May 18 2012


John McAnulty of  Socialist Democracy (Ireland) provides an example, from the Stormont administration of education, to show how the reformed set-up helps to maintain sectarianism  in Northern Ireland .


The journey from republicanism to administration of the Northern state rested on two main planks. One was the thesis first advanced by Michael Collins in relation to partition – that it was a transitional arrangement – a stepping stone to a united Ireland.

That plank was abandoned during the last election, when Sinn Fein came out of the closet as a populist Catholic party. What was left was a belief in the second plank – a belief that the Northern state can be gradually reformed – made more democratic and with greater rights for workers. It is a very popular and widely held view.

A key plank of this perspective was advanced by Sinn Fein when they took the education portfolio and announced that they would abolish the 11+. Alas, the reform fell on its face.

The Shinners were suckered out of millions for school building by the Catholic hierarchy, who first indicated that they would end selection and then expressed amazement at a “revolt” by Catholic grammars. The revolt was so acute that a member of the reform commission was simultaneously a governor of a “revolting” grammar.

Unofficial transfer tests were instituted. This being the North, the claim of a dying sectarianism was refuted when we ended up with two tests – one Catholic and the other Protestant.

At the beginning of May Sinn Fein education minister John O’Dowd attempted to breathe life into the reform by announcing that “action would be taken” against primary schools preparing pupils for the unofficial tests. The statement was purest bluster. The action proposed was writing a stern letter. The purpose of the statement was to remind Sinn Fein supporters of the party’s claims of radicalism.

Unfortunately for Sinn Fein, First Minister Peter Robinson also has obligations to the DUP. These are to assure them that Sinn Fein’s position is entirely subordinate and that the system of sectarian and class privilege that the DUP defend in education will be preserved. Within days he announced that there was no prospect of agreement on transfer and that he would take steps to introduce a single official transfer test.

So absolutely no sign of reform in an area where a large section of the population would support it. Even where reform is agreed, as with the creation of a single Education Authority, the process is hollowed out by building the old sectarian interests inside the new body. Even then fine tuning of the different class and sectarian interests means the agreement may never be implemented.

If reform isn’t working there are plenty of things that are working. The Sinn Fein programme of austerity and of privatization of school building and of nursery provision means thousands of teacher redundancies and many school closures, with the minister reduced to rare press announcements where limited spending is counted twice or three times to announce recycled  initiatives. The massive cuts agenda rolls on. In the absence of reform of the 11+ grammars will be protected and the cuts will fall on secondary schools and on working-class areas.

The mechanism that keeps the whole show on the road is the system of sectarian privilege sponsored by the British. Sinn Fein no longer blather about taking the first ministers position – such a development would be likely to collapse the agreement. Indeed recent amendments bar them forever from the justice ministry and they no longer bid for major financial ministries. The party has become a sinecure in education because of the endless opportunities for patronage. In outside society the community relations council report progress while recording the rise of sectarian peace walls from 22 to 88 and the increasing racism in civil society.

Claims of reform and of progress are now the new ideology.  Even suggestions by members of the administration of the humdrum banality of sectarianism and class war in golf clubs led to roars of disapproval and hasty retractions. All is well is the best of all possible worlds while sectarianism festers and austerity bites.

 16 May 2012


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Mar 20 2009

Sinn Fein’s ‘Michael Collins Moment’

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 17RCN @ 1:59 pm

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.
  4. 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 seemcompletely 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 fromthe 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 toconvince 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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