Danger of sectarianism shows need for socialist alternative
At a time when the working class in Northern Ireland is suffering record job losses and deep cuts in pay and public services, the Real IRA’s shooting of soldiers and two workers in Antrim [and the killing of a police officer near Craigavon town, last night] raise the perspective of a possible return to sectarian conflict and outlines the utter reactionary role of such attacks.
The shooting dead of two British soldiers by the Real IRA (RIRA) at the entrance of Massereene army barracks, on the edge of Antrim town, shocked many people across Northern Ireland. Another two soldiers were shot on the scene but survived. Two pizza delivery drivers, one from Poland, were also gunned down – in the eyes of the RIRA they are “legitimate targets”.
Such incidents were commonplace in the seventies, eighties and early nineties, and would have had little impact on the wider political situation. This attack, however, is the first of its kind in over ten years, and was carried out by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process and the participation of Sinn Fein in the power-sharing Assembly Executive.
Over the past few years, dissident republican groups have stepped up their campaign of targeting PSNI (Police Service of N Ireland) and army personnel. They have launched fifteen attacks in the last six months. Last month, a 300lb car bomb was abandoned in Castlewellan. If it had reached its intended target, Ballykinlar Army Barracks, significant casualties could have resulted.
While there is little support in Catholic working class areas for a return to ‘war’ at this time, and the dissident groups are small and relatively isolated, there is little doubt that they are growing in strength and confidence.
The dissidents’ goal for the moment is to undermine the power-sharing institutions by provoking a reaction from unionists, in particular the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), in response to attacks on the police and army. Because of the sectarian nature of Sinn Fein’s politics, the party now finds itself in a very difficult position. The logic of Sinn Fein’s political trajectory over the last twenty years, and its current position in government, means that it must condemn the attack and call for co-operation with the police. Sinn Fein states that it is opposed to any return to severe state repression, of course, but its call for people to go to the PSNI with information on the dissidents will further undermine its credibility with young Catholics.
The DUP is calling for an increase in repression, including shoot-to-kill policies. DUP figures acknowledge that Sinn Fein has moved in its position on the police but put it under pressure by implying that Sinn Fein actually know who is involved in the dissident groups and could hand suspects up to the police, if it so chose, and by criticising its support for the PSNI as half-hearted.
An echo of the repressive policies of the state in the past was heard a few days before the Antrim attack, when it was revealed that the ‘Special Reconnaissance Regiment’ of the British Army has been deployed in Northern Ireland. The SRR was formed primarily from the ‘14th Intelligence Company’, a unit responsible for many shoot-to-kill incidents during the Troubles.
This limited return of the army to a combat role was a propaganda gain for the dissidents. The 32-County Sovereignty Committee (the political group linked to the Real IRA) claimed it as evidence that Britain has “failed to pacify Ireland” and that it is a major embarrassment to Sinn Fein. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness [a former leader of the Provisional IRA] described the decision to deploy the SRR as “stupid and dangerous” but he has no power to stop this move.
If policing is devolved to Stormont [the seat of local power-sharing government] in the next one to two years, the storm generated by the future killing of a soldier or police officer will be even greater. And the intentions of the dissidents are clear – they do not have the resources for a campaign on the scale of the Provisional IRA campaign but they will continue with intermittent attacks in an attempt to destabilise the power-sharing Executive.
Opposition to Sinn Fein in its heartlands is growing. This opposition is not just based on its failure to deliver on the national question but on the correct perception that Sinn Fein is a right-wing party on social and economic issues. As the recession deepens, the potential for dissident groupings to garner more support will increase, especially among young people.
Dead-end of paramilitary campaigns
This Antrim attack comes at a time when working class people are facing a future of rising unemployment and deepening poverty. In such a context, an increase in united working class struggles, such as strikes and movements against health cutbacks, is on the cards. An attack, such as the Antrim killings, has the capacity to increase sectarian division and cut across working class unity in struggle.
While there is no support amongst the parties for a collapse of the power-sharing Executive, outside of economic policy there are deep divisions on every major issue which could lead to the Executive falling. It is more likely that the Executive will continue to be characterised by paralysis on a number of key issues, including attitudes to dissident attacks. And a major dispute on an unforeseen sectarian issue could explode at any time.
From the beginning of the peace process, in the 1990s, the Socialist Party argued that no lasting solution could be found on the basis of an uneasy compromise between sectarian politicians. The Socialist Party also argued however that the relative peace ushered in by the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 would open up possibilities for the development of class politics and greater working class unity. This opportunity will not last forever.
The working class and young people cannot rely on the Assembly to deliver lasting peace, a decrease in sectarian division or improved living standards. The dead-end of paramilitary campaigns is no way out for young people in either community and only deepens division. Working class people need their own party: a mass party which attracts support by posing a socialist alternative to the right wing policies of the Assembly parties and the various paramilitary groups and seeks to overcome sectarian division not cement it. The inaction of the leadership of the trade union movement, by refusing to support the building of a mass working class party and by continuing to prop up the Assembly parties, only allows the sectarian forces intent in dragging us back into conflict more scope to grow.