What actually sustained one of the final stages of England’s oldest imperialism, asks Lindsey German
The general opinion of politicians, military and commentators in assessing Martin McGuinness is that certainly by the mid-1970s most informed observers thought that neither side could win: that the British army could not defeat the IRA, but nor could the IRA inflict such a defeat on the British army. This was a widespread view on the left at the time, but one never acknowledged in mainstream political circles. It begs a question: why then did the war continue right through the 70s, 80s and early 90s until the Good Friday agreement in 1998?
The answer to that seems to me twofold. The first is that successive British governments had no interest in admitting that this was the case and refused to allow the IRA any sense that they might have achieved even a partial victory. Worse than that, the political inclinations of both main parties were to deny any justice to the Republican cause, and to implement high levels of state repression against those who were in any way supportive of it. This began with Tory internment without trial in the early 70s, but continued under Labour governments (under whose watch miscarriages of justice like the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four took place).
These policies reached their nadir with Margaret Thatcher, who callously allowed ten hunger strikers to die in the spring and summer of 1981, their demand the simple one of political status. She also passed vindictive laws, including those prohibiting Sinn Fein leaders' actual words from being broadcast, and in her period in office shoot to kill became more frequent. Responsibility for many deaths therefore lies with those who deliberately prolonged the war from this side of the Irish sea.
The second reason it went on for so long is that the Republican movement arose out of a mass movement for civil rights which was entirely justified in its opposition to the bigoted Orange state which denied basic equalities to Catholics. Housing, jobs and basic democracy were all denied. Catholics suffered first pogroms then army occupation and repression from the late 60s onwards. The Unionists who ran the undemocratic Northern Ireland state refused to acknowledge their rights and worked with their Tory friends in Westminster to ensure their continued rule.
The peace process reflected the impasse on both sides, and also the sheer war weariness after decades of conflict. But, while it has brought real change for many people in the North, the sectarian nature of the state and of Unionism remains. The state was built on sectarianism nearly 100 years ago to prevent a united Ireland, and despite its different forms of rule over the years that is what it remains.
Martin McGuinness was a Republican leader of intelligence and courage, but neither he nor his comrades could square that circle. The unreformed nature of Toryism and Unionism can be seen in the comments of Norman Tebbit, the blaming by Unionist politicians of the IRA for all violence in the North, and the BBC 'balance' which insists that families of IRA bomb victims must be heard alongside tributes to McGuinness.
There are many criticisms to be made of the politics of the IRA in the 70s, and of Sinn Fein today, but there can be no question that they have for the past nearly 50 years been the main defenders of the Catholic/Nationalist communities in the North against the bigotry and repression of those who ruled the state and their allies here.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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