Articles on Northern Ireland

Reprinted from Socialism Today

The journal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales.

October 1998 After the Omagh bomb Written by Peter Hadden
October 1998 Labour's new PTA Judy Beishon
May 1999 Northern Ireland standoff Peter Hadden
July-August 1999 The Loyalist psyche: A review of Loyalists By Peter Taylor
Reviewed by Peter Taaffe
May 2000 Northern Ireland: Good Friday two years on Peter Hadden




Here are a few more links through to Socialism Today articles on Ireland, North and South. Just to surprise everyone, spot the one article that is not 100% political! Socialists do have a life outside of politics!

Nov. 2002. The collapse of the Assembly

June 2002: Irelandís growing discontent.
THE RESULTS of the Irish general election could be greeted by some philosophical Irish voters with the refrain that the more things change the more they stay the same. Certainly, there has been little change at the top in Irish politics. Bertie Ahern's ruling Fianna Fail party gained 80 seats, three short of an overall majority, and looks likely to continue in government with a repetition of the outgoing FF/Progressive Democrats coalition.

Issue 48: June 2000 Irelands' rising militancy
A rise in Irish workers' militancy forced the Fianna FŠil/Progressive Democrats government to effectively redraft its December budget. This was the first major indication of the discontent that had been simmering below the surface. DERMOT CONNOLLY, of the Socialist Party in Ireland, describes why and how the movement reached a point where it could no longer be contained.

Issue 38: May 1998 Northern Ireland stand-off
THE EASTER deadline for agreement on decommissioning has come and gone. With no consensus among the parties, the British and Irish governments issued a declaration outlining a procedure by which the issue might be resolved

Issue 36: March 1999 Brian Moore, 1921-99: Cool prose craftsman
Brian Moore, the internationally celebrated Belfast born novelist died in January, aged 77 years. NIALL MULHOLLAND looks at the work of an author once nominated by Graham Greene as his 'favourite living novelist'.
No. 34: January 1999 1798 - myth versus reality
The 200th anniversary of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion has inspired an astonishing amount of published material and commemorative events. From republicans, claiming 1798 as the birth of their tradition; to the Orange Order, re-enacting the Battle of the Diamond which resulted in their establishment in 1795. TOM CREAN looks at the real legacy of 1798 for the workers' movement today.
No. 32: Oct. 1998 Standing up for democratic rights
THE IRISH SECTION of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), the Socialist Party, is represented in the Dail, the Irish parliament, by Joe Higgins, the TD (parliamentary deputy) for Dublin West. Joe spoke in the debate on the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Bill that was introduced into the Dail on the same day that the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill was debated at Westminster. His intervention is reprinted below. Only four other TDs, two from the Green Party, the Sinn Fein representative and an independent, joined the Socialist Party in opposing this new assault on democratic rights.
No. 31: Sept. 1998 After the Omagh bomb
AN UNPRECEDENTED wave of anger and revulsion has swept across Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb. In Omagh virtually everything shut down for a week as the town braced itself for the agony of the funerals.



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October 1998

After the Omagh bomb

AN UNPRECEDENTED wave of anger and revulsion has swept across Northern Ireland in the aftermath of the Omagh bomb. In Omagh virtually everything shut down for a week as the town braced itself for the agony of the funerals.

On the Monday morning shop stewards approached the management of the Desmonds factory, one of the biggest employers in the town, and the result was the closure of the factory for a week. In the town centre only newsagents and florists stayed open. A vigil organised by local community activists on Tuesday evening, and held in a car park close to where the bomb went off, drew a huge crowd.

If people in Omagh were understandably dazed and stunned, elsewhere people were shocked, saddened, but also very angry. Socialist Party members put up a stall in Belfast city centre on Monday with a petition demanding a one-day general strike. No sooner was the table set up than it was surrounded by people wanting to sign and to buy copies of the special bulletin that had been produced on the bomb. In a little under two hours 600 bulletins were sold. On the Tuesday and Wednesday there was a similar response with a total of 1,500 bulletins sold and around 2,000 signatures gathered in a total of four and a half hours.

The reaction to the one-day strike call was that this was the minimum that should be done. Support for this call was interspersed with comments such as 'put them all in a room and set a bomb off', and 'round them up and hang them'. Significantly these comments and this anger came from both Catholics and Protestants. There was not a single sectarian comment. The nature and scale of the atrocity has transcended the Troubles and created a common sense of outrage.

A similar mood of revulsion has swept the South. This has left the 'real IRA' and all others who advocate a continuation of 'armed struggle' completely isolated. In Dundalk the two figures most associated with the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the political arm of the 'real IRA', have fled their home fearing they would be burnt out. The only Sinn Fein councillor who defected to the 32 County Committee sits on Omagh Council. At a special council meeting on Monday morning he refused to condemn the bomb. The reaction of many people in Omagh has been not just that he should step down from the council, but that he should leave the town.

This could well mean the end of this group and of the military campaigns of the other dissident republican factions. Even the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) has been brought to the verge of a ceasefire, their main political spokesperson commenting that there is no longer any basis for armed struggle. The British and Irish governments have responded by proposing new 'anti-terrorist' legislation. The Southern Dail is to be reconvened to discuss such measures as the removal of the right to silence for terrorist offences and longer periods in custody without charge. These measures will get a broad measure of support; such is the anger at the bombing. However it should be remembered that this is what the then Labour government did in Britain after the Birmingham bombs in 1974. The emergency legislation then rushed through did not halt attacks. All it did was create new injustices, which in turn fuelled the problem.

New harsh measures by the state will not prevent outrages like Omagh. What this week has shown is that there is another and much more effective way of stopping such attacks and dealing with the whole problem of sectarian violence. A mass movement has developed which has already isolated and paralysed the 'real IRA'. This movement has developed from below, without any form of leadership. Had the trade union leadership faced up to the responsibility of their position and called a one-day strike on the Wednesday or the Thursday following the bomb then Northern Ireland, and possibly the South as well, would have ground to a stop. We would have seen a demonstration outside Belfast City Hall which would have dwarfed the various huge sectarian gatherings which have been held there from time to time. In other towns it would have been the same.

This movement could have continued until every paramilitary organisation, loyalist and republican, declared an immediate, complete and unconditional ceasefire. From this it could have gone on to ensure that the firm imprint of a united working class is placed on the peace process. The sectarian politicians who maintain the divisions which lead to horrors like Omagh could have been challenged. Northern Ireland could have been transformed.

Instead the trade union leadership refused to take any independent action. The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) met on the Monday and again on the Wednesday and decided not to call a strike, not even to call any separate rallies. The officers of NIC-ICTU went to Omagh to lay wreaths, but with no call for any action. The only guidance given to those who want to express their sympathy and their anger has been a joint statement with the employers and an encouragement to people to support the vigils and the one-minute silence called by the churches.

Socialist Party members handing the petition calling for a one-day strike to the ICTU offices met with only the vaguest of answers to the question what the trade unions intended to do. In Mid-Ulster the local Socialist Party quickly took the initiative and, through the local trades council and a community group, called a lunchtime rally for the Friday following the bomb. A request for support and a speaker from the ICTU was refused.

Socialist Party members in Omagh, some of whom had to spend the night of the bomb working in the horror of the local hospital, are considering bringing local shop stewards and community activists together to hold a rally sometime after the funerals. The idea of a local 'people's forum' to discuss the full significance of the bomb has also been raised.

Peter Hadden



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October 1998

Labour's new PTA

SEIZING ON THE wave of revulsion at the Omagh bombing, the Labour government, acting in concert with the government in Dublin, recalled parliament in early September to rush through new emergency powers which pose a permanent threat to democratic rights.

The 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and the 1996 Additional Powers Act, already gave police wide-ranging powers to stop and search, arrest, detain, and question. These powers led directly to miscarriages of justice such as the imprisonment of the Guildford Four. As is patently obvious, they did not stop acts of terrorism - but they aided the growth of nationalist paramilitary organisations by intensifying feelings of anger and grievance amongst Catholic workers in Northern Ireland.

Now, Blair and Home Secretary Jack Straw have rushed more powers through parliament which further erode the right to be considered innocent until proved guilty. In fact, the new law will remove this right completely in cases where the state uses the new Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act. The word of a senior police officer will be 'proof' to convict someone of being a member of what the Home Secretary declares to be a 'banned organisation'. The officer can refuse to substantiate his or her opinion on grounds of 'national security'. No concrete evidence has to be provided, so the officer's opinion can be based on rumour and speculation. The only corroboration required is the silence of the suspect. The onus of proof is therefore on the suspect rather than the prosecutor, and silence will be taken as admission of guilt. The accused will not be allowed to have a solicitor by their side during questioning.

This legislation is particularly inflammatory to Catholic workers in Northern Ireland, where the senior police officer would be from the overwhelmingly Protestant RUC, seen by Catholics as an instrument of sectarian repression. But wherever it is used, it removes the prosecutor's need to provide evidence-based proof of guilt, opening the way for the imprisonment of innocent people. After terrorist acts, the police are under pressure to secure quick prosecutions and so will be keen to use this legislation. Also, police dishonesty and corruption adds to the dangers. Forty officers have been suspended in a recent Metropolitan Police corruption inquiry and as a result around 300 convictions are being re-examined. Ironically, the day after the new Act had been rushed through parliament, it was revealed that the Greater Manchester Police paid £10 million in 1995 to secretly settle a legal action against them for malicious prosecution. This arose from the police's dirty tricks campaign against a Manchester businessman and his friend, John Stalker, a senior police officer who went too far in investigating the RUC's 'shoot to kill' policy in the mid-1980s.

The new law was introduced at this stage for propaganda purposes, so Blair could appear to be tough on terrorism, and not be out-done by the measures of the Irish government. But although a rushed response to an immediate situation, this law will stay on the statute books for future use. It could potentially be used against any organisation that a government wishes to ban, which could include socialist organisations. The PTA was introduced by the last Labour government in 1974 as a 'temporary' measure, but is still in force today, subject to annual renewal.

The Labour Party opposed the renewal of the PTA during the 1980s, until their relentless move to the right led them to accepting it in 1996. Blair himself said in 1993 that 'if we cravenly accept that any Act introduced by the government and entitled 'Prevention of Terrorism Act' must be supported in its entirety without question, we do not strengthen the fight against terrorism; we weaken it'. Labour did repeal the law on internment earlier this year, but this latest Act brings back internment in another form.

There was disquiet amongst some MPs and members of the upper house as the new Bill was pushed through, as many understood it to be a major attack on civil and human rights. But they meekly concentrated on criticising the shortness of time for debate, and generally succumbed to the view that it is better to be seen to be doing something (however 'unwise') than to appear impotent in the aftermath of terrorist atrocity.

The Blair government has also used the new Act to push through 'anti-terrorist' laws on behalf of its friends abroad - particularly the US government and some regimes in the Middle East and Asia. Foreign governments have complained for a long time that their own dissidents and suspected 'terrorists' have been able to peacefully plan their work in Britain, and have demanded action from the British government. Now, with this latest legislation, the Attorney General and Foreign Secretary can have anyone arrested who they decide is conspiring to commit a terrorist act against a foreign government.

This means that anyone campaigning in Britain for even basic democratic rights under a repressive regime abroad could face arrest, especially if the leaders of that repressive regime are amongst the friends and trading partners of the British government, as many are. If this law had been in force 20 years ago, every member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain could have been liable to prosecution, and many other political activists before then and since. When the Indian government, say, demands action against a politically active group of Kashmiris or Tamils living in Britain, it will be down to the interests of the British government whether the group of workers are judged as legitimate 'freedom fighters' or dangerous 'terrorists'. Just as the US government didn't feel under any obligation to produce evidence against the people it bombed recently in Sudan and Afghanistan, neither will it or any other capitalist government feel the need to produce any evidence of 'terrorism' when they consider their interests are threatened by individuals or groups living in Britain.

Judy Beishon



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May 1999

Northern Ireland standoff

THE EASTER deadline for agreement on decommissioning has come and gone. With no consensus among the parties, the British and Irish governments issued a declaration outlining a procedure by which the issue might be resolved. Despite the positive spin put on this 'breakthrough' it was not agreed by the major parties. Upon returning to the talks after Easter, most of them rejected the declaration. It is now back to square one in an attempt to find a way between the Unionist insistence of no Sinn Fein ministers in the new government without some weapons being handed over, and Sinn Fein's insistence on no prior decommissioning.

Despite the public standoff the difference between what the parties are actually saying is really quite narrow. Sinn Fein's position is not that there will be no movement on weapons: only that this is not a precondition, that they must have their seats as a right, and they will not 'surrender' guns at Unionist insistence. The Unionists are prepared to nominate Sinn Fein ministers in return for a simultaneous or almost simultaneous gesture on weapons.

It is possible that an agreement can eventually be arrived at which will fudge the issue, possibly allowing the 'verification' of some weapons as opposed to their hand over. The fact that the parties have spent weeks talking around this indicates that they are anxious to get over this hurdle and do not want to see the peace process come apart. For Adams and for Trimble the way ahead looks thorny and difficult but the way back looks even worse. Their immediate ground for manoeuvre, however, is very slender. Trimble cannot afford any defections from his Assembly party; otherwise the anti-agreement Unionists would have a majority. He has the problem in June of the European election that Paisley will attempt to turn into a second referendum on the Agreement.

Sinn Fein, taking the government decommissioning declaration back to local activists, clearly got a cool response. There are growing divisions within the republican movement over what is seen as a softening of the leadership line on decommissioning. In Catholic areas like West Belfast the hard-line message on the walls is 'Not a bullet, Not an ounce'. This attitude is strengthened by the now nightly petrol and pipe bomb attacks on Catholic homes, carried out by loyalist dissidents who call themselves the Red Hand Defenders. Most working-class Catholics are opposed to the IRA going back to war, but they are hesitant about decommissioning because of fear that Catholic areas will be left defenceless as they were in August 1969.

If there is no early agreement on decommissioning the parties will be forced to shelve, or in their words 'park', the Agreement until the autumn. The closer it gets to the European elections the less possible it will be for any major party to move. Then there is the unresolved crisis at Drumcree. The Patton Commission is also due to issue its report on the future of policing during the summer. It may be that the republican leadership will wait on the outcome of Drumcree and Patton before they consider recommending any move on weapons.

A year after the euphoria of the Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland are facing into what could be another long hot summer of sectarian attacks, confrontations over parades, and political impasse.

While the Agreement was better than no agreement, and the continuation of a peace process is better than war, it is clear that the Good Friday fudge is not a solution. Even if a way round the decommissioning hurdle is found there are many other issues - the future of the police for example " which could create a new impasse.

A real peace process based on the common interests of working class people Catholic and Protestant is needed. Trade union and community activists need to come together at local level to work out answers to the problems that the political establishment has shown itself incapable of resolving. The parades deadlock could be broken through dialogue between parade organisers and residents over the nature, routes, regularity and stewarding of parades. Concretely this means pressure from working class activists on the Orange Order to back down and engage in face-to-face discussions over Drumcree. Sectarian attacks will not be prevented by the paramilitaries, no matter how big their stockpile of weapons. Nor are the police and army able to defend working class communities. If attacks continue local communities should organise their own defence " by mobilising people in their area and setting up democratic structures on a street by street basis to halt the sectarian attacks.

Working class unity is possible. There are already united movements against hospital closures which have brought tens of thousands onto the streets. Out of all these movements we need to build a new political organisation which could represent working class interests and could challenge the sectarian parties who have had it their own way for too long.

Peter Hadden



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July-August 1999

The Loyalist psyche:

A review of Loyalists by Peter Taylor.
Bloomsbury, 1999, £16-99 (hardback)
Tension has been mounting in Northern Ireland around the stalled peace talks, an increase in sectarian 'punishment' killings and beatings, and controversy over the Bloody Sunday inquiry, with Drumcree and the marching season just around the corner. With this backdrop, PETER TAAFFE, Socialist Party general secretary, reviews the recently published book of the TV series, Loyalists, by Peter Taylor.

ON A RECENT visit to Northern Ireland, a leading member of the Socialist Party there told me that some of the Loyalist para-military leaders believe that they had carried out successful 'counter-terror' in answer to the IRA's long guerrilla campaign. This book confirms this view. Loyalists is based on the recent, very informative TV series by Peter Taylor. He underlines the analysis made by Marxists in Ireland and in Britain when the current conflict broke out 30 years ago: the majority Protestant population cannot be coerced into a united Ireland.

I first visited Northern Ireland in 1969 and helped to assemble the first small genuine Marxist forces there. I have revisited many times. Each visit has confirmed our original perspectives, as well as the analysis of the conflict made by Militant (now Socialist Party) and Militant Irish Monthly, at each stage. Our comrades have combined this with enormous courage in fighting against sectarianism and seeking to unite Catholic and Protestant workers.

A heavy price has been paid. Indeed, this book records the ultimate sacrifice made by a member of our party in Northern Ireland: "On 16 July a Catholic, Colm McCallan (25), died two days after being shot near his home in Legoniel. The IRA blamed the Ballysillan UVF and its commander, John Bingham". Colm McCallan was more than this. He was a dedicated fighter against sectarianism and for socialism.

One of the most moving episodes in Taylor's TV documentary dealt with Billy Giles, an ex-Loyalist prisoner. He spoke on camera about his experiences. Later we are shocked to learn that he committed suicide. The opening chapter is devoted to 'Billy', describing the circumstances under which he joined the paramilitaries and killed a Catholic workmate. He never recovered from this psychologically, but the trigger for his suicide was the shattering of his hopes on being released from prison: "He described (in his suicide note) how 'wrecked' he felt when his expectations were dashed, and he could not get a job despite his degree and his newly-acquired skills. He did, however, find government-assisted employment but the wage amounted to little more than income support".

Billy pointed out that he was a victim of circumstances created before he was born. Indeed, both Loyalist and Republican figures testify to the fact that they were prisoners of circumstances, created not by them, but by British imperialism which originally created and fostered sectarianism.

Taylor gives a general summing-up of the history of loyalism but concentrates, in particular, on the last 30 years. The role of Ian Paisley is heavily featured. His 'hero' is Carson who organised the original UVF against the threat of Home Rule just before the first world war. Unlike Carson, however, who organised 'illegal' forces and engaged in gun running (with the blessing of sections of the British ruling class and military), Paisley is seen as completely duplicitous in his dealings with the Loyalist paramilitaries. This was shown even before the outbreak of the present conflict with the organisation of the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (UPV) in the 1960s. Paisley gave his blessing to this and other para-military organisations but would take no 'public' responsibility for its formation or actions. After a Catholic was shot in 1966 (with the involvement of Gusty Spence, though he denied responsibility), a convicted UVF member declared: "I'm terribly sorry I ever heard of that man Paisley or decided to follow him". This has become a theme of the conflict over the past 30 years. Paisley would encourage the resistance of the 'hard men' but then ditch them as soon as the finger of suspicion pointed towards him.

Working class life

WHAT COMES OUT clearly in the sections dealing with the civil rights movement and the clashes which resulted from that in 1969-70, is that the conditions of ordinary Catholic and Protestant workers were hardly different. Taylor spoke to Billy Mitchell about this:

"But as a Protestant, weren't you a first-class citizen?

"Absolutely not. There was no difference. The guys that I ran about with had the same conditions that I did so please don't call me advantaged."

"Bath night?

"Tin bath and a rub down like the people next door. There was discrimination but not just against Catholics, the ordinary working class were discriminated against just as much as any Catholic".

Of course there was discrimination against Catholics in job allocation, and a denial of full democratic and civil rights (with the well-known gerrymandering in elections), but this exchange underlines the completely false argument of the ultra-left groups who tried to show that the Protestant working class led a 'privileged' existence. What 'privileges' they had were minimal compared to the common exploitation and misery which both Catholic and Protestant workers faced.

Many of the areas of Belfast were mixed, with Catholic and Protestant workers living and collaborating together. Andy Tyrie, who was to become the commander of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), at an earlier stage participated in attempts to bring both sides together: "We actually set up a peace group between Catholics and Protestants (in Woodvale) in a church on Springfield Road".

The events of 1969 and the early 1970s have been well documented. But Taylor's account is spiced with some interesting details. We always argued that a section of the Southern Irish bourgeoisie, particularly Fianna Fail, played a role in getting the Provisional IRA 'off the ground'. When asked why he had helped to supply £100,000 through a chain of bank accounts in Dublin and the border town of Clones to assist the Provos, Neil Blaney - then a Southern Irish minister - did not disclaim responsibility but declared: "We didn't help to create them (because that was the result of the IRA's own internal dynamics), but we certainly would have accelerated, by what assistance we could have given, their emergence as a force".

The perception was of the Irish bourgeoisie, or a section of it, collaborating with the IRA to coerce by 'terror' the Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland. This was an important factor in the emergence of the Loyalist para-military organisations and their vicious, murderous campaign against ordinary Catholics, as well as the bloody bombing of Dublin itself.

Conscious sectarian actions, detailed in horrific detail in this book, were not, however, the preserve of the Loyalist paramilitaries alone. The bombing, on 29 September 1971, of the Four Step Inn, a Protestant pub, provoked outrage and led some, like Billy Hutchinson, presently a leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), to become 'active'. The IRA never claimed responsibility but it was widely assumed that the rise of a new IRA chief-of-staff, Sean MacStiofain, had led to a decision to abandon 'economic' targets for a bloody bombing campaign.

These actions acted as a recruiting sergeant to the Loyalist para-military organisations. Repression of nationalists by the British state, together with the Loyalists' campaign, also served to drive many people into the ranks of the IRA.

Violence levels increase

TAYLOR DOCUMENTS THE rise of the UDA (which at one time rose to a strength of 50,000 members) as well as the UVF, and the increasingly murderous 'tit-for-tat' killing of Catholics in response to the IRA's actions. The old leadership of the UVF, including Gusty Spence who was in prison, deplored the indiscriminate character of this campaign. Spence considered himself a 'soldier' (he sent a note of condolences to the widow of Joe McCann, an Official IRA member killed in action against the British army).

The intention of the Loyalist paramilitaries to target 'well-known Republicans' soon changed into a naked sectarian 'terrorist' campaign against all Catholics. The book details the UDA leaders' decision to organise a special assassination squad, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF). One of the UFF commanders makes clear its purpose in a dialogue with the author: Taylor: "So the nationalist Roman Catholic community was regarded as a legitimate target by the UFF, was it?' 'Well, in the end it was felt that the IRA gained very popular support within their communities and it was seen as a strategy that if pressure could be put on the IRA by their communities, then that would have an effect and that they would consider desisting from attacks on Loyalist communities'.

'So there was a clear strategy and methodology behind the UFF activities. It was as simple and as brutal as that was it?'

'Well it was simple and it was brutal, you know, but it was a tactic of retaliatory action against a community who was inflicting great pain in our community".

Taylor comments: "The UFF's strategy was to show the IRA that Loyalists could be even more brutal. The IRA might claim, when civilians were killed as a result of its operations, that it was a regrettable 'mistake'. The UFF made no such apology. Its killings of Catholic civilians were deliberate and could vary from a general reaction to IRA violence to a response to a particular IRA atrocity".

It would be wrong, however, to dignify the people who assassinated ordinary Catholics, like the notorious Shankill butchers and other psychopaths, with any kind of worked out 'strategy'. They were motivated in the main by sheer hatred of Catholics. Invariably fired up by drink they usually 'freelanced', acting independently of the Loyalist para-military leaders. The environment in which sectarian assassins are allowed to operate, is not unique to Northern Ireland, as the even greater recent bloodletting in the Balkans shows. Lodged in the pores of every class society are deranged individuals who when given the chance, particularly in a national, ethnic or religious conflict, will play this role.

Even in the early 1970s, however, some of those involved in the Loyalist campaign put out feelers for a possible future solution. A UVF masked gunman said to Taylor on TV in 1974: "Some solution will have to be worked out between what the press call the 'men of violence'. The politicians can never give us peace. The men who pull the triggers are the only men who can take their fingers off the triggers. The Provisionals will have to accept that the Protestant people in Northern Ireland will not give up their Protestant liberties. Our objection is to the Provisional IRA and their supporters who are trying to take away our liberties and our traditional way of life at the point of a gun". There were even meetings between representatives of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries where the idea of a federal or 'amalgamated' Ireland was put forward. But on a capitalist basis such a proposal was, and is, a non-starter. Therefore, the murderous campaign on both sides continued.

One of the bloodiest incidents was the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan by the UVF on 17 May 1974. This involved the biggest loss of life - 32 people were killed - in a single day in the whole of the current conflict. There were more victims than resulted from the 'Real IRA's' Omagh bomb in August 1998 which claimed the lives of 28 people. There was widespread suspicion that British military intelligence was involved in order to 'punish' the Dublin government for its 'inaction' in relation to the IRA. Taylor does not believe this, but is not conclusive on this point. It is indisputable that the British state or a section of it - the intelligence services - were in collusion with the Loyalist para-military organisations, and Taylor gives many examples. And it is doubtful whether the Loyalist paramilitaries could have successfully mounted such an operation without the involvement of the British state.

This does not mean, however, that the Loyalist paramilitaries were simply the creatures of the British state, as many Republicans argue. British intelligence forces used and colluded with them, but they arose originally from within the Protestant community. While leaning on the state they also led an independent existence with their own agenda and methods. The idea, put forward by the Republicans, that the withdrawal of support from the British state would lead to the collapse of the Loyalist paramilitaries is wrong, and is shown to be so by this book.

When Taylor questioned David Ervine, who was a senior member of the UVF in Belfast and is now a representative of the PUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the latter said he had nothing to do with the Dublin and Monaghan bombings but that Loyalists were "returning the serve". In other words, it was retaliation for the open or concealed encouragement 'by the South' of the IRA campaign in the North.

In the sections of the book dealing with the 1974 Ulster workers' general strike, everything that Militant and Militant Irish Monthly wrote at the time is confirmed. When the strike first began there "was little evidence of mass support". Many Protestant workers in the shipyards were intimidated into supporting the 'strike' "by being told that unless they joined, they would find their cars burned out in the car park". Widespread para-military pressure was exerted, resulting in the killing of two Catholics and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. There was undoubtedly the involvement of a section of the British state forces in backing the organisers of the strike. As defectors (such as Colin Wallace) have subsequently reported, some British intelligence forces were out to destabilise the Labour government of Harold Wilson, which was accused of having dangerous 'leftist' and even 'communist' sympathies.

Overall, the Ulster workers' strike demonstrated the enormous latent power of the working class but also the impossibility of imposing a solution against the interests of the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland. Merlyn Rees was the Labour home secretary at the time. When he was asked by Taylor why he had not confronted the strike and ordered the army to break it up, he declared: "I didn't let them win. They were going to win anyway. It was like a coalminers' strike in Sheffield. It could not be done, that's the short answer. We couldn't do a Prague. You can't put down a popular rising by killing people. We're not Russia. The police were on the brink of not carrying out their duties and the middle classes were on the strikers' side. This wasn't just an industrial dispute. This was the Protestant people of Northern Ireland rising up against Sunningdale and it could not be shut down". The Northern Ireland 'peace process' PRISONS HAVE HISTORICALLY been 'universities of the revolution'. Led by Gusty Spence, a layer of imprisoned Loyalists embraced politics. In Long Kesh the idea of the formation of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) took shape. The emergence of this small party of Loyalists who initially moved in a socialist direction, was one of the most significant developments in the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Little ultra-left grouplets denounced the Socialist Party in Northern Ireland - as well as in Britain - for encouraging this development.

Yet this is not the first time in the history of Northern Ireland that working-class Loyalists have moved against the capitalist, Unionist hierarchy to form their own organisation. Under the impact of the work of James Connolly and James Larkin and the big strikes of 1907 in Belfast, we saw the emergence of the Independent Orange Order. To expect a working class steeped in religious suspicion of the 'other side' to immediately emerge like Jupiter from the head of Minerva into rounded-out socialist and class fighters is completely utopian. Nevertheless, under the impact of the class struggle and conscious socialist forces, class splits in Unionism have taken place, are taking place now, and will take place on an even bigger scale in the future. The question for Marxists is whether such a development should be encouraged, without any illusions about the consciousness of those involved, or the stage at which such movements are at.

The 'peace process' - the Downing Street Agreement, and following this the Good Friday Agreement - is very well catalogued in this book, the road to 'negotiations' littered with one atrocity after another.

The gangsterism and corruption within the UDA is also set out in some detail. It is inevitable that racketeering will take place in uncontrolled para-military organisations, no matter what their original intentions are. Only a democratically elected and accountable force, seeking to embrace both Catholic and Protestant, can assume real authority and free itself from the taint of gangsterism. But in the 1990s a change had taken place in the pattern of slaughter: "By 1992 and 1993, the Loyalist paramilitaries were killing more people a year than the IRA and now, unlike so often in the past, many of their victims were Republicans". Yet, as with the Israelis and the Palestinians, each atrocity compelled the participants to look into the abyss. They consequently drew back and, no matter how painfully and reluctantly, were forced into 'negotiations'. The British ruling class in its Downing Street Declaration stated: "The British government has no selfish or strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain's proposal is not to occupy, oppress or exploit but to ensure democratic debate and free and democratic choice".

The core of this statement contained in the first clause, though not the hypocritical claim of devotion to democratic debate and choice, vindicates the analysis made by ourselves and by our comrades in Ireland. The British ruling class, as opposed to 1921, did not wish to continue with its 'occupation' in the North. The problem was not the British army, but the intransigence of the Loyalists. This has gradually been borne in on the leadership of the IRA and resulted in the negotiations which have led to the present situation.

The 'counter-terrorist' role of the Loyalist paramilitaries was well understood by 'respectable' Unionist leaders. Their tacit support for these actions was spelt out by the Official Unionist deputy leader, John Taylor, who comments: "The Loyalist paramilitaries achieved something which perhaps the security forces would never have achieved, and that was they were a significant contribution to the IRA finally accepting that they could not win". Peter Taylor asks him why he says that. John Taylor answers: "The Loyalist paramilitaries in their illegal activity actually began to overtake the IRA as being the major para-military organisation and terrorist organisation in Northern Ireland. Indeed, in the year before the cease-fire by the IRA, the Loyalist paramilitaries had killed more people that year than the IRA".

Both Republicans and Loyalists have put their own construction on the Good Friday Agreement. The Republicans claim that it is, in effect, a stepping-stone, through the involvement of the South, towards a united Ireland. The Loyalists bluntly declared, 'we won'. The raison d'etre of the IRA's campaign over the last 30 years was to militarily force British imperialism from the North of Ireland and take steps towards a united Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement recognises, on the part of the Republicans, that this is impossible, as Marxists have consistently argued. The Loyalists can claim they 'won'. But what kind of 'victory' is it that means that the very conditions which led to the outbreak of the current conflict are maintained?

In Northern Ireland today, there is undoubtedly an appearance of 'peace'. But below the surface, and not fully detailed in the press or the media, a 'low-intensity', bitter sectarian conflict is taking place. There is a jostling and a struggle for 'territory' which, in the North of Ireland, does not take a 'peaceful' character. I was struck while being taken round Belfast by how polarised the communities are - much more than in the 1970s, never mind the 1960s - and how tenuous is the present 'peace'. The shadow of the Balkans, as far-fetched as this might seem, does lie over Northern Ireland.

The 'struggle' over the decommissioning of arms is a side issue when set against the potential catastrophe which could still beset Northern Ireland and spill over to Britain. There was no clause in the Good Friday Agreement that the paramilitaries had to decommission, nor was there any specified linkage between Sinn Fein taking seats in the Executive and the hand-over of weapons. Moreover, in other situations, for instance, in South Africa, the handing over of weapons has never been a precondition for the ending of a conflict and the opening up of a political process. Nor should it be in the North of Ireland. As the paramilitaries themselves comment, the best solution is not decommissioning but 'rust'; in other words, leaving the weapons in the ground.

Neither this nor the setting up of a new Executive, however, can solve the problems from a long-term point of view. Taylor ends his book by quoting Gusty Spence: "As far as Loyalists are concerned, the war is over. There is no need to prosecute it any more. Of course the war is over". Another declares: "The important issue is our children. A better future - jobs, security - a different way of life for them, especially those who have known nothing but bombs and bullets I look forward to the day - whether it will ever come in my lifetime I don't know - when I can even have a pint on the Falls Road. Now that would be something to look forward to, wouldn't it?"

Unfortunately, the present uneasy peace could give way to conflict once more. Indeed, Drumcree and the onset of the marching season could see further polarisation. Only by removing the cause - capitalism - and by uniting Catholic and Protestant workers on the basis of a socialist programme, will it be possible to avoid a bloody rerun of the last 30 years. A Socialist Party comrade, while I was in the North of Ireland, said: "It is impossible to fully understand the situation, the psychology of different sides and of what is happening without living here". That is probably true. This book, however, can give a better understanding of Northern Ireland and, particularly, of the psychology and outlook of the 'Loyalists'. Only socialists, however, using Marxist ideas, can describe the situation accurately and provide a solution which, in Northern Ireland, means uniting Catholic and Protestant workers on a class basis.


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May 2000

Northern Ireland: Good Friday two years on

Two years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed the institutions it was supposed to establish are suspended. Decommissioning of arms held by para-military groups, one of the many issues fudged in the haste to complete the deal, remains an impassable obstacle. PETER HADDEN, from Northern Ireland's Socialist Party, reports on a precarious peace process.

THE BRITISH AND IRISH governments are making frantic efforts to weave a way forward on arms decommissioning that would keep both David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Sinn Fein leadership on board. They would like to come up with a formula before 22 May, the date by which, according to the original agreement, decommissioning was to have been completed. They are looking for some definitive statement from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that the war is over and a firm commitment that they will eventually carry out some form of decommissioning. In return, they want Trimble (UUP leader and first minister of the short-lived executive) to agree to reconstitute the Assembly and the executive, including the two Sinn Fein ministers.

If there is no agreement by 22 May the governments will have to opt for further negotiations in the hope of a deal in the autumn. In the meantime they will have to sweat out another summer of potential confrontation over parades, another issue that was fudged in the original agreement and which, like decommissioning, is as far from resolution as ever.

Eventual agreement, while it cannot be ruled out, will be very difficult. On the plus side is the fact of powerful forces lined up pressing for a deal. For the British and Irish governments and the US administration, the peace process has been about sucking in the leadership of the Republican movement and corralling them in the tame world of constitutional politics. They are anxious not to let the opportunity slip. Trimble, representing the more astute section of the Unionist leadership, has likewise concluded that Sinn Fein is prepared to move away from armed struggle and that inclusion rather than exclusion is the best way to neutralise them.

The Sinn Fein leadership also have gone too far down the political road to turn back. They are now concentrating their sights on the possibility of an electoral breakthrough in the South, in the Irish Republic's next general election. They hope that with three or four TDs (members of the Irish parliament, the Dail) they would hold the balance of power and would be able to negotiate their way into a government coalition with Fianna Fail (currently the dominant government party in coalition with the Progressive Democrats). The fact that there might be Sinn Fein ministers in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Dail is being held up to Republican activists as a first step towards a united Ireland. Although the idea is completely illusory, it is about the best hope that the current leadership can put forward. A breakdown of the Northern peace process, and with it the possibility of renewed violence, would put the whole thing in jeopardy.

Also on the plus side is the fact that the opponents of the agreement have no real alternative. The idea of a return to armed struggle advocated by those Republican dissidents regrouping around the Real IRA has no broad support. If the 25-year-long campaign fought by a united IRA did not succeed in bringing a united Ireland, what hope has a new campaign fought by only a fragment of the IRA and opposed by the vast majority of the Catholic population?

Unionist rejectionists have nothing better to offer either. The idea that there can be a return to anything even resembling the old Stormont regime, under which the Unionists held a monopoly of power, with Catholics excluded and treated as second-class citizens, is a non-starter.

There are also powerful forces weighing against deal. Sinn Fein leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, had been attempting to press the IRA to make some movement on weapons. Following the suspension of the Assembly, however, attitudes have hardened considerably. Republicans are in no mood to make any gesture or concession on arms before the Assembly is re-established - and probably for quite a period after.

Unionist divide

ON THE OTHER SIDE, Trimble's base of support within his own party has shrunk visibly. The lack of movement by the IRA on decommissioning has eroded Unionist support for the Agreement. The brief experience of Sinn Fein ministers in the executive also left many lukewarm about the return of this institution.

The only decision of note made during this period was that of the Sinn Fein health minister, Bairbre de Brun, to close the maternity unit in the Belfast City Hospital. Protestants tended to view this, rightly or wrongly, as a sectarian decision to close a unit in what is perceived to be a Protestant area in order to keep open the unit in the Royal Victoria Hospital in de Brun's West Belfast constituency. The shift of Unionist opinion was shown when Trimble only narrowly survived a leadership challenge from former Orange Order Grand Master, Martin Smith.

Throughout the past two years of sectarian deadlock the Agreement has been leaking credibility to the point that it has very little left to spare. If the impasse continues beyond the critical 22 May date there will be even less. The longer the deadlock, the closer another election. The next Westminster election is likely to be fought by Unionists as a referendum on the Agreement. Trimble's pro-Agreement Unionists will face a considerable challenge and are likely to lose a number of Westminster seats, some to the anti-Agreement Unionist bloc, and some to either Sinn Fein or the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Trimble himself has gone on the offensive, announcing plans to sever direct links between his party and the Orange Order. This would remove the bloc of Orange Order delegates who mostly voted for Smith in the recent leadership contest. A major split and realignment within Unionism seems likely.

Adams and McGuinness were visibly shaken by the suspension of the Assembly. They had miscalculated in believing that once it was up and running the British government would face down the Unionists to keep it in place. Adams responded by calling on Republicans to take to the streets. A huge effort was put into organising protests and demonstrations demanding that the suspension be lifted. The response was lukewarm, to say the least. The biggest demonstration, held in West Belfast, attracted a crowd of hundreds, not thousands. Republican supporters who normally turn out faithfully had no enthusiasm for taking to the streets to get Sinn Fein ministers back into Stormont and to restore an Agreement about which they have always been unsure.

It is difficult for the Republican movement to sit tight and, in practice, accept ongoing direct rule from Westminster. But unless Adams can convince the IRA to deliver something on arms they may have little choice. Adams has made it clear that a return to war would mean the end of the road for this Republican leadership. If no compromise can be found, his only alternative may be to wait for elections North and South in the hope that Sinn Fein will come out strengthened and with more leverage to force concessions from the Unionists.

Institutionalised sectarianism

THE PROBLEM WITH THIS is that the more strident the demands from the nationalists the less likelihood there is of the Unionists accepting them. This is especially so as Trimble's supporters find themselves with ever less ground to give. All this shows the extremely tentative nature of the peace process. The Assembly may at some point be brought back to life, but if so it will be without the fanfares and euphoria that greeted the Agreement two years ago. The peace process as directed by the governments and the major sectarian parties will not bring a solution. Ultimately, even if the Assembly is brought back, it will fail.

The peace process in its early stages was driven by the mass mobilisations of working-class people demanding an end to the killings. Unfortunately, as each movement ebbed it was the sectarian and right wing politicians who moved into the space that had been created. In their hands the peace process was a means to a deal at the top while the community remained divided as before.

The underlying premise of the Good Friday Agreement is that sectarianism is a permanent feature. It is simply an agreement between sectarians as to how they can co-operate in ruling over the division. During the negotiations the main parties have not eased the situation. They have deliberately polarised people over all the contentious issues - parades, decommissioning, policing and many others.

The result is that the sectarian divide is now even deeper than it was when the process began. In the name of trying to reach agreement the parties have only succeeded in narrowing the ground on which such an agreement could be reached. Hence the current impasse.

There is no possibility of a capitalist solution that will last. Capitalism offers only a choice of either the status quo of two unjust, poverty-ridden states (despite the recent rapid economic growth in the South), or the merger of these into one poverty-ridden state. There is no possibility that the antagonistic positions of Catholic and Protestant working-class people on the national question can be reconciled if this is the only choice on offer. What is needed is working-class unity to build a socialist solution. It is the working-class communities who have suffered most during the Troubles. Within these areas people face common problems and would be capable of working out common solutions if they were free from the influence and interference of sectarian politicians.

Class matters

DESPITE THE SECTARIAN conflict, class issues and class divisions have never been far from the surface. The emergence of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), with its initial condemnation of the Unionist 'fur coat brigade', showed the class tensions within Unionism. Although the PUP has tended to act as a pro-Agreement prop for Trimble these class antagonisms remain and may sharpen in the future.

One of the most significant recent developments has been the emergence of dissident voices with a difference from within the Republican movement. A number of ex-prisoners have begun to hit out at the rightward drift of the leadership. These people are dismissive of the hard-line militarists who want a return to war, but are demanding a debate on why the radical and socialist objectives of Republicanism have been abandoned.

Brendan Hughes, former Commanding Officer (OC) of the IRA prisoners and leader of the first failed hunger strike, has added his influential voice to the criticism of those who have 'made careers out of politics'. Hughes complains that when he got out of prison he had to work for Catholic building contractors who claimed to be Republicans and who paid poverty wages. When he tried to raise this in the Republican movement, steps were taken by the leadership to censor his comments.

Justice, according to Hughes, is not "about a handful of selected people walking into well-paid jobs and having good salaries". The strategy of the British, he says, is "to mould the type of people they can deal with... they have allowed a leadership to develop. They have pumped millions into here. I mean there's centres all over the place in West Belfast and North Belfast, people have gone into these centres and become career people and they are being paid very decent wages".

Hughes and others around him admit that they have no worked-out alternative and call merely for a debate on the way forward. That debate needs to look beyond the limitations of Republicanism, however. It is not possible to unite Protestant and Catholic workers on the platform of left Republicanism any more than it is on the basis of working class or 'left' Unionism.

A new party representing the common interests of the working class, and based on the trade unions and working-class communities, needs to be built. This could draw the best elements from the Unionist and Republican traditions - as well as those who stand aside from these labels - and could unite all sections of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

The return of the Assembly would create the most favourable conditions for the building of such a party. The absence of any local administration has meant that for decades none of the local parties have held power. They have been free to whip-up sectarian feelings in order to maintain their support, but have been able also to posture on the social and economic issues, blaming any problems on Westminster.

For a brief period, from last December until the end of January this year, all this changed. Working-class people began to see the real face of the local politicians. There was particular anger at the unusual outbreak of harmony among Assembly members in December when they voted themselves a 30% pay rise. This was followed by agreement on generous pensions and then, during the first session of the New Year, on a severance allowance - got through just in case the whole thing might collapse.

In the few weeks of the Assembly's existence, opposition to its handling of day-to-day decisions on education, health, transport and other matters begun to grow. The Assembly and its ministers began to become a focus for pickets, lobbies and protests. Had the Assembly continued it would have begun to feel the mounting anger among the working class at job losses, cuts in services, hospital closures and low wages. Among the issues to have arisen since the suspension have been the threatened closure of the Harland and Wolfe shipyard, a threat to shut down much of the already inadequate rail network, and potential strikes by fire-fighters, child-care workers and workers in education who are on term-time contracts (i.e. unpaid during school holidays).

These matters would have fallen into the ministerial laps of the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Peter Robinson, and Sinn Feinís de Brun and McGuinness. Working-class support for all these parties would have begun to loosen and the space for a socialist alternative would have grown.

The return of the Assembly would make it easier to develop class politics - but this does not mean that without it a new working-class alternative cannot be built. A failure of the peace process would be a failure of sectarian politics. Moves to return to armed conflict could be met, as before, with mass resistance by the working class. This time the question could be more concretely and immediately asked: What is the point of working-class people uniting to prevent conflict if the same sectarian politicians who have already failed, and who will fail again, take over once more?

It is time for the working class to take the initiative. A real peace process built from the bottom up - from the workplaces and working-class communities - is urgently needed. It is on the Falls and the Shankill, not in Downing Street or in the White House, that a solution will be found.


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