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haassThroughout its existence, the Irish peace process has been defined by seemingly endless negotiations aimed at resolving outstanding issues stemming from our recent 30-year conflict. In December  we witnessed another month-long apparent talking shop when US diplomats  Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, notable for her involvement in and support for the criminal invasion of Iraq, were summoned to Belfast by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson to broker a deal on flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the past. The widespread illusion that the US government – one of the most violent and aggressive on earth – can play a progressive role the Irish peace process is one that is continuously promoted by a passive local media and a generally incompetent and unimaginative political class.

Following the negotiations, Richard Haass outlined a number of modest proposals, including a code of conduct for parades and “limited immunity” for ex-combatants, all of which were promptly rejected by the unionist parties. The lack of agreement was greeted with a mixture of derision, disappointment and frustration. But having occurred after twelve months of unionist disarray, which began in December 2012 with the intimidating Belfast flag protests, followed by serious sectarian violence in North Belfast during the summer months, it should have come as little surprise that the Haass talks ultimately failed to deliver as expected.

2013 was a year in which unionist intransigence led to unionist crisis. Having stoked up a climate of hatred and encouraged throngs of angry working-class people onto the streets following the decision of Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag on the same number of days as it is flown in Britain, the middle-class DUP and UUP quickly distanced themselves from the inevitable violence which followed – a common feature throughout the history of the six county state.  

Subjectively, unionism has changed little in 50 years. Infatuation with empire, social conservatism, homophobia and sectarian supremacy reflect the reactionary nature of unionism’s main representatives, the DUP and UUP. The Progressive Unionist Party, misguidedly lauded by many on the left, fares little better under any serious examination of its politics. PUP leader Billy Hutchinson was present at a loyalist demonstration against the ICTU’s anti-G8 protest in Belfast last June. His associates heckled trade union speakers with sectarian chants and flaunted Israeli flags. Accusing the ICTU demonstration of being “anti-British”, Hutchinson displayed the bizarre paranoia inherent in the peculiar ideology of Ulster Loyalism.

Objectively, however, unionism has transformed dramatically in recent years. In the past, ‘Big House’ unionism – consisting of industrialists and leading politicians – managed to cultivate an alliance with working class Protestants to form an opposition to Irish nationalism and republicanism, as well as “rotten Prods” deemed to be too left-wing. Secure manufacturing jobs and slight economic advantages over their Catholic counterparts ensured the loyalty of many working-class Protestants to the sectarian Orange state and their wealthier co-religionists.  This cross-class alliance has proven more difficult to maintain under neo-liberalism, as the previously secure well-paid manufacturing jobs in Loyalist areas have now been replaced by precarious employment or, in many cases, none at all. Harland and Wolff – once the largest shipyard on in the world, employing thousands of people – is now the facade that is the Titanic Quarter.

In 1992, economist Francis Fukuyama wrote that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the “end of history”. Likewise, the Good Friday Agreement was meant to mark the end of Irish history. Everyone was to “move on”, cast aside their contending national aspirations and forget about Ireland’s bitter past. The economic strategy of successive governments in Dublin which promoted low tax rates and enticed foreign investment at the expense of sustainable indigenous development was to be rolled out in the north. A new, bland “Northern Irish” identity was to be created which attempted to normalise the abnormal, beginning a process of political disengagement on the part of the general public. This was a distinctly neo-liberal peace process.

Fifteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, the poison of sectarianism continues to thrive. Hideous “peace walls” – now collectively longer than the Berlin Wall – snake their way through working class districts in Belfast, carving out areas designated for the rival tribes.  Religious segregation is part of everyday life: our children attend different schools, we live in separate housing estates and we play different sports. Dissident republicans, to the irritation of almost everyone, continue to cling to the immoral, dead end strategy of an unwinnable and unjustifiable armed struggle, which can achieve only the imprisonment of its members and yet more senseless deaths.

That the Good Friday Agreement failed to eradicate sectarianism is common knowledge. The unspoken truth, however, is that that Good Friday Agreement was never intended to put an end to sectarianism. The aim was to institutionalise it and make it manageable. Elected representatives are required to declare which religious group they belong to, with each tribe possessing a veto over the other – a mechanism that was wrongly used recently to prevent an inquiry into alleged corruption between the DUP and construction firm Red Sky.  

Despite being more than half a decade into the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, left-right politics have not taken hold in the north.  An impotent Assembly, which is entrusted with the same powers as a local council in England, is unable to fully tackle the insidious effects of capitalist collapse. The most contentious issues of the day do not arise from the fact that the region suffers from growing unemployment and a mass exodus of young people who see no future in an economy offering only lousy wages, debt and precarious work. Flags cause a bigger uproar than a crisis at an A&E. Parades still anger people more than welfare “reform”. The past has not gone away. The past is the present.

Faced as we are with two apparently irreconcilable interpretations of the past, the conflict will continue to be a contentious issue. For mainstream unionism, ‘the Troubles’ was merely a spontaneous outbreak of mindless criminality against a legitimate state. Accepting no responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, unionist leaders have modelled themselves as defenders of a normal western democracy, methodically denying the systematic discrimination in employment and housing allocation which existed under unionist rule as well as disregarding the attempted suppression of a peaceful civil rights movement.

A recurring theme in recent Irish history has been the unwillingness of both mainstream and extreme unionists to accept a society in which sectarian domination of one group over another is no longer a reality. They have failed to embrace that reality. Amidst fantastic myths of an imaginary “cultural war” being waged against them, many unionists seem unable to realise that the union with Britain is stronger than it has ever been at any time in history. Republicanism and nationalism have changed. They are now incorporated into the northern state. Indeed, most Catholics, many of whom would even consider themselves to be “nationalist”, support the north remaining part of the UK.

Partition is here for the foreseeable future, something neither sections of unionism nor republicanism can admit. There is, however, little to suggest that this strange six county state will ever be anything other than a dysfunctional, sectarian colonial outpost.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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Armed republicanism has once again raised its unwanted head in my home town of Lurgan, defying the will of the vast majority of the people in the area and the rest of Ireland. 54-year-old David Black was gunned down on November 1 while traveling to his work at Maghaberry Prison. Mr Black’s killers are believed to have driven alongside his car on the M1 before opening fire with an automatic weapon, hitting him several times. He died at the scene.

The latest murder comes 18 months after 25-year-old PSNI officer Ronan Kerr was blown up by an Oglaigh na hEireann car bomb in Omagh, a killing which was as pointless as it was callous. Murders such as these achieve little besides satisfying the bloodthirst of the perpetrators and increasing state repression. Given the devastation which the families of the victims experience as a result of these groups’ actions, the lack of public explanation is striking. They are devoid of a greater strategy for achieving their professed goals and appear to possess little or no political understanding. For them, Perfidious Albion is the source of Ireland’s ills. The use of ‘armed struggle’ is just as central to the existence of these groups as the achievement of full Irish independence. For them, the means is an end in itself.

The methods of these groups also reveal a deeper disturbing tendency. In recent years, particularly in Derry, dissident republicans have attempted to present themselves as the moral guardians of the nationalist community. Under the guise of Republican Action Against Drugs, they have embarked on a self-appointed crusade against the drug problems plaguing working class areas, doing so by mutilating teenagers and young men through the act of shooting them in the kneecaps. For all their “revolutionary” pretentions, these groups have adopted a distinctly reactionary and thoroughly unenlightened response to recreational drug use.

Predictably, David Black’s murder was widely condemned by politicians, trade unionists and other public figures. The likelihood of dissident republicans heeding this outrage, however, is low. Bland condemnation was hypocritically articulated by British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose army is currently involved in the rapacious occupation of Afghanistan. He is consistently silent, of course, about the terrorism perpetrated by his erstwhile allies in Washington. The use of unmanned drones in Pakistan to murder “suspected militants”, often a euphemism for defenceless children, goes without comment. This episode also highlights the double standards which exist in our media. David Black’s death was rightly described by the BBC as “murder”. However, on the rare occasion when civilian deaths at the hands of western forces are reported, the words used invoke a more humane and clinical version of slaughter, such as “air strikes” and “raids”. In the eyes of our media, British and American soldiers do not murder – they are merely involved in “military operations”. Terrorism is only wrong when it occurs on a small scale, it seems.

And so, for all of this, another family is torn to pieces and yet more alienated working class youth tied up in the activities of these groups will, in all probability, face lengthy prison sentences. All part of a futile campaign with no possibility of succeeding. The heavily armed Provisional IRA, with its considerable communal and international support, ultimately failed to achieve a British withdrawal from Ireland. A campaign of sporadic murders with no end game in sight carried out by a number of tiny groups with miniscule support is highly unlikely to achieve the same goal.

This article was published in The Morning Star