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Crisis in the North of Ireland

Absolute capitulation – absolute loyalty. Will Sinn Fein bite the bullet?

2 September 2015

The latest crisis in the slow decay of the Irish peace process was unleashed following the murder of republican Kevin McGuigan when the local chief constable announced that the IRA continued in place with an organised structure and that members were involved in the murder of their opponent. 

In the furore that followed the most honest comment came from a surprising source. British secretary of state Thersa Villiers said she was "not surprised" by the news. Neither was anyone else on the island of Ireland. Former Irish minister Michael McDowell explained that the governments had decided to leave a dried up husk, calculating that this would act as a barrier to the formation of a new republican movement. In fact the IRA have been involved in killings since the claim that they had been stood down and the police have obscured the issue with a formula similar to that used today. 

So why have Irish politicians been thrown into crisis by a ghost? Especially one whose appearance lacks the element of surprise and where the police have used a familiar formula, used in the past to obscure direct IRA involvement, invoked purely imaginary cover names for the IRA such as Action Against Drugs and stopped short of alleging that the killing was carried out by the IRA as opposed to individual members, in fact explicitly ruling out evidence of a chain of command.

Peace process

The explanation lies at the foundation of the peace process. The process is at odds with the programme of unionism, which demands "democratic" majority rule and the suppression of the nationalists. Britain was unable to support a continued reliance on military action when offered the support of all sections of nationalism in the continuation of partition. However the British depend on their unionist base and insist they be mollified in their frequent revolts. The solution was constant capitulation by the republicans, unrestricted bribery and corruption on all sides and constant fine tuning by the police – mostly to provide impunity to loyalists but also occasionally extending limited impunity to the IRA.

The process moves constantly to the right. The IRA must disarm. They must disband. The Provos must pledge allegiance to partition. They must give undying loyalty to the police, call on their supporters to hand over dissident republicans and genuflect to the crown. At the same time concessions and reforms disappear, sectarian triumphalism is reasserted and the old sectarian, colonial state emerges from the mist. 

For their part Sinn Fein keep the show on the road by constant lies - telling their supporters one thing and the British another. It is no accident that Gerry Adams responded to the current crisis by replacing a long-standing assurance to supporters: "they haven't gone away y'know," with the polar opposite - that they have gone away.

Bribery and corruption

Republican lies and capitulation are not enough. The superglue that holds the structure together is bribery and corruption. An enormous bloated assembly supports endless MLAs and their advisors. Any pretence of common government went within days of Stormont's formation, to be replaced with sectarian cantons where each minister rules the roost and dispenses patronage to their supporters.

Such is the stench of corruption from the local Assembly that public scandals - for example around the Housing Executive, bribery and property speculation, open encouragement of racism and sectarianism and corruption around a contract for a sports stadium, never lead to any action against ministers and their advisers - rather whistleblowers are openly punished and humiliated. It turns out that there are no mechanisms for restraining ministerial corruption.

And the same system of corruption extends from the top to the bottom of society, with paramilitaries in civic bodies and soaking up bribes down to street level. 

Yet bribery and corruption are not enough.

Sinn Fein have to deal with regular rebuffs and humiliation. As a result they have been hollowed out - their active support in the North shrinking towards those on the payroll and their vote gradually declining.


On the unionist side bribe after bribe and concession after concession have not been able to prevent a persistent tendency towards rejection. Ian Paisley's status as sectarian leader did not prevent his ousting. Peter Robinson's policy of pragmatic sharing of sectarian spoils was abandoned after mass "flag" protests demanding supremacy and led by the DUP itself. The latest attempt to stabilize the settlement - the Stormont House Agreement - marked a further cutting back of the original deal and the most minimal recognition of issues of past atrocity and of current sectarian provocation. Even this settlement was tied to Sinn Fein support for a savage austerity bill. The fact that Sinn Fein pulled back from a section of austerity around welfare cuts has left the administration paralyzed and edging towards collapse.

Part of Sinn Fein calculations was that the US, British and London governments would act as a counterbalance to unionist intransigence. Those days are long gone. Martin McGuinness was shown the door on a recent tour where he tried to garner support. In fact the right-wing Dublin government is deeply concerned at the Provos electoral gains and has launched heavier and heavier attacks on the movement, many based on their former support for armed resistance to British rule. 

Don’t speculate

Into this unstable situation was placed the IRA killing of Kevin McGuigan. The Provos arrogantly instructed everyone “not to speculate” and initially that is what the police and political groups, mindful of the mountain of money and patronage tied up in the Stormont Assembly, did. No-one, for example, has asked MI5 for their version of events, even though they have the biggest HQ in Europe outside Britain, are specifically charged with overseeing republican activity and have been rolling up physical force groups by 24 hour electronic surveillance. 

However IRA responsibility was blindingly obvious to everyone and they made it worse by giving interviews to local journalists justifying the murder that they denied committing.

One of the elements of the sectarian society in the North of Ireland is that it exists both between sectarian groups and in the confessional ranks between junior and senior partners. The SDLP initially attacked Sinn Fein but were handicapped by their support for the settlement. The official unionists, led by Mike Nesbitt, had no such qualms. Their only road to power is to be more sectarian than the Democratic Unionists and they made that claim by withdrawing from the administration. All this is the purest hypocrisy as unionist groups have close links with loyalist paramilitaries and exhibit a determined lack of curiosity when they are involved in sectarian attacks. In fact DUP leader Peter Robinson asked for leniency in a court case involving a loyalist “on the run” for holding an arms dump on the grounds that the loyalist violence was water under the bridge. 

The Dublin government were anxious to cut back Sinn Fein electoral support and joined the attacks.

DUP to the rescue?

Peter Robinson moved to defend the Assembly and all the patronage that it puts at his disposal, but he did so in a familiar way that has kept him in the leadership of the DUP. He put himself at the head of the baying mob demanding Sinn Fein’s expulsion from Stormont. He would like the British to act, but has drawn up plans to block the limited functioning of the assembly until yet another agreement – Stormont House II – is in place.

Robinson has spelt out everything with crystal clarity for Sinn Fein. The new cost of settlement is immediate implementation of all the political retreats in the Stormont House Agreement. The economic offensive on the working class must be accepted and enforced. In addition Sinn Fein must further repudiate its past, repudiate the IRA, swear further fealty to the British colony and agree to a new parole board to oversee their activity and enforce final disbandment. 

In any case it is some time since the British have expressed any concern or interest.  

That's because, from their viewpoint, the peace process is a success. Even if the institutions collapse, the whole of civic society is dominated by acceptance of sectarian division fuelled by "cross community" grants. Eleven "supercouncils" have been created and given planning powers - eleven mini-Stormonts to enforce division if the parent administration fails.

The current settlement is maintained by Sinn Fein lies, quieting loyalism with massive bribes and unchallenged patronage, state cover from a police force that will ignore riot and murder at will and overall control from a British administration that can shrug its shoulders and deny any responsibility for the hell-hole it maintains.

A burning silence

But perhaps the most stable leg of the platform of reaction is the silent support of what passes for an Irish Left.

The failure of opposition is testified by the burning silence on the Left. Trade unions and minor Left groups operate inside the grant system, have redefined non-sectarianism as neutrality and capitulation in the face of loyalist reaction and dream of left MLAs who will move the colonial administration towards socialism. A mass working-class mobilization against the Stormont House austerity budget was abandoned by the trade unions in favour of backdoor lobbying of Sinn Fein. 

Republican opposition to Sinn Fein has grown but lacks a class perspective and is weakened by the continued pull of physical force republicanism.

Yet for all that that the final collapse of Stormont, when it comes, will be a significant milestone. It is falling to the right and, as the councils are not restricted in the same way as the regional administration, the result will be a sectarian bear pit. 

Not however a stable one. The unionist dream of domination is impossible. The Nationalist and Left support for British rule is discredited. 

The process today is one of advanced decay. Collapse awaits the revival of the Irish workers' movement - a process that will be accelerated by growing crises in both Irish statelets.

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