THE IRA decommissioned or “put beyond use” a quantity of its weapons last week in a bid to save the Northern Ireland Assembly and the ‘peace process’.
In return, the British government announced a series of measures, including the dismantling of a number of the hated British army watchtowers that dot the landscape in rural areas such as South Armagh.
Although the IRA move was expected for some time, it still represents a huge shift in policy by that organisation.
A number of recent events persuaded the Republican leadership that the IRA had to at least partially disarm.
Earlier this month, the Ulster Unionist leader and First Minister of the Assembly, David Trimble, handed in a post-dated resignation letter, along with other Unionist ministers. Trimble was under huge pressure from Unionist hard-liners to withdraw from the Assembly.
These forces have long made IRA decommissioning an obstacle to full implementation of the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
Republican leaders, such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, are firmly committed to the Agreement, believing it has brought them big successes over the last few years.
Sinn Fein presents itself as a radical, nationalist party, and without the burden of the IRA’s divisive ‘armed struggle’, has overtaken the SDLP to become the largest party amongst Catholics in the North. The Republican movement also has ambitions to win several seats in the next general election in the south and to share power with Fianna Fail, the main capitalist party. The unravelling of the Agreement would have put all of this in jeopardy.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were also under tremendous pressure from the Bush administration, and the Republican movement’s big business backers in the US, to force the IRA to disarm.
The arrest of three alleged IRA members in Colombia in August, and the accusation that they were giving training to the ‘Marxist’ FARC guerrillas in their fight against the US-backed Colombian government, was a major embarrassment to the Republican leadership. This was compounded by the terror attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on 11 September.
President Bush could no longer allow Sinn Fein and the ‘unarmed’ IRA to openly campaign and raise funds in the US at the same time as his administration was at “war with international terrorism”.
Prominent Irish-American politicians, such as Ted Kennedy and Peter King, added their voices to demands for decommissioning. Representatives of big US corporations, such as Bill Flynn, made clear that the millions of dollars raised for Sinn Fein each year were at stake. In these circumstances, a partial decommissioning, at the very least, was unavoidable for Adams and McGuinness.
Republican Sinn Fein, which split from Sinn Fein in the mid-1980s, described the IRA’s move as the “worst ever sell-out”. However, they and other dissident groups, such as the ‘Real IRA’, with their call for a return to the ‘long war’, are unlikely to attract support from the working-class Catholic population.
In contrast to the IRA, the Loyalist paramilitary organisations have ruled out decommissioning their weapons for the foreseeable future.
This reflects a number of factors, including the deep sense of alienation in working-class Protestant communities towards the ‘peace process’ and the ongoing Loyalist feuding over areas of control and influence.
The Ulster Defence Association has carried out widespread sectarian attacks for months, finally forcing the Secretary of State, John Reid, to announce two weeks ago that their ‘ceasefire’ was over.
Despite Protestant scepticism, David Trimble won the backing of his party’s ruling council for a return to government after the IRA’s decommissioning act.
He now needs a majority of Unionists in the Assembly to vote for him to regain his post as First Minister. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party is demanding “total decommissioning” from the IRA, but in all likelihood will follow the UUP back into the Assembly.
If Trimble were not to get the necessary votes, the Secretary of State would either suspend the Assembly again or call fresh elections.
The Assembly is a power sharing body between rival sectarian parties. It institutionalises sectarianism and helps deepens divisions in working-class communities.
On the ground, sectarian polarisation has actually widened since the start of the ‘peace process’. Recent sectarian clashes in North Belfast, which have included attacks against isolated Protestant housing estates, and Loyalist mobs ‘picketing’ a Catholic girls’ primary school, provides a stark example of how, over time, the whole of society can be dragged into the abyss.
However, the resurrection of the Assembly will also expose before working-class people the pro-capitalist policies of the ‘Green’ and ‘Orange’ politicians.
All of the main parties, including Sinn Fein, agree on the rule of the market economy, which is resulting in new job losses, increased poverty, and fresh rounds of government cuts.
A recent huge demonstration of 20,000 in Omagh town, in protest against proposed cuts in the local hospital, is an indication that Catholic and Protestant working people can be united around class issues. Such campaigns can become the basis for building a mass socialist alternative to the bigoted parties.