Ireland: Republican Movement faces disintegration

The murder of Belfast man Robert McCartney and the political fall out which followed have expressed the crisis of the peace process in Ireland. It marks a watershed for the Republican Movement. Behind the media coverage in the wake of this latest incident lies the political reality facing the Republican Movement and the consequences for its dual strategy; because of the route Sinn Fein has chosen, the political process in Ireland has reached an impasse which can only be broken by the disbandment of the IRA. The killing of Robert McCartney expresses the degeneration of the Republican leadership since its engagement with bourgeois politics and its isolation from the Republican working class. PAUL MALLON assess the implication of recent events in Ireland for Sinn Fein’s strategy within the overall peace process.

The McCartney killing
On 30 January, members of the IRA were involved in the killing of nationalist Robert McCartney following a bar-room brawl in Belfast. Since then the family of Robert McCartney have led a campaign to reveal the truth and the identity of the killers. The campaign is led by McCartney’s sisters and fiancée from the strongly Republican enclave of Short Strand in East Belfast, and has mobilised many nationalists on the streets against what they view as increasing criminality and misrule of Republican areas by members of the Republican Movement. Sinn Fein responded to this pressure by suspending seven of its members, and the IRA expelled three of its own volunteers. The family maintains that up to 12 members of the IRA were involved in the killing. The family have indicated that they may stand in the forthcoming election campaigning in their local area for justice for Robert. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness issued a warning that ‘The McCartneys need to be very careful. To step over that line, which is a very important line, into the world of party political politics, can do a huge disservice to their campaign.’ Catherine McCartney responded by stating ‘We have to be very careful that we’re not being used by anybody and that includes Sinn Fein and all political parties. We’re not stupid women’.

Since the McCartney incident, families from within nationalist areas have begun to speak out against the Republican Movement, some accusing the IRA of killing nationalists Mark Robinson and James McGinley in separate incidents in Derry in recent years. Many nationalists increasingly view the IRA’s role as being one of policing the Good Friday Agreement. The McCartney killing is another embarrassment for Sinn Fein, so soon after the Northern Bank robbery in December (see FRFI 183). It further undermines the party’s aspirations to bourgeois respectability, with general elections looming in both Britain and Ireland.

A key element of Sinn Fein’s strategy has been the influence the United States could exert on political developments in Ireland. Sinn Fein persuaded the IRA to engage in a ceasefire in 1994 partly on the basis that Irish America could play a progressive role in Irish reunification. In the ten years since the IRA ceasefire, the Sinn Fein leadership have been wined and dined at the White House and around the US on a regular basis. Since the change of US Administration in 2000, President Bush has showed little interest in Irish affairs other than to insist that the IRA must disband. Following the McCartney killing Senator Edward Kennedy cancelled talks in the US with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams during the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations, citing ‘the IRA’s ongoing criminal activity and contempt for the rule of law’, and New York Republican Congressman Peter King, a key Adams ally in Congress, has called on the IRA to disband. Former US Irish envoy Richard Hass has stated that Adams could become an ‘international pariah’, drawing comparisons with Yasser Arafat. Imperialism will squeeze Adams and the Republican Movement in the next period until the IRA disbands.

Unionism and the peace process
In the early 1990s Sinn Fein argued that key to the development of a successful peace process was the emergence of progressive Unionism. Based upon an optimistic assessment of imperialist-inspired peace processes in Palestine and South Africa, Sinn Fein saw imperialism as able to play a progressive role in Ireland. Speaking in 1994 in the period leading up to the IRA ceasefire, Adams suggested that the Protestant people needed a figure such as former apartheid president de Klerk ‘to lead them and us into the next century’ (An Phoblacht/Republican News 3 March 1994) The election of the British Labour Party in 1997 fuelled their illusions.

The Unionist veto is enshrined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) briefly shared power at Stormont with Sinn Fein before the institutions collapsed in October 2002. The peace process, far from breaking or weakening Ulster Unionism, has served to further strengthen loyalist reaction and has elevated Ian Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to the position of being the main Unionist party.

Paisley’s hard-line DUP had long been eclipsed by the UUP in electoral terms; in the 1997 British general election the UUP polled 32.7% of the vote to the DUP’s 13.6%. Following the UUP’s power sharing with Sinn Fein in the Stormont Assembly, the Unionist community increasingly favoured Paisley’s reactionary politics; in the 2001 general election the UUP polled 26.8% to the DUP’s 22.5%. In the 2003 elections to the Stormont Assembly, Paisley eclipsed the UUP as the main voice of Unionism with 25.7% of the vote compared to the declining UUP’s 22.7%. This is the context in which Unionism, supported by British imperialism, has stalled the peace process and blocked the return of devolved power to Stormont. Key to this is the nature of Unionism as a profoundly reactionary force where any perceived threat to its supremacy gives rise to deepening reaction. This allowed Paisley to raise the stakes by insisting on photographic evidence of IRA decommissioning of weapons prior to any re-establishment of devolved government. The Republican Movement has engaged in a strategy which is dependent upon the emergence of a moderate Unionist leadership – it is precisely this strategy which has led directly to the resuscitation of Paisley’s brand of intransigent Unionism.

The origins of a reformist strategy
The present state of degeneration of the Republican Movement can be traced back to decisions made in the late 1970s. Two different strategies were at separate periods adopted to mobilise support for the campaign against criminalisation of the political struggle, led by prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh women’s prison. The prison protest led hundreds of IRA and INLA prisoners to refuse to wear prison uniform and engage in various protests inside the prison, culminating in the historic hunger strike of 1981 in which ten Republican prisoners died. The ‘blanket protests’ by the prisoners led to regular street mobilisations led primarily by women organised through the Relatives’ Action Committees (RACs). The RACs arose organically out of the urgent need to mobilise in support of the prisoners; Sinn Fein was on the outside of this development. This political movement had remarkable resonance around the world, beyond the working class districts of the north of Ireland, and served to dramatically illustrate and directly expose the myth that Republican fighters were criminals and had no popular support among the nationalist working class. The RACs viewed the prisoners’ struggle and the revolutionary struggle to drive British imperialism out of Ireland as one and the same. Militant marches on the streets by the RACs combined with IRA and INLA armed actions were used to demand political status for Irish political prisoners.

As the campaign intensified, the brutality inflicted upon the prisoners increased and the prospect of a hunger strike emerged. If the hunger strike was to be avoided then the struggle needed to be intensified. This did not occur. Instead the National H-Block Committee was formed in October 1979 to replace the RAC and determined thereafter the political direction of the prisoners’ campaign.

The campaign for political status was reduced to a humanitarian campaign in order to win support from sections of the Irish middle class through the Irish government, the SDLP and the Catholic Church to pressurise the British government to give way. The Republican Movement chose to relate to established middle class organisations as a vehicle for achieving its aims. Fearing that militant demands and street campaigning would undermine the respectability of the prisoners’ demands, concessions were made to middle class forces. It was the development of the pan-nationalist bourgeois strategy which dictates Sinn Fein’s present-day standpoint. However, it failed. The hunger strike was defeated. Not even the election of hunger striker Bobby Sands as a Westminster MP could alter the balance of forces necessary to restore political status. With the demobilisation of the popular movement a key feature of this reformist strategy, the prisoners’ campaign was undermined and this allowed British imperialism to isolate the previously growing revolutionary forces against its rule in Ireland. Sinn Fein member Owen Carroll was elected on 20 August 1981 to the seat made vacant by Sands’ death. That same day INLA volunteer Mickey Devine became the tenth and final hunger striker to die. Six weeks later, the hunger strike was called off. Revolutionary nationalism had suffered a major defeat from British imperialism.

The election successes in this turbulent period led to the adoption of the electoral strategy which would later significantly alter the balance of forces within the Republican Movement in favour of those who saw a constitutional reformist way forward. The pursuit of respectability has directed Sinn Fein’s political strategy since then.

Armed struggle must always be subordinate to revolutionary politics if it is to be successful. It is the separation of armed struggle from revolutionary politics which leads to the current situation where the Republican Movement no longer expresses the interests of working class nationalism. Since the defeats suffered by the Republican Movement following the hunger strike, the nationalist working class has been increasingly demobilised and depoliticised in favour of the bourgeois electoral strategy.

Recent events demonstrate the complete incompatibility of pursuing a bourgeois strategy on the one hand and armed struggle on the other and have placed the disbandment of the IRA at the top of the political agenda in Ireland.

FRFI 184 April / May 2005


Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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