Socialist Worker

Are the Troubles set to return to Northern Ireland?

Chris Bambery looks at the background to the recent flaring up of violence

Issue No. 2142

The killing of two British soldiers outside a barracks in Antrim last Saturday, followed by the subsequent killing of a police officer in Craigavon, have raised widespread fear that Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” might be set to blaze once more.

Few people in Northern Ireland want a return to violence. The “Real IRA” and other Republican splinter groups have little in the way of public support on either side of the Irish border.

Since 1997 the mainstream Irish Republican Army (IRA) has upheld a ceasefire and has decommissioned its weapons.

The IRA acknowledged that the armed struggle it had commenced in 1971 had reached a stalemate many years earlier.

The IRA’s leadership recognised that it could not defeat the British security forces, who in turn recognised they could not defeat the IRA by military means.

The 1997 ceasefire followed the rise of Sinn Fein, the political party allied to the IRA, which became the majority party among Northern Ireland’s Catholic population. Sinn Fein has made electoral breakthroughs south of the border in the Irish Republic.

The leading figures in Sinn Fein have evolved from guerrilla fighters to mainstream politicians.

Today Martin McGuinness is Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, second in command to the Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson.

McGuinness was previously a senior figure in the IRA. It would have been inconceivable in the 1970s or 1980s that he could be in government with the leader of a hardline Unionist party whose stock-in-trade was attacking Republicans and Catholics.

Yet while ordinary people across Northern Ireland have welcomed peace, there is growing disillusionment with the “peace process” that has led to Robinson and McGuinness presiding over the new Northern Ireland assembly.

Northern Ireland is still scarred by deep economic injustice. Child poverty rates are more than double those of Britain. Wages are 20 percent lower than in Britain.

It is a state where sectarian divisions affect where you live and where you go to school.

There are fears that sectarianism could revive as people hit out at the wrong targets in reaction to the recession, rising unemployment, lack of housing and cuts in public services.

Today there are more walls dividing Protestant and Catholic communities than at any point during the Troubles.

A battery of special laws that allow non-jury trials remain in place, despite the end of the IRA’s campaign.

The conditions which bred Northern Ireland’s Troubles remain in place. Ireland remains partitioned. The “peace process” has brought little in the way of economic benefits for ordinary people in the north.

This can lead to Republicans turning again to armed struggle as a solution. Yet this tactic failed even when the IRA enjoyed widespread popular support for the strategy among Catholics.

If sectarianism is to be overcome it requires a common struggle by Catholic and Protestant workers against poverty and unemployment.

And this would necessarily involve opposing the Northern Ireland state machinery that maintains and enshrines those sectarian divisions.

See the statement from the Irish SWP 'Pointless and counterproductive action that will only strengthen the forces of reaction' »

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