The killing of two soldiers and a policeman in Northern Ireland in early March was only news to the extent that the shootings were ‘successful'. Since the new power-sharing government was established in May 2007 there have been a number of attacks on the security forces by ‘dissident' republicans.
The Independent Monitoring Commission has reported a more concentrated period of attacks than at any time since 2004. Previously shot policemen have survived, and there have also been parcel bombs, booby-trapped bombs under cars, a landmine attack, and a roadside bomb that are among 20 gun and bomb attacks on police and army that have marked the last 16 months of ‘peace' in Northern Ireland.
This is obviously not at the levels of violence of the 1970s or 80s, but it underlines the inherent tension in the situation. There are, apparently only a limited number of ‘dissident' republicans, but, as Irish history has shown, small groupings also play their part. Gangs like the Real or Continuity IRA assert their ‘rebel' credentials, but their capitalist programme of Irish nationalism, and the degree to which such groups are penetrated and manipulated by state security forces, make them players (if mainly as pawns) with the other bourgeois forces that face each other in Ireland.
The relationship between Irish nationalist and pro-British forces is not one of peace but truce. While there was almost complete unity across the political spectrum in opposition to the March killings, talk of Ireland "staring into the abyss" was typical. In Northern Ireland there is a form of apartheid, of separate development of the two ‘communities', where most people live in areas that are overwhelmingly of a single religion. The Berlin Wall came down 20 years ago, but in Belfast there are 83 walls left in place to keep the population divided.
A few days after the killings there were rallies ("peace vigils") in Belfast, Newry, Derry, Lisburn, Downpatrick and Craigavon in which the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) played a prominent part together with the politicians. An ICTU spokesman said that the people of Northern Ireland "want only peace and absolutely no return to violence of any kind". A return to military violence depends on the actions of the paramilitaries and the official forces of state repression.
But that is not the only violence that capitalism has to offer, there is also the force of its economic crisis, from which Northern Ireland is not immune. As a recent Bloomberg item reported (18/3) "Unemployment has soared by 76 per cent over the last year, the biggest annual increase in at least 38 years. Politicians' efforts to rebuild Northern Ireland's economy after more than three decades of violence have been hampered by the first global recession since World War II." Mid-Ulster has been particularly badly hit with claimant totals in Cookstown, Dungannon and Magherafelt going up 149%, 161% and 186% respectively. These are only small towns but they are the three largest increases in the UK over the last year.
At the end of March/beginning of April job losses were announced at telecoms company Nortel, engineers FG Wilson, Ford subcontractor Visteon and nearly 1000 jobs at the Bombardier aerospace company. That's about 2% of Northern Irish manufacturing gone in a single week. Workers replied by occupying the Visteon factory in west Belfast, an action that almost immediately spread to Enfield and Basildon in England.
In the same week, in Belfast and Derry, three men were shot in the legs in traditional punishment attacks.
Anger at the effects of the economic crisis
The economy of the Irish Republic, once touted as the ‘Celtic Tiger', is also not immune from the global crisis. It was the first country of the eurozone to go into recession in 2008, and every prediction for 2009 is quickly revised to acknowledge a rapidly worsening situation. In the last three months of 2008 the Irish economy shrank by 7.5% in comparison with the same 2007 period. The construction industry has been particularly badly hit with a 24% drop in output. The current official forecast of a 6.9% contraction in the economy this year is very optimistic. Unemployment, already at 11% is forecast to average over 14% next year. The Irish Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, said, "Ireland is facing a very difficult recession, somewhat worse than the rest of the world."
As Reuters (25/3/9) reported "Even at the targeted 9.5 percent of GDP this year, Ireland's budget deficit is the worst in the euro zone. This marks a stunning reversal of fortune for the former ‘Celtic Tiger' economy which has been hit by a double whammy of a global recession and the bursting of a local property bubble." The Irish government has not hesitated to try and get the working class to pay for the crisis, "More than two decades of peaceful industrial relations were ruptured last month when [Irish Prime Minister] Cowen pushed ahead with a public sector pay freeze and a pension levy."
On 22 February there was the biggest of a series of demonstrations with more than 100,000 showing their anger on the streets of Dublin. ICTU, which operates on both sides of the border, played a major part in the organisation of the demo, which is to be expected, as it is, in its own words, the "largest civic society organisation on the island of Ireland". That doesn't diminish the very real depth of feeling among those who were protesting.
Leftists and unions in Ireland made much of the 7-week occupation by workers of the Waterford Wedgwood crystal factory in Kilbarry. Workers from the occupation led the 22 February demonstration. The unions tried to get a new owner for the business. There were many donations of money and food. The main furnace was maintained to ensure that the factory was viable. In the end a private equity firm took over. The only guarantee is that for six months 110 full time and 50 part-time jobs will be retained, where once 700 worked.
Occupations raise certain difficulties. At its best the occupation of a factory can be a moment in the extension of the struggle other workers. At its worst it can mean the death of the struggle, isolated in one location and/or just concerned with the running of a capitalist enterprise. For the working class the extension of the struggle to other workers in different sectors of the economy is one of the means for strengthening its sense of its own power and force in society.
As elsewhere, the trade unions undermine, derail and sabotage struggles. In addition to the ICTU examples, the Irish SWP have pointed out how union leaders "left 13,000 CPSU members to strike alone. SIPTU and IMPACT even sent out letters to members to tell them - wrongly - that solidarity action was illegal." Far from being exceptional, this is just a more obvious example of how unions stand against moves toward workers' solidarity.
Economic crisis is the key
With the deepening of the crisis the attacks of the Irish bourgeoisie are multiplying. There is to be the second emergency budget in six months on 7 April. The Irish central bank want it to include massive cuts in public spending (that is, cuts in the wages of those who work in the public sector, and cuts in benefits), and others want to include increases in taxation, in particular on those whose wages have previously been too low to be taxed. Lenihan says, "Everybody will have to pay something." In opposition to this a nationwide strike was planned for March 30. However, a few days before this was due to happen, ICTU called it off, with the prospect of entering into talks with the government. Taoiseach Brian Cowen "said he saw ‘considerable merits' in the many aspects of the 10-point plan for economic recovery drawn up by ICTU" (Irish Times 25/3/9).
North and South the effects of the economic crisis hold the key to the situation. If the bourgeoisie gains the upper hand it will be able to impose its austerity regime in the Republic, and in the North there will be little to prevent it using sectarian conflict to carve up and weaken any working class response to its attacks. And even when sectarian conflict runs counter to some of the bourgeoisie's more ‘rational' policies, the economic crisis threatens to sharpen the decomposition of capitalist society, with its tendency towards gangsterisation and irrational, fratricidal violence.
On the other hand, if the working class reacts to the economic crisis with its own demands and methods, we will no doubt see expressions of the counter-tendency, the one that leads it to breaking through the sectarian divide. This is something which has appeared in many past workers' struggles, most notably the 2006 post office strike where workers from both sides of the divide very consciously held a joint march through traditional Protestant and Catholic areas.
Put in another way, these tendencies point to the two mutually antagonistic historical alternatives facing the working class in Ireland. They are the same as those facing the class everywhere: capitalist barbarism on the one hand, class struggle and socialism on the other.