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International Socialism, February 1975


Notes of the Month

Six Counties on the Knife-Edge


From International Socialism, No.75, February 1975, p.6.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Mike Heym writes: The Christmas ceasefire stemmed essentially from a weakening of the Provisional IRA’s position in the North of Ireland. Paradoxically, either its continuation or its ending will illustrate this. The former stemming from military weakness, the latter from political failure. That military weakness was behind the ceasefire in the first place is pretty clear. Systematic repression North and South of the border plus a hostile reaction to the British bombing campaign have taken their toil. Inability to stem the last tide of sectarian assassinations further weakened the Provisionals in their accepted role as defenders of the Catholic ghettos. All this taken together seemed to play strongly into the hands of the SDLP in the leadup to the Convention elections. Further the Provos felt themselves militarily weakened not only vis-à-vis the British but also to face the onslaught of a sectarian civil war which many feel could follow quickly on a loyalist dominated deadlocked convention. A cease fire might allow for the return of much needed internees and the regroupment of volunteers and arms within the ghettos. Further, the Feakle initiative of the Churchmen proved to certain elements in the Provo leadership that the British were prepared at least to talk, if not negotiate, with them. It seemed that their foot was inside the door of the much sought after conference chamber exactly when they were in most need of a breathing space.

For the British the Truce was attractive and warranted a genuine if limited quid pro quo. A few internees were released, the military profile slightly reduced in republican areas. If the army could boast military successes against the IRA a politician even of the very limited vision of Merlyn Rees could understand that a military solution in itself was not enough specially in the face of a renewed bombing campaign in England. The continuation of internment remained an insuperable obstacle to Catholic co-operation in any solution. Further more it was still a sufficiently vital issue that it could spark even the war weary Catholics into mass action as seen during the prison revolts in Long Kesh and elsewhere and the spontaneous response to the shooting of unarmed escaper Gerry Coney. The British understand that internment is necessary only during the military campaign, to make concessions on internment when the war is off is politically profitable at very small cost. The Truce has in fact seen little reduction in army presence although no attempt has been made to introduce the hated RUC into Catholic areas. This bridge has yet to be crossed.

Throughout the Truce the appearance of knife-edge balance stemmed primarily from the unwillingness of Rees or the N. Ireland Office to establish any formal negotiating set up with the Provos. Naturally fearing a hostile Loyalist response the British vacillated wildly on this question and denied the Provisionals a concession which was to them more important, at least in the short term than the rate of releases or army harassment. It required the Truce to end for talks to be established.

Loyalist response to the ceasefire was shaped above all by the current unity of their political leaderships in the United Ulster Unionist Council. Confident of a walkover victory in the Convention Elections the Loyalists, political and paramilitary, adopted a ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude to the peace. They warned Rees and Stormont Castle not to go too far by negotiating with the IRA. They did not, as perhaps more farsighted Republican strategists might have hoped, take upon themselves the odium of destroying the peace thereby inviting direct confrontation with the British. Enoch Powell even took the uncharacteristic step of congratulating the Government on its successful record on the security issue. As long as no major concessions are made to the IRA the Loyalists have little to fear from peace which fits nicely their current legal and parliamentary path. It also prepares the way for an ‘Ulsterised’ solution to the conflict following their victory in the Convention.

The Truce is no more than a short term accommodation between fundamentally opposed and contradictory forces which are, for the moment, either biding their time or do not know where to go. As such it is likely to be only short lived. Should it survive we can rest assured that the contradictions within the six county situation, until now given military expression, will re-emerge in some other form.

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