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4 March 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Sold short in the Short Strand
What's behind the anti-IRA protests in republican Belfast?

by Brendan O'Neill

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) has taken a pasting in recent weeks. It stands accused of carrying out a £26million bank robbery in Belfast in December and of being involved in 'widespread criminality' (the Telegraph claims the IRA is looking to buy a bank in Bulgaria, from which it could launder money a bit more discreetly). Paul Murphy, secretary of state for Northern Ireland, says this criminal behaviour has 'very seriously damaged' the prospects of reaching a peace deal; Sinn Fein's four MPs, including its president Gerry Adams and chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, have had their parliamentary expenses - worth around £440,000 - cancelled for the coming year (1).

Yet it is recent events in the small republican enclave of the Short Strand in east Belfast that have most rattled republican leaders. There, IRA members are accused of taking part in a fatal pub brawl on 30 January. Robert McCartney, a 33-year-old forklift driver, and a friend got on the wrong side of alleged members of the IRA, apparently over some minor pub-style difference of opinion. They were beaten and stabbed, and McCartney later died in hospital. The IRA allegedly 'forensically cleaned' the bar after the attack, removed CCTV footage, and advised local residents not to talk to anyone about what had happened (most of the 80 people who were drinking in the bar claim to have been in the toilet when the attack took place; hence, the toilet is now known locally as 'the Tardis') (2).

But McCartney's five sisters and his partner are determined to find Robert's killers, and have led local protests calling on the IRA and Sinn Fein to deal with those who took part in the attack. According to reports, some of the protests have attracted up to 1,000 residents, and have been addressed even by Eamonn McCann, the Derry-based socialist writer and long-standing critic of the British presence in Ireland. Shortly after Gerry Adams met the McCartneys on 24 February the IRA announced that, following a court martial, it had expelled three members, 'two of whom were high-ranking volunteers'. The McCartneys claim that 12 IRA men were involved in the murder and subsequent cover-up, and want the other nine dealt with too.

Yesterday, Sinn Fein announced that it had expelled seven party members after the McCartneys handed it a list of individuals believed to have been involved in the attack. Republican leaders are concerned that the McCartney murder will cast a shadow over Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis (annual meeting) due to start in Dublin today, at which members had hoped to celebrate their party's centenary.

Not surprisingly, British journalists have got overexcited at the sight of residents of a staunchly republican neighbourhood publicly expressing a beef with the IRA. The Guardian described it as a 'people's revolt against the IRA'; the Telegraph fantasises that Short Strand residents are standing up to 'decades of intimidation' by finally breaking the 'culture of silence' enforced by 'Provo thugs' (3). David McKittrick, the Independent's Irish correspondent, took such hyperbole to its logical conclusion when he included the McCartney sisters in a list of 'Women Who Changed the Course of Irish History', locating them in an Irish 'tradition where the female of the species has often been a greater force for good than the male' (4).

Behind these media fantasies, what we are seeing in the Short Strand is not a political uprising or revolt, but the further fragmentation of Northern Ireland's republican community post-peace process. A process of depoliticisation, not a renewed political vigour, has led to these disparate clashes between residents and the IRA over alleged criminal behaviour. It was the exhaustion of both nationalism and Unionism, the two mass movements that defined political life in Northern Ireland, that led to the peace process in the early 1990s. And as the peace process has developed, it has further removed the political initiative from the people themselves and placed it in the hands of political fixers in London, Dublin and Belfast - who, we are told, are better placed to come up with a solution to Northern Ireland's problems precisely because they are above them. The end of the old politics and the emergence of a new, aloof process has left once vibrant and highly politicised communities disengaged and demoralised. The events in the Short Strand are less a rebellion of the oppressed against the IRA, than a further falling apart of old alliances.

Short Strand residents were not, as some reports claim, the fearful dupes of IRA psychos
The Telegraph rewrites history when it claims that Short Strand residents are finally breaking free of 'decades of intimidation', as if IRA godfathers lorded it over Short Stranders for the past 30 years. The Short Strand is a small community of 3,000 nationalists surrounded by a loyalist population of around 90,000; it has suffered both loyalist pogroms and at the hands of the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (today refashioned as the Police Service of Northern Ireland). In the Short Strand there was widespread and keen support for the IRA's military campaign from the early 1970s to 1994. Indeed, there was little to separate 'IRA men' from 'the local community' - they were largely indistinguishable, with the IRA able to operate effectively as a result of the help and patronage of residents.

In a recent article, former IRA member Anthony McIntyre describes the time he spent in the Short Strand in 1970, while 'on the run': 'The community was tough, resilient and generous. There was never any difficulty in finding a bed, a meal or a bath…. During the armed conflict with the British state, IRA volunteers could never have endured were it not for access to myriad resources provided by the local population.' (5) The residents of Short Strand were not, as the Telegraph would have us believe, the fearful dupes of IRA psychos, but a community that viewed the IRA both as their protector and the embodiment of their political aspirations. (Indeed, the McCartney sisters have made a point of expressing their gratitude to the IRA for expelling members, even as they call on it to expel more.) Like other republican communities, during the Troubles the Short Strand was, to all intents and purposes, self-determining, held together by a strong common interest in opposing British rule.

The protests today are not some latent, 30-year-old grievance rising to the surface, but rather point to the unravelling of those bonds that existed in the past. It is striking that this unravelling should today occur in the Short Strand, previously one of Northern Ireland's staunchest republican areas, and over the issue of crime, in this instance the murder of McCartney. During the conflict from 1969 to 1994, strongly republican areas, including West Belfast and parts of Derry, were always noted for having a low level of ordinary crime (taking IRA military actions out of the equation); even British official observers remarked on the absence of social decay and anti-social behaviour in areas where unemployment was as high as 70 per cent.

This wasn't simply because the threat of rough justice - usually in the form of a punishment shooting or beating from the IRA - kept people on their best behaviour. Of course, there was some IRA intimidation, especially for persistent offenders; but it was the exacting demands placed on nationalist communities as a result of the conflict with the British that meant these were largely crime-free areas. Faced with a formidable opponent - the British army and its local allies - such communities were forced to rely on their own resources. In these circumstances, narrow self-interest generally took a backseat to the needs of the community, and criminal behaviour would have been seen as repugnant, as a betrayal of one's neighbours. There was no code of conduct, because people generally knew what was acceptable behaviour and that it was in their interests to act accordingly.

The decline of Irish republicanism as an independent political force eroded the sense of common purpose that held these communities together; and the uncertainty of the peace process that followed has inflamed matters. Over the past 10 years crime, including burglary, drug-dealing and joyriding, has risen in republican areas. Now, following the murder of McCartney in the Short Strand, it would appear that even some previously disciplined IRA members have lost any sense of community solidarity and can commit criminal acts against their own supporters. In the absence of that unifying experience, republican areas have become crime hotspots, and there have been a rising number of sectarian clashes with Protestant neighbouring areas.

As for the IRA itself, most republicans now experience it as little more than a neighbourhood watch with guns, carrying out occasional punishment attacks against petty criminals. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the legitimate government of Ireland, the true heirs of the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic, whose historic responsibility was to get British forces off Irish territory. Now they accept that they are a sectional community movement representing over half of Northern Ireland's Catholic/nationalist electorate. Republican leaders today call on the British government to 'face up to its responsibilities' in Ireland rather than accusing it of acting as a barrier to Irish self-determination. And when they are no longer demanding an Irish Republic, what role is there for an Irish Republican Army?

The IRA has become the armed wing of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order lobby
This has led to something of an IRA identity crisis. It used to be the armed wing of Irish republicanism; now it is more like the armed wing of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order lobby. It set up a front organisation called Direct Action Against Drugs in the mid-1990s and has issued decrees warning republican youths against taking part in joyriding, illustrating the extent to which it has transformed into a narrow policing outfit. (Of course, such measures have done little to stem the rise in crime in republican areas, since it was never really the threat of IRA punishment that kept crime at bay in these communities in the first place.) Worse, in these circumstances IRA activists themselves can easily go off the rails, and start to approximate to the age-old caricature of them as criminals, beloved of British politicians and journalists.

Sinn Fein's intervention into the McCartney affair is instructive. President Gerry Adams has declared that criminality has no place in the republican movement and encouraged those who were involved in the murder to make themselves available to solicitors. And he is reported to have leant on the IRA, and of course his own party, over expelling members. This is clearly a desperate attempt at damage limitation on Adams' part; in the wake of the Short Strand protests he has been heavily chastised by political leaders in Northern Ireland and his approval rating in the Irish Republic (where he was previously one of the most popular politicians) has plummeted. In an attempt to rein the crisis in, Adams seems willing even to upset his colleagues in the IRA by taking a hard line over criminality and the McCartney murder.

But where he and the IRA might succeed in resolving the McCartney affair and appeasing the grieving McCartney family, they can do little to stem the wider moral disintegration of republican communities in Northern Ireland. The McCartney murder acted as a catalyst for a deeper malaise within post-republican republican communities. Indeed, even as Adams and the IRA attempt to resolve this particular crime, they do so in the name of 'keeping the peace process on track'. The peace process has become the only game in town, to which all parties must swear allegiance. It is now seen as an end in itself, as everybody devotes their energies to keeping it going - with little critical thought given to its impact on independent political life in Northern Ireland.

In this sense, perhaps the most perverse description of the events in Short Strand was David McKittrick's, who argued that the McCartneys and their supporters were 'making history' (6). When such communities did demonstrate their history-making potential, taking control of their lives and destinies during the 25-year Troubles, they were invariably denounced for 'supporting terrorism' or said to be living under the cosh of the IRA. Today, when deciding Northern Ireland's political future has been well and truly handed over to others, such communities are congratulated for displays of 'people power' which in fact look more like expressions of disengagement - from the political process, and from those who once represented and fought for their interests.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Sinn Fein expenses cut over bank raid, Australian, 21 February 2005

(2) From pub brawl to national crisis, Salon, 28 February 2005

(3) IRA victim's brave sisters speak out to break Belfast's culture of silence, Telegraph, 1 March 2005

(4) The women who changed the course of Irish history, Independent, 2 March 2005

(5) Time to go, The Blanket, 21 February 2005

(6) The women who changed the course of Irish history, Independent, 2 March 2005

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