John McAnulty (Socialist Democracy – Ireland)

Shortly before Elizabeth Windsor’s visit to Dublin, the death of police officer Ronan Kerr led to a moral panic across Ireland, with demonstrations in support of the status quo and with the great and the good claiming all Irish society was under threat. In the Assembly elections which followed a new republican layer, opposed to Sinn Fein, marked up an unexpected vote. In the aftermath of the elections there has been a ramping up of state action, with statements of support for republican militarists seen as criminal acts in themselves, leading to a series of arrests.

Yet the background of the republican resistance has been one of weakness. The republican groups have been slow to split from the Provos, as they have split in successive waves they have fragmented, riddled with informers and suspicious of each other. The aim has been to resume the failed military struggle of the Provos on a smaller scale, their explanation of the Provo collapse limited to calls of treachery and British agents within the movement. Much of their activity has been aimed at Sinn Fein supporters, calling on them to return to the military struggle.

The standard claim is that these groups lack any support, yet they have steadily grown. Old leaders have moved on, young people have been recruited, the level of state intelligence has declined, the number of bombs and hoaxes steadily risen. A steady pool of recruits has come from ex-prisoners unable to adapt to the system of patronage run by the Provos and from ghetto youth who found the bigotry and discrimination of the new Northern Ireland little different from the old. Control of areas in Belfast, Derry and Lurgan slipped from the hands of the Provos. It was the emergence of this youth layer that led to last year’s savage confrontations around Orange parades. A semi-secret dance is taking place. The republicans see increasing state repression as drawing in the mass of working class nationalists.

The state, aware of this danger, depend on the Provos, the church and Irish capital to isolate the republicans and allow focused intelligence. So far this strategy has been successful, but the price is a growing alienation of sections of nationalist youth, an alienation strengthened by the asymmetric response by the state to violence. The fact that the UVF have not disarmed, their role in sectarian violence and the willingness of unionist politicians to justify the sectarians all pass with only a muted response.

A more general problem is that the “peace dividend” – the economic boom that was supposed to follow in the wake of the peace process, never materialized. A property and credit bubble has come and gone, unemployment is steadily rising and the Assembly is about to unleash savage cuts in public services endorsed by Sinn Fein and the DUP. To add insult to injury both parties endorse an enormous subsidy to private businesses from the public purse to fund a reduction in corporation tax. The economic vice is closing especially on young people and a growing alienation is to be expected.

What has reduced the impact of the republicans has been the apolitical and militarist nature of their campaign. No-one wants to return to a blood bath, and that is all they seem to offer. What they count as success – the killing of police and British troops – is used by their opponents to strengthen the northern state, with Sinn Fein, the media and all the forces of capitalist society, hammering home the message that the only alternative to the sectarian and colonial settlement now in place is a return to war.

All the evidence indicates that the May assembly elections were fought and won in the furore around Constable Kerr’s killing. Sinn Fein were able to further clarify their support for the state. The trade union leaderships and sections of the left, by joining in the hysteria, dismissed the possibility of a socialist alternative. Nationalist organizations vied with each other in calling for new recruits for the police. The republican groups largely remained silent. Eirigi issued a statement indicating that they did not advocate a military campaign and were attacked by Sinn Fein supporters for not going on to advocate the use of informers and state repression of the republican militarists.

When the elections came they were largely an afterthought and Sinn Fein and the DUP romped home with large majorities. In the aftermath of the elections the state has stepped up levels of repression. Veteran republican Marian Price, a prisoner released as part of the Good Friday agreement, has had her license revoked and been returned to prison because she held a written speech transcript at a militarist demonstration. A student was jailed for being in a van used by a republican colour party.

However there was one exception. A substantial and unexpected vote was recorded for the republican group Eirigi in the west Belfast council elections – a political shift that was partly reflected in a large vote for the People before Profit candidate in the Assembly elections held alongside. The West Belfast result was accompanied by substantial votes in Fermanagh, mid-ulster and Newry with a number of councillors supporting the Eirigi program being elected.

Eirigi differs from the other republican groups in that it was formed in a political split with class issues behind them, being formed in inner city Dublin in opposition to a policy of coalition in a right-wing Fianna Fail government. It fought the council elections by explicitly ruling out a military campaign, by opposing the local Stormont assembly and calling for opposition to the Sinn Fein/DUP program of cuts.

There is obviously room for a republican movement to expand further, but it must be borne in mind that any political movement will have to withstand the assaults that will constantly try to link them to military adventures, the tendencies within republicanism that tend towards militarism and that the modest electoral gains in the North have to be set against the enormous triumph registered by British and Irish capitalism in the Assembly elections.

It should also be added that the current program of the republicans is not far removed from that of left members of the Provos in the past. That program is obviously insufficient. The Sinn Fein and the DUP cuts will lead to mass discontent that will seek an alternative, but a new movement will have to face the class struggle around the bankruptcy of the 26 county state and will have to seek common ground with the socialist movement and confront the unionism and acceptance of partition that defines sections of that movement. In the north the frantic support of the revamped colony shown by the Catholic middle classes gives the lie to any idea that revolutionary nationalism will prove a mechanism for dealing with the vicious class struggle involved in any struggle against partition.

Two telling local reports give a flavour of the current struggle. One indicated that a majority of Catholics would vote for the continuation of the British presence. The other indicated that the Belfast West constituency, after 30 years of Provo electoral advance, remained one of the most deprived areas in the north.

The potential for revolt is there. The appearance of a political resistance from within republicanism creates a pressure for a political representation of marginalised working class nationalists and a discussion of class politics. A new republican movement will force the socialist movement to acknowledge that Ireland remains a country dominated by imperialism and it is in this context that a working class program must be advanced.

22 June 2011

This article was originally written for ‘Permanent Revolution’ and was reprinted in the online version of ‘Fourthwrite’


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