From International Information Bulletin, No. 22 [CWI Bulletin], October 1994.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (March 2013)
The IRA’s decision to call off its military campaign is a brilliant confirmation of the perspectives worked out by our organisation. In 1971 when the IRA campaign began in earnest, and when youth in the Catholic working class areas turned to them en masse, we stood firmly against the predominant mood and explained that the methods of individual terrorism could not succeed in defeating imperialism.
This broad historical perspective has been born out. So also have the more immediate perspectives worked out by us over recent years, in particular over the last year. As early as twelve months ago we pointed to the likelihood of an IRA cease-fire and raised the possibility that loyalist paramilitaries would be forced to follow suit, leading to a pause in the Troubles. As a result the organisation has been well-prepared for the recent dramatic turn in events.
Among the working class as a whole there is a mist of confusion which clouds the real reasons for the ceasefire and the likely consequences, but, because these things have been discussed and explained over months within our ranks, among the comrades there is clarity.
The importance of ideas and perspectives in the building of a revolutionary organisation has been shown. Had we been unprepared, or had our analysis been seriously flawed, we would now have a crisis and would be forced to take time to discuss and re-evaluate our conclusions. As it is the organisation has been strengthened, its confidence raised, and it is well poised to take advantage of the much more favourable situation which may well now open up.
Early in 1971 the provisional IRA campaign began in earnest. Then and in the months which followed a combination of mass unemployment, discrimination and state repression drove thousands of catholic working class youth into their ranks. At that time our organisation stood against the mood in catholic working class areas and argued that the Provisionals’ methods could not succeed. More than twenty years on the IRA decision to call off the campaign is a confirmation of what we argued then and since.
The cease-fire announcement was welcomed in Catholic working-class areas. There was a sense of relief in these war-exhausted communities that at last it was over. This was interlaced with expectations of substantial concessions, and a belief that a victory of sorts must have been won because “the IRA would not have called it off if they hadn’t got something”.
Although this optimism has been encouraged by Sinn Fein leaders the unmistakeable truth is that it was the IRA, not the British government which shifted its ground and backed down. Behind the scenes concessions were undoubtedly given to bring about the cease-fire, but these were on secondary questions. Repression would be eased, the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein – which over dubbing by actors had in any case turned into a farce – would end, border roads blocked by the army would be opened, there would be a gradual demilitarisation including the phasing down of the army presence, and some prisoners would be released. After a period of “decontamination”, Sinn Fein would be included in political talks.
On what Gerry Adams refers to as the “core” issues – British withdrawal, self-determination, and a British commitment to “persuade” Protestants to accept constitutional change, nothing was given.
It is true that there have been substantial changes in the position of Catholics in the Northern state. Before the Troubles they were a discriminated against minority, held in submission by a repressive Unionist state.
While a residue of past discrimination lingers, especially in unemployment – Catholics are still twice as likely as Protestants to be out of work – all the more blatant practices built up by the Unionists have been swept away.
These gains were not won by the IRA, but by the mass movement which developed in the Catholic working class areas, starting with the civil rights struggles of 1968–9. In reality the days when Catholics were prepared to put up with their position as second class citizens, denied political rights, were numbered from the moment civil rights became a mass movement of the Catholic youth in October 1968.
Those in Catholic working class areas are right today to celebrate the 25 years of resistance which has meant no going back to things as they were. But, contrary to what republican spokespersons argue, the IRA was not the cutting edge of that resistance. More accurately it detracted from it.
It gave the state the excuse for the repression used to contain the Catholic areas. It alienated Protestants and deepened the division between the working class, so pushing back the prospects of building a united class movement powerful enough to defeat and overthrow the state. Certainly the campaign was sustained with determination, with energy and courage. But linked to false methods these qualities are wasted. Those who argue that it was a success should consider just what could have been achieved if the revolutionary energy, the sacrifice and the endeavour used to maintain it, had instead been put behind the methods of mass struggle and the ideas of class unity and socialism.
A journalist with the Irish People, an American produced pro-IRA paper, expressed this feeling when he wrote: “There’s been a military stalemate for years but the IRA have done what they said they’d do – broken Britain’s will to stay in Northern Ireland.”
There is no truth in this whatsoever. When they partitioned Ireland in 1920–21, holding onto what became Northern Ireland, the main purpose of the British ruling class was to cut across the prospect of socialist revolution should the national and social questions in Ireland become one. There were other military and strategic reasons, but first and foremost it was a tactic of divide and rule, of promoting religious divisions in order to preserve capitalism.
By the 1960s, especially with the signing of a Free Trade Agreement with the Southern Irish government and with military strategic reasons for retaining a foothold in Ireland made redundant both by the coming of the age of nuclear weapons and Britain’s decline to a third-rate military power, they no longer had any reason to maintain partition.
They would have preferred to withdraw, to see Ireland re-united, and to seek to maintain their domination by economic, not political and military means. Protestant opposition meant they could not achieve this. Any attempt to force Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland would only lead to civil war and repartition.
So when British Tory ministers now declare that they have no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland they are not stating something forced on them by the IRA campaign. Rather they are only saying publicly what has been their position since before the IRA campaign began, not that they have no interest in Ireland, but that their selfish, strategic and economic interests are best served by ending their direct control over the north.
At the beginning of the 1980s, when Sinn Fein developed as a political force on the back of Catholic outrage at government intransigence over het prison hunger strike, the republican movement adopted the so-called “ballot box and armalite strategy.”
At the time we explained that the attempt to marry the mutually exclusive methods of mass political action with the secretive, and by its nature elitist methods, of individual terrorism would come unstuck.
The cease-fire results from the failure of both elements of this strategy as well as from the inevitable conflict between the two. By the mid 1980s a section of the IRA leadership had come to recognise that their “long war” was unwinnable. While the British government could not entirely crush them, for their part, despite huge arms supplies from Libya, they had no hope of success by military means.
Meanwhile Sinn Fein managed to win about 10% of the vote in successive Northern elections. The Armalite and the ballot-box strategy led to an increasing reliance by the leadership on the political road. But while Sinn Fein could depend on solid support especially in Catholic working-class areas it failed to dislodge the SDLP as the majority nationalist party. South of the border its strenuous efforts to build a political base came to nothing. It could depend on less than 2% of the vote.
Unable to offer any prospect of Sinn Fein going beyond its existing base of support this political strategy became not a strategy of building Sinn Fein to the point where it could take political power but instead one of cutting deals with other nationalists.
During the early period of the Troubles, the republican leadership continually denounced the “constitutional nationalists” of the SDLP, and the major parties of the Southern establishment, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. By the mid 1980s this same leadership, increasingly disillusioned with its own efforts, had moved to the right and began to embrace these people.
As early as 1986 secret talks took place via intermediaries between Gerry Adams and the Fianna Fail leader Charles Haughey in Dublin. Sinn Fein began to develop a growing faith that right-wing Dublin governments would deliver on its behalf.
Talks between SDLP leader John Hume and Gerry Adams begun publicly in 1988, appear to have been privately encouraged by Fianna Fail leaders, and managed to achieve a broad range of agreement.
The collapse of Stalinism and the apparent strengthening of imperialism, consolidated these processes within Sinn Fein. Events in South Africa and the Middle East strengthened their illusions in a democratic settlement brokered by outside bodies.
A major Sinn Fein document, Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland, issued in 1992, called upon capitalist institutions such as the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations, to be involved in helping check human rights abuses and finding a solution. It argued that the United Nations has an indispensable role to play in creating a democratic and peaceful future for the whole of Ireland.
Gerry Adams on his two visits to America in 1994 to meet the Irish American political establishment and to pressure the Clinton administration directly, followed a path well worn before him by John Hume. Adams and Sinn Fein in their efforts to build a nationalist bloc have stepped over to the ground of the SDLP and Fianna Fail, not visa versa.
Aware of the changes taking place in the republican leadership the British government, especially after the removal of Thatcher in November 1990, began to make public and private overtures to Sinn Fein and the IRA.
Secret talks through intermediaries were held stretching over the first half of 1993. The leadership of the Official Unionist Party, the largest of the Protestant political parties, were kept well abreast of these developments, and given sufficient assurances to prevent them reacting to any future deal with the fury with which they reacted to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. By 1993 the Dublin government were also discussing, again through intermediaries, with the leadership of the two main loyalist paramilitary groups, the UDA and the UVF.
The result of all this was the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration which set out to entice the republican leadership into the world of bourgeois politics, while at the same time placating the unionists with contrary assurances. Sinn Fein could not accept the terms of this declaration but they wanted to go through the door it opened to talks and to the corridors of capitalist political power. When the leadership had prepared the ranks sufficiently to ensure that there would be no split, the cease-fire was announced.
In Protestant working-class areas the initial reaction to the cease-fire was one of fear that a deal had been done, that the IRA had indeed won. This did not spill over into a massive upsurge in paramilitary activity.
As in Catholic areas here also there was a feeling of war-weariness and a strong desire for peace. Despite suspicions of a “sell-out” by the British government the predominant mood was to “wait and see”.
As with the IRA, the loyalist paramilitaries do not exist in a vacuum. Recent years have seen a succession of united mass movements of Catholic and Protestant workers protesting against sectarian killings. In virtually every case these movements have been triggered by initial protests called by Our Labour members through various union organisations.
When the IRA blew up a van filled with Protestant building workers at Teebane in Mid Ulster in January 1992 the Militant led Mid Ulster Trades Council called a partial general strike. Soon after the UDA murdered five Catholics in a bookie’s shop in Belfast’s Ormeau Road. The example of Mid Ulster forced the reluctant hand of the trade union leaders who responded with a lunch time rally of 20,000 in Belfast city centre.
Last autumn an initiative by a one of our members member was the key factor in leading to a walkout by Shorts workers after a Catholic was murdered on site. Soon after this the IRA killed nine Protestants when a botched bomb devastated a Shankill Road fishmonger’s shop. Catholic workers from Shorts and Harland and Wolff joined their Protestant workmates to march to the scene in protest. Loyalist attacks against a bar in Co. Derry left seven dead and the trade union leaders were forced to respond with a day of mass protest in November in which at least 80,000 took part.
Such demonstrations were an important factor in persuading the IRA to call off its campaign. They were finding that when they escalated their actions the sectarian consequences only provoked outrage among the working class and led to isolation.
Loyalist paramilitaries, despite their gangsterism and their long history as little more than sectarian death-squads, sometimes operating at the behest of sections of the state, are not immune to such pressures. In May of this year, after the UVF murdered a Catholic as he worked on a ship in the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the entire workforce of this company, once a symbol of anti-Catholic intimidation and discrimination, walked out in protest.
So, both the UDA and UVF have reacted to the IRA cease-fire with caution. Polls in areas like the Shankill Road have shown a majority in favour of a loyalist cease-fire also, although among younger Protestants the percentage who favour carrying on is higher. Failed attempts at sectarian atrocities such as a bomb on board the Belfast-Dublin train which did not explode and a failed gun attack on a Catholic bar in North Belfast are a warning that loyalist violence is not yet at an end. However given that the IRA cease-fire holds, the UVF certainly, but also the UDA, are likely to scale down and even to end their campaigns.
The main focus of the conflict, for the next period is likely to be on the political rather than the military plane. A protracted process of negotiations, involving unionists, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, probably the loyalist paramilitaries in some political guise, and the London and Dublin governments is likely to open up.
Although it will be a rocky road it is possible that some agreement can be worked out. This would involve a new Assembly in the North with an inbuilt arrangement for power to be shared between unionists and nationalists, a degree of Dublin involvement through North-South committees looking after matters such as tourism and economic co-operation. The constitutional claim over the North contained in Articles 2 and 3 of the Southern constitution is likely to be revoked, while the 1920 Government of Ireland Act by which Westminster legislated for partition would also be amended so as to give people in the North the right to opt out of the union with Britain.
The only firm constitutional pledge given to date by Major has been a concession to the unionists, not to Sinn Fein. Any final package is to be submitted to a referendum in the North. A simultaneous referendum in the South would be probable.
There are potential pitfalls standing in the way of such an agreement – disputes over the degree and timing of Dublin involvement, splinters from the IRA or loyalist groups trying to disrupt the whole process, opposition from people like Paisley, and the possibility that fears and frustrations might develop in working-class areas, Catholic and Protestant.
The predominant mood is that the violence should be ended. If paramilitary activity is drastically scaled down or ended for a period, efforts by groups on either side to restart it would likely meet with outrage. It is possible that this mood can carry the political talks through all the obstacles to an agreement.
Such an agreement would not mean that the problem has been resolved or the conflict ended. Power sharing between sectarian political blocs does not mean that the barriers within society are broken down.
The same politicians who agree to share the spoils of office with “the other side” can only guarantee their own futures by ensuring that the sectarian political divide remains. Power sharing thus tends to institutionalise rather than eradicate sectarianism.
Nor will there be any resolution of the national problem. Things have got this far because the British government have been stressing quite opposite implications of their proposals to unionists and nationalists. Unionists are being cosseted with assurances that the link with Britain will continue for as long as there is a majority for it. Nationalists are being told that Britain would present no obstacle to a united Ireland should there be a majority for that – and reminded also that Catholics are expected to outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland, possibly in twenty or thirty years time.
This is no reconciliation of conflicting national aspirations but a sure formula for a sharpening of the conflict at some future time. The national problem remains irresolvable on a capitalist basis. Protestants will never accept a capitalist united Ireland fearing that they, as the new minority, would end up as second-class citizens.
Sinn Fein’s strategy to overcome this only shows how little they understand of the outlook of Protestant workers. Their idea, reiterated again and again, that Britain must become “persuaders” of Protestants, is based on the belief that Protestants refuse to budge from opposition to a united Ireland only because Westminster guarantees their future as part of Britain. Consequently, the argument runs, they have no incentive to consider other options. Remove the guarantee, “persuade”, that is “coerce” Protestants and they would come to terms with their all-Ireland fate.
The reality is that such moves on the part of Britain would convince Protestants that they were being “sold out” and would push them in the direction of civil war. They would not become reconciled to reunification but would choose what to them would be the lesser evil of independence.
Catholics, even the Catholic working-class, may accept some interim accommodation within Northern Ireland. Few believe that a united Ireland is possible in the short term. When Southern Prime Minister Albert Reynolds said that reunification was at least 20 years off, Gerry Adams in an interview in the Andersonstown News sounded only a fraction more optimistic: “I certainly think that 20 years is far too long. I, and others like me, who have struggled for 25 years, am not prepared to say this is how long it will take. If it takes that long, fair enough. ”
Catholics may be prepared to wait but the Catholic working-class in particular, retain the aspiration to a united Ireland. In so far as they go along with present developments it is because they see them as step-by-step, albeit slowly, to eventual reunification.
Their hopes will be disappointed. The strategy of reliance on the political representatives of Southern Irish capitalism, US imperialism, and the institutions of world capitalism, will prove no more effective than did the long campaign of the Provisionals.
Nor will the Protestant working class be satisfied with the outcome. The economic decline of many Protestant working-class areas has already led to a feeling of neglect and a growing consciousness that they are the new underclass. The Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast is one such area. Recently published statistics give a grim picture of social conditions within it. 26.5% of its people are unemployed. Only in half of the households is there a wage earner. 80% of its one parent families live on less than £110 per week. 72% of its young people have tried alcohol. 31% have tried drugs. 8% have sold drugs. 28% have stolen a car. 17% shoplift. If such conditions continue and if no class alternative is possible, Protestant uncertainty and anger will mount no matter what deals are worked out by the sectarian politicians.
Hopes have been expressed that an economic “peace dividend” particularly in the form of aid and investment from America, will begin to tackle the problem of unemployment and social decay in both Catholic and Protestant areas. Figures of $130 billion in US aid over three years, of new investment creating 25,000 jobs, of 10,000 new jobs in tourism, plus unspecified extra EC funds have been loosely tossed around. Much of this is little more than wild speculation of what will be forthcoming. There is little doubt that there will be some extra funding, most of it going in prestige projects or to businesses in the form of grants. Some increase in private investment from the US is also possible, as US firms are drawn to Northern Ireland as a cheap labour gateway to Europe.
Tourism could also increase especially if there is a grant meant to promote North-South holiday packages. Against this is the possible loss of up to 20,000 jobs in security. These would be mostly full-time, well-paid. with plenty of overtime. Many of those that replace it are likely to be low-paid and part-time.
Then there is the economic peace dividend the Tory government is likely to wish to extract. Public spending in Northern Ireland has been maintained at higher level than in Britain, substantial funds have been pumped into city-centre regeneration and other projects largely in an effort to draw support form the IRA and Sinn Fein. Now there is likely to be backbench pressure on the government to hold back on some of the £4 billion subsidy given each year to keep services in Northern Ireland afloat.
The aid and new investment which is likely to come will barely scratch the surface of the mass unemployment and widespread poverty. It is the continuation of these problems, together with privatisation, low wages, and increasing exploitation which will eat away at the basis of any settlement reached under capitalism. Ultimately the choice remains; either we build workers’ unity in struggle to overthrow capitalism and achieve a socialist solution or there will be renewed sectarian violence, even civil war.
The IRA cease-fire signals the probable end of the Troubles in the form they have taken for over two decades. A new situation has opened and with it there the basis for new ideas, new organisations to emerge. The IRA’s last campaign, the ineffective border campaign, was called of in 1962. In the years which follow a significant shift to the left took place. The youth turns away from the discredited ideas of individual terrorism to the methods of mass struggle. World events, especially the May 1968 general strikes in France, left a deep imprint. All this prepared for the explosion of socialist ideas during the initial stages of the civil rights movement in 1968.
History will not exactly repeat itself. To-day’s conditions are very different from those of the 1960s. But it is likely that the next generation of youth will question the ideas which have been dominant throughout the Troubles. Class issues and with them socialist ideas can again come to the fore. The IRA are supported by some and tolerated by many in Catholic working-class areas because their proclaimed cause of resisting repression and combating the old sectarian state is seen as legitimate. Loyalist paramilitaries are tolerated mainly because many Protestant workers see no other defence against the IRA or a united Ireland.
If the issues of repression and discrimination on one side and IRA violence on the other recede, and these organisations continue with their fund raising activities and their crude methods of exercising control, resentment, even opposition can begin to develop within their own communities.
Class questions can come to the fore and the tendency towards class unity can be re-established. An upsurge in industrial struggles, including struggles in Britain and the South, could reinforce this.
The idea of building a new party to represent the interests of the working class could begin to take on more flesh. Already community workers in the Shankill area, together with some individuals with UDA and UVF connections have issued a call for a new political party for working-class Protestants. Although there are sectarian overtones to this, it illustrates the class pressures already there among Protestants.
The existing sectarian parties have long enjoyed the luxury of permanent opposition. At times most of them have tapped the overwhelming mood of opposition to Tory economic policies with anti Tory rhetoric. In a new assembly they would be handed control over local services including health and education. Their failure to challenge Tory policies, reverse past privatisations, scrap health trusts, etc. would be there for all to see.
In recent years support for the building of a socialist Labour Party to challenge the existing parties has been restricted to quite a narrow layer of trade union activists. In the run-up to a new assembly, and once these parties show their true face within that assembly, this could change, and change quite quickly. We intend to take an initiative in raising this issue within the broad labour movement, discussing with community activists, and preparing for a conference which could launch such a party.
In order to develop a base in working-class areas a socialist organisation needs to take up all the issues which effect people’s lives. In Catholic areas this means campaigning to end state repression.
Repression has always been justified by the state as necessary to stop the IRA. Now that the IRA has stopped this excuse no longer holds. Undemocratic powers which are now maintained represent an obvious threat to the working class and its organisations. The call for the scrapping of all repressive legislation and for the complete dismantling of the apparatus of repression built up over 25 years needs to be raised.
The call for the withdrawal of troops can now be posed more bluntly, without provoking a sectarian response from Protestants. Alongside this, the issue of the building by trade unions and working-class community groups of anti sectarian communities to combat intimidation and provide defence needs also to be raised.
The tentacles of repression stretch to Britain also. About 1,000 out of MI5’s staff of 2,000 are engaged in combating “Ulster terrorism”. If retained those people are likely to end up combating “socialist subversion” in Britain. The call for the scrapping of MI5 and all other secret agencies must be raised.
Policing is set to become a key issue in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. Attempts will be made by the state to revamp the RUC so as to make it acceptable to Catholics. Meanwhile the paramilitaries are likely to continue to exert their own control, the beatings and kneecappings will probably continue.
Socialists should demand the disbandment of the RUC and their replacement with genuine community police forces, run by elected committees with majority representation given to representatives of trade unions and community groups, and with sectarians excluded from service.
A socialist solution to the national question needs also to be put forward. This should reject all the capitalist options, the status quo, independence and a capitalist united Ireland.
A socialist solution means the unity of the working class in the North, North and South, and with the British working class, to overthrow capitalism throughout these islands. On a socialist basis it would be possible to reach a resolution which would involve no coercion and would guarantee the religious, cultural and national rights of all minorities.
Within the framework of a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland the problem could be solved. Within Ireland the hardening of Protestant opposition means that the slogan of a socialist united Ireland can no longer be baldly posed. 
In advocating a socialist Ireland the right of Protestants to opt out of a unitary state should they so desire needs to be guaranteed. We do not advocate this. We stand for the unity of the Protestant and catholic working class but only by showing that socialists have no interest in coercing either section of the community can a united class movement powerful enough to overthrow both existing states in Ireland be built.
The IRA cease-fire has not solved the problem. But it has created an opportunity for the ideas of socialism to develop to challenge the dominant sectarian ideas of the past. Only if this challenge is not met over the years which lie ahead will there by the prospect of even worse sectarian violence than has been experienced so far.
Since the cease-fire we have taken a number of initiatives. A series of public meetings have been and are being held throughout Ireland. A special new booklet on the history of the Troubles and current developments is being brought out in early October.
Initiatives on the issue of the building of a socialist Labour Party are being taken both through the unions and under our own name. Already we have opened a major discussion on Belfast Trades Council and are in the process of contacting other groups and community activists with a view to co-operation on the question. The activity of our anti sectarian youth organisation is being stepped up with plans for a conference/rally in the autumn.
1. A thorough discussion on our position on the national question and how we present it is currently taking place in the Irish section. The following remarks for not therefore represent the finished position of the section, but are ideas which will need to be further discussed.
Last updated: 2.3.2013