Let us stand back for a moment from the immediate crisis in Northern
Ireland, the stalemate in which the Good Friday Agreement is - barring
miracles - terminally stuck.
In Derry city on Sunday 30 January 1972, 14 unarmed men, many in their teens, were shot dead by British paratroopers. Many more were wounded. They had taken part in a banned march to protest against internment in Northern Ireland. As the demonstrators dispersed, the paratroopers opened fire - and kept firing.
A contemporary left-wing paper commented: "The Civil Rights demonstration was seen as the 'peaceful' wing of the general Republican mobilisation. The butchering of the demonstrators is the measure of the desperate panic of both Army and Government in the face of the strength of the Republican movement.
"The extreme violence used on peaceful demonstrators against the newly-opened internment camp at Magilligan a week previously was only a foretaste. Somewhere along the line between Magilligan and Derry the death sentence, on a lottery basis, was imposed for breaches of the ban on demonstrations.
"That must have been a political decision. Any Army indiscipline or excess of zeal occurred within the confines of Government policy."
Soon after this spectacular atrocity by servants of the British state, the Official IRA bombed the Officers' Mess at Aldershot. Emergency legislation was rushed through Parliament by the Tory government. Amongst other things it made Bloody Sunday retrospectively legal.
When it came to the vote in the House of Commons, not one single Labour MP voted against the government - not a Labour liberal, not a Stalinoid, not an honest leftie, not one meagre Tony Benn of them! They let it through peacefully, without, so to speak, firing a shot. The paper quoted above (Workers' Fight) commented:
"Only a party like Her Majesty's loyal 'Labour' opposition... would help get the Tories off the hook over Derry... not one Labour MP supported Bernadette Devlin in opposing the emergency legislation which was rushed through the Commons to place the stamp of 'legality' on the British Army terror - including the Derry massacre - in Ulster! Not a single one declined to endorse the Army in Ulster, even though they had all made the expected noises of horror over Derry only three weeks ago.
"For these ladies and gentlemen of the Right and of the Left, everything revolves around the exchange of polite meaningless words, or equally meaningless 'angry' words, as they play musical chairs with the Tories in Parliament."
It was one measure of the horror which the IRA and anything linked to militarist Irish Republicanism inspired in the British labour movement then.
The interest of these reminiscences lies in the stark contrast with what is happening now. In the negotiations at the end of June and early July, the New Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, turned himself into an auxiliary of Sinn Fein/IRA, twisting Unionist arms for them, publicly lying that he had got assurances from Sinn Fein/IRA that they would disarm, trying to persuade the Unionist leaders to do a deal with them - one which the Unionist leaders could not possibly have sold to their own supporters. It would probably have meant the end for the left liberal Unionist leader David Trimble, and the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement for lack of enough Protestant support in the Assembly.
The Good Friday Agreement was, despite the widespread yearning for peace in Northern Ireland, an unsubstantial thing. Unless the issues like disarmament that have so far stopped the Agreement becoming political reality had been evaded, there would have been no Good Friday Agreement. In order to secure a majority for the Good Friday Agreement in the referendum, Blair gave a public assurance in writing that prisoners would not be released without the surrender of guns. A few months ago he had to admit it publicly: if the release of prisoners were to be stopped, the "peace process" would abort. He now has little credibility with Unionists.
In late August, Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, after reviewing all the options, pronounced that, yes, the IRA had killed, and (like its Protestant counterparts) rules "its own" people with terror and murder. But the ceasefire still holds.
The distinction between bombing cities and killing police and soldiers on one side, and on the other the "house-cleaning" within their own ranks and in the IRA-controlled Catholic ghettos, is central to Government attitudes. Fear of the resumption of the IRA war in British cities dominates the British Government.
On Wednesday 21 July, the Provisional IRA declared publicly that it will not disarm. That this is their position has long been clear. The 1994-6 ceasefire broke down, says the IRA statement, "on the demand by the Conservative government for an IRA surrender [in fact for decommissioning of arms]. Those who demand the decommissioning of IRA weapons lend themselves in the current political context... to the failed agenda which seeks the defeat of the IRA. The British Government have the power to change that context and should do so."
The immediate consequence of the IRA statement must be to rule out the possibility that, so long as the Sinn Fein/IRA maintains its "position", there can now be sufficient Protestant-Unionist support for a power-sharing Belfast government that includes Sinn Fein, the political side of the IRA/Sinn Fein coin.
The first IRA ceasefire had been prepared over a long period of secret talks involving a number of governments - the Irish, British, the US - and political parties. A "Pan-Nationalist Alliance" had come into existence.
This consisted of Fianna Fail in the South; the Northern Irish constitutional Nationalists, the SDLP, led by John Hume; Sinn Fein/IRA; and the powerful American Irish political lobby. The idea was that the Pan-Nationalist Alliance, taking account of the likelihood of a Six Counties Catholic majority in a decade or so, and using US and EU influence, was strong enough to get much of what Irish nationalists want, but "peacefully".
Sinn Fein/IRA were disappointed by John Major. Once the ceasefire was in being, the British government took up the Unionist demand that the IRA must disarm before all-inclusive political negotiations could start. Otherwise, there would have been a Unionist boycott. The demand that Britain "become persuaders" of the Unionists, reiterated again and again in Gerry Adams' speeches, fell on deaf ears. The ceasefire broke down.
With the second IRA ceasefire in 1997, the Blair Government did become "persuaders". In 1998 and recently, the British have thrown their whole weight into "persuading" the Unionists. That failed.
Now? Read: "The Unionist political leadership remains at this time opposed to a democratic peace settlement... the primary responsibility for the developing political crisis remains squarely with the British Government. They have once again demonstrated a lack of political will to confront the Unionist veto." The IRA statement after the June-July talks is a gross misrepresentation: the stumbling block was Sinn Fein/IRA's unwillingness to do even token decommissioning. Leave that aside. What exactly is there left for Britain to do? In fact, under the Good Friday Agreement, if enough Protestants (or Catholics) refuse to work the Agreement, there is no way Britain and Dublin can compel them. With their eye on the future, the Provos are upping the ante: Britain, they believe, will eventually have to coerce the Protestants into a united Ireland. If bombs go off again that will be the Provisional IRA's political objective.
It is an objective that socialists and democrats should not support. It cannot bring a solution.
The Catholics, of course, have been the main victims of partition. Their revolt against it was a just revolt. But the conflict between the two peoples on the island must be resolved democratically. Forcing about a million Protestant-Unionists into a united Ireland against their will would be no improvement on forcing the Northern Ireland Catholics against their will to be part of the Six Counties, once-Protestant Unionist state.
If the British and Irish governments were to do what SinnFein/IRA want, it would be to substitute for the old injustice against the Catholics a new one against the Protestants - and lead to new instabilities.
Blair has a massive personal-political motive now to salvage what he can. But will the SDLP and the Irish government allow him to, if it requires excluding Sinn Fein/IRA from government? That would be a shift from an all-inclusive approach to reliance on a coalition of the "centre", the SDLP and Trimble Unionists.
In the recent negotiations, the so-called "Pan-Nationalist Alliance" showed just how strong it is. At the end, the Trimble Unionists indicated a willingness to "take a risk for peace". They let it be known that they would "risk" forming an executive with Sinn Fein on a mere promise to disarm, but on one other condition: that if the IRA then defaulted, Sinn Fein would be expelled from the government, which would continue without them.
No, said Blair and Ahern: if the IRA defaults on disarming, the whole Belfast government will be wound up. The Unionists said it was unfair to penalise every party for Sinn Fein/IRA's default. Blair then changed tack: the Northern Irish government would, he said, be dissolved if Sinn Fein/IRA defaulted, but the others in the Assembly might then form a new government without Sinn Fein. Immediately, Taoiseach Ahern publicly objected: there could be no Northern Irish government without Sinn Fein!
Ahern's veto held and Blair quickly distanced himself from the compromise that would perhaps have got Trimble to risk coalition without a prior beginning to IRA disarmament. The constitutional nationalist SDLP refused to commit to a government partnership with Trimble if Sinn Fein were excluded for default on decommissioning.
Fundamentally, Sinn Fein/IRA is, like Ahern and some, perhaps, in the SDLP, committed to a British solution - a British solution acceptable to the nationalists and if necessary imposed on the Protestants, not to a solution based on free democratic agreement between the two peoples on the island. In the negotiations we have seen a variant of the British Government trying to twist Unionist arms for nationalist advantage... That experience will not make Sinn Fein/IRA less, but more, inclined to favour continued British direct rule over the Protestant-Unionists, as a transitional stage to a united Ireland. If only Britain will "stand up to the Unionist veto" - that is decide their fate, whatever they feel about it!
The Good Friday Agreement allows for a united Ireland when a bare majority in Northern Ireland wants it. The idea that the conflict of Unionist-Nationalist political identify in the Six Counties can eventually be resolved by a head-count is simply foolish: Northern Ireland does not work like that. Seventy-one per cent voted for the Good Friday Agreement; shortly afterwards pro-Good Friday Agreement politicians in the Unionist camp got only the narrowest of majorities.
Neither the British nor the Dublin governments, nor Sinn Fein/IRA, offer an acceptable democratic solution. Neither do Unionists determined to maintain partition.
The Protestant-Unionists are entitled to self-rule where they are the majority (in north-east Ulster). The Catholics are entitled not to be held against their will in the Six Counties. The only democratic solution is Protestant autonomy in a united Ireland that has close links with Britain, which the Unionists regard as their state. The 26 County government already has such close links with Britain that since 1985 they have shared joint political rule in Northern Ireland.
On the basis of a common advocacy of such a constitutional solution, Irish workers, Protestant and Catholic, could begin to unite and begin to understand the necessity of a socialist Ireland. Everything else is tinkering.
The only real answer to the needs of the people of the Six Counties is the creation of a party of labour which unites Protestant and Catholic workers around a common pledge to respect and protect each other's collective rights. On that basis, Ireland's workers, Protestant and Catholic, could fight for a socialist programme to reconstruct Irish society.
Those who a year ago speculated that, if the Adams wing of Sinn Fein/IRA went fully political in the "peace process", that would mean big scale splits in the IRA, got it wrong. Since the hunger strikes of 1981, Sinn Fein/IRA have pursued an integrated strategy of combining guns and politics - "the armalite and the ballot box". The emphasis now is on politics: but the old strategy is still in place.
Sinn Fein/IRA is something new in the long history of Republicanism. In the past, the militarists have been rigid, oath-bound "sectarians" with no time for "politics". Not so now. In the last 20 years the Provos have forged a movement in which the two wings - militarism and politics - have become fused together in a new way.
Plainly, it is a two-front movement with a great tensile strength and, to a large extent, the same key activists. It is a movement that has shown itself capable of switching to a massive tactical emphasis on either "the ballot box" or "the Armalite" without pulling itself apart, though a decision by the combined leadership to disarm might lead to a serious hiving off of militarists. The Good Friday Agreement has not led to serious splits because both wings of the movement are agreed on "the ballot box and the Armalite" combination and see this phase as one variant of that policy.
Sinn Fein/IRA don't need a Northern Irish government. They agreed to it only as a "concession". They aim to retain their movement intact, working towards the time when there will be a majority in the Six Counties for a united Ireland, a decade or so from now. That there will still be Protestant-Unionist resistance to incorporation in a united Ireland is part of their long term calculation.
Where is Republicanism going? Deeper and deeper into the blind alley of seeking a British solution imposed on the Northern Ireland Unionists. They follow in the footsteps of John Redmond's Home Rule Party, which for decades sought a "British solution" favourable to nationalism and imposed on the other side. They therefore made no efforts to reach a democratic accommodation with the Irish Protestant-Unionist majority.
The British settlement, when it came, turned out to be partition.
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