John McAnulty analyses what Sinn Fein and the IRA are signing up for

Tony Blair managed to avoid saying that the hand of history was on his shoulder, but even without that there was enough overblown bombast from London, Washington and Dublin to reward the Provisional republican leadership for their 28th July announcement effectively disbanding the IRA. No-one managed to outdo Alex Reid, the Catholic priest who lubricated the Provisionals’ transition from revolutionary nationalism to co-operation with imperialism. He claimed that the statement marked the end of the centuries of Irish resistance to colonial rule!

The Provisional leadership did their bit to add to the bombast, with simultaneous announcements from the four corners of the earth and a special website where cheesy smiles from their collection of TDs, MLAs, MPs and Euro MPs subliminally suggested that the three decades of death and pain could be justified by the electoral gains of their political current. Concessions from the British tried to keep the party mood going – wanted republicans (on the run) would be allowed to return to their homes. Repressive legislation specific to the North will be disbanded – much has now been incorporated into the general framework of law in Britain itself. Prominent British military installations were dismantled. More troops will be withdrawn, leaving a still adequate garrison. The British promise to disband the Royal Irish Regiment, descendent of the infamous B Specials, if the security situation permits and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has promised legislation to allow northern representatives to speak in the Dail on matters directly concerning them. On the streets however the mood among nationalist workers was one of indifference. The road to republican surrender involved the demobilisation and depoliticisation of the mass of their members, retreats by the organisation are telegraphed months in advance and are the subject of secret mass counselling meetings to drain out all the negative feelings of the membership.

No political rewards

However there are no real political rewards for their surrender. All the structures and trappings, the comic-opera Stormont assembly and ministerial positions lie in ruins. The Provos surrender because they must, because Tony Blair, following the May elections and the Paisleyite victory, had torn up the Good Friday Agreement and announced to the Westminster Parliament that he was considering a new strategy that would exclude Sinn Fein from power. London, Washington and Dublin now insisted on surrender and had started to apply the whip to force a response. Rita O’Hare, who travelled to Washington to announce the glad tidings, had recently been barred as a warning that the US welcome was beginning to wear thin.

Dublin minister Michael McDowell had led a sustained attack on behalf of the Irish government, outing Adams and others as members of the army council and indicating that IRA activity would permanently bar Sinn Fein from a junior role in coalition with Irish capital. Sean Kelly was imprisoned to remind the IRA that most of their members were prisoners out on licence and that they could all be imprisoned at the whim of the British. Kelly was released when the British were informed that that the surrender statement was on its way. In a similar way the fate of three republicans arrested in Colombia and charged with training FARC guerrillas has ebbed and flowed with Sinn Fein’s approval rating in Washington. The surrender statement was quickly followed by their appearance, free in Ireland.

The political reward for surrender, to use the word reward loosely, is that Sinn Fein can rejoin the capitalist alliance that designed the Good Friday Agreement – London, Dublin and Washington, and work with them on plan B – persuading Unionism and Loyalism to install Ian Paisley as Prime Minister and agree to include Sinn Fein in the coalition government.

The fact that this crazy project is taken seriously, despite being denounced by Paisley at every turn, is a sign of imperialism’s desperation to cobble together a settlement and of the collapse of political understanding in Ireland. The project contains a number of implicit assumptions that, once stated, stretch the bounds of credulity.

A rational Unionism

The first assumption is that the aim of Unionism is to reach a stable political accommodation with nationalism and that it is a rational organisation able to agree and operate such an accommodation. This is false. Unionism does not operate as a political philosophy but as a conspiracy to enforce sectarian division and political and economic power. The old Stormont regime applied across-the-board discrimination against Catholics and used pogroms and all-out state repression to prevent revolt. When that revolt eventually arrived it began to debate a strategy of making concessions to retain power. In over three decades, starting with Terence O’Neill, every leader who suggested concession was overthrown from the right. The British built the Good Friday Agreement around the concept of a moderate unionism willing to do a deal with Irish capitalism and thus ensure the indefinite survival of their sectarian statelet. They got the unlikely figure of Trimble and then his slow fall under pressure from forces to the right of him and now they have the full-blown bigotry of Ian Paisley with Empey, the assassin of Trimble, in supporting role.

Now the British have built the present plan around the ghost of moderate unionism. There may not be any moderates about, but there is a widespread recognition that the sheer size of the nationalist minority requires a modification of sectarian rule and some accommodation with Irish capital. Reg Empey made a point of recognising this in his acceptance speech. Behind the scenes Nigel Dodds and Peter Robinson have made similar noises. The idea is that if unionism is placated they will eventually produce some compromise that the republicans can sign up to.

However the last 30 years carries eloquent evidence of the inability of unionism to advance any compromise, no matter how clearly this would defend their long-term interests. The present leadership of both the DUP and UUP are the outcome of generations of selection where the road to power lay in toppling the leader who showed the slightest ambiguity in their defence of sectarianism.

‘No selfish, strategic or economic interest’

Behind the false assumption of unionist accommodation is another false assumption – the keystone of the present process – the statement by Britain that it has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Ireland. It follows that its intention in the present process is to withdraw from Ireland, that it will not tolerate Unionist obstruction and that, if Unionists refuse an accommodation, the British will punish them.

This again is false.

The British fought a 30-year war which cost billions and have now spent another decade of intense political activity trying to get their ramshackle deal to work. It is worth this amount of effort because the northern economy is essentially part of the British economy and, however much it costs the state, levels of profit at the level of individual firms are very healthy, because the British retain a very significant stake in the core elements of the Southern economy, because a stable capitalist Ireland is a central concern of the British state and because Britain, as the former colonial power, is looked to by the other powers to guarantee order in this part of the world.

The mechanism by which Britain meets its political objectives is the occupation of part of the Island and that in turn depends on the active support on a mass unionist base that legitimises the occupation. This in turn means that, in every situation where a unionist leader suggests any level of accommodation with nationalism, the British conciliate the right wing. They tried to save Trimble by bending the Good Friday agreement to the right. Each concession merely emboldened the ultra-bigots and left Paisley and Empey as the leadership of the DUP and OUP respectively. Are we to ask which one of these is the moderate?

This has very direct implications for the coming political negotiations in September and January. They are not in any sense a matter of laying down the law to Unionism, of forcing them to accept reform or of punishing them. What is planned is that the British will create an environment where the Unionists will feel able to agree to some form of coalition government. This in turn will involve moving further from the Good Friday model and towards the preferred unionist models of either an assembly without government, where the sectarian groups lobby the British, or a giant county council with a majority unionist leadership and nationalists in committee chairs.

Provo duplicity

This British strategy is based around a further assumption, one that they don’t believe themselves. That is that it is duplicity and intransigence by the Provos that have caused the difficulty in the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. This again is false. For example, the British routinely talk of the £26 million Northern bank heist as having brought down the last attempt to form a local government. In fact the heist occurred after Ian Paisley had exploded the agreement. The same mechanism has occurred at each of the numerous crises that finally demolished the Good Friday Agreement. The unionists refused to implement the deal and the British, using the ‘Independent Monitoring Committee’ set up by themselves, provided cover by seizing on some, often quite routine, elements of IRA activity as post facto justification for unionist intransigence. However this British assertion is key in understanding how the mechanism of normalisation will proceed.

Political negotiations will be held to construct a local assembly in the North of Ireland with the aim of placing the arch-bigot Paisley, or his nominee, in the post of first minister. The foundation of these talks will be the surrender of the IRA. However the British have already indicated that the words of the declaration will be meaningless on their own. The future of the negotiations will depend on the actions of the IRA in disarming, winding up military structures and activities and ceasing money-laundering activities. The final word on these issues will lie with the British, through the mechanism of the IMC. Given that the IRA will depend on British cover on a number of issues – the armed section retained to provide protection for the leadership, the army structures needed to ensure the loyalty of volunteers and the financial activities that will need time to be legitimised – it should be self-evident that the British will be in total control of the negotiations and their outcome.

Their immediate aim, already expressed, is to explore what is meant by ‘democratic means’. The IRA are too deeply penetrated to represent a significant military threat. The importance of the surrender statement is its unconditional recognition of the democratic credentials of the British colony. At the moment this is a passive recognition. The next step is active support of the state forces, membership of the police and of the policing boards. Police chief Hugh Orde issued this call immediately after the IRA statement, somewhat indiscreetly confirming that Sinn Fein are already secretly in contact and co-operating with the police at every level.

Orange marches: sectarian provocations
Orange marches: sectarian provocations

Republican police

The fact is the republicans have already begun to fulfil a number of policing roles. No sooner were the elections over than both unionist parties indicated that the ‘right’ to sectarian provocation with Orange marches was a precondition to further talks. Immediately local committees in Derry reached an ‘historic agreement’ accepting an Orange march in the town. The republicans policed the violent reaction of nationalist youth, as they now routinely do in Ardoyne.

There are difficulties for a republican police. A feud amongst loyalist groups over control of drugs in which three people have died throws into sharp relief the unremitting sectarianism of the northern state and the continuing sectarian privilege of the loyalist groups.The rationale for official indifference is that there is no question of these groups being in government, but this ignores the fact that the British pump millions of pounds into their coffers to buy them off and provide a whole network of ‘community’ structures to give them political influence. In the ongoing feud a group of loyalists were able to take over a Belfast estate and force families out while the police looked on. The fact that the Garnerville estate is beside the police headquarters underlines the immunity the state extends to loyalism.The call from police, unionists and the British is for conciliation – that is that criminal gangs should divide up drug zones by negotiation while the state stands aside. A permanent atmosphere of sectarian intimidation permeates the North. Political unionism bedecks the local councils with Union Jacks. The loyalist groups repeat the exercise on the streets and follow it up with low-level ethnic cleansing.

Just how little northern society has changed was shown by the proposal to hold a republican march in Ballymena, a key Paisleyite base. The proposal was followed by a series of bomb attacks on local Catholic businesses and sectarian graffiti at local churches. The British, through the Parades Commission, having supported thousands of coat-trailing Orange marches, directed that the march stay within the confines of the only nationalist estate.

Sinn Fein’s willingness to conciliate unionism in the interests of the bigger picture and the embryonic police structures they have set up in nationalist areas indicates that they will increasingly find themselves in conflict with their own working class base.


The fourth assumption within the normalisation process, the one the republican leadership believe themselves, is that it is a process of reform. They understand that they have agreed to support the sectarian colony in the North but believe that it is to be a reformed colony, where a share of sectarian rights for nationalists will, over time, translate into a united Ireland. If this were the case then the promise to disband the Royal Irish Regiment would be of great significance. The removal of what is essentially a Protestant militia within the British army would significantly weaken the Northern state. But this is not the experience provided by the Good Friday Agreement. The promise that the police will in the far future be 50% Catholic still stands but has been eroded around the edges, with the pledge to disband the RUC reserve abandoned and the civilian workers within the police excluded from the deal.

More significantly the police still fulfil their traditional role, with the standard sectarian reflex to Orange marches and loyalist intimidation. Hugh Orde recently announced that Orangemen have the right to walk and nationalists the right to ineffective protest – word for word the policy of the Orange Order. Police policy is that intimidation involving loyalist flags fixed at the victim’s doorway is not a policing matter but ‘community relations’. Moreover, if you remove the flag you are committing theft and must return the flags to the sectarian aggressors! With this background it is likely that the disbandment announcement is a ploy by the British – in one stroke convincing republicans that real gains are on offer and on the other hand sending a wakeup call to Paisley that loyalism needs to be represented at the September talks.

You only surrender once. Only for one day do your former enemies clap you on the back and congratulate you on your statesmanship and far-sightedness. Within a few days it is business as usual. The future looks grim for the Provisional leadership. The British have them by the throat in the negotiations, able, through the IMC, to indicate at any time the status of the IRA ceasefire and to reward or punish Sinn Fein accordingly. Irish justice minister Michael McDowell has already indicated that there will be no letup in the massive financial investigation into IRA affairs in the 26 counties. Most significantly of all Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued a statement reiterating his view that their would be no united Ireland in his lifetime. Ahern is not making a prediction or stating an opinion. He is enunciating the policy of southern capital, now determined to remove a united Ireland from the agenda and to underline for Sinn Fein exactly what they are signing up for in their subservient relationship to Dublin, London and Washington.

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