IRA Disbandment - A new ‘roadmap’ to stability in Ireland?
19th May 2004
In the aftermath of the Dublin May Day Eurobash celebrating the accession of ten further countries to the capitalist fold (on a distinctly second class level, with limits on agricultural support and rights to free movement). British prime minister Blair and Irish leader Bertie Ahern had another top level meeting to try to produce yet another stabilisation package for Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement, meant to bring stability, had collapsed after a revision in October 2003, where the agreement was massively revised to compel republicans to decommission weapons and recognise the legitimacy of the northern Irish colony. The capitulation had been dismissed by the Unionists and the concessions on offer to republicans withdrawn by the British. Elections went ahead in February, and the agreement was finally buried with the election of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the majority unionist party
The omens appeared to be good at the European celebrations. ‘A new Northern Assembly by September!’ boasted Ahern. However, later in the week, when he began to expand on his earlier remarks, Ahern used the rather unfortunate phrase ‘Road map’. This immediately produced a picture of Sinn Fein cowering in a bunker, corralled in somewhat the same way that Arafat had been, while British tanks growl outside, demanding that they do more to placate loyalism.
A sketch of the ‘road map’ reinforces that view. The idea is that Dublin and London will implement some minor concessions that were initially supposed to be part of the Good Friday process and were then designated as rewards for the last major decommissioning of weapons by the IRA, but the price this time is total decommissioning of weapons and the disbandment of the IRA itself. The British and Dublin then promise to go with the defanged Sinn Fein and ask the DUP if they will now kindly share power with the Catholics. Fat chance!
The truth is that the whole restoration process in the North of Ireland has taken one more enormous step to the right that makes it blindingly obvious that the imperial power and their native collaborators do not have a strategy that will restore capitalist stability.
The marker for this further
turn in the process was the April report of the International Monitoring
Commission (IMC). The IMC represents a standard method of implementing
policy by the British – establishing an ‘independent’ committee led by
a safe pair of hands – a member of the establishment who can be trusted
to come to the ‘right’ conclusion. The same process applied to the
area of judicial enquiry recently led to the farce of the Hutton enquiry.
The job of Alderdice and his cronies was quite simple. Under the guise of monitoring paramilitary activity they were to move the definition of compliance so that it was contiguous with the demands of the most extreme fringes of unionism. The disbandment of the IRA was to become a precondition for further negotiation, a political demand of London and Dublin standing alongside Paisley and the Democratic Unionist Party.
The committee first of all established its absolute independence by obeying a British order to publish an early report. Then it got down to serious business of re-writing the demands on the republicans. The method was to sit in a room and read warmed over RUC/PSNI special branch reports, agree that they were the absolute truth, and then seek to make some minor points about loyalist paramilitaries in order to balance the attack on the republicans. This was quite a difficult job, as the republicans have been capitulating to British pressure since the start of the process and met all their commitments. Much was made of a 20th February incident involving republican Bobby Tohill, described by the republicans as a ‘bar brawl’ and by their opponents as attempted kidnap and murder. Up until now the British have turned a blind eye to IRA violence, much of which has been directed towards policing republican groups attempting to relaunch a military campaign against the British. On the other hand the loyalists have been involved in every form of criminality, in internal feuds and killing, in racist intimidation and the ethnic cleansing of areas under their control and in a full-scale campaign against Catholics, involving daily incidents up to and including murder.
In the event the various pressures led to a sloppy report, full of factual inaccuracies. One family heard from the TV summary of the IMC report that their son, Michael O'Hare, had been the victim of a sectarian killing by Loyalists. Neither the police nor the commission had ever approached them with this information. As the level of contradiction grew the RUC/PSNI were forced to publicly disavow some of the more lurid speculations that they had shared with the commission privately, further discrediting the commission and their report.
If the factual details of the report were thrown into question, that paled into the background in comparison with their proposals for restabilising the situation in the North. The commission found that all the paramilitary organisations were involved in military activity but proposed fining only those whose political representatives had seats in the suspended assembly by removing administrative grants. These grants are used to pay researchers and are a way in which the British state now funds the apparatus of Sinn Fein by providing wages for a team of full-time workers. This is a direct attack on Sinn Fein. The inclusion of the PUP is neither here nor there – the attempt by the UVF to build a political movement has failed and only one PUP MLA remains. As if to underline the nature of the attack both the IMC and Paul Murphy, British secretary of state and the actual ruler of the northern statelet, announced on the day following the report’s publication that if the assembly had been sitting Sinn Fein would have been excluded!
British policy is now a mass of contradictions. All the military organisations maintain a structure, but only the Loyalist organisations continue a sectarian campaign which is extremely vicious and extremely visible. They now plan to heap punishment after punishment on Sinn Fein while continuing to supply massive public subsidies to the main band of loyalist killers, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). As if to underline this contradiction senior officers in the RUC/PSNI met with the Ulster Political Research Group (UPRG), the nearest the UDA thugs can come to a political organisation, for a ‘very useful’ meeting on the day following the IMC report. This meeting was so useful that the UDA felt free to publicly intimidate Catholic residents in an apartment complex in Belfast city centre within a week of the meeting. The police response to visible preparation for a sectarian frenzy in July is an announcement by RUC leader Hugh Orde that they will be unable to do anything about the massive bonfires being assembled and the increasing intimidation as these are community relations issues.
This pleases no-one. The unionists complain that the proposals are ‘a tax on terror’ and argue that if Sinn Fein are criminals then they should be excluded from the political process – an impossible demand given the electoral base of Sinn Fein as the North’s largest nationalist party. Republican supporters are all too aware of the policy of killing the Loyalist organisations with kindness, that they clearly have state immunity from prosecution for their deeds and that criminal intimidation is being redefined by the state as community difference, where the victims have to engage with and conciliate the sectarian aggressor or face the condemnation of police, equality boards and all the other organs of the state.
End of the road?
One might think that this is the end. The immediate result of the commission report was that the next set of talks on restoring Stormont were abandoned. The unionists became enraged and demanded more concessions. Even if Sinn Fein surrender absolutely they have no guarantee from the British that they will be allowed to return to their ministerial positions in Stormont.
Yet there is still one dynamic that has yet to run into the ground. The process has been driven for some time on wave after wave of republican capitulation. The definition of revolution for the republicans themselves has always been a militarist one, so in their own terms the capitulation will be complete with the surrender of arms and disbandment of the IRA.
It is quite clear that this is on the cards. The Sinn Fein leadership have made a number of statements since this demand became central, but they have been about the failure of their opponents to keep their promises rather than about the issue of disbandment itself.
The fact is that when the British call for disarmament Sinn Fein agree. They always call for the British and Loyalists to disarm also, but as the IRA have staged a number of decommissioning episodes without a single round of British or Loyalist weaponry (outside of a comedy show with some unusable rifles and the Loyalist Volunteer Force) this is hardly a precondition for IRA disbandment.
The process of decommissioning can be regarded as a bargaining session where the republicans gradually sell off their ability to pose a military threat in return for concessions. The IRA and the arms become worth less and less as a commodity because they have already politically conceded to imperialism and they carried that process to completion in the last round, where Adams unambiguously recognised the British colony and expressed a willingness to support the local state forces. Just how little bargaining power Sinn Fein have was recently shown around the issue of the RUC/PSNI. For several years Sinn Fein have been hesitating over joining the police boards as it became clear that even their limited expectations from the RUC face lift would not be met. Now RUC chief Hugh Orde has indicated that they are not sufficiently housebroken to be admitted on to the boards.
The fact is that Sinn Fein need to lose their armed wing in any case. They are now under savage attack by the Dublin government for their links to the IRA. They have no political counterblast. Their project is not to build a political opposition to Irish capital but to become absorbed into it, and that means conceding to accepted definitions of what is regarded as legitimate force and what as terror. They cannot expect to translate electoral gain into seats in a coalition government until they take the final step.
There is one gain that Sinn Fein can hold to itself – the recreation of the ‘nationalist family’ stretching from the Falls Road in Belfast to Dublin, London and the lawns of the White House. Mind you it will now be united around all the things that republicanism has repudiated, but it can always be hoped that by holding to the narrow ground of some amelioration of Unionist sectarianism that it can be got to work on this occasion.
The ground for such a shift has been prepared by Catholic primate Sean Brady in two recent statements. In the first he indicated that Catholic Ireland stood with Sinn Fein in unhappiness about the failure to complete the supposed reforms of the RUC promised in the GFA. This comfort letter was followed by a stinging rebuke on the 9th of May, when he indicated that unity on this issue was dependent on IRA disbandment.
Sinn Fein can live in hope. Maybe this time unity of Irish nationalism will work. All we need to do is to wipe from our mind the long history of nationalist supplication of the British and their equally long history of failure.