Northern Ireland: Dissident republicanism Nothing to offer but a return to sectarian killings

Accordging to the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, dissident republican groups have been responsible for carrying out an average of two attacks a day since the beginning of the year.

These attacks range from high profile car bombings targeted against the police and army to so-called punishment shootings in Catholic working class areas. Regardless of how “successful” they are in the attacks they carry out, (website of the Socialist Party – CWI Ireland) argues they have nothing to offer but a return to sectarian killings.

Not only have the various dissident groups increased the frequency of attacks, they have also developed a greater sophistication in bomb-making and planning. Once renowned for being heavily infiltrated by the state and having hardly any base in Catholic communities, the dissidents have managed to carry out several high profile car-bombings which appear to have slipped under the intelligence radar of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and MI5 (UK’s security service, "Military Intelligence, Section 5"). The relatively recent recruitment of ex-IRA volunteers with expertise in bomb-making has strengthened the dissident’s capacity to plan and execute deadly attacks, such as the bombing outside Newry courthouse and the gates of MI5’s Northern Ireland headquarters based in Holywood Co. Down. The timing of the latter coincided with the devolution of policing and justice powers, coming 20 minutes after the powers were formally devolved to Northern Ireland. This was aimed at undermining Sinn Fein who claim policing and justice is now accountable to bodies elected in the North and not controlled by London. The Assembly has no legislative control or influence whatsoever over MI5 in Northern Ireland.

It is also clear that dissident groups are gaining more support on the ground, in particular amongst Catholic working class youth. While the overwhelming majority of working class people in the North still completely oppose the actions of the dissidents, in the most deprived Catholic working class areas which have seen little or no benefits from the official peace process, dissident republican groups are growing.

The experience of the peace process for many, especially young people in Northern Ireland has been one which has failed to deliver decent jobs, proper housing or the hope of a better life in the future. The much heralded “peace dividend” which was supposed to arrive in the form of investment and jobs has disappeared from the political vocabulary.

A fragile “Peace”

Even though there are no longer daily killings, sectarian division has intensified under the peace process. Sectarian rioting is a daily occurrence at “interface” areas. Despite some moderate economic growth in the “noughties”, mass unemployment continued to scar working class communities in areas such as Strabane, Derry and North and West Belfast. In general it was a joyless boom for working class people. The North has since been plunged into recession resulting in a big rise in unemployment, disproportionately hitting the young. The real unemployment rate (taking into account the “economically inactive” looking for work) stands at 14%. The cuts which are due to swell in scale over the coming years will plunge the economy in the North into a deeper recession as the public sector currently accounts for a third of all employment. The right-wing policies being implemented by the parties in the Assembly Executive have also undermined support for the official peace process amongst some sections in both Protestant and Catholic communities. In Catholic areas, this has been expressed in the erosion of Sinn Fein’s active base. The eventual decision of Sinn Fein to back policing was, for many republicans, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many members and activists have dropped out of political activity, but some have joined dissident groups. The lack of a genuine working class socialist alternative and the growing alienation of youth from Sinn Fein and the peace process has meant that, in some Catholic areas, dissident republican groups such as Éirigí have grown in recent months.

However, none of these forces offers a viable alternative for workers and youth. To one degree or another, all the dissident republican groups base themselves on a fundamentally incorrect political analysis.

For many decades, the leadership of republicanism based its political and military goals on the mistaken belief that British imperialism was resolutely opposed to a united Ireland. In fact, the British ruling class came to the conclusion in the latter half of the twentieth century that it was no longer necessary to maintain full-scale military presences in countries such as India in order to defend its interests. This was especially so after the upheavals against imperialist rule in the 1950s which posed the threat of socialist revolution in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Instead, capitalist globalisation had developed financial weapons such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation to tighten its grip over neo-colonial countries. After the partition of Ireland, the Southern Irish economy was still hugely dependent on British companies and finance.

However, the policy of divide and rule, a tool used for centuries by imperialist powers to turn ordinary people against each other, created a monstrous sectarian division between Catholics and Protestants in the North. Because of this sectarian division, the British ruling class could not simply withdraw from the North.

The reason for this lies in the mass opposition of Protestants to a capitalist united Ireland. Any attempt to coerce Protestants into a united Ireland will be met with mass resistance. If concrete steps were taken to unite Ireland on a capitalist basis, it would provoke a civil war, leading to major instability in Britain. For British capitalism, the “Irish question” is their very own Frankenstein: a monster of sectarian division which it gave life to but cannot tame. This is the reason why the British ruling class cannot walk away from Northern Ireland.

It took many years for the leadership of Sinn Fein to eventually recognise this fact. This realisation was an important factor in the IRA abandoning its armed campaign and Sinn Fein entering the peace process. Today, the political wing of the RIRA – the 32 County Sovereignty Movement (32 CSM) – still clings on to the false analysis that British imperialism, and not the opposition of the Protestant population, is what stands in the way of a united Ireland.

The obstacle to resolving the national question is capitalism and its inability to provide a secure future for working class people and communities. As long as capitalism exists, there will be resolute opposition from Protestants to a united Ireland. Only on the basis of socialism, where working class people have full control over their own lives and access to decent jobs and decent living standards, can an agreed solution be found to the national question.

The way forward in resolving the national question lies in uniting the working class in a common struggle to defend jobs, services and for socialist change.

A new long war?

It would be incorrect to conclude that the dissidents are currently engaged in isolated frequent attacks to force a united Ireland. There is virtually no support for a return to a sustained armed conflict. Attacks against PSNI and army personnel are designed to recreate the conditions which led to support in Catholic areas for the IRA in the 70s and 80s – in short through provoking the state into implementing brutal repression. In the 70s, state repression was the biggest recruiter for the IRA – Bloody Sunday and the introduction of internment being the two most obvious examples.

However, even when there was support in Catholic areas for the IRAs campaign of individual terrorism, it was never going to succeed either militarily in defeating the British army or of convincing the Protestant population into accepting a united Ireland. Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, warned from the outset that the IRA campaign was not just doomed to failure but in fact was counter-productive even when most on the left opportunistically went along with the popular mood and acted as cheerleaders for the IRA. The IRAs campaign in fact had the opposite effect of pushing Protestants further into the arms of unionism. It also allowed the ruling class to get away with rushing draconian powers through parliament under the guise of anti-terrorism legislation. Much of these powers have since been used against working class people campaigning for their rights, to harass ethnic minorities, and to generally clamp down on civil liberties.

The RIRA Omagh bombing in 1998 is another case where individual terrorism proved to be completely counter-productive. The horiffic killing of 29 innocent people led to an enormous outcry. It enabled the British government to introduce extra draconian powers, which ended up strengthening the state. It is ironic that the dissident republican groups now find themselves protesting against the PSNI’s use of “stop-and-search” powers of the Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which was rushed through parliament following the Omagh bomb.

The dissidents have failed to learn from history. Recently, similar sized car bombs have been left in public spaces, which could have very easily resulted in further atrocities. If another Omagh-type tragedy occurs, it is possible the growth of the dissidents could be thrown quickly into reverse. In these circumstances, the instinct of working class people will be to take mass action to drive back forces intent on dragging the North back into sectarian conflict.

Class nature of dissident republicanism

Despite some occasional references to a socialist united Ireland, the reality is the dissidents have no interest in fighting for socialism. The Real IRA and Continuity IRA are led by right-wing nationalists. The right-wing nature of Republican Sinn Fein, the “political” wing the CIRA, was exposed in 2009 when Des Dalton, now President of Republican Sinn Fein, attended a rally with anti-Semetic, far-right representatives in Austria.

Even on the question of policing the right-wing nature of dissident republicanism can be seen. The Real IRA, which was responsible for the shooting of two soldiers and pizza delivery workers at Massereene barracks in Antrim in 2009, is supported by its political wing, the 32 CSM, in opposing the PSNI. According to its policy document on policing, the 32 CSM is opposed to “the British constitutional status in Ireland and its use of policing to underpin that status” but instead calls for “the deployment of an international Police Force to secure and administer civic order under the auspice of the United Nations”. In other words, the 32 CSM wants to replace the PSNI with an imperialist police force, without any democratic control by working class people in Northern Ireland.

In 1994, Ruairi O Bradaigh, the then President of Republican Sinn Fein, announced that they stood for an Ireland which would be part of “a Celtic League, on the lines of the Nordic Council or the Arab League, which would include all Celtic countries”. The Arab League is an alliance of some of the most corrupt and exploitative regimes in the world, where oppressed nationalities such as the Kurds are brutally discriminated against and denied the right to self determination.

In 2007, a motion at Republican Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis calling on the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to “jointly mount a campaign” with IBEC, the Irish bosses federation, “on behalf of Irish workers” was passed. The idea that Irish workers should seek to jointly campaign with Irish bosses to improve their conditions would be met with ridicule if they were attempt to propose that to workers today. At the same Ard Fheis, another motion “condemned Irish employers who gave preference to foreign workers over Irish workers”. This approach does not take up employer’s exploitation of migrant labour to undermine union wages terms and conditions of workers, but on the contrary actually calls for workers to be discriminated against along the lines of nationality – further dividing workers and strengthening bosses.

Sectarian agendas

The actions of all the dissident republican groups also result in raising sectarian tension and division, which weakens the working class. This was seen in 2008 when dissident republican groups organised demonstrations in Belfast against a homecoming parade for troops from the Royal Irish Regiment who had just returned from Afghanistan. This had nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan but was a sectarian move to out-manoeuvre Sinn Fein. Counter-protests saw a significant mobilisation of loyalists on the day, which further ratcheted up sectarian tension.

A genuine anti-war position would not have been to organise protests against soldiers returning from Afghanistan, but would have been to raise the need to spend the money being wasted on the war in Afghanistan to instead fund much needed services. This approach gets the ear of workers from both communities, uniting working class people against the war – not handing loyalists an opportunity to mobilise. The intent of the dissident protest was the opposite. It succeeded in giving loyalists an opportunity to mobilise and came very close to escalating into sectarian rioting.

The sectarian nature of dissident republicans was also seen when the so-called “North Belfast Civil Rights Association” organised a march in Belfast in 2008 demanding “housing for nationalists”. Lack of housing for Catholics is a major problem in North Belfast. But calling for housing for nationalists is an entirely incorrect and sectarian demand. The cuts to the housing budget will cause a major housing problem for working class Protestants and Catholics across Northern Ireland in the coming years. A genuine movement for housing would demand housing for all.

The dissidents approach is similar to the right-wing arguments raised at the time of the actual civil rights movement in the sixties, when John Hume, representing the Catholic middle class fought vociferously against class demands such as “Jobs and Homes for all” which won support from working class Protestants as well as Catholics suffering discrimination. The conservative nationalist leadership of Hume, Ivan Cooper and co. in the Civil Rights Association deliberately kept demands limited to rights for Catholics in order not to scare off the Catholic capitalist establishment at the time.

The failure of the leaders of the labour and trade union movement to take up issues of discrimination and repression from a working class perspective, led to a generation of youth tragically going down the blind alley of individual terrorism.

Today, the policy of the trade union leaders – one of partnership with the right-wing parties in the Assembly which are carrying out cuts to public services and attacking workers rights and wages – is actively contributing to the political vacuum in Northern Ireland. The “industrial ceasefire” which the union leaders are attempting to enforce is to protect their political masters in Stormont.

The failure of the union leaders to support the launching of a new party of the working class which could attract alienated youth to a clear socialist banner is opening the door open for sectarian forces, both republican and loyalist, to grow. The lessons of the past must be learned in order to prevent another generation being lost and the working class being dragged into a sectarian conflict.

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August 2010