Peace strike threat

State targets Irish republicans

As the mainstream republican movement ends its armed resistance to the British occupation of the Six Counties, the danger grows of a strike by state forces against the intransigent groups who refuse to follow Sinn Féin/IRA along the road towards respectable constitutional politics.

Last Sunday’s Observer reported a meeting between representatives of three such groups - the Continuity Army Council, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Real IRA (May 31). The authoritative tone of the article, together with the detail it contained, suggested that state intelligence forces have intimate knowledge of their organisations and leading figures.

The May 22 referendums clearly demonstrated that support for the strategy of these groups has for the present been marginalised. In the republic just 5.6% voted ‘no’, and in the Six Counties it is likely that the proportion from the nationalist/republican community who wanted to reject the British-Irish Agreement in favour of continued armed struggle was even smaller (overwhelmingly the ‘no’ voters were loyalists).

In these circumstances plans for military coordination or the pooling of weaponry amongst the three organisations (proposals which The Observer claimed were made at the meeting) are hardly the most urgent of tasks. Much more pressing is the building of political coordination amongst anti-imperialist forces. Military actions conducted against the background of an absence of grassroots support, however legitimate in principle, are highly unlikely to meet with strategic success. Whatever tensions and divisions they may provoke amongst unionist and state forces, they cannot result in any lasting advance if made in isolation from a mass movement.

In addition organisations which claim adherence to the cause of working class liberation, as does the Irish Republican Socialist Party, political wing of Inla, must never relinquish control to other groups of their own military actions, which must always be subordinated to political direction.

It is the duty of communists to fight first and foremost for political clarity in order to gain working class hegemony over the revolutionary anti-imperialist struggle. The fact that Sinn Féin is about to enter the new Northern Ireland Assembly and, at the very least, cooperate in the administration of the Six Counties statelet leaves the way clear for forces to its left to attempt to win leadership of the republican movement, to channel Irish national aspirations towards the ideas of revolutionary socialism.

While SF retains its own agenda, it shares Blair’s desire to make the agreement work and to overcome immediate barriers. Both are as one on the need to defeat unionist anti-agreement forces in the June 25 elections. On this it shares common ground with the Ulster Unionist Party majority and also has the backing of sections of the British left - eg, the Socialist Workers Party - who view the sidelining of the Paisleyites as more important than the defeat of the British state itself. There is no role for the masses in any of their schemes.

Yet the fact remains that the peace process is driven and directed by imperialism - particularly by Britain and the US.

The establishment of cross-border institutions may be an advance from the point of view of Irish nationalism, but they will not take the anti-imperialist movement one step forward. Indeed Blair believes that the achievement of a stable settlement will facilitate imperialist control, permitting the more effective operation of international capital over the whole island under British domination. The start of this redefined relationship will be symbolised by Blair’s planned speech in Dublin later this year. He will become the first British prime minister to address the Dail and will almost certainly receive a hero’s welcome.

So keen is the British government to retain the cooperation of SF at this stage that it is effectively encouraging Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to take up positions on the Northern Ireland executive. Despite demands from unionists and Tories that Blair abides by what they believe was an undertaking to exclude SF from ministerial posts unless the IRA has begun to decommission its arms, Mo Mowlam told the House of Commons earlier this week that only four broad preconditions would apply. The Northern Ireland secretary stated that these were laid down “so that we can be sure that all parties are committed exclusively to peace and democracy and that violence is genuinely being given up for good”. SF has already signed up to this under the Mitchell principles of course.

Mowlam described the four “factors” as a clear commitment that the war was over; a complete and unequivocal ceasefire; full cooperation with the decommissioning body; and no other organisations being used as proxies for violence. She said they would be incorporated into the bills setting up the assembly and establishing the early release of prisoners.

Tory Northern Ireland spokesperson Archie Mackay demanded the bills should specify that decommissioning must be underway before SF was allowed on the executive or any prisoners were released. Despite the hot air the difference is one of nuance. Would the surrender of a few items of outdated weaponry be sufficient for the Tories to consider decommissioning “underway”?

Disputes such as these and the row over SF’s invitation to a royal garden party typify the jockeying for position in relation to unionism. British political parties as well as Ulster Unionists must make the right noises in order to prevent hardline loyalists from gaining enough support to destabilise the agreement. The decision to allow last weekend’s Orange march in Portadown despite its likely violent consequences was a concession to those elements. Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble is fighting the same battle within his own party, as he tries to prevent anti-agreement UUP candidates being nominated for the June 25 elections, while holding off the challenge of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.

This battle within unionism now assumes the greatest importance. If Trimble wins, further progress for the settlement will be assured. If Paisley gains ground among the protestant population, loyalists could pour onto the streets in force as the marching season approaches. Major disturbances would strengthen the hand of ‘Ulster says no’ Paisleyites looking to derail the peace progress.

But a full-scale loyalist rebellion would have its effect on Britain too. Sections of the Conservative Party might be tempted to join in such unconstitutional actions, seeing it as their opportunity to wreck Blair’s whole project of constitutional reform which is threatening to marginalise the Tories

Jim Blackstock