From Socialist Voice, December 2006

Republicans and policing

It was always going to be difficult for republicans to come to terms with this very contentious issue. This was acknowledged at the recent congress of the Communist Party of Ireland. Republicans and nationalists have been the victims of repressive sectarian policing since the foundation of the Northern state. They have suffered assassinations, Diplock courts, “supergrass” trials, the Special Powers Act, political policing—the list is endless.
    Certainly, serious questions arise from the decision of the British government to establish a presence for British military intelligence, “MI5,” in the North. That organisation has been responsible for running loyalist gangs that have carried out numerous murders and assassinations of Catholics and republicans. They have been responsible for bomb attacks on cities in the Republic over the last thirty years or more, including the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
    We need to ask, why are they needed, and whose interests will they serve? Who will control them? Securicrats have clearly not given up their war and their search for “victory.” This type of political policing needs to be challenged head on, and the Irish government has an important role in ensuring that MI5 is not given a structural role to play, as it has been shown beyond doubt that it has orchestrated bomb attacks on this state and its citizens.
    Yet it is difficult to understand some of those who feel that policing is “a bridge too far.” Is there not some logic to the fact that if you are in government you can influence and shape how policing is carried out, that you have to take responsibility in order to ensure change in how policing is carried out? Do you just ignore the police and policing and pretend it has nothing to do with us? Are you not leaving the repressive arm of the state solely in the hands of your enemies? Has the fact that the establishment of an Assembly and Executive was necessary, and that you have been and will be one of the central forces in that process, not got a bearing on the nature of policing?
    If the main body of republicans has moved away from a military form of struggle to a political one, then political priorities and political strategies assume priority. You cannot but have a political strategy; the question is, will the one you have developed deliver what “armed struggle” was unable to? If “war is the continuation of politics,” is the reverse not also true?
    In the early 1960s the CPI put forward its strategy of democratic struggle, Ireland’s Path to Freedom. Our argument was that the struggle for democracy was central, and that unionism itself could not deliver democracy without undermining its own interests as well as those of imperialism. The forces of Irish democracy needed to address and come forward with demands that would undermine the support of unionism within the working class and lay the basis for unity among the working class. This strategy led to the development of the civil rights demands and the ensuing struggle around those demands. The demands and struggles of the NICRA subsequently split unionism, and it has never recovered.
    The question of who controls the police, and the point of democratic accountability and control in relation to policing, is the central issue. Unionism used the RUC and the A and B Specials to impose its domination, as it was the only party in government. In present conditions, unionists are not the same dominant force: they are locked in to a shared government arrangement, so they are not solely in control. The return of the control of policing from London to a local, democratic forum and a locally accountable Executive is a further weakening of British control.
    Neither can unionism use the police in the same exclusive way: policing will not be about bolstering unionism but in fact will further undermine one of the central mechanisms used for control in the past.
    Those who argue that they could not support policing until we have achieved a socialist republic, or that policing under capitalism cannot be changed, display a clear lack of political strategy and do not understand tactics in a given situation. Absolutism—the “all or nothing” approach—leaves working people leaderless and devoid of the necessary strategy for fighting both short and long struggles.
    Is the demand for Patton-type reforms of the Garda Síochána not an important democratic demand? The very fact that the political establishment would not countenance such democratic accountability makes it more an imperative than ever. Struggle changes both the conditions under which struggle itself takes place and those engaged in that struggle. To claim to be Marxist and offer this position is the very negation of Marxism. This is a static and dogmatic approach to politics.
    The question is not for or against policing but rather what are the policies and demands that you will bring to the table that push your strategy forward. The question for republicans is what policies do they want to pursue that will gain influence within the Protestant working class and begin to undermine unionism. Or do they accept the Tim Pat Coogan school of sectarian politics, that sooner or later Catholics will outbreed Protestants and then we can vote for unity?
    The argument over policing is connected with much deeper frustrations about developments within the republican movement. There is a strong perception that Sinn Féin has moved too far from its radical roots. There is a feeling of betrayal, of opportunism by certain elements. What is needed is to address the nature of that perceived opportunism. Have republicans simply stolen the clothes of the SDLP and Fianna Fáil for short-term electoral gain, or do they present and fight for a radical republican agenda?
    Organising splits or walking away will not stop the perceived drift to the centre by Sinn Féin. There is a battle to be fought for an alternative: a democratic alliance of all those forces that wish to see imperialist influence weakened and defeated, whether British or European.
    Some republicans argue that by supporting the PSNI you are policing the North on behalf of the British state. Yes, the British have not declared their intention to withdraw, and it could be construed that by supporting policing you are supporting the British presence. It is important that we recognise that the forces for Irish democracy are not in a position to realise that demand at this time. We have not got the political strength to secure it. The question is whether the political strategy that has been developed has the potential to build those forces. If so, then that is the political imperative.

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