After Sinn Fein’s capitulation. Now the downhill slide.
19 February 2007
The decision of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis on Sunday 29th January to support the police force within the British colony in the North has been proclaimed an historic decision. Self-proclaimed by the leadership and hailed by the media and the London and Dublin governments, with encouraging noises from the Bush White house, the word historic in this sense means a final victory of moderation, of the middle way, of pragmatism over a fanatic and dogmatic movement of republican dissidents.
In my view the decision was historic in quite another sense – in the sense of a bookmark or marker closing one chapter of the narrative of the Irish working class and opening another. On Sunday 29th of January a long period of Irish history that began with the defeat of the Hunger strikes came to an end. The long march of Sinn Fein’s collaboration with capitalism and imperialism, in which it had hegemony over the republican base, reached its zenith and began to decline. January 29th marked, not the victory of Sinn Fein’s strategy, but the attempt to rescue it with one last wild throw of the dice. The attempt will fail and the frozen tide of the Irish revolution will begin to move forward again. The key question here is not the success of pragmatism, but its failure to dent the nature of imperialist domination and the sectarian logic of the Northern statelet.
Just how deep a hold the militarist tradition has within the Provisionals was demonstrated by the performance of Martin Maguinness at the January meeting. He called up the ‘IRA tradition’ and claimed that the IRA had ‘beaten the British Army to a standstill’, presenting these as justifications for the latest leap into support for indeed, actually joining, a sectarian and colonial police force. He did not go on to explain how the British army and the state it defended were still standing while the IRA were disarmed and demobilised or why the Provos now had to meet the demands of the Paisleyites. This was not explained by the ‘victor’ of the IRA tradition.
In fact any attempt to understand the evolution of the Provisionals is not aided by a division into militarist and peacenik. There weren’t two sides. They were all militarists. As James Connolly explained long ago, a group held together by a single tactic of physical force. Their evolution was not the gradual domination of a peace wing over a war wing, but the gradual and linear decay of the militarists – a decay that stretches back to the hunger strikes and beyond.
During the hunger strikes there was a pause in the IRA’s military campaign in order to allow the building of a mass mobilisation that would fight for political status – a confession that the ‘cutting edge’ of military struggle had to look to the working class to achieve something that it, despite its claims of superior prowess, could not achieve.
During the hunger strikes it was the IRA leadership that endorsed a policy of diplomacy with the British through the Dublin government and the Catholic church – a diplomacy they kept hidden from their supporters. It was the Army council that led the turn to electoralism, the turn to constitutional nationalism and eventually a capitulation to imperialism and unionism. It was the dregs of that military discipline that suppressed dissent and finally led speaker after speaker a the January Ard Fheis to rattle off mechanical statements of agreement, that the time was now right, that is was time to move forward, until the ‘debate’ began to embarrass everyone and it was time to call it a day.
It is often forgotten that the Good Friday agreement is the daughter of the Downing street declaration – an offensive by London, with the support of Dublin, to bury the national question in Ireland. It was when the army council decided to jump on board and support the process that the retreat of the Provos became a rout and formerly anti-imperialist organisation advanced a policy of collaboration with imperialism.
Throughout this long tortuous process the IRA faced no organised political opposition. Even the most prominent critics within republicanism were lobbyists, calling on the movement to turn back. The very sizable discontent at the decision to support the police is framed within loyalty. Dissidents invited Sinn Fein to their protest meetings! Those inside Sinn Fein who oppose the turn have indicated that they will stand with it, thus finding themselves supporters of the police at one tiny remove. The small forces that have broken away from the Provos are fragmented. The most coherent speak plainly. There was nothing wrong with the military campaign. The correct policy is a return to an armed offensive against the state forces in the North. This is so unpopular and wrongheaded that it is a major factor in maintaining support for the Provo leadership. Over what time period, in how many ways, does the physical force tradition have to fail before the militarists draw lessons? It not as if this wasn’t a regular feature of republicanism. Its history has been repeated armed campaigns followed by decay and political capitulation.
The big difference today is that the movement to capitulation is called Sinn Fein, underlining the continuity of the decay of republicanism. The other is that the new policy has been spelt out in some detail.
The bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement was the continuation of partition and of the British occupation of the North. Rather than involving any challenge to British rule, the main element was the Dublin government withdrawing any claim for an Irish democracy. The Provos claimed that this was a transition to a united Ireland. The claim was put very carefully. The ‘transition’ sounded remarkably like the ‘stepping stone’ that former republican leader Michael Collins had claimed for the settlement after the War of independence that cemented partition in place. Indeed the retreat on the national question did not even involve agreement by the British to democratise the North and enforce human and civil rights. These were replaced by the concept of communal and sectarian rights and ‘equality of the two traditions’.
The mechanism that the Provos advanced to convert this unpromising material into a United Ireland was ‘the nationalist family’. The republican movement would unite with Irish capital and Irish America (with the White House in the background). This political force, allied with, at worst, the neutrality of the British (who had declared no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Ireland) would force the unionists to accept the compromise and then retreat and concede more. If the unionists resisted the British would punish them.
The mechanism that actually unfolded, the mechanism that a Marxist analysis would predict, the mechanism that led Sinn Fein to a special Ard Fheis and almost unanimous support for a colonial and sectarian police force, was very different.
That mechanism was the mechanism of class interest. All of the forces involved wanted peace and stability, but they wanted a peace and stability that served the interests of capitalism and imperialism. Capitalist stability in Ireland was based on partition and the unionist base in the north provided a justification for a continued occupation. What was new in the equation was the willingness of Irish capital to announce its unqualified support for partition. This decisive leap placed immense pressure on the revolutionary nationalism of the Provos. Would they hold to revolution and their demand for British withdrawal or would their nationalism force them to fall into line behind Dublin? We know the answer. But even this capitulation was not enough to square the circle. Unionist loyalty to Britain is conditional on them operating a system of sectarian privilege. Any proposal to have equal shares of sectarian privilege couldn’t possibly work and was bound to be resisted by them. Would the British repress a rebellion among their supporters?
It’s important to understand that at no stage did any sizable current within unionism support the Good Friday agreement as a settlement. The debate between Trimble and Paisley was about whether it would be better to bring down the agreement from inside or from the outside. This internal pressure led unionists to constantly make new demands that deformed the initial agreement. The lack of any sanction from the British meant that the demands became more and more extreme until Trimble and the agreement fell. A cycle of events occurred: The unionists demanded further concessions. The British supported them. The US and Dublin supported the British. The Provos conceded. The cycle began again.
A perfect example is Stormontgate. The police raid the Sinn Fein office in Stormont and take away a floppy disc. This leads to a collapse of Stormont just as Trimble was about to pull the plug. Sinn Fein gets the blame for the collapse and are forced to make further concessions. Later it turns out that the figure at the centre of the allegations, Denis Donaldson, was a British spy. The Northern bank heist is widely remembered as collapsing a new deal while in fact Paisley had refused to agree days before.
The process made an immense lurch to the right when the GFA was replaced by the St Andrews ‘agreement’. Within days Paisley had broken it by refusing to attend a key meeting and the British had covered for him by formally cancelling the gathering. St.Andrews was meant to provide some limited cover to the Provos by linking a statement from Paisley endorsing power-sharing with their decision to support the police. Yet again Paisley reneged. Yet again the British support him. Dublin offers the Provos tea and sympathy but then tells them sternly that they must meet the demand for unconditional support for the RUC/PSNI. Hence the special Ard Fheis.
The issue that has to be understood is not if this fits within the tradition of republicanism, of course its not republicanism. What it is, is bourgeois nationalism. Bourgeois nationalism drained of any historic progressive content, in full flight, offering unconditional surrender to unionism and imperialism. The issues that have to addressed are: Is Paisley able to accept this surrender? Will it stabilise imperialist rule in Ireland? Will nationalist workers indefinitely support Sinn Fein capitulation? On existing evidence the answer has to be no.
Paisley’s party is the most virulent defender of the system of sectarian privilege. A sizable number of prominent figures have already split at the hint that Paisley might enter a power-sharing government. It does not help that the opponents are concentrated in Paisley’s own constituency or that a sizable section of the party executive share their concerns. Just how vile and reactionary the organisation is was demonstrated by a recent rant by leading member condemning integrated education as evil. The level of open sectarian hatred within the loyalist organisations can’t be overstated. Public jubilation at the murder of a Catholic schoolboy. Objections that any rights for the Irish language would dilute their ‘Britishness’. Support for state involvement in sectarian murder – even howls of protest at suggestions that the British might apologise for the original Bloody Sunday in Dublin during the war of independence
The debate within the DUP is not for or against power-sharing. Mirroring earlier discussions in the unionist party, it is about whether Sinn Fein can best be defeated inside or outside a coalition government. On the eve of election the DUP unveiled plan C. Like plans A and B, it is a demand that they be given the power to expel Sinn Fein from government if they hesitate in meeting any conditions that Paisley cares to set. In one scenario there will be no government. In another the chief activity of Paisley, as first minister, would be to constantly harass and humiliate Sinn Fein.
Yet there is absolute certainty amongst political commentators that a deal will be done. They are sure that the DUP will be unable to resist the lure of power. They are sure that if they do resist, the British will punish them. The problem is that there is no evidence for these assertions. Even when wringing the last drop of blood from Sinn Fein and applying maximum pressure to Paisley, the British have failed to obtain a clear statement that the DUP will join a power-sharing government. In fact sections of the leadership dismiss the suggestion that they will meet a 26th March deadline as fantasy and wishful thinking. As for punishment, years of backsliding by unionism have led to punishment – of Sinn Fein for not giving ground quickly enough. Today London and Dublin are more explicit. The punishment will not involve joint authority by London and Dublin. What it will involve is a return to direct rule. The problem is that this is the preferred option of a large section of the DUP and would not be regarded as a punishment!
In the event of either scenario –government as a sectarian bearpit or naked colonial rule - the appearance of stability is produced by a constant willingness of bourgeois nationalism, especially their newest section Sinn Fein, to continuously retreat and concede to unionism and imperialism. That’s a process that can’t go on indefinitely. In the past the tension between Sinn Fein’s claims and the experience of their supporters has led to a growing apathy. Today the main feature of the political landscape post Ard Fheis is the very real gap between Sinn Fein and a section of their base. The greater Sinn Fein’s integration into the state forces, the sharper will be the conflict with nationalist workers. This will be accelerated by the decreased ‘buying power’ of their capitulation. This decreases in value, so that even small concessions like allowing the return of ‘On the Run’ IRA members fall off the table. Currently Sinn Fein are organising protests for an Irish language act – something that was ‘won’ as a result of their diplomacy at St, Andrews but is now fading away in the face of unionist protest.
We should also take into account the issue of the corruption and decay of republicanism. Many have already enriched themselves and the workers know of these cases. We also know from the history of the Official IRA that armed groups who support the state and are offered immunity can become extremely corrupt very quickly and become parasitic. The motiveless killing of Robert McCartney and the IRA coverup that followed seem a textbook example of that form of corruption. Earlier attempt to act as police by the IRA involved high levels of violence and a tendency to pardon the criminals among their own members and supporters.
The issue of police and state collusion with the loyalist death squads is not history. Leading figures in the police are openly defiant about their involvement in sectarian killing. Loyalist politicians, supposedly about to become Sinn Fein’s partners in government, glorify and justify the police role. All the old terms of ‘tit for tat’ killing are rattled out by the police when dealing with current sectarian killings, equating the loyalist bigots with their victims. The police are still unable to convict loyalist killers, hardly surprising when we consider that the British government is constantly intervening to stabilise the gangs and pumping millions into the coffers of the death squads they consider most reliable.
And this activity has a definite purpose. The loyalists are not meant to destabilise the situation by a wave of killing, but they are meant to provide a threat that will limit the expectations of nationalist workers and maintain sectarian structures at street level. When we ally this to the fact that the British are hiving off intelligence on republicanism to MI5 and building a massive new headquarters here we can anticipate that state repression will be a permanent feature of the new statelet.
There are other factors that will add to instability. For years the North of Ireland was a haven of Kynesism. Public money and jobs were used to stabilise the economy and cushion the destabilising effects of the political conflict. Now we are playing catch-up with a wave of rationalisation and privatisation. In fact leading economists spell out a plan where public service jobs will be slashed and much lower wages and conditions will apply in a revamped private sector. It’s a plan that has the support of both Sinn Fein and the DUP. Essentially it’s a plan to create a celtic tiger cub in the North at a time when the Southern version is looking decidedly threadbare. But the North is already low wage economy with high levels of personal debt. The capitalists promise pain and then a boom, but only the pain part is guaranteed.
Despite soft left dreams of bread and butter struggles leading to workers unity, the history of the North indicates that the initial effect will be to increase already very high levels of sectarianism. Any rationalisation and cuts in funding tend to hit minorities hardest and the government attempts to stymie opposition by feeding reaction. A good current example is in education. A major cutback is proposed and this will cut the integrated and Irish language sectors. At the same time the government plan to redefine integrated to meant two sectarian schools on the same site!
The issue of a working class opposition is a political question that will have to be demonstrated in action. A viable workers movement would have to be all-Ireland in scope. It would have to target the economic oppression of Irish capital and also target their collaboration with imperialism and opposition to any democratic solution. It would have to oppose loyalism and fight to win leadership of Protestant workers.
This is all a long way away and will involve hard and bitter struggle. We have one real advantage. That is the weakness and decay within unionism. The civil rights struggle fragmented unionism and it never reunited. The dominance of Paisley is not a sign that he has leadership over all unionists, but that in the general decay the most virulent element has come to the fore. The fact that he is having difficulty in accepting the surrender of republicanism and the implementation of a deal that guarantees unionist privileges for the foreseeable future shows just how sclerotic and inflexible unionist reaction is. The less able unionism is to adapt, the more the British step forward to guarantee their place and the more they show in the spotlight that it is their rule that created and maintained the hell-hole in the North.
The quicker the illusions that the British
colony will become a land of equality and democracy evaporate the better.
The quicker the remaining illusions in Sinn Fein disappear the better.