25 years on from the hunger strike – Irish prisoners still resisting

On 5 May 1981, Bobby Sands, an IRA volunteer and elected MP, died in Long Kesh prison following 66 days on hunger strike as a result of Britain’s refusal to reinstate political status for Republican prisoners. He had refused to concede to demands from visiting dignitaries to abandon his protest. Sands explained why the Republican prisoners of war were political prisoners: ‘I believe and stand by the God-given right of the Irish nation to sovereign independence, and the right of any Irishman or woman to assert this right in armed revolution.’ At his funeral in Belfast 100,000 people marched in defiance and solidarity.

Following the slow deaths of the 10 IRA and INLA hunger strikers, working class youth took the lead in battling the British forces and their collaborators. However, the National H-Block/Armagh leaders had adopted a ‘broad support’ strategy designed to appeal to prominent people in the South, which meant that in practice the campaign was tailored to the demands of middle class leaders who did very little to publicly support the prisoners. This and the lack of any effective solidarity movement in Britain meant that Margaret Thatcher could stick to her pronouncement that ‘a crime is a crime’ and refuse to concede that Republican prisoners were political.


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Nationalists divide over Sinn Fein support for British policing

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.


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Ireland: Assembly elections

Speaking in the White House at the 14 March St Patrick’s celebrations Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern trumpeted progress with the Irish peace process: ‘The IRA campaign has ended, the weapons have been decommissioned, inclusive support for policing has been agreed and the programme of normalisation of security in Northern Ireland will be completed shortly. The door is now open to shared government’. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has declared his ‘wholehearted support for the PSNI’ (Police Service of Northern Ireland).

Elections to the Stormont Assembly on 7 March have confirmed the ascendancy of the loyalist bigot Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). With a 30.1% share of the vote, it won 36 seats in the 108-seat Assembly, a gain of six seats over its 2003 result, while the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) lost nine seats, ending up with 18 (14.9% of the vote). Sinn Fein won 28 seats, a gain of four (26.2%) and the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) lost two, ending up with 16 (15.2%). This leaves Paisley as both the First Minister and the undisputed leader of Unionism. The ten-member Executive will now consist of four DUP ministers, three Sinn Fein, two UUP and one SDLP. Paisley has been the real winner of the peace process: in 1997, his DUP got only 13.6% of the vote compared to the UUP’s 32.7%.


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Power sharing returns

After four and a half years’ suspension, devolved government in the north of Ireland returned with the reconvening of the Stormont Assembly on 11 May. In his oath of office speech, First Minster and Unionist leader Ian Paisley declared: ‘I have not changed my Unionism, the union of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, which I believe is today stronger than ever.’ Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on the other hand claimed ‘I am proud to stand here today as an Irish Republican who believes absolutely in a united Ireland.’ Here lies the contradiction of a political process which is hailed as the final solution to centuries of conflict between Britain and Ireland.

On 15 May Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern became the first Irish premier to address the Westminster parliament in London. In a speech celebrating ‘the most beneficial transformation in British-Irish relations in over 800 years’, Ahern told his audience; ‘the so-called “Irish Question” was for a long time shorthand in these halls for a nuisance, a problem, a danger. A recurring crisis that was debated here, but not where its effects were most felt’. But today, he declared, ‘I can stand here and say that the “Irish Question” as understood then has been transformed by the Good Friday Agreement.’


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Obituary - Brendan Hughes Irish revolutionary (1948-2008)

IRA commander in Belfast and leader of the H-Block prisoners

Brendan Hughes dedicated his life to the fight against British imperialism in Ireland. Born in the Grosvenor Road area of West Belfast in 1948, he was first arrested by the British army while in Aden with the merchant navy on suspicion of being an ‘Arab terrorist.’ From 1969, he understood the need to defend nationalist areas from British army and loyalist attack; he joined the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, becoming a skilled street fighter, his unit carrying out five or six attacks in a day at the peak of the armed confrontation with the British army in the 1970s.


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Ireland: A blow against normalisation

On 7 March, Irish Republicans shot dead two British soldiers at the Massereene barracks in County Antrim. They were the first British soldiers to be killed in Ireland since the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Agree­ment. Both soldiers, members of the 25 Field Squadron of 38 Engineer Regiment, were set to fly out the next morning to Helmand province in Af­ghanistan and were dressed in desert fatigues. Four others were wounded in the incident, including two pizza delivery men. Less than 48 hours later, an armed officer of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was shot dead in Craigavon in north Armagh. The attacks, which were carried out by the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA respectively, both organisations opposed to the Good Friday Agree­ment, represent a blow to the British strategy of normalisation in the north of Ireland.

For over ten years, the north of Ireland has been presented as a normal part of the United Kingdom, basking in the glory of peace after a 25-year campaign against British rule led by the Provisional IRA. The 1994 ceasefires and subsequent Good Friday Agreement were said to be the culmination of a political process. The national question, the continued British involvement in Irish affairs, was said to be resolved. The overwhelming majority of the Irish people supported the moves towards peace. However, the end result has not been British withdrawal from Ireland but the return to devolved rule at the Stormont Assembly outside Belfast. Many of the social problems which gave rise to the national struggle today remain. By taking part in the negotiations which led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the Republican movement accepted the British precondition that the Unionist veto would stay, ensuring that the constitutional status of the Six Counties would remain unchanged. The IRA were forced to disarm and it was later reported to have disbanded in response to Unionist demands. More recently Sinn Fein has been forced to support the PSNI. The final phase of the political process is the transfer of policing powers from London to the north and their direction by local politicians. This is the political context in which these latest attacks took place.


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Editorial - Ireland: Republican movement crosses the Rubicon

FRFI 152 December 1999 / January 2000

After over ten weeks of the Mitchell Review, Sinn Fein and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) finally agreed on a process that would lead to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Central to this was the acceptance by Sinn Fein that 'decommissioning is an essential part of the peace process'.

In crossing this Rubicon, Sinn Fein and the Republican movement are seen to pose no real threat to the interests of British imperialism in the Six Counties. The only potential opposition to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement came from a section of the Ulster Unionist Party led by its deputy leader John Taylor. As a gesture to this section of Unionism – and an indication of the contempt Labour has for the nationalist working class – on 24 November the RUC was awarded the George Cross for 'gallantry'. Part of the citation described the RUC as 'a recognised world-class police service that has given professional and impartial service to all the people of Northern Ireland since its inception'!


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Editorial: IRELAND

FRFI 153 February / March 2000

Decommissioning: a temporary crisis? 

David Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party, in agreeing to the Mitchell Review and the process that led to the setting up of the Northern Ireland Executive, set themselves a deadline of February for the IRA to begin decommissioning. If decommissioning has not begun by the time their leadership council meet on 12 February, then they threaten to withdraw from the executive. This deadline comes after the first report on the decommissioning process by General John de Chastelain, expected on 31 January. The Peace Agreement itself has set May as the date by which decommissioning should have been completed.

The announcement by Peter Mandelson on 19 January that the British government was going to implement almost all of Chris Patten's recommendations on the reform of the RUC infuriated unionists. The changes, which will be introduced in the autumn, will alter the name of the RUC to the 'Police of Northern Ireland'; do away with its crown and harp cap badge; reduce the number of police from 13,500 to 7,500; set up a new police board with two Sinn Fein members on it and attempt to recruit more Catholic members.


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Ireland: imperialism and national revolution

FRFI 187 October / November 2005

How the Trotskyists got it wrong

Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution
by Alan Woods,
Wellred Books,
May 2005,
135 pages, £6.99

Why review a book on Irish republicanism written by a long-standing member of the bloody, racist, imperialist British Labour Party? Because socialists needs to understand the significance of the revolutionary national class struggle against imperialism and for socialism, particularly with developments in Latin America. Woods’ analysis of Irish republicanism totally fails in this respect. Indeed, his book is an example of a trend which Lenin called imperialist economism, and which today expresses the interests of a narrow section of the working class – the labour aristocracy.


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Ireland: PSNI harasses nationalists

On 4 September the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) reported that, although the IRA Army Council continues to exist, it poses no threat to the peace process. The report comes at a time when the activity of dissident Republicans opposed to the Good Friday Agreement is at a ten-year high, and they are facing increased harassment by state forces.

The IMC was established by the British and Irish governments to monitor the disbandment of the IRA. Its latest report deals exclusively with the status of the IRA and, in particular, the status of the IRA Army Council, the ruling body of the organisation. It states: ‘The mechanism which they [the IRA] have chosen to bring the armed conflict to a complete end has been the standing down of the structures which engaged in the armed campaign and the conscious decision to allow the Army Council to fall into disuse.’ The report goes on to say that it does not expect the IRA to make any further announcements on the disbandment of the Army Council beyond what it said in 2005 when it declared the end of its military campaign (see FRFI 187).


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Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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