A senior member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland was shot and seriously injured in Omagh County Tyrone on February 22nd. He was attacked by two gunmen as he was leaving a sports complex where he was training an under-15 football team. He is now in hospital and has been described as suffering “life changing injuries”.
The attack has been met with a wave of revulsion. On Saturday 25th Omagh Trade Union Council called a demonstration in opposition which was attended by up to 1000 people. On the same day the police officer’s football club organised another protest in which over 1000 took part. These demonstrations have been relatively modest in size compared to those in the past when tens of thousands of took to the streets, but there should be no doubt that the slogan of the demonstration- “No Going Back”-gave voice to the sentiment of the vast majority of working class and young people.
Working class people fear a return to the daily shootings and bombings of the past. However, the failure of the “peace process” to deliver for the most deprived working-class communities, or to resolve any of the divisive issues relating to the national question, means that a return to widespread violence is not ruled out at some point in the future.
Paramilitary Groups Remain Armed and Active
Paramilitary groupings remain organised and armed in both Catholic and Protestant areas. The shooting was carried out by the New IRA, one of the “dissident” Republican organisations that have emerged over the last quarter of a century. None of these groups has been able to mount a sustained campaign against the state, but they have persisted and organise sporadic attacks. The New IRA and its predecessor organisations have previously been responsible for the killing of a police officer, two prison officers, and the journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot during rioting in Derry in 2019. In the aftermath of the latter event it was penetrated by M15 (the state security services) and most of its then leadership has been imprisoned.
It has now reorganised and has mounted several attacks in recent months. The New IRA has limited support and knows it. In a 2019 interview, a New IRA leader admitted that they do not believe that they have the means to force a British withdrawal from Ireland. This calls into question why they exist, and why they continue to carry out armed attacks. The reason that they do so is embedded in the traditions of the Republican movement: the idea of taking up arms against the British presence in Ireland is deeply ingrained and will always attract small layers of young Catholics until the day the national question is resolved in Ireland. Striking at the British state is seen as an end and even intermittent attacks remind everyone that armed republican groups haven’t gone away.
There is little possibility of the New IRA gaining significant support in Catholic communities in the short to medium term as most Catholics believe that demographic change will result in the re-unification of Ireland. There is no appetite for a return to the “armed struggle” for a united Ireland when it appears inevitable in any case.
The dissident leaders hope for the day when political developments create the space for growth and relevance-perhaps if the British government refuses to agree a referendum on the border, or if armed Protestant resistance prevents the implementation of a referendum vote in favour of a united Ireland. In the meantime, the dissidents exist in a murky underworld where they sometimes clash and sometimes cooperate with criminal gangs. Over the last several years the New IRA has been responsible for shooting dead several prominent criminals.
Failure of Peace Process
It is now nearly 25 years since the Good Friday/Belfast peace agreement between the main political parties and the British and Irish Governments. Despite this “agreement” there has been no functioning government (or Executive) in Northern Ireland for nearly half of time since 1998. Time after time the governmental structures have collapsed because of sharp disagreements on a range of issues. There has been no Executive in place since February 2022 when the largest Unionist (Protestant-supported) party the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) withdrew in opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol (the post-Brexit arrangements which keep Northern Ireland in the EU Single Market).
In the coming days new proposals designed to solve the problems created by the Protocol will be published by the UK Government and the EU. The DUP will then have a crunch decision to make as to whether to accept this and re-enter government or hold out for further change. Developments over the next days, weeks and months are likely to pose severe challenges for the workers movement. If the proposed settlement does not address Protestant concerns but is imposed nevertheless by the UK government and the EU, there could be a mobilisation onto the streets. And when politics takes to the streets in Northern Ireland violence is seldom far away.
The shooting of the police officer occurred against a background of sharply falling living standards as prices rise and real wages fall. Trade unionists in Northern Ireland have been involved in a wave of strikes over the last months alongside their fellow trade unionists in England, Scotland and Wales. The shooting illustrates how the paramilitary groups attacks raise tension and sharpen division, acting to cut across working class unity.
The organised working class are the only force which can check the paramilitary groups, as it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Then the trade union movement organised a series of strikes and demonstrations which give voice to the yearning for peace of the majority of working-class and young people. Marxists were often to the fore in the actions taken 30 years ago. In the recent period Marxists have initiated or assisted in the organising of demonstrations by the National Union of Journalists after the killing of Lyra McKee in 2019, by the Unite union after attacks on bus workers in 2020, and by the public sector union NIPSA after an attack on Derry courthouse in 2018, as well as the protest in Omagh this week.
“Taking the gun out of Irish politics”
It was often said that the Good Friday Agreement was designed to “take the gun out of Irish politics forever”. It is clear to all that the gun has not gone away. Not only is it employed by the small dissident Republican groups, but the state, and by Loyalist paramilitary groups which in contrast the dissidents have grown significantly in the recent period.
The only force that will take the gun out of Irish politics forever is the organised working-class. The working-class organises through the trade unions which are united bodies, and which have held the line against sectarianism during the years of the Troubles. At present however, the working-class fights, in the words of the great Irish workers leader Jim Larkin, “with one hand tied behind its back”. There is no mass political party which to represent the shared interests of Catholics, Protestants, and others. The building of such mass party is essential if we are to overcome the problems we face. Local council elections will take place in May. There will be a small number of candidates who are favour of the building of a new mass party. We must strive to link these candidates on an agreed platform, and to build the active support of individual trade unionists, trade union branches and trades councils for labour and left candidates. Time is of the essence. If the workers movement is to face the challenges ahead, fighting trade unions with left leaderships, and a growing party of the working-class are essential. Then we will be fighting with both hands.