When the IRA ceased fire

Submitted by AWL on 24 April, 2008 - 8:30 Author: Sean Matgamna

In August 1994 the Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire in its “Long War”, which by then had lasted 24 years (interspersed with some previous, temporary ceasefires). The 1994 ceasefire was interrupted by a partial return to bombing between February 1996 and July 1997, but eventually the ceasefire proved permanent. The Provisionals entered negotiations.

Today former IRA members sit in a Belfast coalition government with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. The Provisionals have abandoned their previous goal of forcing a united Ireland by military struggle, and instead gone for mainstream bourgeois politics.

Was the ceasefire, then, a “sell-out” of a militant revolutionary nationalist struggle which otherwise would have brought liberation, or even spilled over into socialist revolution? The Catholics of Northern Ireland, in 1994, thought not: they celebrated on the streets when they heard about the ceasefire. We thought not too. Sean Matgamna wrote this assessment in Socialist Organiser (a forerunner of Solidarity) of 8 September 1994.

The Provisional IRA ceasefire is the best news out of Northern Ireland in many a long year. Is it likely to prove a stable ceasefire? Is it the prelude to a settlement? Why has it come now? What happens next?

It is a very peculiar ceasefire. The Provisionals have not been decisively beaten, still less militarily crushed. They have not lost the ability to continue their low-intensity military activities. They have not been disarmed, either militarily or politically.

They retain their weapons, and may use the peace to improve their position militarily. They are already using it to improve their position politically.

As far as is publicly known, the Provisionals have won none of the objectives of their twenty-three-and-a-half year war. The British declaration that Britain will not stand in the way of Irish unity if a majority in Northern Ireland wants it, is nothing new. Britain made the same declaration 21 years ago, before the March 1973 referendum in Northern Ireland. On the face of it, the Provisionals have gained nothing of substance.

Neither has there been any move by Northern Ireland Unionists towards acceptance of the united Ireland which the Provisionals want. Far from it: the Protestant paramilitaries evidently intend to continue and increase their campaign of murdering Catholics chosen at random.

Not beaten, not victorious, with their forces still intact and, maybe, growing, the Provisionals are beginning to run the film of the last 26 years of Northern Ireland history backwards. The present phase began with large-scale civil rights agitation in 1968.

Now the Provisionals have switched back from war to political agitation. Their military campaign grew after the Protestant anti-Catholic pogroms of 1969 — out of the political agitation of 1968; there is nothing to say that a new phase of the military campaign will not grow out of the current political phase, if it proves disappointing.

It depends. One of the key, but for now unanswerable, questions is how much of the present move to politics represents a collapse of the Provisional leaders' belief in the military campaign, and how much is the result of a political calculation that a strategy centred on military action can for now best be served by a switch to politics.

There has for long been evidence of a real desire by some Sinn Feiners to go completely political, but the signs right now suggest that the ceasefire is mainly a result of political calculation within an unchanged strategy, and has been “sold” to the IRA as just that. They believe that they can best move forward by way of the so-called “pan-nationalist” bloc, which ranges from Irish Americans, who are still a power (sometimes a very reactionary one) in US politics, through John Hume’s SDLP and the Provisionals in the North, to Fianna Fail, the party of government in the South for most of the past sixty years.

The clearest evidence for this is the fact that the Provisionals seem to have made this “political” turn without an IRA split. In the last decade the spirit of pragmatism — the pragmatism of a living movement which, despite its ideology of general Irish republicanism, is really a very narrow movement of only a section of a section of the Irish people — has displaced much of the old Republican reasoning from first principles about such things as the sanctity and purity of “armed struggle”. The Provisionals are now a far more reason-bound and far less traditionalist movement. But even so, it is scarcely conceivable that the Provisional IRA could avoid a split if, despite winning no real victory, the leadership simply called off the armed struggle. Neither the military discipline of the Provisional IRA, nor war-weariness — that would not be uniform: there would always be some willing to go on — could achieve this seeming unanimity.

The Provisional IRA must have been won to a policy of “seeing what the pan-nationalist bloc can achieve”. Some of them must believe that the way is open, if they are disappointed, to resume the military struggle. Nothing else explains the seeming unanimity.

This implies that the ceasefire may be anything but final. Many who are now more than eager to paint the political prospects before the Provisionals in the most encouraging colours will change or prove unable to deliver what they now promise. This might prove to be true even of the much-talked-about promise of a river of dollars to wash Northern Ireland clean of its old sectarian cataracts.

Central in determining what will happen is the political goals the Provisionals continue to pursue. There is no change here, despite the plausible press reports that appeared last year to the effect that the Hume/Adams agreement contained an acceptance by Provisional leader Gerry Adams that there could only be a united Ireland with the agreement of the Northern Protestants.

There is talk now that sounds like that, but it is coupled with demands on Britain to “become persuaders” to get the Unionists to accept a united Ireland, and with international activities to put pressure on Britain to put pressure on the Protestants. The weapons of pressure include the promotion of economic coercion by way of the so-called McBride principles in the USA. Talk of “voluntary agreement” here is only a way of saying international pressure instead of pressure by way of the Provisionals’ military campaign.

In the past we have pointed out in Socialist Organiser — provoking the scepticism of many who, otherwise, have time for what we say — that no sense can be made of what the Provisionals do to the Irish Protestant-Unionists, whose consent they need for a united Ireland, unless you understand that their real “strategy” is to compel Britain to coerce the Protestants. Now, with the central stress Adams is publicly placing on the demand that the British become “persuaders”, no-one who wants to understand Northern Ireland can fail to see that this, indeed, is their policy. If it does not succeed — and it cannot — then this new peace is likely to break down.

Marxists judge their attitude to wars by who is fighting whom, for what goals. We have an automatic sympathy for the Catholic victims of Partition in their revolt, but no good can come from the political goals of the Provisional IRA.

Much of the brutal stupidity of their military campaign has been generated by the unrealisability of their political objectives — which amount to solving the problem of the alienated half-million Northern Ireland Catholics by forcing the one million Irish Unionists into a united Ireland where they would have equal citizenship, but no special recognition of or safeguards for the national identity which is no less important to them than their different identity is to the Northern Ireland Catholics.

It would take large-scale civil war and the outright subjugation of the Protestants to achieve that. Then they would be the sort of sullen alienated minority in an all-Ireland state that the Catholics have been in Northern Ireland — and some of them would, in the Provisional IRA campaign, have the perfect model of what to do about it.

Whether pursued by way of a military campaign, or by international pressure through the pan-nationalist alliance, the political goal of forcing the Protestants into a Catholic united Ireland makes no sense for the Irish people, or for the Irish working class.

The serious left will have to judge the new phase of political campaigning by Sinn Fein from this point of view. All the campaigning will be grist to the mill of their political objectives. All of it will be designed to build support for those objectives and for their organisation, and to build up their potential to launch a new phase of armed struggle should their calculations lead them to such a decision.

Socialist Organiser believes that the repressive measures that have been assembled by the British state during the Provisional should now be dismantled forthwith — the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the no-jury courts in Northern Ireland, the military presence in the Catholic areas, and so on. We call for an amnesty for the Republican prisoners, and we demand that the British and Irish governments immediately set up talks involving all parties in Ireland to seek a democratic settlement there.

We will continue to argue this, as we have over many years. But no-one on the left should enlist in the new Provisional political campaigns on these and other questions unless they support the Provisionals and what they aim for'politically. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then these political campaigns are a continuation of the Provisionals’ war by other means — and, maybe, preparation for another military offensive, fuelled by the strength the Provisional IRA can gain in this phase.

The fight against these repressive measures of the British state can play a progressive role, that is, counterpose to the present reactionary set-up in Northern Ireland something better and not worse — and escalating Protestant-Catholic conflict is worse, much worse — only if it is made part of a political campaign for a real solution to the conflict, a solution that allows the possibility of working-class unity being developed across the communal divide.

Probably the most significant thing, politically, about the situation after the ceasefire is that the Provisionals’ entire focus is now — and undisguisedly, despite soothing words here and there — directed away from an intra-Irish solution, involving agreement between the different communities on the island, and towards an externally imposed, or, in the Provisionals' jargon, “persuaded”, solution. Their solution lies in pressure from Dublin, London, Washington and Brussels, not in Belfast.

But the only possible solution is one that builds intra-Irish agreement. We must hope that the “international pressure” approach of the Provisionals does not push back even further all prospect of that.

Finally, let us consider the possibility that what is happening is what much of the media believes is happening: a decisive move to politics and a definitive end to the armed struggle.

The signs are that even if sections of the Provisional leadership have a genuine hankering to go into mainstream politics, that is not what is happening now. But it may be that the Provisionals will divide in the period ahead, belatedly producing a military wing of the 1983 splinter group Republican Sinn Fein on one side and a primarily political group on the other.

If that happens it will be a re-enactment of something seen often in Irish politics, a repetition of a pattern so old that James Connolly could summarise it 100 years ago in such a way as to seem to predict a whole series of episodes in 20th century Irish politics. It is a pattern of people and organisations who have been revolutionaries in military terms, while not at all revolutionary in social terms, and quickly evolve into more or less ordinary bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians once they move into conventional politics.

Fianna Fail was part of the IRA of 1922, They fought a civil war. In power after 1932 they were mild reformers and thoroughgoing conservatives. A smaller organization emerged in the 1940s, led by leaders of the right wing of the IRA of the 1930s. The Workers’ Party and the Democratic Left emerged in the 1970s and ’80s out of the IRA of the 1950s. None of these played a notably progressive, let alone a revolutionary socialist, role.

This is the well-trodden path that the Provisionals are taking if they really have “gone political” or when a section of them do. They are narrower than all their predecessors emerging into bourgeois politics out of the Republican chrysalis, because they are primarily based on the Six Counties Catholics, not on support all across Ireland. Individuals who will form an Irish revolutionary socialist movement in the tradition of James Connolly may come out of the Provisionals. To look to the movement as a whole for good things for working-class socialism would be to engage in the most foolish wishful thinking.

The great need in Northern Ireland is for an independent working-class socialist organisation – preaching not the vapidities of the Provisionals’ “New Ireland” but a Workers’ Republic, preaching workers’ unity as the way to it, and advocating as the basis of immediate working-class unity, a democratic political settlement of the dispute between the communities, which can only be a federal Ireland.

The Provisionals have hegemonised anti-establishment politics in Northern Ireland for a quarter-century. They are likely to do so for a while yet. But their hold will now begin to slacken in the political cross-currents ahead. International socialism can begin to come into its own.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.