Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution - Part Eleven

The Good Friday Agreement

The contradictions in Sinn Féin's electoral policies became sharper during the 1992 Westminster election. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams several times called for UN intervention in the North! This was a far cry from the "Ourselves Alone" days of Sinn Féin in the early 1970s. In other words, Adams and other leaders of Sinn Féin had lost all confidence in their ability to defeat British imperialism and achieve a united Ireland through the armed struggle.

In private Adams and McGuiness recognized that they had been defeated, and that a radical change of course was necessary. But instead of making a serious self-criticism and concluding that it was necessary to return to the ideas and methods of James Connolly, they moved in the direction of reformism and parliamentarianism. The Sinn Féin leadership was now desperate to be involved in any talks or negotiations with London. They clung to the illusion that this might eventually lead to the withdrawal of British troops from the North, and even possible reunification. This was a dream, as subsequent events have shown. But what was increasingly clear was that the campaign of bombing and shooting had not even dented the determination of British imperialism to hang onto the Six Counties.

Ard Fheisanna began to emphasize the separation between Sinn Féin and the PIRA, repeatedly stating that Sinn Féin is "not a party of violence". Yet the Provos continued their campaign in the Six Counties and England. In 1992, the PIRA engaged in a Christmas bombing campaign, and set off bombs in England throughout the winter of 1992/93, however, a ceasefire was called for 72 hours beginning on Christmas day. The INLA, in a symbolic action on the first day of the ceasefire, fired upon an observation post, demonstrating its distinct presence in the national liberation struggle.

In the autumn of 1993, Sinn Féin drafted a proposal for a peace settlement jointly with the SDLP. Details of the document have been closely guarded, but the Dublin government, to which it was presented, passed it along to the British government for review. In late 1993 it was revealed that Britain's Tory government had been engaged in secret negotiations with the Provisionals for some time.

What we wrote at the time

Those negotiations bore fruit in 1994 with the declaration of an unconditional ceasefire by the Provisional IRA. Following the ceasefire Ted Grant wrote an analysis of these developments which is well worth reading again today. The following extracts do not really do justice to the pamphlet as a whole but hopefully provide a flavour of what the Marxists wrote at the time:

"The declaration of an unconditional ceasefire by the IRA on the 31st of August represents a crushing defeat for the policy of individual terrorism. For 25 years the IRA waged an armed struggle against British imperialism, with the declared aim of driving out the British army and achieving the unification of Ireland. Now, after a generation of conflict, the goal of a united Ireland is further away than ever…

"In the first place it is necessary to place the responsibility for the problems of Ireland where they belong – at the door of British imperialism… However, the history of Ireland is a striking demonstration of the correctness of the theory of permanent revolution… All the heroic exertions of the Irish people were betrayed by the bourgeois nationalist leaders…

"At each stage of the Irish liberation struggle, the national question has been inextricably linked to social problems. At bottom it is a class question. The emancipation of the Irish people can only be won through the emancipation of the working class, which has no interest in any form of national or religious oppression…

"The whole history of the struggle in Northern Ireland demonstrates that the only way to solve the problem is on the basis of a class programme. The moment you abandon the class standpoint you enter on the slippery slope to disaster. All the other tendencies on the Left bowed to the pressure of nationalism, with predictable results. The leaders of Sinn Fein, while paying ‘lip-service' to a socialist Ireland in the dim and distant future, insisted that the struggle for socialism be postponed until the ‘question of the border' was settled. In this they have been mimicked by all the sectarian groups in Britain, who have played a despicable role, acting as cheerleaders of the IRA for the last 25 years, with not the slightest pretence of a class position…

"After 25 years the strategy of the IRA lies in ruins. The cause of Irish unification has been set back for decades by the legacy of fear and hatred between the two communities as a result. Thus the alleged ‘realism' of the nationalists has achieved precisely the opposite result to what was intended. The prior condition for a successful struggle against British imperialism is to achieve the united action of the working class, cutting across the sectarian divisions of religion and nationality. This can never be achieved on the basis of nationalism. The only realistic policy is therefore a revolutionary class policy aimed at the overthrow of capitalist rule north and south of the border and in Britain…

"So after all these years the British army will not be withdrawn, the Unionist veto will not be abolished, and the border will not disappear! So what was it all in aid of? So many sacrifices, so many dead, and for what? What concessions have been gained?... Probably Whitehall will come up with some new plan for power sharing. They may even succeed this time in setting up an Assembly, which they failed to do in 1973-4

"It is quite likely that there is a secret deal concerning the release of Republican prisoners. It would be almost impossible for Adams and McGuiness to sell any deal to their members which did not include that. However, the British will demand as a prior condition that the Provisionals hand in their arms. Since they have a huge arsenal, they will probably hand over part of it, and keep the rest ‘for a rainy day'. It is clear that the majority of the leaders of the IRA have despaired of achieving anything from the ‘armed struggle' and therefore would be prepared to do this.

"What is ruled out is any possibility of a secret deal to bring about a united Ireland, at least for the foreseeable future…

"No matter how they twist and turn, no matter how many times they re-write the laws and the constitution, it will not stop the rot. An elected Assembly in Northern Ireland would be no answer. How could it solve the problem of unemployment, or build enough houses for all? The crisis of the social system will continue to gnaw at the bowels of society, spawning more frustration, crime, and sectarian madness. The only way is to put an end to the root cause of all our ills, the system of rent, interest and profit…

"Such a perspective seems difficult? But haven't we had enough of so-called ‘easy' solutions in Ireland, above all for the last 25 years?...To all the skeptics and cynics who cast doubt upon the ability of the Irish workers to unite to fight for their emancipation as a class, sweeping aside the sectarian muck, we shall reply in the words of the finest son of the Irish and British working class, James Connolly:

" 'As we have again and again pointed out, the Irish question is a social question, the whole age long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production in Ireland…Yet plain as this is to us today, it is undeniable that for two hundred years at least all Irish political movements ignored this fact, and were conducted by men who did not look below the political surface. These men, to arouse the passions of the people invoked the memory of social wrongs, such as evictions and famines, but for these wrongs proposed only political remedies, such as changes in taxation or transference of the seat of government (class rule) from one country to another. Hence they accomplished nothing because the political remedies proposed were unrelated to the social subjection at the root of the matter. The revolutionists of the past were wiser, the Irish socialists are wiser today. In their movement the North and the South will again clasp hands, again will it be demonstrated as in '98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Social democracy.' " (Ireland After the Ceasefire, 1994, by Ted Grant)

A Reactionary agreement

In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed. This was a reactionary agreement made between British imperialism and the leadership of the Provisionals. Like all past agreements it is doomed to failure. It has served to illustrate the desperation of the leadership of the Provos. After thirty years of bloody armed struggle, they come out with their hands empty. Adams and McGuinness put on suits and enter Stormont as ministers, having substituted "constitutional" politics for a militant anti-imperialist perspective.

This result could have been foreseen. British imperialism had no intention of allowing the Provisional IRA to succeed. It had no choice in the matter. The irony is that British imperialism no longer has any real interest in hanging onto the North. It has become a huge financial drain and a serious political and military embarrassment. But London cannot now disengage from the North. They are hoist by their own petard.

From an economic point of view, possession of the Six Counties is not a plus but a huge minus for Britain. It costs them an enormous amount to maintain control of the North, between the cost of a vast security operation, social security and other subsidies to an economically depressed area. In point of fact, the British capitalists would be pleased to get rid of Northern Ireland. They attempted to do so in the 1960s when they started negotiations between O' Neil and Lemass. But here the dialectic of history played a trick on them. The Frankenstein monster of Protestant sectarianism revolted and undermined the plans of the British and Irish bourgeois.

Therefore, the British imperialists were determined to crush the Provos by every means at their disposal. Despite the occasional spectacular action, the PIRA was really defeated, although nobody is prepared to admit such a thing. The truth had begun to dawn on the leadership. Eventually, people like Adams and McGuinness understood the hopelessness of the position. They saw that even if the PIRA continued fighting for another 30 years, the outcome would be exactly the same.

An estimated 90 percent voted "Yes" to the Agreement. This is hardly surprising. The masses are tired of so many years of fruitless violence with no end in sight. No other perspective is offered to them. But in practice the illusions in the Agreement (such as they are) will not last long. After the Agreement nothing fundamental has changed. Britain's armed groupings such as the RUC and the RIR, in conjunction with their Loyalists militias, still remain active and intact despite limited reform. The working people on both sides of the sectarian divide have gained very little. Under conditions of capitalist crisis, with more unemployment and cuts on the way, the horrible spectre of sectarian strife can result in a renewal of violence, bloodshed and mayhem.

Reformism and Parliamentarism

The whole history of Ireland shows that it is impossible to eradicate the national movement through state repression. But the history of the last 30 years has also shown the impossibility of achieving the goal of a united Ireland on the basis of this kind of ‘armed struggle'. Since they had no intention of leading any other kind of struggle – ie a mass struggle of a united working class which could really challenge imperialism – their next move was predictable. The leaders of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein drew the conclusions and in effect went over to the politics of reformism and parliamentarism. Minor concessions have been made by British imperialism but nothing fundamental has changed. About the aim of a united Ireland nothing is said. But this was the declared goal of the PIRA for the last 30 years of armed struggle for which so many lives were lost.

The repeated suspension of ‘power-sharing' and the continual crises of the devolved institutions demonstrate that the whole set-up is extremely fragile and unsound. The present unstable truce will eventually break down - it is breaking down already. And then what? A return of the old vicious spiral of tit-for-tat sectarian murders, bombings, arrests, detention without trial and internment: the infernal logic of action - reaction, the loss of innocent life, the physical destruction of yet another generation of Irish youth; a further deepening of the sectarian divide?

The leaders of the Provisionals have gained a few paltry ministerial portfolios (except that Stormont is closed down more often than not) and some so-called concessions that are not worth the paper they are written on. Nothing has been solved for either Catholics or Protestants. On the contrary, the situation has been made far worse. With over three thousand deaths; the destruction of a whole generation of Irish youth; the splitting of the population of the North into two hostile camps; a terrible legacy of sectarian bitterness. And with what result? Has the border question been solved? Let us speak clearly: After three decades of so-called armed struggle, the cause of Irish reunification is further away today than at any other time.

This is the terrible legacy of decades of individual terrorism and the total lack of any class or socialist perspective. True, there was a serious division in the past between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. But now in place of division we have a yawning abyss. Yet none of this would have been necessary if Connolly's ideas and methods had prevailed.

Ireland and the British Left

In its early days, the British Labour Party supported Home Rule for Ireland - a fact that was commented on favourably by Connolly, who was always an internationalist. But now they are completely degenerate. The right wing leaders of the British Labour Party have for decades acted as the faithful spokesmen of British imperialism. They have been more slavish to imperialism than even the Tories. However, the development of class struggle in Britain and Ireland will cut across this and undermine the right wing. This process has already begun in the unions in Britain, where the Blairite right wing leaders have been emptied out and replaced by the Left.

In 1969 most of the British Left – including all those who later supported the "Troops Out" Movement – were completely in favour of sending in the British army. That was true of the Labour Left, the Communist Party and the SWP. They argued that the army was being sent to defend the Catholics. An honourable exception was the Marxist tendency in the British Labour Party, at that time grouped around the Militant, which came down firmly against the sending of British troops to the North. They wrote at the time: "The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business." (Militant, September 1969.)

At the Labour Party conference in the autumn of 1969 our comrades moved Emergency Resolution No. 2, which states:

"This Conference declares its opposition to the sectarian attacks on the Derry and Belfast workers which took place in August of this year.

"It condemns this action on the part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, sections of the B Specials and Paisleyite thugs.

"It affirms its support for those sections of the Irish Labour Movement, particularly the Derry Labour Party, which have attempted to unite both Protestant and Catholic workers against the common enemy, the capitalist class, whether they be Orange or Green, and calls upon the trade unions of Ireland to contain the sectarian terror by the organization of Joint Defence Committees comprising of both Protestant and Catholic workers.

"Conference believes that British imperialism and its supporters in Ireland have deliberately used and helped to maintain the religious sectarianism in order to ensure its investments in both North and South Ireland on the basis of the policy of ‘divide and rule'."

The movers of the resolution stated in the debate:

"We have got to back up our comrades in Northern Ireland, we have got to demand, as they do, the withdrawal of British troops. British troops have never acted in the interests of the working class in any country."

However, the rest of the British Left played a lamentable role. Having supported the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland (allegedly to help the Catholics), they then performed a 180 degree somersault and uncritically backed the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. From the safety of their Hampstead flats, they cheered the "armed struggle", although none of them were in any personal danger. A particularly pernicious role was played for decades by the ultra left sects in Britain and internationally on the question of Ireland. These ladies and gentlemen interpreted "support for the national liberation struggle" to mean uncritical support for the Provisional IRA.

The Provisionals, who were a right wing tendency, cynically used the services of these groups, while behind their backs they treated them with well-deserved contempt. In their enthusiasm to back the Provos, the sects forget the little "detail" that the Provisional IRA was set up in 1969 on the basis of guns and money supplied by the Blaney-Houghey wing of Fianna Fail. Although they played no role in the movement of the masses in the North in 1968-9, they were able to take it over because they possessed the organization and the arms that the aroused youth of the North were looking for.

Bourgeois trend

Despite all their "revolutionary" demagogy and talk of "armed struggle", from the standpoint of ideology the Provos were - and remain - a bourgeois right wing trend in Republicanism. In the past they even burned Marxist books. They led the majority of the movement for 30 years along a road that has finally ended nowhere, and then signed an Agreement that completely abandoned the cause of reunification for the sake of ministerial positions. Though they swore by Lenin in every other sentence, the sectarian fans of the Provos did considerable damage to the Irish cause in Britain and internationally. They demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of both the national liberation struggle and of the Leninist position towards it. In addition through their words and their deeds they damaged the perception of Marxism in the eyes of activists in Ireland.

Having applauded the Provo's counterproductive bombing campaigns, which contributed to the sectarian divide and completely alienated British workers, they were left with their mouths hanging open when the Provo leadership signed up to the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish workers can do without such "allies". Instead we should look towards building links between British and Irish trade unionists - in struggle against the bosses, our common enemies - especially at the level of the shop stewards and the rank and file activists. After all, as the shift to the Left in the British trade unions shows, the rank and file workers are not the same as their leaders!

There were always people on the Left in Britain who opposed imperialism from a consistent revolutionary class standpoint. The Marxist tendency in the British workers' movement has a proud record on Ireland. We were the only ones who opposed the sending in of British troops in 1969, and moved a resolution at the Labour Party conference on these lines in the autumn of 1969. The British Marxist tendency now represented by Socialist Appeal and the website also opposed the Good Friday Agreement as a deception and a betrayal. The supporters of the international Marxist tendency offer their hand in friendship to the workers and youth of Ireland in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. It is of the utmost importance to us that our ideas are no longer kept a secret from the best elements in the Republican movement. Once our real ideas are known it will soon become clear that we are talking the same language and fighting for the same things.