Return to Recent Articles menu

British and Irish governments push for talks after funeral of Lyra McKee

Grief for Lyra McKee becomes yet another state-sponsored “peace” drive

2 May 2019

There is no mistaking the nature of the funeral of Lyra McKee. The full panoply of church and state, with the support of family, friends, the gay community and the local trade union bureaucracy was wheeled out, as so often during the troubles with different groups, to crush the snake of physical force republicanism beneath its heel.

There is a story behind the story. The thing is, the family and supporters of Lara would have been consulted about the assembly of all these forces. They would have known that they had little in common with them. They would have recognised the reactionary nature of many of the participants. They would have known that Theresa May and Leo Varadkar don't give a damn about their loss.

So why did they agree to what was essentially a state funeral?

Some of it was simple vengeance and the calculation that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. They wanted to kick the New IRA and that they did - good and hard.

However there is another, more charitable interpretation - that there is no such thing as bad publicity. They had something to say, and the state funeral gave them a megaphone with which to say it.

So what was that something?

Clearly there was a desire to advance some issues of democratic rights, especially gay rights, but this was mixed up with ideas that the way to get progress was to restore the local Stormont Assembly and for the politicians to come to an agreement.

But this mantra of bring back Stormont - get the politicians to agree - is pure ideology peddled by the British state and media and utterly contradicted by the facts. There is government in the North - the British government rules the area and has consistently blocked any direct movement on abortion and gay rights. No-one will admit this so Theresa May was able to come and go at the funeral without any challenge.

The politicians have met and agreed. When they did, the Democratic Unionist Party tore up the agreement. Their current policy is for direct rule by the British. They will agree a restoration of Stormont if issues of democratic rights are side-lined. Again, there was no pressure amongst the mourners to hold Arlene Foster to account.

So the politics of the situation are such that new talks will start off where the old finished. Sinn Fein will be asked to make further concessions. Areas of major financial corruption around green heating subsidies, in which DUP leader Arlene Foster was deeply implicated, would have to be written off. In addition, investigations have exposed a deeply corrupt civil service where major government decisions were not recorded. There are no proposals for change.

Most people don't see this, partly because of the low level of political consciousness, partly because the political consensus around the peace process includes most of civic society. Many of the middle classes see ongoing corruption and sectarianism as the price to pay for peace and quiet. Even Loyalist mobilisations demanding impunity for British soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday occurring days after the Lyra McKee funeral, are seen as best quietly ignored.

There is a general sentiment that feminist and gay rights represent modernity but much less momentum around Irish language rights. Opposition to strong unionist objection is seen as in some way sectarian and there is a strong bigoted response to the Irish language.

In any case the spontaneous phase of the peace movement has come and gone. There are to be political talks, not because of “people power” but because the British government wants them.


The Dublin government have sought British action since Stormont's collapse. They have been ignored. The British have brought back direct rule at the urging of the DUP, now in alliance in the Westminster government, but refuse to acknowledge this and allow aspects of public service and civic society to rot away as a form of pressure on Sinn Fein.

There are talks now because the British government is aware that a lack of political activity is destabilising, because it heads off recent criticism from the US Democratic Party and because they see an opportunity to push Sinn Fein to make further concessions.

That doesn't mean that there will be any change. The Brexit row around the backstop and  the open alliance with the DUP is at heart an assertion that ”Ulster” is British and will stay that way. There will be no serious movement until Brexit is resolved. Any concessions by Sinn Fein will be stored in a back pocket until then.

Sinn Fein face a serious dilemma. It is quite clear from the series of demonstrations following Lyra McKee's funeral that a section of their supporters are in favour of their return to the local administration. The deal that they agreed in February 2018 in an attempt to revive Stormont, closed in early 2017, kicked democratic rights into the long grass and subsumed Irish language rights in a more general capitulation to Orangeism, falling far short of an Act. Since then they have re-joined the Policing Board, are present throughout ongoing administrative bodies and operate shameless sectarian deals in the councils, so there is no principled objection to further compromise. Sinn Fein has long debated the strength of being a party of government conceding to Britain and the unionists against the need to reassure their supporters of their republican credentials.

This dilemma has become acute. All of the Irish capitalist parties and the union bureaucracy want to see Stormont restored and are well aware that this involves a retreat by Sinn Fein. The leader of Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin, has endorsed a proposal from the Social Democratic and Labour Party that the assembly reopen with a reduction of the "petition of concern” mechanism - a sectarian veto that allows the DUP to block majority votes in favour of same-sex marriage. The problem with this proposal is that a reduction in this system would also be another step on the unionist road back to majority rule.

Sinn Fein have tried to resolve their difficulties by pushing a programme of cultural conciliation, involving welcomes for British royalty, kowtowing to Orangeism and suggesting that the 26 county state discuss membership of the Commonwealth. To some extent Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness could convince their supporters that there was a hidden republican agenda, but new leaders Mary-Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill are far less convincing. An attempt to advance the conciliation agenda in recent presidential elections was a catastrophe for Sinn Fein.

In the long run Sinn Fein have no choice. If they are to have the chance of joining a coalition government in Dublin they must sacrifice themselves to restore a northern administration.

Sinn Fein are cushioned by a deep complacency among middle class nationalists. They are comforted by the gains that their class has made from the Good Friday Agreement and believe that, as the number of Catholics reaches a majority, the unionists will see sense and accept an equality agenda in the North and an eventual united Ireland.

This is a deeply flawed assessment based on the superficial idea that "Northern Ireland” is based on a majority Protestant vote, ignoring the fact that the British drew the border to construct the Protestant majority. All the evidence is Westminster has a material basis for remaining in Ireland and has never considered leaving since the imposition of partition. There are minorities across the world who are perfectly comfortable with the use of state force to remain in power. Unionism shows no sense of concern about a future nationalist majority. Finally the British have plenty of levers to operate; the class interest of Irish nationalism, at heart afraid of the forces that would be unleashed in an Irish democracy, the threat of repartition, and the mechanisms of the GFA itself, reinterpreted to argue that cultural equality requires a level of unionist control.

The minimum required to rebuild a resistance in the North is the collapse of Sinn Fein hegemony. That is some time away and will likely be followed by further demoralisation, although the violence in Derry gives an indication of the gulf between ghetto youth and a complacent elite. The real threat to Irish capitalism today lies in the southern state. For all the boasts of recovery the state remains massively indebted and stays afloat through a programme of sell-off and privatisation. The arrogance of Irish capitalism is such that they are blind to the scissors of wage control against ever rising rents and mortgages and the desperation of many workers.

In the background is the growing instability of British capitalism inset in a growing European instability which Ireland cannot escape. Brexit and the other forms of populism across Europe will provide a temporary diversion but no solution. However reluctantly, the working class will have to take the stage and impose socialism as the alternative to chaos.

Return to top of page