Sinn Féin the real winners in Belfast Assembly elections
It is five and a half years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) signalled the start of a new phase in the struggle for Irish liberation.
30 years of popular struggle and armed conflict had brought the British to realise that, although they were not beaten outright, neither was there any chance of them winning the war militarily, despite their huge advantage in terms of equipment and arsenal and their network of spies and paramilitaries among the settler population.
Economic factors also came into play: the decline of manufacturing industry in the north meant that instead of reaping huge profits from the six counties as in the past, the British treasury was actually paying through the nose to keep its foothold on the north-east corner of Ireland.
Last, but by no means least, the IRA brought the war home to Britain. By targeting military and political figures and maximising economic impact, it demonstrated an almost limitless capacity to damage British imperialist interests: a statement issued by the IRA after the bomb in Brighton that narrowly missed killing Margaret Thatcher read: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always.”
In 1993, with a single bomb in Bishopsgate, the IRA caused £1bn worth of damage, prompting a sudden conversion to negotiation on the part of the British government. When talks broke down, the damage caused by the bomb that ended the 1994-96 ceasefire in Canary Wharf was in the region of £100m.
The Good Friday Agreement
Although it represented significant compromises (acceptance of a devolved government, for example, and a recognition of the northern state), the GFA, signed in April 1998, was a victory for republicanism – a chance to consolidate its position politically and the first step not only on the road to liberation from Britain for the north, but also for reunification with the rest of Ireland. Complete implementation of the GFA, limited as it is to strictly bourgeois demands, would mean an end to the supremacy of the Orangemen; an end to inequality on the basis of religion and therefore an end to the economic basis for protestant unity and unionism. It also provides for cross-border co-operation that, if implemented, would have the practical effect of rendering the border irrelevant.
Of course, none of this sits very easily with the loyalist community, who have for centuries enjoyed a privileged position in return for their services as the local enforcers of British colonial rule. While many unionists want the war to end, a sizeable proportion would rather do anything than live in peace if peace means an end to their privilege. Unionism as an ideology may have outlived its usefulness to the imperialist power it was brought into the world to serve, but it has nevertheless developed a logic of its own. A population that has been indoctrinated for generations in the belief of its right to supremacy over the nationalists and the impossibility of equal co-existence in a secular state does not drop its belief the minute that its paymaster’s interests change.
Unionism, the creation and loyal servant of British imperialism, has now become somewhat of a thorn in Britain’s side. And yet, even here there is a contradiction, for while British imperialism needs to withdraw from the north of Ireland, it does not wish to leave an Ireland where militant republicanism is strong and the reactionary elements are on the back foot and busy fighting each other. A politically strong unionist population, with its irreconcilable hostility to the nationalists, is still in Britain’s interests, even if the union itself is not. What’s more, British imperialism does not want to be seen to be vacating Ireland as a defeated colonial power.
In October last year, the British government stepped in and unilaterally suspended the Assembly in Belfast for the fourth time since devolved government began in 1999. Each one of these suspensions was triggered by trumped-up allegations from unionist leader David Trimble, first about IRA decommissioning and later about an alleged IRA spy ring. When the British government backed him up (always assuming they had not instigated his prevarications in the first place), they effectively gave him a veto over the peace process in order to buy time for his ailing leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. Frightened by the looming prospect of losses for both its unionist and nationalist stooges, the so-called ‘moderates’ of the UUP and John Hume’s Social Democratic Labour Party, Britain again intervened by cancelling elections in May that had been scheduled to get the Assembly started again.
The main focus of all this manoeuvring has been an attempt to undermine the growing electoral strength of Sinn Féin, which is more and more showing itself to be the voice, not only of the nationalist community in the north, but of oppressed and freedom-loving people on both sides of the border.
In the face of unionist intransigence and British bully-boy tactics, Sinn Féin has shown itself to be the only party with a real vision for the future and any idea of the tactics required to bring that vision to fruition. The same people who fought the British army to a standstill on the island have shown themselves to be masters of the famous maxim that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means” (On War by Carl von Clausewitz, 1831), substituting peaceful and parliamentary forms of struggle for arms as the objective conditions changed.
Sinn Féin’s ability to manoeuvre has frightened the life out of the unionist and British establishments alike, for in spite of the relentless propaganda against it, the party has continued to grow as an electoral force. This is a real achievement when one considers the refusal of the British government to implement any of the reforms promised under the GFA; reforms that were the basis of republican support for the Agreement and whose lack of delivery is adding fuel to the fire of anti-Agreement forces who always held that Good Friday sold out the interests of the Irish people in return for the proverbial mess of pottage.
The long-delayed elections, which finally took place at the end of November 2003, proved every bit as terrible to their interests as the British establishment had feared. In place of the ‘moderate’ (read biddable) coalition they had hoped to create under the GFA, Blair and his government are now faced with a situation where Ian Paisley’s notoriously hardline DUP has overtaken the flagging UUP to become the largest party in the north. Much more distressing for Britain, however, is the emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest nationalist party – and the third largest party in the whole of Ireland.
Despite electoral ‘reform’ that disenfranchised large numbers of working class republicans, and under a tortuous PR system designed to confuse the uninitiated and disenfranchise smaller parties, Sinn Féin nevertheless increased their vote by one third as compared to the first Assembly elections in 1998. This time round, they received the second highest number of first preference votes – some 23.5 percent, as compared to the DUP’s 25.7 percent, the UUP’s 22.7 percent and 17 percent for the SDLP. The 20,000 extra votes for Sinn Féin increased its number of Assembly seats from 18 to 24, and the party only narrowly missed taking three more seats. The SDLP, by comparison, won 18 seats, while the DUP won 30 and the UUP 27.
Sinn Féin made significant gains in unionist strongholds: Philip McGuigan’s election in the Paisleys’ constituency of North Antrim, for example (Ian Sr and Ian Jr were both elected there). Meanwhile, in West Belfast, Sinn Féin candidate Sue Ramsey missed her seat by 87 votes after a significant proportion of the SDLP’s second preference votes (3.6 percent) were cast in favour of Paisley’s DUP! Clearly a section of the middle class catholic electorate are voting not to ‘Stop the DUP’ (the SDLP’s election slogan), but to stop Sinn Féin. In South Antrim the deficiencies of the PR system again came into full view, as Martin Meehan polled 11.5 percent and 4,295 first preference votes but still lost out to the SDLP’s Tom Burns and the unionist Alliance candidate, both elected after receiving transfer votes from eliminated candidates. In Lagan Valley, Sinn Féin’s Paul Butler lost out to Norah Beare after transfers at the 10th count, despite having initially polled more than twice the number of votes.
The UUP, used to being the ‘party of government’ in the northern statelet, actually held onto its core vote and even increased by one seat, Trimble having finally bitten the bullet and run the pro-Agreement campaign demanded of him by his British masters. 150,000 unionist voters failed to vote, however, a sign of the divisions and confusion within unionist ranks. This abstention by previously pro-Agreement unionists, combined with the DUP’s mopping up of the smaller anti-Agreement parties, was the real secret behind Ian Paisley’s success. Despite the media hype since the results were declared, the numbers of people actively voting against the Agreement have not changed significantly – what has changed is the ability of the DUP to unite those dissenting voices, for a time at least.
So what does all this mean for the future of the north of Ireland? Despite the doom and gloom in the British press, a total of 70 percent of those who cast their ballots voted for parties upholding the Good Friday Agreement. The supremacist DUP certainly managed to pull together all the anti-Agreement votes, but by far the biggest winner in the election was Sinn Féin. Their new position as the second party of government (ie the biggest nationalist party) gives them the right to nominate the Deputy First Minister of the next Assembly, as well as one Junior and two full Ministries, changing places with the SDLP, which will now have only two Ministers.
Of course, all this is at the moment purely academic, since the British government is still refusing to allow the Assembly to convene on the spurious excuse that since the DUP will not sit down with Sinn Féin, it will be impossible for the new Assembly members to form a power-sharing government. The fact that the DUP do not have the right to scupper the GFA, and that the British government has the power to push ahead with convening the Assembly without them, is quietly ignored. Yet again, the unionist veto is being backed up by a British state that still hopes for some miracle to occur that will somehow sideline anti-imperialist republicanism in Ireland.
‘Unrepentant fenians’ celebrate;
SDLP in disarray
Whether or not the elections are upheld by the British government, they are a sure indicator that things are not as they once were in the north of Ireland. As Gerry Adams said when addressing the newly-elected Sinn Féin Assembly members:
“Sinn Féin asked the electorate to endorse our peace strategy – and they did that.
“We asked them to share our vision of an Ireland united and independent – and they did that also.
“And we asked them to strengthen our hand, not only in negotiations but also in defending public services and in working any new administration. And they did that as well.
“The election results were a significant achievement for Sinn Féin. We are now poised to take the Deputy First Minister’s position. This is a far cry from the days when republicans and nationalists were second class citizens in our own country. When a fenian could not be seen about this place. We are pleased to be here as unrepentant fenians and I dedicate our achievement to the memory of Bobby Sands and the other Hunger Strikers and the sacrifice of other Sinn Féin leaders like the late Maura Drumm and Sheena Campbell.” (Quoted in Republican News, 1 December 2003)
Adams is right to see the election result as an endorsement of his party’s strategy. It has done an excellent job of exposing the nature of the conflict and the occupation, as well as the crimes of both the British and Irish states against republicans. It has also managed, in the teeth of virulent propaganda campaigns on both sides of the border, to convince an ever-growing section of the community that, far from holding back the peace process, it is only the republicans who are doing anything to move it forward. As the only all-Ireland party, and the only party in Ireland totally committed to ending British rule, Sinn Féin are in an excellent position to keep on growing. Already the biggest party in Belfast, their gains in Dublin mean they could well be the second party in the Irish capital after next summer’s European elections. The policy pursued by both the British and Irish governments, that of ‘containment’ of republicanism through a combination of marginalisation and hysterical propaganda, has been a complete failure. Not only did Sinn Féin take votes from the SDLP in middle class areas, but in some places it also gained support from pro-Agreement unionists.
Conversely, the SDLP, voice of the anti-militant middle class catholics and at one time the only electoral option for the nationalist community, now finds the ground slipping away from beneath its feet. The favoured negotiating partner of British imperialism, characterised by parsimonious preaching against the ‘violence’ of the liberation movement and comfortable collaboration with the occupation forces, the SDLP never thought to see its electoral supremacy challenged, so that Sinn Féin’s advance has left the party leadership at sixes and sevens. Many have stood down (John Hume, Séamus Mallon, Eddy McGrady and Brid Rodgers), while on the eve of the election:
“Fears that the SDLP would not even manage to re-elect its party chairperson, Alex Attwood, provoked the leadership into ditching West Belfast veteran Joe Hendron. SDLP election workers were seen removing Hendron’s election posters in key areas on the morning of the poll, effectively handing it over to Attwood. Hendron said he had been asked ‘to take a hit’ in the interests of the party.” (‘A Tremendous Day’ by Laura Friel, Irish Republican Media, 6 December 2003)
Earlier in the same article, Friel says of the SDLP: “Sinn Féin’s all-Ireland focus has been so successful that, according to the media, some senior members of the SDLP are currently advocating their party’s merger with Fianna Fáil.”
Danny Morrison puts this into perspective: “[SDLP leader] Mark Durkan, accompanied by two TDs, one from Fianna Fáil and the other from Fine Gael, symbolically used the bridge between County Tyrone and County Donegal to launch a policy paper on the SDLP’s new-found interest in the reunification of Ireland. It was only two years ago that in the Westminster general election the SDLP called Sinn Féin ‘backward’ over its demands for Irish unity. It seems that we were all living in a ‘post-nationalist era’, though most of us had obviously slept through the time when Ireland was a nation once again.”
Talking of the republican move from military to political struggle, Morrison says: “The electoral strategy was bound to take precedence once there was a military stalemate. And Sinn Féin – with all that energy, fervour and commitment, attuned to the community – was bound to overtake a party many of whose politicians have the appearance of opportunists. That perception has been reinforced even more with the current debate about the SDLP possibly merging with Fianna Fáil, even just to stop Sinn Féin from claiming that it is the only all-Ireland party.” (‘The Lollipop Man’ by Danny Morrison, www.DannyMorrison.com, 7 December 2003)
It only remains to add that the politicians of the SDLP do not only appear to be opportunist – they are thoroughly imbued and rotten to the core with opportunism and careerism, happy to make a living from helping in the continued subjugation of their people.
Unionist divisions deepen
Meanwhile, the election results have had the effect of clarifying considerably the unionist divisions. While the DUP has succeeded in becoming the rallying point for all the anti-Agreement forces, these are still relatively few (30 percent in the north and a mere 10 percent of the whole island’s population) and their position is based on fear of the inevitable end to protestant privilege rather than any kind of workable vision for the future.
Sinn Féin’s cool-headed response to the election results was thrown into stark relief by the rantings of DUP leader and byword in sectarian bigotry Ian Paisley. On Thursday 27 November, as the results were being counted, Paisley grabbed a TV reporter and yelled: “Anyone who talks to Sinn Féin will be out of my party.” But, as the 1 December election follow-up article in Irish Republican Media reports, the untenable nature of this position is already making itself clear:
“‘We have done business with Ian Paisley in the past on the agricultural committee in the Assembly. He didn’t do a bad job,’ Mr Adams told journalists on Thursday, upon hearing of Dr Paisley’s anti-Sinn Féin rant.
“The Sinn Féin President went one better on Thursday night. On the RTE show, Primetime, Mr Adams shared a panel with the DUP’s Edwin Poots. Mr Poots was in the middle of telling Adams that he fully subscribed to his party leader’s stance on not being allowed to talk to anyone in Sinn Féin, when Adams pointed out: ‘You’re talking to me now.’
“Mr Poots was, Adams said, at the position where the other panellist, UUP member Chris McGimpsey, had been five years ago. Whereas the DUP once refused to share a studio with Sinn Féin, now they were sitting across a table from each other – serious political dialogue between the two was the next logical step.”
What has also become clear is that British imperialism’s strategy is to back the Agreement as the first step to a complete withdrawal from Ireland. The proof is that after months of trying to keep a foot in both camps, when it came to the crunch, David Trimble, Britain’s main man in the north, came down decisively on the side of the Agreement and the peace process, and his party has given short shrift to Jeffrey Donaldson and the other extreme sectarian challengers wanting to take the UUP back into the anti-Agreement camp. The difficulty for the British government is that it hopes to negotiate a withdrawal that will leave behind a divided and dependant Ireland, ripe fodder for continued neo-colonial meddling but without the burden of an expensive and unwinnable war and military occupation. How far they can succeed in that will ultimately come down to the strength of the republican movement, who are so far showing themselves to be masters of the political game.
The pro-Agreement unionists, on the other hand, are busy trying to achieve an Assembly that will keep most if not all of their former privileges intact and see them taking over the reins of devolved or even independent government in the north. They have recognised the need for some cosmetic changes to the old Orange state, but their policy of minimum damage to protestant interests can only be implemented if they are engaged in the negotiations and whatever institutions are put in place as a result. According to Laura Friel: “Robbed of the status of unionism’s natural party of government, the UUP leader discovered a new majority that deserved his allegiance, the pro-Agreement majority, which includes nationalists, within the Assembly.
“‘I’m not going to settle for stalemate,’ he said. ‘Prolonged direct rule is not in anyone’s interest.’ Any attempt to ‘revert to a unionist dreamland that never existed’, said Trimble, was not in anyone’s interests either. ‘There is no future in that and no future in the gesturing of the DUP. That will become clear.’ …
“Trimble clearly believes that, faced with the same choices as the UUP, the DUP will either make the same decisions, or refuse to make any decisions at all. Unfortunately for the DUP, ‘Never, never, never,’ is no longer a sustainable position. The DUP’s vision, like its leader Ian Paisley, at the very moment of its power grasp, has never looked so exposed and frail.” (Irish Republican Media, ibid)
Supremacists struggle against reality
Elsewhere, Paisley Sr is quoted as proclaiming that: “There will never be any conditions when we will sit in government with any body of people, loyalist or nationalist, who have an army, and that army is being used against democracy.” But such empty threats are fooling no-one.
Leave aside for the moment the question of the British army, one of the best-equipped and most brutal colonial forces on the planet, which has backed up the British state and its Orange stooges’ innumerable interventions against democracy in Ireland over the centuries and against whom Mr Paisley has not a word to say. Leave aside the issue of Paisley’s own incitement of and collaboration with the loyalist paramilitary thugs of the UDA and UVF to bring about the collapse of the UUP/SDLP-brokered Sunningdale Agreement in 1974 through a general strike of protestant workers in the Ulster Workers Council (UWC) enforced by roadblocks, hijacks and assassinations. Leave aside the fact that: “On the third day of the UWC strike loyalists, almost certainly helped by elements of British intelligence, planted car bombs in Dublin and Monaghan and slaughtered 33 children, women and men” – a case of collusion that has recently been confirmed by a long-awaited report from Ireland’s Justice Henry Barron. Leave aside that Paisley’s “DUP and other unionist representatives for decades have acted as cheerleaders for British army and RUC violence and have justified repression, torture, shoot-to-kill operations, exclusion orders, censorship and discrimination”. Leave aside the DUP’s alliance with the UDA during another enforced strike in 1977; their founding of the Third Force vigilantes in 1981 and of the Ulster Resistance paramilitaries in 1986, who later sold stolen missile technology to Apartheid South Africa and killed several hundred nationalists in the 1990s. (Quotations and information on the DUP from ‘One extreme’ by Danny Morrison, www.DannyMorrison.com, 1 December 2003)
In fact, Paisley’s high-flown ‘moral’ rhetoric is just a poor attempt to cover the same old protestant supremacist rallying cry: no to equality for catholics in their own country; ‘no surrender’ to republicanism. But this rhetoric is no longer backed up by the British state machine, or even by the majority of those living in the north of Ireland. As Paul O’Connor points out:
“The DUP victory sends out a message about the continuing reluctance of many unionists to accept that the days of their ascendancy are gone, and that the time has come to work together with nationalists to build a future as equals.
“But it also needs to be recognised that the DUP has moderated its rhetoric and its stance considerably and that this was undoubtedly a factor in its electoral success. They have dropped their demand that cross-border bodies be abolished and conceded the principle of power-sharing. We may smile sardonically at hearing DUP spokesmen declare their goal to be ‘a fair deal for catholics and protestants’, but it surely represents an advance on ‘Ulster says no’.
“The reality is that old-fashioned Paisleyism is past its sell-by date, even among most unionists. The gradual evolution of the DUP towards a more pragmatic stance indicates that many of its own members recognise that overtly sectarian politics is a road to nowhere. And the ‘big man’ is failing. With his stooped shoulders and withered face, Paisley is a fitting image of his own evangelical brand of politics.
“It is not the old firebrand DUP that has emerged victorious within unionism, but the DUP lite of Robinson and Dodds. Their victory signals not an outright rejection of the Agreement on the part of unionism, but a reluctance to accept changes that are nonetheless recognised as inevitable. The message is ‘we know we will have to share power, but please God let us stave off the inevitable for another few years’.
“The vote for the DUP is a testament to unionist weakness. It signals the inability of unionists to grasp the future with enthusiasm and make it their own. It is the last despairing gasp of a rejectionist unionism that still mouths its old slogans of defiance, but no longer with any conviction. The DUP has led its voters up the garden path – and it knows it. It promised them the impossible – full-scale renegotiation of the Agreement. And this is simply not going to happen.” (‘Watershed elections’ by Paul O’Connor, Irish Republican Media, 11 December 2003)
Meanwhile, the British and Irish governments and their media friends are busy portraying the election results as terrible news for the peace process – the victory of two groups of extremists that is bound to result in the hardening of sectarian boundaries. Irish newspapers reported a ‘Deadlock in the peace process as hard-line parties win seats’, and as for the British:
“Their propaganda model of two warring tribes, each as bad as the other, with the British playing the role of neutral piggy in the middle, became strained almost to breaking point during the elections.
“The British media and its acolytes dutifully presented Sinn Féin’s electoral rise as comparable to DUP gains. The message was that the ‘extremists’, as opposed to the lunatics, had taken over the asylum. But such nonsense cannot stand up to scrutiny.
“When did a commitment to conflict resolution and progressive change become ‘extremist’? Can you have too much peace? Too much equality? Too much power-sharing?
“In truth, the ideological tables have already been turned. A section of unionism alone poses the ‘extremist’ threat to the current political process and attempts to nail Sinn Féin’s colours to their mast is out of joint with history as it unfurls.” (Laura Friel, ibid)
Danny Morrison exposes the ‘two extremes’ myth further: “Some commentators have described the current deadlock as having been exacerbated by ‘the election of the two extremes’, as if Sinn Féin is refusing to share power with unionists or doesn’t recognise unionist aspirations.
“Sinn Féin has genuinely pursued a dialogue with unionism. However, most unionists still adhere to the myth that the conflict in the North was one-sided, that the IRA was responsible for all violence. The DUP and its supporters need reminding of its history …
“Extremists were certainly elected last Wednesday but they were unionists. At the most, 34 or 35 unionist representatives out of a potential assembly of 108 members are opposed to the Belfast Agreement. The Agreement still has the support of a majority of people in the north, and was endorsed in referenda, passed as legislation in both Britain and Ireland and is lodged at the United Nations as an international binding treaty.
“However, the very provision which was written into the Agreement to prevent abuse – that the executive and assembly require the consent of a majority of both unionist and nationalist elected representatives – gives the DUP, as the leading party of the unionist community, the power to prevent an inclusive executive from being formed. Ultimately, Britain is to blame for the supremacist mentality within unionism, which came with partition.
“That is not to say that things haven’t changed. Things have changed and many unionists are prepared to share power and recognise the compromises that nationalists and republicans have made in the interests of reconciliation. Sinn Féin, having emerged as the leaders for the nationalist community, has to face down the DUP. The DUP has declared that it will not share power with Sinn Féin and thinks that it can renegotiate the Agreement. It has yet to learn that there can be no assembly, no executive and no power for the DUP without the consent of Sinn Féin, and that the nationalist community is not about to give up or dilute rights which it took eighty years to secure.” (DannyMorrison.com, ibid)
Imperialist tactics failing
Behind the two governments’ ‘concern’ for the peace prospects is a very real concern that the yes-men of the SDLP may never win back their place as the respectable face of nationalism in the north. According to Paul O’Connor:
“The significance of the republican victory is immense. When, in the wake of the hunger strikes, Sinn Féin emerged as a growing electoral force, it became central to the policy of both governments to halt its advance. Indeed, one of the principle motivations of the 26-county government in pursuing the Anglo-Irish Agreement was to shore up the SDLP as a bulwark against Sinn Féin.
“Even at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, the hope was that republicans could be marginalised. Many predicted the Agreement would herald a coalition of the ‘centre’ parties, the SDLP and Ulster Unionists, leaving Sinn Féin out in the cold. With the SDLP on board, a modified, but fundamentally unchanged, version of British rule over the six counties would continue indefinitely.
“This is the context in which to see Sinn Féin’s emergence as the undisputed leader of nationalism. After this result, there can never be a return to the policies of marginalising and excluding republicans. Sinn Féin’s negotiating position is stronger than ever before. It has always been the case that an agreement without republicans was impossible. Now such an agreement is unthinkable.” (Paul O’Connor, ibid)
So what happens next? By refusing to uphold the elections and allow the new Assembly to convene, the British government is once again allowing the unionists a veto. Such blatant alignment with supremacy, however, only exposes the hideous features imperialism tries to keep hidden behind its mask of ‘democracy’, love of humanity and reverence for ‘peaceful means’.
All through the years of military conflict we were consistently told by the British propaganda machine that the occupation of Ireland was simply a ‘peace-keeping’, ‘neutral’ mission; an altruistic act necessary to keep two warring factions apart (see BBC News Online for more on this touching theme). It continues to tell the same story today, even as reports and inquiries into the systematic collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the British army and secret services are making the truth, or part of it, public. The media and government sing the same old hypocritical song they do in Iraq, ie that while the imperialists are free to use ‘any means necessary’ to enforce their will, ‘peaceful’ forms of struggle are the only legitimate forms for oppressed people, and ‘the democratic process’ is absolutely sacrosanct and above class interests. Yet we see that when the imperialists are unable, even with their monopoly of media and force, to twist this process of ‘democracy’ to produce the result they require, their executive, the British government, has no qualms whatsoever about ignoring the result and imposing its will at gunpoint.
Of course, all this is only a shock to poor, gullible souls, thoroughly imbued with petty bourgeois reverence for ‘the law’, bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois state machine. Their reaction to these ‘miscarriages of justice’ is to turn to the very establishment that is contravening its own rules, asking it to please behave more fairly, whether by letters to MPs, appeals in courts or calls for inquiries. What these petty bourgeois reformers refuse to understand is that for the ruling class there are no rules, only more or less expedient ways to achieve a desired end. In order to fight imperialism, one needs to have a full grasp of this fact and be prepared to face dirty tricks on and off the battle field – the ‘rules’ we are taught in school are simply one of many weapons in the bourgeois arsenal designed to disarm and distract its opponents.
The Irish republicans have learned not to be surprised by any of this, or to expect ‘justice’ for the colonised from their colonisers. Nor do they base their strategy on a misguided faith in the goodwill and honesty of such an old and wily adversary as British imperialism. On the contrary, they have turned centuries of experience to very good account, using every opportunity afforded by British hypocrisy and double standards to expose the nature of the occupation and extend their constituency among the Irish people. While being happy to use the elections and institutions of a devolved government as a further platform for putting forward their politics, they are perfectly clear that involvement in an administration at Stormont is only a staging post on the way to a complete and final withdrawal of British troops from Ireland and the reunification of the country into an independent 32 county republic; a consolidation of forces ready for the next advance.
As Paul O’Connor says: “If efforts to restore the institutions end in stalemate, however, the DUP will be the primary loser. For republicans, the Agreement is about much more than the institutions. Policing reform, demilitarisation, equality, Irish language rights, the all-Ireland agenda – these aspects of the Agreement cannot be affected by DUP obstructionism. With or without institutions, it remains for republicans to ensure that the two governments press ahead with the full implementation of those aspects that lie wholly within their remit. On policing and demilitarisation, it is high time for British ‘acts of completion’. And unlike the DUP, our horizons are wider than Antrim and Down. We have an outlet for our energies in building political strength – both electorally and organisationally – throughout the island of Ireland.
“For the young(ish) Turks of the DUP, on the other hand, there is little to do but lust after the delights of Ministerial office. Of all the parties, theirs is the one historically most committed to devolution – whereas for republicans, acceptance of a devolved government at Stormont during the negotiations for the Agreement represented a compromise.
“In the past couple of years, republicans have engaged in quite extraordinary acts of generosity, and have taken initiatives unparalleled in the history of the movement, to rescue the Agreement and to salvage an Assembly desired by unionists in the first place. Our goal, after all, is not devolution but a united Ireland. In the new political landscape of the North, the DUP needs devolved government more than Sinn Féin.
“No one can question our commitment to the Peace Process. But if the DUP want devolution, it is up to them to provide the compromises needed to make it work.” (Paul O’Connor, ibid)
This ability to take the long view and see the bigger picture gives Sinn Féin an inordinate advantage over other parties in the north, as does their experience of a long, anti-imperialist struggle. Every effort of Britain so far to destabilise the peace process and sow divisions amongst republicans has been met and matched by Sinn Féin, which has continued to extend its influence, using the fresh exposures to gain support for the next stage of the struggle.
This January, the review of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement gets under way. It is being seen by the DUP as an opportunity to renegotiate the Agreement in unionism’s favour, but this is a false hope. All the shouting in the world about ‘arms’ and ‘armies’ cannot hide the fact that the IRA have not fired a shot since 1997, while the British army continue to carry out operations and collude in assassinations of nationalists by loyalist paramilitaries. Nor can it hide the rank hypocrisy of a government that continues to put the blame for its own stonewalling on the republicans, who are the only signatories to the GFA who have actually fulfilled their obligations under the treaty. Indeed, the acts of decommissioning by the IRA go above and beyond what is called for in the treaty, despite the fact that the IRA is not a signatory to the Agreement and therefore not bound under its terms.
As Danny Morrison says: “Then, as now, the real issue wasn’t about the IRA, or ‘Sinn Féin/IRA’, but was about sharing power, equality and parity of esteem – principles which are alien to the raison d’être of the six-county state and its culture of a ‘protestant parliament for a protestant people’.
“Last week on television the DUP’s Gregory Campbell inadvertently admitted this when he said that even had the IRA decommissioned its weapons ‘with transparency’ in October it still wasn’t the issue. The issue was the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which ‘had given nationalists everything’ – that is, some of their democratic entitlements.
“The whole issue of the IRA is just an excuse for unionists not to engage with the nationalist community.” (Danny Morrison, ibid)
Just as Sinn Féin’s emergence as the majority nationalist party is straining the myth about republican extremism, so the IRA’s generous gestures of decommissioning, continued ceasefire and statements of faith in the peace process have undermined the myth that IRA weapons are the reason for the current impasse. It is equally clear that if the British carry on reneging on their side of the deal and force a return to armed struggle by Republicans it will be nobody’s fault but their own.
Role of socialists in Britain
So what of our role in Britain?
The barrage of criticism and propaganda that comes to republicans from imperialism and its unionist stooges is easy to understand. After all, they have led an inspiring 35-year struggle and are defeating British imperialism in its own back yard. Criticisms from those calling themselves anti-imperialists in Britain are harder to fathom. Within the Irish republican movement, there will of course be disagreements about strategy and tactics at each phase of the struggle. So far, Sinn Féin has retained leadership of the movement because it has shown itself most capable of adapting to every new situation and maintaining a disciplined front against the constant attempts to disintegrate and undermine it. As British socialists, our job is to support the struggle of the Irish people, including its right to chose its own leadership, against British imperialism.
The social-chauvinists of the SWP, meanwhile, although they talk a great deal about the need for Ireland to be free in theory, never cease to denounce the real leadership of the real Irish struggle for their lack of socialist credentials. Any student of Lenin will tell you, however, that in the era of imperialism it is our bounden duty to give support to any and every movement that objectively fights against imperialism, whether the fighters themselves be guided by socialist, bourgeois or even feudal ideology. The main contradiction in the world today is that between the oppressor and the oppressed nations, between imperialism and those it plunders, and every struggle must be evaluated in this context, ie whether it tends to strengthen or weaken imperialism. Only such inveterate idiots and counter-revolutionaries as the Trotskyists could support the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet bloc countries in the name of socialism, whilst denouncing every anti-imperialist leadership from the DPRK, Nepal and Colombia to Palestine, Iraq and Ireland for being the wrong kind of socialist or not socialist at all.
Imperialism maintains its rule by dividing the oppressed one against the other, encouraging them to blame each other for the problems they face instead of uniting to blame the system that keeps them all poor and weak. Even before imperialism had fully developed and could be analysed by Lenin, Marx recognised the importance of these divisive tactics amongst the working class in England:
“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps. English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he feels himself a member of the ruling nation and so turns himself into a tool of the aristocrats and capitalists of his country against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the ‘poor whites’ to the ‘niggers’ in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker at once the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rule in Ireland.
“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And that class is fully aware of it.” (Marx, Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt, 9 April 1870)
The job of socialists and progressives in Britain is to use every means at our disposal to counter the lies of the British media and their social-democratic agents in the working class movement, be they Labour, Trotskyite or revisionist. We must give every practical support to the Irish that we can, whilst explaining to the working people of Britain that the IRA and Sinn Féin have been leading a popular people’s struggle for national liberation and deserve our support, not only because their struggle is just but also because every blow against British imperialism weakens the same enemy we are fighting here in Britain.
Marx’s words on Ireland are as true today as they were when he wrote them nearly 135 years ago: “Quite apart from all phrases about the ‘international’ and ‘humane’ justice for Ireland … it is in the direct and absolute interest of the English working class to get rid of their present connection with Ireland … The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.” (Marx, Letter to Engels, 10 December 1869)
Until we break the stranglehold of social democracy over the working people of Britain; until the British working class give full and unreserved support to the peoples all over the globe who are fighting British imperialism, they will remain powerless to stave off the attacks of the capitalists on their living conditions at home – mere tools in the hands of those who grow rich at their expense – and thus never come within striking distance of their own social emancipation.
Victory to the Irish struggle for liberation and national self-determination – their day will come and ours will not be far behind!