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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 169 Contents

Socialist Review, November 1993

Notes of the Month


Descent into hell?

From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The death and bloodshed caused by the Shankill Road bombing and the shooting of Catholic council workers has both strengthened the yearning for peace in Northern Ireland and made the conditions for achieving it all the more elusive.

With nine Protestant civilians, including young children, dead, hardline Unionists are getting a hearing for their anti-Catholic ranting. Many Catholics live in fear of leaving their front doors after a campaign of sectarian terror waged by the ‘Ulster Freedom Fighters’ which has seen over 30 Catholics murdered this year.

One recent attack on Catholic workers at Shorts’ aircraft factory provoked a walkout by the mainly Protestant workforce – an inspiring example of cross community working class solidarity. Yet this revulsion at the violence can so easily be turned to reaction. For many of the thousands at Shorts’ and their fellow workers at Harland and Woolf who marched up the Shankill protesting at the bombing, the talk was not just of wanting peace but of seeking bloody revenge. As has been seen so often before, working class unity is possible but the present level of violence does not encourage it.

To add insult to injury, Major spews his platitudes against the ‘men of violence’ from the comfortable distance of Cyprus (hardly the best place from which to extol the virtues of British rule), while British troops and the armed Protestant police force continue to prop up the rotten state that is Northern Ireland with all the military might Britain can muster. Even for the many Catholics dismayed at the killing of Protestants out shopping on Saturday, Major’s words must ring hollow. For it is his government’s complete denial of justice for the oppressed minority in the North that has ensured the IRA’s continued support.

While it is public knowledge that army intelligence files on ‘suspected’ Republicans are passed on to Protestant paramilitary squads, no officer has faced trial for any leaks. Yet to find someone guilty is usually not difficult in a state where juries and the right to silence are history. The fact that police and army officers literally get away with murder means that any idea that justice can be obtained through the legal process holds no credibility.

It is little wonder then that the IRA’s military struggle against the British state has sustained a level of support in the Catholic ghettos of Derry and Belfast.

How the forces compare

IRA 600 active soldiers estimated; INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) 100; UDA (Ulster Defence Association) 2,000 overall; UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) 500 overall; Red Hand Commando 100; RUC full time 8,474; RUC reserve full time 3,209, part time 1,418. British Army 18,000 including Royal Irish Regiment of 5,600 full and part time.

Yet there are clearly differences amongst Republicans about the way forward. War weariness and the fear of suffering retaliation for IRA actions have created an atmosphere in which many hopes were placed on the talks taking place between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and moderate Catholic SDLP MP John Hume. Clearly the sight of Sinn Fein cooperating with a mainstream party posed a threat to the Unionists. Yet, like any other ‘initiative’ which fails to address the discrimination built into the very structures of the state in Northern Ireland, these talks are fatally flawed.

Proposals apparently put forward include joint British and Irish sovereignty over the North – a plan which would further institutionalise sectarian division and is a far cry from Sinn Fein’s professed goal of a united Ireland.

The Shankill Road bomb shows that Adams has not got the unanimous support of the Republican movement for his readiness to compromise over the talks, and it has undoubtedly been a setback for him.

Whether Adams could sustain a ceasefire remains to be seen – it seems doubtful he would win without a struggle. However, Major’s refusal so far to even discuss terms means that this sort of deal is not an option for the immediate future. The deal the Tories struck with the Ulster Unionists in the House of Commons over Maastricht will also compromise Major’s ability to respond.

Any aspirations Adams may have had in following in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela or Yasser Arafat with their peace deals in South Africa and Middle East were clearly premature. Although the sight of some Unionist politicians approving the peace talks with Sinn Fein may have given him encouragement, there will now undoubtedly be pressure on all Unionists to close ranks.

The prospects for peace look bleaker than ever and the RUC Chief Constable’s assurances that Northern Ireland is not descending into an orgy of violence gives little comfort when taken alongside his calls for more police. If the 19,000 soldiers and over 11,000 RUC members cannot currently keep the peace in the tiny province, then it is obvious that repression is not the answer.

The only certainty is that many more families will bury their dead while the origins of the conflict continue to be ignored by a government whose policies only serve to increase the feelings of hopelessness and despair amongst the whole population. Only when the troops are removed from the province, and British rule is ended, can a solution begin to be found.

It is in the struggles of Catholic and Protestant workers to defeat government policies that we have seen glimpses of the potential that a united working class holds as a force for change. A strategy which develops this potential remains the only one capable of achieving peace and justice in Ireland.

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