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Eamonn McCann on:
What's next in Northern Ireland?

March 25, 2005 | Page 8

THE IRISH Republican Army (IRA) and Sinn Fein, the political party associated with it, are in a deep crisis after a group of IRA members murdered a Catholic man in eastern Belfast. The killing of Robert McCartney--and his family's determination to speak out against the murder--has caused a storm of controversy in Northern Ireland.

The uproar touched U.S. politics this month during a visit by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. The Bush White House disinvited Adams from a ceremony at the White House and instead hosted Robert McCartney's sisters. Meanwhile, politicians from across the political spectrum lectured Sinn Fein about holding the IRA accountable and "rejecting violence."

The media's shallow coverage neglected the essential fact that the greater violence in Northern Ireland has always come from British occupiers and the right-wing organizations of the Protestant majority, known as Unionists--not from the Republican movement that arose among the oppressed Catholic population.

Nevertheless, the backlash against Sinn Fein threatens its position in the power-sharing arrangement created following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which halted decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

EAMONN McCANN was one of the founders of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, which ushered in the modern era of the struggle against British rule. He is the author of several books, including War and an Irish Town; writes regularly for numerous publications in Ireland; and is a member of the Bloody Sunday Campaign and the Socialist Workers Party. Eamonn spoke to Socialist Worker's ALAN MAASS about the situation in Northern Ireland today.

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CAN YOU talk about the background to the crisis Sinn Fein faces now?

THERE'S BEEN a contradiction at the heart of Sinn Fein politics since the Irish troubles erupted 35 years ago. And it's become particularly acute in the years since the IRA's ceasefire in 1994 and the signing of the Belfast agreement--the so-called Good Friday Agreement--in 1998.

The contradiction is very stark and obvious. Sinn Fein and the IRA are part of the same Republican movement, which claims to be a revolutionary movement fighting to remove the British presence from Northern Ireland. But in fact, they have been compromising with British rule for a very, very long time, and this reached its summit with the Good Friday Agreement.

Sinn Fein agreed that Northern Ireland shall be accepted as part of Britain, part of the United Kingdom. It agreed that this wouldn't change and that the British presence wouldn't be removed without the support of a majority of the people in Northern Ireland--not all Ireland, but Northern Ireland, the British part of Ireland. And they agreed that they would use only legal, constitutional--that is, British constitutional--means to advance their cause.

That was what made Sinn Fein acceptable to the American government. The Clinton White House cheered Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein leaders when they agreed to these conditions.

But of course, that left the IRA--this armed, clandestine organization--with no role to play. In areas like the Short Strand, where the McCartney family comes from, or the Falls Road of Belfast, or the Bogside in Derry, from which I'm speaking at the moment--you had a well-trained, well-armed, secret paramilitary force with no political purpose since they had already accepted the Good Friday Agreement.

That's been the situation since 1994. At an accelerating rate, the IRA has become a sort of local militia, heavily involved in businesses, both legitimate and illegitimate, and with an armed paramilitary force protecting all this. The organization has degenerated.

What really happened was that on January 30, a number of IRA people killed Robert McCartney, and discovered that this family wasn't going to take it lying down--that they were going to speak out. As soon as the McCartney family began speaking out, many other people began coming forward and recounting their own experiences over recent years with thuggery and intimidation by IRA people.

This created a crisis for Sinn Fein, and remarkably, Sinn seems to have been totally unprepared for it.

WHERE IS Sinn Fein headed politically?

MOST OF the media in Ireland and Britain and the United States--the commentators and analysts--have been talking about the development of Sinn Fein from violence to peaceful means. That's a very, very simplistic way to look at it.

Actually, it's more meaningful to see Sinn Fein's trajectory as being from the left to the right--from being left-wing nationalists to being conventional right-wing nationalists.

In the two years in which Sinn Fein was involved in a power-sharing assembly with pro-British, mainly Protestant Unionism in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein ministers held the ministries of education and of health. And in both education and in health, they loyally implemented the privatization agenda of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of Britain's New Labour government. They made no protest against it of a practical sort.

As the minister for health, Sinn Fein's Bairbre de Brun refused even to issue a statement clarifying the law on abortion in Northern Ireland--simply to make it plain that there were certain, very limited circumstances in which abortion might be legal in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Family Planning Association had to take the Sinn Fein minister to court in an effort simply to get her to make a statement.

Then there's the question of job levels and wages and working conditions at the local government level, where Sinn Fein has been very successful. One shop steward told me a couple weeks back that when he went into negotiations, there was a councilor from the Democratic Unionist Party--a very right-wing party led by Ian Paisley--and a councilor from Sinn Fein.

And he said that if he closed his eyes, he wouldn't have been able to tell which was which. He said there wasn't the width of a cigarette paper between them. They both talked about how workers would have to tighten their belts, and budgets would have to be balanced, and targets would have to be met.

All this has led to a general disillusionment with the Sinn Fein party, and that, too, is part of the background to the situation that arose when the McCartney sisters went public and began complaining about the murder of their brother.

HOW DO people view George Bush's harsh rhetoric toward Sinn Fein?

ONE THING that may not be apparent from the United States is this: While Bush may be able to put a lot of pressure on Sinn Fein, the McCartney sisters' association with Bush and their meeting with him will not have done them any good at the grassroots level back in Northern Ireland.

In working-class areas--particularly Catholic working-class areas, such as where the McCartneys come from--George Bush is probably the least popular person in the whole world.

People are well aware of the grotesque hypocrisy of George Bush saying that the murderers of Robert McCartney must be brought to justice at the same time as he sanctions the slaughter of thousands of people in Iraq.

Many commentators, including those who are not particularly left wing, have drawn attention to the contrast between Bush saying that there must be due process, with people charged in the courts with the murder of Robert McCartney, when the fact is that due process is a dead letter for opponents of the Bush administration in Guantánamo Bay, at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and in the so-called rendition of people across national frontiers. All this is widely known and commented on in Northern Ireland.

The significance of Bush's intervention lies precisely in the fact that the Sinn Fein leadership has placed such importance on winning the endorsement, first, of Bill Clinton, and then of George Bush.

Some people say, "Aren't the McCartney sisters hypocrites for looking for justice from George Bush?" But in fact, the path to the White House was paved by the Sinn Fein leadership, and the McCartney sisters have made this point--that they are taking the path that Sinn Fein took to seek respectability.

IN THE U.S., the attacks on Republicanism are coming from across the political spectrum.

There's a paradox here because the Sinn Fein party leaders talk out of both sides of their mouth--it's very difficult to categorize them.

For example, young Sinn Fein members have been in the leadership of a Boycott Coca-Cola campaign in the colleges in Ireland. At the same time, Sinn Fein last year accepted a donation of $5,000 for party funds from the Coca-Cola company.

There's a sharp contradiction in Sinn Fein's approach to all these matters. Gerry Adams heads a party that claims to be antiwar. But Gerry Adams said just a few months ago that George Bush "hadn't put a foot wrong" with regard to the Irish situation. This means that they are abstracting the Irish situation from the world situation. Sinn Fein believes they can have a sort of world view that is anti-Iraq war, but an Irish view in which they abase themselves before the people who are prosecuting the Iraq war.

The most obvious example of this came in April 2003, at the beginning of the invasion, when there was a summit between Bush and Blair at Hillsborough Castle just outside Belfast. Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein took the opportunity to stand in line to shake Bush's hands--and to accept lectures from him about peace in Ireland even as the bombers were revving up to bomb Baghdad.

As Gerry Adams was doing that inside the castle, I was on a platform outside the castle denouncing the Iraq war. And among the other speakers was the Sinn Fein leader Mitchell McCloughlin. He was outside denouncing Iraq war, while Gerry Adams was inside, praising George Bush for his contributions to peace in Ireland.

All this goes back to the Clinton years. Because he wanted a foreign-policy success and because it suited him to get some Irish-American politicians onside before he was elected in 1992, Clinton made a promise to involve himself in the Northern Ireland issue. It no coincidence that the IRA ceasefire came two years after Clinton's election--with promises from Clinton that helped convince Sinn Fein and the IRA that the political path would lead them as far forward as the armed struggle.

And of course, this meant that when Clinton bombed Sudan and Afghanistan, the Sinn Fein leaders sat dumb about it and wanted to keep on the good side of Clinton. So they've been compromised by that going back a long way.

SINN FEIN also has some supporters among congressional Republicans, don't they?

JAMES WALSH is one--a Republican who represents a district from upstate New York. He's an open and frank right-winger--a man who's said that the invasion of Iraq should serve as a model for the future and who supports an aggressive military posture by the United States abroad.

But he's also got a bit of an Irish constituency around Syracuse, and he's of Irish extraction himself. So he's a big supporter of Sinn Fein. Last year, his guest on St. Patrick's Day in Syracuse was Martin McGuiness, Sinn Fein's chief negotiator. McGuinness and Walsh marched shoulder to shoulder on St. Patrick's Day.

How anyone reconciles that with Sinn Fein's alleged antiwar stance is a mystery to many of us, but what was interesting was that when Bush, on the advice of Tony Blair, took a hostile attitude this year toward Sinn Fein, Walsh and Peter King from New York--another Republican congressman who's been a very strong supporter of Sinn Fein--followed suit.

Sinn Fein was deeply damaged by this. But the point is that if you seek out the friendship of creatures like James Walsh and try to use what credibility they can confer on you, you run the risk that they'll change--and withdraw their support. Walsh couldn't have damaged Sinn Fein if Sinn Fein hadn't abased themselves before in previous years.

WHAT DO rank-and-file Republicans in Northern Ireland think about the situation?

MANY MEMBERS of Sinn Fein went along with the compromises made by the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership over the last 10 or 12 years because they wanted to keep their movement united, and they thought that it was all in the interests of the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland. And now they discover that they are left isolated. So many of the rank and file of Sinn Fein and the IRA are looking for an alternative.

The way this matter is conventionally presented in the mainstream press is that either they go down the path of armed struggle, and if they do that, they're going to be isolated from the White House and from right-wing and respectable society in Britain and Ireland. Or, the alternative is to ditch armed struggle and become--this is the theory that's presented--conventional, centrist politicians implementing the neoliberal agenda, which is the most important thing of all about Northern Ireland to the Blair government.

This is an agonizing choice for many rank-and-file Irish Republicans: isolation on the one hand, or a sellout to the right on the other. Socialists must make the point to them that these are not the only alternatives--that there is another option.

The other option is to recognize that armed struggle by a clandestine organization was always elitist and undemocratic--that a clandestine army like the IRA, whatever its usefulness in guerrilla warfare, cannot be accountable and operate openly before the very people in whose name it fights.

Some Irish Republicans now say that things were fine until the ceasefire in 1994--that before that, we were honest, we were fighting the British, we were involved in a guerrilla war. But of course, the elitism of the IRA was as present back then as it is now.

So when Bush and Blair and the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern say to abandon armed struggle and embrace conventional conservative politics, the left should be saying that's not the reason you should abandon armed struggle. You should abandon armed struggle in order to contribute to the building of a mass working-class movement of resistance to neoliberalism, to imperialism, to the war, for equality.

Sinn Fein is a party that finds itself between a rock and a hard place, and the tragedy of the situation may be that there isn't a strong enough and coherent enough left in Ireland, and particularly in Northern Ireland, to act as a different pole of attraction to discontented rank-and-file Republicans. That's the necessity for socialists at the moment--that's what we have to be saying.

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