What can we learn from Northern Ireland?

During my week in Belfast I’ve learned quite a bit about the history of “the troubles”, including how many splits, internal contradictions, different actors, and different ideologies played a part – it is certainly anything but a simple struggle of “Catholics” against “Protestants”. I won’t bore you will a historical analysis of the events I’ve become familiar with because my research is obviously very cursory. However, I think even that even after only a week I can make a few points about the historical struggle here which can help our grasp on other situations of conflict.

1. The ’98 “Belfast” agreement was, in essence, a repetition of the ‘73 Sunningdale agreement.

Crucially, they both proposed a power-sharing agreement whereby both Catholic and Protestant politiciens would have some power in the Northern Ireland government. This was essential because without it one community always held total power over the other – and thanks to Gerrymandering the Catholic majority consistently elected a minority of representatives for the entirety of the Troubles. The Sunningdale agreement was blocked by a Protestant “General strike”, although going by this wikipedia description it was more of a paramilitary blockade than a workers action.

What is important here, I think, is it dispels the idea that “no solution was possible” at an earlier time – a standard defeatist claim often made about the Israel/Palestine conflict – where in actuality an agreement has been available since the early 70s (the 67′ borders with “minor and mutual modifications”). It also dispels the idea that the conflict is the fault of the IRA – in actuality the continuation of the conflict post ’74 is very clearly due to rejectionism by the UDA and UVF.

2. The ’69 split in the IRA was between Marxist and Romantic Nationalists

While links to socialism had been a part of the republican movement since the 20s and 30s, differences came to a head in the late 60s leading to a split between Marxist and Romantic Nationalist factions in the IRA, and subsequently in Sinn Fein.

The key issue here was traditionalists dissatisfaction with the IRA moving away from violent tactics and absentionism in the late 60s. The Marxist analysis developed by then leader of the IRA Cathal Goulding was that violent actions were counter productive because it delayed the development of class-consciousness and recognition of common interests between Protestant and Catholic workers. After the split, where the majority of the IRA left Goulding’s leadership and reformed under the banner “provisional IRA”, the Official IRA continued to reduce its use of violence, whereas the provisional IRA continued to escalate violent right into the 90s. The issue is actually more complex – there is another split in the Official IRA which formed the INLA in 1974, again, due to dissatisfaction with the move away from violent tactics.

What we can learn from these splits – which in each case see a group rebelling against the pacifist direction of a leader? I think what we learn is the importance of the blow-back effect of violence on the ability of groups with real grievances to act rationally on their grievances. The riots of ’69, and specifically the Battle of the Bogside did not receive the armed support from the IRA which many Catholics desired – and this lack of a strong military response from the IRA leadership was a major reason for a shift in support away from the “Official” IRA leadership to an IRA leadership more willing to engage in armed violence with unionist paramilitaries. Even with this dissatisfaction, Provisional IRA support remained relatively weak until Bloody Sunday, when 27 civil rights protestors in Derry were shot and 14 killed by the British Army. Bloody Sunday strongly differentiates the Marxist (“Official”) from Provisional IRA’s – whereas the violence of Bloody Sunday in ’72 radically increased support for provisional IRA violence, in the same year the Official IRA declared a ceasefire (although the official IRA continued retaliatory violence into ’73).

From ’72 onward we can see two general directions in the republican movement – one wing (which includes the Provisional IRA and the INLA) practicing la politique des pires – escalating violence in order to motivate harsher state clampdowns which in turn increase support for the “liberation” movement. And on the other hand, a wing which concentrates on the real grievances of workers, dialectical debate and interchange between sectarian groups, class consciousness, and participation in whatever political structures exist. This second wing includes the Official IRA – but it also begins to include Provisional Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA after the Hunger Strikes of 1981 – which is perhaps the moment when the mainstream Republican movement became aware of the power of the existing political system.

3. The ’81 Hunger strikes and the election of Bobby Sands re-legitimated Politics as a way forward for Republicanism

Between 1971 and 76 IRA prisoners were held in prisons similar to prisoner of war camps, but in ’76 as part of the “criminalization” of the conflict, republican prisoners were deprived of their special status. To protest this de-legitimization of the IRA as a legitimate military force, IRA and INLA prisoners refused to wear prison uniforms, and subsequently refused to use toilet facilities.  The hunger strikes were the escalation of these protests. Ten prisoners died in the protest – most famously Bobby Sands, who was actually elected to the House of Commons three weeks prior to his death.

The election of Bobby Sands is important because it forced the Absentionist republicans to recognize the possibility of translating real popular support for violence into real voting support for political change. While I can’t find anything on whether this strengthened the Official IRA, it does seem to have increased strength within the Provisional IRA for what the Official IRA stood for – a move away from Abstentionism, and increased emphasis on political activity and desire to participate in government.

What we can learn from the Hunger Strikes is in a sense the obverse of the failure of Sunningdale and the IRA split – just as political failures and repressive violence strengthen absentionism and the emphasis on violence, political success and the legitimization of a movement in state structures can breed hope and desire for political collaboration, and eventual integration into the legitimate state structure.

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2 thoughts on “What can we learn from Northern Ireland?

  1. Chomsky on Northern Ireland:

    “There’s a lesson there – as long as the British responded to IRA terror by just more violence, it was stimulating the cycle of violence. As soon as they began, with useful US intervention, to pay attention to the legitimate grievances that was behind the violence, then it became possible to deal with, there were some moves made to do those, the violence subsided and declined, not to nothing, but certainly nothing like before. That’s true generally – where there is terrorist violence it comes from something. Quite often it has roots in legitimate grievances which should be attended to, quite apart from the violence.”

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