Ireland: back to square one

The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly is the latest demonstration of the inability of capitalism to solve the national question in Ireland. Below we look at the reasons for the breakdown in the current talks, the future prospects for the IRA, the unionists, and the possibility of a socialist solution.

The streets of Belfast are newly decorated with graffiti warning "Not a bullet, not an ounce." Nailed to a wooden fence in front of a group of smart semi-detatched houses on the Blaney Road in Crossmaglen, South Armagh is a new mural depicting three masked paramilitaries over the words "We still haven't gone away you know." Their Armalites point to the pub 150 metres away where two Grenadier guards were shot in 1993. The painting occupies the position taken up by the sniper who shot them.

Paddy Short, uncle of Labour MP Clare Short, who runs a pub in Crossmaglen is quoted in The Express (9/2/2000) as saying, "People are concerned about the IRA giving up their weapons. They don't want to be left naked."

The IRA has refused to decommission its weapons. The devolved assembly, the centrepiece of Blair's plans, is suspended.

Any rational person would welcome a peaceful solution to the problems of Ireland. Such a solution is possible, but not as a result of secret negotiations between sectarian parties and British imperialism. The national and social problems of Ireland cannot be solved within the confines of capitalism.

British imperialism responsible in the first place for the criminal carving up of Ireland, and therefore directly responsible for the death and destruction wreaked ever since, is now powerless against the sectarian monster it created.

The border imposed on society by both profit and national division can only be removed by the working class. Ireland's national emancipation has become a task of the socialist transformation of society, and the completion of that task falls to the working class.

The latest attempt at a compromise between the IRA and the unionists seemed to have gone a lot further than many previous attempts - yet still it has failed. We take no pleasure in this fact, but a fact it remains. Once again the inability of capitalism to solve the problem of Ireland leaves catholics and protestants alike facing an uncertain future.

The Unionists could not accept the IRA's refusal to disarm. In the words of Ken Maginnis, Ulster Unionist security spokesman "we cannot allow to remain in existence any paramilitary group which has illegal guns or illegal explosives." Of course the Loyalist terrorists have been responsible for just as many atrocities themselves. The Unionists don't have to rely on paramilitaries however, when they are backed up by British troops and the RUC.

For the IRA to have handed over their weapons would have spelt disaster for them. Republican leader Brian Keenan described the idea as an "unacceptable act of surrender." If they decommission then the leaders responsible stand every chance of being dead men.

Artificial deadlines

It is true that Trimble and the Unionists used the excuse of the IRA not disarming by artificial deadlines at the end of January and mid February - when the agreement talked about May as the deadline for decommissioning. They want a devolved assembly which they are confident will be dominated by unionists in any event. But at the same time they are quite happy to tolerate direct rule. They are desperate to cling on to their privileged position. Discrimination may now be outlawed, but Ulster Unionism remains a bastion of bigotry and reaction. They were forced to make a number of concessions, but they will not be pushed into any move towards uniting with the south. Instead they have now forced Blair to suspend the assembly. Sinn Fein and the IRA on the other hand cannot offer any more without disintegrating.

The IRA puts the blame for the breakdown on the British government and the unionists. Mitchell McLaughlin Sinn Fein party chairman announced "The British government are making a very, very serious mistake under the blackmail of a threat to withdraw by the unionists."

The result is back to square one. In reality the establishment of the devolved body itself represented a capitulation by the IRA. It wasn't even a gesture towards Irish unity. It amounts to an acceptance of British rule and an acceptance of partition.

The Protestants meanwhile will never accept any real step towards uniting with the south on the basis of the current system. It is still widely felt that the south remains a priest dominated state. Ireland has changed a great deal from the time when contraception was illegal, thanks largely to the modernisation that comes with industrialisation. As a result of British, European and US investment, the south is no longer poorer than the north. This partly explains the willingness of the southern state to relinquish its claim on the north, they don't want to have to foot the bill for northern poverty and unemployment.

The experience of discrimination against the catholic minority in the north provides ample propaganda for the orange bigots to frighten the protestant population with the spectre of minority status in a catholic united Ireland. Even if the border could be removed under capitalism that would not solve unemployment, poverty or any of the problems facing the Irish working class.

So British imperialism is stuck with the north, whether they like it or not. The irony is that Britain would now like to withdraw. They would like to be shot of the £2 billion a year subsidy. Their problem is that the result would be a bloodbath, the catholics of West Belfast and Derry would face a massacre and the violence would not be confined to Ireland. Sectarianism, fostered by British imperialism as part of its divide and rule tactic, has become an uncontrollable monster.

Division of the population

The IRA's campaign for more than 30 years far from solving one of the problems of Ireland has served to tear a greater divide in the population and prop up the orange bigotry of the loyalist leaders. Their ceasefire was a tacit admission of the futility of their so-called armed struggle. Initially the IRA believed they could win in 12-18 months. Yet after 30 years of bombings and assassinations they are now further away than ever from their stated goal. As the SDLP councillor for Irvinestown the predominantly protestant town hit by the recent Continuity IRA bomb said, "The great majority in this community know we have had this for 25 years and it has been absolutely wasteful."

Sinn Fein meanwhile has developed into a serious political force drawing support away from the timid SDLP, and more importantly partially filling the vacuum left by the absence of a genuine workers party, in the poisoned atmosphere of the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland. However, they will never be able to reconcile the protestant population to the idea of a united Ireland on a capitalist basis. If they based themselves on the working class instead, uniting protestant and catholic workers in a struggle for social and national emancipation, then the unity of Ireland could be achieved as part of the socialist transformation of society. The potential for such workers unity is demonstrated by the trade unions. They remain the only force organised on a non-sectarian basis. The unions must provide the foundation for a political expression for that united working class - a party of labour. Armed with a socialist programme, such a party could win the ovewhelming support of workers from both communities. Campaigning for a socialist solution to unemployment, low pay and bad housing, the working class could guarantee the rights of the protestants in a socialist united Ireland linked to the workers in England, Scotland and Wales.

Of course some will argue that this is utopian. This is always the argument of those who lack confidence in the ability of the working class to change society. Surely what is utopian is to believe that after centuries of raping and pillaging Ireland, capitalism can offer any new way forward. British imperialism created the mess in the first place, and they remain responsible for the mess today. They can play no part in any solution. Nor can the sectarian parties of Unionist reaction or nationalist republicanism. To achieve a peaceful and lasting solution the workers of all communities can trust only in their own strength and their own united class organisations.

Only the Marxists have consistently argued for such a class solution to Ireland. Various sectarian grouplets and certain lefts in the Labour Party have wasted years instead running around cheerleading the IRA as "freedom fighters."

Even if the IRA were to take up the "armed struggle" again, they could bomb and kill for another 30 years without taking a single step closer to victory. Individual acts of terrorism could never defeat the armed might of the British, the RUC and the protestant paramilitaries.

From the outset it was obvious to the Ulster Unionists that it was difficult if not impossible for the IRA to disarm because of the inevitable division in their ranks.

United Ireland

Tragically at least a section of the IRA genuinely believe they are struggling for the cause of a united Ireland. For them the end justifies the means. The only problem is that their chosen means is leading them ever further away from their desired end. One of the great tragedies of this campaign has been the waste and ruin of a generation of young fighters, poisoned by middle class nationalist ideas, whose courage and willingness to struggle, had it been channelled in a socialist direction, could have brought a real solution much closer.

The IRA's campaign of individual terrorism has all along sought to substitute itself for the role of the proletariat. They denied the class question and turned instead to so-called "guerilla war" methods, so-called urban guerillaism. While guerilla struggle may still have a role to play in more backward countries, though even there only as an auxilliary to the actions of the working class, in an industrialised society guerillaism has no place. It is not a method of the working class.

30 years on with 3000 dead what exactly has this campaign achieved. A couple of ministerial portfolios for an assembly that has been suspended. Adams and McGuinness wanted to transform Sinn Fein into a "normal" political party, participating in ministries etc. Instead even the meagre scraps handed to them have been taken back. Their campaign has been in vain.

Now they talk about taking the British government to the European court, they talk about the "illegal" closure of the assembly. They used to talk about the illegal occupation of their country. "There is no legal or other basis, except expediency, for suspension." Adams announced. This amounts to a kind of constitutional cretinism, from precisely those people who claim not to accept the constitution.

Despite all talk to the contrary, the protestants will remain the majority in the north for the foreseeable future. A million armed Protestants is a gurantee that any new talks between sectarian parties and paramilitary organisations cannot lead to a united Ireland.

In other words the IRA have driven themselves into a cul-de-sac. Whatever they do now will be wrong. If they take to the gun again they will be condemned by the big majority of the catholic population, provoke the protestant paramilitaries and invite a massive wave of repression - in the circumstances this might even gain the tacit support of the British population. The whole of history demonstrates that this is always the consequence of individual terrorism, it can only serve to create greater division and strengthen the hand of the state.

Working class altnative

The only real way out would be through the industrial and political struggle of the working class uniting protestant and catholic workers in the struggle for socialism.

Any big movement of the workers in the South or in Britain would have repercussions in Ulster. Inside the labour movement we must push for the unions present in Northern Ireland to establish a Labour Party and break the stranglehold of sectarianism.

It is self evident that all the problems facing Irish workers are interconnected. None of them social or political can be solved by the market. Only an Ireland united by the struggle for socialism alongside their British and European brothers and sisters can begin to tackle all these questions. None can be solved in isolation.

Blair claimed that he had a solution. We said it couldn't work.

In fact his tinkering threatens an even worse situation in the long run. The last two and a half years have been a temporary respite for the people of Ireland. If the IRA returns to armed struggle the British government will mount a campaign of vicious repression. The jails may be empty today but they can soon be filled again - even a return to the monstrous policy of internment would be possible on this basis.

Yet if they continue down the path of further talks there will be further splits and a return to violence would still loom. In spite of this or that concession on cross border bodies there will be no talk of a united Ireland. A milion armed protestants is a guarantee against that.

Already there are serious splinter groups in the shape of Continuity IRA and the Real IRA. The Continuity IRA in a recent statement announced that "We intend to continue to progress our war effort regardless of how British rule in the six occupied counties is remodelled."

Republican dissidents

The press speculates that a group of around 100 terrorists made up of the Continuity IRA, Real IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army already includes new dissidents from the Provisionals. The protestant paramilitaries are heavily armed too, and they will inevitably retaliate against any attacks by these splinters. A new round of tit-for-tat killings could even draw the Provisional IRA back into violence at a certain stage.

This is the edifying perspective positively encouraged by specialists like Jonathon Stevenson of the Institutional Institute for Strategic Studies. Writing in the Financial Times (9/2/00) Stevenson argues "the Provisional IRA, as currently constituted is plainly not about to forfeit by the end of the week the guns or explosives that the Unionists demand. In fact, collectively they are unlikely to agree to do so ever. What is needed to break the impasse, therefore, is a split within the IRA."

How would this help? "Sinn Fein would stay in the new devolved government despite a likely revival of terrorist activity, as one dissident republican terrorist group or another gained strength"

" any fortified splinter group would have less popular support than the Provisionals did......With only a smaller retrograde IRA rump remaining out in the political cold, security could be maintained by vigorous policing." Not just back to square one but a worse scenario, a wave of "vigorous policing."

All capitalist paths lead to a new nightmare for the people of Ireland.

Under modern conditions there can be no solution anywhere to the national problem. A decade ago the illusion of such solutions was all part of the New World Order. In today's Disorder not only have those illusions been shattered, but new ethnic and national divisions across the planet are exploding to create a more turbulent and dangerous world. Today only the working class plays the progressive role in society required to solve these problems. United by the need to struggle over social and political questions, the working class alone can provide the only realistic lasting peace in a Socialist united Ireland linked by a free and voluntary federation to a Socialist Britain and a Socialist United States of Europe.