On 28th July, at a press conference in Belfast, an IRA spokesman read a statement announcing that the IRA's army council had "formally ordered an end to the armed campaign" and "authorised our representative to engage with the IICD (Independent International Commission on Decommissioning) to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use." The statement added that "all IRA units have been ordered to dump arms" and "all volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means".
This announcement was immediately hailed by the media and politicians alike as a "historical breakthrough" paving the way for a "new future" for Northern Ireland. And it was given a warm welcome by Blair and his ministers. Even more so, no doubt, as it came at a point when, following the 7th July terrorist attacks in London, Blair was badly in need of some sort of political "success" in his "war on terrorism".
However, contrary to the impression given by news reports, it did not come out of the blue. It had virtually been made already by Sinn Fein's leader, Gerry Adams, in the aftermath of this year's May elections, when his party was celebrating its gains in the polls. Adams chose this opportunity to announce an imminent "initiative" designed to "enhance the peace process". In the coded jargon of the negotiations and given the course of events since the beginning of the current "peace process", back in 1997, this could only mean - and was generally understood as - the IRA's "final" pledge to renounce the so-called "armed struggle" and decommission its arsenal.
In any case, describing this statement as a "historical breakthrough" is laughable.
Firstly, because since 1998 the IRA has issued statement after statement using every possible way of formulating the same pledge. It was Blair's government which, under the pressure of the unionist parties, refused to respond by making the least public gesture of goodwill.
Secondly, to all intents and purposes and despite the occasional slander campaign against it, the IRA brought its armed campaign to an end long ago - in the run-up to the 1998 "peace deal", in fact - and it has already decommissioned a significant part of its heavy weapons under the auspices of the IIDC. To that extent, it has fulfilled its pledges, unlike the British government which, for instance, has reneged on its pledge to disband the Northern Ireland police reserve (formerly known as the RUC reserve), despite the fact that it is a well-known vehicle for the loyalist far-right.
Thirdly and most importantly, a new round of negotiations is due to start this Autumn with the aim of restoring the province's devolved institutions, which have been in suspended animation for nearly 3 years. Blair has already intimated that this restoration will take place with or without Sinn Fein, depending on its willingness to make concessions. Blair is probably bluffing on this account. But the Republicans have chosen not to take any risk. Hence their announcement, designed to pre-empt any attempt to keep them out of the process, or to stall it altogether, under yet another spurious pretext as has been the case so often in the past.
Whether this tactic will be successful from the point of view of the Republican leadership remains to be seen. But, in any case, this announcement is no more than a tactical move and certainly not a "historical" turn on the part of the Republicans. Indeed, the Republican leadership has always had the objective of using the "armed struggle" as a bargaining chip in a future political settlement in Northern Ireland. It provided them with something that they could exchange against official recognition by the British and Irish states and a role in the political institutions of the province. The horse-trading started in earnest with the so-called "Good Friday Agreement", in 1998, and it has never really stopped since. The IRA's announcement this July is only its latest episode.
The "armed struggle" as a nationalist device...
In fact, the function of the "armed struggle" was never "military", as there was never a chance in hell for the limited forces of a relatively small underground armed militia to defeat the full might of a modern state such as Britain's. All it could achieve was to make the occupation of Northern Ireland very expensive, both politically and economically, for any British government. This, it certainly did, but at what cost to the population!
Thousands lost their lives or were severely injured during the period of the so-called "Troubles" - most of them working class people who had had no direct involvement in the actual fighting. In a significant number of cases, the casualties were due directly or indirectly to the "military" actions of the IRA, both in Northern Ireland and in Britain. Many others had their lives destroyed as a result of loyalist pogroms, army and police violence and retaliatory attacks from all sides. Most of the heavy toll claimed by random killings was due to loyalist paramilitaries. But the bombs planted by the IRA often killed just as randomly, including killing catholics, even if the Republicans claimed to be always aiming at what they called "legitimate targets" in their "war".
The fact, however, was that their "war" was not one that the working class of Northern Ireland had chosen as its own. What started in the late 1960s as a social explosion triggered by degraded housing conditions and social discrimination against the poorest - catholics in a majority, but not only - boiled over into a political crisis which put into question the quasi-aristocratic political order enforced by the unionist establishment on behalf of Britain. The resulting mobilisation drew in its stride large layers of working class people and youth, who were immediately confronted with brutal repression.
As it always had, ever since the 1921 partition of Ireland, the British state responded to this militant threat to its provincial order by whipping up the fears of the protestant majority and unleashing the sectarian violence of various "loyalist" armed militias - including some which were officially employed as police auxiliaries. This led to a wave of pogroms against catholic areas.
One section of the Republicans - from which today's Sinn Fein and IRA originate - jumped on the bandwagon of this mobilisation. They promoted themselves as the only force capable of "defending" the catholic ghettos against the loyalists' pogroms and produced a few weapons as proof of their radical stance. But by choosing to do so in the name of Irish nationalism rather than in the name of the political interests of the working class as a whole, in its fight against its common oppressors - the British and Irish capitalist classes - the Republicans chose, effectively, to go along with the sectarian agenda set by the British state.
Under the cover of a radical phraseology, occasionally tinted, for good measure, with a vocabulary borrowed from the socialist tradition, the Republicans proceeded to build up the myth of a "nationalist" minority (which was just another word for catholic) with its own specific interests, as opposed to a "unionist" majority (meaning protestant), which was seen contemptuously if not as the enemy, at least as an auxiliary of the enemy. And the "armed struggle" became the symbol and rallying cry of this policy, with an "army" of "heroic volunteers" taking upon itself the momentous task not only of defending the catholic ghettos against the pogromists, but of defeating the British state! However, this rhetoric was only a thin veil covering the deep contempt in which the Republican leaders held the working class in general and their own base in the catholic ghettos in particular, as was shown by their increasing use of terrorist methods.
Their policy, together with the senseless bombing campaigns carried out by the IRA, both in Northern Ireland and in Britain, helped the British state to split the Northern Irish working class right down the middle and pushed a sizeable section of the protestant working class right into the arms of the unionist and loyalist demagogues. At the same time, it alienated a significant section of the British working class from the Irish cause. All in all, the Republicans' "armed struggle" only succeeded in isolating the population of the catholic ghettos that they claimed to be defending, from their best potential allies - the working classes of both Britain and Ireland, north and south.
The "armed struggle" as a bargaining device
While the "armed struggle" was always more effective in making victims and causing hardship among the working class of Northern Ireland than in causing significant damage to the British military machine, it did serve another, far more important purpose from the point of view of the Republican leadership.
In the context of mass mobilisation that prevailed in the early days of the "Troubles", the defence of the working class ghettos against the paramilitary gangs of the state and pogromists could have been organised in a democratic fashion, openly, in front of the ghetto population and with their conscious participation. This could have been one aspect of the collective organisation of the ghettos - others being the struggle for decent housing, democratic rights for the working class as a whole and the disbanding of the state's militias. On such a basis, the catholic areas, where the mobilisation was deepest by far, might have become the spearhead for a general movement of the Northern Irish working class.
Whether such a policy would have been successful remains an open question, of course, since there was not even an attempt in this direction. But it was undoubtedly the only way to win the sympathy of the protestant working class and the active support of a significant section of its members. It was the only chance for the population of the catholic ghettos to break out of their isolation.
The Republicans, however, did not see it that way. In keeping with the petty-bourgeois traditions of Irish nationalism, they had no intention of submitting their actions to the democratic control of the catholic working class, let alone to give primacy to its class interests. The military machine they built, by recruiting mainly among the catholic youth, was designed, on the contrary, to ensure that they would exercise total control over the catholic ghettos.
The methods of the "armed struggle", in and of themselves, provided a built-in justification to protect their policies from the scrutiny of the population - the need for total secrecy as a protection against the state. At the same time, since the IRA was supposed to be an army on the battlefield, total discipline could be demanded from its "soldiers". The same applied to the population that the IRA was supposed to defend: army instructions had to be obeyed and its soldiers made sure that they were, including by resorting to brutal methods, such as knee-capping in some cases.
This way, regardless of the fortunes of their military campaign, the Republicans were able to establish a quasi-military control over the catholic ghettos, in which they was no space for democracy or any kind of dissent. And on the strength of this control, the Republican leaders were eventually able to turn to the British government and demand to be treated as the sole representatives of the catholic minority in a future political settlement - not so much because they were representative of this minority, of course, but because they had the means to police the catholic ghettos and, therefore, to prevent another social explosion of the kind seen in the late 1960s.
This is ultimately what the grandiose rhetoric of the "armed struggle" comes down to. In the "peace process", it has provided the Republican leadership with a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the British and Irish capitalist classes. And it is thanks to this bargaining chip that Adams and a few other leading Republicans have been offered junior ministries in the short-lived Northern Ireland Executive.
During the over two decades of the "Troubles", thousands of young recruits went through the recruiting machinery of the IRA - for lack of any alternative if they wanted to "do something" - only to be sacrificed on the altar of the "armed struggle". They were used as foot soldiers for a policy whose real aim they certainly did not even conceive of. Because, ultimately, what will these recruits will have fought - and often died - for? To allow the catholic petty-bourgeoisie to put a foot on the power ladder at Stormont and get their share of the perks normally attached to politicians' jobs? In any case, that "power" is clearly the objective of Gerry Adams and the Republican leaders.
The unionists' political warfare
As mentioned previously, the devolved institutions which were created as a result of the peace process have been in suspended animation since the end of 2002. This means that while the visible part of the institutional iceberg (mainly the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly) has been effectively suspended, the rest of the iceberg (in particular various quangos and North-South bodies) have carried on providing the same cosy jobs and leverage to the province's politicians, under the authority of the Northern Ireland Office. To all intents and purposes, therefore, the entire machinery is ready to restart as soon as it is required. And Blair seems to be intent on getting it back into business sooner rather than later.
There are a number of obstacles to this, though, which were illustrated by the various sagas around these institutions from their very beginnings. It should be recalled that London suspended them four times in less than 3 years, between February 2000 and the end of 2002, including two 24-hour suspensions. Except for the last one, all these suspensions were directly due to the unionist parties' blackmail to resign unless the Republicans complied with some convoluted whims over the decommissioning of the IRA's weapons.
In the case of the last suspension, however, the government changed tack. This time it followed the discovery of "incriminating" files on a computer during a police raid on Sinn Fein's Stormont offices, which, the government claimed, proved that Sinn Fein had not renounced the "armed struggle". This ridiculous pretext was all the more transparent because it came just after another resignation threat by the then First Minister, David Trimble. Obviously Blair was trying to avoid being seen conceding once again to the unionist parties. But behind this flimsy pretext, this was indeed what he was doing.
The fact is, that ever since the beginning of the "peace process", Blair has been facing on-going problems from the very unionist parties on whose support London has always relied - and giving in to their demands.
Unionist politicians were never likely to give up their monopoly over the very limited Northern Irish cake willingly. Nor was London prepared to confront these precious pillars of British rule. So provisions were made in the peace deal which forced elected members of the devolved institutions to define themselves as "catholic" or "protestant". This created a mechanism which guaranteed that the two unionist parties would continue to be in the driving seat and, in any case, retain a veto over every decision. This sectarian dimension fed, in turn, a demagogic overbidding for the "protestant" vote between the old Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the traditional party of the unionist capitalists, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the vehicle of the anti-catholic arch-bigot, Ian Paisley. And, predictably, the main focus in this overbidding has been the very idea of power-sharing with Sinn Fein.
Far from cooling things down, as Blair probably hoped, the last suspension of the devolved institutions polarised the political situation even more, in every respect.
In and of itself, the suspension was not much of a "punishment" for the various political parties. With the "hidden" devolved institutions carrying on as before, they retained much the same power of patronage and access to state funding as they had before - which are, after all, the main perks of political power. So, they were in no hurry to see the devolved institutions restored, except maybe for Sinn Fein, which needed to be able to show to the catholic ghettos that they now had a say in the running of Northern Ireland and that the Republicans' strategy was "working".
While the Republicans have been focusing their demands on the restoration of the devolved institutions, the unionist parties have been busy whipping up the fears of their electorate, warning that power-sharing with Sinn Fein meant the "squandering" of Northern Ireland's resources on wasteful social and cultural projects in catholic areas on the backs of protestant ones and thundering that, anyway, as long as the IRA still existed, sitting in devolved institutions with Sinn Fein meant sitting with the "devil".
At this game, the UUP, which had always appeared as the main unionist artisan of the "peace process", could only be the loser eventually. Despite all its efforts to appear as a bulwark of unionism, the UUP's vote started to collapse in favour of the DUP. In 2003, for the first time, the DUP topped the poll in the Northern Ireland Assembly election (which took place despite the suspension), with 26% of the votes against the UUP's 23%. This prompted a number of UUP top figures, such as Geoffrey Donaldson, to cross over to the DUP. In the Westminster election this year, the DUP then polled 34% against the UUP's 18%. This reversal in the balance of forces between the two parties was confirmed by local council elections, which are probably more important in terms of real influence on the ground and political patronage: the share of local council seats held by the DUP soared from 13% in 1998 to 31% this year, whereas the share of the UUP dropped from 33% to 20%.
The DUP and Paisley's hysterical demagogy are now able, therefore, to hold the centre of the political stage. And this probably means even more rhetoric, politicking and blackmail on the unionist side in the coming negotiations.
The resilience of Sinn Fein's influence
In parallel to the political polarisation which has taken place on the unionist side, a similar polarisation has been taking place on the "catholic" side.
This was shown in electoral terms by the fact that, in 2003, for the first time, Sinn Fein came ahead of the SDLP, the traditional party of the catholic middle-class, with 24% of the vote for Sinn Fein and 17% for the SDLP, in the Assembly elections. This year's Westminster election showed the same reversal in the relationship of forces between the two parties, which was also confirmed by the local elections, where Sinn Fein won 22% of the seats against the SDLP's 17%.
The regular rise of Sinn Fein's vote is all the more significant as the Republicans have been the target of a whole series of campaigns orchestrated by the unionist parties, usually with the backing of the police and, more or less openly, of Blair's ministers.
Some of these campaigns have been triggered by events which have undoubtedly shocked some of Sinn Fein's supporters. When, in February 2004, for instance, the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) announced that it had stopped an abduction attempt against Republican dissident Bobby Tohill which it blamed on the IRA, few people questioned the accusation. Abductions and executions have been a way of "resolving" political differences for such a long time in Northern Ireland that it surprised no-one. Whether this abduction was really carried out by the IRA or by some dissident gang acting independently from the leadership, it was seen as coming from the Republican milieu. Predictably, the unionist parties tried to make as much capital as they could out of this, although it was ironical to see them expressing such unusual zeal to defend an activist whom, in other circumstances, they would have probably described as a "murderer"! For many people, however, this abduction was a reminder that such methods have not and are not likely to disappear from Republican ranks with the "peace process".
More recently, the murder of Robert McCartney in a pub brawl, in the Belfast Short Strand, and the subsequent attempt of the local Republicans who were involved in this, to cover their tracks by suppressing evidence and attempting to intimidate potential witnesses, has caused a lot more shock. Initially, the campaign launched by Robert McCartney's sisters to bring the murderers to trial won the sympathy of many people in the catholic ghettos. But when the campaigners displayed their willingness to seek help from the likes of Blair and Bush, much of this sympathy faded. In the meantime, the IRA had announced the expulsion of three of its members, Sinn Fein had suspended another seven and Gerry Adams had made sure that Republicans were seen to co-operate with the police in the Short Strand. This damage-limitation exercise was enough to push the issue off the agenda before this year's general election, at least for the time being.
Other campaigns, on the other hand, have backfired on their instigators. For instance, in December last year, when the PSNI chief constable, Hugh Orde, accused the IRA of being responsible for a £26m robbery at Belfast's Northern Bank - one of the four largest banks in charge of issuing Northern Ireland's banknotes - there was a roar of laughter in working class areas, and not just in the traditional Republican strongholds: not only was the PSNI admitting that they had been taken completely unawares by such a robbery, but they even added that only the IRA was skilled enough to carry out such an operation! Subsequently, the PSNI was unable to provide a shred of evidence to back up its accusation. The "discovery" of some of the heist's money, on a farm owned by an alleged Republican in the South turned out to be the product of the Gardai's imagination. The government, which had followed Orde blindly in his accusations, was caught wrong-footed and tried to make up for this mess by embarrassing Sinn Fein with the publication by the IICD of a list of old robberies, allegedly carried out by the IRA. But this did not prevent this whole red-herring campaign from turning into a farce - to Sinn Fein's advantage, this time.
All in all, none of these campaigns seems to have eroded Sinn Fein's electoral appeal, except maybe for a small section of the middle-class electorate which has been wavering between Sinn Fein and the SDLP over the past years.
The coming negotiations
The fact that the Republicans and the DUP - that is the parties which are the least dependent politically on London - have become the two main forces in the province, certainly does not fit with Blair's original plans when he first launched the "peace process".
In particular, it is one thing for London to bring onboard Sinn Fein, as a junior partner, because of its capacity to police the catholic ghettos and get its population to submit to the conditions of the future deal. But it is quite another to have this party, which has a sizeable social base in the working class and a political existence spanning across the whole of Ireland, as one of the two main players in the devolved institutions.
Nevertheless, having done all it could to cut the electoral influence of Sinn Fein down to size - to no avail - and to extract from it as many public concessions as possible - successfully - Blair has to make do with the situation.
Following the IRA's latest announcement, the government immediately proceeded to give Sinn Fein something to show for this gesture in front of its supporters. Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain outlined a plan involving the dismantling of all watch towers, the removal of the huge anti-bomb fences of barbed wire surrounding police stations and other public buildings, the axing of 3 battalions of the Royal Irish Regiments out of 5 (these are troops recruited in Northern Ireland and based there) and the reduction of the number of British troops stationed in the province from 10,500 to 5,000. This plan is meant to be completed by 2008.
In September, a new round of talks will start with the aim of reaching an agreement between the various parties and governments, which could lead to the restoration of the devolved institutions. The last attempt, held in Leeds Castle (Kent) in September last year, was a complete flop, mostly due to the DUP's refusal to have anything to do with Sinn Fein. This time round, with Paisley in an even stronger position, Blair is likely to be faced with a similar problem.
This does not mean, however, that the "peace process" needs to remain stalled for good as a result. After all, even Paisley knows whose hands hold the strings of the purse. And if Blair puts enough funds on the table in return for the cooperation of his party he will eventually toe the line. It is worth noting, in this respect, that the DUP and Sinn Fein have recently joined voice to a call for a £1bn "bonus" paid by London to be included in the deal due to be negotiated over the coming months!
But whatever comes out of these talks, one thing is certain: it will not be in the interests of the Northern Irish working class. The cuts in public services, the rolling back of the welfare state and the turn of the screw on the unemployed enforced by Blair in Britain over the past 8 years, are only beginning to be introduced in Northern Ireland. So, for instance, the privatisation of the water industry is to begin within the coming year with the setting up of a state-owned "commercial" water company and the introduction of water rates (so far, water is included in the local rates) which should reach between £300 and £400 annually, on average, per household, by 2008.
And there are a lot more attacks to come for the working class. It should be recalled that, apart from the aim of restoring some sort of order in Northern Ireland and defusing a social situation which remained dangerously explosive, one of the purposes of the various attempts to reach a political settlement in the province ever since Thatcher took the first initiative in that direction in the mid-1980s, was to cut the economic cost of Northern Ireland to the British state by sharing it with the Republic in return for some form of joint administration of the province.
Today, leaving aside security expenditure, Northern Ireland still receives a far larger grant than any other region in Britain - around £8bn annually - not to mention several billion pounds from the European Union under the cover of various programmes, including one specifically tailor-made to finance the "peace process". Blair is clearly out to cut this cost to the Treasury and it is not hard to guess who will be expected to foot the bill - the working class and, especially, its poorest section - whether it is under a devolved administration run by a joint Paisley-Adams government, under a new system relying more on the existing North-South bodies as some commentators have suggested, or under direct rule.
The fire will keep smouldering
Whatever success Blair may boast of as a result of the "peace process", Northern Ireland is not a land of peace in any sense of the word and it is not heading in that direction.
The social conditions which produced the explosion of the late 1960s have hardly improved. Wages remain lower than anywhere in Britain, while the cost of living is similar or even higher for certain things. The proportion of families living on benefits below the poverty line is also higher than in the most deprived areas of Britain. Housing conditions in the poor working class areas are, at best, squalid. Many public services seem near collapsing point for lack of funding.
In short, the past 7 years of the "peace process" have done nothing to improve the material conditions of the working class. If there has been a "peace dividend", it has been exclusively for the benefit of the local bourgeoisie. Construction companies have made a fortune from many redevelopment contracts, partly funded by European programmes, to build facilities which are of no use to a working class which cannot afford to use them - luxury hotels, conference centres, night clubs, restaurants, etc.. There has been a boom in the finance and service industry, to meet the needs of the local middle class.
But at the same time, manual jobs have been disappearing left, right and centre, forcing many workers into very low-paid, casual service jobs. And although Blair would certainly never admit it, (what does a wealthy man like him care about the predicament of working people?) this endemic poverty and casualisation which lead workers, particularly the youth, to see no future whatsoever for themselves and their families, is an intolerable form of violence. It is a social violence which feeds back at every level into the lives of the poor areas of Northern Ireland.
Virtually every day, over this summer, there have been violent confrontations in the poorest protestant areas. Rival loyalist gangs which, being much smaller than the IRA, were never given access to the same sort of funding by the state for their "community work", are fighting a turf war in order to enlarge their territories. They expect that once the devolved institutions are restored, they will also be able to have access to this bounty in exchange for policing their fiefdoms on behalf of the authorities and they are preparing for the occasion.
So crowds of thugs armed with clubs and iron bars raid estates to evict families which are associated with a rival gang or simply because they have resisted the diktats of the local strong man. Isolated catholics - or immigrant - households are attacked with pipe-bombs by way of warning that they had better move out, or else. Some individuals have been shot dead at their homes in the small hours of the morning or at night, to minimise the risk of meeting the police, while ensuring that the neighbourhood knows about it and gets the message. What Blair calls "peace" remains, for a whole section of the poorest population, the rule of the gangs.
At the same time, at the "interface" between catholic and protestant areas in Belfast, an on-going low-level warfare is taking place between youth from both sides. Some of it is due to the occasional provocation by one side or the other, throwing stones at the "enemy". But in most cases it is the direct or indirect consequence of one of the loyalist marches, in which bands march past catholic areas (or even through them) singing songs which celebrate the past massacres of catholics.
As part of the "peace process" a Parade Commission has been set up in order to rule on the route taken by these marches and prevent such provocation. But this is pure hypocrisy. If only because, by and large, the march organisers end up doing what they want. Over the past periods these marches and the bands organising them have become a major field of activity and means of recruitment for the loyalist gangs. The numbers speak for themselves. Over the past three years alone, the number of marches registered with the Commission has increased by 30%, to reach over 3,300 for the year up to the end of August. Can such a display of hatred and bigotry be called "peace"?
There may not be any more terrorist attacks (and even that is not actually true) in Northern Ireland but there is escalating bigotry which needs to be confronted rather than pandered to, as has been Blair's policy in the "peace process". Above all, there is a social bomb which is ticking. It will explode again, without a doubt.