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Peter Hadden

Arms Decommissioning

(Autumn 1995)

From Militant Labour Members Bulletin , No. 5, Autumn 1995.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

MLMB Editorial note: This article by Peter Hadden on the issue of the decommissioning of arms, is a summary of discussions that have taken place on the National Executive Committee and the Northern Regional Executive Committee.

Arms Decommissioning

The current stalemate over decommissioning is largely down to intransigence on the part of the British government. The reason for their hard-nosed stand is not that they have any realistic expectation of the bulk of republican or loyalist weapons eventually being handed over. One correspondent in the British Independent summed this up when he wrote that both governments accept that there would be arms buried in remote areas of the Republic until the next ice-age.

The Tories real intent is to drive Sinn Fein into a corner and to extract from them the most humiliating concessions possible as the price of their entry into talks. Sinn Fein have already made significant concessions. At one point they were prepared to accept the establishment of an international commission, and to offer co-operation, provided it would be understood that no weapons would have to be surrendered at the beginning of this process.

The British philosophy has been that once your enemy is on the run, to keep them that way. Rather than accept what was an historic climb-down by Sinn Fein, they responded with demands for further concessions. They want not just a commission but a token number of arms to be handed over in advance of any talks and before the commission would decide anything.

Not even Adams could persuade the IRA to make such bent knee gesture at this stage. Hence we have a situation of temporary deadlock, but, despite the that heels appear to have been dug in on all sides, this is not likely to prove the end of the peace process. Both the republican movement and the British government the ceasefires to hold and talks to take place. It is likely they will find a way to fudge this question and move on.

The fact that there will likely be a compromise, and, in any case, that very few people have any real expectation that the huge paramilitary stockpiles will ever be decommissioned, does not mean that we can avoid formulating a position on the issue. Inevitably the question will come up in the course of our work – what does Militant Labour say should be done about the weapons? This is a complex and difficult question but it is one we must try to answer.

The first point to make is that the weapons decommissioned or not, are not the central question If no lasting solution is found, the way will be opened to a return to sectarian violence. Yes, if the arms remain in paramilitary hands they could quickly be brought out for use again. But even in the very unlikely scenario that all were handed over this would not be any guarantee of peace. Weapons would remain in the hands of the state. Some 200,000 guns are held legally, the bulk by Protestants but very many by Catholics also.

Enough of an arsenal could be quickly manufactured to bring about a killing rate as bad as during the worst periods or the Troubles. And if the situation seemed to demand it, weapons would be acquired abroad as they were in the past. Except that now the task would be that much easier given that contacts built up in the past are still in place and that the world is now awash with weapons, especially after the disintegration of the Stalinist regimes.

When the IRA border campaign ended in the early 1960’s, the weapons were not handed over to the state. But many were eventually “decommissioned“ in the sense that they were either sold off or else were stockpiled far from the North where they could have been used in the defence of Catholic areas.

There were no weapons of note in Catholic areas in 1969. Little or none existed in Protestant areas either. There few guns that were present were used but for the most of those who took part in the fighting, it was a battle on the streets with stones, petrol bombs, bottles or whatever came to hand.

The absence of weapons did not prevent the Troubles. Rather the fact that there were no arms in the Catholic areas was all important factor in creating the Provisionals and in bringing the Troubles about. The real issue to be faced at the moment is how to find a solution. That can only come through working class unity around socialist policies, not through capitalist governments or sectarian politicians, whether or not those politicians or the paramilitaries have immediate arsenals of weapons they can call upon.

We also need to expose the hypocrisy of the politicians on this question. The US, Dublin and British governments all want decommissioning, in various ways and at varying speeds. US imperialism is quite prepared to arm its reactionary puppets around the world with weapons to subdue their peoples, but baulks at the idea that anyone but the state should hold weapons in Northern Ireland.

The Southern Irish capitalist parties had their birth in armed struggle. The 1921 Treaty negotiations took place without arms being all issue. After the Southern civil war future Fianna Fail founder, De Valera, would not accept demands for a surrender of the arms of the defeated anti-Treatyite forces.

At the outset of the recent Troubles it was a wing of Fianna Fail which helped the Provisionals to acquire their first weapons. Now all these people insist that only the state should be armed in the North. Immediately after partition the British government armed the unionist state and turned a blind eye to the discrimination and maltreatment of the Catholic minority. They did not insist that the IRA surrender their weapons in 1921 because they saw the need for all armed groups to step into their former role as policeman of the new state. More recently, when the Official IRA called a ceasefire in 1972 the fact that weapons were not handed in did prevent the government having dealings with them. The Officials not only kept their old illegal arms, many of their members were given legal personal weapons by the state – because it suited the British government to have them as all armed counter weight to the Provisionals in Catholic areas.

Not a Matter of Principle for British

For the British government the arms issue is not one of principle but of expediency. If in the future they had to lean on the Provisionals to enforce a new political settlement on the Catholic working class, they would not hesitate to do so, even if this meant arming them for the purpose.

Most hypocritical of all on question are the Unionists with their no talks until arms surrendered stance. The Unionists, like all the other major bourgeois parties in Ireland, have an armed history going back to the pre First World War I Home Rule crisis. Before the recent Troubles had begun, Paisley, now the most intransigent of the Unionist leaders, directly inspired the 1960s UVF. Throughout the Troubles leading figures in both major Unionist parties have had on/off relations with loyalist paramilitaries.

New UUP leader David Trimble came into prominence as a leader of William Craig’s Vanguard movement at a time when its leader was urging Protestants to be prepared to shoot to kill. After the Anglo-Irish Agreement he was one of those who helped set up and build the Ulster Clubs, a paramilitary style formation mainly based in the Portadown area. Ulster Clubs later became part or Ulster Resistance, a military umbrella grouping set up by businessmen and Unionist politicians, such as Paisley and Peter Robinson.

Ulster Resistance is known to have acquired and stockpiled one third of a large loyalist arms consignment. Yet in the current impasse over IRA weapons the decommissioning of Ulster Resistance haul has not even been an issue.

To work out our position we begin from the class approach which has distinguished us from every other tendency throughout the Troubles. Instead of bending into one or other sectarian camp or of backing the state and the policies of the ruling class, we have put forward an independent class position.

In 1969 we refused to bow to the predominant mood and support the entry of troops. Nor did we give any modicum of support or credence to any of the sectarian forces then beginning to emerge. Rather we called for an armed trade union defence force to defend working class areas. We did not advance this in isolation but linked it to a general programme for the development of an independent and united movement of the working class. Although it was not an easy matter to convince even the advanced workers of this demand, looking back it stands out as an absolutely correct position. To-day it is clear that the non-sectarian defence groups which were being set up spontaneously by worker, in both catholic and protestant areas could have developed into such a force.

Just as we did not support the entry of troops in 1969 so now we cannot call for the surrender of weapons to the state. Marxists do not advance a position for the strengthening of the capitalist state which, in the end, is all instrument or oppression in the hands of the ruling class. Despite its present benign and neutral posture the state in Northern Ireland is ultimately a weapon or class rule which does not serve the interests of the working class.

Army and Police Incapable Of Defending Workers

Twenty five years of the Troubles have underlined that neither the army nor the police are capable of defending working class areas. As we have always pointed out their consistent role has been one of repression not defence. To advocate the surrender of arms to the state, whether directly or through an international body, is to sow illusions in its “neutrality”, its “even handedness” and its ability to offer defence.

The majority of workers want a solution and favour a compromise to reach it. But they also realise that such a solution is a long way off and that the threat of sectarian attack can again become real. This fear or attack is another reason why we do not join the political chorus demanding decommissioning.

In catholic working class areas the memory of 1969 is living and real. After the August pogroms of that year the old leadership of the IRA was blamed for having sold all the guns, leaving the areas defenceless. IRA, according to the popular wall slogans at the time, stood for “I Ran Away” and those held to be responsible for the lack of guns were thoroughly discredited. Should the present peace process break down and pogroms result, those who are now “advising” that guns be turned over to the state would deservedly be greeted with similar contempt.

If Catholics remember the pogroms of 1969, among Protestants there is a growing insecurity, a feeling that their numbers are falling and in some key areas like North Belfast they are vulnerable to attack. This means that, although less so than in catholic areas, the issue of weapons for possible future defence is also a sensitive one.

This does not mean that we advocate that the paramilitaries should hold onto their weapons. The idea that any of these organisations are able to defend the respective communities, in which they are based is false and was shown be so by the ongoing attacks during the Troubles. We opposed all the paramilitary campaigns when they were underway and we do not support the right of any of these groups to have in reserve the potential to start up the killings again.

We also advocate the removal of the armed presence of the state – that is the complete withdrawal of the army and the replacement of the RUC with unarmed local police services. To answer the question what should happen to the arms our starting point is the right of working class communities to defend themselves. In raising this we arc not advocating separate sectarian defence groups, but rather the common interest of people in working class areas – both Catholic and Protestant to prevent sectarian attack. This in turn only makes sense if it is linked to political unity, to the struggle for a socialist solution around which Catholic and Protestant could unite.

Democratic Control of Weapons

It is the need for defence, and the inability of other forces to provide it, which allows us to formulate an alternative class position on the weapons. Rather than being turned over to the state, to an international body, destroyed or retained in paramilitary hands, we argue that the weapons should be placed under the democratic control of working class communities in order to provide the means of possible future defence.

We need to raise this skilfully. Posed crudely it might appear that we are for the separate arming of two bitterly divided communities, providing a recipe for a Bosnia. This is not the case. We uphold the right of communities to defend themselves if attacked, not to hunch sectarian attacks on neighbouring areas. So we say that weapons which can have only an offensive purpose, semtex for example, should be destroyed.

Guns are in the working class areas and guns will remain in these areas. It is not this but the fact that they are under the control of unaccountable individuals and organisations, which is the problem. We advocate that in working class communities which feel themselves vulnerable, democratic bodies should he elected consisting of street or local district representatives to take charge of weapons. The paramilitaries should be asked to surrender their arms to these bodies. These could then be registered and taken out of circulation, stockpiled for use only in the event of sectarian attack.

Because of the sectarian geography of vulnerable areas, this would certainly mean largely separate Catholic and Protestant organisations having control of weapons. To overcome the obvious dangers we would advocate that such local organisations be brought together in a central body whose role would be to ensure that sectarian attacks did not take place, and to deal with any incidents which might occur.

In isolation such non-sectarian defence organisations could not survive. But linked to an initiative to strengthen unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, especially political unity in the form of a socialist Labour Party, it could not only survive, it would give the working class the means to deal with those who would attempt to divide it.

Given the still small size of our forces it is mainly a propaganda position that we are putting forward. This does not in any way diminish the importance of having clear ideas which we can explain and which will stand the test of time. Like the principled class stance we took on the issue of defence in 1969, our position now on decommissioning can be an important theoretical foundation stone for the organisation in the future.

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Last updated: 27.10.2012