Any impartial assessment of the 18-month IRA ceasefire in Ireland would register not surprise that it has ended, but wonderment that it lasted so long. Initial British concessions — withdrawal of the troops from the urban areas, the opening of border roads, withdrawal of the radio and TV ban on Sinn Fein — gave place to the “spoiling” demands that IRA weapons be “decommissioned” before the promised all-party talks could begin. This had little military significance. The IRA could have lied about its weaponry and easily replaced “decommissioned” weapons with new supplies. The Canary Wharf bomb was made from widely available fertiliser. Decommissioning was essentially a political demand for the unconditional surrender of the republican forces.
Demand for surrender was accompanied by a series of provocations. The only step taken towards the release of prisoners was the restoration of remission rates that the British had earlier removed. Only a few republican prisoners were returned from England, and for those that remained, conditions were made harsher and more punitive. Private Lee Clegg of the parachute regiment, convicted of the murder of a Belfast teenager, was released in circumstances which essentially endorsed the right of members of the state forces to kill with impunity.
Sectarian Orange marches were forced through Catholic areas by state forces while republicans were batoned off the streets. Even the much heralded economic “peace dividend” faded away in a welter of “investment conferences”, while cuts were made in funding for community projects.
The peace process was founded on a gigantic illusion — the illusion that Britain was leaving Ireland. In the run-up to the ceasefire British ministers repeatedly said that they had no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Ireland. The British were lying. Britain remains an imperial power with major economic and strategic interests in her oldest colony.
The formula of British disinterest was supposed to be contained in the Downing Street Declaration, jointly signed by London and Dublin just before the ceasefire. In the Declaration, for the first time ever, Britain used the term self-determination in relation to Ireland. But the term was immediately negated by enshrining a veto for the Unionist minority in the occupied area to continue the partition of the country.
Following the ceasefire, London and Dublin negotiated the February 1995 “Framework” document as the concrete expression of the Downing Street declaration. This made it clear that partition would remain, but by advocating a few cross-border talking shops it allowed the illusion that the proposals were a stepping-stone to a united Ireland. Tellingly, the British accompanied the publication of these woolly proposals in the occupied North with very detailed and specific proposals on the creation of a new Belfast local assembly. Just how seriously the British took the Framework document, essentially the maximum programme for bourgeois nationalism, was shown when, a week after publication, Political Development Minister Michael Ancram announced that the British would welcome fresh ideas to solve the crisis!
An insight into British strategy was given by a throwaway remark by foreign secretary Douglas Hurd after the signing of the Downing Street declaration. Asked if he thought that the republicans would buy the ceasefire he replied: “I hardly think it matters.”
The reality for the British was that their “peace process” was in fact a major imperialist offensive designed to forge a new capitalist stability and roll back all the gains of the anti-imperialist struggle. They had won from Dublin agreement in principle to support the establishment of a reinvigorated partition and, in addition, to rescind the historic aspiration of the majority of the Irish working class for unity by removing all claims to a united national territory from the constitution.
In addition they had greatly constrained the effects of the republican armed campaign. The IRA’s difficulty in attacking state forces had led to broadening the number of “soft targets” considered legitimate and a new concentration on military adventurism in England. The main effect was to demoralise republican supporters.
Further, the British had built up the Loyalist death squads, and these were able to strike at will in nationalist areas, carrying out a number of sectarian atrocities. The IRA had no credible defensive strategy, and when they attempted to carry the fight into loyalist areas the result was civilian casualties which further weakened their support.
The British were willing to make minor concessions that would help the republican leadership come in from the cold — but the price would be republican surrender. That was the only measure that would allow the imperialist offensive to roll on.
As the peace process ground to a halt, the Clinton administration stepped in. A visit by the President helped reinforce the British line and served as a platform for the “Mitchell Commission.” Its report in February was linked to a “target date” for all-party talks.
In the event the commission’s report was overshadowed by the British decision to sideline the report, scrap the target date, and propose elections which would have the effect of fixing in stone the outcome of the process — the return of a modified local assembly with a built-in sectarian majority.
In fact its proposals simply moved the date for an IRA surrender from before the talks to during the talks. The proposals, if put into effect, would have forced the disbandment of the IRA. It dismissed utterly any attempt to bring state weaponry into the equation, despite the many atrocities by these forces, and their associations with the right-wing death squads. Above all the report ignores all the issues in the all-Ireland dimension. It too makes clear that a revamped partition is what is on offer.
So the ceasefire ended with two proposals on the table — one from the Mitchell commission and one from the British government. Both demanded the surrender of the IRA and both signposted a return to a modified Stormont — the old regime that ruled a web of sectarian discrimination and privilege.
The whole sorry process was helped by a sharp move to the right by the Republican leadership. They wanted out of the cul-de-sac of the militarist strategy, but their new political strategy rested on a whole series of illusions.
The first illusion was in British imperialism itself. It is quite clear that the republicans believed that Britain was preparing to withdraw from Ireland. After all, the British themselves said that they had no “selfish or strategic” interest in Ireland! Yet Sinn Fein found itself unable to sign up to any of the proposals on which the “peace process” was based.
Alongside the illusions in British imperialism ran more general illusions in the US and the EC. In internal documents it was consistently argued that these forces would support a democratic solution in Ireland and force Britain to toe the line. In order to believe this, the republic leadership had to close its eyes to the role of the US as the main force for the suppression of democratic rights on a world stage, its constant invasion and manipulation of small countries and the key role that Britain has always played as American imperialism’s most dependable ally.
An even more worrying indication of the republic leadership’s political evolution has been their tendency to praise and look to as a model the “Peace Process” in the middle East and the role of Yasser Arafat. This praise was being repeated by Martin McGuinness only days before the ceasefire broke down.
The fact that the republicans held on as long as they did is a tribute to the greatest illusion of all — the illusion of the “nationalist family.” Both publicly and in internal documents the Adams leadership put forward an alliance with bourgeois nationalism as representing an alternative weapon to the traditional militarist strategy. Unfortunately republican illusions in the Irish bourgeoisie are just as traditional and just as incorrect as their faith in militarism, with the disadvantage that this alliance immediately puts them on the same side of the barricades as the direct oppressors of the majority of the Irish working class. In fact the whole peace process was a process of watching the “nationalist family” crumble to dust. As the ceasefire drew to an end the bourgeois parties were all entering negotiations with the British proposals for a Unionist assembly at the top of the agenda. The formal expression of the family — a forum meeting in Dublin over the past 18 months — produced a final report which trashed the demand for self-determinationÁ and left Sinn Fein out in the cold, unable to sign up.
Even now the leadership cling to the Irish bourgeoisie. Their latest analysis indicates that the family would have survived if it had continued to be led by the populist Fianna Fail party rather than the slightly more openly pro-imperialist Fine Gael party!
The end of the ceasefire in now way resolves the problems for republicans or ends the confusions and illusions. The bombing campaign is itself based on the assumption that Britain is willing to leave Ireland. If it is in Britain’s interest as an imperialist power to stay then lost trade and tourism and bills of £150 million for bomb damage will make no difference.
At the same time the Sinn Fein leadership peddle the foolish idea that the difficulties they face are due to a British Tory government with a tiny majority being dependent on Unionist support. They don’t explain why the Labour Party and the British establishment as a whole would support such irresponsible behaviour or why the Unionist party would vote against the government in a crucial vote. In fact, leading establishment figures warned Prime Minister Major not to play party politics with the Irish question. They have remained silent since, indicating that the government’s stance is essentially based on the interests of British imperialism. Sinn Fein continue to make their main call for all-party talks. Again, if Britain is leaving then Sinn Fein can fight their corner within all-party talks as a minor party. If they are not then the talks will achieve nothing.
Even more worrying is the question mark over the military campaign itself. As Ruairi O’Bradaigh of the breakaway Republican Sinn Fein has indicated, the statement ending the ceasefire makes no mention of the traditional troops out demand and instead calls for negotiations.
All the recent remarks by the republican leadership indicate that the link between military and political action is the demand for talks. Now London and Dublin have provided a fixed date for all-party talks on 10 June — in the context of a partitionist election, with the “nationalist family” lined up with the British and Unionists in ruling out any democratic solution and with the Mitchell proposals at hand to turn the screw on the republicans at every turn.
In a familiar tactic, Gerry Adams has welcomed the talk dates while looking for “clarity.” For many militants the outcome of the “peace process” has become all too clear. So also is the symbolism of the leader of Sinn Fein sitting with John Hume, the northern representative of bourgeois nationalism, across the table from the IRA and calling for a ceasefire.
Veteran campaigner Bernadette McAliskey has called for a Republican congress to map a new way forward. This would be an important step forward but could only be supported by the present republican leadership if they withdrew from alliances with bourgeois nationalism. Without such a U-turn Sinn Fein’s position will continue to weaken — applying two contradictory and failed strategies in the face of the most determined offensive by imperialism since the outbreak of the present troubles.
There is yet much to play for. There have been massive peace demonstrations but many have lacked the harsh pro-imperialist edge of the past. Opinion polls indicate that a majority of the population in both Ireland and Britain blame the British government for the breakdown of the ceasefire. Opposition to the return of a Stormont regime or direct Dublin support for partition is not confined to the ranks of Sinn Fein. Even to secure the reactionary settlement they propose now the British would need to force the Unionists to make some concessions to the Catholic middle class. At the moment the Unionists are essentially demanding the return of “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” and there is little sign of any real British pressure to amend this.
Marxists should continue to stand as irreconcilable opponents to the imperialist offensive, while calling for the self-organisation of the working class as the one immutable barrier to that offensive.
John McAnulty is a member of the Irish Committee for a Marxist Programme, and a long-time leader of the People’s Democracy.