic community is making all the gains.

The UFF/UDA have exploited this climate to launch a sustained assault on the Catholic community. They have carried out several sectarian murders and launched hundreds of pipe-bomb and blast bombs attacks on Catholic homes. UFF leaders have been recruiting hundreds of young people like Glen Branagh. Many of the UDA attacks in recent months show the hallmarks of a 'blooding' process, were young people are being prepared for future sectarian conflict.

The death of Glen Branagh is a warning to the labour movement and the working class that bloody sectarian conflict is not a thing of the past in Northern Ireland.

Poverty and deprivation means division. The main political parties are happy to exploit the existing divisions within the working class. In turn it is the working class who are the main victims of sectarian division.


The development of a powerful left wing movement would play a major role in countering sectarianism in Northern Ireland as well as campaigning to end poverty. Sadly the left is in a weak position to mount an effective intervention. The labour and trade union movement abandoned the struggle against sectarianism, just as it abandoned the class struggle, many years ago.

Instead of launching vigorous campaigns to end privatisation and fight for decent wages, it develops cosy deals with the employers. No sizeable left wing force exists in Northern Ireland. The two main groups are the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party. The SWP has a certain base amongst students and the SP has a base in the white-collar public sector union, NIPSA, where their members have led important struggles. The SWP are attempting to imitate the Socialist Alliances in Britain, with minimal success. The Socialist Party lost its only local council seat earlier this year. The SWP and the SP would have less than a hundred active people between them although they have taken up a number of class issues.

In the past the trade union movement failed to address the genuine grievances within the Catholic community, and ignored the brutal repression meted out by the British and NI state. Today grievances exist within both communities. By addressing these grievances and bringing working class people together, the trade unions and the left they could begin to break down the fears and perceptions.

Unless they trade unions and the left can address the grievances which working class people have in areas such as Tiger's Bay, Ardoyne, the Shankill the Falls Road and every other working class area, people will turn to the only other alternative on offer - sectarian political parties.

To date the trade union movement has been silent on the loyalist blockade at Holy Cross School. While genuine grievances do exist in the Glenbyrn area, nothing excuses the naked bigotry meted out to Catholic school children. The blockade has already gone on too long. The trade union leaders should publicly call for it to end. If it doesn't they should organise mass rallies, as they did in the past against sectarian attacks and the killing of workers. It is possible that the trade unions may now do this.

Glen Branagh was buried on Thursday 15th November. He was a member of the UDA's youth wing, the Ulster Young Militants. Interestingly, he was buried in his favourite football strip - Glasgow Celtic.

He was taken from his Mountcollyer Avenue home. The next street is Mountcollyer Street, where Glen's distant cousin Kenneth Branagh, the famous actor, used to live. His family moved out of the street to England shortly after the first riots erupted in 1969. Only a few have been able to escape the devastation of the last thirty years of conflict.

A majority will remain in deprived working class areas with high walls - real or imagined - dividing them from their Catholic and Protestant neighbours. The major capitalist parties have presided over this situation. The key to the future is the development of a mass socialist party to show a way out of the endless cycle of sectarian division and deprivation.