There have been two very important recent events in northern Ireland. One was the report of the Police Ombudsman published on 22 January, and the other the special Ard Fheis (party conference) of Sinn Fein on the matter of policing, held on 28 January. These two events show that Sinn Fein has achieved considerable successes and by bold strategic decisions continues to be in the driving seat of developments.
Police Ombudsman’s report
The findings of the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, come after a three-year inquiry, which concentrated on a relatively small area of Belfast during the period 1991 to 2003.
Ms O’Loan found that Special Branch officers protected loyalist paramilitary informants and failed to stop them committing up to 15 murders. There were cover-ups, destruction of evidence, falsification of notes and the blocking of searches for loyalist paramilitary arms dumps (compare this with the hounding the IRA is subject to on the basis of no evidence whatsoever!)
One of the central police informants in the investigation, Mark Haddock, is currently serving 10 years for assault on a nightclub doorman. He has also survived six bullets shot into him by his erstwhile loyalist accomplices. He is basically a criminal, a gangster. The report found that, during the period it investigated, he was paid £80,000 by his police handlers.
The report also found reliable intelligence linking him and other Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) informants to 10 murders, a bomb attack against a Sinn Fein office in Monaghan, drug dealing, 10 punishment shootings, and 10 attempted murders, as well as to cases of extortion and intimidation. There was, the report stated, “less reliable evidence” connecting them to a further five murders. (See ‘15 murders linked to police collusion with loyalists‘, The Guardian, 23 January 2007)
This investigation by the Ombudsman would never even have been conducted had it not been for the successes of the armed struggle waged by the IRA. Without that, the whole matter would have been swept under the carpet, perhaps to be uncovered decades later with the release of official documents. It is against this background that the dedicated campaign of the families of the murdered people, notably Raymond McCord senior, and the political clout of Sinn Fein even brought the matter before the Ombudsman. Indeed, without the political pressure and tenacity of Sinn Fein there would not be an Ombudsman!
Ms O’Loan reports that 40 serving and former officers declined to co-operate with her inquiry, including two retired assistant chief constables, seven detective chief superintendents and two detective superintendents. She stated that, of those who did respond, some did help, but “others, including serving officers, gave evasive, contradictory, and on occasion farcical answers to questions”. She also said that “it would be easy to blame junior officers’ conduct in dealing with various informants, and indeed they are not blameless. However, they could not have operated … without the knowledge and support at the highest levels of the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland].” (‘Junior officers “supported at highest levels of RUC and PSNI”’, www.guardian.co.uk, 23 January 2007)
British imperialism’s dirty tricks
An understanding of the nature of British imperialism and its occupation of northern Ireland means that the substance of the Ombudsman’s findings is no surprise at all. What the Ombudsman is saying now has for a long time been said by us and others.
Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein has pointed out that what the report has uncovered is merely the tip of an iceberg of collusion and cooperation between the British military, northern Irish police and loyalist paramilitary forces, going back over many years.
Collusion has not been the only crime of the British state forces in Ireland: there have been shoot to kill policies dictated by the British government and carried out directly by the police and army. It was all part of the war of national oppression against the people of Ireland perpetrated by an occupying power, employing direct military aggression, dirty tricks and surrogate death squads.
Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator, said: “The RUC, Special Branch, British intelligence and their agents were doing exactly what they were paid to do. It was a political policy decided in Downing Street. The political figures involved, including British prime ministers, must now also be held to account.”
Sir Ronnie Flanagan, former chief constable of the RUC and now chief inspector of constabulary, who had been notably unhelpful to the Ombudsman, of course denies all this and has responded to demands for his resignation by saying: “At no time did I have any knowledge …” etc! (‘Ex-RUC chief defies critics over killings‘, www.guardian.co.uk, 24 January 2007)
The Ombudsman’s report has caused much wriggling and wringing of hands on the part of British bourgeois politicians. On the day that it was published, the northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, said it “shone a light into what was a very dark corner of behaviour by a limited number of officers in the 1990s”. He said that what he called “serious failings” within parts of the RUC Special Branch could not be justified and no-one should attempt to justify them. He went on to say that these failings, “serious as they were, lie in the past and should not cloud our view of policing today”.
The official spokesman for the Prime Minister made similar comments: “This is a deeply disturbing report about events which were totally wrong and which should never have happened … But it is also a report about the past, and what is important now is that … these events could not happen now.” (‘Reaction to the RUC report’, www.guardian.co.uk, 22 January 2007)
This is the old illusionist’s trick – distract attention while the real business goes on elsewhere. The crocodile tears of Peter Hain are intended to conceal the dirty tricks that are going on now. Having signed up to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the British government is dragging its feet in implementation the terms of that agreement. It is the real saboteur of progress, in spite of its realisation that some progress has to be made.
Unionism and occupation outdated
The IRA, in its war for national liberation, fought the British army and other security forces to a standstill. In the context of that military stalemate, Sinn Fein made the decision to concentrate on the political struggle, and was able to drag the British government along, however hard that task.
Meanwhile, there is no longer any way forward for unionism. The economic reasons for British occupation of the north and for the unionist ascendancy no longer exist. At one time, heavy industry such as shipbuilding and heavy engineering gave the northern Irish bourgeoisie the need for direct access to the British market. At the same time, British imperialism saw this enclave in the north as a foothold in Ireland, and indeed a stranglehold over the south as well, and a grip on the politics and economy of the whole of Ireland.
Now all that has changed. Heavy industry is run down. The Republic of Ireland is in the European Community, its economy is doing exceptionally well and it is getting subsidies that are the envy of those in the north. The Irish government has just announced a multimillion pound programme of investment in northern Ireland’s outdated infrastructure as a part of a six-year economic plan. (‘Ireland pledges to pour millions into reviving north’, www.guardian.co.uk, 24 January 2007)
Similarly, the arguments about ‘papacy’ with which the unionists were regaled are losing their power as laws in the south on such things as abortion and contraception are becoming increasingly liberal.
British imperialism remains aware of the dangers to it of a united Ireland, however. With the issue of the border finally settled, there will certainly be a sharpening of the antagonisms between the Irish working class and the Irish bourgeoisie rather than divisions on confessional lines.
But Britain has other, more pressing and immediate, problems to worry about. It has been made war weary by the successes of the IRA campaign and its forces are stretched to breaking point consequent upon British imperialism’s predatory wars against the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan. Britain has been dragging its feet with regard to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement because British imperialism cannot bear the thought of being seen to be leaving northern Ireland as a defeated force. But in the light of its other pressing needs, as well as the changed circumstances in Ireland itself, it has no option but to make an exit.
Progress to resumption of northern Ireland Assembly
It is in this context that we come to the second important development. That is, progress towards a resumption of the northern Ireland Assembly. This is a very important issue, and it is significant that Sinn Fein, the party in the leadership of the nationalist struggle, has all along been calling the shots and pushing things forward, dealing in the process with both the covert dirty tricks of British politicians and the open obstructionism of the unionists, currently headed by Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Both during and following the meeting in St Andrews in Scotland last autumn, Sinn Fein pushed for movement towards the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Everyone else has accused Sinn Fein of not complying with its timetable, while in reality it has been everyone else that has been failing to carry out their obligations.
It has remained clear that Ian Paisley does not want to be in an assembly that also contains representatives of Sinn Fein. He has been demanding that Sinn Fein declare its support for the PSNI, knowing that Sinn Fein is pressing for promised changes in the policing of northern Ireland and has been against supporting a police service run by Britain.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, has been demanding that Britain put into effect the changes that are set out in the GFA, and, while getting the British government to honour its undertakings has been a hard task, there have been considerable successes.
For example, Sinn Fein opposed an appendix that appeared after St Andrews in which the British government sought to embed MI5 in policing structures in the north. Then, on 10 January 2007, Mr Blair announced that MI5 will have no role in the policing structures in northern Ireland.
An Phoblacht – Sinn Fein Weekly proclaimed this as a major victory. It said: “In a statement to the British House of Commons, Blair said that the PSNI would be completely separated from the undercover intelligence agency and that no PSNI officers would be seconded to or under the control of MI5.”
An Phoblacht went on to say that this was “the result of intense negotiations over the Christmas period between the British Government and Sinn Fein” . Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein spokesperson on policing and justice, said “Our position is that there is nowhere that MI5 or any other British security service should be in Ireland. They simply should go and we will continue to the point of getting them out of Ireland. What this is, is a substantial move forward in removing them entirely from civic policing which we have negotiated over long and hard to try and get a new beginning to policing in the North and through that and through the interdependent institutions an all-Ireland approach to all of this.” (‘Sinn Fein secures major victory on issue of MI5’, An Phoblacht, 11 January 2007)
In response to Ian Paisley’s refusal to move forward without Sinn Fein declaring support for the PSNI, the leadership of Sinn Fein has acted boldly and decisively. Despite the fact that it could justifiably demand that others implement their commitments to devolve policing powers first, it decided to propose support for the PSNI in the context of soon-to-be-devolved powers, cross-border structures and resumption of the northern Ireland Assembly.
This proposal to Sinn Fein members went via the Ard Chomairle (Executive). The DUP agreed that, if such a motion were accepted by the Ard Chomhairle, the DUP would reciprocate in Ian Paisley’s New Year statement as follows: “The DUP has always maintained that it will support devolution of policing and justice if there is sufficient confidence across the community. The words needed are those contained in the Ard Chomhairle motion. Provided Sinn Fein translates into action the commitments contained in that motion, the DUP will accept devolution of policing and justice in the timeframe set out in the St Andrews Agreement or even before that date.”
In the event this statement was never issued by Ian Paisley. He is still wriggling.
Ard Fheis motion carried overwhelmingly
However, Sinn Fein has made it abundantly clear that it is not going to allow progress to be sabotaged by the DUP. The Ard Chomhairle went ahead and called a special Ard Fheis for 28 January, which carried the motion put to it by an overwhelming majority.
This motion has taken a course of declaring support for the PSNI and the criminal justice system, and goes further by authorising representatives to join the Policing Board and District Policing Partnership Boards and Sinn Fein Ministers to take the ministerial pledge of office. This decision shows the confidence of Sinn Fein that it can carry progress forward in the assembly, and, with a short timeframe for devolution of the management of the police to the northern Ireland boards, and with the new cross-border structures up and running, it will be able to achieve the progress that it seeks. It promises to be a truly strategic move.
The membership of Sinn Fein has shown a robustness and active involvement in its approach to the Ard Fheis, all sides of the debate declaring that whatever the outcome there would be unity.
In his speech to the Ard Fheis, Gerry Adams said: “Whatever decision we reach, we will leave here united as unrepentant republicans who can achieve our objectives.” He went on to say that “there are now more people supporting Sinn Fein than at any time since the 1920s. Our party is organised throughout this island. But we have a lot more to do to build our capacity and political strength.
“We who live in the north never had proper policing. The old RUC and all of its associated militia served the union, upheld the orange state and repressed everyone else.” He referred to the findings of the Ombudsman, and how “over the last two decades Sinn Fein had provided the Irish government with detailed evidence about British state terrorism and the involvement of its agencies, including the police, in atrocities against the people of this island.
“They failed to hold the PSNI to account. So, my friends we cannot leave policing to the unionist parties or the SDLP or the Irish government. We certainly cannot leave it to the British government. We cannot leave it to the securocrats.”
Time will show how important this decision has been. There will be criticism of Sinn Fein. No doubt some will complain that, under capitalism, the police are part of the bourgeois state apparatus and control of that is an illusion.
It is, however, up to the people of Ireland to decide their own affairs. Sinn Fein is showing leadership in the struggle to achieve a situation where they can do just that, but that will only be realised when Ireland is free from British occupation and the island reunited.
Yes, the current demands are bourgeois-democratic nationalist demands, and that is right and proper because they are the detail of the general demand for national self-determination.
In this context, they can be seen as thoroughgoing anti-imperialist demands against British occupation and, as such, they deserve our support.