The St. Patrick’s Day Coup

Gerry Adams used to represent high hopes for the people of Northern Ireland. In the 80s, he was the most outspoken and charismatic leader calling for a free and unified Ireland, a constant thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher and other defenders of the British Empire. In the 90s, his willingness to back the peace process made him a mainstream hero as well.

Now, seven years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Adams is being treated like he ordered a black and tan in a Belfast pub. The Sinn Fein president is coming under increasing pressure to separate from the Irish Republican Army after the killing of Robert McCartney, a Catholic father of two from Derry, which involved senior members of the IRA. Sinn Fein has long been considered the political wing of the IRA, with both organizations working together in order to free the North from British rule and join the rest of Ireland in a unified republic. The slaying of McCartney, along with the robbery of the Northern Bank in December attributed to the IRA, has meant that both branches are coming under huge public scrutiny among Irish citizens; North and South, Catholic and Protestant.

And it doesn’t stop at Ireland’s green shores either. In Adams’ yearly St. Patrick’s Day visit, George W. Bush has refused to meet with him, as have all politicians and public figures. Republican Senator George Mitchell, a main player in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, has also had harsh words for Adams and Sinn Fein. Even Ted Kennedy, a long-time figurehead for the Irish American community, jumped ship on Adams, citing “the IRA’s ongoing criminal activity and contempt for the rule of law,” as reasons.

For sure, the IRA’s actions are inexcusable. But as for “the rule of law,” one might want to look closely at what this new “law,” has really meant for the people of Northern Ireland, in particular its long oppressed Catholic minority.

A Loaded Deck

Catholic and Protestant both celebrated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. When then-President Bill Clinton visited to oversee negotiations and the subsequent signing of it, he was greeted with a large parade. With over thirty years of brutal violence during “the Troubles” behind them, Catholic and Protestant both were eager to grasp any sign of peace. The Agreement, along with its accompanying ceasefire between pro-British (Loyalist or Unionist) and Republican forces, was to formally end sectarian violence, and provide a way to relax Britain’s rule with a Northern Ireland Assembly. It was also supposed to end the racist laws used by the British government to persecute Catholics and deny them political and civil rights, supposedly on behalf of the Protestant majority.

It proved to be an empty promise. Tony Blair caved almost any time there was unionist opposition, such as from David Trimble’s racist Ulster Unionist Party. For example, when unionists argued that Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam was too “pro-Catholic,” Blair quickly sidelined her then removed her from that position in 2000. Any time there was opposition from the republican side, they were ignored. The loyalists were allowed time and again to derail the peace process, and the British government dragged its feet implementing many of the civil rights laws. Though the language seemed truly progressive on paper, the Blair government failed to translate any of it into practical measures to protect the rights of Catholics. Moreover, according to a Human Rights Watch report:

“[R]ights groups criticized the [British] government for failing to bring the UK into compliance with existing international obligations in areas not directly addressed in the agreement. The continuation of draconian emergency laws intimidation of defense lawyers; allegations of security force collusion in loyalist paramilitary murders; routine police abuse; and the indiscriminate use of plastic bullets remained serious human rights concerns.”

The report goes on to describe how less than six months after the signing of the Agreement, parliament passed a law which lessened the amount of evidence needed to convict someone for membership in an illegal organization. The new law now stated that as long as a senior police officer was able to name someone as a member of said organization, it was enough to put them away.

Sectarianism was not only not put down by the Agreement, one might say it was almost encouraged. The agreement allowed for the continuation of Catholic or Protestant only institutions such as schools. This, in essence, is like saying Jim Crow laws don’t exist anymore but the “white only” signs can stay up. Meanwhile, Blair’s spinelessness toward the unionists meant that he was unable to present the Agreement as a viable alternative to unionism and loyalism, and he failed to win significant sections of Protestants away from sectarian violence.

Catholics have suffered the brunt of a vast majority of attacks since the beginning of the ceasefire. Though there has been sporadic internal fights between separate republican groups, the IRA has for the most part obeyed the conditions of the ceasefire. But loyalist groups such as the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) or Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), despite their official recognition of the ceasefire, have carried out several attacks with the intention of provoking republicans back into violence since the beginning of the Agreement. A brief list includes the following:

July 4th, 2001- Cieran Cummings, a 19 year old Catholic man, is shot and killed on his way to work in County Antrim

July 29th, 2001- An unnamed 18 year old male gunned down in front of a Catholic soccer club in north Belfast.

July 29th, 2001- Gavin Brett, an 18 year old Protestant, is mistaken for a Catholic and shot dead

September 28th, 2001- Martin O’Hagan, a journalist investigating possible links between loyalist groups and British security forces, is shot and killed outside his home in Lurgan, County Armagh

January 3rd, 2002- William Moore Campbell, a 19 year old Protestant man, is blown up while constructing a pipe bomb in County Derry. According to the town’s mayor, John Dallat, “the UDA has never been on ceasefire in this area. There have been well over 100 attacks in this area over the past two and a half years.” That same night a bomb was thrown through a Catholic woman’s window, sparking fear of a new wave of violence.

January 12th, 2002- Daniel McColgan, a twenty year old Catholic postal worker is shot while on his route in north Belfast.

July 22nd, 2002- Gerard Lawlor, a 19 year old Catholic man is shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. UDA leaders claim responsibility and call the death “regrettable” but refuse to apologize for or condemn it.

November 2nd, 2002- Harry McCartan, a 23 year old Catholic man, is found nailed to a fence by his hands, “crucifixion style” in a field near the Protestant neighborhood of Seymour Hill in Belfast. He barely survives.

And this is only a sampling of the worst. There were plenty of other non-lethal attacks during this period. During the three month period from May to July 2002, for example, 363 non-lethal attacks were carried out by loyalist forces against Catholics, including 144 bombings, 25 shootings, and 43 personal assaults.

It is worth pointing out that there was violence coming from republican groups during this period. But mostly from dissident, non-IRA splinter groups, not the Provisional IRA, and not from groups that were observing the ceasefire. The UDA and UFF were, at least officially, observing the ceasefire. It is also worth pointing out that while Gerry Adams now faces public pressure to formally break with the IRA in light of the McCartney murder, this kind of pressure was never hiked up on the likes of Trimble, who throughout all this simply screamed that the IRA wasn’t decommissioning its arms quickly enough, or demanded that Sinn Fein be kept out of the executive of the Assembly.

Little changed in the way that police, army or security forces conducted themselves in relation to these. Loyalist forces have been allowed to operate relatively unimpeded, if not directly aided by the authorities. A July 2002 British television documentary revealed that the British Army’s Force Research Unit and the Special Branch of Northern Ireland’s police force (then the Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC) supplied lists of names to Loyalist paramilitary groups, allowing the groups to carry out a slew of murders starting in 1989. One FRU officer, Ned Greer, was even allowed to be a member of the UDA and ascend the organization’s ranks, even while his cell was orchestrating the deaths of at least six Catholics. To assume that the British government itself would simply about-face and remedy this kind of lop-sided corruption would be naïve.

Even when there was violence on the side of the republicans, it was manipulated in a cynical attempt to re-instigate violence between the two sides. On August 15th 1998 an IRA splinter group known as “the Real IRA” set off a bomb in Omagh, County Tyrone in symbolic protest of the Good Friday Agreement, killing 29 people. In December 2001 it was found that the RUC had received warnings of the bombing up to 11 days beforehand. These warnings went so far as to give the exact date and location of the bombing, yet the RUC did not release any details to the public, or anything to ensure the safety of the people of Omagh.

Catholics who were at risk of sectarian violence received little more than lip service. When a homemade bomb went off near a Catholic children’s school in September 2001, most likely carried out by a loyalist group, many British politicians criticized Catholic parents for refusing to bring their children to school through the back door!

In short, Britain invited Catholics to the table to play cards, handed them a loaded deck, and then scolded them for not winning.

Living standards in Northern Ireland are relatively low for both sides. While there is a strong tradition of “Protestant privilege” that runs through Northern Irish society, the budget cuts and privatizations that were carried out directly following the Agreement have affected all workers, Catholic and Protestant. The discrimination against Catholics can only be seen as a divide and rule strategy, and republicanism, because it seeks to improve Catholics second-class status, presents a threat to that order.


The Bankrupt Opposition

Though how much of a threat is up for debate. Those same budget cuts weren’t fought at all by Sinn Fein. This goes directly against what the party’s supposed platform, seems to understand the connection between national liberation and economic justice for all workers in Northern Ireland. Their website still extols the need for “a 32 county workers republic.” Indeed, their rhetoric has been quite radical over the years. But their role as “the political wing” of the struggle for a unified Ireland has meant they have been forced to make concessions time and again so as to not risk their chances of getting into and retaining office. Over the past several years, while participating in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, they have retreated on a woman’s right to choose, and lead the way for privatizing hospitals and schools. In the South, the party has been in negotiations with current Prime Minister Bertie Ahern’s center-right Fianna Fail party about a possible coalition in the future. And when the possibility of water charges arose earlier this year, spokesperson for Sinn Fein Francie Malloy claimed that “they would have to be introduced.”

Predictably, this has led to the party trying to distance itself from the IRA and armed struggle in general. Gerry Adams has been increasingly critical of militant action over the past decade, and most governments and mainstream media have heaped praise on him for this. But the time has never quite been right for Adams to completely break with the IRA. McCartney’s murder has provided that golden opportunity. This is hardly Adams’ effort to turn to a more effective strategy, such as mobilizing the Irish workers around key demands, but another concession in order to further legitimize Sinn Fein as a business-friendly party.

In other words, Sinn Fein has backed themselves into a corner by trying to play both sides. They have two choices; either abandon the IRA and continue swinging to the right, or defiantly scrap any hopes of entering into the government in favor of resuming guerrilla warfare (which would be an unpopular and laughable move seeing as how they have spent the past seven years praising the benefits of the Agreement).

This represents a fundamental contradiction in the philosophy of Irish Republicanism. Its inherent elitism leaves it unable to organize the majority of people around its demands. According to Irish writer and activist Kieran Allen:

“They [republicans] share a fervent belief that the mass of people are fundamentally passive and that it requires a committed minority to achieve gains. This heroic myth of 1916 is drummed into every republican. The mass of Dublin workers were ‘corrupted’ by empire and only ‘woken up’ by the brave action of the martyrs.”

Ever since before the Easter Uprising of 1916 (referred to above), republicans have rejected the idea of mass struggle. This is the backbone of Sinn Fein’s electoral strategy and the IRA’s militarism. After all, if they are two sides of the same coin, it makes sense that their tactics reflect each other.

The IRA, from its inception, has sought to foment struggle through conspiratorial means. Individual assassinations and car bombings (intended to carry the struggle forward) require intense secrecy. For that reason, they have never been accountable to the Catholic communities they are fighting on behalf of. In the 1970s, this meant that they were made out to be “protectors” of these communities. Says Eamonn McCann, an Irish socialist and founder of the 1960s civil rights movement:

“The IRA may on occasion have given the community physical protection but it was never answerable or accountable to the community. It has sometimes styled itself as the ‘people’s army.’ But it organizes and operates out of sight of the people It’s members are oath-bound to give total allegiance to paramilitary chiefs who, far from finding validation in endorsement by the people, must keep their very identities hidden from the people.”

This protector role, because of it’s lack of accountability, has easily degenerated in times of low struggle into simply policing over the Catholic communities in order to enforce an authority over them. Youth are expected by IRA members to “show respect” and avoid “anti-social behavior” (a term being used by Blair right now to scapegoat teenagers of color in London).

“When there is no real struggle, paramilitary organizations become self serving,” says Allen. “The have huge organizational resources- but little to fight for beyond periodic elections.” This can result in tactics as varied as having interests in small capitalism such as taxi businesses or pubs, having ties to the FARC in Colombia, to engaging in bank robberies in Belfast. For these reasons, the IRA finds its support waning to its lowest level in 35 years.

Whither Northern Ireland?

Robert McCartney’s sister put her finger on the problem when she contrasted the “Old IRA” with the “New IRA,” but she doesn’t see the connection between the elitism of both. What she does, however, speak to, is the need for a real solution in Northern Ireland.

Like an onion, this whole fiasco contains several layers.

On the first we have the opportunism of Bush and George Mitchell. Bush has invited the McCartney family to the White House in lieu of Adams, where, as Harry Browne points out, he will “try to convince them of the benefits of secret tribunals and capital punishment.” This can’t be seen as anything more than imperialist meddling on the part of Bush, Mitchell, Kennedy or anyone else. The administration that now occupies Iraq in the same manner that Britain occupies Northern Ireland cannot be taken seriously.

On the second layer we have Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein’s sure shift to the right. Whether Sinn Fein will take this opportunity to legitimize itself and integrate into the world of capitalist rule. Adams should be defended against the kind of hand-forcing he is now experiencing from Bush and company, but Sinn Fein’s neo-liberal agenda eliminates it as any kind of viable alternative for the people of Ireland.

The third and final layer presents us with the crux of the matter. What happens on the streets of Northern Ireland is the real question here. The IRA’s guerrilla-turned-vigilante police squad tactics provide no way forward either.

The present crisis in Irish Republicanism presents questions for all people who seek liberation for Northern Ireland. That liberation will come not from elitism, be that the elitism of electoral opportunists or heavy-handed guerrilla tactics. Rather, it lies in defining the struggle along class lines, not religious ones. The Protestants may constitute a majority, but that majority is slim. The 2001 census found that 46% of Northern Irish are Catholic, and suggested that they may soon be the majority. The solution lies in the contradictions of an increasingly globalized society, where the bottom line is the only line that matters. Capitalism doesn’t care whether a worker is Catholic or Protestant, it only cares about squeezing both to get the most out of them.

Right now that squeeze has taken its toll on both sides. Since the beginning of the Agreement, living standards and wages have fallen for both Catholic and Protestant, and this makes the potential for workers to see each other as allies even greater. The liberation of Northern Ireland is in the streets, but until those streets see every worker, both Catholic and Protestant, marching arm-in-arm for self-determination and against British control, both will remain in chains.

ALEXANDER BILLET is an actor, writer, and socialist living in Syracuse, NY. He is currently working on a production of Brian Friel’s Freedom of the City, a play based on the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, 1972.

He can be reached at