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From Operation Banner to Operation Helvetica:

The changing face of British rule in Ireland

John McAnulty

23 August 2007

In their usual astounding display of chutzpah Sinn Fein have produced a T-shirt depicting the IRA expelling a Brit soldier, claiming that the ending of ‘Operation Banner’ (the deployment of troops and the armed suppression of the civil population during the years of the troubles) amounts to British defeat and republican victory.

Republicans have not been slow to put them right, pointing out that Operation Banner has been replaced by Operation Helvetica, involving a permanent garrison of 5000 troops, that MI5 have built a massive base to monitor opposition to the new state, that new laws far exceed the emergency legislation of the past,  that a large paramilitary police force remains armed and in place, with many of the structures and individuals who ran the death squads still in senior positions, and that loyalist groups are armed and sponsored by the state.

The republicans are perfectly correct in the substance of their attacks on Sinn Fein.  But this is not the whole story.  The fact is that the 5000 strong British garrison is significant mainly in that it defines the colonial nature of the state.  If the current settlement is to succeed then the troops will remain in barracks.  The police and special laws will be successful only if aimed at a small minority in an otherwise ordered society.  The struggle for the British is not about unleashing loyalist violence, but about containing it while incorporating the loyalist groups into civil society.

There are three important questions that need to be studied:

How did the Old Stormont regime maintain stability? How will the new society envisaged in Operation Helvetica remain stable?  What are the internal contradictions that will lead to its collapse?

The physical base of stability in the pre 1968 Orange state was the Protestant militia.  The A, B and C special constables all had scraps of uniform and weapons and very little control over their actions or accountability (the British had no record of how many guns had been given out).  The sweeping Special Powers Act ensured that almost all forms of political activity that the government disapproved of were illegal, while at the same time providing effective immunity for crown forces – for example the ability to ban inquests.  Blatant and sweeping discrimination in employment marginalised Catholic workers, while a whole network of loyal orders around the workplace both kept bigotry alive and policed the Protestant workers for disloyal ‘Lundys’.  Although Catholics were excluded from political power, a nationalist middle class and the Catholic Church had relative privileges and helped police the nationalist workers. This atmosphere of perpetual siege was effective against the small militarist republican groups, but broke apart when faced with mass mobilisation.

Today the official Orange militia of old have gone, to be replaced by a much more sophisticated network of repression. Intelligence has been taken from local hands and will remain forever in the central organs of the British state, represented by MI5.  The change from RUC to PSNI has been accompanied by the preservation of major structures such as the special branch and the place of the militia taken by carefully cosseted paramilitary groups, fully armed and closely linked to the state forces.  A curtain of silence is now being thrown around those structures and investigation of collusion is increasingly being ruled impermissible. 

The armed police force will be much larger than the old RUC, will have the enormous surveillance apparatus of MI5, and will have the new powers of the strong state, effectively unrestricted powers of seizure, internment and detention as well as a host of new laws that will make many acts of political opposition crimes of subversion, incitement or conspiracy. These are now the norms of everyday civil law in the British state.  If not enough, extra emergency powers lurk in the background.

In the new society Catholics have their own share of sectarian privilege and sectional political rights,  This much increased privilege, shared by Sinn Fein, the Catholic middle class and the Catholic church, carries with it a much greater responsibility to defend the state and police Catholic workers, with state funded organisations that will extend into every street in working-class districts.

The lynchpin of the new state is sectarian division.  The loyalists are to be used as assassins only in the last resort.  Their primary role is to be inserted into civic society so that policing, health and education will be a patchwork of sectarian rivalries and the working class atomised and fragmented.

There are three weak points to the new dispensation:

The sectarian division is not equal.  The DUP have been given a limited primacy that they urgently want to expand and they need to constantly demonstrate that they are the top dog by attacking Sinn Fein and nationalist rights in general.  Sinn Fein maintain stability by constantly giving way, but this is not a process that can continue forever.

The settlement involves a far right economic policy.  The mild form, advanced by the British, calls for a lowering of the basic wage, mass sackings, cutbacks in public service and wholesale privatisation and deregulation.  Sinn Fein, the DUP – in fact all the capitalist parties, backed by the intervention of the Catholic church, cry salt tears about some aspects of this while also advocating a stronger far right policy – turning capitalist heaven into paradise with the lowering of corporation tax and massively switching the tax burden further in the direction of the working class.

The settlement depends on the silence of the grave falling over the North while a corresponding 26 county nationalism runs rampant in the South. This is possible only as long as there is no mass working class opposition on either side of the border.

Operation Helvetica is not Operation Banner. One depended on the troops actively fighting to preserve the Northern colony.  The other depends on the troops remaining in barracks.  Under Helvetica the main policing mechanism for ensuring stability will be an unholy triumvirate of Sinn Fein, Fianna Fail and the Catholic Church assuring us that the partitionist, colonial and sectarian settlement is a suitable end point for Irish history and a suitable vehicle for the emancipation of the Irish working class.


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