Lessons from the north of Ireland as British state prepares for class war / FRFI 225 Feb/Mar 2012

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 225 February/March 2012

On 20 December 2011 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report entitled The rules of engagement, which argues that serious consideration should be given to the use of plastic bullets and water cannon and, where necessary, lethal force. The British state is preparing for class war and social unrest and, in doing so, will be relying on its experience in suppressing opposition to its rule in Ireland.

The report was commissioned by the Home Secretary following the August uprisings in English cities. It recommends the establishment of a national framework for resolving public disorder, with new rules of engagement supported by ever more sophisticated communication after fatal or controversial incidents, backed up by an ‘all source hub’ intelligence gathering with a greater emphasis on ‘advanced software analysis’ and social media monitoring. The report also states that: ‘in extreme circumstances, where life is threatened, their commanders must also be able to use extraordinary measures’.

Sir Denis O’Connor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary states: ‘if we don’t raise some of these awkward issues, then we are not giving people the chance to prepare for a future where we’re slightly more assured as to what will happen. Some new rules of engagement are necessary so the police can protect the public in confidence.’ These new rules of engagement will be dependent upon the balance of political forces at the given time; critical to this will be the role of the media and the need to control public opinion.

Anyone who for a minute considers that plastic bullets are not lethal weapons should look at the history of their use in the occupied north of Ireland. In 1970, when rubber bullets were first introduced by the British Army in Ireland, they were presented as not only harmless but humorous. The Guardian’s Simon Winchester described the ‘charming press officer’ of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, showing off the ‘soft and squidgy things’. Winchester reported how one Observer journalist was overheard saying ‘firing bullets made with rubber. Soon they’ll be lobbing grenades full of confetti, and guns that fire rose petals. You can’t take this sort of thing seriously at all.’1 Within three years rubber bullets had killed three people, including an 11-year-old boy, Francis Rowntree, and had caused countless injuries, including blinding. These deaths and injuries were said to be down to the unreliability of rubber bullets, which from 1973 to 1976 were then phased out in favour of the ‘safer alternative’ – the plastic bullet. These deadly weapons would go on to kill a further 14 people, including nine children; hundreds more people have been injured.

Clara Reilly of Relatives for Justice in Belfast stated: ‘What the British government did was keep coming up with all these schemes to try to cow the nationalist community into submission, and plastic bullets were used as a political control mechanism. Seven people were killed by plastic bullets during the hunger strike of 1981. Something like 60,000 bullets were fired over a few months.’2

As the struggle for political status escalated to hunger strikes which would lead to the deaths of ten men in Long Kesh prison, the level of terror on the streets intensified as the British army and police went on the rampage. On 13 May 1981 14-year-old Julie Livingston died after being shot in the head with a plastic bullet in the Stewartstown Road area of West Belfast. The bullet was fired by the British army from a distance of seven yards. They claimed that there was a riot going on following the death that day of IRA hunger striker Francis Hughes. This was not true and at her inquest the jury agreed that Julie had been an ‘innocent victim’.

A few days later, on 19 May, 11-year-old Carol Ann Kelly was shot by a plastic bullet fired from a distance of less than ten yards from a British Army land rover, as she was returning home with a carton of milk in Twinbrook, West Belfast. Again, the army press office claimed that there was rioting in the area as hunger strikers Raymond McCreesh (IRA) and Patsy O’Hara (INLA) had died that day. This lie outraged nationalist Ireland. Carol Ann Kelly died on 22 May 1981. The same day in Derry Harry Duffy died after being shot in the head by a plastic bullet by the British army, who yet again claimed that there had been a riot in the area at the time.

On 31 July 1981, as the hunger strike continued, Peter Doherty died, having been struck a week earlier by a plastic bullet as he stood in his kitchen in the Divis Flats area of West Belfast. On 9 August Peter McGuinness was hit in the chest with a plastic bullet on the Shore Road area of Belfast and died of his injuries. There was no riot in either area. Lily Fitzsimons, a founder of the Relatives Action Committees and leading campaigner for the fight for political status has stated: ‘We knew an enormous amount of support existed within the community, but many people were afraid to come out on to the streets because of the terror which was being inflicted on the community by the army and the RUC.’3

That the British police should raise the spectre of plastic bullets and water cannon, and the sanctioning of lethal force in such a way, gives us an indication of the current debate among the ruling class and how it intends to deal with the crisis. Preparation and plans are already underway and police forces across Britain are being systematically trained in public order control. The new movement in Britain must understand and learn from the experiences of the nationalist population of the north of Ireland at the hands of the British state, if serious effective opposition is to emerge.

Paul Mallon

1          Simon Winchester, In Holy Terror, Faber 1974, p88.

2          Interview with author, Belfast, 24 November 2006.

3          Interview with author, Belfast, 11 December 2006.

Tommy McKearney speaks to Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

tommy_mckearney‘Normalisation is normal as defined by Britain; it’s not defined by people like me or you.’

On Sunday 29 May, around 1,500 people marched in Glasgow to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Irish hunger strike in which ten republicans gave their lives in the struggle against British rule. The event was organised by the 1980-81 West of Scotland Hunger Strike Commemoration Committee. The march was made up of working class men and women from across Glasgow and Lanarkshire; there was a noticeable absence of any of the groups on the left aside from supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!.

One of the speakers at the rally was Tommy McKearney, who joined the Republican Movement in 1971, becoming Officer Commander of the IRA’s Tyrone Brigade. He lived underground from the commencement of internment without trial in August 1972 until his eventual capture in October 1977; he was tortured by police officers in the notorious Castlereagh interrogation centre and sentenced by a non-jury Diplock court, to life imprisonment for the killing of a member of the British Army, Ulster Defence Regiment, based on ‘confession’ evidence. He joined the blanket protest and the first hunger strike, spending 53 days without food between October and December 1980, before the protest was called off. After the summer long hunger strike of 1981, he became Education Officer for IRA prisoners in Long Kesh. Following the Sinn Fein decision to drop abstentionism in 1986, he left along with other prisoners to form the League of Communist Republicans. He was released in 1993 and was to become one of the most articulate critics of Sinn Fein’s accommodation with British rule. After the march, Paul Mallon and Connor Riley spoke to him on behalf of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

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Ireland: loyalist mobs on the rampage

Loyalist rioters

This year’s loyalist marching season has seen intense street fighting across the north of Ireland as thousands of unionists took part in their annual display of supremacy intended to intimidate the nationalist minority. It started on 20 June when hundreds of loyalists attacked nationalist residents in the Short Strand area of East Belfast. Images of the subsequent street disturbances, which involved running street battles, were broadcast around the world, belying the image which is normally projected of a society at peace. On 12 July, nationalists in north Belfast faced police attack for opposing a supremacist loyalist march through Ardoyne. Other disturbances took place in Derry, Craigavon and Portadown where nationalist residents came under attack from members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). In Portadown, immigrant families from East Timor fled a nationalist area after experiencing a racist loyalist attack.

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The Irish hunger strike: were you with Benn or the H Block men?

Photo: Tony Benn speaks on an ANL platform in London, 8 December 1980

The announcement that Tony Benn has been invited to speak at a Sinn Fein conference in London on 18 June commemorating the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Irish hunger strike is an insult to the struggle of the Irish people. Benn’s record during this period was one of unstinting support for British imperialism. He was a member of the Labour government whose strategy of criminalising the Irish liberation movement precipitated the prisoners’ struggle for political status and eventually led to the hunger strike. Not once during this period did he attend a demonstration in support of the Irish prisoners, not once did he stand up for them in public.

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Ireland: New coalition, same attack on the working class /FRFI 220 April/May 2011

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 220 April/May 2011

On 7 March Fine Gael and the Labour Party formed a new coalition government in Ireland following the 25 February general election. The previous Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition had become the first government casualty of the economic and social crisis in the Eurozone. The new coalition is committed to implementing the austerity programme of its predecessor and to ensuring that the crisis in Ireland will be resolved at the expense of the poor and working class. As we have argued, there can be no capitalist solution to the crisis; the new government can do nothing to extract Ireland from its financial and social crisis.

Fine Gael took 36.1% of the vote and now has 76 out of 166 TDs (members of parliament), with the Labour Party taking 19.4% of the vote and gaining 37 TDs. Fianna Fail, which had held power for 20 of the past 23 years saw its vote crash from 41.6% to just 17.4%, reducing it from 73 TDs to 20. The Greens, who had helped prop up the previous coalition, lost all six representatives. Sinn Fein increased its vote from 6.9% to 9.9%, taking it from five to 14 TDs, with leader Gerry Adams topping the poll in the border county of Louth.

Corporation tax

None of the main parties had anything to offer the working class other than increased attacks on living standards. What united them was defence of the extremely low corporation tax rate of 12.5% – one of the lowest in Europe. It has been a source of dispute in the EU, with Germany and France arguing that it should be raised and be linked to the terms of the loans given to the Irish state. The corporation tax rate in Britain is between 21% and 28%. In France it is 33% and in Germany 29%. It was this low rate of tax which helped Ireland attract foreign investment which led to ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom. At its height between 1999 and 2002, Ireland became the world’s most profitable country for US corporations, with profits doubling in that period. Today, Microsoft, Google, Intel, Facebook, Paypal and eBay are among those multinationals headquartered in Ireland which benefit from the low tax rate.

Sinn Fein also supports the lower taxation, despite its radical rhetoric during the campaign. The party is already in government in the Six Counties, where it is implementing savage cuts; these will deepen following elections to the Northern Assembly on 5 May. It was suggested in the UK Budget on 23 March that the North could see its corporation tax lowered in line with the Twenty Six Counties in order to attract private foreign investment to the public sector-dependent statelet.

One feature of the February election was the success of the United Left Alliance (ULA), a coalition of left-wing parties including the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, which won five seats. The ULA was formed in November 2010 as an electoral coalition in opposition to the crisis in Ireland. While its programme (www.unitedleftalliance.org/about-us/) contains many progressive points, such as opposition to the bank bail-out, calls for jobs and defence of the public sector, it has been criticised by some Irish socialists for lacking an explicit socialist standpoint and for its avoidance of the national question. It is not clear at this stage what it represents or whether it will fight for and advance the interests of the Irish working class.

Battles ahead

The new government faces battles both in its relationship to Europe and with the escalating social crisis at home. New Prime Minister and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and his deputy Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore want to renegotiate the terms of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union bail out. (See FRFI 218 ‘Ireland – economic crisis escalates’) On Germany’s insistence Ireland will pay substantially more interest on its EU loan than it will on the IMF loan. At a summit of the heads of government of the 17 Eurozone countries on 11 March, Kenny called for a reduction in interest rates on the EU loan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded that ‘there must be some give and take’. Germany and Britain are the major creditor nations to Ireland and as such will exert dominance over Irish affairs. The conflict over Ireland’s low corporation tax continues as we go to press on the eve of a European Summit on 24/25 March, with Kenny insisting that an increase to the corporate tax rate would be ‘non-negotiable’.

It is unclear for how long the current social and political peace will hold in Ireland. Job losses and insecurity are on the increase. In 2007 unemployment stood at 4.7%; today it is over 14.6%, and is only offset by increasing migration. Every week 1,000 people migrate overseas; as one young woman told RTE television, ‘you don’t go to parties any more, you go to going-away parties’.

The economic crisis is still in its infancy and political forces capable of resisting the savage cuts and attacks on living standards, which will intensify in the period ahead, are yet to develop. The important question to ask now is where are the political forces who are prepared to fight for and defend the interests of the Irish working class?

Paul Mallon

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed