Turning point - Omagh bomb boosts Sinn Féin
Last Saturday’s Real IRA bomb, despite outward appearances, marked a definitive break with the republican strategy of armed resistance to the British imperialist occupation of the Six Counties
At first sight the Omagh bomb attack seems similar to many conducted by the IRA over the last three decades. Certainly there was a blast designed to cause maximum disruption, preceded by a telephoned warning. The bomb was planted by an organisation committed to the ideal of a united Ireland.
But there the similarity ends. In contrast to today’s dissident republicans, the IRA waged its heroic armed struggle firmly believing it could drive out the occupying forces - or oblige them to negotiate a withdrawal. It enjoyed the support of a mass movement. It is true that in the final years before the 1997 ceasefire, as the republican movement began to face up to the harsh reality of the New World Order, its attacks had the more modest aim of pushing the British to compromise (we called the February 1996 Canary Wharf attack a “peace bomb”).
However, the Omagh blast cannot be viewed either as part of an anti-imperialist offensive or even as a claim to a negotiating place. It amounts to nothing more than an announcement from those responsible that ‘we are here’. Even in this it was hardly successful, as it took the Real IRA three days to admit planting the bomb, and then issued no political statement of intent.
Unlike the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army in the 70s and 80s, republicans opposed to the British Irish Agreement of 1998 and committed to continuing the armed struggle are now almost totally isolated. This was clearly demonstrated by the May 22 referendum results - 71% in Northern Ireland, including an estimated 95% of nationalists, voted ‘yes’, while in Ireland as a whole the figure was 85.5%. Even then republican ‘no’ votes were by no means synonymous with support for continuing military resistance at this time. Rightly or wrongly, most nationalists have either embraced the Good Friday agreement as a step towards a united Ireland or else reluctantly accepted that a more equal status under partition is all that can be achieved.
Of course the fact that republican dissidents now constitute a tiny minority does not mean they have no right to struggle for their views. Revolutionaries - particularly communists - are used to swimming against the stream. But in such times acts of individual terror - ie, armed actions which are divorced from any mass support - can only be condemned as foolhardy adventurism. More than that, they are objectively reactionary. Human liberation can only be achieved by the masses’ own actions.
It is for that reason that communists must condemn the Omagh bomb. The deaths and injuries, horrific though they were, are not in themselves cause for condemnation. Innocent casualties are almost inevitable in any war, including a just war against imperialism. In this case it is highly unlikely that casualties were intended, despite media hyperbole and the claims of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Ronnie Flanagan that false warnings were deliberately given in order to lure shoppers to their deaths. Similar claims were often made when IRA bombs resulted in civilian deaths, even when it was clear that incompetence, sometimes on the part of the authorities, was a factor.
No, we support the right of the oppressed to use violence against their oppressors, and accept that civilian casualties may result. The blame for this lies squarely with the oppressors. But we do not support acts of individual terror. The main task for Irish anti-imperialists, now more than ever, lies in mounting a political struggle against the imperialist-sponsored peace process and for self-determination. But such a struggle is almost entirely absent. Republican opponents of the Good Friday deal did not even bother contesting the June 25 elections. Tony Blair was correct when he said that the bombers have “no political organisation, no vote, no political voice”.
It is of course easy to point to Blair’s stinking hypocrisy. The existence of Sinn Féin, the IRA’s very real political wing, with its elected MPs and councillors, never prevented him or his predecessors condemning that organisation’s military actions. In fact imperialist propaganda, contrary to all the evidence, continually referred to the IRA as isolated thugs without support in their communities.
But today Sinn Féin is an essential part of the imperialist peace process - a “key player”, as The Guardian put it (August 18). The IRA has permanently ended its armed resistance to the British occupation and has succeeded in carrying almost all its support behind this turn. It is precisely because it is so influential, both within the nationalist community and in its capacity as the political wing of the IRA, that SF’s role is pivotal. Its process of transformation into a respectable political force in the bourgeois mainstream must be encouraged by British imperialism at all costs.
The establishment was highly satisfied with SF’s reaction to the Omagh bombing. “I am totally horrified by this action,” said Gerry Adams. “I condemn it without any equivocation.” It was the first time the SF president had used such words about a republican attack. He really would be “horrified” if a mass movement stood a chance of wrecking the peace process - and with it his own political ambitions. But today’s republican dissidents are so isolated, last weekend’s carnage so bloody and the condemnation so universal, that the blast could well deliver the last rites to all armed republican resistance. Significantly, the Irish Republican Socialist Party has called upon its military wing, the Irish National Liberation Army, to declare a ceasefire in the aftermath of Omagh.
In a further indication of the bombers’ isolation, the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, committed to continued opposition to the British occupation and repeatedly linked to the bombers, said: “The killings of innocent people cannot be justified in any circumstances. We reject categorically suggestions that our movement was responsible in any way.” Not surprisingly the Real IRA succumbed to the pressure within days, announcing a “suspension” of military actions.
The marginalisation of these subjective anti-imperialists has left them at risk. According to Mitchel McLaughlin, SF’s chair, the police “know who’s responsible”, although his organisation vehemently denies tipping off the police on previous occasions, leading to the arrest of Real IRA activists. The organisation’s vice-president, Martin McGuinness, predicted “a massive backlash within the republican nationalist community in the course of the next coming days and weeks”. Some read this as a threat to ‘take out’ the dissident paramilitaries, but such an outcome, while by no means impossible, is unlikely. Any IRA move against their opponents could, it is true, be dismissed conveniently by imperialism as a ‘republican feud’, but it would have its drawbacks. While an irritant would have been removed, unionists would point the finger at SF and take the opportunity to insist on its exclusion from the Stormont government.
In fact the Omagh bomb has played into SF’s hands. It has allowed Adams to press even more forcefully for the full inclusion of all parties - including of course SF - at the very highest level as the only way to end the crisis and achieve a stable settlement. McGuinness’s talk of a “massive backlash within the republican nationalist community” should be read as a promise to ensure that the Real IRA and other dissidents such as the Continuity Army Council receive no support whatsoever from catholics. It serves to underline the indispensability of SF to the peace process - even to unionists. In that sense the Omagh blast, far from wrecking the Good Friday deal, as the Real IRA hoped, has boosted its chances.
While SF is likely to offer some form of cooperation - if only implicitly - with the British security forces, more important for the state will be the adoption of new legal measures. The marginalisation of the minority has cleared the way for yet more draconian powers. The reintroduction of internment has not been ruled out, particularly in the Republic. But changes in the law regarding membership of illegal organisations seem more likely. It has been suggested that the word of a senior police officer ought to be enough to establish membership in a court of law - neatly bypassing the little matter of proof.
Greater cooperation between British and Irish police and intelligence will also result from the Omagh bomb. Ironically, that is one north-south link that ultra-unionists will not object to.
Anti-imperialists need to start the long process of building a real political alternative to sterile nationalism. An alternative capable of establishing working class hegemony over the struggle for genuine self-determination and democracy.