On July 28, 2005, the Irish Republican Army ended its 30 year armed struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland. It was hailed as the most significant step in the peace process that began with the IRA ceasefire in 1994 and the Good Friday agreement signed by the British and (southern) Irish governments and Northern Irish political parties in 1998.
But on March 7, 2009 the Real IRA, a breakaway group from the provisional IRA, shot dead two British soldiers in Northern Ireland. Two days later, another breakaway group, the Continuity IRA, shot dead a police officer. The Real IRA has now threatened to kill former IRA leader Martin McGuiness and to re-launch attacks on British troops.
Some of the more shrill commentators in the British media were quick to declare that the attacks signal an unravelling of the peace process. The attacks by the IRA splinter groups and dissident republicans, however, are unlikely to reignite the “troubles” on any serious scale.
Very few people in Northern Ireland want to see a return to the armed struggle that characterised the 70s, 80s and 90s. The peace process, however, is deeply flawed.
Ireland is still partitioned between North and South. Sectarian divisions still exist in Northern Ireland. It is built into the political system and affects where you live and where you go to school.
The new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been touted as the most transparent police service in the world. But for many among the working class Catholic community, it is no more than a re-badged Royal Ulster Constabulary, the notoriously sectarian force that collaborated with the pro-British Loyalist paramilities during the troubles.
Separation barriers remain in place, dividing Protestant working class areas from their Catholic working class neighbours. The barriers are meant to provide security but they are a physical reminder of how little has been done to overcome divisions.
Both Catholic and Protestant working class communities suffer bad housing, poor social services and chronic unemployment. In the past, the pro-British Protestant paramilitaries fought Republicans to preserve the wafer thin privileges accorded them by the local pro-British ruling class, while Republicans held out the hope that the armed struggle would somehow deliver a united Ireland and a new communal prosperity.
Now with the “peace process” ten years old many are asking—where is the peace dividend? Former enemies like the Republican leader Martin McGuiness now sit in government with the right wing Protestant bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party. They have no problems collaborating to impose neo-liberal economic policies.
Meanwhile, both the Catholic and Protestant working class is plummeting towards abject poverty. Wages are 20 per cent lower than in Britain. The growing frustration with the peace process and the increasing poverty fosters the conditions in which dissident Republicans can look to armed struggle once again.
The old Provisional IRA have recommenced “law and order” punishment shootings of drug dealers and petty criminals in many traditionally supportive areas to bolster their own support and make themselves appear relevant and responsive to community concerns. Neither variation offers a solution for the working class in Northern Ireland.
James Connolly, the Irish revolutionary socialist, predicted correctly that the partition of Ireland would lead to a “carnival of reaction both North and South” of the border. Sectarianism in Northern Ireland is ingrained. Northern Ireland’s politicians and bosses are not above stoking community prejudice and fear when it suits them (not unlike Australian politicians when they whip up fear and hatred against Aboriginal people or refugees). But the armed struggle failed even when the IRA enjoyed greater levels of support among the Republican community. It offers no way forward today.
To fight poverty and unemployment will require Catholic and Protestant fighting together. In Belfast, Protestant and Catholic workers have come together to occupy the factory and fight the closure of Ford’s Visteon plant. Unity between Catholic and Protestant workers has been seen before. In 2006 postal workers from both communities took unified strike action.
Jumping the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland will be difficult but struggles like that at Ford-Visteon and movements like the protests in southern Ireland against the Irish government’s “pension levy” public sector pay cut show the potential for united action to challenge the system that creates the problem.
By Phil Chilton