Ireland: Sinn Fein under pressure

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

On 30 April Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was arrested under the Terrorism Act by the Serious Crimes Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). After four days of questioning he was released without charge. Ostensibly the arrest was about the case of Jean McConville, the suspected informer executed by the Irish Republican Army in 1972, which has long been a cause célèbre of those opposed to the 25-year armed struggle of the IRA. In reality his arrest was political and took place in the midst of a renewed political offensive by the North’s loyalist majority.

The priorities of British ‘justice’

On 16 April the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, in a speech entitled ‘Moving Politics Forward’, outlined her proposal for a new approach to tackling what politicians now call the ‘legacy issues’, in reference to the events that took place during the 1969-94 period of the Irish liberation war. Villiers criticised the attention given to ‘the minority of deaths in which the state was involved’ at the expense of a ‘proportionate focus on the wrongdoing of paramilitaries’, by which she meant the IRA. Less than two weeks later Villiers announced the British government’s decision to reject an inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre in which 11 civilians were killed by the Parachute Regiment. Such an inquiry was deemed not to be in the public interest. However, within 24 hours another ‘legacy issue’ had taken the headlines with news of Gerry Adams’ arrest.

Good cop, bad cop

In responding to the arrest, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness pointed the finger at a ‘dark side’ of the PSNI comprised of an ‘embittered rump of the old RUC’, determined to settle old scores by disrupting and defaming Sinn Fein on the eve of local and European elections on both sides of the British-imposed border. Prominent Sinn Fein members followed suit, painting a picture of a minority of ‘securocrats’, relics of the past, now flexing their muscles in an attempt to derail the ‘Peace Process’. If this continued, McGuinness said, Sinn Fein would withdraw its support for the PSNI. Within days, challenged by loyalist politicians, he had backtracked. On his release, Adams was quick to reaffirm his support for British policing in Ireland, policing for which his party has played the roles of cheerleader and recruitment agent in nationalist communities since Sinn Fein joined the policing boards in 2006. After years of collaboration with the British state, Sinn Fein is left floundering and without analysis when the imperialists renege on their agreements – as they always do.

DUP drinks at Downing Street

Whilst Adams was being interrogated in Antrim Serious Crime Suite, British Prime Minister, David Cameron was entertaining and courting representatives of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) at a Downing Street garden-soirée. DUP backing is sought by both Labour and the Tories in case of a hung parliament in next year’s General Election. After dining with the British queen and prime minister at Windsor Castle in April 2014, McGuinness must have felt that Sinn Fein’s alliance with British imperialism was secure. Now he has been left out in the cold. Cameron has his own election to think about.

‘On-the-Runs’ and running riots

These events have taken place in the wider context of a new loyalist offensive that began with the ‘flag riots’ of 2012-13 conducted by a community determined to defend a privileged position within the sectarian Six County statelet that it perceives to be under threat, faced with Sinn Fein’s growing electoral support north and south. Two days prior to Adams’ arrest a High Court judge ruled that the PSNI ‘had facilitated illegal and sometimes violent parades’ during the flag riots which included months of weekly attacks on the Short Strand; the frequently besieged nationalist enclave in predominantly loyalist East Belfast. No allegations of political policing were made then by leading Sinn Fein members as the PSNI bent over backwards to allow loyalists to run amok in Belfast and elsewhere.

Following the collapse of the Haass talks to resolve outstanding contentious issues in December 2013, this new offensive was given a second wind in late February following the failed prosecution of John Downey for the 1982 IRA bombing of a British military ceremony in Hyde Park, loyalists seized on the media uproar surrounding 228 secret ‘letters of comfort’ sent under both the current ConDem coalition and previous Labour government to the ‘On-the-Runs’, republicans who were officially excluded from the ‘early release’ terms of the Good Friday Agreement that applied to political prisoners, either because they had already escaped from prison, or because they had never been caught in the first place. After DUP leader Peter Robinson threatened to resign as First Minister over the issue, the British government rushed to the rescue, immediately commissioning an investigation to report by the end of May.

Behind the brave faces and media-savvy interviews, Sinn Fein is in a desperate position. The inevitable consequence of their reformist strategy has led them into a dead-end with no room to manoeuvre: all they can do is make concession after concession.

Patrick Casey


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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