Ireland: one year after the ceasefire

Submitted by Matthew on 13 June, 2010 - 7:50 Author: Editorial

And now, Sir, as we approach the first anniversary of the Provisional IRA ceasefire, will you tell us please, what do you think of Britain's role in Ireland?

Should Britain just get out - "Troops Out Now" - or does it have a necessary role to play in securing a political settlement? A progressive role, perhaps? What do you think, Sir?

"We cannot make peace on this island unless the British government faces up to its historic responsibilities. They can't say you sort it out among yourselves and then we'll come aboard. The British government has to be proactively involved in creating a level playing pitch to enable us to heal all the divisions that exist among us".

Can you guess which Unionist that was, speaking his approximation to plain truth? No Unionist: that was Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein! He was speaking in May at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin, during a discussion on the "framework" document issued by London and Dublin in February. But when the Labour Party finance minister in the Dublin government, Ruairi Quinn, attacked a central contention of Sinn Fein's submission to the Forum - "Sinn Fein rejects the thesis that the conflict in our contry is fundamentally about relationships between the people of Ireland" - Adams was having none of it. The Provisional Sinn Fein paper An Phoblacht summarised his reply thus:

"Gerry Adams rejected Quinn's criticisms as "selective", and spoke of the "myth that the British government's attitude to Ireland is benign. Let's not make the mistake of saying this is a northern problem. It is a problem created by British involvement in our affairs and divisions among people on this island". (An Phoblacht, 11 May 1995).

Benign or malign, Britain has a central role to play, as Adams, not quite consistently, insisted in the words quoted at the beginning of this article. But why, exactly, will a not-at-all-benign British government play a benign role? Why will Britain assume, as the Provisionals put it elsewhere, the role of 'persuaders' of the Northern Ireland Unionists (essentially, the Northern Ireland Protestants), 'persuading' them to reconciliation with Irish nationalism (in modern history, essentially Catholic Irish nationalism) on terms acceptable to the Provisionals?

Why? Because otherwise the Provisional IRA will resume its war. "The Provisional IRA has not gone away", as Adams told a Belfast rally recently.

The hope that international pressure - in the first place that of the very powerful Irish-American political lobby - could force Britain to do what the Provisionals want and is the main reason why the Provisionals felt that the 'long war' could best be continued for now by means of political pressure, and why the Provisional leaders have, for now, been able to persuade the entire Provisional IRA to call off the 'armed struggle'. There have been no splits so far.

Speaking at the annual Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown on 18 June, Martin McGuinness made the same point as Adams, with the same startling candour in his description of the Irish minority. "We want those people who live in Ireland and who regard themselves as British to join with us in building a new Ireland... Unionists will come to the negotiating table - let there be no mistake about that - but they will only do so when the British government actively encourages them to do so".

As this magazine's predecessor Socialist Organiser repeatedly pointed out during the Provisionals' military campaign, nothing the Provisionals did in that war made sense until you understood that these self-proclaimed "heirs of Tone, Davis, Pearse and Connolly" looked to the British state ultimately to "deliver" one million Irish Unionists to a united Ireland.

While fervently, and with unimpeachable sincerity, proclaiming a united Ireland as their goal - something that to most people would seem to depend on winning the consent of the Irish minority - they conducted a military campaign that targetted mainly Protestants, right down to shooting Protestant carpenters in front of their children because they had built cupboards in an RUC station. Everything the Provisionals did outraged the very people they needed to win over; and some of the things they did seemed as if deliberately designed to stir Protestants into conflict with the British state. That would be politically insane behaviour - and historically, from the point of view of genuine Irish Republicanism and its goal of uniting the people of Ireland, it is insane behaviour - except that the strategists of the Provisionals saw the one million Irish Protestant/Unionists as mere pawns.

The Provisionals conceive of the great Irish Republican goal proclaimed by Wolfe Tone at the end of the 18th century - "to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irish in place of the denominations Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter" - as something to be achieved not at first in the minds and heads, in the convictions and desires of the living people of Ireland, but mechanically and formally, through an all-Ireland state, even one in which the one million Northern Ireland Protestants were a coerced minority occupying the same position vis-a-vis Dublin that Northern IrelandÕs half-million Catholics currently have vis-a-vis Belfast and London. For them, Irish unity was something that could be achieved despite the Protestants, over their protests, and, where necessary, over their bones; something that depended essentially on an ability to deploy the necessary force, from economic arm-twisting to armed suppression.

Left to the forces of Catholic Ireland - even if all those forces in Ireland could be mobilised, and almost certainly they could not - the Protestant/Catholic, Unionist/Nationalist conflict could be resolved by force only through open civil war, at the end of which there would still be two Irelands, with newly-drawn borders. It was the recognition of this that led Eamonn De Valera, for example, to rule out force as a means of "ending partition". Besides, it was and is inconceivable that Britain would just scuttle and run from a part of the UK, the majority of whose population proclaim themselves British, leaving chaos behind.

A simple driving out of the British was never a direct goal of the Provisionals, except perhaps in the naive early days of the war. The assumption and expectation - and the demand: "Disarm the Protestants" - was that Britain would, in going, first sort things out to the Provisionals' satisfaction. While getting out, Britain would be forced to act in loco parentis for the Irish minority. It would combine with Catholic Ireland to resolve the military conflict initiated by the Provisionals not in an Irish civil war and a new partition, but in a united Ireland secured by agreement between British and the Irish majority - and enforced by the British and 26 Counties armies. It was fantasy, but it has been central throughout the long years of the war.

Now the Provisionals are discovering that their reliance on help from Britain is a delusion and a fantasy; fantasy, too, is the notion that the international clout which the Provisionals think they have will allow them to dictate terms to Britain and to the Northern Ireland Unionists.

The best they will get - the basic frame that all the international pressure groups are aiming for - is Dublin's and London's so-called "Framework for Peace", issued in February. This proposes a new Six Counties government be set up on the basis of permanent Catholic/Protestant power-sharing; and that the Belfast government and the Dublin government be linked together in an all-Ireland structure. From the beginning all dealings by both parts of Ireland with the all-important European Union would go through the all-Ireland structure, which would thus immediately assume major all--Ireland government functions. London and Dublin mean, for the forseeable future, to preserve the existing structures in North and South but to enmesh them in a network of all-Ireland, British Isles and European Union structures that would, over many years, transform all existing relationships.

Such plans have been put forward before, differing only in detail. Without Unionist agreement nothing comes of such plans. So far they do not agree. If this one is viable, it may take a long time to bear fruit. Even in the best development, it would not satisfy the demands the Provisionals have fought 23 years of war for - British disengagement, for example.


One year after the ceasefire, the signs are that, despite the strains, it will continue for now. What is remarkable is the seriousness with which the Provisionals have continued to pursue the political campaign for "peace" despite the fact that "peace", which a year ago seemed to be another name for a slightly-deferred victory, is now revealed to be something else. They continue to have faith in the power of the pan-nationalist alliance stretching from Irish America through Belfast to Dublin.

The Provisionals plausibly claim that they have been cheated. A year ago the British were offering the Provisionals a place at the "conference table" after a "suitable period" of ceasefire had elapsed. That "suitable period" was publicly talked of as three to four months. The Provisionals declared its ceasefire on 31 August 1994, but so far - publicly anyway - it has been allowed only limited "preliminary" talks with the British government. (With which it had three years of secret talks before the ceasefire).

No sooner was there a ceasefire than the stakes were raised: the talks were made conditional on a further move by the Provisionals - the "decommissioning" of their weaponry, or a portion of it. This requirement was thrown out by Unionist politicians; the British picked it up and made it central in a way it had not been in the negotiations for the ceasefire. Albert Reynolds, who was Taoiseach (prime minister) in Dublin last August, has stated publicly that he would never have agreed to such a requirement and never did.

Why did the British raise the stakes? When Unionist politicians made "decommissioning" a precondition for even thinking about all-party talks, pressure was generated on Britain to stay in step in order eventually to lead them into discussions; but there is more to it than that.

The British know that they cannot concede any of the core demands of the Provisionals, which represents something like a third of Northern Ireland's half-million Catholics, without utterly alienating and in some circumstances driving into revolt the majority of the one million Protestant/Unionists. They know that it is inconceivable that "all-party talks" can lead to an all-party agreement acceptable to the Provisionals and the Unionists.

For the British, securing the ceasefire, and a durable return to "politics", are the immediate goal; for the Provisionals, the ceasefire is a means to a different goal, all-Irish unity, the goal they used to pursue arms in hand.

The British probably believe that the longer the ceasefire goes on, the more difficult it will be for the Provisionals to go back to war. It will be more difficult, though not impossible - there was a ceasefire all through 1975, but that came to an end when the political hopes to which it was linked collapsed early in 1976.

The "decomissioning" demand, apart from it being raised after the ceasefire, has very much about it of an "impossible" demand, a spoiling demand. Provisional leader Martin McGuinness said:"...If the British government continues to insist on the unilateral decomissioning of IRA weaponry before substantive political dialogue, this represents an absolute obstacle to political development" [emphasis added]. Boasting that John Major is "alienating Irish and world opinion", and that (unlike the Provos) he had "no allies" apart from the Unionist leadership, McGuinness explained:
"However, it is equally obvious and inevitable that there would be a universal decomissioning of arms - British arms and Irish arms - once and all-encompassing political discussion and framework is agreed upon." (An Phoblacht, 22 June 1995). History's various IRAs, at the end of their wars and military campaigns, have always "dumped" arms - put them into storage - and never given them up. Thus it was at the end of the civil war in the South in 1923, and at the end of the Border Campaign in 1962.

The British will, if it suits them, soften their attitude on decommissioning, and they have already done so, calling for "some" decommissioning. They have made concessions - announcing cuts in the jail sentences of Republican prisoners to mark the anniversary of the ceasefire, for example - without any IRA arms being "decommissioned". Some international decommissioning body may be set up that would save faces and leave the Provisionals with their guns.

Despite the frustration of the best expectations of a year ago, the Provisionals have resumed not the shooting war but the political war, the sort of political campaigning that built up the forces for launching the military campaign early in 1971.

The Provisionals are now a movement engaged in a multi-faceted series of political campaigns, not one primarily fighting a guerilla war. A network of "residents' committees" have been set up, and an organisation, Saoirse (Freedom), to campaign across Ireland and Britain for the release of Provisional IRA prisoners. Provisional Sinn Fein is linked in the so-called "pan-nationalist alliance" with Fianna Fail - which is in opposition now, but the main party of bourgeois rule in the 26 counties of southern Ireland for the last 63 years - and the Northern Ireland SDLP, and this gives its campaigns not only added resonance and power, but respectability too. On May Day (which in Ireland is 12 May, the anniversary of the killing of James Connolly in 1916), Sinn Fein representatives spoke on labour movement platforms in Dublin. A number of national trade union leaders already are Sinn Fein supporters (one of them, Phil Flynn, is an ex-Trotskyist), but now Sinn Fein has a new 'in' with the establishment - from Northern Ireland to Dublin, from bourgeois parties to the labour movement.

At the heart of these activities is the disciplined military organisations, and it is a formidable force. Much agitation is directed against the RUC, and clashes are staged to back the demand for the disbandment of the RUC, and other demands.

The Provisionals kept the Catholic demonstrations which they organised and orchestrated round the Orange marching season within strict boundaries.

In Derry on 13 August - it was there, on 13 August 1969, that the large-scale fighting broke out that led to the British Army occupying the streets of Northern Ireland - Catholics and Republicans made a sit-down protest to try to stop the "Apprentice Boys" (an elite Orange Order) from marching adjacent to Catholic areas in their traditional parade around the walls of Derry City, one of the holiest places in Orange Ireland. When the police used force to remove them, Martin McGuinness was there to tell them not to resist.

In this way the Provisionals are preserving and rebuilding the political potential for a resumption of war, should that be necessary - just as the campaign around the hunger strikers in 1981 built up not only the political but also the military wing of the movement; just as the escalating campaign of demonstrations and stone-throwing against the British Army in 1970-1, and British Army retaliation with CS gas and rubber bullets, prepared the way for the military offensive after March 1971.

But aren't the Provos now locked into a peaceful strategy? There is no reason to think they are. An element in the ceasefire was probably war-weariness in the Catholic community, and, maybe, dawning realisation by the Provisional leaders that they could not win. Decisive, however, were the dazzling prospects of pan-nationalist constitutional political action which seeemed to open before them. What they got was the February proposals. If the Provisionals are willing to mesh in with the proposals of the February document - they grudgingly welcomed it - and the Protestants can be got to mesh in too, then the ceasefire will continue, broken at worst only by a Provisional IRA splinter. If not, then growing disappointment may lead to a new round of military activity. Preparations for that contingency are already being made on the streets of Belfast and Derry and in the less visible activities of the British state there.


Northern Ireland politics are dominated now by a terrible amount of double-talk and obfuscation. Socialists need to disentangle the issues. The Provisional press would be the worst guide to follow here. It is full of communal egocentrism and chauvinist double standards, combining for example insistence that on no account can Sinn Fein be excluded from talks with the demand, in effect, that "all-party" talks proceed without the the representatives of the Unionist majority. They engage in "anti-sectarian" incitement to sectarianism. The end of Martin McGuinness's oration at Bodenstown on 18 June is a good example of their typical double-talk, communalism and sustaining delusion.

"British rule must end so that together Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters can unite Ireland. Pax Britannica has failed...Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters will resolve their differences and learn to live together in peace in the land of their birth. As we work towards that goal we can take heart from our greatest strength, the unity of our courageous intelligent people. We are unbreakable and the tide of history is with us".

The Provo demand for all-party talks is on the face of it a reasonable demand, and such talks would indeed be a welcome development. In fact, though, this "demand", addressed to Britain, is one of a number of "impossible" demands - like the British/Unionist call for IRA "decommissioning" or the Provo call for British demilitirisation - which, though desirable in themselves, are not immediately "Real Politics" and therefore not quite what they seem.

Because the Unionists demand Provisional "decommissioning" of weapons as a precondition for talks - but if they got that, they would then find other reasons not to sit down with the Provisionals: in a recent poll 75% of Protestants said that their organisations should not talk to the Provisionals - and beacuse the Provos will not decommission "immediate all-party talks" would be "all-party talks" which have no representative of the Northern Ireland majority. The demand for immediate all-party talks is, in the circumstances, a demand on the British government to ride roughshod over the Protestant/Unionists.

It is only a variant of the demand for Britain, backed by Dublin and Washington, to coerce on behalf of the nationalists. It is the technique of the long war translated into "let Britain do it" fantasy: it is the very opposite of the necessary search for dialogue and agreement between the peoples of Ireland.

The attitude socialists should take if Britain tries coercing the Protestants - or starting "all-party" talks without them - should depend on what they were being coerced into accepting, and how, and whether it would have a reasonable chance of making things better and bringing the unity of the Irish working class closer. A mixture of coercion and trickery in 1974 blew up in everybody's face; and the memory of the orange General Strike of May '74 will make Britain inclined to caution. But the Provisionals' demands are always, ultimately, variations on the demand for Britain to act against the Protestants to give them their goal of a united Ireland. They are destructive fantasies, destructive especially to the cause of a united Ireland, which must first be the cause of uniting the Irish people, and, for socialists, of uniting the Irish working class.

There are real moves towards a united Ireland, a federal united Ireland. They are being made by London and Dublin and Brussels, not by the Provos. They are embodied in the spreading and strengthening intervention of the European Union, in which both parts of Ireland are enmeshed, and in the proposals of the February document. The overwhelming majority of Catholic Ireland, so polls and elections tell us, is happy to be so enmeshed, while Ian Paisley, the "leader of the Ulster people" thinks the European Union is a Papist conspiracy; Sinn Fein is not for the European Union, but agitation against it, even though it is removing the very possibility of Irish independence as traditionally conceived, is notably absent from the Provisional Sinn Fein paper An Phoblacht.

No other road to a united Ireland now exists, federal or otherwise. Any sort of revolutionary unification of Ireland is inconceivable. A "revolutionary" unification that consisted of subjugating the one million Protestants and turning them into the sort of discontented minority in an all-Ireland state that the half-million Catholics have been in the Six Counties would be not a progressive revolutionary development, nationalist, Republican, or socialist, but an anti-Republican and anti-socialist act of crazy Catholic chauvinism; but it is as inconceivable as it is undesirable. It is a fantasy.

The actions of the Provisionals which are ultimately guided by such fantasies, and designed to bring them into existence, are in fact disruptive of the developments towards a united Ireland as they are of the potential for Northern Ireland working-class unity. All the Provisionals' 23 year campaign has achieved is to restore the Catholic-Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland to their fullest power of communal venom.

Many of the things the Provisionals campaign for, in Ireland and in Britain, are in themselves reasonable. No socialist can have any brief for the RUC or the British Army; the Provisional IRA prisoners should be released; all-party talks, if they really were a consultation between all the forces in Ireland, would be a good thing. But all these issues are being agitated as part of a drive to build up the Provisional organisation, and thus also to build up its potential to revive the senseless and counter-productive war which ended just a year ago. Rather than give the Provisionals credence -even for demands good "in themselves" - in the labour movement, socialists should explain openly what they are and what they stand for. We should explain that the way forward in Northern Ireland is peace and the building up of working-class unity, around mutual agreement to respect each others' concerns on the constitutional issue - Northern Ireland union with Britain or the 26 counties - and around the recreation of a Labour Party by the trade unions in Northern Ireland, a party able to appeal to both Protestant and Catholic workers. Unless such a party had not only working-class social policies, but also a clear democratic plank on the disputed national/communal issue - some variant of a federal Ireland in which the Irish minority would keep autonomy as long as they wanted to - it would be doomed to fall part at the first test, as Northern Ireland labour parties have fallen apart before.

There is good ground for believing that a federal united Ireland would be much closer now if the Provisional IRA had never existed. It is a misrepresentation of history to present their campaign as a logical or necessary or defensive development of the Catholic civil rights movement: it was shaped by the politics of a Republican sect committed on principle to guns as the way to unite Ireland and self-hypnotised by such idiotic dogmas of the Catholic Irish middle class as the description of Northern Ireland as only British-occupied Ireland.

Today the Provisional movement is greatly changed from the sect that launched the war in 1971. It is led by politically sophisticated people, highly skilled at the game they play, basing themselves on mildly leftist and populist politics with which they appeal for broad support. It is making a new effort to become a force in the South, agitating around Saoirse and basking in a new acceptability. Dublin's severe broadcasting restrictions against Sinn Fein have been lifted after two decades.

Yet its core is still a military machine, dedicated to forcing through a united Ireland soon, irrespective of opposition. Even if this effort were not counter-productive - which it is - it would not make democratic, Republican or socialist sense. Despite the intentions of its militants, many of whom have given their lives, their health, and their liberty in its activities, this is not a movement helping forward a united Ireland, still less helping a united working class. Politically, it is a source of nationalist and populist confusion in the whole Irish labour movement.

If the ceasefire holds indefinitely, the Provisionals will become a narrower communally-based Northern Ireland reproduction of Fianna Fail - which, from origins very like the Provos, became the main party of bourgeois rule in Ireland - , or of the smaller, more left-wing, splinter of the 1940s and '50s, Clann na Poblachta. Whatever socialist rhetoric it uses, it will embody and propagate reactionary politics.

Its leaders' present easy junketings with Fianna Fail and with Irish-American bourgeois politicians will make some of the militants of the Provisional movement who took its socialist pretensions seriously look afresh. They should conclude that the priority for serious socialists and for Wolfe Tone Republicans is not the mechanical unity of an all-Irish state, but the unity of the Irish people, in the first place of the Irish working class. They should understand that in every progressive respect, Irish nationalism is a spent force. It was, in terms of of its progressive potential, before the Provo war began. The 23 year war is another proof of that. It is apposite now to recall the words of the Irish Workers Group issued shortly before the resurgence of "Republicanism" in Northern Ireland:

"The one serious progressive act of imperialism and Irish capitalism has been the creation of an Irish proletariat capable of putting an end to capitalism's futile existence, and capable, as part of the world revolutionary class, of realising the age-od dream of the people of Ireland for freedom. The best traditions of the old, bourgeois, republicanism have passed to the socialist working class, the only class in Ireland today capable of transforming society and the subordinate relationship with Great Britain - the only unconditionally revolutionary class. The only genuine liberation of Ireland will be from the inexorable - uncontrolled - pressures of international capitalism.

"All the essential goals of all the past defeated and deflected struggles of the Irish people over the centuries against oppression and for freedom of development and freedom from exploitation, can now only be realised in a Republic of the working people, as part of the Socialist United States of Europe and the World.

"We stand for the revolutionary combat against imperialism and national oppression in every form, whether that of garrison imperialism, neo-colonialism, or the glaring economic domination of the small nations by the super-powers which is inevitable where the capitalist world market remains the sole regulator of relationships. But we denounce those who, in the name of "Republicanism" and "anti-imperialism", attempt to subordinate the working class to any section of the bourgeoisie and who counterpose a defunct petty bourgeois national narrow-mindedness to the socialist struggle of the workers for power.

"National unity will be achieved, if not by the coming together of the Irish capitalist class under the auspices of the British imperialis state and the capitalist drive towards West European federation, then as an incidental in the proletarian revolution. The possibility of any other revolutionary reunification is long since passed. The only revolutionary republicanism is the internationalist-socialist republicanism of the proletariat.

"To socialists we say - the only viable socialism is the Marxist programme of class struggle and workers' power. To Republican activists we say - the only conceivable Republic that is other than a mockery of all the past struggles is the Workers' Republic".(Towards an Irish October, September 1967).

We repeat: neither pseudo-revolutionary military campaigns, nor their chauvinist political surrogates, offer a way forward. That lies in the building of mutual respect, the extension of mutual concessions by the peoples on the island of Ireland, and a drive to unite the working-class to fight for socialism.

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