August brings yet another anniversary of the start of the Irish War. Yet this year things are different on both sides of the Irish Sea. Phil Murphy explains why
The Irish War in the New World Order
The IRA has planted bombs in London and around England this year, as the latest stage of its campaign to force Britain out of Ireland. The bombs have killed several people, injured many more and done hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage. Yet nobody in Britain - apart from those immediately affected-- appears at all concerned. The Irish War, or the 'troubles' as it used to be described, no longer seems to trouble anyone too much.
Of course, since the conflict broke out again in the late sixties, Ireland has never been a source of real political debate among British politicians. The major Westminster parties have had nothing of substance to argue about, since they all agree on the need to defend the Union and make war on those who oppose British rule. Today, however, British politicians barely even bother referring to the troubles. The commons chamber is more empty than ever when it comes to the occasional statement on Ireland or relevant legislative change. Ministerial condemnations of the IRA seem to grow more tired and routine every time.
Indifference on Ireland
For its part, the British press used to jump at any opportunity to attack the IRA, portraying republicans as 'a gang of mindless criminals and psychopaths bent on destruction'. Now the papers seem to spend much more time pillorying and demonising the Iraqis, the Libyans or, this year, the Serbs, than they do the Irish.
These days among ordinary British people it's difficult to detect even that occasional questioning of what Britain is up to in Ireland, which persisted for much of the first two decades of the war. It would be too positive even to talk about war weariness in Britain; the attitude is more one of apparent indifference. A bomb or a bomb scare which disrupts the London transport system is treated by commuters as just another inconvenience of everyday life, on a par with countless other rail and tube delays.
The overwhelming climate of opinion here seems to be that the republican struggle is an anachronism, out of date and irrelevant. Even if the IRA blew up the Queen tomorrow, you get the feeling that the questions raised as a result would be more about whether it would bring Charles and Di together than about Britain's continued occupation of Ireland.
After the Cold War
Why has this happened? Why has Ireland all but disappeared as a political issue in Britain?
The key factor appears to be the new pattern of global relations which has developed since the end of the Cold War. These changes in the world have provided a catalyst for changing the terms of Irish politics too. This shift has then rebounded back on to the way Ireland is perceived within Britain. To understand the process better, it is worth looking in turn at the international changes, their impact in Ireland, and the consequences for the role which the Irish War plays in British politics.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet bloc has given the Western powers a new authority in their dealings with the rest of the world. Without the Soviet Union to act as an alternative model and counterweight in the third world, the Western powers have more freedom to pursue their interests. The balance of power between the West and its opponents has shifted decisively in favour of the Great Powers.
Anti-imperialist struggles have either ended or been put on to the defensive. The same pattern can be seen from central America to southern Africa to the Middle East. The West has made use of this new opportunity to adopt a more assertive approach around the world. The Gulf War bore bloody testimony to the new age of Western militarism. Subsequent Western interference everywhere from Cambodia to Yugoslavia has expressed the major powers' new spirit of going on the offensive.
The new era in international politics has also worked to the advantage of the British authorities in Ireland. Most importantly, it has aided Britain's long-term political and military efforts to marginalise the republican movement and weaken its influence.
The IRA's hardcore support in Belfast, Derry and along the Border has so far held up well. Despite some voter slippage, Sinn Fein continues to represent about one third of the nationalist community, judging by this year's general election results in the North. But the demise of most other national liberation struggles around the world can only compound the sense of isolation among Irish republicans, both internationally and locally. It would be unreasonable to expect any new momentum to develop within the republican struggle in today's circumstances.
The authorities have seized upon the new state of affairs to announce 'the end of republicanism', and to set a new agenda in Irish politics, North and South. Many of the changes are the end result of trends which have been apparent for some time. Nevertheless, things are happening today which were inconceivable only a few years ago. They are the result of the changed balance of forces in the Irish War, and the perception that the republican struggle now poses a less forceful challenge to the status quo.
The recent unprecedented talks between Unionist politicians, Dublin ministers and the British government reflect the changes taking place. The Unionists have been forced to take part from a new position of weakness. Their particular brand of sectarian intransigence can no longer so easily be justified as a necessary counter to the threat of Irish republicanism. With the republican struggle contained for the moment, the British authorities can also feel more confident about whipping the Loyalists into line. Sensing their growing irrelevance, the Unionists have responded by making more concessions to keep the talks about Northern Ireland's future going. They know that if the talks fail they face an uncertain future on the sidelines. Hence the volte-face from the Unionist leaders who agreed to sit down with representatives of the Dublin government for the first time since the 1920s.
Just as unprecedented was the tactical voting for a Catholic candidate by Loyalists from the Shankill Road area of Belfast in the April general election. These were the votes which allowed the Social Democratic and Labour Party to take Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams' West Belfast seat. This significant symbolic and propaganda loss to Sinn Fein (which retained its own West Belfast vote of over 16 000), was only possible because of the more relaxed attitude Loyalists have to the challenge from Irish nationalism. The respectable vote for Conservative Party candidates from middle class Unionists in North Down and Strangford provided further electoral evidence of the changed political parameters. Traditional voting patterns no longer seem set in stone.
In Southern Ireland life seems to be changing even faster. Traditional forces like the Catholic church are on the defensive after being shaken by a series of public scandals, most notably the Bishop Casey affair. There is nothing new in the Catholic church being corrupt and hypocritical in its conservative teachings, but now this is no longer a taboo subject of debate in Ireland. The humiliated Catholic hierarchy is today almost silent on the great social issues facing Irish society, such as abortion.
Other taboos are also going. Dublin politicians are openly contemplating ditching Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution, which embody Dublin's formal claim on Northern Ireland. They have also declared their preparedness to abandon the South's formal neutrality from international military alliances.
These changes are in part further consequences of the shift in the balance of power in Ireland and around the world. As Western powers such as Britain have become more confident about throwing their weight around the world, even a puppet of imperialism like the Dublin establishment now feels better able to assert itself against republicanism - especially given Sinn Fein's decidedly marginal political influence in the South today.
The partition of Ireland created the South as an artificial state, economically backward and politically dominated by Britain. As a product of this, the Irish establishment has always been weak, dependent and lacking in political legitimacy. For years the Dublin authorities have sought to stabilise their rule by appealing to the strength of tradition - in particular, the traditions of Catholic morality and anti-British feeling. Since the troubles began in the sixties, Irish governments have often made gestures of defiance towards Whitehall, while cooperating with the British war effort on the ground.
A new Ireland
Today, however, with the weakening of anti-imperialism, Ireland's political leaders are no longer so dependent on appealing to republican traditions and playing up illusory symbols of national independence. They can afford to be much less equivocal about promoting a 'new Ireland' and turning their backs on old shibboleths. The Irish political establishment does still have a serious legitimacy problem; the fact that it has nothing of substance with which to replace the old traditions means it is incapable of enthusing popular support. But whatever its problems today, it no longer feels under pressure to strike old-style poses on the national question. The result is that Irish ministers are officially sitting down with Loyalists for the first time since partition.
So what does all this mean for the British angle? The interaction of the new international balance with the new political agenda in Ireland has made the British authorities more confident in the war. They seem to believe that they can now go beyond achieving 'an acceptable level of violence' in Northern Ireland; that with the right mix of military repression and political measures they can get a decisive result in Ireland and bring the war to an end.
Militarily, the British authorities are upping the pressure on republicans by sending in more troops and giving MI5 authority to operate against the IRA throughout Ireland, Britain and Europe. Politically, they are putting a lot into keeping the everybody-bar-Sinn Fein talks process alive, as a way of complementing the military offensive by further isolating the republicans. The lack of critical comment from Whitehall on the attempts by Catholic and Protestant clergy to mediate with Sinn Fein can also be taken as informal British support for these bids to talk the republicans into making concessions.
After the election, John Major appointed two men with strong military backgrounds, Sir Patrick Mayhew and Michael Mates, as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and security minister respectively. These appointments seem to point to the pursuit of a more openly militaristic line alongside political manoeuvres. The British government is certainly less coy about its prosecution of the war. SAS shoot-to-kill operations are now openly admitted, when a few years ago even the presence of the SAS was covered up. Paratroopers, trained to lack subtlety as killing machines, are deployed in strong nationalist areas like Coalisland where there is bound to be conflict with the community. And when the clashes occur and locals are beaten up and shot with live rounds, the Paras' actions are publicly endorsed by government ministers.
And in Britain?
Just as the Western powers feel no compunction about asserting their interests anywhere else in the world, so the British authorities are aware that they risk no serious domestic or international criticism for what they do in Ireland. Hence the more relaxed attitude towards concealing their dirty war. For example, the June Panorama programme on the Brian Nelson affair, exposing links between the British Army and Loyalist death squads, would have been banned in an earlier phase of the Irish War.
For all these reasons, the struggle in Ireland today occupies a different place in British politics. The British establishment has been successful in containing any immediate threat from the republican struggle to its authority within the United Kingdom. The Irish struggle can still pose a fundamental challenge to the repressive power of the British state. But today, this represents more of a potential than an actual problem for the authorities.
One of the few
However, on a broader canvas the Irish struggle has assumed a new importance. With the new international authority of the Western powers, the Irish War remains one of the few active anti-imperialist struggles in the world. Britain's political masters may be less constrained about unleashing the dogs of war in Northern Ireland, but the people of hardcore republican areas respond by saying that they have gone through too much to pack up now. They continue to resist. While they withstand the mounting pressures, the fight for Irish freedom can provide an international focus for opposing Western interference around the globe.
The Irish War may have slipped down the agenda of British politics. Yet campaigning in support of the struggle for Irish independence remains important for anybody in Britain who wants to make a stand against the New World Order, in which the Western powers order the world to do their bidding at gunpoint.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992