John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy (Ireland) assesses the political impact of the return of physical force republicanism, after the killings in Antrim and Craigavon’.

There has been a united response by all the Irish and British political parties to the killing of British soldiers in Antrim and the later killing of a policeman in Craigavon. They all say that:

  1. Republican militarists have nothing to offer.
  2. The militarists have no support
  3. The political process in the North of Ireland is secure.


Only one of these assertions is true. It is true that the militarists offer absolutely no way forward for Irish workers. It is not true to assert that they have no support, nor that the political process is secure. In fact, it is precisely because the political settlement is failing that the militarists are gaining in support.

It is highly unlikely that any outside the most frantic of Sinn Fein supporters believed that that the end result of the peace process would be a united Ireland. What they all believed was that that the Northern statelet could be reformed to become a more equal society. Right from the beginning that proved too much. Democratic rights were mutated by the Good Friday Agreement into supposedly equal sectarian and communal rights. It was a settlement that didn’t give enough to Britain’s Unionist base and it was tweaked towards Unionist majority rule in the St. Andrews Agreement.

During St. Andrews the DUP agreed to devolve policing and justice and Sinn Fein were promised sops around a centre recording the hunger strike, a unified sports stadium and an Irish language act. It proved impossible to get the DUP administration to honour these promises and a Sinn Fein work-to-rule blocking the functioning of the Executive failed. The British gave substantial backhanders to compensate them. More recently, alongside the decision to block any full investigation of state terror came an offer of £12,000 to the relatives of those killed. Unionist outcry led to the withdrawal of the offer. Even the backhanders have dried up. On the economic front the shootings led the Sinn Fein and DUP leaders to cancel an investment tour of the USA – one of many such trips, all failures, serving to underline the absence of any real economic strategy for the North of Ireland.

This has not led to a mass nationalist rejection of the Northern settlement. The Irish capitalists will support any imperialist plan. The power of the Catholic Church has greatly increased under the sectarian setup. The middle class wallow in sectarian privilege marked by ‘equality’ positions in public service, earmarked for one confessional group or the other. Sinn Fein itself has a backbone of ‘community workers’ paid by the state.

A minority of republicans have rejected Sinn Fein and the partitionist settlement, aiming to revive a military campaign against British rule. They have been completely ineffective because of the demoralisation caused by decades of militarism and state repression, because of their fragmented and divided movement, and because of the absence of support. Above all, the total absence of any political program has fatally handicapped them.

Aroma of corruption

They are still not large, but they have now seen the exodus of the last of the militarists holding on in the Provos. More generally there is a growing revulsion at the aroma of corruption around Sinn Fein. A growing number of working class youth are unable to see the new world that the Shinners promised. The result of that growth is that state intelligence has degraded. They still know the old hands, but have only partial penetration of the new cells. There is also the growth of a new infrastructure of supporters willing to provide money, intelligence, safe houses and weapons dumps.

For all that, their opponents are right when they say that republican militarism offers no way forward. In the tradition of pure physical force republicanism, the Real IRA boast that they have no political organisation. Without a thought they include pizza delivery men as targets, apparently unaware of the extent to which the policy of the ‘soft target’ demoralised their own supporters and besmirched the name of republicanism in the past. They have no explanation, other than betrayal, for the abysmal failure of decades of military struggle and the relatively easy absorption of their compatriots into the structure of colonial rule. Above all they seem completely unaware that the southern capitalists are the most frantic supporters of the settlement and the chief mechanism through which the political dissolution of the Provos was obtained.

Yet within the narrow grounds of the physical force tradition, the republicans have a clear strategy. Their military capacity represents nothing in relation to British military might, but they believe that even a low level of activity will be enough to bring down the new Stormont regime. A major target is Sinn Fein. The dissident republicans calculate that the pressures of their campaign will collapse the organisation and win supporters to the RIRA. They also calculate that it will act as a recruiting sergeant, bringing disaffected nationalist youth into their ranks.

Speeding up a drive to the right

Politically their belief that armed action can bring down the northern statelet makes little sense. It is true that the Good Friday Agreement has been decaying since its inception, but it has been decaying to the right, into a more naked and reactionary expression of imperialist interest, driven by increasing unionist reaction and republican capitulation. Militarism can only play the traditional role of accelerating the political process – in this case speeding up a drive to the right.

A sign of that drive came quickly, with what one reporter called ‘Martin McGuinness’s ‘Michael Collins moment’. (Collins was a leading figure in the Irish War of Independence, who then led the Free State repression of the republicans). McGuinness called the dissident republicans “traitors to the island of Ireland”. He called on his supporters to inform on them and to support state repression. He claimed that the new dispensation guaranteed political progress, despite being unable to show any such progress other than the presence of themselves and their supporters within the state apparatus. Such was the determination of Sinn Fein to prove their worth that they did not stop with assurances to the British and DUP. A special meeting with representatives of the loyalist paramilitaries brought them in on the act. Apparently the fact that the loyalists retain a full arsenal of weapons aimed at Catholic workers is no longer a cause for censure.

Sinn Fein have little choice. They themselves are targets of the dissident republicans. Any suggestion that the Good Friday process failed would lead to the collapse of their organisation. They must support instant state repression in the hope that it quickly defeats the militarists. In any case, any hesitation on their part might well lead to their expulsion from the administration. British Tory leader, David Cameron, has already indicated that he wants to replace the current forced coalition of Sinn Fein and DUP with a ‘voluntary coalition’ – in other words, unionist majority rule. So already we have a step-change to the right. The Irish peace process has left behind any pretence that jaw-jaw will be enough to sustain it. There is to be war-war in the form of state repression. This new dispensation will be spearheaded by Sinn Fein and will enjoy widespread public support.

In the short term the militarists have strengthened the imperialist settlement. In the long run there are still many contradictions. Sinn Fein will be isolated from significant sections of the nationalist working class and will continue to decay. The state will want to target the repression so that the dissident republicans are isolated, but this will be difficult to do given the intelligence deficit. The DUP leadership has welcomed the Provos role in spearheading the reaction, but that does not mean they will reward them by supporting any reform. At the grass-roots the reaction of many members of the DUP to the attacks will be to look for Sinn Fein’s expulsion from the administration.

The Irish peace process will continue its march to the right. A military campaign offers no solution, but then neither does the position of their opponents, which offers frantic support to the British and denounces any political criticism of the settlement as a form of terrorism.

Trade union demonstrations on the days following the deaths illustrated this perfectly. They went well beyond protests about the shooting of the two workers, or more general protests about militarism, to hysterical calls by TU leader, Peter Bunting, for unconditional support for the sectarian status quo. In an even more extreme development, Patricia McKeown of UNISON claimed that the trade unions would act as ‘civic society’ in coordination with the state to make the repression successful.

The widespread hysteria from all sides is not aimed at the relative handful of militarists. The disquiet about the corrupt society that has been brought into existence is much wider. A consistent theme of the supporters of the current settlement has been to demonise the opposition and attempt to convince workers that the only alternative to supporting the status quo is a sectarian bloodbath. It is this unconditional support for an imperialist settlement, rather than a criticism of militarism that makes this Sinn Fein’s ‘Michael Collins moment’ and makes the organisation an obstacle to the resolution of the Irish question.

The settlement in the North of Ireland is not a democratic settlement. It hardly pretends any longer to be one, depending on popular rejection of a failed militarism and on unconditional support for the state from the formerly anti-imperialist opposition. That’s not enough to prevent its eventual collapse. The former radicals bay their hatred of the militarists, but by blocking any political critique they are telling the disaffected and marginalised that only physical force remains as a response. It is for socialists and democrats to prove the former radicals wrong and build a political opposition.

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