Ireland: Acts of War?

The recent killing of a prison warden from Maghaberry prison, by an as yet unknown republican grouping, has sent shock waves through the body politic. Many had assumed that as a result of the outpourings of both the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement the days of violence were behind us.

Sadly that is not true. No one with any sense of humanity in them can take pleasure in the deliberate killing of a fellow human being. As we approach the anniversary of the ending of the First World War, celebrated with chauvinistic glee by the British ruling classes, we should never forget the horrors of war, the savage slaughter of millions and the glorification of the "nation" and the demonisation of the enemy.

"...all warfare is inhuman, all warfare is barbaric; the first blast of the bugles of war ever sounds for the time being the funeral knell of human progress…" (James Connolly, Can Warfare Be Civilized? From The Worker , 30 January 1915.

But despite the experiences of the horrors of war there are sadly those who still wallow in the glorification of war and the use of violence against their perceived enemies. A quick search of the web will produce discussion sites where juvenile comments are made about enemies, comments that reveal a lack of understanding of the consequences of war, of the dehumanising effects of hatred and a glorification in killing.

The mainstream media have speculated that the killing of the prison warden arose directly from the consequences of the current prison protest. There is a dirty protest taking place by protesting republican prisoners. They are protesting against strip searching and claim that the prison authorities reneged on an agreement reached 18 months ago.

But then questions have to be asked: will the killing of the warden advance the cause of the prisoners, will it bring an end to the protest, will it force the prison authorities and the Stormont Administration to concede to the prisoners’ demands?

A famous military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831), once wrote, "War is the continuation of politics by other means". So what are or were the politics behind the killing?

Two days after that event there was a march in Dublin calling for the release of Marian Price organised by the Free Marian Price Campaign. While there was a ban on party banners the march was in itself political. It was exposing the vindictive nature of the British Government, exposing the selective internment of those who reject the pacification programmes of the Government, explicit in the outpourings of the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement. But there were only about 450 people on the march and one of the speakers, Clare Daly formerly of the Socialist Party and still in the moribund United Left Alliance, felt that she had to mention the killing of the Prison Warden and condemn it. She was, she said, a supporter of human rights and that included the human rights of Marian and David Black.

Her attendance at the march and her decision to speak was, particularly given her long background in the Socialist Party (for long perceived as having an anti-republican and a pro-loyalist agenda a politically significant step. We, in the Red Plough have long argued that the failure of the "left" to engage with republicanism was and still is a mistake. So here was a minor breakthrough. Sadly many who would have been on the march probably stayed away because of the killing.

So we would argue that the killing far from advancing a mass struggle outside the jail in support of political prisoners has on the contrary set back any serious efforts to garner support from a wide cross section of people.

The struggle in the prison has been ongoing for a long time. There have been efforts to resolve that situation also for a long time. Talks in the background had been taking place to reach a settlement.

In the light of the killing does anyone seriously think that the situation will be resolved sooner or later? Will the killing of one prison warden, or the killing of ten, make any difference to British policy? On the contrary it will only harden their resolve. Indeed one would think that perhaps that was the intent behind the armed action.

Perhaps there are people out there who think a movement can be built on the backs of the prisoners’ struggles and sacrifices? If so they are sadly deluded. The history of prison protests shows that only on very few occasions did the people on the outside give mass support to the prisoners and go on to build a mass movement. Those were in the aftermath of the 1916 uprising and the 1981 hunger strikes. Within 10 years following 1916 a mass movement was destroyed, Ireland was partitioned, thousands of republicans were jailed and the republican movement all but destroyed. And British Imperialism still ruled Ireland.

Ten republican prisoners died on hunger strike in 1981. Their deaths propelled Provisional Sinn Fein into electoral prominence. They, PSF, then went on to negotiate away the political concession wrung from the Brits, in exchange for power sharing and the baubles of office. Despite having the most effective guerrilla army in Europe, the Provo armed struggle failed miserably. The Republican armed struggle was defeated. The Republican political struggle only ended up with an even more entrenched sectarian state than before. Yes, Republicans are serving in a British run administration, but that won't make a basic bit of differences to the lives of the working classes, whether catholic or protestant. And British imperialism still rules in Ireland.

So it is hard to see the politics behind the current armed actions of republican groups. That is other than a mere longing for a United Ireland. There is little united action among republicans to bring the masses onto the streets. There are few signs of reaching out to the working classes. Instead what comes across is an elitist arrogance that only they and they alone, know what is good for the people of Ireland. In that they are no different from the leaderships of both administrations on the isle of Ireland.

"We see, therefore, that war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means. What remains peculiar to war is simply the peculiar nature of its means." (Carl von Clausewitz)

Where is the political intercourse? We see little or no evidence of it. It seems that the end is armed struggle as if that in itself is enough. Or is there a thought that a torch can be passed onto future generations so that they can rise from the flames and initiate an armed struggle that can achieve republican goals?

Was it for this that Wolfe Tone wrote:

“To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils and to assert the independence of my country – these were my objectives. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter – these were my means."

Where is "means" today in armed actions? Will it unite "the whole people of Ireland"? Will it "abolish the memory of all past dissensions,"? Will it "substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter "?

Furthermore there is little evidence of objectives such as "subvert the tyranny of our execrable government", "break the connection with England", "assert the independence of my country".

Sadly the road some republicans are walking down is a road to death, jail and political oblivion. It is not the road to either a United Ireland or a Socialist Republic? When in the light of past failures down a particular road, one keeps going down that road then surely it is time to pack it in.

There is, however, another road, but it is not a road for elitists, not a road for self appointed "leaderships" nor a road for those who "tax" drug dealers (thereby legitimising and licensing drug dealing) nor a road for those who are,

"...known as a ‘physical force party’ – a party, that is to say, whose members are united upon no one point, and agree upon no single principle, except upon the use of physical force as the sole means of settling the dispute between the people of this country and the governing power of Great Britain.

“The latter-day high falutin’ ‘hillside’ man, on the other hand, exalts into a principle that which the revolutionists of other countries have looked upon as a weapon, and in his gatherings prohibits all discussion of those principles which formed the main strength of his prototypes elsewhere and made the successful use of that weapon possible. (Physical Force in Irish Politics, James Connolly, Workers’ Republic, 22 July 1899).

That other road is one that requires patience, persistence and political struggle. It is the road of class struggle. It is the road to socialism and it is a road that neither elevates any method of struggle as a principle, nor dismisses any method of struggle. The building of an alternative to what now exists in both parts of Ireland has no short cuts. The existing leaderships of the current radical socialist and republican groupings face a huge responsibility of leadership in these times. Are they capable of leading or are they just content to follow the course of least resistance?

11 November 2012