The shooting dead of two British soldiers by the Real IRA (RIRA) at the entrance of Massereene army barracks on the edge of Antrim town has shocked many people across Northern Ireland. Another two soldiers were shot on the scene but survived. Two pizza delivery drivers, one from Poland, were also gunned down – in the eyes of the RIRA they are “legitimate targets”.
Such incidents were commonplace in the seventies, eighties and early nineties, and would have had little impact on the wider political situation. This attack however is the first of it’s kind in over ten years and has been carried out by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process and the participation of Sinn Fein in the Assembly Executive.
Over the past few years, dissident republican groups have stepped up their campaign of targeting PSNI and army personnel. They have launched fifteen attacks in the last six months. Last month a 300lb car bomb was abandoned in Castlewellan. If it had reached its intended target, Ballykinlar Army Barracks, significant casualties could have resulted. Whilst there is little support in Catholic working class areas for a return to war at this time, and the dissident groups are small and relatively isolated, there is little doubt that they are growing in strength and confidence.
Their goal for the moment is to undermine the power-sharing institutions by provoking a reaction from unionists, in particular the DUP, in response to attacks on the police and army. Because of the sectarian nature of Sinn Fein’s politics, they now find themselves in a very difficult position. The logic of its political trajectory over the last twenty years and its current position in government means that it must condemn the attack and call for co-operation with the police. Sinn Fein states that it is opposed to any return to severe repression of course, but its call for people to go to the PSNI with information on the dissidents will further undermine its credibility with young Catholics.
The DUP is calling for an increase in repression, including shoot to kill policies. DUP figures acknowledge that Sinn Fein has moved in its position on the police but put it under pressure by implying that Sinn Fein actually know who is involved in the dissident groups and could hand suspects up to the police if it so chose, and by criticising its support for the PSNI as half-hearted.
An echo of the repressive policies of the state in the past was heard a few days before the Antrim attack, when it was revealed that the “Special Reconnaissance Regiment” of the British Army has been deployed in Northern Ireland. The SRR was formed primarily from the “14th Intelligence Company”, a unit responsible for many “shoot to kill” incidents during the Troubles.
This limited return of the army to a combat role was a major propaganda victory for the dissidents. The 32-County Sovereignty Committee (the political group linked to RIRA) claimed it as evidence that Britain has “failed to pacify Ireland”- and is a major embarrassment to Sinn Fein. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the decision to deploy the SRR as “stupid and dangerous” but he has no power to stop this move.
If policing is devolved to Stormont in the next one to two years, the storm generated by the future killing of a soldier or police officer will be even greater. And the intentions of the dissidents are clear – they do not have the resources for a campaign on the scale of the Provisional IRA campaign but they will continue with intermittent attacks in an attempt to destabilise the Executive.
Opposition to Sinn Fein in its heartlands is growing. This opposition isn’t just based on its failure to deliver on the national question but on the correct perception that Sinn Fein is a right-wing party on social and economic issues. As the recession deepens the potential for dissident groupings to garner more support will increase, especially among young people.
This Antrim attack comes at a time when working class people are facing a future of rising unemployment and deepening poverty. In such a context an increase in united working class struggles, such as strikes and movements against health cutbacks, is on the cards. An attack such as this has the capacity to increase sectarian division and cut across working class unity in struggle.
Whilst there is no support amongst the parties for a collapse of the Executive, outside of economic policy there are deep divisions on every major issue which could lead to the Executive falling. It is more likely that the Executive will continue to be characterised by paralysis on a number of key issues, including attitudes to dissident attacks. And a major dispute on an unforeseen sectarian issue could explode at any time.
From the beginning of the peace process the Socialist Party has argued that no lasting solution could be found on the basis of an uneasy compromise between sectarian politicians. The Socialist Party also argued however that the relative peace ushered in by the paramilitary ceasefires in 1994 would open up possibilities for the development of class politics and greater working class unity. This opportunity will not last forever.
The working class and young people cannot rely on the Assembly to deliver lasting peace, a decrease in sectarian division or improved living standards. The dead end of paramilitary campaigns is no way out for young people in either community and only deepens division. Working class people need their own party: a mass party which attracts support by posing a socialist alternative to the right wing policies of the Assembly parties and the various paramilitary groups and seeks to overcome sectarian division not cement it. The inaction of the leadership of the trade union movement in refusing to support the building of a mass working class party and by continuing to prop up the Assembly parties only allows the sectarian forces intent in dragging us back into conflict more scope to grow.