Northern Ireland: The death of radical republicanism

Issue: 114

Kieran Allen

Under the most moderate slogan ‘One Man, One Vote’, a civil rights movement exploded onto the streets of Derry and Belfast in the late 1960s. Its inspiration was the black civil rights movement in America and its focus was the mistreatment of the Catholic population. Decades of one party rule by the Unionist Party were shattered and the filthy debris of sectarianism was revealed to all the world. Here was a substantial Catholic minority who suffered gerrymandering, discrimination and police thuggery in a region ruled by the British state. Within a few short years the struggle escalated to an armed struggle that questioned the very existence of the Northern Irish state itself.

At the time there were two dominant responses on the Irish left. One was the Stalinist‑influenced Official Republican movement, later known as the Workers Party. This movement attacked the IRA as backward terrorists, pointing, for example, to how the IRA opposed contraceptives as a British plot to reduce the Catholic population. They denounced the abandonment of secular Republican principles and condemned the Provos for saying the rosaries at funerals. Although the Workers Party rhetoric made reference to the Stalinist ‘stages theory’, in reality their arguments were motivated by a particular form of ‘progressive’ thought, unconsciously shaped by the European experience of empire. This assumed that there was a chain of development whereby ‘backward’ religious groupings needed to gradually find their way towards the stage of secular capitalism before they could become fit to move on to socialism. The Workers Party fell apart after the collapse of their USSR but their members went onto occupy key roles in the Irish Labour Party and remained the most virulent opponents of the Republican struggle—often equating it to an outbreak of ‘fascism’. The parallels between this approach and that of the pro-war ‘left’ to the Iraqi resistance should be pretty obvious.

The second response came from a new left that had emerged in 1968 through organisations such as People’s Democracy. Influenced by what might now be called autonomist politics, it shifted from a denial of the national question to a full embrace of the IRA as the ‘people’s army’. People’s Democracy’s atheoretical approach meant that its politics adapted to the prevailing mood of ‘people in struggle’ with little discussion. The new left argued that the vanguard of the Irish working class were in the Catholic ghettoes of Belfast, Derry and South Armagh. This vanguard would awaken the whole of Ireland and usher in an era of ‘permanent revolution’ that would achieve Connolly’s dream of a workers’ republic. It was only a matter of connecting the struggle against direct colonial rule in the North with a fight against the ‘neo-colony’ in the South. Protestant workers were, in this view, a reactionary block that could play no progressive role until Ireland’s national revolution had first been completed.

Thirty years later these views make no sense whatsoever. The notion that the IRA could be dismissed as a terrorist organisation that survived by inflicting fear on its own community is laughable. Despite its pretension to bring ‘democracy’ and moderate politics to the North, the British state far excelled the paramilitaries in its capacity to inflict terror. Recent revelations have shown that the majority of the leadership of the UVF—the loyalist gang that assassinated solicitor Pat Finucane among others—were Royal Ulster Constabulary special branch agents. Bombings in Dublin and Monaghan were almost certainly the work of elements associated with British Military Intelligence. All the standard weapons of counter‑insurgency now used in southern Iraq were perfected in Northern Ireland—including torture, political assassination and the planting of ‘supergrasses’ inside guerrilla movements.

The very force that was defined as a terrorist group is now the majority party within the Northern Catholic population. Despite, or possibly because of, the violence it used to counteract the British state, it has won the allegiance of the majority of Catholics. And far from this backward, fanatical force imposing Catholic law on reluctant secularists, it has, paradoxically, developed limited but vaguely progressive positions on women’s rights and gay rights. History, it appears, does not travel in linear paths like the wall chart of the British monarchy.

But the naive hope of the revolutionary potential of the Republican movement has also been painfully dashed. Just as the ANC in South Africa and the PLO in Palestine have learnt to collaborate with imperialism, so too have the members of the now disbanded IRA. Two key issues have symbolised this shift.

First, Sinn Fein have voted overwhelmingly to back the police. Like most conventional politicians they have discovered a major ‘law and order’ problem in Catholic areas and so urge their members to join PSNI (the renamed Royal Ulster Constabulary). To cover their tracks, they play rhetorical tricks—claiming they want a police ‘service’ rather than a police ‘force’ and pointing to South Africa as a successful model. They neatly gloss over the fact that South Africa’s national police commissioner is currently under investigation for corruption and that 2,174 people were killed by the South African police between 1997 and 2000. The new rhetoric can easily come unstuck, especially as Sinn Fein try to form a government with the arch‑bigot Ian Paisley. Paisley’s strategy has been to milk every possible concession from Sinn Fein and then to ask for more. Not only must the Republicans urge supporters to join the police; they are also required to inform on their former dissident members.

The second issue is water charges. The current election is unusual in Northern Ireland in that an economic issue has come to the fore. According to the Irish Times, ‘every corner shop in Belfast now displays a poster from the anti-water charges campaign’. Yet on this issue there is no difference between Sinn Fein and Paisley’s DUP. Both verbally oppose the charge but then speak out against a non-payment campaign. On a recent television programme Sinn Fein spokesperson Mitchell McLoughlin was asked a straight question—did he support non-payment—and he gave a resounding ‘No’. Making a connection with Sinn Fein’s recent vote to support the PSNI, the somewhat surprised interviewer could only remark, ‘So this is the new compliant Sinn Fein.’

There are, of course, deeper reasons for Sinn Fein’s shift than immediate tactical considerations. Despite occasional left rhetoric, revolutionary nationalists do not seek to end class rule but to cut out a space for themselves within the wider socioeconomic order. So the shift from armed struggle to conventional politics is not always as gradual as it might first appear. Until quite recently most Irish governments included at least one ex‑IRA man. So it is not so surprising that the declared aim of present day Sinn Fein is to be in government in both the North and South simultaneously. Through this mechanism they hope to speed the way to a united Ireland. The old rhetoric about overthrowing both rotten Irish states has been replaced with one which advocates ‘an all‑island economy’. All of which raises the interesting question of where this leaves the Irish left today.

It was once assumed that a united Ireland could only be achieved on the back of a major social upheaval, which threatened the Southern elite as well. This certainly remains a possibility—but, unfortunately, it is not the only one. The new found confidence of the Southern ruling class has allowed them to dust down their own older, latent Republican traditions. Whereas in the 1970, 1980s and 1990s the commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising was once ignored or even banned, it is now celebrated by an official military parade. Southern property speculators have invaded the North and caused one of the largest surges in house prices in Europe. Increasingly, British spokespeople contrast the ‘failed’ state‑run economy of the North with the dynamic neoliberal economy of the South. Here, for example, is Peter Hain:

I don’t think people have woken up to the fact that the economy is not sustainable in its present form in the long term. We have to become much more competitive, less dependent on a bloated public sector. I was talking to the Irish foreign minister, Dermot Ahern, about the common marketing of the island to investors, where we were not seeking to do each other down but were seeking to maximise international investment on either side of the border, and for the Republic to use its clout to get investment up North.1

The distant shape of a bourgeois solution to the Irish ‘problem’ is steadily coming into view. Economically, it is an island that is strongly wedded to the Anglo‑American empire, fully embracing flexible markets and setting a lead on tax cuts for global capital. It will be a service‑led economy which specialises in obtaining outsourcing contracts from US multinationals, while maintaining niche markets in pharmaceuticals and information communications technology. Politically, there could be an extension of the institutionalised form of sectarianism that is at the heart of the Belfast Agreement which ended the current IRA campaign. This established a form of communal representation whereby the real electoral competition occurs within the two sectarian pillars—with the key issue being which party can be more successful at outdoing the other ‘community’. Under this wider schema, there could be a more closely intermeshed Ireland, where the British‑Irish sovereignty is pooled in the North. This institutionalisation of communal politics is, after all, an ideal mechanism for developing an all‑Ireland neoliberal economy.

This bourgeois vision has been made possible by the final taming of the radical Republican tradition. The manner in which the Adams‑McGuiness leadership has avoided major splits while embracing conventional political structures has added to the confidence of the Southern elite. In the past such shifts occasioned major breakaways that then paved the way for the new round of armed struggle. This time the dissident groups are so small that the joke in Belfast is that Sinn Fein will not need to inform on their former comrades, because the police agents within their ranks will have gotten there first. The Adams‑McGuinness leadership is steering a course in the long term towards an alliance with Fianna Fail, which in turn is keeping that option in the background for when it might need to revive its populist base.

The reason, therefore, why Sinn Fein oppose the campaign of non-payment of water charges is not because they are afraid to break the law—their history would certainly not suggest that. It is rather because they have already joined the consensus that, in the words of their spokesperson Bairbre de Brun, ‘we must build momentum in an all‑Ireland economic activity to maximise our economic potential’.2 That in practice means getting rid of the anachronism of the state‑led economy that was created over the decades of armed conflict, and aligning the Northern economy with the market‑driven model of the South. Like all bourgeois politicians, Sinn Fein are still allowed rhetorical flourishes—but the rules of the conventional game are to stay inside the dominant paradigm if you want to play.

Despite the new found confidence of the Southern elite, the bourgeois vision of an all-Ireland project is by no means guaranteed. There is after all the small matter of one million Protestants whose situation is worsening. Their position is symbolised by Harland and Wolff, the shipyard whose cranes towered over Belfast, and which once employed 35,000 people—and offered the prospect of skilled work to thousands of its mainly Protestant workforce. Today it has been replaced by a theme park known as the Titanic Quarter, which employs only a handful of badly paid service employees. The assumption that loyalty to the Queen and Britain meant a better life than association with a Catholic‑run Ireland could offer is shattered. But neither does a neoliberal Ireland run by former Republican militants offer much hope of addressing the frustrations of tens of thousands of working class Protestants. Those frustrations could still be channelled in a desperate, bigoted right wing direction.

But that would only occur if the left does not seize the new opportunities that have opened to it. Ireland today is very different to Ireland 30 years ago. The Catholic church has been brushed aside as an agent of political control and the Celtic Tiger has brought about a dramatic -expansion of the working class. The long boom has been highly contradictory—on the one hand it has helped sustain the idea of social partnership but, on the other, it has sharpened the sense of inequality, alienation and discontent. Increasingly, however, it is sustained by a debt‑induced construction craze which cannot last forever. The final absorption of Republicanism into the political mainstream leaves an open field for the language of class and the left. It would be criminal not to take these new opportunities.


1: ‘Northern Ireland—Where Is The Bright New Future?’, Management Today, 23 March 2006.

2: Sinn Fein press release, All‑Ireland Economic Study: an Important First Step, 26 October 2006.