Should socialists support PIRA rule in the Catholic ghettos?

Submitted by AWL on 30 March, 2005 - 11:13 Author: Sean Matgamna

The murder of Robert McCartney has been “seized upon” by opponents of Sinn Fein/IRA in Belfast, London, Dublin and Washington, as a club with which to beat them into submission and force the IRA out of existence.

The press, TV and politicians have “built up” the McCartney case into something it would not be without them — if it did not fit in with their political needs now. A number of articles in Solidarity have, in passing, noted this.

If you doubt that opportunist use is being made of the McCartney case, consider the following case, which is only now, in the wake of the McCartney killing, receiving publicity.

26-year-old Matthew Burns, a Catholic living in Castlewellan, was a martial-arts athlete, a kick-boxer. According to Jim Cusack in the (Irish) Sunday Independent of 27 March, in 1999–2000 Burns got involved in “a local dispute” in which IRA members, including the “Officer Commanding” (OC) of the local IRA unit, were on the other side.

The OC sent seven men, masked in balaclavas and armed with baseball bats (one studded with six-inch nails) and a handgun, to give Burns a severe beating and shoot him in the arms or legs. Assaulted outside his mother’s home and bleeding badly from a blow to the head, the kick-boxer Burns still managed to beat off his seven attackers. He pulled off one balaclava to reveal the IRA OC.

Jim Cusack says: “Unmasking the IRA man almost certainly saved his life at this point, as the ‘commander’ could not afford to be seen giving the order to have Matthew shot in front of witnesses.” The seven IRA men ran from the scene of the battle.

It could not be left at that without the local IRA and its OC losing “face”, prestige, and authority. In February 2000, a bomb exploded in Burns’s car, wounding his pregnant partner in the leg.

The couple moved to live 12 miles outside Castlewellan, but Matthew Burns continued to visit his parents there. On 21 February 2002 he was shot dead a few hundred yards from his parents’ house, and his brother, who was with him, was wounded in the hand.

After the fight with the seven “Republicans”, the local SF/IRA spread the story that Burns was a drug-dealer. Cusack dismisses this as nonsense, citing the poverty that made Burns, a joiner by trade, and his partner live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation and in a hostel as proof that he could not be.

The Northern Ireland police think that the murder of Matthew Burns was “contracted out” to the “Real IRA”, a splinter from the Provisional IRA. Burns’s grave has been desecrated.

What was the initial dispute with the local IRA about? Cusack doesn’t say. But is there any conceivable justification for what happened to Matthew Burns? This and other such cases received little publicity at the time. They are getting publicity now.

So yes, the McCartney case is being used by Blair, Ahern, and Bush. Of course it is! And so? The issue thereby ceases to exist in its own right? Therefore socialists should side with Sinn Fein/ IRA and defend it against its enemies, who are our enemies too?

Yes, says Chris Bambery, editor of Socialist Worker. “We will certainly not be signing up to the politicians’ chorus” against the IRA, he tells readers of Socialist Worker (“Britain’s State of War in Northern Ireland”, 26 March.)

Bambery’s article is an attempt at “restoring the balance” after a piece in Socialist Worker by Irish media pundit and long-time SWPer Eamonn McCann a couple of weeks ago. McCann sided with the anti-Provisional IRA Catholic demonstration in the Short Strand, and had spoken at their meeting. He has the “disadvantage” over Bambery of knowing what has been happening under SF/IRA rule in the Catholic areas of the Six Counties.

On one level this is just Socialist Worker being itself. As always, it sidles up to its enemy’s enemy, wags its tail and furiously licks his boots. Saddam Hussein, bin Laden, the Sunni-supremacist “resistance” in Iraq — if Bush and Blair name it enemy, Socialist Worker automatically names it friend.

Take them back 65 years in a time machine, and — on their current principles — they would side with Hitler, Mussolini, and the Mikado. Implicitly they retrospectively justify the approach of the Stalinists then, who during the Hitler-Stalin Pact did support Hitler.

People to whom the world is a less simple place than it is for the nihilist-negativist “Marxists” of Socialist Worker will need not only negative reasons — “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” — but also positive ones for supporting SF/IRA against the outcry over Robert McCartney. What might they be? Why should socialists side with SF/IRA against the attack of the British and Irish states and the Irish and British media? Let us count the reasons why.

Because, ten years after the end of the war in Ireland, we think it a good thing that the IRA should rule Catholic ghettoes like the Short Strand, where Robert McCartney died?

Because IRA vigilante “justice”, beatings, shootings in the knees or the hands, or the head, is better than the rule of bourgeois law — police, courts, due process, punishment under rules that outlaw the Middle-Ages (or sharia law-like) physical penalties used by the IRA — under the control of the bourgeois-democratic state?

Because we think it desirable that a bourgeois political party — and that is what Sinn Fein is — should have its own private army, or be the political front for such an army?

Because we think it a step forward from mere capitalism that a powerful armed underground army should operate money-making scams, rackets, and cross-border smuggling on a vast scale, supplemented by armed robbery?

Because we think it good for the working class and the labour movement that a bourgeois-nationalist political party should finance its political operations from riches acquired in that way?

Because it adds to the general well-being that a political organisation that is part of the government of the Six Counties — as Sinn Fein was a couple of years ago — should have a private army, operating outside the law to control “its own” community and to deal with its enemies, its political opponents, and the taigs and (to use the words of a Republican song) “croppies who will not lie down” to IRA rule?

Because we want Sinn Fein, which has five seats in Dail Eireann already, and is angling to join a Dublin coalition government with Fianna Fail, the main party of the Irish bourgeoisie for three quarters of a century, to keep its own army, its private “state within a state”, outside all possibility of democratic control or accountability, its money-making operations, and the tacit right to do an armed robbery or two whenever the fit takes it?

Because it is better for the working class to have not only the regular armed bourgeois state to contend with but also an unofficial SF/IRA state?

Because socialists think it good that the bourgeois state — subject to some extent, and sometimes to a great extent, to bourgeois-democratic political control — should disintegrate in favour of armed warlords ruling, in this case, the Catholic ghettoes? Try telling that to the peoples of the former Yugoslavia — or even of Iraq.

Is there another possible reason beside those listed here?

If the activities of Sinn Fein/ IRA listed above make it a revolutionary, an anti-capitalist, or a progressive anti-state organisation, then the Mafia is the foremost anti-capitalist, anti-state, revolutionary organisation in existence!

Hard-nosed bourgeois critics of the Provisional IRA, the historian (and biographer of both James Connolly and Patrick Pearse), Ruth Dudley Edwards, for example, denounce them as “fascists”. I think that is overstating it. It goes much too far along a certain scale. But it is the right scale.

An armed bourgeois movement with a ballot-box in one hand and an armalite rifle in the other, using nationalist and leftist demagogy, using parliaments while maintaining its private army — such a movement has a great deal about it that is fascist or incipiently fascist.

In the 26 Counties, a stable bourgeois-democratic parliamentary system exists, and — despite the civil war of 1922–3 and the crisis in the early 1930s when those defeated in the civil war won control of Dail Eireann — has existed throughout its history of more than 80 years.

In the south, the operation of the private army does give SF/IRA unmistakable elements of a fascist identity. It is a cliché of populist left Republican literature to deplore the fact that in the war of independence the IRA, fighting the British, was used against the rural poor to protect the well-off. Adams’s IRA may well in the future be used against the labour movement.

That Sinn Fein/IRA are a bit “left” does not mean anything here. A whole section of Hitler’s movement was “left” and subjectively anti-capitalist. Chancellor Hitler felt obliged to slaughter them in the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 to make Germany safe for capitalism and himself.

Nor are Sinn Fein/ IRA simply “nationalists” in any progressive sense. In Northern Ireland they are a Catholic-sectarian movement.

For the SWP and Bambery, their being anti-British in Northern Ireland explains and excuses everything and anything. In fact, however, in the real as distinct from some imaginary Ireland, the most important British “occupation forces” in the Six Counties is the British-Irish Protestant-Unionist population. It is the Protestants’ alarm at the existence of the power-sharing Sinn Fein’s private army that has forced Dublin and London, after seven years of “constructive ambiguity”, to confront the Provisional IRA.

The remarkable thing is that illusions in SF/IRA and “revolutionary” fantasies projected on to them still survive on the left — and far beyond the circles of the SWP — 10 years after their “revolutionary” war ended.

When, early in 1971, the IRA started its war, sections of the left rallied to them as anti-imperialists, fighting to break the state framework that had imprisoned and oppressed Northern Ireland’s artificially-created Catholic minority for half a century. They included some who would never have consented to starting the IRA war if we had had a “vote” on it. The idea that it was a socialist duty to back “anti-imperialists” fighting “our own” government had great influence. It helped blind people — some of us in AWL, for example — to the truth: that the root problem in Ireland is not British rule in the Six Counties but a conflict of national identity between people who called themselves British (the compact majority in North East Ulster) and Catholic-nationalist Ireland, a conflict compounded by a partition which created a large artificial Catholic minority in the “Protestant” state.

Catholic nationalists were then one in three in Northern Ireland, proportionately a much larger minority than would have been the Irish Protestants in an all-Irish Catholic majority state. The Six County state included large chunks of Catholic-nationalist majority territory along the borders of the “Protestant” state.

Some leftists soon began to spin fantastic “revolutionary” scenarios around the IRA war. The IRA were triggering a “permanent revolution” in Ireland that would end in a socialist revolution. They would destroy the British state and trigger a British socialist revolution. Ireland was on the way to becoming a West European “Cuba”. Etc. etc.

The SWP was very slow to rally to Sinn Fein/ IRA. In the 1970s, when it was not at all certain that people in Britain could support the IRA with impunity, they were notable for their timidity and evasiveness on the question.

You would expect that the events of the last 11 years would have disabused socialists of all revolutionary delusions and fantasies about SF/IRA. It is only the latest in a long string, stretching back over more than 100 years, of physical-force Republicans coming down from the “revolutionary” hills to be more or less straightforward bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians. In the Six Counties Sinn Fein has been a party of government, and in the 26 Counties it wants to be. Nobody of any sense who reads newspapers can now pretend to see SF/IRA as revolutionaries.

I repeat: in the North Sinn Fein/IRA is an openly sectarian party. And yet, on the left, SF/IRA continues to keep the support it won as a “revolutionary” movement.

Bambery’s tissue of excuse-making is a slightly scary example of what this leads to. He talks away as politically of no consequence for how socialists view SF/IRA, and therefore for practical purposes excuses, the gangster-like killing of Robert McCartney.

Chris Bambery wrote an outstandingly stupid SWP pamphlet in the 1980s called “Ireland’s Permanent Revolution”. His Socialist Worker article is equally outstanding. It is awash with muddle, non-sequiturs, false history, and downright dishonesty that cannot but be deliberate.

No, comrade Bambery, Robert McCartney was not killed by “a group of people, including members of the Irish Republican Army”. He was killed by IRA members on the orders of the local IRA commander, whom McCartney and a companion had offended. The pub where the killing took place was forensically cleaned up by IRA experts, and the IRA attempted to silence protests by his family and his neighbours.

Adams did not “go out of his way to support the McCartney family”, who were Sinn Fein supporters, until he needed to mount a damage-limiting operation. SF/IRA did nothing to “help” until forced to by the McCartney family campaign and by the campaign in the media.

The point here is that both before and after the murder of Robert McCartney the Short Strand IRA behaved like gangsters, settling a personal score and using the IRA mechanisms to try to win impunity.

No, it is not that Adams and McGuinness “believed that Republicans could build an alliance with the government of the US and the Irish Republic to put pressure on the British state”. They did build such an “alliance”. The “pan-nationalist alliance” has been a fact for a dozen years or more, though it seems now to be crumbling.

That pan-Nationalist alliance wasn’t a matter of putting “pressure on the British state”, but of working closely in partnership with it for a common objective. The Dublin government has shared political responsibility — though not executive power — for Northern Ireland with Britain since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of November 1985.

Adams and McGuinness did “agree to drop the armed struggle”. The point is that the IRA continued to conduct an armed “struggle” inside the Catholic communities, and outside it with armed robberies etc. “IRA guns” have not been “silent since 1997” — or since the ceasefire, which began in 1994, not 1997 — not in the Catholic ghettoes.

And this fact has, for seven years, progressively eroded Protestant support for the Good Friday Agreement.

Bambery says: “Peace, if not the political process which followed, is popular in Northern Ireland”. Indeed. But with whom is “the political process” unpopular? The Protestant-Unionists. It is immensely popular with Catholics, including Sinn Fein supporters. It has been used with skill and to the full by SF/IRA.

No, SF has not tried “to prove it can participate in ‘ruling’ Northern Ireland, implementing cuts and privatisation”. It has participated as a bourgeois political party in ruling Northern Ireland, and is eager to do so again — as it is eager in the South for a coalition with Fianna Fail.

Bambery says: “The British state has not accepted the terms of the initial agreement. Within weeks of the ceasefire it was demanding that the IRA disarm”.

The “Agreement” was signed at Easter 1998. The ceasefire was in August 1994. Even when Britain was bombed — Canary Wharf, Manchester — the ceasefire held in Northern Ireland. One of the things that rotted Protestant-Unionist support for the Good Friday Agreement was that the British state made extensive “concessions” to SF/IRA — on releasing prisoners, for example — without any quid pro quo from Adams and other IRA leaders.

The IRA did not sign the Good Friday Agreement, but it was tacitly understood that SF signed for the IRA too. The leaders of the IRA wearing their SF hats did sign. The all-shaping failure to carry through “the terms of the initial agreement” has been that of the IRA, which failed to disarm and go out of existence. The Dublin and London governments turned a blind eye, relying on “constructive ambiguity” to move things forward. For seven years. Whatever one thinks or feels about that, facts are facts.

Yes, contrary to what Bambery says, the British, Irish, and US governments were “prepared to accept promises that the IRA’s arsenal would be left to rust”. They were prepared also to accept warlord rule in the Catholic and Protestant ghettos and to let IRA guns be used in kneecapping Catholics and in armed robbery. It was the Protestants who weren’t prepared to accept the IRA activity. That is what finally triggered the present London-Dublin-Washington propaganda onslaught on SF/IRA.

Bambery insists that “for the Republicans, giving over their weapons was tantamount to surrender… now… there are demands that the IRA should disband”.

Doesn’t the editor of Socialist Worker read the newspapers? Last November the IRA announced its willingness to fully disarm and disband as part of a power-sharing deal with the Paisleyites. The deal (ostensibly) broke down because SF/IRA were unwilling to be photographed destroying their own armoury! That, more than the robbery of £26 million and the McCartney case, is what led to the London-Dublin decision to put an end to “constructive ambiguity” and triggered the propaganda onslaught on SF/IRA.

Bambery airbrushes this out so that he can write like a Continuity IRA or Real IRA or unreconstructed Provo militarist, equating disarmament with surrender, and so that he can pretend that the Provisional IRA did not propose to disarm last November.

Bambery’s “history” is as ropey as his grasp of current events. He write: “When the British troops were introduced they interned hundreds of the political opponents of the Unionists without trial. British soldiers gunned down 13 civil rights demonstrators in Derry in January 1972. The IRA began a military campaign against what it regarded as an occupation force”.

Factually this is a tissue of nonsense. The IRA campaign began in early 1971. Fourteen civil rights marchers were shot to death on “Bloody Sunday”, 30 January 1972. Internment was introduced in August 1971, two years after the British troops took control of the streets. It was introduced by the Belfast Unionist government to quell the Catholics, but it proved to be petrol on the fire. The consequent growth in support for the Republicans, and then the massacre on Bloody Sunday, led London to abolish the old Belfast Protestant majority-rule parliament in March 1972.

When troops went onto the streets in August 1969, they were welcomed by the hard-pressed Catholics with cheers and cups of tea. Read the files of Socialist Worker, Chris! Socialist Worker, which in a pseudo-nationalist phase had prematurely raised the demand for Troops Out before August ’69, was so impressed by the Catholic “cups of tea” that it switched to de facto support for the British troops!

Bambery says that the Provisional IRA was born to protect the Catholic communities. That’s what the Provos say. In fact, yes and no. It utilised the felt need of the Catholics for self-defence against the Protestant bigots to win their support, but what characterised the Provisionals from the start was their militant offensive against the British and the Unionist state. From the start they waged a thinly-disguised sectarian civil war. (As from their side, did the Protestant para-militaries of that time.)

Bambery writes that British policy “for much of the 1970s and 80s was… to deal with [Northern Ireland] as [only] a security situation. But a hunger strike by political prisoners destroyed this policy”.

The hunger strike was in early… 1981. Chris, one, or two or three, years in the decade of the 1980s is not “much” of it! In the 70s, after abolishing the majority-rule (that is, Protestant-unionist-rule) Belfast parliament, Britain introduced a variant of power-sharing, like the Good Friday Agreement only less rigid and not statutorily all-inclusive. The mainstay of the five-months power-sharing government — it would be toppled by a Unionist workers’ general strike in May 1974 — was the Catholic-nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

From February 1975 to January 1976, there was an IRA ceasefire while a Constitutional Convention deliberated. It was when that failed, that Britain tried a purely military solution.

I could go on. In sum, Bambery simply doesn’t know what he is talking about. The SWP’s policy, here as in everything, is spun from mere negativism towards the Establishment and its governments, in Britain and outside it. Bambery, like the SWP, is as indifferent to the lives of the Catholics in the Short Strand, where the McCartneys have wide support, and in the other Catholic ghettoes, as he is to the Northern Ireland unionist working class. As utterly indifferent to the development of honest working-class socialist politics in Northern Ireland as they are in Britain, where ignorant-indifferent stuff like Bambery’s article poison the political conscience of those who know no better than to believe what Socialist Worker says.

The single most significant thing in Bambery’s tissue of “revolutionary” nonsense is when he justifies the existence of the IRA’s private army by citing the bourgeois norm that there is only one army, one police, one law, one state. It is good, he suggests, that this should not be so, and therefore good that the IRA exists.

Bambery writes, implicitly explaining why it is good that the SF/IRA private army should exist: “One of the key ways a capitalist state operates is that there is one army, one police, and one law. The message to Gerry Adams is — if you want office, then you need to break with the IRA”. Therefore socialists to prove their anti-bourgeois independence tell Adams to hang on to his army?

Trotsky once observed that the reform “socialists” tell the working class that democracy is safest when the bourgeoisie is armed to the teeth and the working class disarmed. Chris Bambery, the “revolutionary”, goes one better than the crassest and most bone-headed of the reform “socialists”. He thinks that the rights and existence of the labour movement are best served, and democracy is safest, when not only the bourgeois state is armed to the teeth but also a bourgeois-nationalist political party, swimming in money, operating entirely outside the law, and treating the Northern Ireland Catholics it rules over in a way that is impossible most of the time for the bourgeois state forces in a bourgeois democracy to treat them.

Here Bambery also repeats the SWP’s characteristic and identity-defining mistake. They are against the British state in Ireland. Therefore they side with those they think are against it without any concern with the positive alternative, or any reckoning with what alternatives the Provos offer. The idea that if the Irish bourgeois-democratic state disintegrates into warlordism, or falls under the control of the IRA, that would be good for socialism or the working class is the crassest political nonsense. Anyone who believes that, or half believes it, has lost the political plot.