The Downing Street Declaration of December 15, 1993, issued by then Prime Minister John Major and Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, paved the way for a new stage in the struggle for Irish self-determination. It followed the 1992 Sinn Féin document “Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland” which pointed out that a lasting peace must address the root cause of conflict, British intervention and colonial rule, and be grounded in democracy and self-determination.
In the Downing Street Declaration, the British government openly recognised for the first time the right of the people of the island of Ireland to self-determination. It was this, following the determined struggle of the Irish people, by many means and through many phases, for Britain to get out of Ireland, that opened the way to the “Peace Process”, together with the pledge of the government of the Irish Republic not to take over the six counties by force.
The self-interest of the British government in this Declaration has to be recognised. The government had required the end of armed conflict in the north of Ireland for its own ends. In the international situation following the end of the bi-polar division of the world, it wanted to create the conditions both for sending its troops to other parts of the world, as it proceeded to do. Furthermore, more generally in this changed international situation, in line with the programme of “Making Britain Great Again”, especially as initiated with the New Labour government of 1997, in order to play its role in the world of “rebuilding a position of strength and influence”, it required the “moral authority” of having appeared to resolve the conflict in Ireland. It is important to recognise this fact, and not be taken in by the rhetoric of “peace” and “morality” that the New Labour governments have bedecked themselves with. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a telling exposure of this rhetoric, and the recent exposures in the Chilcot inquiry only serve to further underline the baseness and reactionary nature of this project.
In other words, the British governments were seeking to extricate themselves from their impasse in Ireland in a manner which would be favourable to them nationally and internationally. A further factor in bringing about the Downing Street Declaration can be said to be the wish to further penetrate Ireland, both by British capital as well as US but particularly European capital. It is ironic that the Republic of Ireland has, in the context of the present international economic and financial crisis, been a stumbling block to the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. European capital has been eager, just as it has strengthened the European Union as a free-trade zone of the monopolies, to have the whole of Ireland as a free trade area, thereby strengthening the EU bloc vis-à-vis US imperialism. The Celtic Tiger has come and gone, but this aspiration remains, and the Irish government are doing their bit to bail out finance capital also.
In these circumstances, throughout this period, the British government has not dropped its ploy of egging on the Unionists when it suited it. It wishes to make plain that the Northern Ireland Assembly is a devolved body still and not fully sovereign, so that the British government reserves its right to intervene. In this respect, it still clings to its former propaganda that the Irish people have problems in governing themselves, and are second-class citizens in the polity of Britain. In the present situation, the object of the racism and chauvinism of the British state has largely been transferred from the Irish, as they were in the 19th and even 20th centuries to other immigrants, particularly those of the Islamic faith and outlook. It is the Irish who were labelled “terrorists” at one time, and against whom the first “Prevention of Terrorism Act” was passed in 1974, and now it is mainly South Asian and other national minorities in Britain. But the injustices perpetrated against innocent Irish people, such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, who were incarcerated for long years for no other reason than they were Irish, are also a reminder that similar injustices are being perpetrated today, and that the government would prefer that these injustices were not uncovered, as with the case of Binyam Mohamed.
At present, the situation over the transference of policing and justice powers to Stormont is causing concern, and it is to be suspected that the British government is not playing an innocent role in this regard. But it cannot play this card too heavily, since its involvement militarily and politically in other areas of the globe are its main preoccupation. As shown by its stance towards strengthening the role of Scotland within the “United Kingdom”, it is opposed in practice to moves that will weaken the role of Westminster, and its stand towards the north of Ireland as Irish unity is put higher on the agenda of the Irish people is no different.
As Sinn Féin points out, the move towards Irish unity is an historical tide that cannot be withstood. The British government must not stand in the way of this historical movement, nor be the arbiter of progress in Ireland. The cause of the British working class and people in opening the door to progress and building a new society is at one with that of the working class and people of Ireland as a whole.
Worker’s Weekly, Year 2009 No. 76, December 15, 2009