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Irish republicanism at an impasse

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It is twenty five years since the civil rights revolt gave birth to the modern IRA. Here, Matt Docherty assesses republicanism’s strategy for a united Ireland today in the light of the recent historic changes in world politics.

Unlike many radical nationalist forces around the world, the Irish Republican Movement1 has been neither demoralised nor disoriented by the collapse of the “socialist” countries or the junking of Stalinist ideology.2

The main reformulation of tactics and ideology has been due to the increasingly negative balance sheet of a 25 year long struggle within Ireland and Britain. The revolt of the oppressed minority against the British-guaranteed oppressor state in Northern Ireland is ever more isolated. But in rationalising this state of affairs and in posing new solutions to it, there is evidence that the retreat and even capitulation of petit-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist movements in other parts of the world haseffected Irish republicanism.3

Only in the 1960s did Stalinism establish an influence in the openly organised party of the movement, Sinn Féin. Attempts by Stalinists in the mid 1930s to draw worker members of the IRA into a left-wing block were repudiated by the conspiratorial leaders of the IRA who consistently asserted their anti-communism right up to the end of the 1950s.

For three decades this “Republican Movement” was little more than a tiny illegal armed conspiracy engaging in sporadic guerrilla actions with no mass support. Although they could occasionally win localised electoral support in the South, refusal to take up seats was a sacred principle.

During the 1960s the IRA re-created Sinn Féin as a small but open campaigning political party among sections of radicalised youth in both parts of the country. They responded to the new conditions of secularisation and international investment in Ireland by abandoning their explicitly Catholic nationalist, anti-communist baggage. They adopted a left-wing posture against imperialist capitalism. The small Stalinist Communist Party of Ireland hoped to guide the new republican movement into a popular alliance for democracy and civil rights north and south, embracing electoral politics.

In 1968-69 an explosion of popular nationalist revolt among the half-million Catholics trapped in the north split the Republican Movement. For the first time in 50 years republicans were faced with popular nationalist support for armed action against the sectarian state which systematically oppressed them.4

The republicans split into “Official” and “Provisional” wings early in 1970. The Provisionals split was ostensibly over an IRA decision to end the 50-year-old boycott of the Southern parliament but it was the conflict over how to respond to the nationalist revolt which really mattered. It was this split which was to keep the republican movement of today out of Stalinist control.

The Provisional IRA in 1969-72 grew rapidly in conditions of mass demonstrations against the Loyalist state4 which had interned hundreds of republican and socialist campaigners. They developed as a defence militia in local nationalist communities which they in part protected from Protestant loyalist gangs and uniformed state thugs.

The discredited Official IRA ceased all military action and attacked the Provisional IRA as anti-democratic, religious-sectarian and “fascist’. Developing as an electoralist Stalinist party, they expelled the remaining anti-imperialist elements in their own ranks who wanted to combine class struggle with continued anti-imperialist struggle in the north. Eventually they built a small base of support among white-collar trade unionists and became “The Workers Party’.

They became notorious for supporting state repression against their former republican comrades. It was left to them not Sinn Féin to declare the Stalinist states to be bastions of socialism.

This bitter and occasionally bloody split was a major setback for Stalinist ideology within the present republican movement. Since then the republican movement has established a relative independence of Stalinism.

Nor did the republicans’ military wing suffer by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, for these were never a significant supplier of weapons or funds. A major source of funds has always been nationalist sympathisers among emigré Irish communities in the USA. IRA volunteers were never schooled in Moscow like those of the FMLN.

As for arms, in the mid 1980s Libya alone supplied at least two ships full—much more than IRA guerrilla units had the capacity to use. Subsequent police seizures of sophisticated automatic weapons had little effect on the IRA campaign because its major activity has been to cause havoc by planting bombs and to attack police stations with its own “mortars’ rather than engage in raids or gun-attacks, like those of guerrilla movements in Latin America.

For all of its 150 years republicanism in Ireland has been a petit-bourgeois party rooted among the Catholic masses. Apart from the period of the armed popular front of 1919-21 this current (Fenianism, IRB and finally IRA/Sinn Féin) has always been hated and vilified by reformist bourgeois Catholic nationalism.

Petit-bourgeois republicanism has therefore always claimed to champion “the men of no property” as against the propertied nationalist ruling class. The republican programme has never been for socialism but rather strived for an idealised self-sufficient Irish society of citizens relating to each other as small property-holders. It would mitigate class antagonisms rather than pursue the struggle of classes to their final abolition. It is a programme little different from that of a hundred radical nationalist movements across the globe in this century.5

But despite this petit-bourgeois programme the provisional movement’s reliance after the 1971 split upon the largely working class nationalist ghettoes in the North obliged them to create a new “socialist” rhetoric.

This was forced on them by the sharp increase in unemployment and social misery arising out of the 1974 recession. By 1978 the new generation of northern republican activists were turning Sinn Féin leftwards, taking over its national weekly and displacing the traditionalist leadership based in the South.

The new current eventually installed Gerry Adams as a “left-wing” leader of the movement. In 1979 in a significant turn for Sinn Féin, Adams declared:

“The task that we, as republicans, have set ourselves, and the ills affecting our people and our country are too complex to be satisfied merely by a British withdrawal or by the establishment of a 32-county neo-colonial Free State. We are not, and never have been, merely a “Brits Out” movement . . . We stand opposed to all forms and all manifestations of imperialism and capitalism. We stand for an Ireland free, united, socialist and Gaelic … Our movement needs constructive and thoughtful self-criticism. . . . It needs to be done now because to date our most glaring weakness lies in our failure to develop revolutionary politics and to build an alternative to so-called constitutional politics’ .6

British and Irish bourgeois propaganda seized upon such left-wing rhetoric in order to associate the IRA with communism. They hoped to undermine support for the IRA among their right-wing Irish-American sympathisers. Adams countered truthfully: “There is no Marxist influence within Sinn Féin. It simply isn’t a Marxist organisation. I know of no one in Sinn Féin who is a Marxist or who would be influenced by Marxism” 7

Adams and the Sinn Féin lefts were adamant that there could be no struggle for “socialism” until first they had won “national liberation”. This outlook dictated their attitude to nationalist revolutionary victories in Nicaragua (1979) and Zimbabwe (1981) which were hailed uncritically by Sinn Féin. There was no recognition that the continued extremes of social inequality among the workers and poor peasants in those countries necessitated a continuation of the social and class struggle and to challenge the capitalist basis of their societies.8

Despite having its only concentrated bases of support among the most oppressed urban nationalist communities in Northern Ireland, it has remained both politically and socially petit-bourgeois in character and leadership.

Self-consciously working class organisations have never adhered to Sinn Féin. Even the weight of the urban bases of support in the north is counter-balanced in Sinn Féin by its rural and urban petit-bourgeois support scattered throughout the country and among emigrants in the US. For all these reasons conscious Stalinists made few gains within the new “left turn” of Sinn Féin.

The gun and the bomb remain the fundamental defining point of Irish republican “strategy” which thus allows a considerable eclecticism in its social and political positions. All its assessments of other guerrilla struggles and nationalist insurrections around the world are principally concerned to emphasise that self-sacrifice in armed struggle is ultimately victorious, that victory belongs to those who are prepared to suffer the most.

Gradually, however, “victory” in the armed struggle has come to be re-defined not as forcing Britain to leave Ireland but . . . winning a place at the negotiating table! Negotiations are seen as a “victory” for armed struggle not only in Ireland but in El Salvador and South Africa.9 After the killing in South Africa of Chris Hani and with the ANC still utterly opposed to organising democratic defence militias, Sinn Féin stridently supported the ANC’s strategy of collaboration, now that the “victory” of negotiations had been won:

“Like Mandela and the other ANC leaders, [Hani] recognised the need for the combination of political agitation and armed struggle to force the Pretoria government to the negotiating table. Like all great revolutionary leaders, he recognised the value of military action but was not afraid to suspend the tactic of armed struggle to accept the new challenge presented by inclusive talks . . . Irish politicians . . . who this week called for the continuation of these talks, are hypocrites. It is these same politicians who have contributed to the continuation of the war in Ireland and the terrible suffering on all sides which this entails by refusing to agree to all-inclusive talks.” 10

For all its “revolutionary” intransigence and commitment to the “physical force” struggle, Sinn Féin and the IRA have no perspective whatever of smashing the oppressor-state of imperialist capitalism in the north of Ireland.

The minimum revolutionary democratic demands which any mass struggle must impose as pre-conditions for ending national oppression in the Six County state are the withdrawal of British forces and the disarming and disbanding of the sectarian police (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and army reserve (Royal Irish Regiment11). Sinn Féin, however, does not raise these demands as preconditions for a solution, and certainly not as a focus for any kind of mass struggle. Their “strategy” is to extract from Britain a “declaration of intent to withdraw” and to win admission into all-party negotiations on future political arrangements.

Towards this end they now engage in a propagandistic “peace” offensive. Their 1992 Conference ratified the leadership’s manifesto Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland which sets out in the most moderate terms all the well-rehearsed bourgeois arguments for “an Irish national democracy”:

“Sinn Féin believes that such a scenario is achievable based on the following;

1) the recognition by the British government that the Irish people have the right to national self-determination.

2) That the British government change its current policy to one of ending participation and handing over sovereignty to an all-Ireland government whose selection would be a democratic matter for the Irish people.

3) That the future of the unionists lies in this context and that the British government has a responsibility to influence unionist attitudes.

4) The London and Dublin governments should consult together to seek agreement on the policy objective of ending partition.

These four propositions, if enacted by the British and Irish governments, would secure for the peace process the maximum national, international, political and popular support.”12

Failing acceptance of this by Britain, Sinn Féin calls on the “other nationalist parties”, Fianna Fáil in the South the SDLP13 in the North, to “forcefully and continuously represent the interests of the nationalist people”, including appeals to the EC, the CSCE and the UN.

Even if Sinn Féin were admitted into political talks, what prospect is there of Britain ever “putting on the table” the question of Irish Unity? Is it conceivable that Britain might repudiate its guarantee to the Protestant Unionist population of continued British rule?

In the late seventeenth century it was the Protestant industrialists of the North East region who championed the fight for Irish freedom from Britain’s stifling commercial restrictions. Britain and the Irish landlords combined to drown in blood the United Irishmen’s bourgeois revolution in 1798 and force Ireland fully into the United Kingdom.

A century later industry had declined throughout the South where famine, landlordism and anti-Catholic discrimination gave rise to two new nationalist movements—the constitutional Catholic nationalists fighting in the UK parliament for Irish Home Rule, and the “physical-force” Fenians, precursors of the IRA. Only in the North East did industry not decline, rather it thrived as a supplier to the British Empire’s shipping and military needs.

As the north-east developed industrially in the 19th century, the mushrooming urban proletariat was ghettoised along religious lines. The quasi-masonic Orange Order14 united northern Irish Protestants across all classes in an alliance with a semi-racist attitude to the Catholic Irish. Pogroms against Catholic working class areas were a regular part of Orange triumphalism.

“Unionism” as the hegemonic political party developed within this reactionary class alliance of Protestants, determined to defend the Union with Britain against any concession to Home Rule for the nationalists.

The Home Rule Bill of 1912 was the signal for the Unionists to mobilise and arm the whole Protestant population in readiness to resist Irish independence. With the outbreak of war, Home Rule was shelved and the Unionists were promised a division of the island to allow for continued British sovereignty.

Historically the British nation-state, in its formation, failed to integrate the Irish people in either the South or the North-East, as it had done successfully with the Welsh and the Scots. Thus Irish Protestants in the North-East were given a separate Northern Ireland parliament in 1921 even though they had never demanded it nor argued for any form of “self-determination”. They defined their identity as British, or more specifically as the Irish people within the Union of Great Britain and Ireland.

Despite this attempt to claim the same position as the Scots and the Welsh, they remained completely outside of British political and social life. So, for example, the mainland Labour, Conservative or Liberal parties never organised in Northern Ireland. Although it was formally only one of four national regions under London’s rule, it was the only one with a parliament of its own. It was allowed to impose a permanent state of emergency, to mobilise an exclusively Protestant uniformed militia, and to apply draconian repressive legislation and formal discrimination against Catholics without any scrutiny by London.

Despite this failure of integration, some sections of the British ruling class (not least the aristocracy and monarchy) are still influenced by the historical connections with the north of Ireland. This burden of history, of course, weighs ever more lightly on the British state today but still gives force to Unionst demands on the British ruling class to maintain sovereignty over their Irish enclave.

Economically and strategically, however, it has been evident to the British ruling class at least since the 1960s that they had no interest in maintaining sovereignty over any part of Ireland. Indeed, Britain approved the opening-up of relations between North and South which was attempted in 1965 and which encouraged both the Civil Rights movement and the plebeian loyalist reaction which sparked the present prolonged conflict.

The present British Secretary for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, aroused loyalist indignation in April 1993 when he told the Hamburg newspaper Die Zeit:

“Many people believe that we would not want to release Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom. To be entirely honest we would, with pleasure! — no, not with pleasure. I take that back. But we would not stand in the way of Northern Ireland, if that would be the will of the majority. . . The province costs us £3 billion per year. Three billion pounds for one-and-a-half million people! None of our strategic or economic interests are at stake there. But as long as the majority wishes to remain in the United Kingdom, we will pay £3 billion without complaining”.

The public expenditure programme in Northern Ireland is £7.5 billion. Less than half of this comes from taxes levied in the province. In 1990 the subvention from Britain was at least £2bn. It may currently be £3bn as Mayhew states, though it is likely to be more. In fact Northern Ireland costs Britain far more. The “security” costs of the conflict amount to another £3bn annually, covering RUC, RIR, Army, political prisoners and compensation for damage.15

“Northern Ireland was financially unviable from the start. It was unable to pay the Imperial Contribution fixed by the British at partition. This was supposed to cover Northern Ireland’s share of UK-wide expenditure on defence and maintaining a diplomatic service.

The severity of the unemployment crisis in the 1920s and early 1930s, coupled with the costs of criminal injuries and policing in the aftermath of partition, led to the waiving of the contribution and an acceptance that Northern Ireland could not pay its way. This was further institutionalised in the Social Services Agreement Act of 1949 under which Britain guaranteed to underwrite the costs of the British welfare state in Northern Ireland.”16

Mayhew can scarcely conceal Britain’s impatience with the Unionists. But he will be long dead and buried before the Unionists of Northern Ireland willingly consent to Irish unity! Another 20 years of the present political violence will be costly to the British state—though it has distinct advantages for the honing of Britain’s repressive apparatus.

But it would be a small cost indeed compared to the political consequences of simply abandoning the Unionists—even with years of advance notice by Britain of its “intent to withdraw”.

The only progressive basis on which Britain might unilaterally leave Ireland would require the disarming and disbanding of the local regiment and police. Otherwise bloody civil war would erupt within a heartland of imperialism, with no guarantee that it would not lead to the breakup of bourgeois order entirely within all of Ireland. Such a “neutralising” of armed loyalist reaction in Ireland, however, is a pipe-dream.

An alternative “solution” from above is actively discussed among constitutional nationalists. It is to work towards European sovereignty over Northern Ireland within the as yet unformed European Union. Such a perspective knits well with the general reactionary current within Europe for a “Europe of the regions”. John Hume of the SDLP, himself a leading political figure within EC institutions, has often argued for such a solution. Though rejected by Unionists it is not as unpalatable as all-Ireland institutions. It is conceivable that by promising to remove British sovereignty as such, a European offer to implement such an arrangement might be sufficient to persuade Irish republicanism to suspend its armed campaign.

This swapping of sovereignty, if it were practicable, offers no more guarantee of dissolving the inequalities and sectarian character of the Northern Ireland state than any other solution from above. Its practical implementation would require some kind of federation within Ireland. This would leave intact much of the sectarian Protestant character of the northern state and the confessional Catholic character of the southern one—exactly as has been suggested by Fianna Fáil.

Decisive in the long-term for any such alternative must be the fate of European capitalism. Northern Ireland has suffered an industrial decline worse than any other region of the UK, leaving more than half its citizens dependent on UK social security or other forms of direct government aid. Unemployment is officially (i.e. at least) 14%. Average standards of living are among the lowest in the UK. And all of these indicators are far worse for the Catholic masses than for Protestants.

For example, unemployment is proportionately twice as high among the former. Without a major economic uplift, requiring massive inward investment, the material foundations for sectarianism and national oppression will continue to be reinforced.

Nationalism retains considerable force in the politics of the Republic, still drawing on historic traditions of struggle, but sustained also by the awareness of Irish society as “underdeveloped” and haemorrhaging through emigration and the draining of surplus value. Certainly the “aspiration for Irish unity” is almost universally shared in the South, but only at high points of the struggle in the North has it led to mass protest or attempts at solidarity in the South, as in 196917, 1972 and 1981.

Apart from rural areas along the border with Northern Ireland the Southern masses have experienced nothing of the social oppression of Northern Catholics on the basis of their nationality. For fifty years, the southern bourgeoisie showed no more concern for the denial of the civil rights of Northern Catholics than their counterparts in London.

Fianna Fáil, always the largest bourgeois party with between 40% and 55% of the popular vote, has monopolised the limited force of southern nationalism and consistently neutralised any progressive potential in it for resistance to imperialism. The Republican Movement has helped it do this by preferring to appeal for “pan-nationalist unity” rather than struggle against the semi-colonial bourgeoisie.

But what of recent economic developments in the North and South? Have they given rise to a greater or lesser integration between the two halves of a divided island? In short, does the southern Irish bourgeoisie have an objective interest in a united Irleland to enlarge the sphere of its exploitation?

In economic terms, both states are faced with growing marginalisation within Europe. Once the Channel Tunnel is in operation, Ireland as a whole will be the only member country not connected by road or rail to the markets of the European Union. This is a growing disadvantage for exporters from Ireland and a disincentive to inward manufacturing investment. Most industrial exports from Ireland today are based on foreign capital attracted by the combination of EEC membership and relatively low costs. All that is under threat in the expanded and more integrated European Union.

The southern bourgeoisie likes to remind the Unionists that by remaining part of the UK the North is denied access to the relatively huge European funds earmarked for the less developed countries. Thus the Republic is about to receive £8bn of European funds over five years, equal to a 4% increase in annual GNP.

Economic and political co-operation across the island is seen as an important factor in offsetting increased marginalisation of both economies. This strengthens the argument for a European solution to the partition of Ireland. The creation of a single “island economy” for Ireland within Europe has recently been advocated by a leading banker. It focuses on unifying the banking and capital investment sectors north and south to offset the migration of capital due to the dominance of London over the two separate capital markets within Ireland. It envisages the development of an “economic corridor” along the east coast linking the two capital cities. Of course, this would be at the further expense of severe regional inequality within Ireland, but for Irish capitalism as a whole it is an attractive possibility.18

Beyond perspectives for economic co-operation, however, the ruling class of the Republic has no compelling economic interest in Irish unity. It is far more concerned with the most thoroughgoing European unity as the only basis for its own continued rule.19

Like the British, the Republic’s principal concern with Northern Ireland is the negative impact of the conflict on the economy, discouraging tourism and investment in Ireland and adding almost 1% of GNP to the annual security bill in the South. For 35 years the southern ruling class has modernised the Irish economy on the basis of attracting foreign capital and integrating into the EC.

Although this has produced a small number of indigenous monopolies which now export capital, and a strong indigenous commercial agriculture, the predominance of foreign capital and finance guarantees that the economy remains overall semi-colonial. The majority of indigenous capitalists have no perspective of developing in competition with international capital but survive increasingly through linkages with it.20

The ground for Irish unity is not being prepared by economic developments in Ireland as a whole. The Irish bourgeoisie has no economic or political interest in leading such a struggle. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Sinn Féin from placing the “pan-nationalist front” at the centre of their political strategy at least since 1979 and the mass campaign for political status for Republican H-Block. Gerry Adams turned that campaign into a humanitarian plea to the Catholic clergy, the SDLP and Fianna Fáil to save the lives of the prisoners when they went on hunger strike.

When Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in May 1981, the campaign leaders refused to call for working class action but told the mass demonstrations that they were “giving Fianna Fáil and the Catholic Church one more chance” to intervene to save the lives of the other hunger strikers. The prisoners were left to die, one after another, and the campaign went down to terrible defeat.

Still preferring the reactionary dream of “all nationalists together” over the fight for working class action, Sinn Féin repeated the same method in the fight against extradition of republicans caught in the South for alleged actions in the North and Britain. Far from winning any new friends among “constitutional” nationalists, however, the IRA gave an excuse to Fianna Fáil to support the Extradition Bill, which up till then Fianna Fáil had been obstructing, when they massacred Protestant civilians in the bombing of Enniskillen in November 1987.

Undeterred, Adams continued to argue that Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin nationalists have a historic common interest, that the 1926 split of Sinn Féin into constitutional Fianna Fáil and revolutionary IRA was tragic and unnecessary. They were “separated brethren”, to repeat his ecclesiastical metaphor.

Coming at a moment when Fianna Fáil was inflicting savage austerity measures on the poor, the sick and the aged, such cant from a self-styled “socialist republican” leader did nothing to win support for Sinn Féin among the masses. Nor did it elicit an iota of response from the “separated brethren”. On the contrary, it has served simply to make Sinn Féin itself increasingly vulnerable to ruling class diplomacy.

The SDLP’s John Hume is now determined to exploit this fact, hoping to inveigle Sinn Féin into calling for an IRA ceasefire. John Hume, has broken ranks with all the establishment parties in both islands and engaged in talks with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Hume claims he is treating seriously the Sinn Féin propaganda for “peace”. He hopes to create diplomatic conditions for them to eventually call a ceasefire.

Hume tried a similar tactic of public debate with Adams—without any result—in 1988 before the Unionists agreed to the recent round of talks. This time his manoeuvre has provoked much deeper outrage among the Unionists. For, the two leaders went so far as to issue a joint statement on 24 April, insisting that there could be no solution merely on the basis of internal arrangements in Northern Ireland.

In other words, new all-Ireland institutions in some form would have to be accepted by the Unionists. Especially, shocking to the governments in Dublin and London was Hume’s agreement to what is usually regarded as a utopian republican principle:

“We accept that the Irish people as a whole have a right to self-determination”.

On the other hand, they declared:

“As leaders of our respective parties, we have told each other that we see the task of reaching agreement on a peaceful and democratic accord for all on this island as our primary challenge. We both recognise that such a new agreement is only achievable and viable if it can earn and enjoy the allegiance of the different traditions on this island, by accomodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation.”

At one level, Hume’s tactic may have been geared to win his party more nationalist support in the May 1993 local council elections througout the province. But it has a deeper significance. This bourgeois nationalist leader has supported state repression of republicans for 25 years.

By letting it be seen that he is talking with Sinn Féin, he is subtly reminding Britain, Dublin and the Unionists of the alternative possibility of a “pan-nationalist front” of radical and constitutional nationalists. Hume himself has no intention of creating any such alliance with republicans; his purpose is to put pressure on the two governments to stick with the strategy of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. But Sinn Féin will foster the illusion that this latest pan-national alliance actually leads to meaningful negotiations with Sinn Féin, British withdrawal and a united Ireland.

The pleading, rationalist posture by Sinn Féin towards the Irish and British ruling classes invites ridicule. In practice, however, it is an argument made not with words but IRA bombs.

The political tragedy is thus twofold. First, terrible sacrifices are being exacted for an empty set of utopian shibboleths which could only conceivably be granted by the ruling classes in a reactionary form from above. Plainly, Sinn Féin is arguing not for the “socialist republic” which it mouths to its followers, but for an unrealisable bourgeois united Ireland, to be agreed by the ruling classes, as the key to “peace with justice”.

Secondly, the mass of the Irish working class, especially the Protestant working class, and even Sinn Féin’s own limited mass support, are systematically alienated and divided or at best rendered totally passive by the guerrilla campaign.

All socialists and class conscious workers recognise that the IRA are a product of a justified anti-imperialist resistance to an army of occupation; in any conflict with this army workers must desire the victory of the IRA. Likewise, their prisoners and activists must be defended unconditionally against the actions of the security forces. Our criticisms levelled here have nothing in common with the reactionary attacks of the British establishment. We make them in the belief that the republican movement is squandering the spirit of resistance and have led the anti-unionist masses into a cul-de-sac.

It is impossible to predict whether the movement can possibly be persuaded into a ceasfire. It is difficult to imagine what the ruling classes can offer nationalists that would decisively break the core support among the most oppressed for the IRA. Equally, the IRA is unlikely to change its tactics now after rejecting for 20 years all the evidence of how counterproctive its armed campaign has been.

They simply do not share any notion of the self-organisation of the masses as the key to struggle against oppression. They blindly believe, what cannot be absolutely ruled out, that Britain may be forced to take a major initiative by an escalating campaign of bombing and disruption. It may be to bring down upon their own communities savage new attacks by the state forces, such as mass internment of activists. They may believe that, as in 1971, the reaction to internment will be to draw new sections of sympathisers into active support, but that is far less likely to be the case today.

It is certain, however, that any political solution of the Irish question which Britain might be forced to initiate by a further escalation of the bombing campaign, and which might be agreed with Irish constitutional nationalists, will not be a progressive one in terms of wiping out the sectarian divisions and inequalities that confound working class politics in Northern Ireland and bedevil the struggle for socialism in the island as a whole.

Outside a perspective of social revolution in Ireland as a whole a thoroughgoing solution of the unfinished national struggle is impossible. For the moment, however, Irish republicanism stands as a major obstacle to the fight for such a programme.

Sinn Féin versus IRA?

Many actions of the IRA in recent years have outraged the working class and masses throughout Ireland and Britain by killing random passers-by and, occasionally, deliberately killing Protestant civilians. Sinn Féin leaders openly criticised some of the most damaging IRA actions. Endless speculation about a potential split in the movement, however, has come to nothing. Events seem to confirm that the IRA and its “physical-force” strategy remain decisive within the republican movement as a whole.

Sinn Féin remains an open, legal and formally democratic party selling about 30,000 copies of its weekly paper. Though censored in the broadcast media, and denied municipal halls for its meetings, its conferences are open to the press. The deep reluctance of the ruling class to suppress this party reflects the reality that it is not simply a front for the IRA but a political current with a limited mass base in the North and a minority current throughout Ireland. It has a political life of its own on many fronts, but is tied to the IRA by defining its political essence in terms of the “strategy” of the physical-force struggle. For Sinn Féin to reject the IRA would be to dissolve itself completely.

The SDLP and leading churchmen at present seeking to exploit the republicans’ own rhetoric about peace have no way of knowing whether now, or ever, the IRA can be persuaded, through Sinn Féin, that a ceasfire will eventually be rewarded with a place at the “negotiating table”.

The IRA remains firmly set on inflicting the maximum possible physical damage on the British state until such time as Britain declares its intention to end its sovereignty. Only if their passive support in the most oppressed ghettoes is undermined will the IRA “suspend” their campaign. The legacy of 25 years of brutal conflict, however, suggest that such a development is extremely unlikely.

As well as the many killed and wounded in the conflict, countless nationalists have been “convicted” and jailed, or even remanded for years pending trials which never took place. Juries are abolished. Legal procedures are routinely perverted to exonerate uniformed thugs while putting away republican suspects with no real evidence for long prison terms. Two prisoners are now in their 21st year in prison—longer than ‘life’ sentences for other ‘criminals’ in the British system. There are 600 IRA members in prison at present, mostly on long sentences. They represent several generations of youth who have been drawn into the struggle since 1968.

Surveillance and harassment is the constant lot of nationalists, with frequent police and army raids on homes, wrecking them and dragging away “suspects” for interrogation. Mobilised uniformed forces currently amount to 19,100 military and 12,900 police—one army or RUC member for every four nationalist males of active age, and expected to increase. The pretence of the British Army that it came to enforce peace between nationalists and loyalists in 1969 was discredited within a year. But loyalist terrorist attacks have never ceased and are a significant reason for continued support for the IRA.

Among the most oppressed sections of nationalists, hostility to the Northern state and British Army is more entrenched and bitter than ever. Commumity divisions are deeper than ever.

In such conditions almost no action that the IRA might take could be so self-defeating as to finally undermine this core of support.

Sinn Féin and the Ballot Box

The historical experience of Irish republicanism hardened its fundamental distrust of “politics”. They believed that taking seats in constitutional bodies would quickly undermine the “real” struggle—with arms in hand. Their belief was well founded. As a radical petit-bourgeois movement they have never had a conception of class-struggle politics nor any social programme that fundamentally challenged bourgeois society.

Quite rightly, they could not trust themselves to consistently struggle against imperialism and the semi-colonial bourgeoisie in councils and parliaments. Hence they split fundamentally over this issue in 1926 (IRA versus Fianna Fáil) and again in 1970 (Provisionals versus Officials).

When Sinn Féin “moved left” after 1979 the new leaders around Gerry Adams openly argued that the IRA struggle could not be victorious on its own. Engagement in popular campaigns and economic struggles was proclaimed to be essential for the republican movement to win the mass support necessary to make victory possible. Without the slightest conception of an action programme of class struggle, however, this “left” orientation bore no fruit whatever for Sinn Féin. Electoralism was in practice what “winning mass support” came down to.

Under Adams’ leadership the shallow reformist “socialism” of the late 1970s gave way to vigorous electoralism in the 1980s. The republican victory was now to be achieved “with an Armalite in one hand and a ballot-box in the other”.

The turn to electoral politics as a necessary supplement to armed struggle evolved during the 1979-81 H-Block Campaign. Sinn Féin had often contested elections in the past but never taken their seats in parliaments or local councils. Hunger-striking prisoners contested general elections in Britain and the Republic from their prison cells. Bobby Sands was elected as a Westminster MP in April 1981 (until his death in May) and two more were elected to the Dáil in Dublin in June. Westminster hit back with the Sands Bill which made it impossible for a “convict” in future to stand for election. In the local council elections in the North in the same period Sinn Féin called for a boycott, only to see most of its own supporters vote for the SDLP.

Sinn Féin capitalised on the H-Block mobilisations and decided to take its seats in local councils in future. It adopted a vigorous electoral policy and in June 1985 won 40% of the nationalist vote in the North in local elections, a major propaganda victory for a movement dismissed as criminals and terrorists by the ruling class in both islands. Since then its elected councillors have certainly been tribunes of the the oppressed nationalists, suffering constant abuse and many of them assassinated by loyalist death squads—but in no sense socialist councillors.

The watershed for Sinn Féin’s electoralism was when the party decided to end its abstentionism towards the parliament of the Republic, in November 1986, exactly a year after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and obviously under pressure of the new ruling class strategy. Abstentionism was the issue which had split the republican movement in 1970. This time the IRA was agreed on the “strategy” of combining “the armalite and the ballot-box”, so the only fall-out was a minor breakaway of traditionalists from the political wing1.

What was different in 1986 was that the republican movement was at a temporary peak of support among northern nationalists, in the wake of the H-Block struggles. And at the same time the guerrilla campaign had been sustained unbroken for 16 years. The IRA was confident that a turn to “political” struggle would supplement, not undermine, the armed struggle.

Since then, however, in none of four general elections in the Republic has Sinn Féin come remotely near winning a single seat. Indeed, their electoral support throughout the South has remained about 2%, over a period when the Irish Labour Party increased its vote from 10% to 25%.

In 1983 Gerry Adams was elected a Westminster MP but did not take his seat. This propaganda gain for Sinn Féin might have been far more significant had he attempted to use the House of Commons as a platform. Sinn Féin still applies its moralistic abstentionism to the London parliament, but Adams lost his seat to the SDLP in the 1992 General Election when Protestant loyalists mobilised to tactically to vote for the SDLP candidate to unseat Sinn Féin. l

1 Ruairi O Brádaigh’s marginal Republican Sinn Féin.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement

In 1985 British Prime Minister Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Dublin government, guaranteeing to consult the Southern nationalist regime at regular conferences about the internal affairs of Northern Ireland.

The aim was to pressure northern nationalists and Unionists to agree some form of local power sharing. Why?

The British ruling class is far from making any concession to Irish national self-determination. But it does aim to restore stable rule in Northern Ireland. To this end it needs to create formal equal rights for both “communities” or “traditions” within its six Irish counties. Between 1973 and 1984 Britain created no less than three elected assemblies in Belfast, each with the mission to produce a form of power-sharing between the bourgeois-nationalist SDLP and the major Unionist parties. Within months, each attempt was shipwrecked on the rocks of Unionist (or more exactly plebeian Loyalist) intransigence.

That is why Thatcher was prepared to antagonise the Unionist leaders by setting up a permanent consultation with the Dublin Government in November 1985. This strengthened the bargaining position of the SDLP in future negotiations. Strengthening the position of the SDLP and promoting the interests of the Catholic middle class was also seen as a pre-condition for defeating the IRA. The Unionist parties would be denied any regional organ of government until such time as they made concessions.

It took five years for this manoeuvre to produce talks among the parties in Northern Ireland. An elaborate diplomatic formula for talks was worked out. There were to be separate discussions on three fronts, concerned with arrangements between the two governments, arrangements within Northern Ireland, and arrangements within Ireland as a whole. The latter, the “all-Ireland dimension” has always been fundamental to the SDLP and anathema to the Unionists even though it has never been intended as anything more than North-South consultation and practical co-operation (directed mostly against the IRA).

For republicans the decisive feature of the 1991-92 talks was that Sinn Féin was excluded! Throughout the period of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, therefore, the republican movement has, on the one hand, focussed its propaganda on the demand to be included in the negotiations, and on the other hand, stepped up its guerrilla campaign in the North and in Britain.

Talks were postponed during the 1992 UK General Election campaign. Attempts to revive them seem to have definitely failed by spring 1993 with the refusal of the Unionist parties to co-operate. The Unionists have turned the tables on Irish bourgeois nationalism in one respect by insisting that first, the Irish Republic must get rid of its claim to sovereignty over the Six Counties, from its 1937 Constitution. The Southern bourgeois parties, after all, have for 20 years insisted that Irish unity can be brought about only by consent of the Unionists. Why not, then, show “goodwill” by removing the formal legal claim to sovereignty over the North embodied in Articles Two and Three of the Constitution!

Within the nationalist Fianna Fáil party, in government in the South since 1987, such a demand is resented by “grass-roots” sections as a capitulation to the historic enemy of Irish national self-determination. Fianna Fáil may have no choice, however, but to alter the Republic’s claim over the North, probably reducing it to a statement of “aspiration for peaceful unification by consent”. For, it now depends on coalition with the Labour Party to stay in government. Labour leaders have explicitly committed themselves to compromise with the Unionists.

Sinn Féin is likely to benefit by any move to dissolve the 1937 territorial claim. Even among Northern nationalists who revile Sinn Féin, such a move is seen as fundamentally undermining their hope for Irish unity as the only guarantee against continued oppression within the Loyalist state.


1 Comprises the open party Sinn Féin and the secret guerrilla elite, IRA, the Irish Republican Army.

2 The general collapse of the Stalinist regimes provoked no official statements by Sinn Féin, or even editorials in its press. The fundamental issues raised are relegated to the letter columns of the weekly An Phoblacht/Republican News. (AP/RN)

3 It could be argued, therefore, that the collapse of Stalinism has had a indirect effect on Sinn Féin in that this collapse has deeply effected nationalist-guerrillaist movements in Central America (e.g. FMLN and FSLN) and the ANC in South Africa.

4 The British Army, arriving at the end of 1969, cleared away the remaining nationalist barricades by July 1972. British Army murders of 14 Catholics on Bloody Sunday on a peaceful demonstration in January 1972 raised a storm which forced London to dissolve the Northern parliament and to rule directly from March of that year.

5 Sinn Féin formulated it in Eire Nua (New Ireland) during its most consciously ‘right-wing’ period after the 1970 split and has overturned no essential element of this programme at any time since its ‘left turn’!

6 AP/RN, 23 June 1979, cited in K Kelly, The Longest War , London, 1988, p303

7 ibid p304

8 Although this “stage-ist” conception of the relationship between the national and socialist struggle sounds as though it is taken from the arsenal of Stalinism, it in fact predates it. Sinn Féin take their socialist credentials from the ambiguous legacy of the indigenous Irish nationalist hero and revolutionary socialist James Connolly. Connolly’s mistaken identification of national liberation with socialism was an exception which he believed to be specific to Irish conditions. It was never the kind of conscious class-collaboration advocated by Stalin to achieve a ‘stage’ of ‘national freedom’ which would postpone the fight for working class objectives to a later period. See “Connolly: A Marxist Analysis”, A Johnston et al, Irish Workers Group, Dublin, 1990.

9 AP/RN 7 May 1992, p8.

10 AP/RN 22 April, 1992 p6. In the same light the IRA increasingly talks of the need for “disengagement” rather than British troops out.

11 Renamed for the second time. Previously the UDR, Ulster Defence Regiment.

12 “Towards A Lasting Peace”, Sinn Féin, February 1992, p13.

13 Social Democratic and Labour Party, in fact a constitutional nationalist party with no base at all among Labour but which adopted this name to incorporate independent nationalist Labour figures in 1970.

14 In a twisted way it claimed to represent the tradition of William of Orange who liberated the North East from catholic King James in 1690.

15 How Britain spends its £3bn in the North. Mike Tomlinson (Queen’s University of Belfast) in the Irish Times, 1 May 1993.

16 ibid.

17 It could be said that 1969 was the year when we witnessed the last anti-imperialist actions of the marginalised sectors of Fianna Fail bourgeoisie. But the few MPS responsible for overt help in providing funds for arms for the Catholics in the North were quickly purged. Anti-imperialist action has been the exclusive preserve of petit-bourgeois nationalists since and the working class.

18 George Quigley, chairman of Ulster Bank. Discussed in AP/RN 26/3/93.

19 Sinn Féin, instinctively fearful of European integration undermining its whole basis, opposes it with crass, utopian, nationalist arguments: “The impetus for the EC integration process is a hangover from the outdated politics of the Cold War. It is irrelevant and unsuited to the Europe of today. Is it not ironic that as centralised superstates are collapsing in eastern Europe through their own contradictions and bureaucracy, there is an unseemly rush to create just such a failed, multinational structure in western Europe?

The push for EC political and monetary union is not emanating from the people of Europe and it is not in their interests. It is seen rather to be in the interests of transnational capital for which the existence of sovereign independent states, especially small ones like Ireland, is a nuisance.

Like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the SDLP suffers from this inferiority complex and lack of faith in the Irish people’s ability to manage their own affairs”. APRN, 18 June, 1992

20 Attempts by some sections of the “left”, based on conditions in the late 1970s, to characterise Ireland as a minor or ‘sub-’ imperialism have been exploded by the contradictions of the 1980s when a sharp rise in unemployment was accompanied by escalating emigration, profit repatriation and foreign debt (now about £15bn). Per capita national income has remained under 63% of the EC average over the 20 years of full membership (compared to the UK at about 100%). There is a persistent large net outflow of profits from the Irish economy, and a constant draining of both capital and surplus labour to US, Britain, Europe and other destinations. This is reflected in unemployment (at over 18%) growing throughout several years of improving trade surpluses and profits.