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Britain’s state of war in Northern Ireland

This article is over 17 years, 3 months old
Don’t fall for the politicians’ campaign against Sinn Fein, says Chris Bambery, Socialist Worker’s editor. It is an attempt to end the struggle in Northern Ireland
Issue 1944
Catholics fighting against British and loyalist repression in Derry’s Bogside area, 1969
Catholics fighting against British and loyalist repression in Derry’s Bogside area, 1969

To mark St Patrick’s Day last week, George Bush welcomed the sisters and partner of Robert McCartney to the White House. Robert was the Belfast man murdered outside a bar in January after falling foul of a group of people, including members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

It is hard to imagine George Bush inviting the family of the Afghan taxi driver Dilawar to the White House to discuss their campaign for justice. Dilawar died in December 2002 in the prison attached to the giant US airbase at Bagram, Afghanistan.

A US armed forces report revealed to Human Rights Watch last week said he had been chained, beaten, thrown against a table and had water poured down his throat until he suffocated.

The McCartney family’s legitimate search for justice has been hijacked by those in charge of torture at Bagram, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo.

Both the US and British governments have seized on the murder of Robert McCartney to attack the Irish republican party Sinn Fein and its leader Gerry Adams.

They are demanding that Sinn Fein denounce the IRA as a “criminal conspiracy”, even though Adams has gone out of his way to support the McCartney family. These demands are not about concern for justice or hatred of violence, but the latest chapter in a sustained campaign aimed at forcing more concessions from the republicans.

By the late 1980s, after two decades of guerilla war in Northern Ireland, both the British government and the republicans had come to the conclusion that military victory was impossible. Both sides began exploring a compromise solution.

In 1921, when the Northern Irish state was created, it was a key industrial region of the UK. Its shipyards and engineering plants exported their goods across the British Empire.

The Ulster Unionist Party, which ruled the region from 1921 to 1972, was the blood brother of the Conservatives. It had used its links to the royal family, business and the military to ensure that this prosperous region was not incorporated into an independent Irish state.

Today Northern Ireland’s economy has shrunk, while that of the Irish Republic has stormed forward. Northern Ireland is reliant on British state subsidies. The Ulster Unionist Party has splintered and become an embarrassment to the British ruling class.


By the early 1980s Sinn Fein had become a crucial political force, on its way to becoming the second biggest party in the region. Electoral politics was steadily replacing military struggle as the priority for republicans.

The two key republican leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, believed that republicans could build an alliance with the governments of the US and the Irish Republic to put pressure on the British state.

The asset Adams and McGuinness played to win concessions was their ability to deliver an IRA ceasefire. They agreed to drop the armed struggle and accept the legitimacy of both the northern and southern Irish states.

In return they were promised Sinn Fein participation in governing Northern Ireland, cross border institutions which might lay the basis for Irish unity, and a guarantee that the British state would not prevent Irish unity if a majority in both states voted for it.

The IRA’s guns have been silent since 1997. No one believes that the armed struggle will recommence. Peace, if not the political process which followed, is popular in Northern Ireland.

But the British side has not accepted the terms of the initial agreement. Within weeks of the ceasefire it was demanding that the IRA disarm. The British, and the Irish and US governments, were not prepared to accept promises that the IRA’s arsenal would be left to rust.

For the republicans, giving over their weapons was tantamount to a surrender, rather than a compromise settlement. Now, in the wake of the McCartney murder and the £26.5 million Belfast bank raid, there are demands that the IRA should disband.

We have to remind ourselves why the IRA came into existence. The story our rulers would like us to believe is that violence was introduced into Northern Ireland by the “terrorists” of the IRA.

But from the state’s birth the police were armed, reinforced by a Unionist militia and given special security laws. The Catholic population of Northern Ireland was systematically discriminated against and the electoral system was fixed to allow the Unionists permanent control. Northern Ireland was a political slum characterised by repression, sectarianism and, as a consequence, poverty.

In 1969 the IRA did not exist in any meaningful sense. It was effectively reborn that year when peaceful marches for civil rights were batoned off the streets. Police and Unionist mobs laid siege to Catholic areas of Derry and Belfast, burning homes and shooting civilians dead.

Ordinary people began to look to other means to protect their community. When British troops were introduced they interned hundreds of political opponents of the Unionists without trial. British soldiers gunned down 13 civil rights demonstrators in Derry in January 1972. The IRA began a military campaign against what it regarded as an occupation force.

For people in Short Strand, where Robert McCartney lived, the IRA were the people who had defended the area from Unionist paramilitaries.

The policy of successive British governments for much of the 1970s and 1980s was to try and isolate Northern Ireland from the rest of the world and deal with it as a security situation. But a hunger strike by political prisoners destroyed this policy.


A Labour government in the mid-1970s had withdrawn political recognition from republican prisoners and said they should be treated in the same way as criminal prisoners.

When the hunger strike began in 1981 Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher let ten prisoners die before it was called off. The huge groundswell of support the strike touched off in Catholic areas showed that repression was never going to defeat the republicans. Sinn Fein began to contest and win elections.

Sinn Fein is now a real political force in the north and south. The ruling class is not content for it to remain a “semi-constitutional” party linked to the IRA.

One of the key ways a capitalist state operates is that there is one army, one police and one law. The message to Gerry Adams is — if you want office then you need to break with the IRA.

Socialists have all sorts of differences with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. These have increased as Sinn Fein has tried to prove it can participate in “ruling” Northern Ireland, implementing cuts and privatisation.

But we defended the right of people in Belfast and Derry to resist, and we supported the hunger strikers. We will certainly not be signing up to the politicians’ chorus.

That stand is all the more important when the chorus is led by Bush and Blair, the criminals who preside over occupied Iraq.

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