Socialist Worker

Sinn Fein steps down the road to respectability

As the IRA declares an end to its military operations, Chris Bambery looks at the past, present and future for the working people of Northern Ireland

Issue No. 1962

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams outside Downing Street

Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams outside Downing Street

Last week’s announcement that the IRA has ordered an end to its military operations was greeted by a predictable display of hypocrisy from Tony Blair.

All of a sudden a prime minister who has led Britain into an illegal and bloody war in Iraq was sounding as if he was the world’s number one pacifist.

Meanwhile the British army is busy deploying the counter-insurgency techniques it crafted on the streets of Derry into those of occupied Iraq.

Blair presented his role as that of a neutral peace maker who had sorted out two warring tribes. In this he was faithfully echoed by the vast majority of the British media.

But who runs Northern Ireland and who created this state back in 1921? The answer, of course, is the British government—which is not and never has been a neutral party in the Northern Ireland conflict.

War weary

There is much war weariness in Northern Ireland and the vast majority of people there welcome peace. But there is also a growing suspicion that the political process now being played out will bring little change to the lives of everyday people in Belfast and Derry.

Sinn Fein’s leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have been able to carry the Republican movement with them without there being any major split — no mean feat given that movement’s history of internecine splits.

But their ability to deliver peace has not rested solely on the internal discipline of the Republican movement. Above all it stemmed from widespread recognition that the IRA could not achieve a military victory over Britain.

The other side of this was the slow recognition in London that no amount of repression could defeat the IRA—though John Major’s British government nevertheless had to be dragged to the peace table by the US and the Irish Republic.

Adams and McGuinness began the break with militarism by promoting a twin track policy that complemented the IRA’s military campaign with Sinn Fein contesting elections in both Irish states.

Over time success meant the electoral thrust gained predominance. Sinn Fein won the lion’s share of the Catholic vote in the north and is now powerful enough in the Irish Republic to become a member of a future coalition government.

Demographic projections suggest the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is set to become the majority over the coming years. This means Adams and McGuinness can point to a possible peaceful road to Irish reunification.

But the price is that the Republicans need to “earn” their promotion into the ranks of the establishment. Maintaining close links with the White House is crucial — even if the incumbent is George Bush.

That is why the Republicans had to implement privatisation and other neo-liberal measures when they were briefly given ministerial posts in Northern Ireland.

The IRA’s announcement of an end to military operations will probably mean Sinn Fein entering a new administration with arch-bigot Ian Paisley. But there is another element to this shift from the Armalite to Armani suits.

The Provisionals were not “terrorists”, in that they were predominantly waging a campaign focused on British occupation forces. But neither were they socialist revolutionaries.

That meant they could stray into actions which were not in any way anti-imperialist, such as carrying out sectarian counter-killings or blowing up working class pubs in Birmingham.

Above all, they saw themselves as being the agents of liberation for the Irish — a dedicated minority acting on behalf of the people.

For most of their history that meant seeing freedom coming through the military campaign of the IRA — but it could also embrace conventional diplomacy and conventional electoral politics.

That is why Irish politics is littered with parties who broke with Republicanism, ditched the gun, made peace with imperialism and became pillars of the establishment.


Ordinary people in Northern Ireland have welcomed peace, but the formal political process Sinn Fein has entered into enshrines sectarian division.

Schools remain divided on religious grounds, abortion is not available. Meanwhile the British government is running down spending on education and welfare. Northern Ireland remains a political slum in which working people, Catholic and Protestant, pay the price for sectarian divide and rule.

The Sinn Fein leadership’s ability to carry the Republican movement with them makes it all that more vital that the forces in Ireland committed to eradicating neo-liberalism, bigotry, poverty and repression come together and pose an alternative. Thankfully that work is already underway.

For more analysis of recent developments in Northern Ireland see Socialist Worker’s Irish sister paper. Go to

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Sat 6 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1962
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