In April 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement, the IRA were insistent: “Let us make it clear that there will be no decommissioning by the IRA”. Yet the process of putting weapons ‘beyond use’ started in October 2001. In July this year, the IRA ordered “an end to the armed campaign. … All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.” Finally, in September, General de Chastelain from the body responsible for checking off weapons against estimates of the IRA’s armoury, declared that “We are satisfied that the arms decommissioning represents the totality of the IRA’s arsenal.” Yet, while Tony Blair spoke of “an important step in the transition from conflict to peace in Northern Ireland”, there has been widespread suspicion, not limited to the ranks of loyalism, that there has not been any real change in the situation.
Has the IRA changed?
In the pages of WR we have always insisted that you could only understand the role of the IRA if you looked beyond Northern Ireland to British imperialism and its relations with other major powers. In particular US imperialism has a long history of manipulating Sinn Féin and the IRA, particularly since the early 1990s and the end of the ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain. The forms of republican activity involved violence just as much as pressure in the democratic framework for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Whether bombing in London or Manchester, standing in parliamentary elections or sitting in Stormont, the IRA/Sinn Féin has acted as an arm of US imperialism, to which Britain has responded with conventional means as well as through the unionist parties and loyalist paramilitaries.
As with any other capitalist force, both ‘peaceful’ and violent means can be used in the same cause. The British government rules with a combination of repression and democratic ideology. Similarly Sinn Féin/ the IRA have used brute force as well as nationalist rhetoric to maintain their position. They continue to put forward the demand for a United Ireland even though it’s never going to be brought about by the limited forces of Irish republicanism, and would require the deployment of the forces of a major imperialism such as the US or Germany to achieve it. The only alternative route was shown in World War Two when Churchill offered the prospect of a United Ireland if the Irish state abandoned its neutrality.
However, while not being distracted by the means used by Irish republicanism, the question remains: has the IRA changed, or, rather, do the criticisms made by leading US figures over the murder of Robert McCartney and last year’s Northern Bank robbery indicate that American use of Sinn Féin and the IRA has changed? In WR 283 we said that “If US rebukes to Sinn Féin prove to be more than passing … it will be because US imperialism is using other means to pursue its interests.”
As things stand there has been no further significant evidence pointing toward US dissatisfaction with Sinn Fein. In the same way that British governments have often criticised the terrorist activity of loyalist paramilitaries, while at the same time encouraging them and controlling them through its agents, a little criticism of the IRA from time to time is to be expected from the US. The IRA’s ‘total decommissioning’ is designed to make the republicans look responsible and put on further pressure for the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Predictably, Paisley’s DUP has criticised the whole process as being very dubious, with no photographic evidence, suspicious witnesses, no indication of how weapons were destroyed and not even a hint of an inventory. It’s also clear that any re-armament could be undertaken rapidly. So both the US and Britain still seem to be using their various forces as they have done previously.
Riots, assassinations and organised crime
Northern Ireland therefore remains a focus for the imperialist clashes between Britain and the US. It would be wrong to think, just because most paramilitary groups are on cease-fire, and that there haven’t recently been the spectacular shootings and bombings like those that hit the headlines in the 1970s and 80s, that life in Northern Ireland is the same as anywhere else in the UK.
For a start the paramilitaries on either side have not disappeared. There has recently been the campaign of the UVF (still officially recognised and either allowed or encouraged in its actions) trying to wipe out the LVF with a series of killings. There was the IRA’s offer to kill those responsible for the McCartney murder. Punishment beatings continue. September’s riots can’t just be dismissed as loyalist protests as they did show the frustration existing in parts of the population. The population of Northern Ireland didn’t need May’s report by the Independent Monitoring Commission to tell them about paramilitary involvement in drug dealing, car hijacks, armed robberies, kidnapping, extortion, money laundering, tobacco and fuel smuggling, security and taxi businesses, all alongside the continuation of paramilitary policing. A new investigation has been initiated into the activities of an estimated 200 gangs engaged in ‘organised crime’ in Northern Ireland. And still the paramilitary groups, mostly ‘on ceasefire’, continue recruiting and training …
None of these things are related to whether or not there’s a normal political process underway in Northern Ireland but to the period of decomposition that engulfs capitalist society. The ruling class can’t offer any future perspective for peace or security in Ireland or anywhere else. The electoral drift from the SDLP and the ‘moderate’ unionists to Sinn Féin and the DUP shows the gradual discrediting of the centre ground and the shift towards parties of open conflict. But while the bourgeoisie is not able to offer the resolution of any problems within capitalist society, the perspective offered by the development of workers’ struggles is recognised by very few. In Ireland the labels of Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Republican are still taken on by workers, with only rare evidence of any sense of the need to unite in the defence of their class interests. As long as it remains divided, the working class of Northern Ireland will continue to live under the shadow of conflict between different factions of the bourgeoisie.