From Socialist Voice, August 2005

Welcome for IRA statement

The statement issued by the IRA in late July, in which it announced a complete end to its armed campaign and instructed its members to no longer carry out any activities on behalf of the organisation and to become actively involved in building Sinn Féin, is to be very much welcomed. The statement announced that the IRA had re-engaged with the international body to complete the acts of decommissioning as quickly as possible. This new statement by the IRA should be seen as a major political step forward in republican thinking.
    The political response was as one would have predicted. The unionists have been completely wrong-footed, and their responses ranged from expressing interest but wanting clarification or to see more substance in relation to decommissioning and the end of “criminal activities” to downright hostility. One can almost hear Paisley and the likes saying, “Go back to war—we can cope with that; we can’t cope with politics and political change.” Elements of the Southern establishment, like McDowell and some media commentators, expressed scepticism and downright hostility; but the overwhelming view is that this is a positive and important development and a welcome step forward.
    What the IRA statement has clearly done is once again to give the initiative to republicans and to wrong-foot the unionists in the North and the neo-unionists in the South. It is also clear that there were significant behind-the-scenes talks and negotiations between republicans and the British government leading up to the IRA statement. The Irish government was also involved—though it is difficult to evaluate to what extent—in the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, despite both governments stating publicly that they would not talk to Sinn Féin.
    The swift response from the British government, with the beginning of the dismantling of British Army watch-towers in South Armagh and the planned further dismantling and removal of others, including the demolishing of Divis Flats in west Belfast, is also to be welcomed and is very necessary, if not long overdue, under the Belfast Agreement.
    In addition, the announcement that the Royal Irish Regiment is to be disbanded over the next two years and the size of the British military presence drastically reduced is a further indication that momentum is building. The Royal Irish Regiment is one of a long line of unionist-dominated military and semi-military organisations, from the Special Constabulary (A and B Specials) to the Ulster Defence Regiment. The disbanding of such paramilitary forces was a long-held demand of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 70s.
    There still remains the difficulty over the PSNI Special Branch. As is usually the case with such political police sections, the state is very reluctant to bring them under democratic control or bring them to account. For the state, political police are a necessary and important unit within society for monitoring and controlling political dissent.
    Just as there has been a struggle and debate within republicanism over the future of the IRA, it is clear that there has also been much resistance within the British state, particularly within military intelligence and the PSNI Special Branch and among neo-unionists within the state itself over the extent and pace of change and demilitarisation in the North. But change is on the way, though the extent of that change will depend on a number of factors over the next decade.
    It is clear that republicans have moved a long way and have learnt many lessons over the last thirty years of struggle. Certainly there are those who at one time were on the left when the republican movement split into the Provisional and Official wings in the 1970s who are now claiming that the Provisional movement wasted thirty years and are back where the civil rights movement was in the late 60s. Some are looking for Sinn Féin to apologise for wasting thirty years and for the loss of life and the thousands maimed and injured. One can understand the pain of those who suffered on all sides; pain was not inflicted by only one side or suffered by only one side. Nor were right and wrong altogether on one side or the other. The struggle happened, and that is a historical fact. Unionism and the British state operated and planned their actions to have the required political impact to suit their political, economic, military and strategic interests, using whatever means were at their disposal, including internment, torture, shoot-to-kill, covert bombings, assassinations, “supergrass” trials, funding and aiding loyalist paramilitaries, child prostitution rings (as in Kincora Children’s Home), and an armoury of repressive laws and institutions.
    Republicans, whether IRA, INLA, Official IRA or other grouping, certainly carried out some horrendous acts, such as the “Bloody Friday” bombings. Innocent people were killed and many maimed and wounded. This did give a pretext for widespread repression right across Ireland; it allowed revisionism to gain a stranglehold over historical study; it reinforced Free-Statism in the South; it further allowed the establishment to present the struggle around the national question as a problem of “terrorism” and not a political problem.
    These actions and those of the British state and unionism accentuated the existing divisions that pertained within the North of Ireland before and since partition. The IRA did not create sectarianism but was shaped and formed by the conditions pertaining; it was a product of the material conditions prevailing at the time. People react to situations in different ways. If people have learnt and it may have taken them longer than others may have wished, that is life. The important thing is that we do learn from historical experience.
    Important questions now face republicans. What are the lessons we need to learn from the past, and how do we apply those lessons? What demands do we now make, and whom should we be addressing them to? What forces do we want to bring forward?
    One clear lesson needs to be learnt by those republicans who still believe that armed resistance is the way forward. Those who have been involved in armed resistance for the last thirty years have realised that it had run its course. They could not defeat the British, and the British could not defeat them, and they fought each other to a standstill. To make a principle out of a tactic—that only armed resistance and an elite armed group can deliver a United Ireland, that the mass of the Irish people, both north and south, must remain on the sideline or only give unconditional support—is the road to nowhere. It has nothing to do with the politics of Wolfe Tone or of James Connolly.
    Having a gun or a bomb does not make you immune from politics, nor does it prevent you nor make you immune from “selling out” the struggle. It is the ideology of the organisation and its members that is central.
    An end of armed resistance does not automatically mean an end to struggle but rather that struggle takes new forms and methods. Is the struggle going to be purely confined to parliamentary forms, and is parliamentary representation the end in itself, rather than a means to an end? Does the involvement and mobilisation of working people become secondary to gaining parliamentary representation? Sinn Féin is now coming under increased pressure to ditch some of its policies, particularly in relation to economics and to the European Union. Unionists may say such things as that Sinn Féin need a period in which to be “house-trained.” And what unionists say in public, the southern establishment say in private, and really mean it. They want to make sure that Sinn Féin has accepted the status quo; they need to be reassured that radical republicanism has been drawn into the swamp of the political establishment.
    The struggle is now on for the political heart of republicanism and its future direction. Republicans are now facing the question posed by James Connolly ninety years ago when he addressed those who talked about an independent Ireland in abstract terms. What type of Ireland do we want? Who should benefit, and what forces should we look towards?
    The political establishment in the South have shown themselves to be unreliable allies in the struggle to bring about national unity. Events over recent years confirm this. They are more concerned about their own class power and interests and maintaining the status quo than about a united Ireland. There is a need to build the necessary coalition of forces of the left and of democratic opinion to challenge the establishment, to give real substance to the political demand for an all-Ireland democracy.

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