Reid stages provocation

Pre-emptive move against Sinn Féin

The British government has, it seems, decided to provoke a pre-emptive crisis in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin claims that the raids on its members' homes and especially on its offices in Stormont were staged for dramatic effect in order to carry through the already inevitable suspension of the Northern Ireland executive in a way which shows the party up in the worst possible light. The arrest last week of Denis Donaldson, Sinn Féin's chief administrator at the Stormont assembly, along with three other SF members, on charges of possessing documents that could be "useful to terrorists in planning or carrying out acts of violence" and the notion that the Sinn Féin office was somehow being used not for organising interventions in and around the assembly, but as some sort of IRA command centre, are, to say the least, hard to credit. The nature of SF's intelligence-gathering is alleged to be twofold: firstly personal details of up to 2,000 politicians, senior police and army officers, and others, including MI5 agents, were supposedly in their hands; secondly hundreds of confidential security and political documents, including minutes of conversations between the prime minister and Northern Ireland secretary John Reid, and other political parties, had been obtained by Sinn Féin. So what? While of course there is no doubting that SF would be more than pleased to get their hands on such information, the same is true for every other political grouping. Does anybody doubt that the Ulster Unionist Party has moles in the Paisley camp and vice versa? What about the British and Irish governments? Surely they have their spies within Sein Féin and in every other Northern Ireland party. Stormont is in fact a nest of intrigue, where stealing documents and bugging conversations is a way of life. But what is going on is political espionage, not military preparation. That William Mackessy, the messenger accused of gathering much of the information, was able to wonder around Stormont, photocopying at will, says it all. Most of what he allegedly took, while useful, was doubtless routine and humdrum. You would, of course, expect government ministers normally to be entitled to receive restricted information about the police, army and even security services. But of course Northern Ireland is hardly normal - the political faction associated with an army that fought a bloody war against the state now has two ministers. However, as Reid and the unionists well know, Sinn Féin has no intention of using whatever information it can garner for the purpose of launching another IRA war. The raids also gave British security the opportunity to resurrect allegations that the IRA had been behind the break-in at Castlereagh police station last March, when information about Special Branch officers who handle informants was stolen - it was claimed that new evidence had been uncovered 'proving' republican involvement in what most commentators had come to dismiss as an inside job. Reid claims that the government knew about the 'spy ring' for over a year (the IRA 'threat' arising from its alleged activities had not previously been considered worth worrying about) and that the timing of the October 4 operation - carried out by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the 'non-sectarian' body that replaced the hated Royal Ulster Constabulary - had nothing to do with him. It just so happened that it was executed the day after Reid made his 'even-handed' speech on Northern Ireland at Labour's conference in Blackpool. He told republicans that he welcomed "the steps you have taken and we know how difficult it was for you". But he demanded further 'normalisation': an end to IRA punishment beatings and shootings and enforced exiling of 'undesirable elements' from republican/nationalist communities. He also addressed the unionists in his speech. Nationalists, he said, "need to know that you are really committed to power-sharing, and that, every time it is established, genuine concerns about paramilitary activity are not simply an excuse to raise the bar once again." So what is going on? Why adopt such a conciliatory tone when Reid knew that the following day a chain of events would be set in motion that would surely lead to the suspension of devolution within a few days? There was no way the executive would survive after last Friday (the publicity surrounding the beginning of the trial of three Irish republicans in Colombia, charged with training Farc guerrillas, was another factor that is being cynically exploited to seal its fate). The speech had two purposes: firstly it attempted to give the impression that Reid had no idea that the PSNI was about to act: the police raid was an "operational matter" carried out without his prior knowledge - or so we are meant to believe. Secondly, although Sinn Féin is to be forced out of its ministerial positions through the ending (temporary, he hopes) of power-sharing, he is putting out the message that the peace process itself will not end and that SF/IRA is an integral part of it - how could it be otherwise? Reid and Blair decided to give the PSNI the go-ahead because he knew that the executive's days were numbered in any case. The Ulster Unionist Party decided last month that it would pull out its ministers, provoking a collapse, if the IRA had not completely disarmed and disbanded by January 18 2003. Some hope, you might say. But the ultimatum was not made in the expectation of such an IRA surrender: it simply gave notice that the UUP leadership, under intolerable pressure from its own rejectionist wing and from Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, was going to pull the plug. The DUP is continuing to eat into UUP support - just as Sinn Féin is continuing to gain ground amongst the catholic-nationalist population at the expense of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. For power-sharing to work, Blair needs the 'moderate' wings of both unionism and nationalism to be dominant. Yet, with elections to Stormont due next May, the possibility of SF and the DUP returning more members than the SDLP and UUP respectively was very real. However, a suspension of devolution and the re-introduction of direct rule would obviously rule out this scenario - no assembly, no elections. There are certainly tectonic fault lines not only in the Ulster Unionist Party but within the British establishment too. Many high-ranking cadre in the state regard the Good Friday deal as akin to treachery against queen and country. However, Reid hopes to use the furore over Sinn Féin 'spying' - along with the claims that the gathering of security information implies a threat to resume the IRA's armed struggle - to force SF to make more concessions and thus not only ease tensions within the establishment but also make life easier for UUP leader David Trimble. There has been speculation that only some IRA 'grand gesture' - such as the verifiable destruction of most of its remaining weaponry - can save the peace process. That will not happen, but there is no doubt that the events of the last week will put Gerry Adams under pressure to give ground. The blackening of Sinn Féin will, it is hoped, also be useful in weakening the 'no' campaign against the European Union Nice treaty in the October 19 referendum in the Irish Republic. SF is a major component of the alliance against Nice and a second rejection would cause further delays in the project, supported by the Irish and British governments alike, for EU expansion. It must be stressed once again that, although the peace process is certainly in crisis, in present circumstances there is no threat of a return to war. Northern Ireland exists therefore in a state of neither war nor peace. As for Adams, his eyes are on bigger things than a couple of ministries in the artificial and unworkable Six Counties statelet - the presidency of a united Ireland (to be achieved through natural demographics), for example. According to a recent opinion poll, he is already the second most popular man in the country. Putting all that at risk through a resumption of war is the last thing he is contemplating. Like Michael Collins, Arthur Griffiths, Eamon deValera and Cathal Goulding before him, he has irreversibly swapped guerrillaism for bourgeois constitutionalism. Sinn Féin, like the British government, is aiming for a solution imposed from above. It wants to enforce its aims on a minority population - in its case on the British-Irish of the Six Counties by doing deals with the UK and US governments. What is needed to further the interests of the working class and the cause of socialism is something different. A democratic solution is needed which embodies the voluntary unity of Ireland's two historically constituted but bitterly divided peoples - the catholic-nationalist majority and the protestant British-Irish minority. Under present circumstances that means a united, federal Ireland within which a one-county and four-half-counties British-Irish province would exercise self-determination up to and including the right to separate. A solution based on such a programme - to be fought for from below using militant methods - would challenge both the unionists and nationalists and would certainly provide the most feasible basis for working class advance in Ireland. Jim Blackstock