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Irish Republicanism in the age of austerity

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Brian Christopher argues that Irish Republicanism must reject both Sinn Fein and the Real IRA in favour of a socialist vision for a united Ireland.

Irish Republicanism has had many faces throughout the past few centuries. Divisions and splits have occurred as the movement faces the challenges of how to deal with the changing nature of imperialism.  Today, such a chasm opens, ever wider, between those who see armed struggle as the only means of freeing Ireland from Britain and others who advocate ‘constitutional’ means of securing a United Ireland, through parliamentary reform and ‘economic co-operation’.

The six counties in the north east of Ireland represent one of the last outposts of the British Empire.  Britain seeks continuously to dominate and influence Ireland for its own self-interest.

The majority of (mainly Protestant) people in the six counties who support a continue link with Britain pose an obstacle for the republican movement.  The separate camps in republicanism are characterised by how they choose to address this challenge and other challenges posed by the new constitutional setup.  Socialists must advocate anti-sectarian politics, independent working class action and principled opposition to British imperialism in Ireland.

The implementation of the Good Friday Agreement saw a devolved government in Stormont, with executive power shared between the four main parties, an elected assembly, and north-south ministerial bodies set up to facilitate co-operation.   There was also a release of political prisoners.  Sinn Fein masterminded a plan to upset the traditional tribal voting patterns and quickly consolidated their position within the establishment. They supported decommissioning of IRA weapons and eventually endorsed the police force and joined one of its governing bodies, the Policing Board.

While these changes were happening, many people in the north of Ireland saw a dramatic and exciting change in one aspect of their quality of life.  Military checkpoints were dismantled, police stations and army barracks were cleared away allowing for redevelopment and (in some cases) job creation. It became possible to cross the border without interrogation, harassment, searches and arbitrary delays. Roads, streets, bays, parks and historical sites were reopened where previously they had been blocked by concrete slabs and woven in barbwire.  Huge military watchtowers were removed from town centres and farms. Army surveillance patrols and machine-gun wielding police squads disengaged and kept a low profile and then all but disappeared.

The developments were incredibly positive for ordinary people who had faced the brunt of the occupation. Ireland stopped looking like a war zone.   And people were very happy about it.  But other changes were happening too.

The areas of redevelopment were put to private, not public use. They became sites for supermarkets or banks, rather than much preferred parks or playgrounds or community centres. The new Northern Ireland Executive was keen to show that Northern Ireland was open for business. So tax cuts were offered to entice multinational corporations in to exploit the resources and labour of the local people.  There was little concern for who was to invest. So for example Raytheon, an arms–tech company specialising in missile software was invited to set up in Derry.  Huge budgets for civic regeneration were placed in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and regeneration companies, away from democratic control.

The foreign direct investment sought by politicians across the spectrum has done little to increase the standard of living for people in Northern Ireland.   31% of working age people in the North are not in paid employment. Only about a third of these people are on the official unemployment figures. Long-term unemployment is twice as high as in Britain.  There are 100 000 children living in poverty and a further 40, 000 living in severe poverty.  This amounts to 8% of the total population. Almost half of these are working families – the problem is working poverty as much as unemployment.  The number of sectarian attacks reported to police has grown dramatically in recent years.  Rioting, both political and recreational is still fairly frequent.  There is worsening geographical segregation, particularly in Belfast.  The landscape does not have so many watchtowers, but instead more and more “Peace Walls” create barriers bigger than the Iron curtain that ran through Berlin.

Sinn Fein and the new establishment

What solution do republicans offer to these problems?   In the Republic of Ireland, Sinn Fein has tacked left – posing as an anti-establishment party, associating itself with the anti-austerity parliamentary forces gathering confidence across Europe.  But Sinn Fein’s great political success story, Martin McGuiness, has moved easily into the role of “chuckle brother”, sharing seemingly hilarious moments with his former enemies while being the front man for capitalism and the reformed British state.

A quick view of Sinn Fein’s own policy declaration reveals a “convergence” model.  The party advocates a kind of ‘coming together ‘ of north and south through a series of incremental steps to merge the political class of north and south.  They would effectively share the mandate by allowing Irish passport holders in the north to vote in elections in the Republic of Ireland and allow Northern Irish MPs to take seats in Dáil Eireann.  There should, they argue, be a simultaneous move towards planned economic integration so that public services are available regardless of the border. It is essentially a neo-liberal approach to nationalist politics.  The party wishes to eliminate distinction in policy, politics and nationality by creating something approaching a “single market”.  There is the obvious implication that Sinn Fein would oversee this grand project like two shepherds merging their flocks.  Having acquiesced to British rule (for now) in the north and secured themselves as an important component of the ruling elite, Sinn Fein is desperate to join the government in the south.  There the economic boom has collapsed, taking with it Fianna Fail, Sinn Fein’s political cousin, once the most successful populist party in Western Europe.

This grand plan reads well for most nationalists.  It’s fairly straightforward; all you have to do is vote Sinn Fein and ask the people you know down south to do the same. There is no talk of guns, no mention of Britain or eight hundred years.  Nothing about struggle.  Instead there is a fairly innocuous, incremental and ‘moderate’ programme for creating ‘an Ireland of equals.’

This fantasy begins to break down when the conditions for the convergence are measured against two important criteria – what the Irish economic and political situation looks like and also what Sinn Fein actually does in Government. The commitment to making public services available in spite of a border is a good example. On the one hand the republicans take credit for a new initiative to bring a much needed radiotherapy unit to Derry, where it will benefit citizens of the neighbouring counties in the Republic of Ireland, notably Donegal.  This came after an excellent campaign by grassroots activist to force the hands of the Unionist minister for health who attempted to thwart the project.

But in contrast Sinn Fein has followed the move toward austerity with military precision.  Schools have been closed down at an alarming rate on the basis that they are not “financially viable”. McGuiness presides over an executive that implements education cuts, deregulation and closures.  Michael Gove’s Tory agenda is being mirrored aggressively by Sinn Fein education minister, John O’Dowd.

While the policies of Sinn Fein advocate a counter-cyclical model of social democracy (“save in the good times and spend in the bad”) in theory, the opposite is the case in practise.  The Executive gives handouts to banks in the north while supporting corporation tax cuts.  At the same time Sinn Fein opposes handouts to banks in the south, where it is in opposition. Far from approving additional spending in the hard times, Sinn Fein has enforced pay freezes over the past three years for public sector staff and has given no support to the strikes held by government workers against the Tories’ attacks on pensions, conditions and services.  Sinn Fein is committed to a low rate of corporation tax and de-regulation to facilitate the arrival of more multi-nationals who ship away their profits to the big financial havens of London and New York.  They support the introduction of private enterprise in transport, which is already expensive and set to get worse.  While Sinn Fein opposes the household charge, in the Republic of Ireland, there is no support for a boycott.  That would encourage direct conflict with the state. And Sinn Fein is eager to put that away for good.

The other implied truth in the convergence plan is that there is a shared interest between those who run industry in Ireland and the mass of ordinary people. As we have seen that is not the case.  The elites, north and south are determined to make us pay for their crisis. Sinn Fein has got the struggle the wrong way around.  The fight is not to convince unionists that they should join in a grand plan to unite the band of warring brothers in Belfast and Dublin.  The fight is to engage ordinary people in a struggle against those elites and their state institutions. That means fighting the cuts, opposing the crimes of the PSNI, stopping the handouts to the rich bankers and defending public services.

It means simultaneously doing this in the south – boycotting the household charge, smashing the gangs of corrupt mafia-politicians, cops and prospectors and bankers whose dishonesty and greed weaves a web around the Dáil.

In this struggle, the idea of nationality and religious creed are used as weapons by those same super-rich exploiters to break our solidarity with each other and win us over to their side. This can take the form of racism about “our jobs” and encouraging division and jealousy between public and private sector workers.

Socialists need to argue for political action that is independent of the ideas and parties of the ruling elites – which means rejecting austerity and neo-liberalism.  It also means rejecting any notions that one community can only benefit at the cost of another.

The other betrayal…

The image of the other strand of republicanism is actually the faceless, masked and armed guerrilla – the “dissident” gunman.   Since splitting from the Provisional IRA and rejecting their ceasefire, the Real IRA (or RIRA) has proven themselves well capable of delivering devastating blows to the sense of relative calm felt by ordinary people since the process of demilitarisation began.  The provisional IRA had been the product of several concurrent phenomena – a core of “republican families”, radicalised working class youth and the politicised generation of the 1960s/70s.   This made for a sophisticated mix of political ideology, but also pragmatism.  RIRA has fewer dimensions.  It has little ideological connections with any international movement.  Its periodic statements use left-wing rhetoric but it has little or no connection to the class. Unlike the Provisional IRA, The Real IRA cannot depend on even tacit support from catholic communities.

RIRA engraved its ugly face in history when in August 1998 it detonated a huge bomb in Omagh town centre.  The bomb had little potential to destroy any part of the apparatus of British military presence in Ireland, which was already at that time being dismantled in favour of a police state.

Instead the bomb killed 29 people.  As well as a brutal act of political violence in itself, it was also devastating and terrifying reminder of the worst period of the war with Britain.  This was a car bomb, deliberately placed in the centre of Martin McGuinness’s Westminster constituency, in an overwhelmingly catholic town, on a busy shopping day.  For most nationalists and for many republicans, it symbolised the need to end the armed struggle.  The Real IRA, through its various actions and statements, argued that the future of Republicanism could only be continued by a guerrilla campaign to free Ireland from British rule. It didn’t matter that the form of resistance they advocated had been developed as a response to the specific military occupation that started in 1969.  And it didn’t matter that the method by which Britain ruled Ireland had changed dramatically.  For these republicans, armed violence was a principle – it could be used against British forces and any others they deemed legitimate targets (e.g. pizza deliverymen, the Irish Tourist Board). The means and the messages became more blurred.

It is this sentiment that characterises the dissident movement in the minds of the overwhelming majority of people in Ireland.  A very small group of people, with an incoherent political message and very marginal support are able to impact not through political organisation, or the strength of their ideas but because their cadre have access to guns and can make very large explosions.  This was the case with the Provisional IRA, but it had sometimes been possible to engage the old IRA in a political debate, negotiations and strategies –particularly through Sinn Fein.  The Real IRA rejects any accountability whatsoever and for this reason they offer only the worst elements of republicanism.

The reliance on the gun and the bomb to intervene in the discussion has prompted most Irish nationalists to react to them with a mixture of disgust and anger but frequently these reactions are mixed in with a form of class snobbery.  Dissidents are “illiterate”, “dole spongers” and so on.  The common caricature is one of feckless unemployed and bitter “hoods” who are happy to take benefits from the British State but who then attack the institutions of that same state.

This reaction does not amount to a political analysis and worse still it confuses and equates two concurrent themes that have characterized British involvement in Ireland for a long time; poverty and resistance.

Since the Good Friday Agreement came into effect in 1999 the face or Northern Ireland has changed dramatically.  The changes have been uneven and polarizing.  There is an organized attempt by the government to appeal to investors, tourists and emigrants who they want to encourage back. The people who live in Ireland are now reduced to mere hosts for these rich benefactors who are to be attracted in to take advantage of the new situation.    As a result the image shown on television screens and talked about at press conferences doesn’t match the realities and hardships facing ordinary people.

In a country suffering the effects of inequality, poverty, unemployment and divided by sectarianism, organising a movement that challenges the state and those who control the wealth has additional challenges. Those in power repeatedly divert class anger away from themselves by framing every debate in the context of sectarian competition. The result is that other forces – loyalist, republican, even far-right thugs – step into the place where socialist politics ought to be, offering solutions to the problems of “their community”.

For all their rhetoric about the anger felt by the catholic working class– the Real IRA have no strategy for changing our lives.  It would be impossible for them to be involved in merging this anger with the betrayal, abuse and resentment felt in the loyalist areas, or the fear felt by those Protestants who once saw themselves as middle class but who urgently need radical politics. Their failure to see this is not unique to their class, creed or their political party.  Sinn Fein, The SDLP and all the unionist parties fail spectacularly here as well.

The British government enforces and enjoys this setup, playing communities against each other – and all the time laughing that the face of cuts and closures, the deliverers of bad news, are a former IRA commander and a former loyalist gunman. It makes it very convenient for the British government to have two sets of sectarian clans, fighting for their fiefdoms in a zero-sum game of dividing the crumbs.

This is why socialists argued during discussions on the Good Friday Agreement that we were “for the peace but against the process”. The slogan aimed to highlight the fact that there is a different path to peace and it is one which is more radical and more realistic. The GFA established a government of “managed sectarianism” in the North of Ireland.

Our system of government is one were the four main parties share the administrative powers devolved form Westminster.  Those elected have no real powers over the decisions which govern our lives – some are reserved by Westminster but the majority are not in the hands of elected politicians at all.  Nobody who runs big business, banks, the media, the army, the police, the churches, the civil service, the NHS, housing associations and contractors, or universities is elected.  This is the case in any capitalist society but the sectarian divide in our society makes it even more difficult for any concessions to be won from these powerful instruments of class rule.  That in turn weakens working class consciousness and allows sectarian values to persist.  We must therefore reject the idea that we should collaborate with the state and its grand plan (whether it is one for Britain or Ireland) and that means being both anti-sectarian and at the same time anti-constitutional – rejecting the authority of the state.

Take for example the reform of the police service.  The hated RUC was disbanded and overhauled to create the PSNI in 2000.  The primary concern for Catholics was to address the fact that the constabulary had been overwhelmingly Protestant and more so towards the top levels, dominated by conservative Unionist men and very close in membership and values to the Orange Order.  This police force collaborated with loyalist gunmen in killing Catholics, harassment, ill-treatment of children and so on.  One conclusion was to recreate a new police force, one with a 50/50 split in terms of religion and to improve the force’s image through a series of changes of uniform, architecture, transport, language – in short, a re-branding exercise.

But most of what the RUC had done to earn hatred of the Catholic community had actually been done lawfully – internment for example.  This gets to the heart of what the RUC were – a brutally sectarian police force, yes, but a police force nonetheless.  Their replacement, the PSNI has been purged of much of its sectarian base.  But it remains an instrument of class rule. They attack demonstrators, break strikes and protect the rich from the poor.  The organisation shares some of the worst elements of the RUC policies, including the use of child informants since 2006.  Nearly half of the civilians employed by the PSNI for surveillance, intelligence etc are ex-RUC.  The practical implications of combating sectarianism, whilst opposing guerrilla warfare is that we should refuse to collaborate with and sanction the rule of the PSNI and other undemocratic bodies in Ireland. But we must do this through mass civil disobedience (which worked before!) and not by shooting policemen.  Here we arrive at our destination.  A new republicanism that is too radical to be called ‘constitutional’, too democratic to be called ‘violent’ and too secular to be sectarian.

Radical Anti-imperialist Politics

Socialist politics offer the only solution to the contradiction within republicanism.  The only way to end the exploitative relationship between Britain and the people of Ireland is to take on the bosses and their state.  That state includes Northern Ireland Executive and all its organs – and that now extends to Sinn Fein.

But we cannot realistically challenge state power by conspiratorial violence.  We should have no truck with those who use anti-capitalist rhetoric in their statements, claiming that they are the protectors of the community but who shoot ordinary people and plant bombs. There is a world of difference between the spontaneous resistance of a whole community against police violence and the calculated “hit lists” and bomb plots of a secret, unaccountable military organisation.

Nor should we misinterpret Sinn Fein’s rhetoric about reaching out to Unionists as having anything like an anti-sectarian message.   Sinn Fein, like the other main parties, does not have s strategy that can unite Catholics and Protestants and it has no ambition to challenge the state – instead it has become part of the ruling elite.

The way to break the link between the protestant working class and the reactionary ideas of Orangeism is through independent working class organisation and a fight against the attacks on working people as typified in the recent budgets.

The tribal politics of Stormont are best challenged when workers take action to defend pay, conditions and pensions.  There is a brilliant atmosphere of solidarity and friendship at an anti-war demonstration or a march against cuts.

These politics will become increasingly important as the long-term economic crisis deepens.  But there is another significant political development brewing in the United Kingdom.  In Scotland, the nationalists are threatening something that the IRA could not have envisaged in its wildest dreams – the dismantling of the union itself – a breakdown of the British State.

This debate and the ensuing referendum will have an enormous impact on Ulster unionism. But what effect it has will depend on what form the debate takes.  If Scotland was to cede from the UK as a result of a mass movement against austerity and war, it would represent a crushing and historical defeat for unionism, but simultaneously a momentous victory for a predominantly protestant working class with close links to Ireland. The combination of this with a victory in the south against the fiscal treaty, austerity and the household charge would be a most exciting prospect for those of us who want a united Ireland for and by the Irish working class.

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