Northern Ireland: An Exchange

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Justin O'Hagan

AS A SOCIALIST from Northern Ireland I would like to dispute some of the points raised by Bernadette Devlin McAliskey in her excerpted speech “The Irish Struggle Today,” (Against the Current 49, March-April 1994), and in particular her attempt to diminish the Irish Republican Army’s responsibility for its murders, maimings and bombings of the past 25 years.

Devlin McAliskey attempts to provide a “context” in which American people might understand IRA violence. She wishes to take issue with the impression — initiated, she believes, by the British media and exported wholesale onto American television sets — that “violence in the community is created by the IRA.”

She declares that IRA violence of the past two and a half decades has been “restrained” given “the endemic violation of our human rights…and the physical and overt violence of the state toward the nationalist community” among other factors.

Further on she adds that “[T]he IRA would argue its position that it exists as a defense mechanism against the state’s violence, that it exists because of the social and economic discrimination against the nationalist community, that it exists because of the denial of human rights, that it exists because of the denial of national identity and self-determination.”

According to Devlin McAliskey the nationalist community (in particular its most oppressed section) “has democratically chosen Sinn Fein,” which is, she implies, a progressive democratic party, the political expression of “one of the most deeply entrenched, most vibrant resistance movements that you’ll see outside Central America.”

The facts are somewhat different. Far from it being a “restrained,” and “limited,” “defense mechanism,” the Provisional IRA has been responsible for the largest number of deaths by shooting and bombing in Northern Ireland over the past twenty-five years.

Moreover, when Devlin McAliskey implies that Sinn Fein is a mass political party, akin for example to the Sandinistas, she is twisting the reality. Sinn Fein commands the support of around 12% of the Northern Ireland electorate (around 40% of nationalist voters) and between 1-2% of the electorate in the Irish Republic, where it has no representation in the Irish Parliament (the Dail).

In other words, a massive majority of the electorate throughout Ireland does not support Sinn Fein, and voters overwhelmingly support parties — nationalist and unionist — which explicitly oppose IRA violence.

Even in a so-called Sinn Fein stronghold such as West Belfast, seven out of ten electors don’t vote Sinn Fein. The current member of Parliament in the West Belfast constituency is a member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party who with the support of 30% of the electorate defeated Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams in the General Election of April 1991.

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey’s talk of “the denial of human rights” is richly ironic given the IRA’s human rights record. The IRA violates the rights of the Irish people by killing those it regards as “legitimate targets.” The list of “legitimate targets” is extensive, including civilians such as those involved in building work in police stations and gardening jobs in army camps.

To take one example of “restrained” IRA “defense” work, in the early 1990s the IRA developed the “human bomb” technique. This involves strapping a “legitimate target” — whose family has previously been held hostage — into a bomb-laden car and forcing the “target” to drive this car into a British Army security checkpoint.

The IRA then detonates the bomb from a safe distance, causing carnage. I would be genuinely interested to know what Bernadette Devlin McAliskey thinks of this in terms of “the denial of human rights.”

In its role as self-appointed police force in Catholic urban areas, the IRA regularly violates the rights of working people by kneecapping (i.e. shooting in the knees) those whom it deems guilty of “anti-social behavior.” Of course, prior to being shot the condemned do not have the benefit of a defense attorney or jury.

In other cases the IRA policemen are kinder — merely forcing people to leave the country on pain of death.

If the British state — indeed any state — was systematically involved in such activities, the left would be in uproar and rightly so. Are socialists to support terrorism simply because those who carry it out call themselves freedom fighters?

Should socialists oppose the life-and-death decisions made by capitalist elites behind closed doors without a shred of democracy, while supporting similarly anti-democratic life-and-death decisions made by elitist nationalist terror gangs?

Just how far removed the IRA is from the mass of the Irish people can be seen from a recent opinion poll (Sunday Independent, Dublin, 27 February 1994), which indicated that 91% of people throughout Ireland believe that Sinn Fein should permanently denounce violence and join the peace negotiations. Among those identified as Northern Irish Catholics there was 82% support for this view.

Throughout Ireland, 77% of those asked (including 66% of those identified as Northern Irish Catholics) thought that it would be “wrong to impose a united Ireland without the freely given consent of a majority in the province.”

Yet this is precisely what the IRA wants to do. It is clear to me at least that the elitist IRA murder agenda and the progressive agenda are mutually exclusive.

When Bernadette Devlin McAliskey speaks of the horrific murders carried out by the loyalist gangs, of “the endemic violation of…human rights, the endemic structural, social, economic and political discrimination…institutional violence and the physical and overt violence of the state toward the nationalist community,” she is talking about real and pressing problems. The IRA, however, is not the answer to any of them.

Perhaps Against the Current will explore the anti-sectarian socialist alternatives in future issues.

ATC 52, September-October 1994