Nationalists divide over Sinn Fein support for British policing

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On 22 January, a report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Nuala O’Loan graphically confirmed that the activities of loyalist death squads were assisted and sponsored by the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and its successor the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The nationalist people have known for decades about this collusion, which was and remains an integral part of Britain’s war machine in Ireland. The report was published at the time that the Republican Movement is being moved by Sinn Fein towards accepting British policing in the north of Ireland. PAUL MALLON reports.

The report centred on the activities of the north Belfast Special Branch agent and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) member Mark Haddock, who was protected for his involvement in up to 16 murders and, between 1993 and 2003, paid at least £80,000. It revealed that records were destroyed, preventing ‘senior police officers from being held to account’, and stated that the UVF ‘could not have operated as they did without the knowledge and support at the highest levels of the RUC and PSNI’. This report, along with others, confirms Britain’s support for death squads in Ireland.

Yet this is the police force the specially convened Sinn Fein party Ard Fheis (conference) in Dublin on 28 January chose to support. Sinn Fein will now appoint representatives to the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnership Boards. Throughout the years of anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland the nationalist community has refused to support the police. Instead, in the face of police corruption and bigotry, nationalist areas were self-policed and regulated by the liberation movement.

In October 2006 the British and Irish governments brokered the St Andrews Agreement, which set out a timetable for the restoration of devolved powers and in which Republican acceptance of British policing would be in place by the time of the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in March 2007.

By their friends…
Writing in The Irish Times on 8 January 2007, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated, ‘Sinn Fein has demonstrated one of the most remarkable examples of leadership I have come across in modern politics...’ And David Ervine, then leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, political wing of the UVF, wrote: ‘The endgame was always going to shake up the republican movement and its supporters. It is, after all, the final acceptance by republicans of Northern Ireland as a viable and integral part of the UK...if Adams pulls it off at the Ard Fheis, a real line in history will have been drawn.’ (Belfast Telegraph, 9 January 2007)

Economic changes
The policing debate has indeed shaken up the Republican Movement and revealed profound divisions within the nationalist community. On the one hand are those with a stake in society, boosted by Sinn Fein’s claims to be building an ‘Ireland of equals’. On the other are those working class nationalists who have received little of the ‘peace dividend’, who do not feel represented in the political process and who are disillusioned by bourgeois politics. Thousands of people have disappeared from the electoral register, forcing Sinn Fein into a new registration campaign.

At the end of 2006 the average house price in the north was £180,128 – up 32.1% on 2005. In Republican West Belfast house prices have risen on average £600 a week in the past year. This growth fuels the inequality in the nationalist community that underlies present divisions on policing.

In the week prior to the Ard Fheis the Irish government unveiled a multimillion-pound programme of investment in the north, spanning the next five years; the timing of this announcement was designed to strengthen the hand of the new Irish middle class, Sinn Fein’s constituency. It is speculated that up to £800 million will become available to the north from Dublin should power-sharing be restored.

This expresses the changing economic fortunes in Ireland: the economy of the Twenty-Six Counties has been transformed through foreign investment and privatisation while the Six Counties remains largely dependent upon state subsidy from London.

Growing opposition
A series of large meetings has taken place attracting open opposition to Sinn Fein under the title ‘Policing – A Bridge Too Far?’ They have been attended by supporters of Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the 32 County Sovereignty Committee and Republican Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein is most concerned about organised opposition to its rule within nationalist areas, and tried to label the public meetings as gathering of proscribed groups aimed at continuing the armed struggle. It then accused ‘dissidents’ of plotting to assassinate Sinn Fein leaders. Neither story had any basis in reality.

Not all of Sinn Fein is persuaded that collaborating with the British-imposed policing structure is the way forward. Six members of the 24-strong Sinn Fein Stormont parliamentary team have resigned in the past two months, as have some branches and long-standing members. On 3 January, former Sinn Fein Assembly member John Kelly, a founder of the Provisional IRA, and Brendan Hughes, a former Long Kesh hunger strike leader, said ‘Sinn Fein is pursuing a strategy of threat against dissenting voices’. On 23 January a group of former Republican political prisoners announced the setting up of ‘Ex-POWs and Concerned Republicans Against RUC/PSNI’.

A number of Republican candidates have announced they will be standing in opposition to Sinn Fein’s support for the PSNI in the 7 March elections. In Derry, Peggy O’Hara, the 76-year-old mother of INLA volunteer Patsy O’Hara who died on hunger strike in 1981, will stand as an independent Republican. She said ‘We didn’t recognise the police then and we won’t recognise them now.’

The Unionist veto remains at the heart of the Six County statelet, fully backed by British imperialism – Sinn Fein’s reformist strategy of engagement with such forces will come up against severe tests in the period ahead. The nature of British rule in Ireland is changing and with it so too must the resistance to that rule. Days after the St Andrews Agreement, MI5 announced plans for a new £20 million base outside Belfast. The British war in Ireland is not over. Whether the growing opposition to Sinn Fein’s endorsement to policing proves to be significant remains unclear. One thing however remains certain – British imperialism has not left Ireland. For so long as this relationship remains it is the duty of communists in Britain to oppose Britain’s occupation of Ireland.

FRFI 195 February / March 2007

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed