The Ceasefire - Guerrilla War offers no way forward

Militant Irish Monthly, No. 33, March-April 1975

The declaration by the Provisional IRA of an open ended ceasefire can but be welcomed by every activist with the Labour and Trade Union movement in Britain and Ireland. In recent years while trade unionists have fought to direct the attention of workers towards the struggle for decent conditions their task has been made doubly difficult by the bombings and shootings of the Provisionals.

The ceasefire is tenuous indeed. That there are many Provisionals who either wish to see it ended immediately, or else regard it as a necessary respite before a renewed onslaught, is beyond question. However the fact that a ceasefire has been called is an indication of a weakening of the Provisionals, both in terms of resources and of popular support which has taken place in the recent period.

Whether or not the campaign is resumed by a section, if not all of the Provos, the present lull in activities gives the opportunity for a sober evaluation of the campaign, from a socialist viewpoint to be made.

Today there are not many people outside their own ranks who are prepared to support the campaign. A few years ago the situation was entirely different. Then within the Catholic ghettos of Northern Ireland there existed a massive feeling of sympathy and support for the military campaign. When the first shots were fired, when the sounds of the first explosions began to rock the North's towns and cities, supporters of the Militant condemned such tactics and warned that they would be self-defeating. These predictions have since been borne out.

The last group of people who could be expected to accept that this is the case are the Provos themselves. However the ceasefire demonstrates that a growing section of the movement have learnt that their methods of struggle can lead only to the blind alley of defeat and demoralisation.

No campaign of individual terrorism can hope to overthrow the power of the state in any modern capitalist society. This is the lesson of the last four years, and it is a lesson the working class internationally must take to heart. Any army of urban guerrillas, no matter whether it be the Provos, the Tupamaros, or whatever, while it may claim to act on behalf of the people, actually by its methods further isolates itself from any mass base it may have had. Instead of mobilising working class people into struggle it lulls them into passivity, teaching them not to rely on their own mass power, but on the guerrilla army of 'gallant defenders'. Seeing itself as the instrument of social change, it accords no role to the working class.

In Northern Ireland in particular, the effects of such a guerrilla campaign could only have been disastrous. In a country where already existed to some extent a division in the working class, a campaign mounted from one side of that divide could have no other effect but to deepen the division and set back the class struggle.

Throughout their campaign and still today the Provos have identified the enemy as British Imperialism. That British Imperialism is the enemy is true. But British Imperialism means not simply the presence of the British army. It means the whole array of financial and economic control of the Irish economy by monopolies, multi nationals and the banks. And the same imperialism which exploits the people and wealth of Ireland holds down the living standards of workers in London, Birmingham and Glasgow.

The only force which is capable of upholding the interests of the working class people of any part of these islands is the mass power of the organised working class.

It is now five years since the Provos emerged as a force in the Catholic ghetto areas of the north. Consequently the motives which drove thousands of young working class people into their ranks tend to be forgotten. Similarly it has become commonplace to blame the Provos for all the ills of Northern Ireland. However the prime responsibility for the bloodshed of the last five years rests with the British ruling class. The tactics of this class over centuries of exploitation of the masses in Ireland created the sectarianism and the conditions which have been the root cause of the 'troubles' in the North. More recently it was the repressive tactics of the army which acted as the main recruiting agent for the IRA. The Lower Falls curfew of July 1970, the internment of hundreds of Catholic workers in August 1971, the subsequent torturing of suspects, the random arresting and harassment of civilians, and above all the brutal murder of unarmed demonstrators in Derry on January 30th 1972, all combined to impel thousands of young people behind the military campaign. This repression coupled with the atrocious living conditions which characterise the ghettoes of Northern Ireland, helped to swell the Provos' ranks. Finally it was the absence of a Labour leadership capable of offering such embittered youth an alternative vehicle for social struggle which drove Catholic youths towards the Provos.

Since the introduction of internment in particular, thousands of workers have been caught up in the false tactics of urban guerrilla warfare, urged on by the false promises and false hopes of the Provisional tops. At every turn in this struggle the promise of 'victory' and 'final victory' has been dangled in the faces of the young volunteers.

In October 1973 the Provo paper, Republican News, carried a report of that years Ard Fheis. That article commented that 'Victory is staring us in the face'. It claimed , 'We are on the verge of final victory'.

Such claims can be made and then left unfilled only for so long. Now, after 4,800 explosions, with 1,160 people dead, among them many IRA volunteers, with hundreds of other Provos either maimed, on the run or serving out savage sentences, a ceasefire, perhaps a temporary one, has been called.

The question which will not escape the minds of those who conducted this struggle, is what has it all been for?

Seamus Loughran, Sinn Fein spokesman, has said that the only demand which is not negotiable is that the British must give a declaration of intent to withdraw. He does not insist that a date for this 'intended' withdrawal be set. All the other demands which have from time to time been raised and which in the past could be argued down the barrel of a gun or through the blast of a bomb are now made the subject of negotiation and compromise.


Today we have internment we have commissioners, the army remains, a united Ireland has been brought no nearer. After years of bloody fighting the Provos have come out with not one lasting gain.

The conclusion? Not that the campaign must be renewed until something is gained, but that such a false method of struggle must be abandoned.

Left wing apologists for the Provos, in their attempts to glamorise that organisation have claimed that the Provos are the true revolutionary force in Northern Ireland. The Provos, it is said, are out to smash the state, not reform it. Such pretensions are worn thin in the light of the ceasefire arrangements and the new style 'moderation' and 'respectability' of such people as Seamus Loughran who amongst other things has stated that he will escort RUC 'experts' in and out of Catholic areas when the need arises.

It is quite true that Provisional propaganda has been filled with phrases about socialism. However no amount of phrase mongering could disguise the real intent of the Provo leadership.

When the republican movement split on the eve of the present troubles, that section which broke way to form the leadership of the Provisional wing represented the right wing of the movement. They left because they could not stomach the left wing trend in republicanism at that time. Subsequently because of the inadequacies exposed in the defence of areas in 1969, linked to the limitations of the Official Republicans and their refusal to link the Civil Rights programme to the need for a socialist solution to the problems faced by all workers which would have shown the mass movement in the early stages a way forward, it was this right wing rump, which gained the most extensive working class base.

United Nations

While socialist phrases were necessary to give some expression to the aspirations of the rank and file, the Provisional leaders, men like O'Bradaigh, Cahill, O'Connell and MacStiophan, have never been capable of raising their sights any higher than the objective of a capitalist Ireland. The policy document, Eire Nua, proposes an economy in which a balance of public and private enterprise would be permitted.

The 'revolutionary' campaign was designed to force the British to a conference table. So Provisional spokesmen have repeatedly said. As though in discussion round the table the representatives of capital would be prepared to sign away their claim to exploit any country. At the outset of the campaign the Republican News speculated on the situation which would follow the 'victory'. Firstly there would be a period during which their solution would be put into effect. 'During that time London and Dublin would jointly finance social security benefits at their present level. A United Nations security force could prevent sectarian clashes after the withdrawal of the British forces.' Republican News, August 1971.

The short sightedness of Provisional policy could not be more succinctly expressed. Internationally the UN have acted as the upholders of capitalist domination. A UN force would be as great an obstacle for socialism in Northern Ireland as is the British army. The peacekeeping abilities of the UN were demonstrated in Cyprus.

And in the Provos new Ireland social security benefits are to be maintained at their present level. What worker would want to take up arms and struggle to face a situation of unemployment where he would have to maintain a family on the level of the pittance handed out in the social security offices in the North.

The ceasefire has not solved Northern Ireland's problems. In fact his 'peace' has been characterized by bombings and shootings. The first week of 'peace' saw vicious murders in Pomeroy, the shooting of a group of workers in Coleraine, one of whom has since died, the murder of a young Catholic youth in South Belfast, a spate of explosions - the list goes on.

Trade Union Defence Force

The possibility of a bloody civil war still looms over Northern Ireland. It is possible that the present ceasefire will last. Equally, it is possible that some if not all of the Provos will seek to return to militarism. Whatever happens one thing is absolutely certain - unless a working class movement capable of stamping its indelible imprint on the situation emerges, a future return to bloodshed is inevitable.

Only the labour movement can guarantee peace and provide a solution. The north's problems did not materialise out of the atmosphere. The high unemployment, the paltry wages, the deplorable housing conditions - these are the factors which underlie the violence. Only through the emergence of a mass Labour Party capable of giving expression to the struggles of the workers to rid society of such poverty can there be a way forward.

Sectarian killings continue. Here again the Labour movement must give the answer. Some people believe that the Provos can emerge as a new police force protecting Catholic areas. No sectarian based group has been capable of defending working class areas in the past nor can this be possible in the future. The forces of the capitalist cannot be relied upon to protect workers, Catholic or Protestant. Nor can any self-appointed group of defenders' simply because they possess the weapons set themselves up as the justice in any area.

A united workers defence force must be formed. The trade unions as a movement made up of both Catholic and Protestant working people provide the basis for establishing a force capable of protecting all workers and eliminating sectarianism.

The Provisional campaign has a demonstrated the futility of their method of their method of struggle. Unfortunately in its course many workers who could have greatly assisted in the struggle for a socialist society, among them many Provisional volunteers who for one reason or the other joined the IRA and have lost their lives. The lessons of such mistakes must be learned. The labour movement of this country is now left with the task of picking up the pieces and from them constructing a movement capable of mobilising the mass force of the working class to the struggle to build a socialist society.

This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap