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Bomb warnings

The recent spate of IRA bombs in London raises serious questions about the broader direction of the Irish republican movement today, argues Mick Kennedy

In the month of October some 15 explosions in London were attributed to the Irish Republican Army. Only one - the bomb at the Sussex bar in Covent Garden, which led to one fatality and several serious injuries - caused major casualties. The rest were mostly small bombs left on streets, railway lines, in rubbish bins or outside buildings. They caused relatively small-scale local damage and some traffic disruption.

'The cost of Britain's occupation of Ireland has once again been carried to the doorstep of the aggressor', claimed the republican movement's newspaper An Phoblacht/Republican News (AP/RN) in its front-page celebration of the IRA's London bombing campaign on 15 October. Yet, by comparison with past IRA campaigns in Britain, the current campaign has a number of distinctive characteristics.

First, most of the targets seem to lack any clear focus. In previous campaigns, IRA units have usually attacked military or political targets - particularly barracks, regiments or individuals linked to the British occupation of Northern Ireland. Though there have been occasional disasters leading to civilian deaths, in general IRA actions have been clearly directed against the British establishment and its representatives. Operations such as the bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference in 1984 had a dramatic impact in bringing the Irish War home to British people.

Many of the targets of the recent bombs have no military significance and no discernible relationship with Ireland. Some - a Territorial Army barracks or a British Legion club - have only a remote connection. Disruptions to rail, tube and road traffic scarcely stand out from the familiar day-to-day chaos that now characterises the capital's transport systems.


When AP/RN observes that the Sussex bar is next door to Stringfellows nightclub and 50 yards from the Garrick club, this seems only to underline the rather trivial nature of the target. In the past when a bomb went off, people in Britain knew it was the IRA straight away because of the target selected. Nobody except Irish republicans blew up British Army barracks. Now, by contrast, Londoners puzzle over whether the latest dustbin explosion was the work of the IRA, the animal liberation front or some terrorist or criminal group. Blowing up a minicab outside the Downing Street security barriers is the closest the October campaign came to a traditional IRA attack on a symbol of the British state.

The second distinctive feature of the current bombing campaign is the lack of any significant chauvinist response in British society. In the seventies and eighties, IRA attacks in Britain generally provoked a ferocious reaction, carefully promoted by establishment politicians and the media. Bombings causing civilian casualties resulted in a particularly intense outpouring of anti-Irish hysteria, which had a widespread popular resonance. The introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) after the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 provided a permanent framework for mobilising anti-Irish prejudice in response to every upsurge in IRA military activity in Britain.

The recent bombing campaign produces routine, almost token denunciation from politicians, cursory newspaper and television reports and virtually no popular interest. Most Londoners have come to regard IRA bombs as a nuisance on a par with leaves on the line or suicides on the tube. Irish people still experience prejudice, and the PTA is still used to intimidate potential sympathisers with the liberation struggle, but anti-Irish responses are now much more subdued compared to the hysteria of the past.

The third distinctive feature of the current campaign is the way in which it appears to diverge from the course being taken by the struggle in Ireland itself. In the past there was generally a close link between bombing campaigns in Britain and developments in the war in Northern Ireland.

For example, the first bomb attack in Britain - carried out by the old Official IRA at the barracks of the parachute regiment at Aldershot - followed shortly after the massacre of 14 civilians by the paras in Derry on Bloody Sunday in January 1972. Again the Brighton bombing took place after a summer of open conflict between republican crowds and British forces on the streets of Northern Ireland; the IRA declared that the Tory conference bomb was a response to the deaths of 10 men on hunger-strike three years earlier.

The current campaign appears to have no direct relation to events in the North. There the military struggle has reached something of a low ebb in the past couple of years. Much of the IRA's activity seems to have been restricted to defensive actions, punctuated by occasional gestures of defiance like a spectacular bomb in Belfast or an audacious sniper attack in South Armagh.

Peace talks

For its part, the leadership of the republican movement in Sinn Fein now constantly emphasises its commitment to a negotiated settlement. Its current strategy is codified in the document Towards a Lasting Peace, which appeals to the British government to recognise Sinn Fein as a legitimate participant in talks. Towards this end, republican leaders have engaged in a series of discussions with the leaders of the moderate Catholic SDLP as well as with prominent church figures.

The chimerical character of the republican movement is illustrated in the 15 October issue of AP/RN that celebrates the bombing campaign on page one. This front page also advertises a three-page interview with Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. Throughout that interview Adams never mentions the bombing campaign, but emphasises once again his commitment to a negotiated solution to the Irish conflict.

Adams appears to believe that there is a fresh opening through which Sinn Fein could gain access to peace talks, since he judges that the British government is now under renewed pressure to resolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. This, however, is surely a serious misreading of the new international situation opened up by the end of the Cold War.

In fact, now that separatist conflicts are breaking out all over Europe, and the USA is preoccupied with its own decline, Britain is under less international pressure over the war in the North of Ireland than at any time in the past 20 years. Indeed the British authorities have used the eruption of national and ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe, and the widespread calls for Western intervention, to bolster their own spurious claim to be playing a 'civilising' role among the 'warring tribes' of Northern Ireland.

Adams also justifies his enthusiasm for negotiations with the argument that 'from South Africa to Palestine we are witnessing the beginnings of what could become processes for democratic resolution of these conflicts'. On the contrary, in these two cases, and elsewhere in the third world, we are witnessing the defeat of popular liberation movements through the device of government-backed 'peace processes'. The longstanding leaders of those movements, such as Nelson Mandela and Yassir Arafat, now risk being integrated into thoroughly undemocratic resolutions of these conflicts, often imposed by Western powers from without.

The talks which the British government has initiated with all of the Northern Ireland parties except Sinn Fein have similar motives to the bogus 'peace process' being pursued in South Africa or Palestine. The aim is help the authorities defeat the Irish republican movement, not to reach an accommodation with it.

As Adams asks that Sinn Fein be granted a place at the British government's negotiating table, and plays up the prospect for real peace talks, the warning signs should be flashing. The danger is that, despite the extraordinary and heroic resilience which the Irish republican movement has displayed against the might of the British state for more than 20 years, it now risks being dragged into some form of British-imposed solution.

So where does the current London bombing campaign fit into the strategy of Towards a Lasting Peace and talks with Presbyterian ministers?

The front-page celebration of the bombing campaign indicates that such military activities strike a popular chord in places where AP/RN is sold - in the pubs and clubs of Catholic West Belfast, Derry and the Border areas where the experience of the British occupation is immediate and intense. Meanwhile, the republican leadership is looking for a solution to the conflict, not through mobilising those who support the struggle, but through seeking intermediaries to the British government, whether in the form of clergymen, diplomats or politicians. There is clearly a conflict here, which is reflected in the rather defensive tone of the Adams interview in relation to Sinn Fein's diplomatic policy.

Some have suggested that the tension between the IRA bombing campaign and Sinn Fein's diplomatic initiatives could explain why many of the London bombs have hit targets that are low profile, to say the least. One seasoned observer of Irish affairs thinks that the republican leadership is doing a difficult balancing act.

'It looks as if they want a British bombing campaign that does enough to keep the folks back home happy and keep Ireland in the newspapers', he suggested to Living Marxism, 'but that at the same time doesn't do anything too drastic which would scupper what they see as their chances of talks.' Whether or not that is an accurate assessment, there are clearly new problems for those who oppose British rule in Ireland to consider today.

The right to fight

What can we say about a bombing campaign which seems to choose most of its targets at random, and proceeds in isolation from, if not in contradiction with, trends in Ireland? In the past, it has never been appropriate for supporters of the cause of Irish freedom in Britain to criticise IRA bombings. This stance had nothing to do with the virtues or otherwise of the particular tactics employed. The point has been that, in the prevailing climate of intense anti-Irish chauvinism, any criticism from the left could only reinforce such prejudice. In these circumstances, nothing could have been gained by supporters of Irish freedom appearing to echo the popular anti-IRA rantings of British politicians and the media.

British socialists who have joined in the chorus of condemnation of particular IRA tactics over the past 20 years have effectively denied the Irish liberation movement the right to fight for freedom as it sees fit. Incapable of challenging British chauvinism on this issue, many on the left have proved unable to render their professed solidarity with the Irish cause anything more than a sentimental gesture. Those of us in Britain who have consistently refused to criticise the IRA have experienced intense hostility, not least from the rest of the British left.

Today, some important principles remain unchanged. It is still the case that all of the deaths and destruction connected with the Irish War are the ultimate responsibility of the British authorities. Their occupation of a part of Ireland started the conflict and sustains it still. At its simplest, if there were no British guns in Belfast, there would be no Irish bombs in London. And it is still the case that the people fighting for liberation must decide upon what methods they use to achieve it. Those who live under military occupation cannot be denied the right to use force in their efforts at resistance.

A change of climate

However, some equally important considerations have changed, both in Britain and in Ireland, and supporters of Irish freedom should point a few things out.

Within Britain, anti-Irish chauvinism is now at a relatively low ebb, reflecting the fact that the current Irish struggle does not pose the same threat to the establishment as it has in the past. British people are not more sympathetic to the Irish liberation struggle; they are just less bothered about it. This change of climate makes it possible to conduct a more critical, public discussion of developments in the republican struggle, without the same fear of fanning the flames of anti-Irish chauvinism.

This change of climate coincides with the dangerous developments outlined above in the republican movement's political thinking and tactics. The leadership of the republican movement is now seeking negotiations with the British government, on terms which could only be to the disadvantage of the nationalist people of Northern Ireland. In this context, it must be said that a bombing campaign largely directed against trivial targets in Britain is unhelpful to the cause of freedom, and a distraction from the real issues at stake.

When so much confusion abounds about the true nature of the New World Order, it is important to draw these criticisms to the attention of anti-imperialists in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere. In today's peculiar conditions, the cause of winning support in Britain for self-determination in Ireland is best served by making such points candidly.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 50, December 1992

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