- Part 1: Why Northern Ireland Broke Down
- Part 2: The Irish Workers' Group, I S and the "Trotskyist Tendency"
- Part 3: Why Northern Ireland Split on Communal, Not Class, Lines
- Part 4: When militant sloganeering meant promoting communal war
- Part 5: When socialists looked to "Catholic Power"
- Part 6: SWP (IS) and Northern Ireland in 1968-9: Advocating civil war — until it starts!
- Part 7: The end of the old order in Northern Ireland
- Part 8: IS/SWP conference, September 1969
- Part 9: The debacle of demagogy, August 1969
- Part 10: The SLL on Ireland; introduction The "hard Trotskyists" of 1969
- Part 11: AWL's record on Ireland — Part A
- Part 12: The trap of "painting by numbers"— AWL's record, part B
Next article in this series: Anti-Imperialism and the trap of "paint by numbers" — Part 2 of "AWL's Record on Ireland" (Part 12 of series)
What follows is an account of the politics on Ireland of the Trotskyist Tendency, the forerunner of AWL, especially in 1968-70 — that is, of one side in the dispute in IS (forerunner of the SWP), which previous articles have described.
In this aspect of the story, it is necessary, if things are to be put into perspective, to go beyond the period 1968-70 and to give a general outline of the evolution of the tendency’s politics on Ireland in the decade and more after the events that mainly concern us in this series.
This is an outline account. Some questions are dealt with in general that will be discussed in more detail later in the series — namely, the debates on “troops out” and on the proposal that the Catholic-majority areas along the border should, in the event of civil war, secede to the Southern state and thereby (so we believed) make the continuation of the Northern Ireland entity impossible.
The politics of the Trotskyist Tendency on Ireland were rooted in the work of the small group of socialists who produced the journal An Solas/Workers’ Republic in 1966-7, under the umbrella of the Irish Workers’ Group, a mainly émigré and mainly London-based organisation.
The group producing Workers’ Republic was the original nucleus of the Trotskyist Tendency and of the Workers’ Fight group. In the first year of our existence as a group, up to the appearance of the first Workers’ Fight magazine in October 1967, we produced An Solas/Workers’ Republic, occasional leaflets, and a pamphlet on the important class struggles then being fought out in the British docks, our other main area of work.
Rachel Lever and the present writer produced Workers’ Republic, with some help from Gery Lawless, the secretary of the Irish Workers’ Group for most of that time. In the course of doing that we came up against the fundamental questions of Irish revolutionary politics, and tried to answer them — on Republicanism, physical-force and peaceful methods, the “completion” of the “national revolution” aborted in 1921-2, the nature of the Northern Ireland state and of the 26 Counties whether Permanent Revolution had any relevance to modern Irish politics.
I intend at the end of this series to give an account of the Irish Workers’ Group. Here I will say only as much as is necessary to make the story understandable.
The Six Counties state, with Home Rule and limited sovereignty, is as old as independent Ireland — strictly speaking, a little older, since the establishment of a Belfast parliament in 1921 preceded the setting up of a 26 Counties parliament in January 1922.
It was a great fact, and seemingly immovable. By the 60s, it had even secured a lot of passive Northern Ireland Catholic support.
The people of the Six Counties, Catholic as well as Protestant, had the benefits of the British post-1945 welfare state. Many, perhaps most, were or seemed to be reconciled to things as they were.
Britain guaranteed that there would be no change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland — that is, its union with Britain and not with the rest of Ireland — unless the majority there wanted it. For practical purposes Dublin accepted that and policed the Six/ 26 Counties settlement, while simultaneously it made propaganda against partition: it had an ambivalent and contradictory position.
The Protestant majority in Northern Ireland was two-to-one. Greatly disproportionate rates of Catholic emigration ensured that the balance would not soon change dramatically.
That meant that no Northern Ireland political process could ever satisfy those of the minority who questioned the existing arrangement; and that, in turn, recommended violence to some of the minority. But violent methods did not “work”, either. IRA efforts were feeble — a nuisance rather than a threat to the Six Counties state, and with small active support from the Catholic minority.
The Catholic “Nationalist Party” in Northern Ireland looked to Dublin as “their” government, and stood aloof from the structures of the Six Counties state, rejecting it, but impotent to change anything fundamental.
In the first near-half-century of the Six Counties state, no big political mobilisation of the Catholics had taken place. The Northern Catholics had been beaten down during the War of Independence (1919-21) — which in the Six Counties was a communal-national civil war — and immediately afterwards, by a combination of the British Army and Orange militias. They had never risen out of that defeat.
The politics of the Trotskyist Tendency were shaped in the flurry of reactivation on Northern Ireland in the mid 1960s and after. I had been a member of the Connolly Association (the Communist Party’s “Irish front”), but in the process of coming to understand the CP had concluded — like, unknown to me, quite a few others at the time — that the CA’s Stalinist-ersatz Fianna Fail nationalism had nothing to do with socialism. Since it was manipulative and in the last reckoning Russia-serving, it had not much to do with real Irish nationalism, either.
I considered myself a Republican, but thought that everything that was positive and politically viable in revolutionary Republicanism was subsumed in revolutionary socialism — the politics of the early Communist International and of the Fourth International of Trotsky’s time. I put it like this in 1967:
“All the essential goals of all the past defeated and deflected struggles of the Irish people over the centuries against oppression and for freedom of development and freedom from exploitation, can now only be realised in a Republic of the working people, as part of the Socialist United States of Europe and the world.” [Towards an Irish October, 1967]
The work we did in Workers’ Republic was part of the attempt by the IWG to work out a working-class political programme for the Irish situation.
Here we need to understand what the IWG was, as well as the political situation in which it worked.
The Connolly Association bestrode Irish émigré “left-wing” politics. That was a by-product of the fact that the Communist Party and the CP-influenced Labour Left were large, imposing, and in essence constituted the extant labour-movement “left”. Through the CPGB, the CA had a vast network in the British Labour movement for the dissemination of its ideas, and for getting "anti-Partition resolutions passed. Beyond this CP "left" there were three small Trotskyist organisations and some anarchists.
There existed, as we have seen in the last article in this series, a scattering of left-wing critics of the Connolly Association. “Trotskyism” on Ireland, in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, was the SLL and its Northern Ireland supporters.
In late 1959 something new appeared in Irish émigré politics, the Irish Workers’ Union. It was set up as an anti-Stalinist alternative to the Connolly Association. It had some support from the émigré Irish “establishment”, including some priests, and the Catholic press in Britain, who were very exercised by what they saw as the threat that “the Connolly Clubs”, as they called the CA, posed to gullible young immigrants.
The IWU was very hostile to the Stalinists and to the CA. A clause in its constitution banned “communists” and fascists from membership, modelled perhaps on the rule then in force in the TGWU which banned “communists” and fascists from holding office.
Yet the IWU was not right wing. It aspired to be a left-wing, “socialist”, alternative to the CA. One of its founders, perhaps the main mover, the late Michael Callinan, was, though a Catholic, a sort of syndicalist. He had been involved in the political wars between the Stalinists, Catholic Action, and others in the Australian labour movement.
Inevitably the IWU attracted leftists who were anti-CA and anti-CP, but who were still influenced by Stalinist ideas, or who supported Russia against America from a critical, vaguely Trotskyist, point of view. One of those was Pat O’Donovan, who would be a member of the Irish Workers’ Group. He was associated with the SLL and with Brian Behan — perhaps had been a member for a while.
O’Donovan wrote an article in the SLL paper, The Newsletter, early in 1960, critically evaluating the IWU and proposing that leftists should help transform it. For that he was expelled from the IWU.
Brian Behan broke with the SLL politically — he was expelled, Gerry-Healy-style, on the eve of the 1960 Whitsun conference — and rapidly became an avowed syndicalist-anarchist. He joined the IWU. Evidently others did too, people of varying left-wing politics. John Palmer of IS was an early member of the IWU, in 1960 or 61; so, I believe, were Liam Daltun and Gerry Lawless.
Political “processes” unfolded in the IWU, of which to my knowledge no account and not much of a documentary record exists (in contrast, incidentally, with the IWG, from which I possess upwards of 300 documents — letters, bulletins, circulars, financial statements, etc.). Those processes broke the initial framework. A number of ex-Republicans — and at least one one-time ultra-Catholic Maria Duce ex-Republican [If you want details, see The Lawless Case, ECHR 1960/1 Series B, p 165 and pps 167-8] — made their way to the IWU, or its offshoot. They looked to the independent socialist left in Ireland, around the one-time Cabinet minister Noel Browne TD, and to such elements as the Dublin Unemployed Movement, which had elected its own TD, Jack Murphy.
By 1962, they had started to produce a small bimonthly printed paper, the Irish Worker. Its editor at one time — according to one account — was the late Dick Walsh (Richard Coleman Walsh), who would become a prominent Irish Times columnist and write for such papers as the Observer as Coleman Richard.
By now the grouping was called the Socialist Republican League. It included former members of the IRA such as Liam Daltun and Phil Flynn, and former members of the IRA splinter known as the Cristle group after its leader, the prominent athlete Joe Cristle (which had worked with another splinter, Saor Uladh [Free Ulster]) — some of the Geraghty brothers, and Gery Lawless.
The SRL had some links with the Socialist Review group (forerunner of IS) — of which John Palmer was a member from 1960 or 61 — and with the RSL, later the Militant tendency and now the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, but then British section of the Pablo-Mandel Fourth International, which Daltun and Lawless supported. (IS and RSL collaborated in producing a paper in the Labour Party Young Socialists, Young Guard.)
The SRL went through political turmoil and crisis. Its politics were pretty much the same as those of the IWG in 1965-8, which will be described below. The paper ceased publication, after about a dozen issues, in 1963.
Now a new force appeared — Maoism, “revolutionary Stalinism”. Russia and China began to fall out in the late 1950s. From 1960 the Chinese made trenchant criticisms from the “left” of the mainstream Moscow CPs. Beijing directed its criticisms not openly against Moscow but against the “Tito revisionists”, and Moscow replied targeting the Albanian “dogmatists”, but everyone knew what this game of political blind man’s buff meant. The Chinese produced “Marxist” criticisms of such ideas as the Western CPs’ dogma of a parliamentary road to socialism.
If Marxism is scholasticism, Marxist right lay with the Chinese. It was good stuff — if you forgot, or never knew, who was making the criticism, and what they were. From the beginning of the so-called "Cultural Revolution" in China, in mid-1966, Maoists tended to be raving lunatics, waving their little red book of magic-working quotations from Mao. Not at the beigining. (On the advice of the SLL’s North West organiser, Bill Hunter, I had used the first public statement of the Chinese, Long Live Leninism, on Lenin’s 90th anniversary in April 1960, as part of the case I was trying to make within the Young Communist League against the parliamentary road to socialism and so on). The Chinese also harked back to Stalinism before it turned “right” in the mid 1930s; they defended and glorified Stalin against the “Khrushchev revisionists” in power in Russia and Eastern Europe (except Albania).
As the Russian-Chinese dispute moved towards an open breach, sympathisers of the Chinese emerged in the western CPs. In Britain, the first public Maoist group came out of the CP in September 1963 — the Committee to Defeat Revisionism (Marxist-Leninist) — and started to publish a big monthly paper, Vanguard. When its leader, Michael McCreery, died of leukemia in 1965, it disintegrated into many small tribes of would-be revolutionary Stalino-Maoists.
Elements of the London Irish left rallied to the Vanguard (including Noel Jenkinson, who, now a member of the Stalinist-led "Official IRA",would be convicted for bombing the officers’ mess at Aldershot army barracks in 1972, in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, January 1972. He would die in jail.)
The Irish Communist Group emerged out of this and out of the remnants of the Socialist Republican League, in 1963-4. If I understand it, the process was as follows.
In 1963, Liam Daltun initiated a series of on-going discussions involving a wide spread of Irish leftists in London — Trotskyists like himself, “anti-revisionist” Communists, and left Republicans. About the same time, the Vanguard group (CDRML) leaders decided to organise an Irish sub-section of their own, to compete with the Connolly Association and perhaps lay the basis for a “Marxist-Leninist” group in Ireland.
The two small streams converged, or already overlapped, and early in 1964 formed an organisation called the Irish Workers’ Group, which very soon changed its name to the Irish Communist Group. It was an independent organisation, not the front which the Vanguard group had projected. It included Stalinists and Maoists — the future Irish Communist Organisation and British and Irish Communist Organisation — who had fallen out with McCreery; the main Vanguard man involved in negotiating, Andy O’Neill, did not join. Neither — for some months, perhaps a year — did Liam Daltun, because of personal difficulties.
The ICG evolved as a strange conglomeration of Stalinists, incipient Stalinists, Maoists, Republicans, and “Trotskyists”. One of its “Trotskyist” participants, Gery Lawless, would later justify himself to me on the grounds that the ICG was committed to “the workers’ republic” — socialism — as the “next stage” in Ireland, as against the Maoist-Stalinist assertion that the “next stage” was to “complete” the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution there. That, I think, though it did not justify what Lawless did in the ICG, was true. The Maoists would retreat from it.
The ICG would produce a small duplicated weekly news-sheet, Irish Workers’ News, and from February 1965 a monthly magazine, An Solas. (The group, without the Gaelic scholar Daltun, mistakenly thought it meant “The Light” in the sense of something like “Enlightenment”. According to Daltun, it means something closer to “The Light Bulb”!)
It seems all the participants agreed to leave contentious political, historical and theoretical questions between them to be resolved later: meanwhile they would study Ireland and respond to public events as they arose. For this group, the events of the last 40 years — the Stalinist mass murder of Trotskyists, for example — had not yet happened. They would pretend that they had not happened. They would be “communists” of, say, 1928 or 1930, miraculously brought back to life and kept together by the one thing they had in common: that they were Irish. They would suspend not disbelief but beliefs.
Of course, they couldn’t and they didn’t. The project was preposterous. Such a conglomerate was possible only if it consisted of people who were very vague about the politics they professed:if they were indifferent to, or ignorant of, the political ideas; or politically unformed, or politically decayed. Some were both politically underdeveloped and decayed, as for instance Gery Lawless was.
Though Lawless was listed as editor of An Solas from no.3 to no.8, the Stalinist-Maoists and their natural concerns dominated the publication — and to the extent that the “Trotskyist” editor found himself publicly and in good faith quoting Stalin as a healthy Marxist and communist authority against the idea of a parliamentary road to socialism — and this in an organisation awash with Stalinist ideas! In a political culture where the main problem was not to disabuse would-be revolutionaries of the foolish notion that the bourgeoisie would let itself be overthrown by a vote in parliament, peacefully, but the quasi-Bakunist, romantic pseude-Republican cult of guns and political violence. An equivalent would have been a reform socialist in the 1930s citing Hitler to prove that you could take power peacefully! (Which, come to think of it, some of the reform socialists did. The leader of the Labour Party left in the 1930s, Stafford Cripps, for example, cited the example of Hitler to prove that a reforming government could pass an “Enabling Act” and then do what it liked. Militant [RSL] would make the idea its nostrum and mantra for decades.)
Inevitably the ICG divided into Stalinist and Trotskyist sides — in the summer of 1965. That would have been good, a necessary and progressive conflict — except that the “Trotskyist” side was something less than Trotskyist.
Of the Trotskyists, Liam Daltun was the only one who had more than a rudimentary grasp of — or, indeed, more than a rudimentary interest in grasping — the politics they all nominally adhered to; and he wasn’t involved for perhaps the first year. (But Daltun too, as the 5 issues of An Solas which he edited after the split with the Stalinists-Maoists, testify, was far from having completely sloughed off his political past.)
Among the London Trotskyists, Daltun was the political thinker, the one who carried the Marxist political and cultural baggage, and Lawless the bustling “man of business”, always eager to trade in his nominal politics for an advantage, for personal aggrandisement, or for an ego-salve. Daltun and Lawless were as naturally complementary a pair as you could hope to find — even to one being compulsively modest and the other a great braggart and world-class liar!. But they loathed, or better perhaps love-hated, each other, and their strife was a constant source of disruption.
Daltun was troubled — he would kill himself in January 1972 — and was rarely able to function at his best. He functioned well for a while in 1965. Liam Daltun is now forgotten. He does not deserve to be.
With the help of Ted Grant, Daltun produced a serious historical account of the Stalin-Trotsky dispute. The ICG split in September 1965. The half-dozen “hard” Maoists formed the Irish Communist Organisation. The “Trotskyist” ICG soon changed its name to the Irish Workers’ Group.
What happened was not a separation into Stalinists and Trotskyists, but a hiving-off of the hard Maoists, leaving the “Trotskyists” more or less in charge of a motley crew of soft Maoists, old half-sceptical Stalinists, Deutscherites (liberal,critically Stalinist Stalinists), and physical-force Republicans. (One of the latter, Phil Flynn, future trade union official, banker, etc., would go home to Ireland and within a short time be on the Army Council of the IRA).
The Trotskyists had not fought to win the group to the politics of the Grant-Daltun document; they had used it only to argue that people should not back the hard Stalinist-Maoists. “Tactics”! That was Lawless: the ascendancy of short-term advantage over the political and long-term viability of the organisation.
It proved to be not just a “tactic”, to be followed up by a drive to win the organisation to Trotskyism, educate it, and render it homogeneous in its fundamental politics. Once the harder Stalinist-Maoists had gone, the group remained a politically inchoate conglomerate, kept together by the fact of being émigré Irish.
The organisation was still a political hodge-podge, indeed now far more wildly zig-zagging and unstable. The politics of the IWG were what the politics of the Socialist Republican League and its paper The Irish Worker had been — an incoherent mix of physical-force Republican romanticism and violent anti-Stalinism — combined with the delusion that Russia and its satellites were “workers’ states”. Some of the IWG’s members, and not the worst of them by any means, were old would-be revolutionary Stalinists, such as Sean Lynch, for example, who had been in the Communist Party of the USA for decades.
The thing that strikes me most today, looking through the file of the post-65 split An Solas again, is how all-pervasive in it physical-force Republicanism was — as it had been in the Irish Worker of the early 60s. So it would be, much of the time, in Irish Militant, the four page printed monthly started in February 1966 to replace Irish Workers’ News. (No organic connection with the British Militant group, with which Lawless had had a "client" and patron relationship for a while, or with its 1970s paper Militant Irish Monthly).
I first encountered the Irish Communist Group around Easter 1965, when I was in the process of becoming a member of the RSL (Militant). I joined the IWG sometime in the middle of 1965, to help the “Trotskyists” against the “Stalinists”, as the organisation was beginning to fall apart. I was and would remain active mainly in the British labour movement. Living in Manchester, I was away from the central area of operations of the organisation, in London. I passively went along with what the Trotskyist faction did, and accepted its account of things. Primarily, I was a member of the RSL (Militant); and though I retained IWG membership after the '65 split, I was, until October-November 1966, only notionally an IWG member.
Rachel Lever, myself and two others, left the RSL in October 1966, and called ourselves the “Workers’ Fight" group. In October-November 1966, on my proposal to the IWG, Rachel Lever and I took over responsibility for reviving An Solas. The intention, openly proclaimed and mutually agreed between the IWG and WF, was to make it into a general Marxist magazine that could also be used by the Workers’ Fight group in the British labour movement. The other two of the initial four members of the Workers’ Fight group also joined the IWG.
In the first issue we produced, no.15/16, the title was supplemented with the words “For an Irish Workers’ Republic”, and in no.17, An Solas became Workers’ Republic. You might say it was a case of “put out The Light, and then put out the light” — the dim, flickering, grotesquely distorting light of Maoism, pseudo-Republicanism, etc., and replace it with a better one.
In Workers’ Republic I tackled what I saw as the political problems that confronted the IWG — the outstanding political problems that should have been tackled at the time of the 1965 split and immediately after. In the course of doing that, the politics of the Trotskyist Tendency and Workers’ Fight on Ireland were hammered out. I propose from this point simply to state what our beliefs about Ireland and Irish politics came to be. The rest of the story of the IWG will be dealt with in an appendix to this series.
We rejected and fought against the fetish of physical force, and the idea that physical force, per se, defined revolutionary politics.
We believed that traditional Republicanism was not and could not be a consistently anti-imperialist force; that it was, by its ideas, goals and methods a petty-bourgeois movement; that its petty-bourgeois nationalism was a barrier to working-class unity, that its “little Irelandism” cut in the opposite direction to the interests of the Irish working class.
We naturally rejected the Menshevik-Stalinist notion that there had to be a two-stage revolution in Ireland — first “the Republic” (re-unification and independence) and then “the workers’ Republic”.
We rejected the hybrid “populist Republicanism” — a fusion of the Stalinist two-stage theory with “native” Republicans who were left-wing but put “the national question” first — represented historically by Paedar O’Donnell, George Gilmore and the Stalinist-dominated Republican Congress of the mid-1930s, and in the mid-60s by the “left” of the Republican movement, the future Official IRA and Workers’ Party.
In the mid 60s, the Stalinist-led Republican movement was becoming “socialist” — in fact, populist-nationalist, seeking to use “social issues” to build up political support. This was very important: one of its consequences was the turn to civil rights agitation in Northern Ireland which helped create the mass political mobilisation of Northern Ireland Catholics which was the basis of the war which the Provisional IRA, breaking from the Stalinist Republicans, launched early in 1971.
We argued that the adoption of a socialist colouration and the “brand name” “Connolly socialism” by the Republican movement was not progressive but confusing, and could only, at best, produce a populist mish-mash like the Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party.
“...the IRA is just not revolutionary in relation to the objective needs of the only possible Irish Revolution.
“The same is no less true if ‘left’ slogans are grafted onto the old base, and a nominal ‘For Connolly’s Workers’ Republic, pinned to the masthead. Such talk of a socialist programme, a Bolshevik party, a workers’ republic, demands a proper appreciation of the relationship between the party and the working class... It demands a sharply critical approach to the traditional republican conceptions of revolutionary activity. Otherwise these slogans combined with a largely military idea of the struggle against imperialism and the Irish bourgeoisie, will not produce a revolutionary Marxist party, but an abortion similar to the Socialist Revolutionary Party in Russia, against which the Bolsheviks fought bitterly” [Where The Hillside Men Have Sown, Workers’ Republic 17]. That would prove true of such organisations as Saor Eire and INLA
“Being a Republican first and a socialist second, he [George Gilmore] concludes that Republicanism, to succeed, needs Labour. No doubt this is true; but for us the question must be — does the working class need Republicanism?” [Irish Militant, June 1967].
“For revolutionary socialist workers today, traditional Republicanism is itself just not revolutionary. The heroic Republican tradition must be translated into the conditions of our day: advocating national independence, we must be clear that in the capitalist world today this is little more than a formality.
“Demanding reunification, we must understand that it will be brought about, if not by the capitalists themselves, then as an incidental in the establishment of a workers’ republic...
“Preparing for the coming workers’ revolution is the only objectively revolutionary activity in Ireland today... Only those who attempt to rouse the workers on their own class programme are revolutionaries today...” [Irish Militant, June 1967].
As it turned out, the Provisional IRA was capable of an enormous revolutionary effort, which neither we nor anyone else foresaw. They have achieved no revolutionary transformation, not even of a nationalist sort.
We believed that though the political situation on the island was the result of the abortion of the Irish national revolution; and though there was national oppression — specifically and directly against the Northern Ireland Catholics — this was not simply a matter of “British-occupied Ireland”. It was the product of a split in the Irish bourgeoisie.
We rejected the idea that the partition of Ireland was just a British imperialist imposition. “A division of the Irish bourgeoisie, originating in economic differences, led to a split which was then manipulated by British imperialism, according to its practice of divide and rule. The Northern section, having a measure of political autonomy, kept close links with this imperialism; the Southern section being dominated according to the logic of modern imperialism [i.e. economic weight within more or less free market relations].
“In maintaining their closer links with Britain, the Northern capitalists were aided by British troops, who also assist in holding in sufficient people to make the state viable. Despite this, talk of ‘British-occupied Ireland’ obscures the real identity of the garrison in Ireland — the Northern Ireland bourgeoisie”.
[Editorial of Irish Militant, February 1967].
The ideas that Unionists needed the Catholic areas of the Six Counties to make Northern Ireland “viable” was nonsense, but the common wisdom of the time (In IS Journal for example, John Palmer and Chris Gray, April 1969).
“The evolution of capitalism and Ireland’s peculiar ‘combined and uneven’ relationship with British capitalism... produced on the island something more like two nations than one — economically, socially, ideologically... [The blows of PD and the civil rights movement] produced a crack vertically down the middle of Northern Ireland’s flawed society; it split along the lines of religion and nationality” [IS and Ireland, pages 5 and 9]
Basing ourselves on Lenin’s Imperialism and such documents of the Communist International as the Theses on the National and Colonial Question (1920), and on what had happened since, we believed that the economic domination over Ireland by Britain and other great powers could not be eliminated except as part of a reorganisation of the world economy through the international socialist revolution.
“The old garrison imperialism, from which Ireland suffered for 700 years, has given way in most areas of the world to modern dollar-type imperialism, which cares little if its victims run their own diminutive armies, have their own parliaments, their own chair at the UN, or speak Arabic, Swahili, Urdu or Gaelic. It has its own language — money.
“National ‘independence’ has been graciously granted to the mass of former colonies because the great powers can rely on their overpowering economic strength to maintain their old dominance in a new form...
“British imperialism will most likely encourage a capitalist unification of Ireland, given entry to the Common Market [European Union]. But a unified Ireland, of course highly desirable, will still be as much equal to Britain as the worker is equal to the millionaire — the bourgeoisie’s formal equality is just as much a sham internationally as nationally...[between nations]
“The old demand for national independence meant freedom from oppression and freedom of development. Today those goals can no longer be realised by pure and simple ‘independence’ — but by the linking up of a free federation of socialist states” [Irish Militant, June 1967].
“The IWG stands against the divided Irish bourgeoisie, Green, Orange, and Green-White-and-Orange, and for the revolutionary unity of the workers of all Ireland in a struggle for state power.
“We stand for the revolutionary combat against imperialism and national oppression in every form, whether that of garrison-imperialism, neo-colonialism, or the glaring economic domination of the small nations by the super-powers which is inevitable where the capitalist market remains as the sole regulator of relationships. But we denounce those who, in the name of ‘Republicanism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’, attempt to subordinate the working class to any section of the bourgeoisie, and who counterpose a defunct petty-bourgeois nationalist narrow-mindedness to the socialist struggle of the workers for power. National unity will be achieved, if not by the coming together of the Irish capitalist class under the auspices of the British imperialist state and the capitalist drive towards West European federation, then as an incidental in the proletarian revolution.
“The possibility of any other revolutionary reunification is long since past. The only revolutionary Republicanism is the international socialist Republicanism of the proletariat”.
[Towards an Irish October, preamble to the constitution of the IWG.]
We thought that the nationalist (left and right) focus on gaining “real” independence was both meaningless for the 26 Counties and confusing from the point of view of the Irish working class. We rejected “left-wing” Irish economic nationalism as being no more than the discarded and discredited former economic policy of the 26 County bourgeoisie (1932-58). It was a reactionary petty-bourgeois programme counterposed to the necessary — and, in so far as it was developing and augmenting the Irish working class, progressive — integration of Ireland into the existing world economic system. It was a backward-looking utopia, counterposed to the necessary economic programme of the Irish working class, for whom there could be no purely Irish solution to bourgeois exploitation.
We repeated James Connolly’s idea that the working class had inherited the fight for Irish freedom.
“The one serious progressive act of imperialism and Irish capitalism has been the creation of an Irish proletariat capable of putting an end to capitalism’s futile existence, and capable, as part of a world revolutionary class, of realising the age-old dream of the people of Ireland for freedom. The best traditions of the old, bourgeois, Republicanism have passed to the socialist working class, the only class in Ireland today capable of transforming society and the subordinate relation with Great Britain — the only unconditionally revolutionary class”.
Despite the contradictions in Northern Ireland, and the need for unification, Irish freedom could not now, in the era of the independent Irish state, be increased by the traditional “struggle for national independence against Britain”, still less by the reactionary utopia of the populist economic nationalists and the nationalist fetish of post-independence “sovereignty”.
“The only genuine liberation of Ireland will be from the inexorable — uncontrolled — pressures of international capitalism...” [Towards an Irish October.]
“When capitalism was young and progressive, the means of production grew and developed within the nation states, which sheltered and protected their growth... lreland, welded into a nation only by oppression, was a vassal of a stronger state, sucked of its wealth and stifled in development...
“At the period in history when independence offered possibilities of a solution to her problems, all the struggles of Ireland for national independence were mercilessly suppressed. The present ‘independence’ has come at a time when even the former giants of Europe find their ‘independence’ irksome and stifling and are trying to unite in the EEC [European Union] to get rid of it...
“History will never know a reallv free Ireland this side of the socialist revolution. And after that it will be in the interests of the Irish Workers Republic to link up with the other workers’ states, as soon as conditions allow it to, as the sole guarantee of future development... To demand national sovereignty in the face of British imperialist domination is one thing — to make a fetish of it a la Greaves is quite another... [Desmond Greaves, leader of the Connolly Association]
“Only a free Socialist Federation of Europe and the world as the framework for full utilisation of the forces of production offers any long-term solution.
“We say the working class should not involve itself in this debate [about entry into the EU or otherwise], but be ready to resist all attacks on wages and conditions in or out of the EEC. ‘We will not bear the cost of your system, nor advise you on how to run it.’
“The warring capitalists of yesterday’s Europe now recognise the archaic nature of the West European nation states — can socialists then confine themselves to reasserting the claims of a defunct era? To the capitalists’ West European Federation we cannot counterpose various European national socialisms (Greaves, of course, only proposes Irish national capitalism). The choice today is between being international socialists or muddleheaded reactionaries. The slogan must be for a Socialist United States of Europe... We mean by it a union of states where the workers have taken state power” [Irish Militant, July 1967]
We rejected the mechanical kitsch “Trotskyist” response to the stages theories of the Stalinists and the populists — the reflex invocation of “Permanent Revolution”. We argued that the formula of permanent revolution — the fusion of the tasks of two historical revolutions, that of the bourgeoisie and that of the working class, under the leadership of the working class, telescoping the tasks performed by the classic bourgeois revolution as in France, 1789-94, with the working-class socialist revolution — had and could have no meaning for modern bourgeois and bourgeois-democratic Ireland.
The job was not to match texts with texts, ours against theirs, permanent revolution against the Stalinist stages theory of the Irish revolution (first “completion of the bourgeois revolution”, meaning reunification; then struggle for socialism), as in a card game. Instead we had to analyse reality concretely. On this approach, the conclusion was inescapable.
Ireland had had its “bourgeois revolution”. In the North, bourgeois relations had been established by extension from Britain after its bourgeois revolution in the 17th century. In the South, land reform was organised “from above” by Britain in the late 19th/early 20th century, under pressure of a mass revolt, and tidied up by the Dublin government in the early 20s. The national division was not pre-capitalist. The basic problem was the split bourgeoisie and the varying links of its different parts with the British ruling class; and the fact that the bourgeoisie, North and South of the Border, could command the allegiance of the working class and shape the politics that divided the working class.
Ireland was a relatively advanced bourgeois country, integrated into European capitalism, albeit as a weaker capitalism.
“The division [in the Irish bourgeoisie] prevented the accomplishment of one of the major tasks of the traditional bourgeois revolution — national unification. However, if history and the relationship to Britain make the two statelets peculiarly deformed, they are nonetheless undeniably bourgeois, as a glance at the social organisation and relations of production makes obvious...
“We who fight for the workers’ international Republic know that the present Irish capitalists are the only ones we will get. Calling them traitors is useless — they are not traitors to their class, the only sphere in which real loyalty as opposed to demagogic talk of loyalty, counts...”
[Editorial, Irish Militant, February 1967]
We rejected the idea that it made sense to speak of the Six Counties as British-occupied Ireland.
“[Sinn Fein is unable] to heal the bourgeois-fostered split in the working class.
“Too often, in fact the implication of such gross IRA simplifications as ‘British-occupied Ireland’ could lead to attempting to conquer by force the Northern workers; a conception which is best calculated to perpetuate the division in the country... They resort to their ‘wrap the Green Flag round me, boys’ Republicanism, which alienates the Northern workers” [Workers’ Republic 17].
We accepted that the distinct Protestant-Unionist minority on the island could not and should not be overridden In 1969 we drew this to the necessary conclusion of advocating autonomy for the Protestant-majority area within a united Ireland. For example, in a letter which Socialist Worker published on 11 September 1969, I wrote: “Socialist Worker must challenge the Partition and demand the breakup of the 6 County state, or at least the right of secession of those areas where Catholics form the majority; ultimately leading to a united Ireland with autonomy for the Protestant areas — not after the Workers’ Republic, but as a necessary and unavoidable step towards it...”
We argued for a consistently Marxist attitude to religion, as an absolute prerequisite, in a world wherein religion still defined and expressed politics as well as childish fantasies about the supernatural — for the creation of a Marxist organisation that could do the job it needed to do.
A dispute on this question was one of the precipitating causes of the breakdown of the IWG in the autumn of 1967.
In IS in the first period after October 1968 we stressed the need to make socialist propaganda and to build an Irish Marxist organisation. Later in 1969, when the situation was unmistakably moving towards an explosion of Catholic-Protestant civil war, and the working class was sharply divided, we focused on the politics that might serve to win the most radical Republican outcome.
When the Catholic civil rights agitation got underway in 1968-9, we supported it, but criticised it on three counts.
(1) Logically the central issue was the national question, and events would inexorably force it to the fore. The basic underlying civil right the Catholics lacked was the right to national self — determination. We said, in early 1969 and long before the Republican movement, some of whose members were leading the civil rights struggle, said it: the goal has to be to smash the Six County state. We rejected the idea that Irish reunification could only come after an Irish socialist revolution: that was the socialist-sectarian version of “stages theory”.
(2) At the same time, because of Its petty-bourgeois, Stalinist and populist-Republican leadership, the entire civil rights movement was needlessly divisive. The demands specific to the PD left — one man (sic) one house, one man one job, one man one vote — were inevitably seen by Protestants as a desire to redivide what little there was. The issue could have been dynamically and progressively posed in transitional demand terms: build more houses, thus creating more jobs, etc. etc. PD did something like that on occasion (in the February 1969 election, for instance), but it was never central for them.
(3) We criticised the left-wing civil rights movement (PD and its mentor IS) for political confusion on partition and the national question. We also criticised them for organising provocative marches and demonstrations in Protestant areas which were helping stoke up a sectarian explosion.
We tried to bring the national question to the centre in 1969 by posing it like this: the mainly Catholic areas (about half the land area of Northern Ireland) should secede to the Republic. This was based on the idea that it would make the Northern state unviable.
The belief that secession of the Catholic areas would force the Protestants into a united Ireland was a major reason why the Free State made the deal they did in 1921. Lloyd George promised that a Boundary Commission would in fact redraw the boundaries, thus making Northern Ireland unviable.
In fact, as earlier articles have shown, secession was anyway the trend in Northern Ireland. Three times before August 1969, Catholic Derry, two miles from the border with the 26 Counties, had set up barricades to keep out Northern Ireland state personnel. In August 1969 Catholic Derry and Catholic West Belfast set up “free” areas guarded by their own militias.
But it is clear in retrospect secession was an artificial way to pose the question of the smashing of the Six County state. In the light of experience since then, there can be no doubt that a Protestant state stripped of the mainly Catholic areas would be viable because the Protestants would make it so.
At the September 1969 IS conference the IS leadership used a disloyal misrepresentation of it to distract the discussion. In the meantime they had changed their line from opposition to the British troops to effective support for them, and we were campaigning against this
The massive revolt of the Catholics in 1968 and after, and then the rapid growth of a new IRA after 1970, forced us to reconsider and modify our assessments, and to respond politically to the new facts.
Many Irish socialists responded initially with the proclamation that “socialism-is-the-only-answer”, neglecting the national question. We did not. On the contrary, during the dispute in IS in 1969 we were perhaps the first on the left to point to the nationalist logic of the civil rights struggle, and to argue for raising the national question boldly.
But, as the IRA war reshaped Irish politics, we did not go in for romanticism and flights of fantasy about the Catholic revolt being the socialist revolution in the style of Cliff, Palmer of Lawless in 1969, or that what was happening in Ireland was the socialist revolution — “The Permanent Revolution” — in its first, national, stage, like the Mandel FI people later, especially in Britain. Even when the Catholic revolt was apparently most successful, we pointed to its limitations.
“The Northern Ireland Catholics fight in isolation, in the most unfavourable conditions imaginable. The rearguard of the Irish fight for national freedom, they are betrayed and abandoned by the ‘leaders’ of the Irish nation, and are simultaneously cut off from the allies who would make an advance on a socialist basis possible — the Orange majority of the Northern Ireland working class...” (Workers’ Fight, 23 July 1972)
We defined what was happening as primarily a Catholic revolt with a limited potential of solving the national question. It was the revolt of the Six County Catholics, not a rebirth of the 1918 all-Ireland nationalist upsurge. It was limited as an anti-imperialist movement because it was confined to the Six Counties and because of the split working class there.
Here the tendency was guided, and in some important respects let itself be politically imprisoned by, an interpretation of the politics of the early Communist International — the Theses on the National and Colonial Question of the Second Congress of 1920 and the records of the Congress discussion.
The Communist International distinguished between revolutionary nationalists and the rest. The revolutionary nationalists were those who actually fought imperialism and colonialism. It was the duty of Marxists, while retaining their own independence, to back them.
That was our guiding idea, buttressed as it was by a whole system of linked ideas. The unpleasant truth is that we were guilty of that for which we did, and do, sometimes denounce others on the left — letting ourselves degenerate into “paint-by-numbers” Marxists.
The point is that the tactics and principles of the 1920 Comintern — though they remain the basic framework of all communist politics on colonial-imperial oppression and active resistance to it — simply did not “fit” Northern Ireland. Despite Britain’s role in Irish history and in partitioning the country, the existence of the Irish Protestant-Unionists as a social reality and a political force meant that Britain was not playing in Northern Ireland then a straightforward imperialist role.
The truth is always concrete. In the tendency’s assessment of Ireland we got entangled in an incoherent mix of analysis and images and models from Irish-British history. Eventually we managed to untangle them. But that is general. The specifics of the dispute of “troops out” in IS in 1969-70 will be dealt with in a later article, as will “secession”. Here, I will say only that debate in IS, and the centrality of the “troops out” slogan in it, was shaped by the fact that IS had dropped the slogan, more than anything else.
When the Provisional IRA launched its military offensive in 1971, we critically supported their right to fight against the British government in that way. We defended it outspokenly in the British labour movement.
We did not use our previous assessment of the improbability of a revolutionary reunification of Ireland short of a socialist revolution to draw “sectarian” and “abstentionist” conclusions about the actual struggle that had erupted. But we did not forget that assessment. In fact the 23 years of war and the aftermath have in their own way established very clearly the truth of that assessment.
We maintained a critical political stance towards the IRA. In the early ‘70s, when such a thing existed, we reprinted Irish socialist criticisms of the IRA from People’s Democracy and from the League for a Workers’ Republic.
At best we believed that the Catholic and IRA revolt would force Britain and the Irish bourgeoisie into a radical reorganisation of the Irish state system. Of course it did: Protestant Stormont was abolished in March 1972 and direct rule substituted. In November 1985 Dublin and London signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving Dublin a share in the political decision-making in Northern Ireland.
Despite many important twists and turns, the basic facts of the situation remained unchanged, in stalemate, for a long time after 1972. Even though ultimately the IRA was defeated on its political objective — a united Ireland — the British Army could not defeat the IRA. The Catholics could not defeat the combined forces of the British Army and the Protestants. They could never have “beaten” the Protestants, even without the British, in the sense of conquering them and the territory in the north-east where they are a majority: the idea that they should have wanted to is Catholic-nationalist chauvinism pushed to the point of lunacy.
Socialists, we believed, had to formulate ideas that would show some way forward from the situation as it was, not as we hoped it might be some day.
As noted above, we advocated autonomy for the Protestant-majority area, which implies a federal arrangement within Ireland, from as early as 1969. We were not the only people to advocate Protestant autonomy then — John Palmer and Chris Gray did in IS journal in April 1969 — but it came to be an idea which among the left was unique to us. The importance of this element in our politics increased with the 20 year stalemate.
In this and other aspects of the Irish-British question we differed from other Marxists. The attitude of those many on the left who argued that “troops out” and “the defeat of British imperialism” were the crux of the Irish question, and all else was pettifogging and probably “capitulation to imperialism”, was empty phrasemongering (to use Lenin’s phrases for that sort of politics). But for decades rational discussion of the “Irish question” was rendered impossible by a plague of such phrasemongering which engulfed the left.
One of the great errors of the Workers’ Fight-AWL tendency was, in the 1970s, to let “troops out” become something of a political fetish. That led, in our publications, to the nonsensical combination of attempts at honest analysis of the realities of Northern Ireland, with deployment of a slogan that grew not out of the situation or the analysis of it in our articles, but from preconceptions and “revolutionary routinism”.
Above all it grew from a stubborn refusal to understand — even when what we said about the real situation in Northern Ireland pointed to it — that the fundamental fact in Northern Ireland was not that Britain was an imperialist power being imperialist, but the division of the Irish people and the will of the Six Counties majority to remain British.
Like many others, we were prisoners of Irish and British history, of the terrible story of oppression, would-be genocide, and then botched Liberal efforts (after 1870-81) to sort things out, that was Britain’s role in Irish history.
There was no all-Ireland nationalist movement. There was a nationalist movement of the Northern Catholics (10% of the population of the island) which was regarded with bitter hostility by the Northern Protestants (20%) and sporadic sympathy and much alarm by the Southern Catholics (70%).
In relation to Ireland, “troops out” could not be sufficient. Using the pre-1914 term “social democrat” for what is now revolutionary socialism, Lenin argued:
“There is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a ‘negative’ Social-Democratic slogan that serves only to ‘sharpen proletarian consciousness against imperialism’ without at the same time offering a positive answer to the question of how Social Democracy will solve the problem when it assumes power. A ‘negative’ slogan unconnected with a definite positive solution will not ‘sharpen’, but dull consciousness, for such a slogan is a hollow phrase, mere shouting, meaningless declamation.”
Nowhere was that more true than on the slogan “Troops out of Ireland”.
In the mid-70s we argued against the notion (put forward by the Mandelites) that a mass movement could and should be built in Britain on the single slogan, “troops out”.
We never saw “troops out” as sufficient, even before, in 1987, we formally decided not to use the slogan and to advocate troops out only as part of a political settlement. We came to register that if British troops had quit Ireland during the Provo war and its aftermath, that would certainly have unleashed a sectarian civil war, leading to repartition.
Self-determination? Unify Ireland? With the Northern Protestants are actively hostile to it? The Provisional IRA was never strong enough to do it. The 26 County ruling class had no real wish for it.
The scene would have been set for a section of the Protestants to make a drive for an “independent Ulster”. That drive would involve probably, the mass slaughter, rounding-up and driving-out of the Catholics from Protestant areas, and of Protestants from Catholic areas. Ireland would be irrevocably and bitterly split into neatly reinforced Orange and Green states.
The conventional pro-IRA left answer to this, that “there’s already a bloodbath”, was never a serious answer. Simmering war with hundreds of casualties is different from all-out war with many thousands. Different not only in immediate human terms, but also in terms of the implications for the future possibilities of socialism — that is, of the Catholic and Protestant workers.
The other answer, “revolutions always involve bloodshed”, was no better. There was never a comparison between the revolutionary violence of the working class against its exploiters, or of a subject nation against a conquering army, and the violence of two working-class communities slaughtering each other.
All that meant that we had to couple “troops out” with proposals for a solution within Ireland — and condemn those who called for troops out without any such proposal as mindless phrasemongers.
The only conceivable positive solution, given the facts of the situation or anything resembling them, was a united Ireland with federalism: that is an attempt to negotiate between the sections of the Irish people and conciliate the Protestants. That would probably involve the recreation of closer British-Irish ties so that the two islands would provide the broader framework within which the intra-Irish conflicts could be resolved.
The conciliation, realistically, would be backed up with a certain element of coercion — i.e. strong indications to the Protestants that prospects for an alternative to a united Ireland were pretty bleak — and would involve some repression against die-hard Protestant groups. But that was different from straight conquest of the Protestants. Logically, conquest was the only alternative to such conciliation, given the Protestants’ attitude. But it was not possible — who would conquer them? — and not desirable either, from any working class or consistently democratic point of view.
It was possible to evade these issues by wishful thinking. Possible to fantasise that at the crucial point, the nationalist struggle would magically “grow over” into a working-class struggle for socialism, and that in some “dialectical” leap the Protestants would be converted to Republicanism or socialist republicanism. It was possible to remain blinkered in a sort of inverted British nationalism, saying that “the defeat of British imperialism” and its effect on the “balance of world forces” were the things that really matter, and that a positive solution and the avoidance of sectarian civil war within Ireland was a secondary issue.
It was possible to delude oneself with a crude and idiotic theory of the Protestants as pure pawns of Britain, so that their reactionary ideas would drain away like water out of a bath once the “plug” of British troops was pulled out.
But that was not Marxism. It was not serious, honest politics. We are not reliable anti-imperialists if our “anti-imperialism” is only as strong as our ability to use consoling myths to shield our eyes from uncomfortable facts and likely developments— until they explode in our faces. Such fantasies and evasions could never allow those socialists who poisoned themselves with them to make any political contribution to the work of uniting the Irish working class.
The “federal” proposal — which, incidentally, we later discovered, had been put forward at the end of the 1940s by the Irish Trotskyists (such as Matt Merrigan, a left-wing activist and trade union official in later decades) — might not avert sectarian civil war, either. Whether anything short of a mass socialist movement uniting the workers of both communities (or a big section of them) could end the impasse in a progressive sense was to us doubtful. Peace in Northern Ireland now is better than the Provo war, but the post-Good-Friday-Agreement structures, based on rigid communal blocs, can not but entrench communalism.
The tremendous economic changes in Ireland, making it one of the most prosperous parts of the European Union, and now in Northern Ireland too — changes in which an all-island economy is coming into being for the first time in history — work to soften communalism; but it remains entrenched in the political system, and in the Six Counties partition framework.
Our programme was designed — on the basis of the facts and the needs of a consistently democratic solution to the Catholic-Protestant, British-Irish conflict — to develop that united Irish workers’ socialist movement. We would not blunt our socialist programme by false “realism”, by getting tied up in working out “answers” for the existing big forces in a situation over which we had no control anyway. But a socialist programme — in Ireland, and in all comparable situations — needs to include democratic demands, and a possibility of relating to the political situation now, more concretely than just by saying that a united class movement would be better. Yes, it would. The problem is to get it, to have a programme that deals with the democratic issues and can unite workers across the communal divide.
Whether a revolutionary socialist programme can have any positive influence on the situation within Ireland depends on there being a material force to fight for such a programme. At present there is no such force. But no force can be gathered without first proclaiming a programme. And no adequate programme can be formulated without first looking at reality coldly and “saying what it is”. Revolutionary socialist politics begins with telling the truth about the reality it has to confront.
This summary demonstrates, I think, the consistency of the approach that we have had since well before the beginning of the Catholic revolt. Whatever inconsistencies may be found in this or that detail, the fundamental approach was correct. But we also made serious mistakes, which I will survey and discuss in the next article.
[All the quotations are from articles written by the present writer, sometimes together with Rachel Lever, and one with Gery Lawless.]
Next article in this series: Anti-Imperialism and the trap of "paint by numbers" — Part 2 of "AWL's Record on Ireland" (Part 12 of series)