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Northern Ireland after the IRA statement: Why the 'peace process' continues to flounder
THE REACTION within Northern Ireland to the IRA statement ordering its units to "dump arms" says a lot more about the current state of the 'peace process' than the statement itself.
Peter Hadden, Belfast
Far from helping integrate the two communities the years of the 'peace process' have seen an unprecedented polarisation. This was reflected in the response to the statement. In general, Catholics saw it as a positive step and a significant concession by the republican movement. However, for a number of now disgruntled republican activists it has been viewed as a step too far.
Protestants, on the other hand, greeted it with scepticism and general distrust. Protestant unease has been whipped up by Unionist politicians who are demanding "deeds not words" and who concentrate on Gerry Adams' claim that a united Ireland is now on the cards, achievable by peaceful, political means.
In fact the IRA statement is really just a more forthright, less ambiguous rehash of what was stated eleven years ago when the ceasefire was declared. Even though it has taken more than a decade to get to the present position, the 1994 ceasefire marked the definitive end of the IRA's military campaign.
By that time the leadership had come to realise that the "long war" was unwinnable. The IRA's methods of individual terrorism could never hope to defeat the power of the state, especially since they were based on only one section of the population and were bitterly opposed by the Protestant majority.
By the mid-1980s the Adams leadership were increasingly turning their attention to politics, hoping that Sinn Fein could make a breakthrough north and south. It became obvious that, far from complementing the political strategy, the armed struggle was an obstacle, especially to Sinn Fein's hopes in the south.
Adams and Co. were also seduced by assurances received indirectly from the British government that they had no interest in holding on to Northern Ireland and would leave if a majority of the population wanted them to. Rather than an enemy to be driven out, the British establishment came to be seen more as a potential ally in "persuading" the Protestants to accept a united Ireland.
Having swallowed this, the leadership no longer had a raison d'etre to continue the armed struggle. Once the 1994 ceasefire was in place they had no intention of returning to war.
This has been compounded by 9/11 and the Madrid and London bombings, which make the idea of a return to IRA bombings even more unthinkable. The Republican leadership wants to court good relations with whatever administration is in power in Washington and Westminster and is not likely to do anything that will associate it with al-Qa'ida.
The threat of a split has meant that it has taken more than a decade to convince the republican grass roots to accept the recent "dump arms" order. Adams and Co. can only hold the movement together if they seem to have an alternative political strategy that has and will get results.
At the beginning of this year, in the aftermath of the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder, the political strategy was in danger of unravelling. The Sinn Fein leadership found themselves shivering in the political cold, shunned by the very establishment figures they had tried to court.
Their central objective of a significant electoral breakthrough in the south and a possible place in a future coalition government seemed in jeopardy unless they made more definitive moves to take the IRA out of the equation.
The fact that the statement and subsequent Sinn Fein press conference was held in Dublin, not Belfast, shows that their number one concern at the moment is to repair any damage they may have suffered in the south before the next Dail [Irish parliament] elections.
Does the recent statement really mean the end of the IRA and the start of a new peaceful era in Northern Ireland politics? There is no doubt that it will be implemented in part.
The IRA arms stockpiled in dumps in the south will almost certainly be decommissioned. The leadership who have no intention of a return to war have no use for these weapons. Privately they would probably prefer them destroyed rather than available for use by present and future dissidents.
Getting rid of the weapons before any future negotiations also allows them to sidestep the DUP's insistence on photographic evidence.
The Republican leadership would now like to go further and take their place on the Policing Board, in effect recognising the PSNI. Whether they will be able to do this will depend on events on the ground.
These are very significant steps, reflecting the rightward trajectory of the current leadership. They do not, however, spell the definitive end of the IRA and most certainly do not mean that the conflict is about to be resolved.
The statement stops short of the call for IRA disbandment which was being insisted on by the London and Dublin governments at the start of the year, but which they have quietly dropped more recently.
IRA structures are to stay in place, the Army Council is to be changed, not abolished, with the purely cosmetic replacement of the three Sinn Fein public representatives, Adams, McGuinness and southern TD, Martin Ferris.
The IRA will continue to operate in the working-class areas attempting to maintain a degree of 'control', perhaps using a variety of public titles.
A critical issue in these areas is the need for defence against sectarian attacks such as the 1969 pogroms in which the current IRA was born. Loyalist petrol bombings and other attacks are ongoing and IRA members in areas like North Belfast will not be persuaded to fully disarm or dissolve while this threat exists.
'IRA plc' will also continue in being in some form. This vast financial and business empire, that involves running legitimate businesses, money laundering as well as the sub-contracting of crime to others while the IRA takes its cut, will not go into liquidation.
Nor is this the end of the conflict. The DUP have responded with typical fury to the reciprocal steps towards demilitarisation taken by the state, predictably complaining that a side deal has been done with "Sinn Fein/IRA". Their current position is that they will not even enter new negotiations for two years.
Even if they shift on this - and even if there are new elections and a new Assembly - it will be against a background of a more polarised and divided society. A patched-up deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP would be no more than a form of political Balkanisation and could not last.
What is taking place on the ground does not point towards a settlement. The attempt by the loyalist paramilitaries to ape republicans by embarking on a political course has come to nothing. Between them, the UDA- and UVF-linked groups are now down to only four council positions.
The UVF have moved to militarily crush the smaller breakaway LVF. In the course of this ongoing feud three people have been killed, 300 mainly UVF men were able to take over the Garnerville estate in East Belfast, evicting LVF families, and there has been serious rioting in the Shankill area with plastic bullets fired.
The troubles continue, not as a 'war' between republicans and the state, but as a sectarian conflict fought out over territory.
In this context, Sinn Fein's idea that demographic changes, linked to a general strengthening of nationalism, will eventually bring about a united Ireland flies in the face of reality. If a capitalist united Ireland really appeared on the cards this would trigger massive Protestant resistance and civil war.
The Socialist Party in Northern Ireland welcomes the formal ending of the military campaign. We want to see all the paramilitary organisations, loyalist and republican, go out of business completely.
But to achieve this means building a class alternative that can unite working-class people in the struggle for a better life, that can deal with the threat of sectarian attack, and that can offer a socialist solution to the national question - a socialist Ireland as part of a voluntary socialist federation of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland.
While the republican leadership continue their efforts to take their place among the great and good of capitalist society, the fact remains that the only force that can solve the problem is a united movement of the working class.
In The Socialist 11 August 2005: