Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Unfinished business

Rally for peace organised by Derry Trades Council last month
The IRA's renewed bombing campaign in London leaves the peace process in tatters. Lindsey German spoke to Eamonn McCann, a socialist who lives in Derry and a leader of the 1960s civil rights movement, about why the ceasefire ended and how the problems in Northern Ireland can be solved

Why do you think that the ceasefire broke down?
Many rank and file Republicans saw that the benefits they had been led to believe would result from the ceasefire, and the strategy that they had adopted 17 months ago as an alternative to the armed struggle, had not been forthcoming. On the contrary, they were being thwarted at every turn, and there was no sign that the British government was willing even to contemplate discussion of constitutional change in the North. Under those circumstances clearly senior members of the IRA decided that the peace strategy simply was not working. This led to the planting of the bomb in Docklands.

It has to be remembered that they had made enormous concessions. The leadership agreed to go into discussions which they must obviously have known were not going to result in a united Ireland, but in a settlement which left Northern Ireland for the foreseeable future constitutionally within the United Kingdom. Yet there was nothing forthcoming in response.

The British attitude was reflected in the release of Private Lee Clegg, the soldier imprisoned for the murder of a teenager in Belfast, who was subsequently promoted. At the same time, even right wing Southern Irish politicians who in the last few months have visited Republican prisoners in British jails reported that they were held in repressive circumstances which had deteriorated markedly since the ceasefire. There was also the continuing presence of the RUC on the streets, the action of the RUC in shepherding Orange processions through Nationalist areas last summer. There was no evidence of British willingness to move to meet them but, on the contrary, evidence that the British authorities saw the ceasefire as a sign of weakness.

The absence of real debate about the fundamentals of the problem is absolutely striking. There has been a lot of political and media analysis of Republican positions, the motivation of the IRA in planting the bomb, the relationship between the IRA and Sinn Fein, the credibility of Gerry Adams as a leader, the real motivations of the Republican movement. There seems to be no scrutiny of the British government policy in relation to the North of Ireland. For example, the British government adopted the policy of demanding that the IRA say that the ceasefire was permanent, then the policy of demanding the decommissioning of arms prior to all party talks. Then it adopted the policy of looking for elections to the negotiating table as an alternative to the terms of the Mitchell Report published on 24 January. What considerations were brought to bear on the making of these policy decisions, what interests were being considered, what interests were being defended or protected?

All of this led to a build up of anger and frustration in Republican ranks. However the anger and frustration in evidence in Catholic working class communities as a whole were not expressed in pressure for the resumption of the armed struggle. The impetus for the bombing came specifically from within the Republican movement itself.

The bipartisan approach, and the policy of the Labour Party with Mo Mowlam who is relatively pro-Unionist, must have bad a huge effect in terms of the lack of political debate and scrutiny.
Nobody doubts that the government's motives are cynical and dishonest when it comes to Europe, health or immigration. Nobody doubts that John Major is mainly motivated by his desire to cling to office. Yet that perspective on Tory policy is not evident when we come to consider their policy on Northern Ireland.

The most striking example of that is the suffocating consensus in the House of Commons, seen in the debate after the bombing, when Major made his statement and Tony Blair had nothing to say other than, 'Me too', followed by Paddy Ashdown saying, 'Me too.' There is not a single dissenting voice from the Labour benches, not a hint that anyone places any blame whatsoever on John Major and his government for the deterioration and the situation of the crisis that has resulted. There is no other area of British policy in which this is true. It is an illustration of the intellectual and ideological emptiness of conventional political debate generally in Britain at the moment.

Tony Blair is determined it will not be a political issue and at all costs he wants to avoid the suggestion from the Tory right that Labour is soft on terrorism. This might be expected from the likes of Blair, but more ominous is the fact that there are very few voices raised from the left of the Labour Party to challenge this--you get a few squeaks here and there but not very often.

Jeremy Corbyn will make the occasional statement, but where have the voices been? Even Tony Benn has failed to create a real debate about Irish politics. The Tories, who are totally guided in all this by the intelligence services, by their advisers, by the RUC, have been allowed a free run about Northern Ireland.

What do you think the Irish government is going to do in all this?
It is mainly concerned with the integrity of the Southern Irish state, which has had an unresolved border question since its inception nearly three quarters of a century ago. The main motivation in what is called the peace process was to bring Sinn Fein into the constitutional fold as far as Irish nationalism is concerned, to secure a recognition from Sinn Fein of the legitimacy of the Southern state. This was the reason why Albert Reynolds, within days of the declaration of the IRA ceasefire in August 1994, had Gerry Adams on the steps of the government building with him. That was interpreted by Republican supporters as a great advance in the credibility and reputation of their movement, and of Gerry Adams personally. Reynolds had strengthened the position of the Southern Irish state and removed what had been a historic threat to it. So the Irish government has its own reasons for going along with the ceasefire.

They're saying they will not talk to Adams. Do you think they will keep this up?
The situation is fraught with difficulty, not least for the Republican leadership. Gerry Adams cannot condemn the IRA. Were he to do so he would instantly relinquish what powers of persuasion he has in IRA circles. On the other hand, the adoption of the peace process strategy by the Republican leadership has made them vulnerable to accusations of bad faith and untrustworthiness when they don't condemn the IRA--so they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. It is difficult to see any way out of this dilemma.

The strategy which they adopted as an alternative to armed struggle has not delivered the goods. But since the armed struggle itself had not been delivering the goods, and this was one reason why they accepted the alternative, then going back to the armed struggle seems to make little sense to people in the North of Ireland who are very pleased with the peace, whatever they may think of the process. They do not want to return to war, as this was not doing anything for them either.

So the armed struggle did not work and the peace strategy is not working either. This may prompt a much more fundamental reappraisal of the political stance and the political path they have taken over the coming months--we must hope that it does.

Orange procession continued during the ceasefire

Will there be any kind of split in the Republican movement?
The dismay of the Sinn Fein leaders at the Isle of Dogs bomb was fairly obvious. If the Irish Republican movement splits, this is not like Arthur Scargill splitting from the Labour Party, which can lead to bitter words and rows, whereas a split in the Republican movement can lead to warfare. Sinn Fein and the IRA know from their own experience the form that splits take in their movement and are very determined that there won't be a split. One commentator sympathetic to the Republican movement said recently that Adams and McGuinness would go over the precipice with the military men rather than see a split in their ranks. This may well be the truth of the matter.

Some at least of the Sinn Fein leaders will countenance the isolation and what they will accurately see as the futility of going back to the armed struggle, if going back is the only way of avoiding a very messy split in their own organisation. These things are rooted in the traditions of Irish Republicanism and Nationalist politics and there isn't a manoeuvre which they can carry out to avoid these difficult questions.

It would mean adopting a different kind of politics which they show no sign of doing--like mass mobilisation and looking to Protestant workers.
There is an alternative available, but it would have to be not ditching the peace but ditching the process. It is taken for granted in large sections of the left in Ireland that the only alternative to the peace process is the armed struggle. But this is not necessarily true. Seeing the futility of an alliance with the right wing government in Dublin, and the Irish American millionaire lobby, need not automatically lead to a reversion to the IRA's armed struggle, other than in terms of the Republican tradition. There is the alternative of breaking the link with the Dublin government and the SDLP, breaking the link with corporate America, beginning to organise the working class communities where they are rooted, and beginning to focus much more on the social and economic problems of such areas, which are the same problems that affect Protestant areas, without losing the objective of getting a British withdrawal from Ireland. But this is based on a strategy of mobilising the working class people who support them around class politics rather than nationalist politics.

Nationalist ideology is very strong. The events of the last 25 years have strengthened nationalism in the Catholic working class ghettos. The sectarian nature of the Northern state reinforces this consciousness at every turn. It is also the case that the force in Northern Ireland whose role it is theoretically to organise on a class basis--the trade union movement--has voluntarily absented itself from the political arena and is as timid in economic and social issues as its counterparts across the water. Therefore the option of turning towards the working class appears to some people to be unrealistic because of the worthlessness of the trade union leadership on the one hand and the grip of Nationalist ideology on the other.

The argument for class politics often has to be mounted in terms of ideas and not practicalities, which is not to deny the importance of taking what practical opportunities arise to mobilise people on a class basis, and indeed there are such opportunities which socialists in the Socialist Workers Party and others can strive to take up.

Dashed hopes: architects of the peace process Gerry Adams and Albert Reynolds

Presumably one effect of the peace process is that the grants to the different communities have tended to cement the different divisions, rather than break them down?
Absolutely--one of the ways that this has worked on the ground is that community organisations on both sides are strengthened. The prospect of peace took the place of peaceful competition between the communities and this is quite explicit. An organisation called the Ulster Community Action Network (UCAN) explicitly for Protestants only, seeks to unite different organisations from Protestant working class areas across Northern Ireland, to take advantage of the peace dividend--if there is one--and to ensure that Protestants don't lose out to Catholics when it comes to cuts in services or investment coming in.

This is accompanied by increasing acceptance that sectarian division is in some way natural, and that Catholic and Protestant working class communities should organise separately. So non-sectarianism becomes a sort of readiness to tolerate the other side as long as the other side is not doing any better than you are. You can see community organisations in the North stiffening and hardening into a sectarian pattern.

Going hand in hand with this is the idea that we must respect one another's traditions--Orange walks on the one hand and Republican ideology on the other--and that involves accepting Loyalist paramilitary organisations, which are nakedly sectarian and have had links with apartheid in South Africa and the National Front in Britain, as an equivalent of the Republican movement in Catholic areas. The development of a supposedly non-sectarian history means the two traditions are equated in terms of morality. The glorifiers of the British Empire are equated with people who, whatever their imperfections from a Marxist point of view, nevertheless represent a tradition of struggle and anti-imperialist ideology. This is quite common within elements of the Republican movement, rather than looking to the political tradition that has at its centre the notion that the working class has one tradition of struggle, however hard it may be to raise it at times.

How hard do you think it will be to raise class politics after the ending of the ceasefire?
It partly depends on whether there are more bombs or if it breaks down in Northern Ireland. There are people in Loyalist organisations champing at the bit to go back into action either to bomb the South of Ireland or more likely to attack Catholics. It is very difficult to envisage a long term strategy of carrying out an armed struggle in Britain while maintaining a semblance of peace in Ireland. The security reaction to bombing in the mainland will be felt on the streets of Northern Ireland and there will be house raids, checks, arrests, increased tension generally and an even more aggressive edge to the summer marches. There will be conflict in the streets with the police in the Catholic areas. There will be an inevitable slide into the armed struggle here in the North. So the resumption of the IRA campaign leads nowhere but to darkness and despair, and yet within the terms of their own ideology it's difficult to see what other option the Republicans have if, as is distinctly possible, the peace process collapses.

Do you think it will collapse?
Considered in isolation, it's very difficult to see the peace process going much further forward because there are unresolvable contradictions within it--to do with the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland state. The peace process was sold on two quite separate bases. The calling off of the IRA campaign was presented to Loyalists as a sign that the war was over and that they had won. Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party, the party that is closest to the Ulster Volunteer Force, said that the union with Britain was now safe so there was no need for a Loyalist paramilitary campaign.

Simultaneously, the calling of the IRA ceasefire and the strategy that was put in place as an alternative was being hailed by Republicans as a method of advancing even more rapidly towards the breaking of the link with Britain. These were two quite contradictory things and it was always inevitable that something was going to snap in the end.

Hope lies in the fact that people's membership of the community into which they were born is not the totality of their social being--they are also workers. The most deprived Catholic area, such as the Brandywell area in Derry, has up to 80 percent male unemployment and massive health and poverty problems.

There is no way of solving those problems which would not also be a solution to the problems of the people who live in Protestant working class areas on the other side of the river. So a turn towards class issues and a concentration on a lack of jobs, the cutbacks in welfare, the inadequate health provision, would open up the possibility at least of arguing for a different approach.


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