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Book review

Peace or Pacification? Northern Ireland after the defeat of the IRA

Liam Ó Ruairc

Zero books
Winchester, UK  Washington, USA 2019
ISBN: 978 1 78904 127 9
978 1 78904 128 6 (ebook)

Reviewed by John McAnulty

17 September 2019

Liam Ó Ruairc 's book is meticulously researched, with many of the assertions backed up by references and direct quotes.

Using this approach he establishes in the first few pages that the Irish peace process was built upon "constructive ambiguity" or outright lies and that all the forces involved openly admit that this was the case. They lied openly and now boast of their skill in prevarication. The prevarication is not historical. Journalism today operates within a regime of self-censorship where criticism of the peace process is beyond the pale.

So how can you have a whole process and the subsequent social structures built upon a global mechanism of lying?

According to the author this was absolutely essential because what was presented as a peace process was in fact a pacification process. A peace process would have involved some movement towards national self-determination for Ireland. Pacification would be based on republican defeat and would involve incorporating them into what was essentially the status quo ante.

Liam Ó Ruairc illustrates this by reference to the positions of the British and the IRA  in 1923 talks.

The IRA demanded:
British withdrawal
An all-Ireland constituent assembly
Release of Prisoners.

The British position of continued British sovereignty, no change without majority support in the North, a six-county assembly and cross- border bodies as a symbolic Irish dimension were all realised in the eventual settlement. The republican proposals were nowhere to be seen.

The book documents in some detail the political collapse that followed, when politics was replaced by culture wars and identity politics and war into competing forms of victimhood. Strategic apologies allowed Britain to move from participant in the conflict to neutral mediator.

The author's argument becomes more complex when he addresses economic strategy. A neoliberal economic strategy is separated from the peace process. As he notes, this is an issue in such settlements across the globe. However such a separation is only necessary if the peace process contains progressive elements in contrast to the economic programme. If both are part of an imperialist victory such a separation is unnecessary.

Liam Ó Ruairc demonstrates convincingly that there is no peace dividend and that the North is a failed political entity,  heavily dependent on British subsidy, with low wages and low labour productivity. Does it run alongside a political victory for nationalism? It is certainly the case that there have been major advances for the catholic middle class and that unemployment and wage rates at the lower levels of the working class are now similar. However ever growing sectarianism, continued housing apartheid and a high level of impunity granted to loyalists by the srate state suggest that the issue of civil rights in the North has yet to be resolved.

One difficulty is that the author misstates the "irreformability" argument advanced by socialists  and republicans during the conflict. It is stated as an assertion that the North was irreformable. The actual argument was that systematic and structural reform that delivered human rights would remove the foundations on which the state rested and lead to its dissolution.

In essence this is what is playing out now. The system of communal rights falls short of civil rights but has delivered for the catholic middle class. It has also provoked a furious backlash by unionism to preserve sectarian rights. Under this pressure unionism has collapsed the state institutions and it seems unlikely that they will be revived in their current form.

The book does valuable work, but there is much that it ignores. The peace process was not just the outcome of a battle between Britain and Ireland, but of a class struggle within Ireland.

The argument about the irreformability of the North marked class divisions within Ireland and ideological differences in the resistance. Irish capitalism sought to contain the civil rights struggle and crush the republican upsurge. The Communist party, the Workers party  and their allies demanded the reform of the North as opposed to Irish unity and labelled the Provos "Green fascists." The current settlement and its contradictions mirrors elements of the proposals they made at the beginning of the conflict.

Liam Ó Ruairc  draws upon anti imperialist writers on Palestine: Said, Chomsky, Pappe, Massad and Finkelstein. These writers have much that is deep and illuminating to say. Edward Said's "Peace and its Discontents" is a classic tour de force, worth reading and rereading. The genre has immense conviction and descriptive power. Its weaknesses lies in explanation and in future policy.

Liam's analysis has the weakness of his mentors. It is credible and convincing, but leaves us in the dark about the collapse of republicanism other than pointing to a global weakness of national liberation struggles following the collapse of "actually existing socialism" and  blind loyalty among the ranks.

In terms of future policy he quotes Tommy Mc Kearney in calling for a "new and relevant republicanism," by it is quite clear from the context that this new republicanism is to leave to one side the issue of partition - that is, the thing that makes republicanism republicanism. Later the book offers "an articulation of social forces" which seems itself a retreat from the class based analysis of the past. It ends on a pessimistic note. Critical thought is a sort of "message in a bottle" to be picked in some future struggle.

The reviewer disagrees. History has not ground to a standstill. Workers movements that have been in long retreat are showing signs of revival. The internal contradictions of capitalism continue to operate, tearing it apart.  We have to look to classical Marxist analysis both for explanation of past failure  and direction towards future advance.

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