The Good Friday Agreement and Britain’s ‘Deep State’: Britain’s long goodbye and speedy return

The Good Friday Agreement and Britain’s ‘Deep State’: Britain’s long goodbye and its speedy return

Paul Stewart and Tommy McKearney


Britain’s disengagement from Northern Ireland is not quite what it seems.  In conjunction with its deep state, in the age of neoliberal imperialism where control is seemingly less dependent on territorial subordination, it has developed institutions that will allow it to ‘remain’ even in the midst of departure. These institutions mobilize soft and hard power repressive practices developed over the period of the insurgency (1969-98).  They comprise(d) the army, MI5, police, loyalist paramilitaries and agents influents within all political parties and the Republican movement.  We term this nexus of repression the continuity state repressive apparatuses.


If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you […] through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country…  (James Connolly, 1897)


Introduction: the continuity state repressive apparatuses of imperialism’s deep state

This is the story behind the story of Britain’s long good-bye from the island of Ireland.  It reveals the UK’s broader political concerns, the concerns of the new imperialism.  These are often deeply hidden to ensure that withdrawal will take place in such a manner as to ensure that departure will be minimised.  In fact, it is a departure to end departure.  The chapter considers how this story can be told by exploring the continuities in the exercise of state power during the long insurgency from 1969-98.  A mixture of hard and soft power (force plus consent) has been mobilised to manage the anticipated unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland sometime in the coming decades.

While the theme of the use of soft power is considered, the majority of the chapter is concerned with the development of apparatuses and institutions of hard power into what we term the continuity state repressive apparatuses (CSRA).  While not unusual in aspects of their development as understood by imperial powers elsewhere, the chapter describes their evolution during the period of the long insurgency in the north.  The argument is that these apparatuses were constituted by, and represented, the practices of the deep state.  The deep state is present in all capitalist societies and in the case described here has an essential role in shaping, or preparing, political and civil society, for outcomes which are congruent with the interests of the ‘departing’ imperial state.


The chapter delineates three periods in the development of the continuity state repressive apparatuses: 1969-1981 (from the start of the insurgency until the Hunger Strikes); 1981-1998 (from the Hunger Strikes until the Good Friday Agreement, GFA); 1998 to the present.

When Britain eventually leaves the North it will not do so in any commonly understood sense. Just as in 1922, when Britain conceded independence to Southern Ireland it did so while retaining overall influence. What can be said though about the kind of political, social and economic changes attendant on a perceived British withdrawal?  Clearly, Britain will not simply let the North go if by this is meant, ‘let go’ without the protection of the political, economic, and other strategic interests central to British imperialism. In this respect, and notwithstanding its current relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), given the febrile nature of Northern Irish politics, the British government will be happier dealing primarily with the republic of Ireland. How to remain while appearing to leave – that is the question?  Attending this question is the issue of the way Britain seeks to exit the North and the kinds of state apparatuses – repressive and consensus building – that it is endeavoring to fashion.

We concentrate on key features of state practice couched within Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, i.e., state rule premised upon force plus consent.  The concept allows us to account for the changing balance between the use of force – the police, army and other repressive institutions in liberal democracy - and consent, including consensus forming bodies and notably the liberal democratic institutions of parliamentary democracy, education and the media.  These also are sometimes described as soft power institutions operating within soft power networks while the former can be labelled as hard power, operating within hard power networks.

Within this framework it is argued that Britain has been preparing for a range of so-called soft power and hard power institutions which in a number of aspects meld with re-formed state repressive, or hard power, apparatuses that include the Northern Ireland police service and Britain’s deep state repressive apparatus, MI5 in the period up to and including the signing of the GFA in 1998.  This CSRA network included an assemblage of deep and extra state forces organised within, or in proximity to, loyalist para military groups.  One of the deep state forces included the Force Research Unit created in 1982.  CSRAs have been developing since the beginning of the long insurgency.


The latent, sometimes manifest, objective of the deep state’s CSRA is to ensure that Britain can both guide the final break from Ireland while remaining hegemonic.  Institutions are designed to allow for departure and re-entry: this is the work of the deep state.  Its activities mingle, at intervals, with the practices of regular state repressive apparatuses such as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, now the Police Service Northern Ireland/PSNI) and the British army.  Worth noting is that while hard and soft power are ever present, the status of the institutions making up the network of the deep state are contextually specific.  While the state seeks to retain its agents influents within extra state institutions, over time, their import ebbs and flows.  We know this because prominent state actors have highlighted this, as evidenced many years ago in the secret memo of the discussion between the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson’s and the Irish Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald.

Wilson Doc


Thus, the activities of the deep state can be detected principally in various network apparatuses some of which continued the intersection of soft and hard networks developed during the period of the anti-Orange state and anti-imperialist insurgency from 1969-1998.  While quite distinctive in their chief practices the boundary between the activities of the two aspects of state rule, i.e. force plus consent, are often more difficult to untangle as we shall see especially in the context of the use of deep state agents influents since 1998.


The evolution of the network of deep state institutions and actors, as a means to demonstrate Britain’s desire to play the critical role in the gradual evolution of the island of Ireland into a separate entity, is highly significant.  Whether a new country will take the form of an all-Ireland state or a semi-federal state (for example, one state-two-systems – the Hong Kong solution) is not of pressing concern to London.  The practices of hard power institutions, the state repressive apparatuses, link to the outworking of a range of soft power institutions that include, not so much the Northern Ireland Assembly as the activities, and more specifically the management, of the activities of the Orange and Green political class. (Stewart et al, 2018)

Ready to go while preparing to stay

Britain is as comfortable with the unification of Ireland as it is with its continued division because its principal concern is the strategic relationship with the island as a whole.  One needs to add an important caveat: Britain, as the major player, has conditioned the political class in the Republic as all the while it dominates the political class, and its significant ways of thinking, in the north (Stewart, et al 2018).  This is because of the wider political economy context, which now allows the UK to govern in the absence of territorial domination.  This is not to say that Britain would not prefer territorial integrity, merely to make the point that in the era of neoliberal financialisation, the driver of contemporary imperialism (“neoliberal imperialism”, Wilder, 2015), Britain can rule just as comfortably without territorial subordination.


Specifically, as the GFA became embedded after 1998 with the formation of the new cross sectarian political class, the older, repressive, forms of forceful subordination gave way to a new domestication of the state’s repressive apparatuses.  Whereas, during the period of the long insurgency, the state’s coercive agencies (the RUC, RUC special Branch, MI5, the British military) together with its extra state apparatuses within Loyalism, worked to repress the nationalist population as a way to undermine the insurgency, the role of these state repressive apparatuses has inevitably evolved since 1998 as circumstances and the balance of forces have changed.


With respect to the period since 1998, we consider the way in which the state sought, by means of soft power, to compromise, at intervals pour encourager les autres, a number of key political figures and movements and parties, to keep them on track with Britain’s wider prospectus of all-island political synchrony according to its reading of the GFA.  One feature of our argument is that, in contrast to the period of civil conflict, the institutions of hard power have now been domesticated, hidden as they are behind the face of democratic participation in the new North.  No longer hidden faces behind armoured cars, tanks and guns, the new face of hard power is as likely to wear the uniform of a civil servant.  Hard and soft have combined but now the fist that is raised is carefully hidden in a velvet glove.


Hard and soft networks of power: force plus consent in the new financialized world of Northern Ireland.

Neo-liberal financialisation has redefined the context of contemporary imperialism preferring the proliferation of soft power networks of subordination in Western Europe and North America and parts of Australasia, to its various national socio-political settlements.  The latter are increasingly characterised by patterns of conflicted consensual governance which has seen growing disaffection with the political class to an unprecedented degree as witnessed in the presidential elections in 2016 in the USA, France in 2017 and the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016.


The political and historical character of the reconstitution of UK state hegemony in Northern Ireland in the period both before and after the signing of the GFA in 1998 is a unique example of this process of reformation of British state power.  Recent accounts of the character of imperialism from the point of view of imperial state power have, for good reason, focused on state repressive apparatuses, including the use of torture (see especially, Gott, 2012; Cobain, 2012; Cadwallader, 2013; Urwin, 2016; Campbell, 2017). Recently, Cobain (2016) assessed the significance of the institutions and practices of the bureaucracy of state secrecy in the maintenance of empire.  This is a highly significant account of a number of ways in which civil power colludes in the constitution of forms of coercive (hard) power and shines a light on a level of imperial state activity that requires attention in our context.  Arguably, less focus has been brought to bear on the way in which the British state has interacted, sometimes in partnership with, a range of social and political forces in order to retain a hegemonic role in the remaking of its relationship with Ireland after the end of the long period of civil conflict.


Our interest is not with the role of the UK in prosecuting the GFA but rather with the unscripted, hidden role played by Westminster together with its much wider association of social familiars (social and political class allies) and colonial satraps.  ‘Westminster’ includes both the formal liberal democratic state but also what is often referred to as the deep state. More than simply describing the state’s repressive apparatuses, deep state denotes the state’s alter ego.  Thus, we are referring not only to the level at which decisions are put into effect beyond legislative, democratic oversight.  This is not about the play of the executive, the government.  ‘Deep state’ characterises the evolving network of political and social affiliation beyond democratic control.  The deep state established the apparatus of collusion discussed here.


These networks of collusion were developed in the period between 1969 and 1998 and operated initially to undermine the insurgency in such a way as to steer it in a direction favourable to the British state.  This operation of hard power by the state’s repressive and consensual apparatuses, was crucial to the institutionalisation of the activities of the deep state in seeking to shepherd those leading the insurgency.  The consensual apparatuses included the shift towards legislation as a mode of incorporation that ran hand in hand with collusion networks involving the police service (RUC, which became the PSNI in November 2001), the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) the RUC Special Branch, MI5 and Loyalist para-military organisations, principally the UVF, UDA and the UFF[i].  Internal subversion of the republican movement necessitated finding and then running agents influents.


In this instance, the state used individuals in key internal institutions such as the Provisional’s internal security apparatus to garner information about individual volunteers, anticipate combat operations, and search for internal divisions.  Loyalist agents influents were used for two purposes, to act as proxy state assassins of republicans, especially those opposed to leadership’s parliamentary-road-to-a-settlement, and to intimidate nationalist communities through killing civilians and especially those with family ties to IRA volunteers.


Though fixing precise dates is problematical, we can delineate three overlapping phases in the development of Britain’s deep state agenda.  This comprised a set of CSRAs whose advance depended on particular conjunctures. We will concentrate on the evolution of the CSRAs over the period from 1969 beginning with the recent insurgency proper.  The first phase, 1969-1981 (the rising insurgency, internment without trial, 1971, until the Hunger Strikes ending in 1981; the second phase, the end Hunger Strikes 1981, until the GFA in 1998; the third phase, from the GFA, to the present.


1969-1981 - Phase One: gathering as much information as possible about the insurgents. We know from the Caskey Report (1984) that the deep state was finessing its techniques with a still under-developed CSRA network and was prepared to risk the lives of its operatives.  This was highlighted by the case of SAS officer Robert Nairac killed in 1977 (Campbell, 1984).


From the beginning of the insurgency until internment without trial in 1971, Britain’s intelligence agencies found themselves having to rely on outdated pre-insurgency information.  The character of the insurgency, initially one of mass community involvement (McKearney, 2011), had found Britain sleeping at the helm.  Britain’s response reflected a fact it would characteristically seek to hide from public view, which was that this was indeed a new form of uprising in the Irish context.  It was not one dependent solely upon an armed movement but one involving whole communities. It was a mass uprising to which Britain responded with tactics of wide-spread repression of entire communities including the use of curfews and flagrant disregard for civilian lives exemplified by the Ballymurphy killings by Paratroopers in 1971[ii].


To that extent, the state’s attack on the early mass movement, culminating in the murder of 14 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday, January 31st 1972, was important to the development of a strategy that sought to separate, through physical repression and fear, the mass movement from the armed struggle. (“Mass movement” is used both in its typically understood sense of campaigns, such as the rent and rates strikes in Belfast and elsewhere in the 1970s, but also as way of recognising that support for republicanism in its variant forms, was inherent within nationalist communities).  One outcome of the atrocity was that it accelerated the development of an armed movement that had only weakly existed before the bloody assault.  This hastened the evolution of the war into one that the British state was more comfortable with.  It mattered little to Britain that it might not win this war in the short term.


What mattered was that the outcome would be favourable to British interests.  Britain, like any imperial state, develops apparatuses of repression precisely so it can seek to manage opposition though fragmentation, isolation and, eventually, dissolution.  It would now have a security apparatus, built up since internment in 1971 with its assemblage of agents influents in the republican movement, within Loyalist organisations and within parliamentary parties and civic society as well.  In its favour of course it also had the state ideological apparatuses, including the media, very much on-message (Mclaughlin and Baker, 2015).


If Bloody Sunday was important in the development of the state’s repressive apparatuses during Phase One now it became essential to embark on a ruthless campaign of repression of nationalist communities.  Renewed vigour was put into defeating the republican movement and it was here that the prisons became a focal point of contestation from the mid to late 1970s and up until 1981.


If the war was also a war of definitions it was imperative that the conflict should not be seen as a war.  To be a normal society subjected to terrorism, Britain would have to convince the world that those fighting it were not revolutionaries.  This would necessitate a soft power-hard power agenda, which became known as Ulsterisation.  Ulsterisation, a creation of the British military, MI5 and the RUC, began under the Labour government and was outlined in an unpublished British strategy paper in 1975, The Way Ahead.  The idea, similar to the Vietnamization strategy adopted by the US in Indonesia, was to make the locally recruited RUC the main state agent.  This required ‘normalisation’ whose key feature was to remove British troops from the front line to demonstrate that the war was not a war at all but rather an issue requiring conventional policing.  The other prong to the strategy of Ulsterisation was ‘criminalisation’.  If it wasn’t a war against insurgents, still less revolutionaries, it must be a campaign against criminals.  This was the political basis of the refusal of Republicans to accept criminal status leading to the Hunger Strikes.


1981-1998 - Phase Two in the development of the CSRA marks the response to the political impact of the Hunger Strikes.  Force before consent in the dog days of the ‘dirty war’ might be the best way to sum up this period.  The wider social and political response was unexpected by the British and others, including some within the Republican movement, because of the effect it had on the creation of forms of mass civil disobedience not seen since the early civil rights movement. This time however, the state was better prepared.  In contrast to 1969, as a result of its intelligence assets and networks of collusion, the British were clearer about divisions amongst those opposed to its rule.  The changed context of the mass popular fight against Ulsterisation forced the deep state to re-energise its prospectus.  Now we would see, with greater urgency, the use loyalist terror gangs, the SAS, and other proxy deep state agents. It became essential to undermine the new mass movement by intimidating the communities from which it emerged.


If Bloody Sunday had been the catalyst to try to break the civil rights movement, Loyalist terror gangs, agents influents within the republican movement, and the SAS, would be necessary to push back the newly energised mass movement that was coalescing around a campaign that demonstrated the limited legitimacy of Ulsterisation.  Why were the British adopting a strategy of greater (largely convert) repression when it might seem that the republican movement was embracing a ‘republican parliamentary road to a united Ireland - eventually’.  How was state terror going to win hearts and minds?  The reason was that because of its agents influents the deep stare could now identify with reasonable certainty who was opposed to this political process.  Terror is often, and especially in the context of insurgency, a precondition of incorporation: defeated, demoralised communities eventually can be forced by attrition to sue for peace.


The British were aware that absence of mass participation on the streets is not the same as absence of mass support in the communities and it would come as no surprise that the communities providing sustenance to IRA volunteers had to be disciplined.  The reign of terror in nationalist communities, the ‘dirty war’, lasted until the GFA in 1998.


Had it recognised the mass civil campaign beginning in 1968 for what it was it could have sought an early political solution.  Britain’s imperialist perspective privileged mass repression as a means of responding to mass civil disobedience.  The Ulsterisation agenda that had sought to individualise the conflict as a means of normalising repression, depended on the use of a criminal justice system that functioned, seemingly ironically, to jeopardise the necessary social consensus which is everywhere a condition for the rule of law.  Yet, it was indifferent to the inherent contradictions of its strategy.


Pushing the fiction that society was becoming normal ironically could only work where juries were abolished via no-jury Diplock courts.  This perversion of one of the institutions of soft power was organically tied to the deep state’s hard power CSRA network.  The fantasy of normality required that state repression be hidden and in practice hiding required that it be outsourced.


Westminster’s propaganda attempts to depoliticise the conflict were taking place against a backdrop of increasing state repression.  The policy of Ulsterisation, seen as a means to solve the government’s media image while absolving it of responsibility, wrought great suffering for many communities.  This second stage of Ulsterisation would witness the increasing dependency on extra state forces.  Whereas Ulsterisation Phase One was characterised as RUC and UDR led – the role of agents influents, if still relatively under developed, was ever present, naturally – the next phase witnessed a deepening of Ulsterisation.


Now, not only could the main visual presence of the state be seen in the shape of the RUC and the UDR, but the actual conflict would be fought increasingly by the state’s proxies under the coordination of Britain’s deep state.  Ironically, while Ulsterisation continued to be pedalled for public consumption, behind the face of the RUC, the British military, notably the SAS and other military state agents were given considerable autonomy to run the war as they thought fit.


Agents influents and the role of the Force Research Unit[iii]


For the imperial state, the mobilisation of intelligence has to focus on intervention for orchestration. It has to be concerned with more than finding out what the enemy is doing.  The enemy, after all, contains the population of the country needed in the context of a new imperial dispensation.  The purpose is not to eliminate the enemy per se, but rather to change it.  This is the background and purpose of the use, in Phase Two, of proxies, agents influents and terror gangs. The state necessitated an array of institutions bringing together expertise from across its armed forces including the RUC.  Their modus vivendi was necessarily that of semi-autonomous operations. (See Moloney and Mitchell, 2013.  For an extended account of collusion between the British state and Loyalist paramilitaries see Urwin, 2017)


Research by the latter allows us to shine light on several institutions set up to orchestrate the repression.  It is commonly acknowledged that these were essential in attacks upon both civilians and IRA volunteers.  State directed IRA actions included the manipulation of volunteers by agents influents in the republican movement.  In addition, Loyalists gangs, either directly, or under the direction of the deep state’s CSRA (Force Research Unit, SAS, MI5, RUC/Special Branch) were used to intimate and/or assassinate republicans and members of their families whether or not they were themselves sympathetic to republicanism and anti-imperialist politics.  The killings of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson are the most well-known in which the Force Research Unit (FRU) was embroiled. Brian Nelson, a former British soldier and senior intelligence gatherer with the UDA was a central figure in the killing of Pat Finucane.


Interdiction and assassination were widespread state sponsored, and state-led, tactics of repression as revealed most recently in the case of the infamous Glenanne Gang, arguably the most ‘successful’ of the deep state’s CSRA.  Moloney and Mitchell unearthed important documents from 1974 on government commitment to the development of the CSRA,


“[…] a Northern Ireland Office briefing paper […] April 1974 [for] British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Irish counterpart, Garret Fitzgerald […] explains in some detail the origins of the Military Reaction Force [MRF] and its replacement by a much larger, better trained outfit called the Special Reconnaissance Unit  Simply[SRU]…” (NIO 1974)


According to the paper.

“The SRU had the task of putting terrorist suspects under covert surveillance as well as recruiting and running informers.  Former SAS soldiers served with the SRU which liaised closely with the RUC Special Branch.” (NIO 1974)


Moloney and Mitchell make the point that the MRF, set up in 1970/71, which preceded the FRU, was the brain child of Frank Kitson, a British commander at the start of the insurgency and British hero in the war against the Mau Mau in Kenya,


“The MRF consisted partly of regular soldiers drawn from a variety of regiments and partly members of the Official and Provisional IRA’s who had been turned […].  Known as ‘Freds’, these double agents both provided intelligence on their organisations and were available for undercover operations”.


The conflict saw the continuation of a set of bureaucratic links that began to be instituted during Kitson’s regime.  He was supported by a police and state bureaucratic apparatus connecting key figures and offices of state (Pat Finucane Review, 2012)[iv].  The MRF was professional and lethal,


“The MRF became publicly known about when its members were involved in a number of drive by shootings in Belfast. […] on September 26th 1972 … 18 year old Daniel Rooney was shot dead and 18-year old Brendan Brennan wounded when they were fired upon by […] an MRF unit.”


In 1982, the Force Research Unit[v] was set up by Brigadier Gordon Kerr a former Gordon Highlanders.  Kerr’s role was to run Loyalist assets, extending the CSRA,


“…many of the functions performed by the SRU were ultimately undertaken by the Force Research Unit […] [and] it is by no means certain that a straight line connects them.  Various other intelligence units […] followed the SRU’s wake.”


The FRU would operate as the decisive part of the CSRA that includedMI5 and the RUC.  The All-Source Intelligence Cell was set up in 1988 to coordinate intelligence between RUC Special Branch, MI5 and the FRU.


In 2007, as a result of the Stevens Inquiry into state and Loyalist paramilitary collusion in murder, the FRU’s name was changed to the Joint Support Group (JSG)[vi].  Special attention is paid to the FRU, not because it was the worst or most terrifying of CSRAs but because, as a result of the Stevens’ Inquiry, we now have greater knowledge of its activities.  The Stevens’ Inquiry demonstrated that from its inception the FRU and Loyalist paramilitaries colluded.  Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, quotes a former British intelligence officer,


“My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland […].  There's no doubt about this. My unit was guilty of conspiring in the murder of civilians in Northern Ireland, on about 14 occasions.” (19 November 2000)


1998-present - Phase Three: The CSRA shift from hard to soft power. With the signing of the GFA, we now begin to see the shift in the character of the operations of the deep state. While never disappearing completely, egregious acts of state and extra state terror are increasingly substituted by the velvet glove.  Now, rather than deny state repression, concessions are made, excuses crafted, apologies given.  The most prominent was the apology by Cameron for the Bloody Sunday massacre.  Now that the guns are mostly silent, policing assumes the appearance of normality.  Proper politics has resumed; the GFA allows everyone to vote for parties which are paying heed only to the will of the people rather than the heel of the British.  If the SAS has returned to Hereford and the heirs to the FRU fortune are quiet, MI5, nevertheless, “hasn’t gone away you know”.  Its role has been to maintain constant vigil over its endowment in the northern part of Ireland.


Two facts about the role of MI5 in Northern Ireland should give rise to serious questioning.  The first is that, MI5’s budget is paid from the British government's ‘Single Intelligence Account’[vii] and is currently £1.8 billion a year, increasing to £2.3 billion by 2020.  Of that, almost a fifth is spent directly in Northern Ireland.  The second fact relates to the observation that around 1,000 MI5 operatives are employed at Loughside inside the Palace Barracks complex in Hollywood County Down, making it by far the largest MI5[viii] base outside London.


Think about that. One fifth of the UK intelligence budget spent on the largest MI5 base outside of London, and all for Northern Ireland.  To the casual observer this may not seem strange. After all, didn’t the IRA carry out a violent 25 year insurgency and doesn’t the Chief Constable of the PSNI and senior officials of British Intelligence frequently remind us of the ‘terrorist threat in Ulster’?


Yet by any reasonable standard, the level of politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland has dropped dramatically.  Over the past 15 years, 60 deaths can be attributed to politically motivated violence and of those only six have been fatal attacks on members of the state security services.  Of course there have been many failed attempts but whether this has been due to the work of MI5 or to routine police intelligence is difficult to ascertain.  What can be said is that the PSNI undoubtedly has inherited a very substantial and effective intelligence network from its predecessor in the RUC and it is difficult to see why this has to be supplemented by such a substantial input from MI5.


That is, unless MI5 has additional responsibilities that go beyond merely monitoring the activities of armed anti-state activists.  What if the County Down spooks spend much more of their resources on a form of political/social engineering?  What if their principal task is to steer Northern Ireland politically in the direction desired by London rather than only monitor, intercept and frustrate the weak, divided, faction ridden, police infiltrated and unsupported armed republican sects?  While it is almost always impossible to prove a direct link between political events and incidents and the hidden hand of an intelligence agency, it is reasonable to speculate.


To what extent was IRA authority undermined within the wider republican movement when it emerged that one of its more spectacular operations, the breaking into the Castlereagh police station, was perhaps not all it was deemed to be?  Questions were raised when the police investigation into Castlereagh break-in led to a raid on Sinn Fein offices in Stormont in October 2002 with damaging consequences for the party’s intention’s vis-a-vis participating in the Northern Ireland Executive.  Worse was to follow when it emerged that Sinn Fein special advisor and long-time undercover British agent Denis Donaldson was a close acquaintance[ix] of the man believed to have facilitated the operation for the IRA.  Moreover, it had been Donaldson's idea to bring the man to Northern Ireland, set him up with a house in East Belfast and burrow his way into Special Branch headquarters in Castlereagh.


What on the other hand of the political demise of the House of Robinson[x]? In ways they resembled a Northern Irish version of Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards.  They were powerful, shrewd, hardline, apparently invulnerable and seemingly embedded in office for decades.  Yet how the mighty tumbled when a minor indiscretion was revealed to the BBC Spotlight programme by Mrs Robinson’s pastor and political adviser[xi], the former RAF officer Selwyn Black.  There is absolutely no evidence, and never has it been suggested, that Mr Black worked for the intelligence agencies yet some have suggested a possible connection resulting from his background in the armed services.  Whatever about possible conspiracy theories, the Robinson scandal damaged the DUP and undermined confidence in that particular leadership.  While the party has certainly recovered since then, the lesson has not been overlooked by others aspiring to the leadership.


These are just two possible examples of how a shadowy agency can potentially manipulate the political situation.  There are many other aspects of life in the six counties that would bear examination. Using discrete influence to persuade festival organisers to stage their events in Belfast or Derry and thus draw the participants ever closer to the normalisation process.  What about uncovering indiscretions and thereafter quietly and invisibly holding the sword of Damocles over the head of recalcitrant politicians in order to coax them into becoming more amenable to the planning of HGM?


The list is almost endless but the question remains unanswered, why do we need such a large and costly MI5 presence?  During the reign of the first Elizabeth, it was taken for granted that every diplomat was a spy.  Now perhaps we have the situation where every spy has a diplomat’s role of advancing central government’s policies.


Conclusion. They haven’t gone away you know

“For much of its early history, the British ruled their empire through terror. […] ‘Special’ courts and courts martial were set up to deal with dissidents, and handed out rough and speedy injustice.  Normal judicial procedures were replaced by rule through terror; resistance was crushed, rebellion suffocated.” (Gott, 2012)


The period after the Hunger Strikes in 1981 marked the renewal of the CSRA which would consolidate essential features of the deep state.  Britain saw its chance to push the major current in the republican movement, centred on the leadership, in a favoured direction.  With an emphasis on hard power this era, which lasted until 1998, perhaps more than any other, could claim the sobriquet ‘the dirty war’.  It was characterised by state sponsored, and in certain instances, direct state murder of both republicans and civilians from nationalist communities (Urwin, 2017).  Informants, the so-called “Freds”, and Loyalist terror gangs were important parts of the jigsaw.


Creating an informant network was both strategy and outcome of the operation of the deep state.  If it seems something of a paradox that the use of both republican informants and Loyalist terror gangs became more important as the Sinn Fein acquiesced in the strategic aims of London, it is only seemingly so.  Anyone objecting to the political direction of the leadership of the republican movement had to be challenged.  This is not about the leadership consciously answering to the needs of the British state. The point was that the state was able to identify at an early stage, particular ideological currents and utilise or disable them.  (We will consider this aspect of the deep state elsewhere)


A significant objective for the UK state, wherein a critical role is played by its deep state, is how to remain in Ireland when, it ‘leaves’.  This is contrary to much commentary and received wisdom, which has interpreted the GFA as a fix, ensuring that Britain would be able at long last to leave Ireland without having to return.  This is the story of Britain as civiliser, Britain as neutral – beyond Pax Britannica.  The view taken here has been that, on the contrary, Britain does not ‘want to leave Ireland’ in any straightforward fashion.  This is evident from the role and import played by the deep state that gives the lie to the anodyne view that it is seeking disengagement.


Our alternative interpretation sought to explain the significance of the deep state as the central driver for Britain and a range of institutions - legal, semi legal and ‘illegal’ - that have been fundamental to ensuring its successful departure-return.  The history of the CSRA is testament to this.  Arguably, it is characteristic of the withdrawal of empire in the era of neoliberal imperialism.



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Mackay, N (2000) “The Force Research Unit: 'My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland', Sunday Herald, Nov 19 2000


McKearney, T (2011) The Provisional IRA. From Insurrection to Parliament. London: Pluto.


Moloney, E and Mitchell, B (2013) The Force Research Unit – How It Began. The Broken elbow. January 4th

Stewart, P., McKearney, T, O Machail, G,. Campbell, P and B. Garvey (2018)


Urwin, M (2016) A State in Denial: The British Government and Loyalist Paramilitaries. Cork: Mercier Press.


Wilder, G (2015) Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonisation and the Future of the World. Duke, Durham-NC.


[i] UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force, UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters.

[ii]The killing of eleven civilians by the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy, Belfast, occurred between 9th and 11th August 1971 during Operation Demetrius.


[iii] We now have a range of excellent sources on the activites of the CSRAs inter alia: Security Service, The Intelligence Organisation in Northern Ireland, 30 September 2002 Rayment, Sean (4 February 2007). "Top secret army cell breaks terrorists". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 July 2017.   Sharp, Aaron (9 March 2014). "Secret army unit credited with saving THOUSANDS of civilian lives facing chop". Mirror. Retrieved 1 July 2017.

The FRU was found to have colluded with British loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of civilians. "Stevens Inquiry: Key people". BBC News. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.] This has been confirmed by some former members of the unit. Mackay, Neil (19 November 2000). "My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland". Sunday Herald. ]From 1987 to 1991, it was commanded by Gordon Kerr.


[iv]“The complex intelligence machinery in Northern Ireland was grown out of the history of security emergencies and the different, complementary and supportive roles played in them over the years by the intelligence agencies and security forces." Security Service, The Intelligence Organisation in Northern Ireland, 30 September 2002 3.3 Throughout the period of direct rule after 1972, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had constitutional responsibility for the administration of law and order in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) advised Government Ministers on security policy issues, including legal and resourcing issues and information strategy.

3.4 The Secretary of State was supported in his responsibilities by the NIO's Permanent Secretary and by three primary security advisers, namely: the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Northern Ireland, who provided military support to meet the requests of the RUC,and the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI), a senior officer of the Security Service, who was the Secretary of State's principal intelligence adviser. "Volume 1 Chapter 3: Intelligence structures Report of the Patrick Finucane Review". Pat Finucane Review. An independent review into any state involvement in the murder of Pat Finucane Archived from the original on 16 December 2012.


[v]Volune 1 Chapter 3: Intelligence structures Report of the Pat Finucane Review. Archived from the original on 16 December 2012


[vi]Rayment, Sean (4 February 2007). "Top secret army cell breaks terrorists". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 July 2017. and Sharp, Aaron (9 March 2014). "Secret army unit credited with saving THOUSANDS of civilian lives facing chop". Mirror. Retrieved 1 July 2017




b) Palace Barracks: Explosion at MI5 headquarters and Army base in Northern Ireland caused by device hidden in postal van … B. Telegraph (                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     ‘Soldiers from The Royal Scots Borderers The Royal Regiment of Scotland have been stationed at Palace Barracks since August 2014. Around 1,000 MI5 operatives are employed at Loughside inside the Palace Barracks complex making it by far the largest MI5 base outside London.’


[viii] (


[ix]20 years of treachery, Henry McDonald, the Observer 18/12/2005 (


[x] Peter Robinson, former First Minister of the NI Assembly and leader of the DUP, and his wife, Iris Robinson.


[xi]The Adviser: Selwyn Black's Role .. I. Times …  (


Encouraging signs of growing unity among progressive forces

Beware of the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA)

IMG 4721 2

A recent feature in the Financial Times might cause some surprise among Ireland’s eight thousand homeless, or the many others struggling with the spiralling cost of renting even modest accommodation. 

The article reported that the Republic is now enjoying one of the most remarkable economic revivals the European Union has seen, and that the country’s sovereign borrowing costs are now the same as those of France. 

This piece of good news, for some at least, was part of a recent “Person in the News” article that gave a glowing account of the new taoiseach, Leo “early rising” Varadkar.¹ The article contained the type of trite nonsense more often produced by Varadkar’s social-media spin machine. Young, handsome, clubbable, assertive prime minister, and—wait for it—“probably more centre-right as opposed to the non-ideological person which Enda Kenny was.” 

Well, there you have it: journalistic licence at its most unperceptive. To speculate that any leader of Fine Gael could possibly be “non-ideological” requires a lively imagination, but to suggest that Leo Varadkar might be centre-right is to do a hard-line neo-liberal a grave injustice. 

Above: John Douglas, general secretary of Mandate, main speaker at united commemoration for Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown on 20th August 2017

For almost three decades after the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era’s onslaught on working people’s rights and entitlements, capitalist ruling classes everywhere were able to maintain control and hold the political high ground. 

They achieved this through a combination of factors. The collapse of socialist states in eastern Europe removed the threat of a competitive alternative. Their control of media and educational institutions granted the world’s oligarchs an almost uncontested telling of the political and economic narrative. Moreover, the creation of unlimited and ultimately unsustainable credit provided an illusion of prosperity and dynamism that offset opposition from the left, or indeed words of caution from the small number of critical classical free-market economists. 

The political calm enjoyed and exploited by capitalism’s elite ended with the economic crisis heralded by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent imposition of what is euphemistically called austerity. Working people in Europe, the United States and elsewhere reacted angrily to a brutal attack on their standard of living and challenged the legitimacy of the status quo. While the response over the entire spectrum of the working class has not always been progressive, it is nevertheless of concern to the ruling elite. 

Consequently, we are now seeing the emergence of a twin-track strategy from within capitalism. Firstly, there is the emergence of reactionary politicians posing as non-ideological centrists. Leo Varadkar and the promotional propaganda he generates exemplify this phenomenon in Ireland. 


Secondly, and almost invisibly, there is a subversive and corrosive campaign to legislate for and implement free-market trade agreements beneficial only to global corporate giants. While Donald Trump spoke loudly during his presidential campaign of ending such agreements, he has not made good on his boast since arriving in the White House. Although he stalled development on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the United States and the          Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), almost all other trade deals remain in place. 

And now, in another spectacular U-turn, his associates are intent on resuming negotiations in September on a pernicious treaty called the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). 

State-appointed delegates from twenty-two countries, together with the EU, represented by its Commission, have been meeting in secret in Geneva since 2013. Regrettably, the Irish state is complicit in this scheme, about which the EU’s own web site says: “Like any other trade negotiations, the TiSA talks are not carried out in public and the documents are available to participants only . . .” 

What we do know is drawn from leaked sources obtained by the International Trade Union Confederation and published in a report, “All About TISA.”² This report tells us that TISA would (a) lead to a massive transfer of power from governments to transnational corporations, (b) lead to strangulation of the regulation of banks and finance, and (c) hasten the “Uberisation” of many more jobs. 

Moreover, there is heavy emphasis on an all-encompassing locked-in clause, which simply means that, once enacted, there would be no retracting any aspect of the treaty. 

Any such trade pact would have detrimental consequences for Ireland. Not only would transnationals, such as Shell and Apple, gain increasing influence within the state but also our already limited ability to control the financial sector would disappear completely. Interestingly, Scott Sinclair, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, now argues that TISA would also make it harder for governments to regulate vital services, such as energy and water³—a barely visible clause that would potentially offer the Varadkar-led Fine Gael–Fianna Fáil axis a vehicle with which to reverse the gains made by the campaign against the water tax. 

As a Swiss trade unionist recently said, despairingly, if this treaty is implemented national parliaments become virtually irrelevant, and popular sovereignty is grabbed by transnational capital. 

Fortunately, though, all is not lost, and there is an answer to our difficulties. The above-mentioned water campaign provides a lesson in how to organise a peaceful and democratic mass movement capable of foiling the designs of neo-liberalism. 

Moreover, we have witnessed recently the beginning of an encouraging and indeed significant coming together of crucial progressive forces. Rallying under the slogan Unity of our people, unity of progressive forces, unity of our country, communists, republicans and trade unionists came together to hear a leading trade unionist, John Douglas, deliver an inspirational oration at the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone. 

A central theme of the speech was the need to build a progressive movement in order to reverse the damage done by neo-liberal austerity in general and to prevent specific attacks on workers, such as the TISA treaty. “There is an untapped hunger for change and justice in Ireland that we need to give expression to,” he said, “. . . and we can only do this through the unity of progressive forces.” He went on to add: “Our task now is to build from the ground up, to educate, to agitate. We need to build a movement that is capable and confident and which grows with every victory.” 

John Douglas has undoubtedly got it right. To build a movement sufficiently confident and capable of opposing and overcoming the neo-liberal agenda we must create unity among progressive forces. The recent united commemoration for Wolfe Tone was not only a positive first step along this road but indicated the real potential that exists. 

Evidence of success will be when a future Financial Times “Person in the News” article publishes the story of a leading Irish trade unionist who is causing as much distress for capital as Varadkar is providing for its comfort today. 

Tommy McKearney

This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Sept 2017

1. Laura Noonan, “The bright young man leading an Irish revival,” Financial Times, 19 August 2017.

2. (a) International Trade Union Confederation, “All about TiSA” (; (b) further information is available on the UNI Global Union web site (

3. Scott Sinclair, “TISA Troubles: Services, Democracy and Corporate Rule in the Trump Era,” Rosa Luxemburg Institute (

The people who get up early in the morning


The citizens of many European countries are being confronted with the invidious option of choosing between aggressive neo-liberalism on the one hand and fascism on the other. Nowhere was this clearer than during the recent presidential election in France, when voters were asked to decide between the right-wing financier Emmanuel Macron and the National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

The dilemma may not be quite so obvious everywhere, but the trend is nevertheless all too evident.

Nor should we in Ireland be complacent. There is not, at the moment, a significant ultra-right movement in this state, but we are certainly seeing the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian neo-liberal government.

There is no shortage of evidence of this imperiousness in action. We have the Jobstown trial, with its vindictive attempt to punish people in a working-class area who confronted the state; and equally ominous is the blatant attempt to curtail the right to protest.     

Then there was the contemptuous treatment meted out to Bus Éireann workers as they struggled to retain hard-won terms and conditions. And then we, the people, had our queries brushed aside when we demanded to know how the Irish delegation had voted on Saudi Arabia’s membership of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.     

We could continue, but lack of space prevents us.       

Just as we were beginning to think that things couldn’t get much worse, we are now faced with the nasty prospect of Leo “people who get up early in the morning” Varadkar becoming Taoiseach. During a pitch for the leadership of Fine Gael, he made his right-wing credentials crystal-clear, claiming that “unfortunately there are a group of people, very often supporters of the far left, that believe they shouldn’t pay anything and that Apple, bondholders or billionaires should pay . . .” Adding to this crude piece of neo-liberal dogma, he stated that if selected as party boss he would curb the right to strike in certain circumstances, by introducing binding arbitration on trade unions—the thin end of a wedge designed to emasculate organised labour.

It would be unwise to treat these comments and proposals as mere electioneering. Varadkar is responding to the demands of a powerful section of Ireland’s capitalist class. They are an elite group within society determined to take every possible advantage from the confusion and demoralisation created by the financial crisis of 2010—a group that at the same time is fearful of the power displayed by working-class communities when they united around the anti-water tax campaign.

To meet the demands of this elite cabal, Enda Kenny’s probable successor is setting out his agenda, and it is frankly anti-working class.

Varadkar may well bob and weave in order to obfuscate his real intentions as he offers so-called clarifications. He now says, for example, that his reference to people who get up early in the morning should be understood to recognise those with long journeys to work, and that his proposal to curb strikes is merely an initiative to improve the Labour Court.

In spite of this cynical play-acting, Varadkar’s aggressive neo-liberalism is ingrained and is as calculated as his headline-grabbing stunt ostensibly designed to counteract welfare fraud. Worth noting in this context is the absence of any suggestion of preventing white-collar crime, or replacing the discredited ODCE.      

The minister for social protection (an oxymoronic title if ever there was one) is moulded in the Fine Gael forge and will seek to ruthlessly protect the interests of capital. There can be little doubt that the next leader of the original corporatist party will ensure that it stays true to the ethos of its blue-shirted founding fathers.

Under these circumstances, however, it is important to recognise that Leo Varadkar is not so much a personality as a product of his class. He may display certain irrelevant idiosyncrasies that set him apart, but in reality any other contender for the party leadership would follow a similar political and economic path. Ever since the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008, capitalism’s elite has sought to protect its position by forcing the working class to pay for the financial crisis through what is euphemistically called austerity. Therefore, so long as Ireland is governed by free-marketeers we will have to endure the consequences of being forced to live by the rules laid down by those forces and elements controlling the market.

In the first instance, this will mean making Ireland conform to directives emanating from those vested interests that manage the European Union. It is useful, therefore, to bear this in mind and consider the programme now advocated by Germany and France—the core powers within the union. The ruling class in both states is determined to intensify integration, reinforce the currency zone, and accelerate what they like to describe as liberalisation of the labour market.

In a nutshell, this means that fiscal control will be decided by French and German financiers via Brussels and thereafter implemented through regional parliaments performing the task of emasculating organised labour. Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach would be one of those peripheral satraps entrusted with the latter chore—presumably a labour of love for him.

What, therefore, is to be done? From the outset, it’s important to recognise that we have entered an era in which old-style social democracy has become irrelevant and redundant, or sometimes even worse. The programmes being advocated by those parties that believe it possible to engage with and moderate neo-liberalism are offering a dangerous illusion. They have failed spectacularly everywhere and, just as has happened to the Labour Party, they are distrusted by a majority of working people and have been left floundering.

Nor is this a matter of appearances and presentation, where the application of a slick marketing campaign coupled with clever spin-doctoring will facilitate their return to power. Neo-liberal capitalism has left little space for placating a compliant working class and has therefore rendered social democracy redundant.

It is important, therefore, that we as a class understand that social democracy is in terminal decline, and not just in temporary retreat. Our choices are now limited, albeit not to those offered by capitalism. We should be absolutely clear that we do not have to settle for either neo-liberalism or fascism. There remains the only and perfectly viable option for working people: that is, a workers’ republic.

To make this a reality requires, above all else, organisation and unity among the progressive currents in Irish society. The unthinkable alternative is a choice between socialism and barbarism. One option we cannot allow ourselves is to wait passively for events to dictate. We must continue to endeavour to build the people’s movement capable of transforming society into one fit for the working class.

Tommy McKearney This article first appeared in the Socialist Voice June 2017

Sinn Féin faces a daunting task

Sinn Féin’s newly appointed leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, faces a daunting task as she begins to guide her party during a period of uncertainty in the six counties


Notwithstanding the fact that she is a politician of considerable experience and ability as outgoing minister for health in the Stormont Assembly, she faces several difficult challenges. Not only has she a short preparatory period before leading the party into an election in early March but she will be faced immediately thereafter with what are bound to be fraught negotiations with the DUP over the establishment of an Executive—and that may prove to be the easy bit. 

The fundamental problem facing all political parties in Northern Ireland is not restoring the institutions but what to do with a failed political entity, locked helplessly within the United Kingdom.   

Although there may be some small degree of electoral slippage for both major parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP are likely to remain the two largest groups in the Assembly. Thanks to the limited ability of the Stormont opposition, not to mention the absence of a visible alternative beyond that institution, the previous coalition partners will emerge as the only contenders for executive office. 

Whatever the electoral tally may show, there is undoubtedly a wide gap to be bridged if an Executive is to be formed in the weeks following 2 March. Sinn Féin has been stung by criticism from its own supporters for its inept and often contradictory early-days handling of the “cash for ash” scandal. The party was reluctant to bring down the Assembly and felt angry when forced to do so and thus trigger an election. Michelle O’Neill will be obliged, therefore, to wring some noticeable concessions from the DUP before re-entering coalition. 

Arlene Foster, on the other hand, has practically staked her reputation on acting tough with Sinn Féin while simultaneously rejecting any responsibility whatsoever for the RHI fiasco. This indicates the likelihood of stalemate, followed by direct rule, for some months at least. 

There was a time in the not too distant past when both London and Dublin would have reacted with some alarm to the prospect of relations between Northern Ireland’s political parties breaking down. Not any longer, though. Put bluntly, there is virtually no prospect of this rupture in the Assembly leading to widespread armed activity, and at any rate the Irish and British governments are now wrestling with what both consider the much more important issue of Brexit. Consequently, the quarrelsome Northern politicians will be left on the back burner until Theresa May finds time to send someone in to force through a settlement.    

No doubt an arrangement of sorts will be reached sooner or later. Both parties are acutely aware of what may happen when local political institutions are put in cold storage. Without the structures presented by the existence of a devolved administration and the public platform this provides, electoral parties tend to stagnate and even wither. Sinn Féin and the DUP are well aware of what happened to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP as a result of the prolonged period of direct rule during the 1980s.   

Both parties, however, are caught in a bind. Stormont as now constituted allows them to exert a certain amount of influence but grants no real power. The recent ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court in relation to article 50 of the Treaty on European Union—i.e. Brexit—made this painfully clear when it “unanimously ruled that devolved administrations did not need to be consulted and did not have a right to veto Article 50 . . .” It might well have added that, deprived, as it is, of fiscal and political authority, this applies to all other matters of significance coming before the Assembly.   

Making matters worse is the fact that those who have administered the six counties over the past ten years have no concrete plan for improving the situation. On the contrary, they have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to manage their responsibilities within parameters dictated by governments in London.    

How impoverished their response to this has been is evidenced by feeble initiatives such as the proposed reduction in corporation tax and appeals by the first and deputy first ministers to foreign transnationals to come and exploit the North’s low-wage economy.   

Moreover, it now appears that the absence of meaningful control over the economy may have played a significant part in the RHI (or “cash for ash”) scandal. Approximately 45 per cent of this grant was allocated to the poultry industry.¹ An impartial observer could be forgiven for thinking that this was, in effect, a disguised subsidy for a low-tech industry that, unsupported, might easily have been undermined by competition from abroad. 

Interestingly, the scheme’s attraction for poultry farmers was reported by the News Letter as far back as August 2014,² a fact that may require answers from the then minister for agriculture, Michelle O’Neill.  

Whatever conclusion will eventually be drawn from inquiries into this affair, it exposes inherent weaknesses in Stormont’s political and economic structures. The northern political entity is a peripheral region of the United Kingdom, locked in to London’s political and economic orbit. Unable to chart its own course, Northern Ireland is reduced to operating an opportunist economic policy, regulated and contaminated through the mean practising of sectarian politics.  

Therefore, while the Assembly and the Executive may eventually be restored, they will continue to huff and puff and do little to improve the dismal lot of the region’s working class. 

As with so many other states failed by a colonial past and contemporary capitalism, the North needs a transformative strategy. This requires frankness, honesty, and a willingness to contemplate options that will not please everyone. The northern state, as now constituted, is a failure and has to be replaced. That such a change will come about is no longer in doubt. The fall-out from Brexit, Scottish disenchantment with London and changing demographics are among the factors that guarantee this.    

Simply waiting for events to take their course, however, is not an option in the volatile political arena that is Northern Ireland. The only responsible approach is to make sure that change happens under the best possible conditions and with maximum support from within the working class. To do so it will be necessary to introduce a programme that demonstrates (even if it cannot be immediately implemented) a clear and reasonable path towards a new and better society. Core issues detrimentally affecting working-class communities have to be given priority and solutions identified over the short, medium and long term. 

It doesn’t take long to list problem areas that would form the basis of a transformative programme. Just as in the Republic, there is a homeless and rental-housing crisis in the North that can only be addressed by a comprehensive public housing strategy. The creeping privatisation of the National Health Service has to be halted and rolled back. Workers’ rights need defining, asserting, and defending. Adequate care for the aged must be made a priority. And the greatest stain of all—ubiquitous food banks in 21st-century Northern Ireland³—must be addressed and the need for them ended for all time.  

To implement such a strategy it will be necessary to build a movement around progressive forces and identify a methodology for engaging with the situation. Let’s be honest: this won’t be easy, but the alternative is to do nothing while tolerating existing failure, as we wait for the situation to inevitably get worse. 

As socialists, however, we believe we can succeed in this endeavour, because we always exercise “optimism of the will,” even in the North of Ireland. 

Tommy McKearney …This article first appeared in Socialist Voice, February 2017

1. Conor Macauley, “RHI scandal: Locations of RHI boilers revealed to BBC,” BBC News, 17 January 2017 (     

 2. Future of farming appears to be “Brites,” Farming Life, 22 August 2014 (      

3. Just one example: “Giving generously to food bank,” Mid-Ulster Mail, 15 December 2016 (

The Coming of the New Left

A new left-wing constituency is appearing on the Irish stage but it remains disjointed

protest march 12

Fianna Fail continues to support the Fine Gael led coalition in spite of having done  a U-turn on water charges. Their move against Uisce Eireann was more than simple opportunism. On one hand it certainly did indicate a party preparing for the next general election by  endeavoring to clear as many obstacles from its path as possible.  Equally so, and this is important, Fianna Fail populists  have recognised that there is a changed political climate in the Republic. They may not, though, have realised that it is more than a passing phase. The 2010 financial collapse and subsequent leeching of the 26-Counties' people by the Troika has revealed a powerful socio-political constituency at odds with the status quo. What is not obvious though, is the direction this movement is heading.

Politics in the South of Ireland was dominated until recently by three conservative political parties and  no matter how much some of us despaired, the people appeared content with the arrangement. No longer though. Fianna Fail’s somersault actually went some way towards underlining this fact. Thanks in no small measure to Micheál Martin’s Pauline conversion, the fate of the water tax  is sealed for the time being and few of its opponents can have failed to recognise this.  In spite of that, last month saw one of the largest  protest demonstrations in Dublin this year. Thousands took to the streets demanding the definitive abolition of a virtually defunct tax.

How does such energy remain in a campaign that is seemingly won? The reason is that something profoundly different and important has undoubtedly happened.  A goodly percentage of the population is deeply uncomfortable with the existing model of governance epitomised by the major parties that have held power over the decades. After several years of austerity and bailing out bankers, we are now witnessing the bizarre and offensive spectacle of a Dublin government refusing to collect €13  billion in tax from the world's wealthiest corporation. Working people are understandably angry. So angry indeed that the Irish Independent reported the Gardaí closed off Molesworth Street for a day in September apparently fearing, ‘… angry protesters would strike again as the Dáil resumed recently after its summer break …

Even allowing for Indo hype or Garda overreaction, this is a remarkable situation with a government seemingly frightened by its own citizens.  Nor is this a localised Irish phenomenon that may exhaust itself through the granting of limited concessions.  Similar sentiments are being expressed across Europe and North America. So disenchanted  have people become with the outworking of contemporary capitalism that even powerful representatives of the global elite are openly concerned. 

Their worries were summarised by a  recent Financial Times  editorial  which stated that, 'supporters of open markets and liberal values are acutely aware that they are facing a political backlash that threatens the current international order.... Christine Lagarde spoke of the “ground swell of discontent” felt in many countries with growing inequality in income wealth and opportunity'. The article continued, mentioning other concerned members of the global ruling elite  including  EU bosses Donald Tusk and Mario Draghi. Needless to say the money people’s newspaper only offered free market solutions.

This  belief in free-market economics, long shared also by social democrats, is now being challenged to a greater extent than at any time since the 1930s. Events in England, with the  consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn's position  at the head of  Britain's Labour Party, is further proof of what is happening. Developments within that party are instructive, exciting even and surely to be welcomed in the wider context in spite of their limited social democratic agenda. They  do nevertheless have the potential to be somewhat misleading in the sense that under Irish conditions, there cannot be an exact replication of the Corbyn campaign.

As a result of extensive 19th century industrialisation and the growth of the trade union movement, there has existed a mass working-class party (albeit centre social democrat and bourgeois led) in Britain since the  early 1900s. There is no similar mass organisation in Ireland and we would do well to recognise this. For well known historical reasons, the political left of centre in Ireland is not dominated by any one party as is the case in the UK. Nor has the modern Irish working class a shared folk memory identical to that which still influences many British working class communities.

Ireland’s history of anti-colonial struggle coupled with what for decades was a predominantly rural population has helped shape its grassroots political movements, resulting in several schools of thought. Consequently the strong radical constituency that has emerged over the last few years in Ireland is influenced by a number of different currents as evidenced by those participating in the recent Right to Water demonstration. Without question it is a predominantly working class movement with a healthy trade union input, an obvious socialist and republican participation and a non-party community involvement. While clearly a healthy and progressive development, there is minimum consensus around a shared programme, how it might be implemented and by whom.

Agreement around a limited programme such as the Right to Change principles is a useful first step but has weaknesses when inevitably faced by major issues such as membership of the European Union, rejection of finance imperialism or partition of the island. And let us be honest with each other, these are important issues that cannot be ignored and will  eventually either split a movement or prevent it unifying. Republicans, for example, will continue to reject partition and socialists will remain hostile to EU membership.

Until there is agreement around these contentious but vital issues, it is premature to talk of a new mass political party of the working class.  On the other hand, ignoring these questions in an attempt to maintain a façade of unity will at best result in creating the type of compromised and flawed entity that is Syriza.

However, there is no reason for despondency or lethargy. Significant progress has been made and conditions are favourable for positive advancement  by the working class.  What is required is to identify a vehicle that will allow for maximum cooperation  while simultaneously facilitating and promoting intensive discussion and negotiation around the formulation and implementation of a programme for the establishment of a socialist republic.

We already have the Right to Change as a vehicle with a proven record of promoting cooperation. More, however is required in terms of organisational and policy consensus.  In this age of modern communications with continuous online activity among other helpful features, there is every opportunity to carry out the extensive political education and discussion needed to complete the tasks.

At the risk of echoing the afore mentioned U-turners;  significant progress made but much remains to be acomplished.

Tommy McKearney … This article first appeared in Socialist Voice October 2016

History Repeating itself as farce

Policies of the Stormont Executive parties converging


How often have we heard the phrase from Marx's ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, that history repeats itself ‘... first as tragedy, then as farce’? That the axiom is overused is hardly surprising since it has been proven accurate so often and rarely more so than when applied to the current administration in Stormont. Once we were afflicted with an uncompromising Unionist regime that governed the six counties with scant regard for democracy and creating misery for many.  In its place we now have an administration that appears intent, instead, on making itself a byword for banality and ridicule.

The Lords Craig and Brookeborough must be turning in their marble tombs as the state they created is now home to what might charitably be described as a political circus. For pure farce it would be difficult to out-do the most recent brouhaha following revelations that a Sinn Fein MLA had coached flag waving loyalist Jamie Bryson prior to the young unionist giving evidence at a committee hearing investigating the Nama scandal. The only redeeming feature of the affair was the MLA’s immediate and exemplary resignation when found to have transgressed; an act of integrity almost unprecedented in northern political life where a mule-headed refusal to accept blame for any misconduct is more often the norm.

As well as the titillation provided by the Namagate coaching scandal, Stormont’s second coming contributes daily to the surrealism that surrounds Assembly business, indicating that it is more about optics than substance. Deprived of overall or full authority, due in large part to the absence of fiscal control, the Assembly (or the Executive at any rate) is now striving to maintain its existence at all costs, often paying less attention to living conditions for its electorate than to its own fortunes.

One result of this is that the two main parties have agreed on a curious modus vivendi that provides for a distinctly Northern Irish version of bicameralism. Instead of having two chambers, Stormont has effectively two arenas, one for designated areas of public disagreement and the other providing for an underlying consensus on economic policy. Readers of this newspaper hardly need reminding of the often-reported areas of disagreement in the North. Less obvious perhaps is the extent to which a neoliberal consensus underpinning the political institutions has led to a virtual policy convergence on economic matters. 

Just how close the two main parties are in these terms was highlighted recently in a joint letter[1] from First Minster Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to British Prime Minister Theresa May. In spite of angry denials, the First Minster had apparently performed a dramatic u-turn in relation to the European Union. Notwithstanding her enthusiastic support (and that of her party) for the Brexit campaign to leave the EU, Ms Foster has, in the letter to Downing Street, shifted her position on Brussels to one that appears not unlike that of Sinn Fein. The extent of the DUP leader’s about-turn is evidenced by no less than four references in the letter to the benefits supposedly accruing to Northern Ireland from EU membership.

While the First Minister was being ridiculed by her political opponents and some media outlets for her remarkable political somersault, the Deputy First Minister’s party had managed to perform a no less dexterous manoeuvre albeit one that drew much less public attention. As well as reversing its long-standing opposition to the free-market driven European Union, the letter to Theresa appears to indicate that Sinn Fein has adopted a pro-business position vis-à-vis workers and wages.

The jointly agreed and signed communiqué contains a request for policies that, it states, should be, ‘…sufficiently flexible to allow access to unskilled as well as highly skilled labour’. Elaborating on this point, the letter said that this was necessary because employers in the private and public sectors are heavily dependent on EU and other migrant labour.

Whether Sinn Fein care to admit it or not, there is nothing transformative or progressive about this stance. There is little doubt that this will not play out as an enlightened appeal to welcome workers from abroad. In Northern Ireland's depressed economy this is a strategy for lowering wages that are already among the lowest in the United Kingdom.

Both parties in the Stormont executive would probably claim, with some little justification, that they are restricted by the terms of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act[2] (i.e. devolved powers) and the amount in their annual block grant from London. Nevertheless this is to ignore the fact that there are several areas such as health, housing and economic development (among other areas) over which the local assembly has authority. Significant improvements could be made in all of these areas were it not for this unspoken but undisguised neoliberal consensus.

Take just one area, that of the National Health Service in the Six-Counties. Even allowing for financial restrictions imposed by the finite block grant, there is no good reason why Stormont doesn't act to remove privatisation from this service. Nor is this a purely ideologically inspired suggestion. Late last year BBC in Belfast reported[3] that care services for the elderly in their home environment were at breaking point. The report makes for grim reading with one care worker reporting that all too often they can only spend a bare 15 minutes per day with their elderly and often weak patients.

Disturbingly, the report also stated that there are more than 300 local private domiciliary contractors in Northern Ireland while care workers experienced the lowest average hourly rate paid for domiciliary care in the UK. This surely begs the question, what need is served by having 300 private middlemen (or any middlemen) and at what cost to patients and care workers?

Supporters of the Executive will claim that this is the price to be paid for maintaining the political institutions in the North and implying by extension, a necessary part of maintaining peace. However well intentioned, this is a mistaken argument since the current status quo in Stormont is above all else, preserving sectarianised institutions serving a failing state. Ultimately the solution to this problem rests in replacing the flawed and failed institutions on both sides of the border with the establishment of a workers republic.

Nevertheless, this should not be interpreted to mean that we have to postpone challenging the Northern Executive's neoliberal programme in the here and now. Building a workers state is not something that comes about spontaneously or without struggle. Highlighting the flaws within capitalism and campaigning to overcome, even some of them, are important aspects of that struggle. The northern state’s political institutions may indeed have become something of a farce but the real tragedy would be if we fail to expose them and or hesitate to organise resistance to these injustices.

Tommy McKearney …… This article first appeared in Socialist Voice September 2016

[1] Letter to PM from FM & dFM - 10 August 2016:

[2] Devolution Settlement: Northern Ireland.

[3] Elderly home care services in NI 'at breaking point'. Marie-Louise Connolly. BBC News NI Health Correspondent…29 October 2015

The first step in a new departure

A Socialist Republican Summer School

An important first step in what we may well come to describe as our “new departure”—this was how the recent summer school of the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum was described by one of the participants. Cautioning against a pedantic comparison with historical events, she pointed to the coming together of hitherto divergent currents in an effort to advance the cause of a workers’ republic.      

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Communists, republicans and socialists from around Ireland gathered last month in Co. Tyrone to take part in the event. While the forum organised a very successful celebration of the 1916 Rising earlier this year, the summer school was by far its most ambitious and also its most successful happening to date. In spite of a full and often challenging agenda, all those attending agreed that the time spent had been worth while, productive and, best of all, greatly encouraging.      

Speaking during a break in the schedule, Eugene McCartan said that the purpose of the forum is to provide a vehicle to facilitate informed political discussion.¹ This, he said, will hopefully allow for a consensus to emerge on the interpretation of socialist republicanism that encourages the coming together of people prepared to strive for the establishment of a workers’ republic.      

This outlook was endorsed by Breandán Mac Cionnaith, who reminded those present of one of the forum’s principles when he quoted the lines “that to struggle to undo the conquest it is necessary to oppose and actively resist both the imperial interests and their domestic gatekeepers. That struggle has the potential to draw into activity all those who suffer the effects of this dual domination. In effect, this means the vast majority of the Irish people.”      

From its formation, the forum has been clear that it draws inspiration and insight from the Republican Congress of the 1930s. Nevertheless it has also proceeded with the clear understanding that the world does not stand still, and that any analysis has to be grounded in contemporary reality.      

Acting in this light, the summer school agenda included an exploration of present-day imperialism, socialist republicanism, women’s rights, damaging trade agreements, the privatisation of health services, and the need to effectively communicate the socialist republican message.      

Demonstrating the power of effectively communicating a contemporary message, Patricia Campbell opened the summer school with an incisive presentation on the damaging effect of privatisation on health services, north and south. Drawing on her many years of nursing experience, she illustrated how imposing private companies on the health service diverts resources from patient to shareholder, with a particularly devastating effect on the elderly.      

The opening session was followed by an outline (coupled with a facilitated discussion) of contemporary imperialism, with an emphasis on its financial manifestation and therefore illustrating the injurious role played by transnationals as well as by Britain, the EU, and the United States.      

The next session was a workshop examining the reality and perceptions (or misconceptions) of socialist republicanism today. Overseen by Frankie Quinn, this sitting utilised to the full the forum’s desire to practise a participative rather than didactic method of engagement. With the aid of a series of thought-provoking questions, participants explored socialist republicanism honestly and robustly, sparing no sensitivities.      

Eoghan Ó Néill, author of Trading Away Democracy: How TTIP and Other Trade Agreements Will Destroy People’s Rights, guided the participants through a workshop demonstrating the threat posed by a number of impending trade agreements. He pointed to the dangerous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) but also the lesser-known, although no less harmful, Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada.      

Valerie Hayes brought the second day to an end with a workshop examining the lack of women’s rights in Ireland, north and south. She drew a comparison between the reactionary attitudes shared by right-wing groups in both jurisdictions and demonstrated how ingrained conservative attitudes towards women also help to reinforce the unhealthy status quo.      

Finally, the summer school devoted time to the question of organisation. This is a matter of huge significance, as ill-conceived structures are inimical to progress. Several speakers emphasised the need to reject political sectarianism and resist the temptation of a selfish form of “party-building” that excludes others. There was broad agreement, therefore, that it is essential to cater for and encourage maximum co-operation among different political entities on a set of shared principles that address current concerns.      

These issues involve the status quo, which the summer school agreed must change radically if the Irish working class is to overcome the profoundly unequal and debilitating political and economic system, a regime in the Republic that has caused a recurring series of recession, emigration and homelessness over decades and is now on the verge of creating American levels of income divergence between the wealthiest 10 per cent and the much more numerous cohort earning the average wage, or even less,² while in the North the BBC recently reported that people there have “on average, the lowest disposable incomes of any UK region.”      

Coupled with these long-standing harmful economic conditions are recent developments that are now creating circumstances demanding answers and simultaneously offering a fresh opportunity to the left. The working out of the most recent crisis within capitalism, and resistance to its imposition of a bail-out and austerity on Ireland, has altered the party-political landscape in the Republic. More recently in the North the result of the EU referendum has posed a series of difficult questions for the ruling elite throughout Ireland. The larger pro-EU parties in both jurisdictions confine their arguments to whether there would be a “hard” or a “soft” border, without asking why there is a border at all. Moreover, they have failed entirely to address the impact of TTIP on workers and working-class communities within the EU.      

Exacerbating these difficulties for those in power here are doubts afflicting their masters abroad, as evidenced, for example, by the turmoil within the IMF as it admits to “a series of calamitous misjudgements” in its dealings with the EU.³     

In the light of this, not only did the forum’s summer school in Co. Tyrone cover relevant issues but its convening was timely. Moreover, by drawing together previously divergent currents in a dialogue on issues of shared concern, the forum is in step with other, similar initiatives. A vibrant initiative, for example, is under way among the most progressive elements of the trade union movement to examine how best to promote the interests of Ireland’s working class.      

The summer school shone a light on the possibility of a fresh departure for left politics in Ireland, and hopefully this will prove what Victor Hugo once said, that “nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” 

Tommy McKearney

This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Aug 2016


2. Carl O’Brien, “Ireland at risk of reaching US levels of income inequality, says study,” Irish Times, 16 February 2015. 

3. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “IMF admits disastrous love affair with the euro and apologises for the immolation of Greece,” Daily Telegraph, 28 July 2016.

British Referendum a victory for democracy

The left campaign for leaving the EU

The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. Its electorate has done so in spite of exhortations to remain from, among others, David Cameron and Peter Mandelson, a majority of FTSE 100 chief executives, Goldman Sachs, the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, and Enda Kenny. It’s difficult, therefore, to overestimate the significance of this outcome. It has happened in spite of enormous scaremongering by the Remain campaign and its shameless exploitation of the murder of Jo Cox MP.      

Undoubtedly, strident attempts will now be made to attribute this result, in its entirety, to the impact of migration exploited by xenophobic British reactionaries within and outside the Conservative Party.  It would, of course, be wrong to dismiss the part played by racism. Britain is a former imperial power, and contempt for other peoples was an endemic feature of its past and has not been eradicated. Nevertheless, this tendentious argument deliberately ignores the fact that there have been waves of migration into Britain for decades, all accommodated thanks to an expanding economy.      

Worse than being a deliberate misrepresentation is the fact that concentrating entirely on resistance to migration denies what the Financial Timesdescribed as the “rage from Leave voters alienated by London and globalisation.”  No matter who legislated for the referendum or for what reason, voting was open to all, and the working-class movement had an opportunity to participate in a crucially important debate and decision-making event. Herein lay, perhaps, the most ominous aspect of the entire campaign. Apart from a small, coherent minority centred mainly on people in the RMT Union and the daily Morning Star, the left in Britain (in its widest definition) either failed to recognise or, worse, chose to ignore the despair felt by so many working people in the UK.      

In part because of the depoliticisation of large swathes of organised labour as a result of the pernicious right-wing influence of New Labour’s Blairite cohort, there was a general absence of any critical narrative, not to mention socialist analysis, in relation to the European Union. This weakness led to the mistaken assertion, when the referendum was first announced, that being anti-EU was tantamount to being anti-migrant and xenophobic. Stepping back from positive engagement meant that the debate was dominated at first by feuding reactionaries.      

Fearing a split in his Blairite-dominated parliamentary party, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, felt forced to support the Remain campaign, though offering a different rationale from that of William Hague or Theresa May. With little by way of evidence, he argued that the European Union protected workers’ rights and offered access to a lucrative market for British manufacturing.     

Depressingly, Corbyn’s lead was gladly followed by both the TUC in Britain and the ICTU in Northern Ireland. In fact the referendum debate in the North of Ireland paralleled that in Britain. The DUP supported quitting the EU for reasons similar to those of right-wing conservatives, while Sinn Féin argued a Remain case along lines employed by New Labour. The Northern Ireland committee of the ICTU strongly supported the Remain campaign but ,interestingly, did acknowledge its deep-seated flaws at public meetings attended by this writer.      

In the face of powerful opposition it seemed almost inevitable that the Leave campaign—including the well-reasoned left “Lexit” case—would succumb. That this did not happen is worth consideration. Over the past forty years many British working-class communities have endured deprivation, with industries closing, low wages, zero-hour contracts, the welfare state undermined, and public services being privatised. As a consequence, a large number of these societies have been damaged, and many less-well-off people feel alienated from the political establishment, whether it is in the EU or London.      

The EU is clearly not directly responsible for every socially destructive effect suffered by the British working class; but its overarching neo-liberal ethos has certainly facilitated the devastation. Equally pertinent is the fact that the right-of-centre social democrats of New Labour have not only failed to offer working people a viable remedy but have colluded with the free-marketeers in inflicting their punishing programme. Kevin McKenna, writing in the Herald (Glasgow), accurately reflected the feelings of working people in the north of England towards the party when he said that “during three successive Labour governments they had been made to feel like an embarrassment to the metropolitan Islington elite who thirsted for power and money . . .”¹      

While not underestimating the significance of a vote to leave the EU, it should not be taken in isolation from its wider European context. Disenchantment is not confined to Britain. A recent article in the Financial Times revealed the fact that the EU is becoming increasingly unpopular among people in its member-states.² Quoting from an extensive survey of opinion, Timothy Garton Ash mentioned that in eight of the ten member-states surveyed, a majority disapproved of how the EU manages the economy, and only 51 per cent are in favour of retaining the union.³      

Admittedly these statistics are garnered by a research company, employing opinion poll surveys, and so must be viewed cautiously. Nevertheless some facts are indisputable. One is that the European Union, with its treaties enshrining neo-liberal economic policies, has exacerbated austerity in many of the member-states, and offers no obvious way to correct this deficiency. Furthermore, the legal structures and constitution of the union not only make reforming its institutions practically impossible but also, as the Greek people (as well as the Irish and others) have learnt, makes futile resistance from within.      

As a consequence, working-class people throughout the EU have an objective need to dismantle the EU as an entity; equally important in the light of its rapidly diminishing popularity, there is now a realistic possibility of doing so. However, this will require a carefully crafted and enlightened strategy, because otherwise fascism will exploit the misery created and perpetuated by the neo-liberals.      

Essential to the success of such a strategy is challenging comprehensively and dismissing the illusion peddled by centrist social democrats that the EU can be reformed. The British referendum result shows that demolishing this myth is now a realistic option. Running in tandem with this, however, is the need to promote a clear and unambiguous socialist alternative that speaks to the needs of the majority throughout the continent. Undoubtedly this will pose challenges; but when has building socialism been easy? And when has that been a reason for not trying? 

Tommy McKearney … this article first appeared in:   Socialist Voice July 2016
1. Kevin McKenna, “EU vote truly signals the end of a Union dearer to me,” Herald, 25 June 2016, at

2Timothy Garton Ash, “The fading of Europe is a result of both its failures and successes,” Financial Times, 11 June 2016. 

3. Pew Research Center, “Euroskepticism beyond Brexit (

EU membership: a challenge for the serious left


It is being reported that some Scots intend voting Yes in the British referendum dealing with Britain’s membership of the European Union. Apparently their decision is based on the rather shaky principle that if a significant number of English people wish to leave, they will vote to remain.

Something similar may happen in the North of Ireland as a result of boorish statements from senior members of the DUP, who prefer to criticise a hapless Taoiseach than to wrestle with austerity-inflicting Tories.

While it is possible to understand the resulting resentment, it would be short-sighted not to deliver a better-judged verdict on the real nature and purpose of the European Union during David Cameron’s “in-out” referendum. It would also be an unforgivable blunder to allow the far right to dominate an argument that socialists cannot ignore.

Moreover, the EU is in the throes of a series of crises that may well determine much of Europe for decades to come.

The European Union, from its foundation, has been a structure designed to facilitate capitalism and to promote imperialist objectives. When originally set up in the 1950s as the Common Market it had as its primary purpose the creation of economic co-operation between western European states hostile to the Soviet Union. In spite of adopting a social-democratic programme in its early phase, it had a clear but unspoken objective of curtailing socialism.

Many on the left recognised the institution for what it was and drew attention (with disappointingly little impact) to the threat posed by the presence of NATO coupled to a political bloc fundamentally committed to maintaining free-market economies.

Two main factors accounted for the left’s lack of influence. Fearing the influence of the USSR, coupled with the impact of post-war western European communist parties, the ruling elite made strategic concessions to the working class. This, together with a raised standard of living achieved by the super-exploitation of the Third World, meant that for many years Europe’s rulers were able to contain discontent.

For reasons well known to readers of Socialist Voice, the EU’s ruling elite has retreated over the past four decades from the post-war social-democratic arrangement. More recently, attacks on workers’ living standards have intensified under a neo-liberal agenda. As circumstances have changed, the widespread tolerance, if not quite approval, that once existed for the EU among Europe’s working class has come under significant challenge.

The reasons for growing disenchantment are not hard to find. Capitalist free markets bring with them the inevitability of crises, such as that triggered by the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. By enforcing the fiscal and monetary straitjacket resulting in particular from the treaties of Maastricht and Lisbon, the EU orchestrated an era of austerity as a response to the financial crash and subsequent recession.

The result for working-class communities in many parts of Europe has ranged from painful to calamitous. Unemployment rose steeply in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, and Greece, and the hard-won social welfare safety net was cut to the bone. Most hurtful is the growing realisation that this situation is not a temporary aberration but is the new standard.

Not surprisingly, the enforcement of neo-liberal policies has caused resentment, and new, though often disjointed, protest movements have emerged in many countries, including Ireland. Nor is the discontent confined to the so-called peripheral countries. A radical movement opposed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership¹ has grown in strength in Germany over the past few years and recently staged one of the largest demonstrations ever seen in that country.

Against this background of discontent with the economic management of the EU, conservatives (and not just the far right) throughout the continent are stirring up hysteria against the waves of refugees fleeing war in the Middle East.

So concerned are some establishment-leaning commentators that they are going so far as to suggest that these difficulties may lead to the break-up of the European Union. Prof. Mark Mazower, writing in the Financial Times, said: “The union faces a deep crisis of institutional legitimacy.”² He listed the main areas of contention as high rates of youth unemployment, secular stagnation, and disagreement over refugees, leading possibly to a collapse of the Schengen agreement. The professor didn’t include a British exit from the EU, but he might well have.

In spite of the problems confronting EU heads of government and their bureaucrats, there is little doubt that the current European ruling class will strive to maintain an entity that has served it well for so long. Moreover, present indications are that they will endeavour to do so by moving further to the right. Using increasingly authoritarian methods, whether financial, fiscal, or armed force, they will hope to simultaneously outmanoeuvre both the populist right and meandering social democrats. There are already clear signs that leading EU governments are employing increasingly reactionary and anti-democratic practices.

In the light of this it has to be stated that the EU is not going through a temporary phase of turbulence that can and will be corrected if and when, that “better and improved policies are adopted if the right people are put in place.” The EU is not like a dysfunctional family that can be improved by the application of therapy and a measure of good advice. The EU is doing what it was designed to do, and will continue doing so unless and until it is replaced by a different construction.

The forthcoming referendum promised by David Cameron provides the serious left with a challenge that cannot be avoided. With heightened interest in the debate, it is important to avail of an opportunity to make people throughout Ireland aware of the nature and purpose of the EU and simultaneously to offer a realistic socialist alternative. It is crucial, therefore, that the debate doesn’t get sidetracked into secondary issues or become distorted by right-wing, xenophobic ranting (nor that anyone should support the EU because that might annoy the DUP).

A century after the 1916 Rising it would be timely and important to remind Irish people that control by the EU of monetary and fiscal policy, and a growing military commitment, are incompatible with the existence of a “sovereign, independent state” capable of defending the well-being of its citizens.

It might also be timely to rework an old adage from that revolutionary era and point out that the EU’s difficulties could and should become an opportunity for the working class in Ireland and abroad. As a first step we need to engage energetically in the debate, providing a left critique of the EU that emphasises its core function and worrying future developments. As always, any critique also requires the outline of the realistic alternative offered by socialism.

Tommy McKearney … this article first appeared in Socialist Voice Feb 2016


1. Lee Williams, “What is TTIP? And six reasons why the answer should scare you,” Independent (London), 6 October 2015.

2. Mark Mazower, “Lessons from the past are key to Europe’s survival,” Financial Times, 23 January 2016.

This most incompetent coalition

Think carefully about  this shower

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Enda Kenny and his coalition government are being rightly condemned for their tardy       response to the flooding crisis in the south and west of Ireland. Much of the criticism, however, tends to suggest that the Taoiseach and his Cabinet were asleep at the wheel or overindulging through the holiday. There may be something in this but the reality is even grimmer. This government, quite frankly, is incapable of dealing with a crisis, any crisis that is.

The Fine Gael & Labour Party coalition has pumped up the myth that they are a paragon of competent and capable government. They have spun the story that they steadied the ship of state in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Along with a fawning media, they have promoted the notion that Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin are ministers of incomparable sagacity whose wisdom, coupled with inspired leadership from Kenny and Burton, has delivered Ireland from a cruel fate.

Their inability to deal with this most recent crisis demonstrates just how false is this self-serving propaganda. The coalition government didn't design a cure for the financial crisis; they merely followed instructions laid down by the Troika. Now, left to their own devices they are helpless and floundering in the current emergency because this government has a limited range of answers to any problem; let the Gardai arrested it, have speculators privatise it, ask Angela Merkel regulate it or send the Bruton woman out for a photo-call.

Let's face it, though, Enda and Joan are not totally indifferent to the fate of the electorate in the South and West. Without someone to hole their hands the poor sods just didn't know what to do.

The real message to draw from this debacle is that the current government, far from being competent, is not to be trusted in the throes of a crisis. They are bereft of ability during an emergency. This is something that should be kept to the forefront during the upcoming general election because there is no reason to believe that another economic crisis will not happen. We suffered as a result of incompetent governance during the last crisis and will suffer even more from incompetence during a further crisis. 

Think carefully before re-electing this shower - in case it rains again!

Tommy McKearney...2 January 2016

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