Goodbye to all that
The IRA – they have gone away y’know
26th September 2005
There is a standard method developed by the Irish republican leadership to defuse opposition within the movement. That is to drag out elements of surrender until they become humdrum. The announcement of final decommissioning will be met with yawns of disinterest. Many will ask with a puzzled frown, ‘didn’t they do that already’?
Is there then any historic significance in this late removal of IRA arms and the effective disbandment of the organisation as a revolutionary army? Apologists for the IRA argue that Marxists opposed the militarist ideology of Irish republicanism and should therefore support the politicisation of the movement.
From a Marxist point of view the key shift in Irish republicanism was programmatic. The shift from revolutionary nationalism to co-operation with imperialism marked by their acceptance of the Good Friday agreement, republican participation in a colonial government in coalition with capitalism and the most reactionary of local sectarian forces marked the end of the ‘generally democratic character’ that Lenin found in the nationalism of the oppressed.
It was that ‘generally democratic character’ that Marxism supported. The militarist and guerrilla ideology was the subject of a standard critique richly born out by events. Militarism was substitutionist, in that it replaced class and mass action by workers by the military actions of the few, short-circuiting the long struggle needed to persuade the working class to organise independently. More or less arising from the same argument, militarism was elitist. If military action was the ‘cutting edge’ of revolution then the day-to-day struggles of the workers and of political activists were in some way second-rate. If armed struggle was supreme then it had the effect – as it did with the Provisionals – of suppressing political debate. If armed struggle was supreme then the army council was the supreme expression of that struggle and political disputes could be resolved by diktat of the army council.
In the Provisionals the armed struggle extended that suppression of debate into the suppression of class tensions. It held together a mainly rural petty-bourgeois layer with a majority working-class movement in the cities. A movement, as Irish Marxist James Connolly remarked, united around a tactic rather than around politics.
So why oppose the turn of the majority current of Irish republicanism to bourgeois politics? There are a number of reasons why Marxists should oppose the surrender.
Firstly, we have a large movement that by its own measure – that is the measure of armed struggle – has moved from the camp of revolution and which, by the logic of events and the new alliances it has made, is forced to oppose other revolutionary currents, be they military or political.
Secondly we have a movement that has moved from unity around a tactic and with one policy – unremitting hostility to the British occupation – to one that now co-operates with capitalism and imperialism and is united around itself – seeing the needs of its own movement as supreme over all other considerations and loyalty to the leadership as the major component of membership.
Thirdly there is the simple and common-sense view that, while Marxists oppose the ideology of militarism, they in no sense oppose the use of force by the working class. Everyone has the right of self-defence. The arms that the republicans brought into Ireland were paid for, transported and hidden by many workers who were never members of the IRA. They should have remained as a resource for nationalist workers in the North who have many reasons to still feel under threat. It is only a few weeks ago that several hundred UDA members, in a planned manoeuvre, suddenly arrived at the edges of the Falls Road area. In a not too subtle way they were reminding nationalist workers that, in the words of Gerry Adams, they ‘hadn’t gone away y’know’. The message was not lost on many – that at the start of the current troubles their homes had gone up in flames and they had been forced to flee, lacking the means of defence.
The reality of the Irish struggle was that the IRA and its militarist ideology were always unfit for their proclaimed purpose. There was never any prospect that a relatively small armed group would drive out the British. What the ideology did was to hold together a class alliance, led by the petty bourgeoisie, that was bound eventually to decay. It was not bound to fall to the right – a strong workers movement could have resolved the issue in the direction of socialist revolution – but fall to the right it did and for that reason the movement is now an obstacle to the revolutionary process that it once claimed to embody.
The strongest card that the republican leadership hold is the belief, still held by the majority of the Irish working class, that the settlement really is a resolution of the conflict.
If this were so then the removal of the IRA would be justified.
If this were so the Unionists would quickly move to coalition government with republicans.
Alternatively, if it proved that the Unionist difficulty was with Catholics in government rather than republican arms, the British would punish them and move on to the next stage, towards a united Ireland.
Those who believe that fairy story are
likely to be sorely disappointed.