Northern Ireland

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When Barack Obama announced George Mitchell as his "peace envoy" in the Middle East there was praise for his choice of the "peacebroker" of Northern Ireland (NI). Yet only two months later the peace was shattered when two British soldiers and then a police officer were killed by Republican groups.

New Labour's warmongers proceeded to pour vitriol on the "men of violence" in a flood of hypocrisy. The British media revelled in the opportunity to push Sinn Fein to condemn the shootings. This they duly did. The sight of Martin McGuiness denouncing the attacks alongside police chief Sir Hugh Orde and the Unionist first minister Peter Robinson was a stark reminder of the extent of Sinn Fein's integration into the state.

But there was also a grassroots reaction of dismay that saw tens of thousands, including many trade unionists, take to the streets across NI with placards that read "No going back." The demonstrations were a reminder that the impetus for the peace process did not come from Mitchell or any other politician but from working class people throughout NI.

What has happened to the peace the majority of people so desperately want? On the surface Belfast is transformed. Its streets are full of shiny restaurants and bars. But beneath the glossy architecture lie very real social and political problems. The peace process did not end the sectarian divide; it institutionalised it. Schools and housing are segregated. There are more walls dividing communities now than in 1998. Almost one fifth of the population lives on or below the breadline. Already the recession is having an impact, and rising job losses will only exacerbate poverty and hopelessness.

Resumption of the armed struggle is not a solution. Nor is a rise in state repression. For somewhere at peace NI is heavily policed. The announcement last month that the hated army special forces would resume covert operations has caused deep anger. There are 7,500 police officers and a garrison of 5,000 British soldiers currently in NI, and MI5 has its largest base outside of London. Two of the men arrested in connection with the killings were held without charge for 14 days, leading to a police station visit from human rights commissioner Monica McWilliams.

The trade unions remain the single social force in NI that unites communities across the sectarian divide. The critical question will be their ability to mobilise this collective strength in the coming months.