frontline vol. 2 issue 3.


This year has seen both the emergence of proof of British state collusion with loyalist murders and the agreement of Sinn Féin to cooperate with policing in the North. Colm Breathnach writes from Dublin on the shifting political situation in Ireland.


As the Republic of Ireland faces into a summer election one thing is certain about the result: all three of the centre-left parties contesting the election, Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin have indicated a willingness to enter government with parties of the right. Though this might surprise those impressed by the leftist rhetoric of Sinn Féin publications, the current direction of that party should be familiar territory for students of the history of the western European socialism. The left has always grappled with concepts of power and the state in capitalist societies, usually, unsuccessfully. There seems to be a key point, when first faced with the prospect of major electoral advance or the possibility of entering government, when the lessons of history are forgotten. In the eyes of the star-struck leftists, the nature of the state and its institutions is apparently transformed and socialism is suddenly reduced to a minimal list of 'deliverable reforms'. Of course this is nothing new, it's the dilemma that faced the great socialist movements of the early 20th century and that spawned the classic reformism articulated by Bernstein and others. Bernstein's outstanding opponent, Rosa Luxemburg, dealt succinctly with this pattern when it first manifested itself with the entry of the socialist Millerend into the French government in 1899. Despite the initial enthusiasm of many socialists she starkly and, as time would tell, correctly characterised the contradiction of the situation: one could not be both opposed to capitalism and participate in running the bourgeois state, one could not represent the working class and protect the ruling class1.

Once a radical party joins coalition government it becomes just another social democratic machine and for all the talk of 'delivering for the workers here and now', rarely does such a government 'deliver' anything more than what a standard labour party would implement. Recent history is littered with the corpses or barely surviving remnants of radical parties that started out promising to challenge the consensus but ended up either as mudguards of New Labour type outfits or just merged with the same. The Alliance party in New Zealand (now a shadow of their initial strength) and Democratic Left in Ireland (merged with the Irish Labour Party) are two recent examples of such parties that promised a real breakthrough on the left but ended up being just more of the same old centre-left reformism. The fact is that an organisation can not remain anti-capitalist while administering capitalism, even if it can maintain the rhetoric of anti-capitalism. The journey from radicalism to redundancy, via coalition government, irrelevance or merger with the larger social democratic party, is almost inevitable once the initial direction is taken.

The current experience of the Communist Refoundation Party (Rifondazione) in Italy is instructive. Moving from a principled position, which privileged social activism over parliamentary politics, to entering a hodgepodge centre-left coalition government, it has already compromised its anti-imperialist stance by supporting the continued deployment of Italian troops in Afghanistan and failed to deliver any significant move away from the neo-liberal economic policies advocated by the Prime Minister Romano Prodi. Now there is even talk on the left of the party of the need for a new 'refoundation', and so the pattern of the past continues. It is no accident that many others of Sinn Féin's fellow members of the left-reformist GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament have followed a similar failed and opportunistic direction, leading in the more positive scenarios to a strong challenge from their left (note the rise of the Red/Green Alliance versus the Socialist Peoples Party in Denmark).

While the origins of the Sinn Féin as a revolutionary nationalist organisation is quite different from the usual radical-socialist/communist parties that emerged to the left of social democracy in most western European countries, its current trajectory closely mirrors the pattern referred to above. Not only has Sinn Féin, which since the end of the armed struggle, consistently positioned themselves to the left of the Irish Labour Party, now made it clear that they have no problem in entering government with a right wing party north or south but they have accepted the 'TINA' consensus and despite a raft of radical policies on paper, they have indicated their willingness to abandon the more controversial of these. So on local taxation, corporate tax, etc. they've made it clear that they will drop fundamental policies in exchange for 'power', that is to say a few ministerial bums on seats. Like so many before, they have developed 'reformist amnesia' and forgotten that the state is not neutral, that its purpose is to keep things running smoothly for the elite.

Lest this be taken as a reassertion of the old Leninist model, just because you oppose a failed reformist model does not mean you advocate a failed authoritarian-insurrectionary model. That model of the vanguard party leading the workers into socialist paradise has had its day and proved utterly bankrupt. What certain sections of the revolutionary left have begun to explore are the possibilities of a transformation of society whose engine is the mass of working people taking control of their workplaces and communities, a transformation that would definitely involve democratic organisations of the radical left and though it might also include, in a subordinate role, the election of socialist parliamentarians, would be focussed on 'seizing power' from the bottom up and in all its centres rather than its 'tip of the iceberg' parliamentary form.


This question of the nature of class power and its relationship to the state is also crucial to the current situation in the north of Ireland. The Irish peace process can not be viewed in simple black and white terms because it has been a fundamentally contradictory process. The process ensured the stability craved by British capital by incorporating republicans into the British and Irish states and as an added bonus partly facilitating the remarkable upturn in Irish capitalism known as the Celtic Tiger. Yet, from a socialist perspective it was a welcome development for an entirely different reason: because it ended thirty years of violence, whose primary victims were ordinary working people, Catholic and Protestant. In that context, it can be said that Sinn Féin has now passed all the peace process barriers by ending, more or less, all links extra legal activity and by effectively disbanding the IRA. While this does not absolve them of responsibility for the many crimes committed by the IRA against working people, it does require acceptance of the fact that they have made a real break with that past. Sinn Féin is no longer the organisation it was a decade ago. Today it is effectively what the Scottish National Party was a decade ago: a left of centre nationalist party, with an added element of being based entirely on one community in the North.

So if accepting the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a legitimate police force was difficult for the Republican Movement in terms of the symbolism involved it was entirely consistent with their gradual adoption of what Adams dubbed the 'Totally Unarmed Strategy' but also with their acceptance of not only the legitimacy of the northern state their own desire to enter into and accept all state institutions north and south. What they have now done is dismantled the last barrier to participation in government with what is probably the most right-wing parliamentary party in all of these islands, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. It is possible that Paisley will take that bait but the danger of another Paisley rising to his right may stay the old bigot's hand. Sinn Féin may not be too bothered about this because they correctly calculate that the British and Irish governments will then gradually introduce what will be, in all but name, joint direct-rule. No more troubles, the 'United Kingdom' secured, a virtual united Ireland, and not a threat to the pursuit of profit anywhere on the horizon.

It is clear then that above all else British and Irish ruling classes require stability in the North. Destabilisation is what they most fear, destabilisation that could draw the Irish state into military conflict, undermine the capitalist boom in the South and kick back into the rest of the British state, possibly leading to the break up of that state. These factors go a long way towards explaining the seeming anomaly of the British state continuing to maintain its hold on the North despite the fact that it is a drain on public finances, has no economic benefit, and now that the Irish state is a fully integrated node in the world imperialist network (Shannon Airport being a virtual US base), no strategic benefit either. Only the prospect of an 'Ulster Bosnia' keeps them hanging on, not out of concern for the possible victims of sectarian warfare, but out of fear that such a collapse would precipitate a far more threatening collapse nearer the centre of power.


Right now the leadership of Sinn Féin is internally unassailable. Adams and McGuiness have always shown great skill in bringing the along the rank and file. They do this partly by simply giving activists time to get used to what were heretical ideas in the past but also by bringing to bear a great deal of pressure on potential dissidents. So the almost total support for the endorsement of the PSNI at the recent special party conference came as little surprise to knowledgeable observers. Yes, there was some muted disquiet in the ranks, but trust in leadership has once again carried the members along. Yet there have been some more serious signs of low-level dissent, mostly arising from worry about a drift to the right. Some Sinn Féin activists have argued strongly against entering coalition governments with parties of the right in the south and recently a significant number of mainly Dublin-based activists have resigned from the party to form a left-republican organisation called ƒir’g’. The party's youth section, Ogra Sinn Féin, officially opposed the change in policy on policing, though this was very much as a loyal opposition and many would see the youth sections primary role as absorbing youthful radicalism while the party shifts to the right. It is too early to perceive any major shift to the left at the grassroots of the party but given these developments it is possible that an incremental drift outwards and to the left may occur at that level. That would be a very welcome development and the emergence of a serious left-republican element outside of Sinn Féin could, along with existing far-left organisations, left-leaning community and campaigning groups and radical trade unionists play a major part in the development of a broad socialist and anti-imperialist movement in Ireland.

Another key tactic of Sinn Féin's has been the adept use of its revolutionary history, and symbols associated with that history, to create the impression of ultra-radicalism while travelling in the opposite direction. The model for this tactic is the African National Congress, whose neo-liberalism has always been carried off by reference to a revolutionary past (and supposed future) combined with a good dose of populism. It was no accident that Ronnie Kasrils, Minister for Intelligence in the South African Government, who recently visited Belfast as a guest of Sinn Féin to talk about policing and other matters was given a fawning reception. Undoubtedly, he plied them with many a story about his genuinely heroic days in the resistance against apartheid but one wonders whether he mentioned the role his government's police have played in the new South Africa against poor tenants campaigning for their rights and urban communities resisting privatisation of services. Then again, as a member of the South African Communist Party he could have given good advice regarding a so-called left party participating in a government that is firmly committed to capitalism in its modern neo-liberal form.

For the moment, however, most republican opposition is located outside of Sinn Féin. In the traditionalist camp are two smaller groups: the ultra-traditionalist Republican Sinn Féin and its armed wing the Continuity IRA and the more recent dissidents of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement and the 'Real IRA', who combined a grossly unrealistic commitment to a largely defunct armed struggle and a very old fashioned type of nationalism. Some of the traditionalists are quite right-wing though few to the extent of the former Sinn Féin leadership figure Gerry McGeough, whose ultra-Catholic, homophobic, anti-immigrant ideology is unlikely to garner much support even amongst the most old-fashioned republicans. At the other end of the 'dissident republican' spectrum, the Irish Republican Socialist Party and its military wing the Irish National Liberation Army, has still not overcome its legacy of feuding and a widespread reputation in working class communities of involvement in criminality and thuggery. It has failed to attract almost any dissidents from Sinn Féin largely because it is correctly perceived as being a militarist outfit and because of the outdated quasi-Maoist ideology it espouses. In ideological terms the strongest left-republican critique from outside Sinn Féin has been articulated by former republican prisoners such as Tommy McKearney and Anthony MacIntyre, both of whom are involved in the production of critical republican publications, Fourthwrite and The Blanket respectively2.


The recent Police Ombudsman's report on collusion in the Raymond McCord case, revealed the terrible truth for all except those in deep denial: that the British state through the Royal Ulster Constabulary, British Army and MI5/MI6 effectively controlled the loyalist paramilitaries of the UVF/UDA and their various offshoots. The report was a limited investigation into RUC Special Branch collusion in the murder of McCord by the UVF. He was a low-level UVF member who was killed in a dispute over small-scale drug dealing but a key figure in the case was a senior UVF member and police informer Mark Haddock. This was not a case of rogue detectives taking the law in their own hands by allowing their loyalist informers to maim and murder so as to protect their identities and allow them to pass information on paramilitary activity back to the police. This was an essential part of the politico-security strategy of the British state in the North.

Though their growth and social base may have arisen out of particular cultural, historic and economic conditions of the Protestant working class, the loyalist paramilitaries were, in effect, pseudo-gangs or death squads operating as part of a broad state 'counter-insurgency' strategy. Given the fact that most of their victims were either members of their 'own community', randomly chosen Catholic victims of sectarian attack or members other loyalist paramilitary opponents killed in feuds over territory and drug dealing, this policy might seem at first glance to be illogical from a British State point of view but there was an awful method to their apparent madness.

The basic idea behind it was motivated by the same logic behind their deep penetration of Sinn Féin and the IRA. The objective, in theory, was to push the IRA towards a ceasefire by encouraging pressure from a Catholic grassroots reeling from sectarian attack and demanding an end to the war. We should keep in mind that the British ruling class has always been divided over how to secure Ireland for imperialism, and that there were deep divisions with various individuals and security agencies working at cross purposes, some imagining a defeat of the IRA by any means necessary, while others saw its taming and absorption into the system as a better bet. For both tendencies in the British establishment the brutal activities of the loyalist gunmen played a part in their objectives by pushing the IRA towards ceasefire or defeat. Whatever the logic behind it, the state was a major sponsor of terror, including, again via infiltrated loyalists, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings of 1974 which led to substantial loss of life in the south.

In the context of the recent debates in Republican ranks on policing and government, what all this indicates is that it is pure folly to accept the state in a capitalist society and its institutions of security and control, as some sort of neutral arbiter. In times of stability its institutions may well conform to 'bourgeois legality' and indeed some individuals within these institutions, such as the current Police 'Ombudsman' Nuala O' Loan may really believe in ideals such as the rule of law but in practice the state as the guarantor of capitalist rule will deal 'by whatever means necessary' with any threats, perceived or otherwise, if the need arises. Surely the so-called war on terror, with all the breaches of civil liberties involved, teaches us that the commitment of capitalist states to democratic rights is paper thin, and can be abandoned with alacrity if it suits.


At the same time as Adams was steering the republican movement towards the safe waters of bourgeois democracy, a figure who had hoped to do the same for loyalism passed away. According to the fairy tale version, David Ervine, was going to be the Gerry Adams of the Protestant working class. For the establishment, he would progressively bring an end to paramilitary and criminal activity on the part of the UVF, and link that section of the community into state structures via grants, community bodies etc., as well as modifying the culture of bigotry in Protestant communities thereby ensuring that much sought after stability. To some on the left, he would emphasise the class element of Protestant working class identity and encourage the growth of progressive, if not exactly revolutionary, politics. Yet, whatever his own personal journey, he failed to live up to these expectations.

The real measure of his Progressive Unionist Party's lack of success was its failure to make any major electoral breakthrough, with Ervine (now replaced by new party leader Dawn Purvis) being their sole representative in the Northern Assembly. The simple fact is that the vast majority of working class Protestants now vote for Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party and have never voted in numbers for any party directly (as opposed to covertly, like the DUP) linked with loyalist paramilitaries. Ervine and the PUP were a mass of contradictions: a man of peace leading a party linked to an paramilitary gang involved in violent criminal activity including organised racist attacks and drug dealing, a self-professed socialist who was leader of a monarchist party, a party and leader based in the working class lionised by the elite, both north and south. This is not to question the genuine desire of Ervine and some others in the PUP to move their community out from under the shadow of reaction or the enormous difficulty such a project faced. They should also be given credit for reining in the UVF and preventing a return to large scale sectarian attacks. Yet they remained no more than a brake on the excesses of their paramilitary wing and it was impossible for them to come to terms with the contradictory position of the working class communities they were based in without breaking completely with the reactionary ideology of loyalism.

It follows that the situation of the Protestant working class requires detailed attention from socialists who wish to advance serious proposals for building working class unity. While it is true that the political culture of that section of the class is almost completely dominated by right wing loyalist ideology and fundamentalist Christianity, it is incorrect to classify them as letter-day 'colons' whose inevitable fate is to be 'sent back' to Scotland. Contrary to the claims of unionist politicians, there has not been a reversal of position between the Catholic and Protestant working class and Catholics workers still suffer greater disadvantage but the situation of Protestant workers has changed substantially in recent years. With the disappearance of the old industries in Belfast and elsewhere, the days of the Protestant aristocracy of labour are long gone. This goes part of the way to explaining the attraction of sectarian/racist drug-dealing loyalist gangs to alienated working class Protestant youth, in a manner reminiscent of the growth of the neo-fascist British National Party amongst the deskilled working class of the former industrial towns and cities of England. Immigration to Scotland is also a factor in the problems facing that section of the class, draining away those who might otherwise form some focus for progressive politics in that community.

It would take more than a brief article on the current situation in the north of Ireland to outline a socialist strategy to win over the Protestant (or indeed Catholic) working class. The strategy of attempting to unite workers around economic issues and hoping to build a united, non-sectarian left on that foundation, should not be abandoned because, even if, due to objective circumstances and the nature of the groups who have advocated this strategy, it has largely failed so far. Socialists must face the facts: they have made little or no progress, despite the relatively improved conditions for agitational activity, in advancing any serious project for building a radical anti-imperialist left based in both sections of the working class. The challenge now facing Irish socialists is to take on this daunting task and through a process of activity and discussion, rather than denunciation and dogma, develop both a theory and practice that advances the democratic and revolutionary transformation of society throughout the island of Ireland. P

Colm Breathnach is a member of the Irish Socialist Network, a participatory socialist and Marxist organisation active in Dublin and Belfast. See:


1 Frolich, P., Rosa Luxemburg (Paris, 1939) 78-83.
2 See: and