Return to Recent Articles menu

State violence in Ireland 

The dead past?

25 November 2013

At a recent public meeting in Dublin to discuss the legacy of physical force republicanism one speaker recalled the Irish Garda "Heavy squad" who had carte blanche to torture republican suspects. The contrast with today showed how far we have travelled, he said.

This is a minor key of the majority sentiment in the North of the country. The very evident corruption, sectarianism and intimidation in today's society can be set aside because the absence of widespread armed conflict shows how far we have come.

The main divergence from this consensus come from families of victims, who play an especially destabilising role when they call for an explanation of assassinations carried out by the state. Even then the demand is to seek closure for something that has passed.

From a socialist perspective the ideology of "how far we have come" is not accepted. State violence will be in the dead past when we bury the capitalist state and the imperialist role of the British in Ireland. 

From the opposite direction the British state is very anxious to bring discussion of these issues to an end. State violence continues. What the state wants to bury is any popular understanding that they carried out these crimes and that they will continue to do so if they meet any serious challenge.

Military Reaction Force

A recent BBC TV investigation caused embarrassment. Members of an army undercover unit, the Military Reaction Force, boasted of touring Nationalist areas of Belfast in the early 1970s and acting as a death squad. What was striking was their supreme arrogance. They did not doubt for a second their right to kill civilians. Their main complaint was that they had never received sufficient recognition for their efforts.

The most unusual thing about the programme was the acknowledgement by the reporter, unique in a compliant state media, that the MRF had been withdrawn because of incompetence and lack of control. It had been replaced by more effective units largely run through control of loyalist gangs. It was largely the use of death squads that brought about the military defeat of the IRA, the reporter claimed.

In fact atrocity is a standard procedure in the British Army. The case of Sergeant A, recently found guilty of killing an injured Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan, led to much salt tears about a good man gone wrong. Evidence that the other members of the squad were equally guilty, that the killing was pre-planned and that it was a routine procedure were all ignored, as was the whole history of atrocity in colonial wars.

In the North a massive MI5 base operates outside local structures and is tasked with spying on republican organizations. A unit of the SAS continues to operate. The recent Flag protests show a pattern of relative impunity for Loyalist protestors and paramilitaries. A loyalist, found guilty of planting pipe bombs at a church and school, received a community service order. Derry Republicans, found guilty of possession of a pipe bomb, received up to four-year jail terms.

Draw a line
It is in this context that we must put the call by northern attorney-general John Larkin that we draw a line under crimes before the signing of the Good Friday agreement. Larkin makes it clear that he is going well beyond an ending of prosecutions to include a ban on outstanding inquests. What he wants to put behind a curtain is the truth about 30 years of a dirty war in Ireland.

What does Larkin represent when he makes this call? He sees himself as acting in his role as chief legal officer and says that the state is "vulnerable" to inquests and enquiries.

Behind this is a deeper reality. His appointment required the agreement of both the DUP and Sinn Fein. The outcome is someone from the Catholic far right. His views echo those of the Catholic Church and bourgeois Catholics, happy with a sectarian and colonialist settlement and uneasy at prospect of state atrocity becoming a running sore that might destabilise the process.

The motivation for Larkin's statement is linked to very acute timing.  Richard Haass, representing U.S. and British imperialism, is currently drawing up proposals to yet again reboot an increasingly shaky settlement. Larkin is letting him know in advance that the dominant forces in Irish nationalism will be happy with any cosmetic mechanism that successfully buries the issue.

Such a direct political intervention by the statlet's chief legal officer created outrage among victimsí organizations. That outrage did not extend to the political groups. Both Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein issued restrained statements indicating that they disagreed with Larkin, but seeing no need to call on him to step down.

The reality of their disagreement is rather different.  Sinn Fein want to close the door on the past, but their preferred mechanism is a "truth commission" that would see an apology to the victims and an amnesty for all the combatants. The second Bloody Sunday whitewash, which blamed individual soldiers and cleared the state, left them entirely satisfied.

From the DUP perspective the IRA campaign was entirely criminal and illegitimate. Their central policy for resolving the troubles was a shoot to kill policy and a leading member, fully supported by the leadership, is currently facing charges for approving a social media solution of assassinating the Sinn Fein leadership. 

The DUP want an immediate end to all questioning of the role of the state forces. Given the direction of loyalist violence by the state, this would involve a de facto halt to a review of the role of loyalist paramilitaries. The DUP will not under any circumstances agree to an amnesty for Republicans.

However the DUP would be happy enough to quietly endorse some closure mechanism. They have a number of other means available to delegitimise republicanism. Many ex-prisoners have been banned from government employment. They have been banned from positions as government advisors. The Unionists have been successful in forcing a reroute of republican commemorations and persuading the British to denounce such commemorations as provocative and illegitimate.

Haass review

The idea that there is some balancing act going on and that the purpose of the Haass review is to preserve equity is deeply mistaken. The justification for a British military presence in Ireland is their loyalist base. The British had to use maximum pressure to force an acceptance of Republican surrender and in the period since have had to move the process to the right time and time again to quell unionist revolts. Even then the presence of Sinn Fein in the administration has eaten up a succession of unionist leaders.

Now Haass is to move the process to the right once more. Nationalist Ireland, in the person of John Larkin, has told them that they will be content with the outcome. The difficulty will yet again be in ensuring that the unionists stay bought. Current suggestions include a further referendum. Alongside Haass a secret mechanism has been set up to agree local deals. This involves conferences in Wales and the inclusion of loyalist paramilitaries.

Sinn Fein, sensing a car crash, have stepped back from the consultations, making their own proposals public and declaring it a "people's process."  Their own proposal, that each area fly a single flag to indicate its political affiliation, shows how far it has moved from republicanism to Catholic nationalism. It also shows in stark detail the sheer fantasy of a society that bases stability on sharing out of sectarian privilege and the unlikelihood of the loyalist mob buying such an outcome.

Yet the delusions of a harmless sectarian sharing held by Sinn Fein are the delusions of the Good Friday agreement. They are the delusions on which Richard Haass will attempt to build stability. 

In this wonderland colonialism, the incitement of sectarian division, repression, state violence, all belong to the dead past.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, itís not dead, and itís not even past.


Return to top of page