Workers Hammer No. 200
Operation Banner: 38 years of British Army terror in Northern Ireland
The myth of British imperialism as a force for peace
All British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland now!
On 1 August the British Army officially ended “Operation Banner”, the codename given to its military operation in Northern Ireland that began in 1969. The formal ending of the army’s role — which has been greatly reduced on the streets since the IRA ceasefire — is partly a recognition that the British military is overstretched in the imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevertheless an internal report prepared by the army itself entitled “Operation Banner — An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland” brags that the army’s campaign in Northern Ireland, was “one of the very few ever brought to a successful conclusion by the armed forces of a developed nation against an irregular force” and is being used as a model for other countries, saying: “Operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq have already demonstrated both the particular techniques and the levels of expertise learnt through hard experience, both on the streets and in the fields of Northern Ireland.”
The foreword is written by none other than General Sir Michael Jackson, retired former head of the British Army during the Iraq invasion and former Chief of the General Staff. Jackson is an authentic spokesman for the top echelons of the British state’s armed forces. He earned his stripes in Derry on Bloody Sunday in January 1972 as adjutant to the Parachute Regiment, the regiment that was centrally involved in the cold-blooded killing of 13 Catholic civilians (another man shot by the army died later). The army’s report predictably glosses over the brutality of these imperialist butchers. Dealing with Bloody Sunday, its only criticism of the army is that one commander used vehicles, rather than foot soldiers, in the “arrest operation”, which is described as “heavy handed”. It chillingly states: “Almost immediately shots were fired and within minutes 12 civilians were dead”. To date, despite a public inquiry, the army has not even admitted that its soldiers carried out this killing.
British “democracy” was never much in evidence in Ireland and this report by the military’s top brass confirms that the brutality carried out under Operation Banner is not only regarded as legitimate, but will become the blueprint for the future. This applies not only to imperialist machinations abroad, but equally to the “war on terror” in Britain. The British imperialists pride themselves on their mastery of “counterinsurgency”, based on the experience of subjugation in their former colonies. This point is not lost on the US imperialists: General David Petraeus, who currently commands US imperialism’s troop “surge” in Iraq, recently published a “counterinsurgency” manual drawing on the example of Malaysia in the 1950s, where the British military crushed an anti-colonial revolt with unspeakable brutality. About half a million mainly ethnic Chinese, the base of the Communist-led insurgency, were forcibly concentrated in “new villages” — concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire and observation posts. Atrocities by the British imperialist butchers included wanton massacres of villagers as well as beheadings, as the gruesome photograph of a British officer displaying the severed heads of two of their victims (page 4) shows. The British Army chiefs transferred the “lessons” of Malaysia to Northern Ireland.
The British capitalist rulers are particularly well-versed in the use of local militias to do their dirty work while denying responsibility for it, as they used the Loyalist death squads in Northern Ireland against Catholics. They have long used Northern Ireland as the testing ground for domestic repression in Britain, as is evident in the “war on terror”. The treatment routinely dished out to Irish Catholics, who were once indiscriminately targeted as “terrorist suspects”, is now being applied to Britain’s Muslims and indeed to any perceived opponent of British imperialism. Internment without trial and the shoot-to-kill policy, practised for years on the streets of Northern Ireland, has been brought to the streets of London as seen in the brutal execution of Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes who was labelled a “terrorism suspect” in July 2005.
The much-trumpeted end of Operation Banner in no way means the end of British troops in Northern Ireland. In fact the army is keeping in place a garrison of some 5000 troops, stationed at three bases, who can be called upon instantly to provide “assistance” to the 9000-strong heavily armed Police Service of Northern Ireland/Royal Ulster Constabulary (PSNI/RUC) police force. We demand: All British troops and bases out now!
We have consistently fought for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British troops as an essential starting point for any just solution. We pointed out that the 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” was premised on the presence of the British Army whose purpose was the maintenance of the Orange statelet. As Marxists we seek to bring a proletarian internationalist perspective to struggles in Northern Ireland. Regardless of the presence of Sinn Fein today in the Stormont Executive, Northern Ireland is a sectarian statelet based on the subjugation of the oppressed Catholic minority and divide and rule of the working class. The backbone of the state is the PSNI/RUC and, for the last 38 years, the blood-soaked British Army.
The imperialist “peace” deal and Blair’s bloody legacy
For decades the British imperialist rulers have made no secret of the fact that they want rid of the cost and burden of their massive operation in Northern Ireland. But as we have always warned, this in no way implies that the British ruling class —which has perpetrated 800 years of subjugation of Ireland — has suddenly become neutral, as reformists, liberals and Sinn Fein nationalists would have us believe. Such illusions in the “democratic” credentials of British imperialism are at the root of their support for the imperialist “peace process”. As revolutionary opponents of British imperialism we Marxists have opposed the imperialist “peace” deal from the beginning. In 1993, we stated: “Any imperialist ‘deal’ will be bloody and brutal and will necessarily be at the expense of the oppressed Catholic minority. And it would not do any good for working-class Protestants either.” We placed the imperialist “peace” proposals for Northern Ireland in the context of the British rulers’ bloody machinations, including when they were forced to pull out of their former colonies in the period following World War II. Our article stated:
“The essential assumption, explicit or implicit, in all the ‘peace’ proposals being touted about is that the British Army, with its shoot-to-kill policy, will remain to police capitalist order, backed up by the bloodthirsty Loyalist thugs. The British imperialists played divide and rule in colonies like India and Palestine, and then on their way out sought to wreck these places by whipping up communalism. Today they adopt a racist and arrogant pretence that they are just trying to stop the tit for tat barbarities of the ‘uncivilised Irish’ of all hues. All of [then-leader of the Catholic SDLP] John Hume’s initiatives, including the talks and proposals with Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, are based on the premise that British imperialism is somehow ‘neutral’. All history and the graves of many Irish Catholics say otherwise.”
— Workers Hammer no 138, November/December 1993
The “peace process” with which Blair is credited finally saw the Northern Ireland Assembly reopened on 8 May this year, led by the unlikely combination of the anti-Catholic bigot Reverend Ian Paisley as first minister and Martin McGuinness of the petty-bourgeois nationalist Sinn Fein as his deputy. Paisley’s Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein have become the two largest parties in Northern Ireland. The Assembly can be shut down on a whim by Westminster, as happened in 2002 on the pretext of bogus allegations that an IRA “spy ring” was operating in Stormont. The recent partnership between Paisley and McGuinness is hardly a match made in heaven: in the early 1990s when it became known that John Major’s government was in talks with Sinn Fein, Paisley fulminated that the then-prime minister had “sold Ulster to buy off the fiendish Republican scum”. As late as July 2005 Paisley famously demanded the IRA must not only disarm itself but don “sackcloth and ashes”. Since then Sinn Fein and the IRA have met all of Paisley’s stringent preconditions for being allowed to hold ministerial office in Stormont Castle, the historic seat of Orange rule.
The IRA agreed to abandon the armed struggle and to provide proof that it had given up its weapons. In so doing, the IRA conceded something that the British Army proved unable to do in 38 years of repression. Disarmament of the IRA, which has been the real purpose of the imperialist “peace” charade, paves the way for further subjugation of the oppressed Catholics. Paisley further insisted that Sinn Fein accept the legitimacy of the PSNI which is simply the sectarian, anti-Catholic RUC with a makeover. In mid-May, Sinn Fein duly agreed that its representatives would sit on the new Policing Board, absurdly claiming that they would “hold the PSNI to account” (An Phoblacht, 24 May).
By the time of Tony Blair’s exit from Downing Street in June, he was widely hated among the population in Britain and beyond because of the occupation of Iraq. But there was almost universal praise for his role in Northern Ireland, which according to the spin from Downing Street and Dublin is now being “normalised”. The fallacy that the Northern Ireland “peace process” is a major success rests entirely on the illusion that (despite the hideous mess it created in Iraq) British imperialism is a benevolent force that generally acts in the interests of peace. Martin McGuinness gave voice to this stating “Tony Blair and Iraq is almost like a total contradiction of Tony Blair and Ireland” (Guardian, 11 May).
Bourgeois liberal opinion in Britain shares this benign view of the capitalist rulers’ role in Northern Ireland. This was succinctly expressed in the London Independent (31 July) which summed up the army’s 38 bloody years in a headline: “Imperfect, but indispensable”. This article invoked the classic view of the British imperialists undertaking a civilising mission to quell the native mobs, saying: “When the troops arrived, law and order was on the point of breaking down in parts of Belfast and Londonderry, with local police exhausted and mobs on the rampage.” It admits that, at certain points, “military actions brought about an escalation of the conflict, most notably the 1972 Bloody Sunday incident”. Yet notwithstanding this “incident”, the situation deteriorated to one where “republicans, loyalist extremists and the Army became locked in a violent three-way conflict”.
The prevalent myth of a “three-way conflict” is a whitewash that denies the army had a side: as guarantor of the repressive forces of the Orange state, particularly the RUC, while fomenting anti-Catholic terror through the Loyalist death squads and other undercover forces. As Sinn Fein Assembly member Jennifer McCann pointed out at a recent 2000-strong Belfast “March for Truth” against collusion: “The British state and loyalist forces were responsible for 1,414 deaths in this country”, while the “British government armed loyalist death squad[s] and British intelligence directed and assisted them” (Irish News, 14 August). Nonetheless, Sinn Fein itself bears much responsibility for building deadly illusions in the imperialists as brokers of the “peace” deal. This stems from the bankruptcy of their nationalist politics which — whether pursued through the “armalite” or the ballot box — have always aimed at pressuring British imperialism to negotiate a deal. This aim has now been fulfilled.
As for the reformist left, in a recent article Chris Bambery of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) points out that “British troops were not sent into Northern Ireland in August 1969 to keep the peace”, adding that the “Labour government had to act to prop up a Unionist government which ran Northern Ireland as a sectarian, one party state” (Socialist Worker, 11 August). Well, for Bambery and his party, talk is very cheap, especially 38 years later. In 1969, these die-hard Labourites supported the decision by the Labour government to send in the troops. In a classic example of capitulating to their “own” bourgeoisie and shamelessly peddling illusions in British imperialism as a force for “peace”, they declared: “The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists” (Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969). The Socialist Party also stands squarely on the side of British imperialism, refusing to call for British troops out, supporting the imperialist “peace process” and refusing to acknowledge the oppression of the Catholic minority.
We stand for the defence of the oppressed Catholic minority. At the same time, we oppose Sinn Fein’s nationalism, including its programme of a capitalist united Ireland. This perspective was reiterated by Martin McGuinness taking his pledge of office on 8 May when he declared, “I am proud to stand here today as an Irish republican who believes absolutely in a united Ireland” (BBC News online, 8 May). Sinn Fein’s vision of a united Ireland dominated by Catholic clerical nationalism only serves to reinforce Protestant support for reactionary Loyalist demagogues such as Paisley and lays the basis for further communalist violence and segregation. It is antithetical to our perspective of polarising society along class lines, across the communal divide. We seek a solution through a proletarian revolutionary perspective for the British Isles: for the revolutionary overthrow of British imperialism, of the Catholic clericalist state in the south — which is hideously oppressive of workers, women and Travellers — and of the Orange statelet.
“Normalisation” of the sectarian Orange state
Sinn Fein’s pledge to make the PSNI “accountable” and even to ensure that “political policing, collusion and ‘the force within a force’ is a thing of the past” (An Phoblacht, 17 May) is a whitewash of the true nature of the Orange statelet, of which the police are an integral part. In Northern Ireland as elsewhere, the capitalist state is an executive arm of the ruling class and cannot be made accountable to the working class and oppressed. It must be shattered in the course of workers revolution, led by a revolutionary workers party, and replaced with a new state power of the working class. Although it has been given a “democratic” face-lift and (for now) permits Sinn Fein to hold ministerial portfolios, the fundamental nature of the Orange state as it was created by the British at the time of partition, remains unchanged.
To underline this point, in June Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service provocatively announced that not one police officer or soldier will face prosecution for the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane who was gunned down in his home in 1989 by Loyalists acting in collaboration with state forces. This announcement is a kick in the teeth to the Catholic population of Northern Ireland and to the Finucane family who have persistently campaigned for a public inquiry into his murder, which they believe was ordered at the highest level of the British establishment and is being hushed up. The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 brought no “peace” to those who try to expose to the outside world the British state’s murderous role. Rosemary Nelson, a prominent Catholic lawyer who reported to the UN that she received death threats from the RUC, was murdered by a Loyalist bomb in 1999; Martin O’Hagan, a journalist with the Dublin-based Sunday World, who researched the collusion between the state forces and the Loyalist death squads, was brutally killed by Loyalists in 2001.
This collusion between the state and the Loyalist death squads is not an aberration, but par for the course for “democratic” British imperialism. A mountain of evidence has come to light over the years, much of it uncovered by a two-decade long official enquiry by Lord Stevens who publicly stated that he had evidence of security force collusion in multiple murders, including that of Pat Finucane. The Stevens enquiry primarily centred on the murderous career of British undercover agent Brian Nelson and was always aimed at presenting collusion as a case of a few “bad apples”. Even so, this enquiry went too far for Tony Blair, who introduced a new public inquiries bill to curtail what can be made public in any “public” inquiry.
As Michael Finucane said in a statement: “The decision by the director of public prosecutions not to prosecute any army or Royal Ulster Constabulary officers over the role in the murder of my dad, Pat Finucane, is disappointing but not surprising.” He added, “why prosecute people for doing the job you asked them to do in the first place?”, noting that “the word ‘collusion’ has become the adjective of choice for what was, in reality, British government policy in Northern Ireland since the 1970s” (Guardian Unlimited, 28 June). The Miami Showband massacre in 1975 is just one example of the depths of collusion between the British Army and Loyalist death squads. On their way home to Dublin, a bus carrying the five well-known musicians was stopped at an Ulster Defence Regiment ( a local regiment of the British Army) checkpoint. After two soldiers, who were also members of the Loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) terror group, killed themselves trying to plant a bomb on the bus, the band members were lined up and shot. Two of the five survived and later identified the “crisp English accent” of the officer in charge of the massacre as that of Robert Nairac, a captain in the SAS.
Nairac was implicated in many sectarian murders and was identified as the “liaison officer” for various state forces involved in the Dublin and Monaghan city centre bombings in 1974. Nairac was caught while undercover in Armagh in 1977 by the IRA who put an end to his career as an assassin once and for all. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1979 by the British state, while being eulogised almost as a folk hero. At the time we wrote: “What the people of South Armagh really thought of this paid assassin was conveyed by a slogan on the walls of the Creggan River bridge just outside Crossmaglen: ‘CAPTAIN NAIRAC’S SOUL ROTS IN HELL’ — a sentiment with which we heartily concur, whatever disagreements we may have with its theological underpinnings” (Spartacist Britain no 8, February 1979).
Needless to say the current “normalisation” process in Northern Ireland leaves untouched the Loyalist UVF and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) who have not only held on to their weapons but are now being subsidised. The minutes of one Department of Education meeting record the need to: “Maintain/establish good working relationships with voluntary organisations (Barnardo’s, NSPCC, UDA, UVF)”. In fact the murderous UDA receives an annual official stipend of £500,000 from the British state. Last March the Northern Ireland Office pledged £1.2 million to the Conflict Transformation Initiative (CTI), a slush fund for the ever-active Loyalist terrorists. Meanwhile, violent attacks on Catholics have by no means ceased. On 29 June, Niall Ferrin, a 15-year-old Catholic boy was savagely attacked by a Loyalist gang who cracked his skull open with a golf club before tying a wire noose around his neck and dragging him along the street. The intervention of a brave local Protestant woman saved him from this lynch mob but it is unclear whether he will ever fully recover his hearing and sight.
Northern Ireland — a case of interpenetrated peoples
We have uniquely warned that, within the framework of capitalism, there is no democratic solution to the oppression of the Catholic minority, in a situation where they are geographically interpenetrated with the Protestants, who are a distinct community. This is borne out by the degree of forced segregation that has taken place under the so-called “peace” process. Northern Ireland today is more divided along communal lines than it was when the army went there 38 years ago. While the Catholic middle class has grown in size and prospered — to the point where it can afford luxury homes, eat in the same fancy restaurants and shop in the same malls as its Protestant counterpart — for the working classes of both communities, life is grim and utterly segregated.
According to the London Independent’s Irish correspondent David McKittrick, an official report puts a cost of £1.5 billion on the segregation of a society where the communities “live side-by-side but do not integrate or share easily”. McKittrick says: “In one tiny but illuminating example, the report found that 165 extra school bus runs take place daily because it is not considered prudent to mix Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren.” As regards health, he says “three-quarters of those interviewed in a survey said they refused to use their closest health centre if it was located in a place dominated by the ‘other’ community”; and when it comes to housing, “many homes lie empty — and some have to be demolished”, and “some areas, often divided by ‘peacelines’, are overcrowded on one side of the wall but have spare space on the other” (Independent, 23 August).
The prevalence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland is not proof of some unbridgeable religious divide, but has been fostered by the bourgeoisie in its efforts to maintain capitalist exploitation. The inability of the capitalist system to provide a decent living and decent housing for the working people is a key reason for the increasing sectarianism in Northern Ireland, a sectarianism which is inflamed by the capitalists and their state in order to prevent workers from recognising capitalism as the root of the problem. We oppose all the discrimination in jobs, housing and education. At the same time we advance a programme of transitional demands based on what workers need, not what capitalism can afford. These are particularly relevant in the context of the massive decline of heavy industry, where Protestant workers once enjoyed marginal privileges. We fight for jobs for all; work-sharing on full pay and a sliding scale of wages and hours. These demands point to the need to transcend the framework of capitalist rule, to break out of the cycle of scarcity which inevitably pits workers against each other in a scramble for the inadequate level of jobs, housing, education and healthcare that capitalism provides. A planned economy, organised under working-class rule, exercised through soviets (workers councils), would regenerate the former industrial areas throughout the British Isles that have been turned into an economic wasteland by capitalism. A workers republic in Ireland within a federation of socialist republics in the British Isles, led by a Leninist party, would resolve the centuries-long oppression of Ireland and would come to a voluntary arrangement with all, including the Protestant community.
Historically, the bourgeoisie in Northern Ireland has prided itself on its industrial base with some of the lowest-paid skilled workers in the British Isles, while looking down its nose at the poorer Catholic neighbours to the South. However, the shipyards are long gone and the Northern capitalists look in envy at the “Celtic Tiger” economy to the South, while seeking to emulate its success through low wages and high profits. Part of what lies behind the power-sharing arrangement is bourgeois pressure on Northern Ireland to present a picture of “normality” in order to attract foreign investment. Thus the Financial Times (9 May) urged the new coalition “to adopt policies to foster business and encourage entrepreneurs”.
The announcement by Aer Lingus that it will set up a major hub in Belfast provided a good example of what the bourgeoisies North and South can agree on: attacking unions and the work conditions of their members. The Dublin bourgeoisie privatised the former state airline with an eye to large profits, following years of attacks on workers’ conditions, in an effort to compete in the world market. Now, Aer Lingus chief executive Dermot Mannion is axing the Shannon-Heathrow route and setting up a new route from Belfast, under worse conditions for workers. When the airline’s 500 pilots found out that pilots based in Belfast were to be excluded from the pension fund, they immediately voted for a 48-hour strike. Put under pressure by the Irish government, including with the accusation that it would threaten the “peace process”, the pro-capitalist leadership of the Irish Airline Pilots’ Association caved in and called off the strike.
As our comrades in the Spartacist Group Ireland wrote in an article on a wildcat strike by Belfast postal workers — uniting both Protestant and Catholic workers — that rocked the North in February 2006: “Displays of class unity by Protestant and Catholic workers are rare in Northern Ireland, but as revolutionaries we know that such opportunities will inevitably arise even in such a deeply segregated society.” The article went on to say:
“The most powerful instance of joint class struggle was the 1919 Belfast engineering strike (part of a wave of class struggle that swept Britain and Ireland after the Russian Revolution) in which Charles McKay, a socialist of Catholic background, led mainly Protestant workers to shut down all heavy industry and most of the city. The strike was betrayed by Labourite bureaucrats and smashed by the capitalist rulers. The aftermath of this defeat included a hideous wave of anti-Catholic pogroms the following year in which 9,000 Catholics were driven out of their jobs, as were 3,000 Protestant socialists and trade-union activists. This communalism laid the basis for the partition of Ireland in 1921 by British imperialism. The lesson of these struggles is the necessity for a revolutionary vanguard to intervene to win Catholic and Protestant workers to a proletarian revolutionary perspective that can transcend the sectarian divide, and to the understanding of the need to uproot the capitalist system that gives rise to it.”
— Workers Vanguard no 866, 17 March 2006
We are dedicated to building vanguard parties capable of waging a successful fight for socialist revolution on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea.