Ireland: IRA lays down its arms An end to Ireland's Troubles? / FRFI 121 Oct / Nov1994

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FRFI 121 October / November 1994

On 31 August the Irish Republican Army announced 'a complete cessation of military operations from midnight'. The latest phase of armed struggle to achieve Irish self-determination had ended after 25 years of bitter protracted struggle. DAVID REED analyses the background to these dramatic events.

The Adams leadership of the Republican Movement had persuaded the IRA to take the path of 'a democratic and peaceful settlement' of the North of Ireland conflict. The struggle for Irish self-determination is to be pursued in the future by constitutional means and peaceful negotiations.

Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership had been working hard at convincing the Republican Movement to adopt such a strategy. However the bait on offer since 15 December 1993 - the Reynolds/Major Downing Street Declaration - had been rejected by the Republican Movement as a partitionist document retaining the Unionist veto. The British government refused to go any further than this document and a stalemate prevailed.

The IRA's announcement of an end to the armed struggle unilaterally broke this stalemate. Nothing was gained. The unionist veto still remained. There was no commitment from the British government to persuade the Unionists to accept a United Ireland. The Republican Movement has chosen to go into negotiations without the threat of armed struggle. It has made an alliance with the Irish bourgeoisie in the South and the Catholic middle class in the North - a 'pan-nationalist front' of Fianna Fail, the SDLP and Sinn Fein. It will rely on the political pressure that this alliance can bring to bear on British imperialism to achieve its long term demands of a United Ireland.

10 years ago I wrote that 'British imperialism will only leave Ireland when driven out by the revolutionary force of the Irish masses' (Ireland: the key to the British revolution (IBR)). This was the position then held by the Republican Movement. In July 1983 after Sinn Fein's election gains, the IRA had stated that the 'military struggle will not slow down to relate to Sinn Fein's political activity, if anything...the war is likely to be stepped up' (Magill July 1983). Today the IRA has laid down its arms to rely totally on Sinn Fein's political activity. What has brought about this change of strategy? What can it achieve?

Imperialism on the offensive

The early 1980s saw imperialism, led by the United States and supported by Britain, unleash an unrelenting struggle against the socialist countries, the People's Republics and Third World anti-imperialist movements. With the collapse of the Socialist bloc in 1989, imperialism's 'New World Order' saw the rebirth of colonial domination of Third World countries and the retreat of socialist and anti-imperialist forces internationally. 'Peace and democracy' were now to be on imperialism's terms. The balance of class forces internationally has swung decisively in favour of imperialism. This is one major component underlying the latest developments in the Six Counties of Ireland.

In the run up to the IRA's 'cessation of military operations' many people have drawn analogies with the settlements in Palestine and South Africa. Adams has said that the Protestant people 'need a De Klerk to lead them and us into the next century' (An Phoblacht/Republican News 3 March 1994). But who has benefited from those settlements? Certainly not the oppressed masses who sacrificed so much in thefight for national liberation.

The agreement between the PLO and Israel in September 1993 was little more than the imposition of a neo-colonial settlement on the Palestinian people. The beneficiaries were the Israeli State, Palestinian businessmen, the leaders of the PLO and others fortunate to get jobs in a future Palestinian administration. For the Palestinian masses living in Gaza, the standard of living 'has declined substantially' and 'some prices have risen 50 per cent' since the settlement. (Financial Times 8 Sept 1994).

In South Africa, the ending of apartheid has not changed the economic and social conditions of the working class and oppressed masses. The main beneficiaries are those leaders of the liberation movements, the 'Communist Party', trade unions and others who are now part of the new Administration. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has accused the administration of enriching itself in the same way as the old white administrations. The General Secretary of the Communist Party - close allies of the ANC - has said the new rulers were in danger of only representing the bosses as they squandered huge amounts of money. (Financial Times 9 Sept 1994) There are reports of police breaking up strikes and firing rubber bullets and teargas at workers. It is Mandela who urges African workers to curb their right to strike in order to create stable conditions for foreign capital to enter the country. Meanwhile the white minority's privileged economic position has barely changed.

The De Klerk analogy is a dangerous one. De Klerk was leader of a white minority which could no longer sustain its political and economic supremacy or rely on the backing of the main imperialist powers. It had to negotiate with the liberation movements to get the best deal it could for the white minority. The Protestant majority in the Six Counties of Ireland is in a quite different situation retaining the support of British imperialism and being under little immediate pressure to give up the union with Britain. The British government hasguaranteed the unionist veto by insisting on a referendum in the Six Counties. It has been the IRA which has had to lay down its arms - removing a major pressure on the British government - so Sinn Fein can enter negotiations.

Even Norman Lamont has pointed out that 'resolutions of long running conflicts require...one party to the conflict to decide that their goal is unreachable.' This is what happened in South Africa. He continues: 'There is no evidence that the unionists are willing to change their allegiance from the United Kingdom. The question then is whether Sinn Fein and the IRA have decided their aspiration of a United Ireland cannot be realised. Since (the nationalists) form the minority (in the Six Counties)...they know that, taken to the ballotbox, the unionist view would undoubtedly prevail.' (The Wall Street Journal 13 Sept 1994). It is hard to fault this logic.

Reynolds' statement in The Observer 18 Sept 1994 that it would take a 'generation of peace' before Ulster and Ireland could decide on a United Ireland, and even then 'the people might vote against it', substantially supports this point of view. Sinn Fein's response that 'we should not take pessimistic views at this stage' (Martin McGuinness) is not convincing. The most that can be achieved in the present circumstances according to Reynolds is a 'New Ireland' with 'Unionists and nationalists working together in a new Stormont assembly; with North and South working together on joint economic interests like trade and tourism'.

This outcome would have been rejected out of hand by the Republican Movement ten years ago. What important political and economic changes have occurred to change the balance of class forces in the Republican Movement to such a degree that it has formed an alliance with the bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces of constitutional nationalism and limited its goal to a United Ireland in some distant future?

In addition to the decisive swing in the balance of class forces internationally in favour of imperialism, there are four further areas of economic and political change which have together helped to produce the present balance of forces in Ireland. They are changes in Britain's economic and strategic interest in Ireland; economic developments both in the North and South of Ireland; and finally changes in the balance of class forces in the Republican Movement itself.

Britain's interests in Ireland

At the beginning of November 1989, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, said in an interview that 'it is difficult to envisage a military defeat of the IRA'. On 10 November 1989 he maintained that 'it is not the aspiration to a sovereign, united Ireland against which we set our face, but its violent expression.' He added that 'The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland...' (AP/RN 9 and 22 Nov 1989) This was the beginning of a different tactical approach to the Republican Movement and it is this approach which is embodied in the Downing Street Declaration.

For some the balance of Britain's 'economic' interests would suggest withdrawal from the Six Counties of Ireland. Britain's occupation of the North, its military siege of nationalist areas and the maintenance of loyalist privilege have required subsidies of around £4bn a year, with combined military and law and order costs alone at greater than £1.5bn. To this must be added the large compensation and insurance costs of the IRA bombing campaign in the Six Counties and Britain.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Britain's strategic interests no longer demand the occupation of the North of Ireland. T E Utley's view in the mid-1970s that 'British security is hardly compatible with the existence of a Cuba a few miles from her Western shores...' has little resonance today. So there is nothing really exceptional in the statement that Britain has no 'selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.'

What the statement does not say is that Britain has no political interest in Northern Ireland. And this is the heart of the matter. For Britain does have a political commitment to retain the partition of Ireland and the union with Britain.

Some argue that this commitment is central to the preservation of the United Kingdom. Adams himself says that the British government 'may see the weakening of the union as the first stage in the disintegration of the United Kingdom' (AP/RN 3 March 1994). While it is the case that sections on the right of the Tory party hold to this view and Major depends on them and the Loyalist MPs for his majority, this has not been the primary long-term concern of the British ruling class.

What the British ruling class is determined to prevent is the resurgence of the only force which has threatened its rule in Ireland - that of a mass popular anti-imperialist movement based on the Irish working class and prepared to use whatever means necessary to achieve its aims. The continued partition of Ireland and the maintenance of the Union; the military occupation of the North of Ireland; the vicious repression directed at the nationalist working class communities; the various schemes for 'power-sharing'; the creation of the 'unofficial security forces' of loyalist paramilitaries; the concessions made to the 26 Counties government; and finally the overtures to the Republican Movement offering a place at the negotiating table in return for a cessation of the armed struggle, are all part of this ruling class strategy.

For the last 25 years British imperialist governments, Labour and Tory, have been determined to isolate and destroy the revolutionary wing of the national movement with its base in the working class nationalist communities of the North of Ireland. For this movement holds the key to uniting the Irish working class in the fight to drive British imperialism out of Ireland - a fight which would not only threaten the Irish capitalist class but also would revitalise the anti-capitalist struggle in Britain.

In 1973 John Biggs-Davidson voiced this fear when he said:


'...What happens in Londonderry is very relevant to what can happen in London, and if we lose in Belfast we might have to fight in Brixton or Birmingham...' (IBR p228)

A year earlier the Provisional IRA had brought down Stormont.

When Brooke says that it is not the aspiration of a united Ireland he opposes but its 'violent expression', he is also expressing this fear. Every ruling class demands that it alone has the right to use violence in defence of its interests. It fears most an effective challenge to this 'monopoly of violence' because it exposes its vulnerability and strengthens opposition to its rule. That is why Brooke will tolerate the Republican Movement expressing aspirations to a united Ireland as long as it does not use revolutionary means to bring it about.

In the process of maintaining partition and attempting to defeat the Republican Movement over the last 25 years, the British ruling class has created within Loyalism a fascist paramilitary movement. This movement acts as 'the unofficial security forces' of the British army, and its role is to terrorise the nationalist working class communities with its murder gangs and death squads. It becomes more active when the security forces curb their attacks on nationalists to comply with changes in the political situation, for example, during a truce or talks between Republicans and the British government. However such a fascist monster develops a life of its own and can get out of control. So in an attempt to curb the loyalist paramilitaries as it draws the 26 Counties government and the Republican Movement into its plans for 'Northern Ireland', the British government has had to offer, at least in the medium term, a cast iron political commitment to the Unionists. It will not changethe constitutional status of Northern Ireland unless a majority in the North of Ireland vote for it in a referendum - it will retain the loyalist veto. In this sense the British government has to maintain the Union. But underlying that commitment is its overall priority to take whatever steps are necessary to destroy revolutionary nationalism with its roots in the nationalist working class.

Economic developments in Ireland

Changes in the economic balance between the northern and southern economies have opened the way for the southern Irish ruling class to have a greater influence on the outcome of developments in the Six Counties.

The decline of the traditional manufacturing industries in the North and the failure to attract multinational capital on a large enough scale has forced the Six Counties economy to rely increasingly on subsidies from Britain. Industry is five times more subsidised than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Jobs and income from the private sector are rapidly being replaced by thoseof an ever-growing subsidised public sector. Thirty years ago the private sector employed seven people for every one in the public sector. Today one in three jobs are in the public sector with half the remaining jobs indirectly dependent on it. About 30 per cent of the Six Counties GDP comes from subsidies. Although private sector output per head is only 64 per cent that of Britain, the subsidy ensures consumption is 82 per cent of Britain's. These subsidies which are necessary to sustain loyalist jobs and loyalist consumption in a declining industrial economy suck in imports resulting in a trade deficit for the northern economy of some 30 per cent of GDP.

In contrast to this the southern economy is the fastest growing in the European Community. Low taxes on profits and government grants have brought about 1,000 foreign-owned plants in high-tech industries to the South, rapidly transforming the economy over a 20 year period. Between 1973-86 US companies created seven times as many jobs in the South as they did in the North. By 1989 multinational companies produced 69 per cent of the South's net industrial output and about three-quarters of its profits. This has led to a reversal of the traditional North-South economic balance. 30 years ago the North had more manufacturing jobs than the South; now the South has twice as many. The North used to have a trade surplus with the South now it has a trade deficit of over £350m. The South's GDP has grown by 3.9 per cent a year since the mid-1960s compared with 2.6 per cent in the North. Today northern business leaders are pushing for a political settlement involving the South because of the profitable investment opportunities which would arise from closer economic and political links.

The change in the balance of economic power gives the Southern ruling class more political weight and independence in its dealings with Britain - a process reinforced by Ireland's membership of Europe. By the mid-1980s, the mutual fear, North and South, of growing support for the Republican Movement in the wake of the hunger strike led Thatcher to agree to the so called Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The Southern government had already proved itself a reliable ally in repressing the Republican Movement. It was now to be increasingly drawn into the process of finding a political settlement to the Irish national question. British imperialism had failed to defeat the IRA or undermine its support in the nationalist working class communities in spite of growing repression and hardship. The involvement of the South was yet another attempt to make constitutional nationalism a credible alternative for the nationalist working class. The success of this strategy would be dependent on whether the leadership of the Republican Movement could be drawn into this process. It is to this we now turn.

Changes in the Republican Movement

The Republican Movement, like all national liberation movements, consists of an alliance of different class forces. Because of the sectarian character of the northern statelet, the movement has deep roots among the most oppressed sections of the nationalist working class in the northern urban areas. It has been these roots which has ensured that revolutionary nationalism has been, until recently, the predominant ideology of the movement.

A sizeable Catholic middle class has been created in the Six Counties as a result of the post-war developments of state welfare. Advances in the education system, access to college and university have been of particular significance. The Catholic middle class has continued to benefit from the ever growing subsidised public sector necessary to sustain the loyalty of the Protestant working class. From the days of the civil rights struggles at the end of the 1960s, sections of the Catholic middle class had been involved directly or indirectly with the Republican Movement but their political influence has been limited. This all began to change at the beginning of the 1980s.

From the mid-1970s onwards the prison struggle became of increasing importance in the North. The ending of political status for Irish political prisoners led to the building of a working class movement in support of the prisoners, led by the relatives of the prisoners, in particular the women - the Relatives Action Committees. This movement had a tremendous resonance not only in the North but throughout Ireland and in Britain. It was a political movement which saw the struggle of the prisoners and the revolutionary struggle to drive Britain out of Ireland as one and the same struggle. Massive street protests and demonstrations and increased military actions by the IRA were used to demand prisoner of war status for Irish political prisoners.

The British government resisted the demands of the movement. The prisoners threatened to goon hunger strike. The struggle needed to be intensified at all levels if the threatened hunger strike was to be avoided. This did not occur. Instead, in October 1979, the National H-Block Committee was formed and the political direction of the prisoner campaign changed.

To be either a member of the Committee or in the campaign it was only necessary to support the prisoners on a humanitarian basis. The prisoner campaign was divorced from the revolutionary national struggle to drive Britain out of Ireland.Sinn Fein endorsed this change. The leadership of the prison struggle changed as political forces outside the Republican Movement and the nationalist working class joined the campaign.

Prominent middle class Catholics were drawn into the campaign in an attempt to pressurise Fianna Fail in the South and the SDLP in the North to persuade the British government to grant the prisoners their demands. This strategy continued even when Ireland exploded after the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands. When the dispossessed youth of Dublin entered the prisoner campaign and took to the streets with stones and petrol bombs with the slogan 'RUC-Gardai', the National H-Block Committee condemned them as 'small and unrepresentative elements'. Events in Dublin were cancelled to stop them disrupting the 'peaceful and dignified demonstrations'. A great opportunity to draw an important section of the Irish working class behind the prisoners and in support of the national struggle was lost (See IBR pp 304-371).

A month before his death Bobby Sands was elected MP to the British Parliament after a remarkable by-election victory. This was to have an important effect on the Republican Movement after the defeat of the Hunger Strike. For the anger of the nationalist people was increasingly diverted into building support for Sinn Fein in the local and parliamentary political arena. In June 1983 Gerry Adams won West Belfast. In November 1983 Sinn Fein removed the ban on discussing abstentionism at the Ard Fheis. Very soon after, abstentionism was no longer policy for the southern and European parliaments. All these developments did not take place without strong opposition but the nature of the movement was changing. In February 1985 talks between Sinn Fein and the SDLP took place. Little progress was made. Talks began again in 1988. The pull towards constitutional nationalism was intensifying.

The growing strength of petty bourgeois class forces within the Republican Movement was reinforced by the political and economic changes in Ireland and internationally outlined above. The reactionary character of the British Labour Movement, which actively collaborated with British imperialism, and the appalling record of theBritish left on Ireland and its opposition to the Republican Movement, removed any significant pressure on the British government from inside Britain. By late 1989 the British government saw a window of opportunity opening to draw Sinn Fein into negotiations. Contact took place with the Republican Movement from October 1990 to November 1993. In September 1993, the continuing dialogue between Hume and Adams led to proposals being presented to the 26 Counties government. In December 1993 the Downing Street Declaration was published. The pressure on the IRA to give up the armed struggle intensified.

Armed struggle should always be subordinate to and guided by a political strategy. In the case of the Republican Movement there are difficulties because since 1974 Sinn Fein has been a legal organisation - a political move by the British government to create divisions in the Republican Movement. In the 1970s the armed struggle was an integral part of the mobilisation and organisation of the nationalist working class, of a people's rising to drive British imperialism out of Ireland. However in the 1980s the situation gradually changed as Sinn Fein moved into the bourgeois political arena.

The armed struggle, while vitally important in defending the nationalist community from the loyalist death squads, increasingly appeared in conflict with Sinn Fein's political aspirations. At best it was a pressure on the British government to respond to Sinn Fein's political demands. And it was effective. No one can doubt the impact of the bombing of the City of London in 1992 and 1993 in forcing the government to make overtures to Sinn Fein. But there is a downside. Following the change of strategy in the early 1980s the nationalist working class were politically demobilised andthe armed struggle ceased to have an integral connection with the mobilisation of the people in an anti-imperialist war. In these conditions the armed struggle is increasingly experienced as a burden on the working class communities as repression and hardship take their toll. This is why the political leadership of Sinn Fein was able to persuade the IRA to lay down its arms without a massive protest from the nationalist working class.

Conclusion

The struggle is not over. The economic, political and social problems which keep forcing the national struggle on to the political agenda still remain. The Six Counties is a sectarian statelet. British imperialism has not left Ireland. The political prisoners are still in goal. The nationalist working class facesmassive economic deprivation and discrimination with unemployment levels more than twice that of the loyalist working class. Should the Sinn Fein leadership be drawn into any proposed 'New Ireland' Administration, in the Six Counties or 26 Counties and have conferred on it the status and privilege of bourgeois parliamentarians, it will find itself in conflict with the nationalist working class - those people of no property who have always been a bedrock of the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland.

David Reed

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed