Northern Ireland: Republicanism in crisis

2005 has had a very uncomfortable beginning for the republican leadership.

Since this article was written, the leadership of Sinn Fein, showing the continued pressure they are under, especially since the local and general election campaign in Northern Ireland had been set, called a press conference on 6 April where Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams made the unprecedented call for the IRA to give up the strategy of armed struggle and instead build “political support for republican and democratic objectives”.

Republicanism in crisis

Their obvious discomfort at suddenly finding themselves on the defensive facing an avalanche of hostile criticism is clearly written all over the usually composed faces of Sinn Fein’s main spokespersons.

Gerry Adam’s comment that Sinn Fein have "lost possession" and will have to struggle to get it back is an understatement of the difficulties that now beset the republican movement as a whole.

The Sinn Fein leadership were clearly taken aback by the ferocity of the concerted and coordinated attack launched on them after the Northern Bank raid by people they have been trying for years to court as allies among the ruling elites in Dublin, London and Washington.

They were taken unawares because they had become used to the British and Irish governments turning a partial blind eye to robberies such as the million pound Macro heist or to the racketeering that they knew very well were carried out by the IRA. This time the governments reacted very differently. They did so, not just because the £26.5 million that was wheeled out of the Northern Bank vault was too large a sum to ignore, but primarily because the political context in which the raid took place had changed.

While the talks process was ongoing their overriding concern was to entice Sinn Fein into a deal which would include IRA decommissioning and which ultimately would, they hoped, lead to its disbandment.

However, the talks collapsed last December before any of this could be realised. Following this breakdown, the only prospect of the Assembly ever being taken out of cold storage was through further concessions by republicans, not just on decommissioning, with or without photographs, but on disbandment.

The strategy of the governments then changed from open doors and friendly gestures aimed at courting the Sinn Fein leadership to one of hostile pressure to force them to choose between further concessions and political isolation.

This all happened before an IRA unit took families hostage and removed £26.5 million from the Northern Bank. The robbery conveniently provided the state with an opportunity to turn the screws even tighter on the republican leadership. They hoped that their accusations and the surrounding publicity would damage Sinn Fein in the Westminster and local elections.

In the south, the Fianna Fail/PD government have long been concerned about the growth of Sinn Fein which they see as an electoral threat. They responded with relish to a new situation in which a stalled northern peace process meant that they could take the gloves off in dealing with Sinn Fein. Hence the string of allegations and revelations about the money laundering and other criminal enterprises carried out by the IRA in the south.

The republican leadership responded to this assault by leaning back on their grassroots support in Catholic working class communities. They adopted their familiar pose of "victims", pointing to the political reasons why the very people they had tried to woo as allies, had turned on them, and, predictably placing the blame on "securocrats".

Of course there is a grain of truth in this. But half of the truth is not the whole picture. The fact that the establishment have decided to move against them for political reasons does not mean that the allegations are without foundation. It is common knowledge that robbery, smuggling, and other forms of extortion are the stock-in-trade of the IRA. The only surprise for most people is the scale of the enterprise, a kind of gangster capitalism that involves colossal sums which, by comparison make the proceeds of the Northern Bank raid look like pocket money.

Sinn Fein’s reply was a series of rallies across the north, primarily aimed at republican supporters and with the media excluded, called to spell out the message that this was not just an attack on Sinn Fein but on the "nationalist community". It was an attempt to "criminalise" all their supporters and voters.

The problem, and the main reason for the deep lines of worry now etched on the foreheads of the Sinn Fein leadership, is that just as they were attempting to mobilise the Catholic working class community against the "criminalisation strategy", the brutal murder of Robert McCartney turned a section of that community against them. The attitude of most working class Catholics to the Northern Bank robbery is one of indifference, if not of a certain admiration for the audacity of the raid. Not so with the killing of Robert McCartney.

The facts that have emerged about this murder have proved deeply embarrassing for the republican movement. Robert McCartney was beaten and stabbed to death after a minor incident in Magennis’s Bar close to the Markets area of Belfast. CCTV evidence was removed and potential witnesses intimidated.

That this issue did not end up as just another unresolved killing pushed to the back of people’s minds, has been down to the tenacity of Robert McCartney’s sisters and his partner and to the mood of widespread revulsion that swept the community, especially the Short Strand area where the McCartney family lives.

A change of tack

The republican leadership were forced to change tack. Three IRA members were expelled; seven members of Sinn Fein were suspended; those involved in the killing were "ordered" to give statements indirectly to the police, and an assurance was given that witnesses would not be intimidated.

Despite all this, it seems likely that the republican strategy remains one of damage limitation. It is possible that their real position, behind the threats to shoot those responsible, is to appear to be doing everything possible to get people to come forward, while, at the same time, encouraging anyone who does make a statement to be economical about what they say so that there is not enough evidence to secure a conviction.

The killing of Robert McCartney has opened a running sore for republicanism that is not likely to go away for some time. It has focused attention on the broader question of the methods used by the IRA, and other paramilitary groups, to maintain control over working class areas. Calls made by unionist politicians and members of the establishment for the IRA to "go out of business" have little impact.

In fact the anti-republican hysteria now being whipped up by the establishment, along with the punitive measures being taken against Sinn Fein can, at a certain point, prove counterproductive and can actually lead to an increase in their support. Similar calls for the IRA to go away, coming from ordinary people in the Catholic working class communities are, however, a different matter.

Sinn Fein is now in a very difficult situation with their "peace strategy" in tatters. Before drawing conclusions about how they might get themselves out of this position, it is necessary to understand how they got there in the first place. During the ten years since the IRA ceasefire, sections of the bourgeois have tried to encourage the Sinn Fein leadership towards an agreement that would involve IRA disarmament by heaping huge praise on Adams and those around him. They have been presented as "far seeing strategists" who decided on a political course two decades ago and have been deftly and skilfully dragging the stubborn mule of republican militarism behind them ever since.

This has allowed the myth to develop that the leadership have always had a clear idea of where they are going and how they are going to get there. The true history of the provisional IRA, since it emerged from the pogroms directed against Catholic areas in North and West Belfast in August 1969, is very different. It is a history of continual zigzaging from one failed strategy to another.

Birth of Provisionals

The Provisionals developed as a reaction to the failure of the old Stalinist influenced IRA leadership, who had been in control during the 1960s, to defend Catholic areas in 1969. A right wing section of the IRA used this to discredit not just the military tactics of the old leadership but their flirtation with socialist ideas also.

At this time, there was little or no support among the Catholic population for the type of military campaign that was to follow. The response of the state to the ongoing struggle of Catholics for civil rights and to the first attempts by both the Provisional and Official (old leadership) wings of the IRA to launch military campaigns changed that.

State repression, beginning with the curfew imposed on the Lower Falls area of West Belfast in 1970, but more particularly the introduction of internment in August 1971 and the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in January 1972 drove thousands of young people initially into both wings of the IRA, but ultimately mainly into the Provisionals.

By 1972/73, the most radical and most combative sections of the Catholic youth were leaning to IRA, especially to the Provisionals. There was a sense that the mass demonstrations of the civil rights era had failed and a belief that the methods of individual terrorism were the way to achieve results.

This was the central tragedy of the time; that due to the absence of a viable socialist alternative, the most combative section of the Catholic youth wedded themselves to methods and ideas that were to prove false and counterproductive. The shadow of this tragedy and of its repercussions still hangs over the North today.

The theoretical foundation that underlay the Provisional campaign was flawed. This was the view that the British ruling class were desperate to hold onto the north in order to retain a direct foothold in Ireland. Protestants, according to this reasoning, were mere puppets of Westminster who had been duped and bribed into supporting the northern state. Remove the imperialist prop and their resistance to reunification would evaporate.

In fact, by the 1960s, British Imperialism no longer had any interest in propping up the northern state. With the opening up of the southern Irish economy, they would have preferred to remove the potentially destabilising factor of partition and allow a united Ireland that they could dominate by economic, not by political or military means.

The problem was the opposition of the million Protestants to reunification. Any attempt to coerce them into a capitalist united Ireland would have resulted in a civil war on Britain’s doorstep, an outcome the British ruling class could not contemplate.

Incorrect analysis

The IRA campaign was therefore based on a false theoretical premise; a failure to recognise that the factor that made capitalist reunification impossible to achieve was the opposition of the Protestant community, especially the Protestant working class. It was also based on a method of struggle that could not succeed.

Unlike their leadership, most of the young IRA volunteers saw their struggle, however vaguely, as being for some form of socialist change. But the only force that is capable of defeating and overthrowing a modern capitalist state, let alone beginning to change society along socialist lines, is the working class. It can only do so through mass action – strikes, general strikes and ultimately insurrection.

Individual terrorism substitutes the activities of a small group for the mass movement of the working class. No matter with what expertise, tenacity or courage it is fought, a campaign based on this method cannot succeed. Rather than weaken the state, individual terrorism generally provides it with the excuse to introduce repressive measures.

In the Northern Ireland context, the IRA methods were doubly counterproductive in that they were based on only one section of the community. The British state was able to lean on the Protestants against them. By deepening the division of the working class along sectarian lines, the IRA campaign weakened the one force that was capable of bringing about socialist change in Ireland.

Today there is a widely held view, propagated by the republican leadership, that the IRA campaign was "justified in its time", that it "served its purpose" in that it brought the British ruling class to the peace table.

In fact the military campaign, begun in earnest after Internment in 1971, had largely run its course by the end of that decade. When the Adams northern based leadership effectively took charge following what they saw as the disastrous ceasefire that the Dublin leadership had called in 1975, any idea of a quick victory was jettisoned. It was the failure of the campaign in its early years that forced a reorganisation into a more secretive cell structure and the adoption of the new strategy of the "long war".

The continuation of repression, the poverty endured by the mass of the Catholic working class and the unresolved national problem meant that there was a basis for a long drawn out campaign. However, while the "long war" could be sustained it could never succeed in forcing the hand of the British establishment. By the end of the 1970s, it was largely ineffectual, the IRA were increasingly isolated and the government was close to their objective, once blurted out by Tory Secretary of State, Reginald Mauldling, of "an acceptable level of violence".

The ballot box

As at the start of the seventies, it was the crude methods of the British establishment, not any foresight on the part of the IRA leadership, that changed this. Thatcher’s intransigence during the hunger strikes alienated the mass of Catholics and prepared for the rise of Sinn Fein.

An entirely accidental factor – the death of the nationalist MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone – led to the decision of the prisoners to run hunger striker, Bobby Sands, for the seat. With his victory, Adams and co. found themselves with a political strategy that they had never considered.

During the 1980s, they attempted to combine the political and military methods in the so-called "ballot bomb" strategy. The idea was that Sinn Fein could be developed north and south and could act as a kind of political auxiliary to the military campaign which most republicans still saw as the key. Over the course of the decade, they were to find that the methods of mass political action and those of a secretive military campaign were contradictory, not complementary.

The "big push" that the IRA volunteers had been promised quickly ran into the sand, halted by the “shoot to kill” and other repressive methods of the state. Sinn Fein grew in the north but still lagged behind the SDLP and was unable to make any headway in the south.

By the end of the decade, the republican leadership had arrived at another dead end. Their response was to embark on a "peace process" that has lasted as long as the military campaign and produced just as little. The "peace strategy", like the military campaign was based on political premises that were fundamentally flawed.

The republican leadership were thrown off balance by the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement. The spectacle of a Thatcher government that was seemingly willing to face down mass opposition from the unionists did not fit in with their idea of the Protestants as willing dupes of imperialism.

They started to recognise that the British ruling class had no real interest in staying in Ireland, but wrongly put this down as a change of policy brought about by their campaign. The shift in republican thinking marked the beginnings of a fundamental change in the nature of the Troubles. Having accepted that Britain was no longer implacably opposed to a united Ireland, this left the Protestant community as the only remaining barrier.

Instead of a "war" against the state, the Troubles became, from a republican perspective, a struggle to grind down this opposition, a "war" of a different character against the unionist ties of the Protestant community. In this context, the British Government were no longer the enemy but could be signed up as allies, or "persuaders" in Sinn Fein-speak, to help pressgang the Protestants into a united Ireland.

The idea that by gradually paring back and eroding the foundations of the northern state using political, territorial, demographic and "cultural" weapons, rather than Semtex, Protestants would eventually throw in the towel and accept their lot in a capitalist united Ireland, is utterly naïve. Yet this is precisely the premise that has underlain the Sinn Fein approach to the peace process for more than a decade.

There is no possibility that the fear felt by Protestants that they would end up as the underdogs in an all Ireland state can be overcome on a capitalist basis. If the mass of Protestants felt that reunification was really on the cards, this would be the cue for armed resistance and civil war, not acquiesence.

War of attrition

The peace process has, in reality, been a long "war" of attrition fought out by sectarian forces on both sides, most especially a "war" fought over control of territory. It has left the communities more polarised and a solution further away than ever.

Paramilitaries on both sides have had a big role to play in this. The IRA does not mind giving up arsenals of weapons it has no intention of using. Giving up the role they play in manipulating and controlling events in the working class communities is a different matter.

While the collapse of the talks last December may have been triggered by arguments about photographs, Paisley’s "sackcloth and ashes" insult or the Southern government’s demands on "criminality", the more fundamental reason was the deepened sectarian division which made even a temporary accommodation more difficult. For republicanism it meant that the failed "peace strategy", whether they recognise it or not, had brought them to another dead end.

For more than a decade they have become accustomed to treading the corridors of power. They have rubbed shoulders and shaken hands with Prime Ministers and Presidents. The radical and semi-socialist rhetoric put forward in the early years of Sinn Fein’s electoral rise has been jettisoned in the process. Their northern Ministers did not hesitate to shut down and privatise parts of the Health and Education services over which they held responsibility.

Sinn Fein has moved to the right and has been partially transformed into a conventional constitutional bourgeois party. But only partly. It has attracted a layer of political careerists who have no connection with the IRA and no history of struggle, many of whom are cosmetically projected as the sanitised face of "New" Sinn Fein.

The core of the party, however, remains the IRA volunteers and ex-volunteers. From the very top to the bottom, the IRA and Sinn Fein are inextricably linked.

Up to now, the republican movement has got away with its dual nature, as the establishment was prepared to look away in order to do a deal and also to suck the Adams leadership firmly into the constitutional net. This has now decisively changed.

The republican leadership are now caught in the horns of a dilemma. To the mass of Protestants, the DUP appear to have been vindicated. They are extremely unlikely to contemplate any new deal without first having tangible evidence that the IRA has "gone away".

The Southern establishment now appear intent on continuing the crackdown on the IRA’s financial network over several years, making a deal much more difficult, if not impossible, in the meantime.

To reopen serious negotiations, the republican leadership would either have to move to stand down the IRA or else a political wing would have to emerge that was prepared to distance itself from those who refused to disband, risking a serious split and feud in the process.

It really is a Catch 22 situation. If they retain the IRA, the doors to power will remain shut. The "peace strategy" will be unsustainable and they have no alternative strategy to put in its place.

A return to war is not an option, despite the bellicose threat from the IRA earlier in the year that they should "be taken seriously". The conditions that provided the Provisionals with a mass base in the early seventies simply do not exist. While a one off "spectacular" is not ruled out, it is unlikely. In the post 9/11 world, the first question that would be asked were there another Canary Wharf bomb would be "was it Al Quaeda or was it the IRA?"; an association that republicans would want to avoid.

But without a "peace strategy", without republican feet being firmly back in the corridors of power, the disbandment of the IRA would be very difficult, if not impossible, for the current leadership to achieve.

Despite the successes of Sinn Fein, the role of the IRA on the ground remains a core aspect of republicanism. The IRA’s role in the community, acting as a semi-official police force, marshalling and containing as well as encouraging protests on issues such as parades as well as using crude methods to maintain control of areas, is an essential ingredient in the support for Sinn Fein.

The IRA also poses as the defender of the Catholic community. The real truth is that the IRA have never been able to protect areas either from state repression or from loyalists but, while the threat of sectarian attack remains and in the absence of any alternative, the attitude of many Catholics is that, while they don’t like the way the IRA operate, they are "all we’ve got" .

On top of all this there is the question of the business and financial assets of the republican conglomerate which cannot just be dissolved away.

To achieve disbandment, if this were to become their aim, the republican leadership would have to have something to show in return. And without the "peace strategy" and at least the appearance that they are getting somewhere, they have nothing to convince the republican grassroots and beyond them, the Catholic community, that republican objectives can be met by tame constitutional means.

A promise from Paisley that he might talk following a suitable "sanitation" period will hardly do.

The republican movement have arrived at another dead end, this time with no clear alternative exit in sight. What they will do in the longer term is unclear. For now, their most likely option will be to sit tight in the hope that it will eventually all blow over.

Despite the media barrage, the lack of any credible alternative in the north and the political vacuum that exists in the south means that they are not likely to be significantly damaged electorally, if at all.

The powerful political base they have built in the North has been down to four main factors: poverty, state repression, sectarian division and the absence of an alternative. Sinn Fein are masters of political manipulation, propaganda and spin and have been able to develop themselves as the political expression of the alienation felt by the Catholic community, above all by the Catholic working class.

All these factors still exist to one degree or another. There has been no peace dividend to relieve the poverty that is endemic in the working class areas where Sinn Fein is strongest. The brutal state methods of the seventies and early eighties have been eased but injustice and collusion is still an issue. On top of this, the current threats of exclusion and other punitive action allow Sinn Fein to continue to posture as an anti-establishment party, even though their clear objective is to become part of the establishment.

Sectarianism is more of a factor than ever, given the almost total polarisation that now exists. In the past, when they have felt themselves under pressure, the republican movement have whipped up sectarian tension over issues like disputed parades, in order to corral the Catholic community behind them. It is possible that issues like this will again be pushed to the fore to try to deflect attention from all else that is going on.

What way forward?

The republican movement are in crisis but are not about to disappear either politically or as a force on the ground, whether this is in the form of the IRA or some other form. They are not a "radical" or an "anti-imperialist" or "socialist" force, although they might like to attach these labels to themselves at times. In the context of the long drawn out war of sectarian attrition that is still known as the "peace process", they are the most prominent expression of the Catholic side of that conflict.

Right-wing nationalism and Catholic sectarianism, like unionism and Protestant sectarianism, will exist in some form unless and until an alternative is built. In the early 1970s the radicalised Catholic youth ended up in the Provisionals and their energies and sacrifice were ultimately squandered in a political and military cul de sac. What is needed now is a united movement of the Catholic and Protestant working class fighting for a socialist solution so that this generation have an alternative to the sectarian dead end of right wing nationalism. The movement that has developed against the killing of Robert McCartney, the struggles against cuts, on pay and on pensions and the massive groundswell of opposition developing to water charges could be a beginning.

From Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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April 2005