Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/570/7030
Northern Ireland: Sectarian violence returns
Working-class people in Northern Ireland have been shocked by the shooting dead of army and police personnel by dissident Republican groups.
Ciaran Mulholland, Socialist Party Northern Ireland
The Continuity IRA republican group claimed responsibility for shooting dead a policeman in Co Armagh. Two British soldiers were shot by the Real IRA (RIRA) at the entrance of the Masserene army barracks on the edge of Antrim town.
Two pizza delivery workers, one from Poland, were also gunned down. In the eyes of the RIRA they are "legitimate targets".
Over the past few years, dissident republican groups have stepped up their campaign of targeting Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and army personnel. Last month a 300 lb car bomb was abandoned in Castlewellan, Co Down. If it had reached its intended target, Ballykinlar army barracks, significant casualties could have resulted.
RIRA have launched fifteen attacks in the last six months. While there is little support in Catholic working-class areas for a return to war at this time, and the dissident groups are small and relatively isolated, there is little doubt that they are growing in strength and confidence.
The Republican dissidents' goal for the moment is to undermine the power-sharing institutions by provoking a reaction from unionists, in particular the DUP and to intensify the tensions and divisions between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), previously led by Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin.
DUP figures acknowledge that Sinn Féin has moved in its position on the police but put it under pressure by implying that Sinn Féin actually knows who is involved in the dissident groups and could hand suspects over to the police if it so chose, and by criticising its support for the PSNI as 'half-hearted'.
This puts Sinn Féin in the difficult position of having to condemn the very actions and tactics that the Provisional IRA pursued in the past and of calling on people to give information on the dissident republicans to the PSNI. This can further undermine its credibility amongst some Catholic youth.
The deployment of the 'Special Reconnaissance Regiment' of the British Army a few days before the Antrim attack is a propaganda plus for the dissidents and an embarrassment to Sinn Féin. The DUP have been calling for an increase in action by the PSNI and the British Army against organisations like the RIRA including shoot to kill policies.
The intentions of the dissidents are clear - they do not have the resources for a campaign on the scale of the Provisional IRA campaign but they will continue with intermittent attacks in an attempt to destabilise the Northern Ireland Executive (the executive arm of the Northern Ireland Assembly). If policing is devolved to Stormont, the Executive's base, then the storm generated by the future killing of a soldier or police officer will be even greater.
Opposition to Sinn Féin in its traditional areas of support is growing. Sinn Féin is more and more perceived as a right-wing party on social and economic issues. As the recession deepens and unemployment and poverty grow, the potential for dissident groups to garner more support will increase, especially among the youth.
While there is no support among the participating parties for a collapse of the Executive, outside of economic policy there are deep divisions on every major issue which could lead to the Executive falling. It is more likely that the Executive will continue to be characterised by paralysis on a number of key issues, including attitudes to dissident attacks. And a major dispute on an unforeseen sectarian issue could explode at any time.
These attacks come at a time when working-class people are facing a future of rising unemployment and deepening poverty. In such a context an increase in united working-class struggles, such as strikes and movements against health cutbacks, is on the cards. But these attacks have the capacity to increase sectarian division and cut across working-class unity in struggle.
From the beginning of the peace process the Socialist Party (the Northern Ireland affiliate to the Committee for a Workers' International) has argued that no lasting solution could be found on the basis of an uneasy compromise between sectarian politicians. The Socialist Party also argued however that the relative peace ushered in by the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 would open up possibilities for the development of class politics and greater working-class unity. This opportunity will not last forever.
The working class and young people cannot rely on the Northern Ireland Assembly to deliver lasting peace, a decrease in sectarian division or improved living standards. The dead end of paramilitary campaigns is no way out for young people in either community and only deepens division.
Working-class people need their own party: a mass party which attracts support by posing a socialist alternative to the right wing policies of the Assembly parties and the various paramilitary groups and seeks to overcome sectarian division not cement it.
The inaction of the leadership of the trade union movement in refusing to support the building of a mass working class party and by continuing to prop up the Assembly parties only allows the sectarian forces intent on dragging us back into conflict more scope to grow.
In The Socialist 11 March 2009:
War and terrorism
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party feature
Socialist Party workplace news