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Policing endgame sees Sinn Fein humiliation

A new offensive, but also a new opportunity

8 January 2007

John McAnulty

One of the enduring myths of republican activity in Ireland since the movement abandoned its strategy of armed struggle has been the notion of a skilled, almost superhuman diplomacy on the part of the republican leadership.  This notion was always false.  The republican leaders are from a movement that was almost entirely based around militarism and knew little of political action.  Their role was talked up by a press willing to flatter their endorsement of the settlement, but in reality they did little more than agree to decisions already taken by London and Dublin.  It has however always been important to assure their supporters that the leaders are in charge of negotiations and directing events.

Just how false that picture is illustrated by the chaos surrounding Gerry Adams decision on 30th November to call a special Ard Fheis to endorse the PSNI, the hated and sectarian RUC rebadged as the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  The call was endorsed by the Sinn Fein Ard Chomairle on 29th December and since then the air has been shaken by threats from the leadership that they would withdraw their offer without further assurances from Ian Paisley and the DUP. This cycle of retreat followed by frantic threats to undo the retreat has been a common pattern in years of capitulation. The amateurish idea that one can reverse massive political retreats once made is driven by desperation, a desperate need to convince their supporters that they are not being herded along by the British and the Dublin government.

As with other sharp shifts to the right in republican policy, the support for the police is presented as a tactical manoeuvre in a complex and secret diplomatic game that, through the polished negotiating skills of the Adams leadership, will gradually shift Irish society towards a united Ireland.  This will be a difficult case to make.  Demands on the republicans to support the state and the state forces in the British colony were originally embedded in the structures of the Good Friday agreement, presented as guaranteeing nationalists political rights within the partitioned area and securing Sinn Fein seats in a power-sharing coalition.  In October the deal, after years of battering by the unionists and amendment by the colonial power, was finally scrapped by the British and replaced by the St. Andrews ‘agreement’, a new imposed framework that shifted the political frameworks towards the goal of majority sectarian rule demanded by the Democratic Unionist Party. St. Andrews provided some minimal cover for Sinn Fein.  Support for the police was to follow formal agreement on re-establishing an administration with Sinn Fein in government.  However within days arch bigot Paisley had torn up the framework and demanded capitulation by Sinn Fein, a demand quickly echoed by the British and the Dublin government.

All the pretences of frameworks and agreements have been abandoned.  All that is left is conceding to the DUP all that they ask in the hope they will agree to form a government.  London and Dublin are still willing to offer consolation, assurances, words of comfort, but the bottom line is that they will endorse each new DUP demand and enforce Sinn Fein compliance.

The St. Andrews agreement was a major twist to give the DUP greater control of a New Stormont executive, yet within days Paisley refused to attend a key meeting and the British endorsed his position by cancelling the meeting.  A formal meeting of the Stormont Assembly was called to hear the party leaders agree to serve on the new executive.  The process went on despite Paisley’s failure to give such an assurance and earlier insistence by the British that failure to do so would mean collapsing the St. Andrews framework.  The Paisleyites then demanded that a new executive would involve a special mechanism for the election of a justice minister – a transparent method of excluding Sinn Fein from the post.  Sinn Fein indignantly rejected this proposal, only to accept a similar proposal when it was put a week later by British secretary of state Hain.  The final agreement involved the Sinn Fein declaration of a special Ard Fheis on policing, to be followed by London and Dublin statements of support and an expected statement from the DUP that would involve some indication that the party would support a coalition government with Sinn Fein and not obstruct the transfer of policing powers to a new Stormont – Sinn Fein believe they can justify their support for police on the grounds that they will be under ‘democratic control’. In the event Paisley said he would await the practice of the republicans in physically supporting the police in the areas.  It was this that led to the republican threats to reverse their support and the intervention of Tony Blair.  In fact the Blair statement simply echoed the DUP position:

“For their part, the DUP require that the Sinn Fein commitments to support for the police, the courts and the rule of law are translated into action so that there is real and tangible evidence of such support. 

It is delivery on those commitments that creates the conditions for devolution of policing and justice to take place”. 

In what would formally have been considered an astounding statement Adams responded by saying he would incorporate parts of the British prime minister’s statement into an Ard Fheis motion.  However when the details sank in there were further threats to cancel the meeting – threats it will be difficult to fulfil in the face of determined pressure from Blair and Ahern. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has comforted Sinn Fein by echoing their call for ‘clarity’ from Paisley, but he also stressed the need to press on and confirmed that he would accept support from Sinn Fein TDs following the forthcoming elections – a hint that if they do the right thing they may be on the road to government in the Dail.

For everyone outside the magic circle of the republican leadership, Sinn Fein will have suffered a stupendous humiliation, dwarfing even the humiliation of the forced decommissioning of IRA weapons.  They will have been forced to support the rebadged RUC.  They will have been forced to do so outside of the framework of Good Friday, outside even the St. Andrews framework.  They will have been forced to meet DUP demands without any guarantee that the DUP will eventually open the door to governmental seats.  And that support will not be some pale watery position of general support allowing criticism of specific actions by the police.  Sinn Fein will be part of the police.  They will sit on the policing boards.  Their members will join the police.  The restorative justice project will become a form of community policing linked to the RUC/PSNI. The DUP have made it clear that they want absolute support, no matter what crimes the state forces are guilty of.  The policy shift will involve any future Sinn Fein member, taking up the position of deputy first minister, in swearing an oath of loyalty to the state and the state forces. Even then only the most naive would believe that this is the end of the process or that there is not more for the republicans to do.

The move to support the RUC/PSNI has led to much greater opposition than to any other turn by the republican leadership.  However the protests simply highlight the weakness of the resistance and the overall collapse of Irish republicanism as a credible political movement.  The vast majority of the criticisms are based on abstract principle. For a republican to support a colonial police force is simply to negate the idea of republicanism, Adam’s critics argue.  Their strategy is a lobbying strategy, directed at Sinn Fein supporters, and protest meetings feature Sinn Fein speakers.  Over ten years into the current strategy, with the IRA disarmed, the movement itself largely funded by state grants and the critics main strategy is to call on the Provos to change their mind!  The logic of this position of back to the future is extended further by the armed groups, who are carrying out a series of small military campaigns.  All would be well if the Provos had stood by their principles and continued with an armed campaign that had failed utterly!

The opposition is ineffective because it fails to understand the absolute and utter collapse of the republican military strategy and largely offers that armed campaign as an alternative to the current policy of diplomatic alliances with sections of local capitalism and imperialism.  Gerry Adams now answers them directly, saying that support for the police can be justified because it will lead to political power for Sinn Fein in the North. He could add that it is essential to maintain their alliance with Fianna Fail in the South and the prospect of government seats there also.  Growing political clout will at some unspecified time lead to a united Ireland.  By simply standing on principle the opposition fails to answer Adams and he is certain to win the argument.  The cost of his victory will be a very sharp shrinkage in the size of the organisation and a fall in their Northern vote, but it will not lead to an alternative political organisation unless the political arguments are engaged.

The simple argument is that a gradual reformist policy based on co-operation with capital is bound to fail, and has been failing spectacularly since the Provos adopted it.  It is failing because the Northern State is irreformable.  A state whose borders and geographical area is based simply on sectarian headcount, whose political base is the guarantee of sectarian privilege to one section of the population, would cease to exist if this state of affairs was to end.

It is this fact that explains why the Good Friday agreement failed, and why it was bound to fail even with British, US and Irish capital behind it, with the backing of the republicans, with the support of over 70% of the Northern electorate and over 90% of the Southern electorate.  The agreement promised, not human rights, but a sharing out of communal sectarian rights.  From the Unionist perspective, equality of sectarianism had to be adjusted – sectarianism is only worthwhile if it guarantees supremacy.  From the British perspective the base of their occupation and the mechanism of control in Ireland remains unionism, so they were bound to support the unionist adjustment.  Above all the GFA summarised the program of Irish capital – capitalist stability with imperialism and the sectarian state preserved, modified so that they could give advice and win patronage for the Catholic middle class.

It is this patronage that traps Sinn Fein.  The Adams strategy had a name. That name was the nationalist family.  The weapon that was greater than the armalite was the clout of Irish and Irish-American capital. In alliance with the White House and London they would leave unionism with no choice but to first concede equality in the North and then to accept an eventual united Ireland.  In mapping out this strategy Adams was on safe ground, familiar to republicans.  An organic part of republicanism was the belief that the nation, an alliance of classes, was the organising principle of the Irish revolution. For this to be so there had to be a section of Irish capital committed to building an Irish democracy. Sinn Fein at all times had a responsibility to work with the progressive elements of Irish nationalism.

This progressive nationalism turns out to be a myth.  The evolution of the peace process shows that Irish nationalism today has no democratic or progressive content.  The program of Good Friday is the program of the nationalists – peace in our time plus continued unionist rule in the North, partition and occupation. The mechanism that Adams believed would free the IRA from the failure of their military campaign turns out to be a gigantic trap that forces acceptance of British rule, the police and the unionist veto.

To define the problem is to define the response. The old movement foundered on its belief that a military campaign could force the British out. When that belief proved false it turned to electoralism and the belief that the British would respect a large vote.  The republican leadership also accepted politics as what was defined as such by Fianna Fail and, under the banner of nationalist unity, tagged themselves on to a capitalist movement whose real aim was to smash republican sentiment forever.

The failure of that strategy poses real threats and dangers, but it also poses the opportunity for a new resistance. A new movement would have to accept first and foremost that an Irish democracy can only be based on the working class.  It would have to accept that point because the main obstacle to its growth would be Fianna Fail and it would find no new section of Irish capitalism supporting a democratic settlement.  It would also have to accept that workers will need to be organised around issues that arise directly from their exploitation by Irish capital such as social partnership, wages pinned to the minimum or below, outsourcing of jobs and privatisation.  The national question, unresolved by the current setup, would be a major question for workers but not the only question. Only one central method of organisation would remain if militarism and electoralism are discarded, the mass organisation, the mass and class action that gave such vibrancy to the early struggle against the Orange state and allowed the construction of areas outside the authority of the British state.

There is a further phase to the current endgame.  Once the Sinners have been publicly whipped by their partners into support for the police they will have to physically join the police.  They will sit on police boards.  Their members will join the police and urge others to do so. Finally they will be required to do what all police do – suppress the discontent and opposition that exists at the bottom of society.  Only the parochial nature of Irish politics prevents activists looking at the current situation in Palestine and the provocations of Abbas and the Fatah movement, openly supported by the US and Israel, to see the role mapped out for a republican movement in support of the colonial police. 

The humiliation and capitulation of Sinn Fein are such that they will be seriously weakened.  There is a high level of internal opposition. A number leading figures and activists have left.  There is every reason to expect that there will be a decline in their electoral fortunes in the North and a growth of at least the nucleus of a new resistance movement.  The working class base in the six counties that supported Sinn Fein will find itself facing state repression endorsed and implemented by the people it formally supported.  It will also find itself facing a massive economic offensive, based initially on water charges and water privatisation and aimed at demolishing the public sector in the North.

We are coming to an end of the period that began at the end of the hunger strikes – a period marked by mass support for attempts conciliate imperialism and find a settlement that did not involve a democratic solution. A new movement that attempts to address the national question must not simply state its defence of timeless republican principles.  It must address the failures of the old movement and construct a new living movement, based on the working class, capable of tackling the forces of imperialism and capitalism in Ireland.


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