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The ousting of Barry McElduff

17 January 2018

A sustained campaign of outrage has led to the ousting of the Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone. The campaign arose from the posting of a tweet showing the MP balancing a loaf of bread on his head in a supermarket declaiming; "where do they keep the bread?" Unfortunately the bread was from the Kingsmill bakery and McElduff's antics were on the anniversary of the IRA sectarian massacre of ten protestant workmen at Kingsmills.

The thesis behind the outrage was that McElduff was a sectarian and the stunt a deliberate provocation. By extension Sinn Fein, failing to immediately force his resignation, were themselves guilty of sectarian provocation.

Yet the evidence for this is thin. Despite intense scrutiny of the MP's record from the press no other incidents have been identified (a contrast with loyalist politicians who have years of vile abuse to their name). McElduff appears an idiot, but this arises from a system where the only requirement for public representatives is loyalty to your party.

The proposal that Sinn Fein are sectarian provocateurs is even more unlikely. They have been forced out of office by their own supporters after years when, by their own admission, central elements of the peace process were abandoned to placate the DUP.

The IRA has been disbanded, loyalist paramilitaries, whom the police indicate are still active, are in open alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party. Where does the synthetic outrage from unionist politicians come from? What appears as moral outrage is a political attack on Sinn Fein, often led by full-time sectarian provocateurs such as Gregory Campbell of the DUP, with clear political objectives.  The claim is that Sinn Fein commemorates sectarian atrocity and this negates the "equality agenda" around which they base their refusal to reboot the Stormont executive. (This is a standard unionist strategy, unable to deny that they are sectarians, they level the ground by claiming that everyone is).

Talks, sponsored by the British, are to take place next week. Neither they nor the unionists are offering any compromise. The only Stormont on offer is one of reaction, corruption and sectarianism with nationalists content with second class citizenship, another move back towards the society in the North before the civil rights explosion. If stability is to be restored then Sinn Fein must give way.  If direct rule is finally introduced then pressure must be maintained on the nationalists for a future capitulation.

The McElduff resignation did not placate unionism. They pushed harder. Sinn Fein must stop commemorating terrorism by remembering republican dead. There must be no more slander of state forces on the basis of the endless collusion and massacre that they were involved in. The unionists have gone on to demand the sacking of  MLA Máirtín Ó Muilleoir for retweeting the McElduff stunt even though he is the chief conciliator and placator of Unionism. Above all they press the British to return to direct rule and remove any necessity for even appearing to compromise with nationalism.

What appeared to be outrage at sectarianism is now a traditional sectarian spat. A by-election for the now vacant Tyrone Westminster seat is faced with the prospect of two opposing "victim" unity candidates.

Irish nationalism has joined in, exasperated at Sinn Fein's failure to fall on their sword and restore the local administration in the North and also by the electoral challenge by the former republicans in the Southern state.  A conference addressed by DUP leader Arlene Foster, with an anodyne speech that could have been written in the '50s, was met with adulation. The fact that there were no concessions to northern nationalists seemed to escape the notice of the southern establishment, as did the fact that Foster is a cheerleader for Brexit in the face of a majority vote against it in the North.

The truth is that Sinn Fein's basic position is irrefutable - yet all, Nationalist, Unionist, British, trade unions, civic society, even Sinn Fein itself for most of its time in the Stormont executive, refute it.

It is the case that many elements of the Good Friday Agreement have not been met. It is the case that the unionists would rather collapse the agreement than make concessions and that the British show no signs of pressing them. It is the case that the Stormont administration was a sectarian stew of corruption and would a thousand times worse if Sinn Fein were to endorse the status quo ante.

Yet Sinn Fein operated this stew and capitulated to loyalism. They were forced out after trying to hold the ring on a massive DUP led corruption scandal and after a sectarian insult based on opposition to the Irish language broke the back of their supporters’ willingness to accept further abuse. Now the former republican’s strategy is centred on the Dail and a  place in coalition government. As junior partners in a coalition government they could then, in the name of stability, restore Stormont. Any earlier move would see revolt by sections of their base.

However a deeper issue around Kingsmills. There were many terrible atrocities, but this was a republican atrocity. It cut the ground from under IRA claims to stand for the democratic republic that would unite Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. It was a confession that the IRA could not defend nationalists against a steadily growing level of sectarian killing and could only respond with militarism.

From that point on the movement marched blindly behind the army council. Splinter groups were even more likely that the IRA themselves to turn to atrocity in a vain belief that this was a demonstration of strength.  The terror had a chilling effect on political activity when too high a profile could lead to the killers breaking into your home. The media were able to weave a tale of “tit for tat” killings and cover the very open involvement  of police, army and British intelligence in a relentless campaign of murder until finally the IRA military strategy collapsed and turned into constitutional nationalism operating in the framework of British rule.

Calling on the authority of the IRA and basking in a "freedom fighter" hagiography was an important element in lulling supporters. The reality of Kingsmills was never confronted. Now McElduff's antics have ended that phase.

Was there an alternative? The  alternative would have involved openly organising defence committees, exposing state involvement, trying to extract a price - closing down nationalist involvement with the state, threatening the Dublin government, appealing to working class forces in Britain and internationally.

This would have meant a class programme impossible for the republicans. Armed action represented resistance and defiance. However the dark side of militarist ideology was as a way of promoting national unity across classes and suppressing very real class differences between bourgeois nationalists and the workers.

In disarray in the North, scrabbling to join a capitalist government in the South, Sinn Fein's future is firmly with the Irish bourgeoisie.

The time has come to go back to the fork in the road represented by Kingsmills and chose the path of class solidarity and utter repudiation of sectarianism on the part of revolutionary forces.

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