Northern Ireland: Crisis for republicans – political alternative needed

The Northern Bank robbery in Belfast, Robert McCartney’s killing and the attempt to cover it up, and then the allegations about the multi-million pound criminal empire run by the IRA have put the leadership of the republican movement in Ireland under intense pressure.

The "friends" and "allies" they tried to court among the Irish, British and US ruling establishment have all turned on them, trying to isolate them and to damage Sinn Fein electorally.

A few months ago these people were prepared to partially ignore the robberies and other rackets that they knew were carried out by the IRA. The brutal methods used by the IRA and other paramilitaries to keep a grip on working-class communities were also ignored.

For Bush, Blair and Ahern, working-class people’s deaths in the loyalist or republican heartlands of Belfast and Derry are of no concern, provided they do not upset the Northern Ireland "peace process".

What changed this was not the Northern Bank robbery or Robert McCartney’s death. It was the collapse of talks last December and the realisation that unless more concessions could be got from the republican movement there was little or no prospect of the Assembly being revived.

The British and Irish governments are using recent events to try and knock Sinn Fein back, hoping either that a deal could be done without them or else that the republican leadership could be left with no choice but to disband the IRA.

Republicans now find themselves in a very difficult position. A return to war is not a serious option. But their political strategy – based on the myth that by getting into government north and south and by introducing piecemeal and minor constitutional changes they could eventually achieve a united Ireland – is now in tatters.

Angry protests

Unionists will now demand the complete dismantling of the IRA as a precondition of any new deal. Even if they were prepared to consider this, the republican leadership would find it very hard to persuade their members that the IRA should be folded up in return for a promissory note from ultra-loyalist Ian Paisley that he might eventually share power with them.

In any case, dismantling a multi-million pound/euro enterprise with assets stretching across the world would be very difficult to achieve.

Under this onslaught from the very people they tried for years to court as "allies" the first reaction of Adams and Co. was to lean back to the base of republicanism in the working-class communities in Northern Ireland. A series of rallies were called to protest against what they portrayed as the attempt to "criminalise the nationalist community."

Their problem is that just as they were trying to mobilise the Catholic community in the north behind them, a section of this community was angrily mobilising against them over the McCartney killing.

Neither the governments nor the main political parties have any idea how to get beyond the current impasse. They are incapable of bringing about a solution.

The talks between Northern Ireland’s four main parties have only been about how they can rule over a permanently divided society, not how that division can be overcome. All they have achieved has been a greater sectarian polarisation than at the time of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires ten years ago.

Only the working class can solve the problem. The mass reaction against Robert McCartney’s murder showed how the sectarian and paramilitary organisations can be isolated and stopped in their tracks by a movement of working-class people. What happened in the Short Strand could also happen in Protestant working-class communities in opposition to the loyalist paramilitaries’ brutal gangster methods.

Other class issues have also cut across the sectarian division. Strikes and movements against health and education cuts have united Protestant and Catholic workers.

If the one-day strike on pensions scheduled for 23 March goes ahead it will do the same. Above all, opposition to water charges is uniting working-class people and could end in a massive non-payment campaign.

The problem is the lack of a political alternative. Despite the barrage of attacks from the media and despite real anger over the McCartney murder, it is not likely that Sinn Fein will suffer significantly in the May elections, mainly because no viable political alternative exists who working-class people can vote for.

To find a way out of the sectarian impasse. a new mass party which could unite working-class people in the struggle for a socialist solution will have to be built.

This could give a political voice to movements like the campaign for justice for Robert McCartney as well as to the industrial and social movements. The Socialist Party will be standing in the local elections to begin to develop that alternative.

Interview with Paula McCartney

"We won’t stop until people are convicted"

Since Robert McCartney’s brutal murder in Belfast on 30 January, his five sisters and his partner, Bridgeen, have conducted a determined campaign to have those who killed him brought to trial and convicted.

The names of the people who killed Robert McCartney are widely known in Belfast and known to virtually everyone in the Short Strand and Markets area. They are local members of the IRA.

Robert’s sister Paula spoke to the socialist about the campaign to secure justice for Robert:

"All we want is for the people who killed Robert to take responsibility for what they have done. We won’t stop campaigning until people are convicted. We have had a fantastic response from the local community in the Short Strand.

"Robert was well known in the area and well liked. There have been two vigils in the area. Both had 1,000 people there, showing that this community is united in its disgust at what happened and fully supports our call for justice. We are now considering taking the issue beyond the area with a rally outside Magennis’s bar [the Belfast bar where Robert McCartney and Brendan Devine were attacked].

"As well as allowing people from both communities who might be hesitant about coming into the Short Strand to show their support, a large rally would help keep the pressure on the republican movement to get the people responsible to come forward."

The McCartney family have met senior republicans and attended the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis (conference). What about the expulsions of three members from the IRA and seven members from Sinn Fein? Are they satisfied with these and the other assurances given?

"We want the people responsible to be held accountable in the courts. Assurances are fine but they won’t amount to anything if they don’t end up in action. One of the people expelled from the IRA was expelled before and then brought back in.

"Who’s to say that this won’t happen again if this all dies down? The IRA is an army and can order its members to give themselves up. This is what it should do.

"Delegates at the Ard Fheis did stand to welcome us and more assurances were given. But we were disappointed to hear Gerry Adams later on television say that the attack on Robert was ’stupidity fuelled by alcohol’. We want to know what he means by this.

"Is he trying to diminish Robert’s killing by saying it was a ’drunken fight’. The earlier statement that the IRA issued about what happened is not accurate. They claim that a senior IRA member was injured and had to go to hospital after a fight in the bar.

"Yet when we met the IRA they admitted that the incident in the bar was started by this same IRA man. We understand that he ordered the assault and was cut by one of his own members during the attack on Brendan Devine.

"We will not accept a damage limitation strategy by republicans, expelling people and calling on people to come forward but also allowing their members to say so little to the police that no-one is ever convicted."

Robert McCartney’s killing has raised broader questions about the methods the IRA, and other paramilitary organisations, use to maintain effective control of working- class areas.

Paula agreed with the Socialist Party’s views that working-class communities should be run democratically by the people who live in them, not by paramilitary organisations: "No community wants or needs paramilitary organisations who think they can do whatever they like to keep control and intimidate people from standing out against them.

"Robert was killed by people who present themselves as defenders of nationalist areas but, whenever this area was under attack, it was people like Robert, who was in no organisation, who was out there defending it."

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

This is an extract from a longer piece in the new March 2005 issue of The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party (cwi) in Ireland

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February 2005