Northern Ireland - After the end of the IRA ceasefire: back to square one?

Apr/May 1996

Seventeen months after declaring a ceasefire, the IRA brought it to an end on February 9th. The spectacular explosion of a first bomb in Docklands, the same evening, killed two men working in a newsagents and smashed thousands of windows in East London. Then a bus was blown up in Aldwych, apparently by mistake, killing one IRA activist. All in all four bombings or attempted bombings took place in London in the month following the end of the ceasefire. Yet, like so many times in the past, none of the dead, injured or potential victims had any power whatsoever to influence the course of events in Northern Ireland.

So what was the purpose of all this? Obviously, the IRA leadership could not have expected the British state to give in suddenly under the pressure of a new bombing campaign. They know all too well that Major would do anything rather than risk being accused of softness, specially given his increasing dependence on the Unionist votes in Westminster. For the Republican leadership, these bombs were at most diplomatic stunts aimed at strengthening their hand in the negotiation process.

In any case, in terms of the interests of population of the Catholic ghettos in whose name these bombings were carried out, they were utterly pointless. And for the working masses they are more likely than not to mean a step backward.

Not that the "peace process" initiated jointly by the British and Irish governments, with the support of the Republicans, had in itself anything to offer to the population of Northern Ireland. The politicians and governments involved were only seeking to establish a new form of status quo and power-sharing which would have offered a more stable environment for the capitalist market, while relieving the British state of the financial burden of having to subsidise the Northern Ireland economy so massively. Whatever deal came out of this process was, therefore, bound to be agreed at the expense of the working population of Northern Ireland.

On the other hand, however, the IRA's ceasefire and the launching of the so-called "peace process" did have one positive side for the working class. With the scaling down of the street patrols and daily harassment in working class districts, the political scene ceased, for a while, to be totally obscured and stifled by the constant pressure and threats exercised by the state forces and unofficial paramilitaries. This provided a relative breathing space in which opinions and aspirations could be expressed more freely, even though this was strongly discouraged by the main political forces. At the same time there was some easing of sectarian tensions, despite the attempts by politicians to keep them alive, in an effort to tighten the ranks among their own constituencies. The resumption of the IRA bombings means now that this breathing space may have disappeared for a whole period again, which is why it is, indeed, a step backwards.

The consequences were immediately visible. Within hours of the IRA's statement ending the ceasefire, army and police patrols and check points were back on the streets, across Northern Ireland. Security fences and gates were "re-commissioned" in the main town-centres. Police harassment, which had never totally stopped, returned to what it was before the ceasefire. So much, by the way, for the hypocritical claims made by British ministers that, as far as they were concerned, the "peace process" was irreversible. One bomb in London's Docklands was enough for the population of the Catholic ghettos to be taken hostage overnight by Major and his troops - once again.

What has the future in store now? Has the "peace process" been blown out of existence by the end of the IRA ceasefire, as the media make it out? Will Northern Ireland have to go through another twenty-five years of half- hidden civil war, as the IRA envisaged in a statement, adding with some cynicism that they "could live with that"? They no doubt can, but does the Catholic working class want this? Or will the British and Irish governments try to cobble together some kind of political settlement, with or without the Republicans, and what will the consequences be for the working class of Northern Ireland?

A predictable development

What was fairly obvious in the aftermath of the Docklands bombing was the fact that the governments were not caught unawares. After the past seventeen months of delaying tactics, used by Major's officials to keep the process going, while granting nothing, they could hardly have expected this to carry on forever. Already by December, there were various signs and rumours hinting at a possible ending of the ceasefire.

The last straw for the Republican leadership was undoubtedly Major's announcement on January 23rd. This statement pointed out that, contrary to the recommendation of the report issued by Clinton's personal envoy, the US senator George Mitchell, the British government would not drop their long-standing demand that the IRA should start decommisioning its weapons before any preparation for all-party talks could begin. To add insult to injury, Major then produced a new gimmick - namely that instead of bringing together representatives of all the parties concerned on an equal basis, as it had been understood so far, the talks would mainly take place within an adhoc, elected assembly. And, of course, only those parties who agreed with the government's demand on the decommissioning of weapons would be invited to take part in this election.

This was nothing more than a revamped version of a proposal made some time before by the Unionist Party leader, David Trimble. Of course, such a sudden shift was not new coming from Major. A year before, the British government had already moved the goal posts by raising the weapons issue - although this issue had never been part of the bargaining before. This time round, however, the timing of the announcement was so conspicuously designed to please the Unionist leaders that it amounted to pure provocation.

But more importantly for the Republican leadership, unless special guarantees were given to minority parties, this new scheme for the negotiations was bound to marginalise Sinn Fein. The Republican base of support is predominantly among the poorest layers of the population, who are usually not regular voters. This, added to the constant police harassment aimed at Sinn Fein's activists, has often meant that the Republicans' results in elections underestimated their real influence. Besides, at that stage, British officials were talking about splitting Northern Ireland into 18 constituencies, which would have left plenty of space for all kinds of gerrymandering. But even assuming that a system of pure proportional representation was used, on the basis of their past results Sinn Fein could not hope to have much more than five or six elected members in the 90-strong assembly, which would have confined them to a back seat in the talks.

Of course, the British government knew full well, that, just as in the case of the demand over the decommissioning of weapons, this new scheme could only be rejected by the Republican leadership. At that stage, it was obvious that Major's main concern was the deteriorating balance of power in the Commons and the right-wing campaign of overbidding waged against him by his rivals within the Tory party. No doubt the prospect of the very dodgy vote over the Scott report on arms to Iraq, due for late February, played a significant, if not decisive role in this political twist. And since Major's main problem was to retain the goodwill of the Unionist MPs and to prevent them from joining ranks with the non-Tory opposition in voting against the government, he chose to ignore the difficult position in which he was putting the Republicans and the risks of retaliation which this involved. He may even have calculated that a resumption of the IRA's bombings coupled with an ostentatious hard-line attitude by the government would not be such a bad thing for his rating among wavering Tory voters.

The end of the "peace process"?

As would have been expected, the government statements released after the Docklands bombing featured all the usual phrases about "outrage" and "cowardice". What was noticeable, however, was the absence of any indication that the end of the ceasefire might affect Major's policy as far as the negotiations were concerned. Bomb or not, the "peace process" was meant to carry on regardless. And although there was a lot more diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing between Dublin and London, presumably in order to fine-tune the formulations used by both prime ministers, there was no slowing down in the preparatory work for the negotiations, rather the opposite.

What was even more remarkable was that the British government did not seize on this opportunity to rule out Sinn Fein's participation in the negotiation process. The door was left open, and has remained open, so far, to the Republicans, despite the vocal protest of the Unionist politicians - provided Gerry Adams comes up with some form of commitment by the IRA to resume the ceasefire.

In fact, since the end of the ceasefire, there have been some changes in the fine print underlying Major's proposals. While Tory ministers and Unionist politicians still insist, in front of the press, on the decommissioning of weapons being a pre-requisite to any progress in the negotiations, official statements are now using much more cautious and vague formulations, about the need to "initiate the decommissioning of weapons" before the all-party talks - which is almost the recommendation made by the Mitchell report and agreed by Sinn Fein. Likewise, the date for the beginning of the all-party talks is now set for June 10th, whereas in the past Major had always refused even to consider the possibility of deciding on a date, before substantial progress was achieved in separate discussions with each one of the parties involved.

Finally, the official position on the adhoc assembly is now significantly different. The official plan (but it is still no more than a plan) would be to have it elected using proportional representation within one single constituency covering the whole of Northern Ireland - something strongly opposed by David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and by the small Alliance Party (which is rather ironical given the links that this party has with the Liberal Democrats in England and the well-known support of the latter for proportional representation!) but favoured by all the other parties. Besides, Major has now stressed that the role of this assembly will be purely consultative, that the parties themselves will have the main role in the final and decisive stage of the discussion and that, in addition, minority parties will be given "a weighted say so as to ensure that a genuine concensus is achieved" - which is, again, more or less what Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams had been arguing for in the weeks before the end of the ceasefire.

There have been claims in some Republican quarters that these "concessions" - in so far as they go some way to meet the Republicans' concerns - vindicate the decision to end the ceasefire and that without the Docklands bombing, Major would never have made such a move.

But is that the case? After all, Major can afford to make such "concessions" as long as Sinn Fein remains excluded from the negotiations, as is still the case. If this exclusion was reversed, Major could always renege on any or all concessions, as he has done so many times in the past.

Besides, these "concessions" may also be another publicity stunt to enable Major to claim the high "democratic" ground while laying the blame fully on the Republicans for excluding themselves from the "peace process". At the same time, they may be aimed at driving a wedge between the Republican leadership and its base of support among the Catholic population - a majority of whom would definitely rather not see a return to the "Troubles".

That being said, this does not mean that Sinn Fein's exclusion from the negotiations will necessarily last for very long, even if the IRA does not formally declare another ceasefire. The IRA bombings, or the fact that the paramilitaries retain their weapons for that matter, is not what really prevents the British state from co-opting Sinn Fein into the negotiations. Major's self-righteous claim that "violence" is the only obstacle to the "peace process" is pure hypocrisy. There is no shortage of examples worldwide of established governments choosing to enter talks - and reach settlements - with terrorist groups. After all, Major himself initiated talks with the Republicans in the early 90s, at a time when the IRA's active units were operating on both sides of the Irish Channel. The British state has no more qualms about sitting at the negotiating table with "men of violence" than it has about using the same violence, only on a much larger scale, against entire populations, whether in Ireland or in Iraq. Whether they negotiate or not is not a matter of principle, moral or otherwise, but merely a matter of tactics. And it is determined by the relationship of forces as well as the circumstantial requirements of the bourgeoisie.

Whether Major will choose to bring the Republicans back into the negotiations in the near future, is another question. This may be prevented for the time being by the pressure of the Unionist politicians and the fact that their help is needed for Major's short-term survival in governement. But will this be the case for much longer? On the one hand the Unionists' own bargaining stance may soften up, judging by their rapidly improving relationship with the government of the Republic, as was shown by the first ever "summit" between the Irish government and the UUP leadership on March 12th. On the other hand, Major's policies are not just about manoeuvres and politicking to defend his own political future. His actions are first of all aimed at defending the interest of the British capitalists - and their interest is definitely to get rid of the "Northern Irish thorn" once and for all, even if this means twisting the arms of the Unionists to get them to sit down with the Republicans at the same table.

So far, since the end of the ceasefire, the British government has made a point of insisting that the negotiations are carrying on without Sinn Fein. Thus, for instance, all the media were sent for on March 4th, to witness Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein delegation being turned away from Castle Buildings where the first session of the talks scheduled to discuss the May election to the adhoc assembly was held. But behind the closed doors, judging by the statements made later by some of the participants, nothing was actually happening. The British officials had not even bothered to set an agenda for the day. For good reason too, since in addition to Sinn Fein being excluded, the two main Unionist parties and the much smaller Progressive Unionist Party had decided not to attend. On this occasion, it was obviously more important for Major to make a show of his closed-door policy against Sinn Fein, rather than to get any talking started - thereby showing that the government's statements still have a lot more to do with propaganda than with actual deeds, and that there could be a lot more twists and turns in store.

But above all, the future twists and turns will be determined by the situation in Northern Ireland. So far Major has felt free to let his short term political interests take priority. Had the situation in the streets of Northern Ireland been more explosive, he would not have had this option. To a large extent, the dragging on of the past 18 months reflects the fact that there is little real pressure put on the British state and make real steps towards a political settlement.

Behind the Republicans' choices

The ending of the ceasefire triggered yet another wave of speculation in the media, among the Left and in a section of the Catholic population at least, as to a possible rift between the "hard men" of the IRA and Sinn Fein's policies as expressed by Gerry Adams. This is, of course, helped by the fact that Adams has always been very careful in his statements to avoid any accusation of being a spokesman for the IRA. But security reasons alone could explain this just as well.

On the other hand, the mere fact that such speculation can take place, says something about the Republicans' relationship with the population whose interest they claim to represent. And that relationship is certainly not a democratic one. If there was or is any rift within the Republican movement, it was certainly not allowed to appear publicly in the Catholic ghettos. In fact, even during the seventeen months of the ceasefire, when security constraints were at least partly relaxed, there was no attempt by Sinn Fein to use the opportunity to publicise and explain, let alone to discuss their longer term objectives with their working class base. Their propaganda was confined to immediate objectives, like their repeated call for "inclusive all-party talks" and attacks on the British government for its "bad faith" and for "stalling the peace process". But then, of course, this ambiguity serves the Republicans' purposes well. It allows them to retain the support of both those who are in favour of sticking to the traditional policies of the IRA, including the "armed struggle", and of those, probably now significantly more numerous, who hope that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein have indeed broken with the days of the armalite.

Whether there has been a rift or not, we do not know, therefore. But would that make such a difference, anyway? Have the IRA's bombs a political objective which is different from that of Adams' legalistic speeches? Certainly not. There has been enough proof in the past of the fact that the primary purpose of the "armed struggle" is to create a balance of forces aimed at reaching some form of compromise with the British state at the negotiating table - and such a compromise can only be achieved at the expense of the poorer sections of the population. If there is a rift, therefore, it is at most over the tactical choice of a "right" time for negotiation, but certainly not over the fundamental aims which are being pursued. And in that case, there would be nothing to choose, for the Catholic working class, between the "doves" and the "hawks".

That being said, the IRA's decision to end its ceasefire may well have been dictated also, at least in part, by considerations which are not directly linked to the need to put pressure on the British government to take the negotiation process forward.

There has definitely been, for instance, growing discomfort among Republican activists about what they see as the lack of assertiveness of the IRA in the face of the arrogant attitude of the British government and their increasing demands. The sectarian provocations by the main Unionist parties last Summer, during the Orange parades season, have reinforced this frustration, while the number of attacks against Loyalist symbols - probably due to the private initiatives of local Republican activists - has increased over the second part of last year.

Some Republican splinter groups, like the activists around Republican Sinn Fein, have tried to make political capital out of this discomfort. In the Autumn of last year, a huge load of explosives which was on its way from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, was seized by the police and attributed to Republican Sinn Fein. Other currents of the Republican movement, such as the INLA, have given indications that they were building up their strength and preparing themselves to occupy the space left vacant by the IRA ceasefire.

It is difficult to measure how much of a threat this represents for the IRA and what appeal these splinter groups have on its membership. But the IRA leadership cannot fail to remember how, in the late 60s and early 70s, their forunners, of the Provisional IRA, succeeded in toppling the old official leadership of the IRA, by accusing them of renouncing the "armed struggle" and restarting it themselves with minimal resources. By the time the Official IRA realised the danger, and started retaliating, it was already too late. In this respect, the end of the ceasefire could be aimed at taking a potential, if not an actual thorn out of the flesh of the IRA leadership.

The working class needs a party of its own

There is another thorn that the Republicans would be keen to get rid of if they could find a way - that of social demands. There have been many signs of impatience in the Catholic ghettos over the past months. With Republican supporters becoming increasingly frustrated by the snails pace of the negotiation process and the absence of tangible gains in terms of conditions in the working class districts, there have been more and more calls for a tougher stand by the Republicans.

A tougher stand did not mean, however, in most people's minds, a return to the "armed struggle". Far from it. Many of them remembered Gerry Adams' pledge, back in September 1994, at the time of the ceasefire, to launch a powerful militant "civil rights" movement in the streets of Northern Ireland, should the British government fail to satisfy the ghettos' basic demands. Instead they have come up against Sinn Fein's reluctance, if not total opposition, to demands over jobs, wages, housing, ove-policing, etc.. being raised in the streets. And there have been many criticisms about Sinn Fein's total amnesia on this account.

There is, of course, a logic to the Republicans' attitude in this respect. Their objective is to win the recognition of the British and Irish capitalist classes - not to undermine, let alone destroy their political and economic power. When Adams repeats that it is up to the British government to impose a political settlement on the Unionist politicians (and by the same token, in the Republicans' view, on the Protestant majority), he is effectively offering himself and his colleagues in Sinn Fein as potential partners to the British bourgeoisie to find a compromise over Northern Ireland which could satisfy both sides. But what compromise could satisfy the British bourgeoisie, without the working class having to foot the bill? And who would be entrusted with the responsibility of imposing the resulting sacrifices on the Catholic working class, if not Sinn Fein?

By demonstrating again and again their determination to constrain social demands within the framework of the negotiations, even before these negotiations had actually started, and to prevent them from overflowing into the streets, the Republican leadership were only trying to prove to the British bourgeoisie that they could be trustworthy managers of Capital's interests.

Over the months of the "peace process", this policy has become increasingly open and criticisms widespread, as Sinn Fein officials were more and more often to be seen brushing shoulders with prominent businessmen in functions which they certainly did not have to attend, not even under the pretext of preparatory talks. The most blatant example of this was the participation of a Sinn Fein delegation led by Adams at the Davos World Economic Summit in Switzerland, in January, where two thousand top businessmen and politicians discussed the prospects of profit worldwide for the coming year.

To say that the Republican leadership are under threat of a movement developing to their left - let alone a working class movement - would be an exaggeration. But there is definitely a layer of people in the Catholic working class who are now fed up with all this nonsense about tactics and negotiations, fed up with marching behind placards saying "make the peace work" (the latest slogan produced by Sinn Fein to protest against their exclusion from the current talks) when this "peace" benefits mostly the well-to-do, judging by the increasing number of luxury shops in the rich shopping centre of Belfast where they cannot afford to buy anything. If such a current were to begin to make itself heard, it would be a direct threat to the Republicans' objectives - just as it would be to the governments and to all the politicians involved in the "peace process". It is worth noting, in passing, that when similar feelings have been expressed among Protestant workers, they have been viciously attacked by unionist politicians and by the smaller unionist groups linked to the loyalist paramilitaries. Once again, there is a striking similarity between the reactions of the political offshoots of the military apparatuses on both sides of the sectarian divide when faced with social discontent.

This social discontent may not be organised in any coherent way, for the time being in any case, but over the past months it has been growing in the working class as a whole. And this was certainly facilitated and encouraged by the breathing space opened by the ceasefire. By closing this space, the IRA may hope to stop this social discontent if not from existing - which they cannot do - but at least from expressing itself. And the threats of targetted sectarian attacks issued by the joint command of the loyalist paramilitaries in early March - when they cannot even use the pretext of attacks being carried out by the IRA in Northern Ireland - may well have the same aim with regard to the Protestant working class. All the more so, as, after all, from the point of view of the British bourgeoisie, a few bombs and dead bodies are much less dangerous than the potential threat of extensive social unrest.

All in all, and beyond the petty preoccupations of John Major with his own political career, the ending of the ceasefire may well suit the aims of the "peace process" better, by stifling potential opposition to the future deal and ensuring that the paramilitaries keep a tighter control over the situation in their respective constituencies.

Whether this will be enough to contain the workers' discontent, today and even more so, tomorrow, when they will begin to measure the cost of this "peace" for them, is another question.

To a limited but not negligible extent, throughout the period of ceasefire, many workers have already been able to see that they had their own interests to defend and that there was no need for them to accept the straightjacket imposed by the paramilitaries. This experience is still fresh and must be used. Whether the situation is made more difficult, as it is now, by the resumption of the "armed struggle", or whether a new ceasefire is declared, the working class will need an instrument to express their interests and use their experience. They will need such an instrument not just in the fight for material demands, but also to intervene in the "peace process" with their own voice and their own weapons - class weapons rather than those of uncontrollable paramilitary apparatuses. They will need this instrument in the battles which will inevitably have to be waged against those known enemies, like the British and Irish states, or self-proclaimed friends, like Sinn Fein or the Progressive Unionists, who are trying to stitch up a deal on the back of the working class. And this instrument can only be a revolutionary workers' party, fighting without ambiguity for a communist programme.