IRA split shakes ‘peace process’
The resignation of several IRA and Sinn Fein members has demonstrated the fragility of the imperialist-sponsored negotiations
Simmering discontent among republicans with the IRA ceasefire and the leadership’s whole strategy came to a head last month when Sinn Fein signed up to the ‘Mitchell principles’. These commit participants in the all-party talks to “exclusively peaceful” means and “the total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations”. The state itself of course is not required to ‘decommission’ a single bullet, let alone renounce the use of its own vast store of weaponry.
As Owen Hanratty, a Sinn Fein candidate in the general election, put it, “We believe the Mitchell principles can only lead to an internal solution in the North, which will not work.” Clearly a disarmed IRA would relieve much of the pressure on the British state and leave it better placed to dictate the terms of any all-Ireland dimension incorporated in a settlement.
In view of the dissent in its ranks the IRA called an extraordinary General Army Convention. Around 20 of the 50 delegates reportedly voted for an end to the ceasefire, and some resigned immediately afterwards. These included the quartermaster general and a former chief of staff. This led to the resignations of prominent SF members, including Hanratty and others such as Fra Browne and Rory Doogan.
Sinn Fein chair Mitchell McLaughlin readily admitted the existence of dissatisfaction within the organisation: “The peace process itself, this collaboration with all the political forces on this island, isn’t seen to be delivering the goods and that’s going to cause problems for us all,” he said. However, SF spokespersons pushed the line that the dissidents were a “small minority” with a particular point of view - an opinion very much at odds with the belief expressed by others that at least a third of active republicans support them.
The contention of the SF leadership that those who have resigned are simply “stepping back” from activity is most unconvincing. People looking for an easy life would almost certainly stay on board: as Gerry Adams and co move ever closer towards the respectable bourgeois mainstream, there is a prospect of rich pickings for former militants - the possibility of election to public bodies (north and south) or appointment to newly created quangos. Many of those who left because they favoured retaining the option of renewed armed struggle are likely to contemplate taking up that option themselves, to say the least.
A leading source in the British army was quoted as saying: “The prospect of a return to full-scale violence is now looming.” In the short term this is almost certainly an exaggeration, as most dissenters are for the moment biding their time within the organisation, hoping to win the argument for renewed action later.
The minority does however have the option of joining forces with the Continuity Army Council (also known as the Continuity IRA) at some stage. Of course, if there were a sizeable split from the IRA or the dissenters won over the majority, the CAC itself would become redundant. In some rural areas it may be that there is already a degree of cooperation on the ground between members of the IRA and the CAC - perhaps even joint membership.
However, that does not mean that the CAC “cannot operate effectively without the acquiescence of Sinn Fein/IRA locally”, as The Daily Telegraph stated (editorial, November 8). Far from giving the CAC licence to carry on the armed struggle by proxy, the group is viewed as an irritating hindrance by the SF/IRA leadership majority. We have previously pointed to the danger that republican dissidents have historically faced when they oppose moves to end armed resistance. The official leadership has been prepared to make an exception to ‘peaceful methods’ in such circumstances. Nevertheless at present the leadership may be constrained by the force of membership opinion from acting directly to crush its rivals.
These nuances of republican politics are lost on ultra-reactionary commentators such as the Telegraph leader-writers. For them, all SF/IRA members agree that “a tactical series of ceasefires and resumptions of terrorism” should be used to achieve a united Ireland. Apparently the only disagreements concern the timing of the switch from one tactic to another. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, goes even further. Refusing to recognise any disagreements whatsoever, he stated that the split was an example of “choreographed divisions”.
The majority of British imperialism’s representatives are a little more realistic however. They know that following the demise of the Soviet Union, which represented an alternative centre of attraction for liberation fighters, many anti-imperialist movements today can see no hope of military victory. The IRA may be undefeated, but it is suing for peace nevertheless.
It expects and will almost certainly achieve concessions, but will they be sufficient to appease the minority? In view of these latest developments it may well be that another concession - perhaps relating to IRA prisoners of war - will soon be forthcoming.
That could be just enough to swing the balance of republican opinion firmly behind Adams again. For the moment.