We need a workers’ solution to the ‘national’ divide!

British Troops out of Ireland, Now!
We need a workers’ solution to the ‘national’ divide!

Originally published in ‘Marxist Bulletin’ No. 3, August 1997.
http://www.bolshevik.org/mb/3ireland.htm

Tony Blair’s election on May 1st, together with the election of a Fianna Fail-dominated coalition government in the Irish Republic in June, has produced a flurry of activity by British, Irish and American politicians to revive the ‘peace process’ that foundered in February 1996, when the Docklands bombing signalled the end of the IRA’s 17-month long ceasefire. The Major government, desperate to cling onto power until the last possible moment with a parliamentary majority shrinking to non-existence, became chronically dependent on Unionist votes in Westminster to prop it up, and so was unable and unwilling to even maintain a semblance of ‘even-handedness’ in its dealings with the various Northern Ireland parties. This was a significant factor in the unravelling of the ‘peace process’. However, now that there is a British government with a huge parliamentary majority, in no way dependent on Loyalist bigots for its survival, once again the conditions appear to exist for the British ruling class to try to negotiate some sort of settlement of the Irish conflict.

Yet the collapse of the previous ‘peace process’ under the Major government has left a much more volatile political situation in the North than was the case in 1994. At that time there was a massive wave of pacifistic sentiment in both communities, that despite the reactionary and illusory nature of the ‘peace process’ itself, provided a brief opportunity for a socialist intervention to sharpen a struggle on class, instead of national/communal, lines.

Now this sentiment is much less noticeable. The popular reaction to the IRA’s July reinstatement of the ceasefire has been very muted, unlike the euphoria of August 1994. As Major’s previous debacle wound to its end, the popular pacifistic mood was replaced by an ugly sectarian polarisation, with each side accusing the other of ‘betraying’ the hopes for peace.

The see-sawing of the Blair government during this year’s marching season – first forcing the loyalist march at Drumcree down the local Catholic community’s throat with brutal RUC force, then reversing its stance and angering loyalists by failing to provide ‘security’ for other sectarian loyalist marches in Catholic areas – is likely to continue. Despite Mowlem’s attempts to keep the ‘peace train’ running and satisfy both sides, the Blairites’ attempts to ‘reconcile’ the republicans and loyalists to a mutually agreeable ‘settlement’ is unlikely to suceed. In the absence of a joint Protestant–Catholic revolutionary class struggle, one or the other nationalism will prevail in any ‘settlement’. The contradictions of this situation could easily explode into a Bosnia-style communal conflict, and blow Blair’s ‘peace process’ sky high.

British rulers want out

A ‘settlement’ is what the British ruling class transparently wants – a settlement that will allow them to divest themselves of this costly and unruly problem bequeathed to them by previous generations of British imperialist exploiters, who made much more out of Northern Ireland’s once-strategic industries than is possible today.

When the British state engineered the partition of Ireland in the 1920s, it managed to retain the bulk of the island’s heavy industries, leaving the citizens of the newly-born ‘Irish Free State’ with a predominantly backward, agricultural economy. Now, with the decay and obsolescence of the engineering and shipbuilding industries that once dominated the province, Northern Ireland has for decades been seen as a liability on the British state’s balance sheet – something to be disposed of with as little trouble as is possible. With the rise of European imperialist investment in the Irish Republic, Eire has gradually acquired much more importance, especially on the European stage.

The British ruling class fears only one consequence if it were to leave the six counties – the prospect of a war between Protestant and Catholic communities that could be a de-stabilising force in the rest of these islands. These days, the British state cares little for the Protestants, who are now of much less importance both strategically and economically than in the very different circumstances of decades ago.

Britain’s rulers basically want ‘order’. They would for the most part be quite happy to hand over Northern Ireland to the Irish bourgeoisie, and even allow their historic Protestant allies to be crushed – if they thought this was likely to work. But they fear that the Southern Ireland capitalist state is not strong enough to maintain ‘order’ in such an eventuality. So, the troops stay, and the search for some kind of ‘negotiated settlement’ with the protagonists goes on.

Poisonous divisions

Socialists have a different set of aims in seeking to address the questions posed by the situation in Northern Ireland. We seek to fight for the interests of the working class. We especially fight to overcome the kinds of divisions in the working class that are so prevalent in Ireland – divisions where workers, instead of understanding that the boss class of all nationalities is their enemy, instead believe that their deadliest enemies are the bosses and workers of another community.

In situations such as Ireland, where such hatreds are the legacy of centuries of oppression of one community by the other, socialists must fight against all kinds of nationally- and communally-based forms of oppression. We must be the best fighters against the systematic, vicious discrimination that has been traditionally practised by the British/Orange state machine and employers in Northern Ireland. We must recognise that the working class movement in Northern Ireland has been poisoned and corrupted almost beyond belief by anti-Catholic Orange bigotry, in order to struggle to change it.

Socialists in Britain particularly have an obligation to hammer into the consciousness of British workers the historic responsibility of our ‘own’ British ruling class for the oppression of the Irish Catholic population in the North, and for colonial rule in the whole of Ireland before that. That the British Labour Party has for many decades supported British rule in Northern Ireland, and was in fact instrumental in sending in the army in 1969 and in many other atrocities since, is something that brings shame on the British labour movement.

Our commitment to ‘Troops Out’

In voting to include the demand for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Ireland in our policy statements, our party made an important break from the rotten ‘traditions’ of labourism. The class battles of the 1980s, such as the miners Great Strike of 1984–5, Wapping and the Poll Tax, led to the disillusionment of many militant workers with treacherous labourism. The British state tested out many techniques of repression in the six counties that were later used against the working class at home. This key lesson has been learned by many of the working class militants who founded the SLP, and no doubt was the key reason why conference voted overwhelmingly to overturn (with the agreement of the podium) the weak-kneed, mealy-mouthed call for a ‘commitment to withdraw’ over the lifetime of one parliament, in favour of an amendment to the Ireland resolution raising the unequivocal demand for the immediate withdrawal of troops.

A capitalist ‘peace’ process

Yet as we pointed out in the last SLP Marxist Bulletin, despite this advance, some of the propaganda our party has produced on the question of Ireland has been badly flawed. We criticised the softness on the so-called ‘peace process’ in articles by comrade Patrick Sikorski in Socialist News (see ‘On Bourgeois “Peace Talks” and “Nationalist” Bombs, MB 2). Softness and confusion about these talks, and particularly a belief that if only they were ‘fair’ and Sinn Fein were admitted to them on an equal basis to the other northern Irish parties they could lead to real progress towards peace and socialism, is only too common on the left wing of the British labour movement.

But this is an illusion – the common denominator of all the forces involved in this ‘peace process’, including Sinn Fein and the IRA themselves, is some kind of ‘solution’ within the framework of capitalism. Nowadays, in the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet and East European bureaucratised workers’ states, Sinn Fein, which at various times in the past used to talk vaguely about some sort of ‘socialism’, no longer does so. It is much more explicit than for many years that its aim is a reunified Irish capitalist republic.

Indeed, logically and geographically, the best and simplest solution to the partition of Ireland would appear to be what our policy papers say it should be a united Ireland. Simple. In fact, so simple one can be forgiven for asking: ‘If this solution is so simple, why hasn’t it already been done?’ And the answer to this question is also obvious. The reason Ireland has not been united is because there is a formidable obstacle – over a million Protestants, close to two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland, are at this point overwhelmingly determined not to take part in any such ‘unity’.

The most important difficulty faced by anyone who wants to address the real problems of how to achieve peace and socialism in Ireland is how to overcome this obstacle. It is not good enough, as many on the British left have done over the years, to look at this problem through rose-tinted (or perhaps green-tinted) spectacles and hope or pretend it will go away. It will not.

The problem that many on the British left will not face up to is that any attempt to unite Ireland without a solution to this problem being found will inevitably lead to a conflict similar to that in Bosnia over the last few years. The Protestants will not be coerced – it they are threatened with forcible incorporation into the Irish Republic they will fight. A communal war would be the result, which would be a massive defeat for the working class of both communities. What is more, it is a war the Protestants could, as things stand at present, quite likely win, driving large sections of the Catholic people out of their communities.

This scenario is not far-fetched at all – rather it is something that socialists who are serious about fighting oppression in Ireland must formulate a programme to avoid, in favour of a working class solution to the ‘national’ problem.

No forced reunification

The starting point of such a solution flows inevitably from this analysis – socialists must demand the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of British troops from Ireland, but we must at the same time oppose the forcible reunification of Ireland.

Socialists in Ireland must fight every concrete measure of oppression of the Catholic population in the North, against discrimination in education, jobs, housing, as well as against the sectarian state machine. But at the same time we must make it abundantly clear that we do not seek to coerce Protestant workers into a united Ireland against their will.

It is one of the ironies of politics that those British and Irish leftists who close their eyes to this problem and advocate ‘self-determination for the Irish people as a whole’ irrespective of the wishes of the Protestants, actually act to retard the possibility of real, working class unity between Protestant and Catholic. This class-based unity is the only progressive way a united Ireland is ever likely to be achieved. Empty slogans about self-determination, which do not recognise that the self-determination of one community threatens the self-determination of the other, simply reinforce the fears of Protestant workers that if they break with ‘their’ Orange bosses and politicians, they will end up as an oppressed minority in a Catholic-dominated capitalist state.

Rather than demand the Protestants’ inclusion in a united Ireland as an end in itself, we should argue that the matter of where the Protestants fall be open to negotiation between workers representatives of both communities, with the possibility of Protestant workers remaining separate with their own workers state from an Irish workers state for as long as they want, possibly as part of a socialist federation with other parts of the British Isles. This is not so unlikely as it sounds, since the likely situation is that any mass socialist workers upsurge in Northern Ireland would be a part of something wider in the rest of these islands. An approach that does not involve coercion is most likely to lead to the rational solution of Irish unity on a voluntary basis, under socialism.

Civil rights and guns

As socialists and internationalists, we must seek to elaborate a strategy that can unite the working class in Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic, for class struggle against capitalism itself. In doing so we must address the basic economic facts of capitalist decay, which in Northern Ireland have a particularly malignant character because they are intertwined with the sectarian divisions in our class. At the same time, in a society where, infinitely more than on the island of Great Britain, the entire body politic is awash with guns, we must not be afraid to tackle head-on questions related to armed power, in relation to the state machine and the paramilitary organisations of both communities. For socialists to avoid either of these aspects would be fatal, in different ways.

In refusing to address the questions of armed power, and seeking to concentrate on ‘economic’ questions, we would be powerless. Any serious attempt to wage ‘economic’ struggle would inevitably come into confrontation with gangs of armed strikebreakers and anti-socialist assassins.

On the other hand, for socialists to shun ‘economic’ questions and simply concentrate on organising a military struggle against the British state and the reactionary paramilitary organisations would be to fall into a kind of ‘socialist’ guerillaism. Such a course would lead to socialists being isolated from mass struggles and being seen as military adventurists and elitists. Rather, we should seek to connect the struggles that can unite workers on ‘economic’ questions to the wider question of the need for the workers to arm themselves, to defend their class unity and class interests against armed enemies of the working class and socialism, not all of whom are to be found in the Loyalist ‘camp’.

In particular, we need a programme of ‘economic’ demands that can overcome the widespread fear among Protestant workers that calls for ‘equality’ for Catholics in jobs, housing, and so on would mean worse housing and greater unemployment among Protestants. Protestant workers are not some kind of privileged elite. They ‘enjoy’ a level of privilege so great that they have a lower standard of living than most workers on the island of Great Britain!

Rights for all Irish workers

We need to attack anti-Catholic discrimination by posing demands for equality in the context of a struggle for more for workers of both communities – jobs for all, work-sharing on full pay, shorter working weeks for all, better wages for all, and so on. We need to raise demands for the secularisation of political and social life – against the influence of both the Protestant and Catholic churches. We should demand full rights for women – free abortion, contraception, divorce, and the abolition of anti-gay laws and other such repressive measures against sexual expression. All these demands cut against the reactionary forces in both communities and contain within them a potential to push forward working-class unity.

At the same time we need to advocate a solution to the ‘military’ question. In recent years there have been repeated cases of Protestant workers taking strike action, even at such traditional bastions of sectarianism as Harland and Wolff’s, to express their disgust at sectarian killings, including those of Catholics by Orange gunmen.

Socialists in Ireland should try to take this further by advocating the formation of integrated military groupings, containing both Protestant and Catholic workers, to defend potential victims of such attacks in both communities when the need arises. Formed concurrently and as part of struggle for the kind of ‘economic’ demands described above, such anti-sectarian armed groups could themselves form part of the solution to the ‘military’ problem. They pose the possibility of working class state power instead of the power of the British state and the sectarian armed groupings. It is true that the Loyalist paramilitary gangs are the most vicious and most guilty of such crimes, but it is also true that some Republicans are quite capable of carrying out sectarian crimes themselves.

If a socialist party such as our own looked as if it was leading a real struggle for workers power, we would attract many of the best elements from the Republican movement, but there are also die-hard pro-capitalist elements in that movement who are capable of being a threat to the workers movement, and socialists in Ireland would need our own forces to defend the working class against them also.

Overall, as socialists and internationalists, we have a responsibility to not merely act as an opposition to the criminal actions of British imperialism (which is essential) but also to put forward socialist solutions to this complex national question. Many activists in the labour movement in both Britain and Ireland, who are antagonistic to British rule in Ireland and sympathetic to the struggle against oppression, are nevertheless sceptical about the simplistic ‘solutions’ (‘United Ireland’, etc.) offered by much of the ‘far left’. The SLP, which has the potential to win many such activists to a genuinely socialist programme and perspective, should seek to go further than has been done in the past and develop its understanding towards such a goal. The editorial collective of this bulletin believe that the perspective outlined here offers a way forward, and commends it to the SLP membership as the basis of a genuinely revolutionary strategy for socialism in Ireland and the British Isles as a whole.

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