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Socialism or Republicanism?

Tony Dale

ACCORDING TO David Coen ("Why Socialists Don’t Welcome the ’Peace’ Agreement", What Next? No.9), the Sinn Féin leadership have sold out the Republican struggle; "by taking their seats in a partitionist assembly they have effectively abandoned their former anti-imperialist stance"; the Good Friday Agreement was drafted "to isolate and defeat the left minority within the Republican Movement"; any attempt to form a non-sectarian Labour Party is doomed because "whichever version it is, it will be unionist"; and socialists should instead look to winning the anti-Agreement Republicans "towards building the kind of party which is needed".

I think that David’s approach and analysis is riddled with problems, that at various points it has little contact with the real political situation, but more importantly that it ends up abandoning a socialist approach in favour of intransigent Republicanism.

Sinn Féin’s leadership encouraged the IRA to call off its war and negotiated a compromise agreement because the "war" was going nowhere. There was a military stalemate where the IRA could not militarily win the war, while on the other hand the Army and the RUC were unable to militarily defeat the IRA. In this situation it makes perfect sense for the Republican leadership to negotiate a ceasefire.

Any negotiated settlement to end the military impasse would inevitably be a compromise falling short of Sinn Féin’s goal of a united Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement encompasses the terms of a negotiated ceasefire in a war which no one won.

The key to the ceasefire would be the prisoners. The release of the prisoners was crucial in satisfying the Republican rank and file. It was also an important recognition that the prisoners were POWs and therefore an implicit acknowledgement that the IRA’s military campaign was a war and not a law and order problem.

The ceasefire and the Agreement also reflect a political shift inside Republicanism. At the start of the Troubles the IRA’s war was seen as simply an anti-imperialist war against the British occupation, and little consideration was given to the fact that a million Ulster Protestants were opposed to a united Ireland. Militarily this was a mistake, as it became clear through the emergence of militias such as the UDA that the Protestants would fight even if Britain decided to abandon Northern Ireland.

If ignoring the Protestants was a military miscalculation it was also, more importantly, a fundamental political problem. The dynamic of the conflict and people’s perceptions of the IRA’s campaign meant that modern day Republicanism was restricted to the Catholic population. This development in Republicanism should have raised deep concerns for true Republicans who base themselves on the ideals of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, and for socialists whose starting point should be international workers’ unity.

The Provisional IRA was born out of the fight to militarily defend Catholic areas against the real threat of anti-Catholic pogroms. The Provisionals’ campaign continued as essentially a Catholic struggle for a united Ireland. Whatever the intentions of those who joined the IRA, the fact is that the anti-imperialist war became a bloody sectarian conflict.

The decision of the Republicans to halt the war and seek other roads should be welcomed as a political step forward. Ireland will only ever be united if the divisions in the North can be healed. The IRA campaign helped to deepen the divisions between Catholics and Protestants and so socialists and Irish Republicans should welcome the ceasefire.

The ceasefire by itself did not and will not get rid of the divisions in Northern Ireland. In place of the military conflict there needs to be a political dialogue. It will take a long time and a major shift in Northern Irish politics before the divisions will be eroded. Obviously a united Ireland is not on the immediate agenda, so there is a need for Sinn Féin to agree to political arrangements which can create a forum for dialogue and cooperation.

The Good Friday Agreement was the necessary negotiated outcome to the military stalemate. It was therefore no betrayal of Republicanism for Sinn Féin to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement. The small numbers of Republican rejectionists and the tiny support they have mustered illustrates that the Republican movement does not believe the Agreement was a sell-out.

The Omagh tragedy highlights starkly the alternative course available for Republicans if the military campaign is to be continued. Small terrorist groups with little support carrying out reckless operations will inevitably led to tragedies such as Omagh. Hopefully the full horror of Omagh will pull any Republicans back from considering relaunching the war.

In the preceding paragraphs I have addressed the question whether Sinn Féin "have effectively abandoned their former anti-imperialist stance"; however, I am first and foremost a socialist and not a Republican. I would like to see a united Ireland because I believe there will not be a democratic settlement while the border exists. I also don#146;t think it will be possible to have a socialist Ireland without a united Ireland. However more importantly I want to encourage any moves towards non-sectarian working-class unity which can make socialism a possibility. The military conflict exacerbated the divisions in the working class. The ceasefire and the Agreement will hopefully create some space to allow working class political unity to develop.

Already some small steps have been made. In the recent elections for the new Assembly Labour candidates stood in nine constituencies gaining nearly 3,000 votes. This is a small but significant step forward. These candidates were representatives of local people wanting to see the formation of a Labour Party in Northern Ireland. The moves towards the formation of a Labour Party are very much in their early stages and should not be exaggerated, but they are an important political development.

David Coen obviously does not like the idea of encouraging the formation of a non-sectarian Labour Party, but what is his alternative? He identifies "the left minority within the Republican Movement" as the section to whom socialists should orientate with the aim of "building the kind of party which is needed".

Who exactly is this left minority? Is it the IRSP/INLA, Republican Sinn Féin/Continuity IRA or the Real IRA? If not, then who is David referring to?

In Socialist Outlook No.15 David spells out his strategy more clearly: "The most important step which needs to be taken by anti-partitionists is to spell out a political strategy which seeks to unite all those forces who are in favour of Irish independence and against the attempt to remake the Orange State." Socialist Democracy, the small Irish group linked to the Fourth International (USFI), state in the same issue of Outlook: "What is needed is a start to the construction of a new movement based on the demand for an end to British rule and an uncompromising assertion of the right of the Irish people to self-determination."

The problem with David Coen’s and Socialist Democracy’s strategy is that it is proposing a Republican and not a socialist project. Too often socialists have made the mistake of seeing their role as appealing to the more radical and extreme wings of Republicanism through the politics of denouncing the Republican leadership for being too moderate. This method was illustrated clearly by John McAnulty, a leading member of Socialist Democracy, who in an article in Socialist Outlook No.17 condemned Sinn Féin’s "policy of rank opportunism" and criticised the "Sinn Féin leadership’s reformist strategy".

Socialist Democracy might win a few supporters from the fringes of Sinn Féin by being more Republican than the Republicans, but the price to be paid is the abandonment of socialism in favour of "uncompromising" Republicanism.

In contrast to a strategy of promoting uncompromising Republicanism, I think it would be better for socialists to support the peace process and also give encouragement to those who are trying to develop a Labour Party in Northern Ireland.