From Socialist Voice, February 2007

Reader’s reply

Sinn Féin and policing

Dear Editor,
     Firstly I must congratulate my comrades back home in Ireland on the Socialist Voice, which is, in this reader’s opinion, more insightful and engaging as each issue passes. Moreover, further congratulations are in order for yet again opening up an important debate, this time on policing.
     This letter is in response to your reader’s letter from the January issue. The reader continued to make a number of self-defeating arguments, which I will attempt to expose throughout the following letter.
     As in the original article, the author explained that the issue of policing is a difficult one to face, given the fact that Northern nationalists have been staring down the barrels of the RUC since partition in 1922. And Republicans and Communists have a shared experience of police brutality and heavy surveillance by the Special Branch on either side of the border. Little wonder then that we would be sceptical about “reforms” regarding policing.
     I wish to deal first with a point raised late in the reader’s letter with regard to Karl Marx’s quotation on the nature of the State, because it offers the most telling exposition of the reader’s flawed logic.
     The reader is correct in pointing out that Marx was very clear in pointing to the inherent class nature of the State, which was further advanced by V. I. Lenin in his seminal pamphlet The State and Revolution. Any Communist worth his salt knows that capitalism cannot be reformed out of existence, nor can socialism be superimposed on pre-existing bourgeois state machinery, i.e. Police, Army, Courts and the Judicial system.
     But no suggestion was made in the original article that the contrary was true, except perhaps in the mind of someone too dogmatic to comprehend what was actually said. No-one is suggesting that if the “Patten” reforms are introduced and supported by nationalists, policing would suddenly become a neutral entity simply because Sinn Féin are sitting on the policing board.
     And, yes, long after the reforms are in place the police will act in the interests of the ruling elites.
     The so-called Patten reforms are not an opportunity to create a workers’ militia or some such nonsense. They are, however, an opportunity to introduce substantive policing reforms and accountability—the envy of any liberal democracy.
     It cannot change the class nature of the state, but it can give some limited recourse on the actions of the police, who act on the state’s behalf. Even when class contradictions are more heightened than they are now, the failure of such reforms to grant satisfactory accountability would at worst expose the partisan nature of the state and limitations of the liberal democratic model.
     The reader bizarrely uses South Africa as a case in point. I agree that the new South Africa has not come far enough to address the needs of the black majority as fully as it should. As there was no mandate for a socialist South Africa it would have been foolish of the South African left to reject the reformed state. Despite the vast limitations of the new South Africa, the black majority is far better off now than under the apartheid regime.
     Likewise, Northern Ireland is better off in the peace process, in which Unionism is under pressure to share power with nationalists, than under the previous situation of a near-military junta and Unionist hegemony.
     Again, a united Ireland is more desirable, but, as was pointed out in the first article, in this historical epoch we are not in a position to make that demand. In the meantime republicans and other progressives should use the opportunity to take full advantage of the Good Friday Agreement, including the “Patten” reforms.
     Where I live, in Germany, the state is especially hostile to the Left. Much police and state intelligence resources are put into the management of the Left. German Communists are no less aware of the class nature of the state. But I couldn’t see my party, the DKP (German Communist Party), refusing to accept policing reforms such as the one presented by the Patten recommendations, or turning down an opportunity to sit on the policing board, even though we would see its class limitations in the long-term view. I almost hear people cry “Reformist!” But, as the old dictum goes, Marxism is “concrete analysis of a concrete situation.” It is not a reformist position but a tactical one. In any political process, contradictions emerge. In our society police are necessary to provide us with security from crime. This is an uncomfortable compromise we must face or be doomed to be mere spectators of the policing reforms.
     I detect that there are a number of Republicans who still view policing in Northern nationalist communities as best served by one republican paramilitary group or another. But, as the history has shown, this creates a vigilante culture, where justice is dispensed by individuals with powers of judge, jury, and executioner. The so-called punishment beatings are always disproportionate responses to the crimes committed and have absolutely no accountability. This is an alternative worse than the bad old days of the RUC.
     The most disturbing point raised in the letter was the suggestion that the “principle of consent” and “unionist veto” were one and the same. I am not offering up a “two-nation theory,” but I don’t see how the unionist political mandate is less worthy than a nationalist mandate. A mandate from the people is a basic principle of Republicanism and democracy. A united Ireland brought about without the “principle of consent” would mean a simple annexation of the north by the southern state. Who would want that?
     Finally, the Communist Party does not “squander . . . the opportunity to put an alternative political, social and economic programme to the people of Ireland.” In fact the CPI has been almost alone since its foundation in 1922 in putting forward a meaningful alternative to the political establishment. But we are a long way off realising those demands.
     In solidarity,
     Rónán Harte,
     Essen

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