Ireland and Sri Lanka: an analogy

Submitted by martin on 9 May, 2008 - 11:57 Author: Sean Matgamna

An analogy may help to explain the issues - the case of Ceylon/ Sri Lanka. I assume Geoff Bell and Socialist Outlook are in favour of the right of the Tamils to secede from the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan state and set up their own state. But how did things in Ceylon/ Sri Lanka turn out like this? Look at the history.

Some of the Tamils were a favoured minority under British rule. Does that not morally condemn them and deprive them of minority rights, like the Protestants? Why shouldn't the Tamils submit to the "Sri Lankan majority", as you say the Irish minority must submit to the Irish majority (and to hell with all that Leninist nonsense about consistent democracy)?

To people of Geoff Bell's political outlook, Ireland and Sri Lanka are radically different questions. In fact the parallels between them are instructive. The main difference lies in the way the conflict evolved. The split in the British ruling class on Home Rule in 1886 and up to World War One heated up the intra-Irish division before any part of Ireland became independent. In Ceylon/ Sri Lanka the division heated up after independence, under majority rule.

Ceylon became independent in 1948 under a capitalist ruling class led by a British-educated elite consisting of both Tamils and Sinhalese, in the United National Party (UNP). Sinhalese-Buddhist chauvinism developed initially as a grass-roots cultural movement.

Soon the demands for a Buddhist "Sri Lanka" and for privileges for the Sinhalese language were voiced. The political elite split. Solomon Bandaranaike founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1951. A process of communal conflict began which led to civil war.

Socialists should have advocated Sinhalese-Tamil unity. In fact the Ceylonese Trotskyists destroyed their once imposing organisation by accommodating, from the mid 50s, to Sinhalese chauvinism. The Trotskyists of the LSSP were part of Geoff Bell's international tendency, which covered for them for almost a decade, until the LSSP broke away from the Mandelite "Fourth International" and entered a Sinhalese-chauvinist government in 1964.

When immediate Sinhalese-Tamil unity became impossible, socialists should have supported the Tamils' right to secede. To do less would be to break with the very ABC of Leninism on the national question.

In Ireland the sort of communal split that has broken the political unity of the island of Sri Lanka emerged before independence. It was manipulated by the British ruling class. It was made the basis of a peculiarly unjust Partition, which created a second, artificial, Irish minority, the Northern Catholics.

Suppose it had been different. Suppose Ireland had got Home Rule in 1886 - or 1893, when a House of Commons majority voted for it - and then gone the way Sri Lanka did. Suppose the Catholic majority had begun to push for special privileges the way the Sinhalese did. Suppose the sort of Catholic Church encroachment on civil society that we had in the independent South from the 1920s onward had occurred in a united Ireland.

I can see reason for believing that the tensions would have died down if Ireland had got Home Rule in the early 1880s. A big Protestant minority in a united Ireland might have helped preserve or re-establish the pluralist values which had vanished in the South by the 1930s. But, for the sake of the argument, suppose that the Catholic majority had pushed aggressively.

Suppose the systematic imposition of a Catholic-confessional framework - abolition of the right of divorce, and so on - which culminated in the De Valera constitution of 1937, had applied to the whole island (as indeed that constitution claimed to). Suppose the attempt by the 26 County state to revive the Gaelic language - which for generations of Irish children like myself, whose native language was English, meant that our schools produced "illiterates in two languages" - had happened in an all-Ireland state; suppose it was used to discriminate against those of a non-Gaelic background.

Wouldn't all that have led to a Protestant movement something like the Tamil movement in Sri Lanka? If not, why not? Because the Irish are better than the Sri Lankans? Because we're not "mad paddies", but white Europeans, and therefore we do not behave like Asians, those "lesser breeds without the law"?

If it sounds far-fetched, remember that the revivers of the Gaelic games 100 years ago, the Gaelic Athletics Association, were virulently exclusivist. Remember that modern historians point to the way boycotting during the Land League wars helped the burgeoning Irish Catholic bourgeoisie to defeat Protestant competition in nationalist Ireland. Recall the debate on divorce in the South four or five years ago [up to the June 1986 referendum on amending the constitution to allow divorce, which was rejected by 63.5% to 36.5%; there was also a referendum in September 1983, which wrote a ban on abortion into the constitution by 66.9% to 33.1%], when the majority of voters ignored appeals from Protestant and Jewish leaders not to enshrine Catholic theology as the law of the state.

Suppose all that had happened in a united Ireland over the decades. It would have generated a Protestant national consciousness, as surely as the actual events in the 26 Counties have hardened the Six Counties majority's commitment to staying with Britain and determination not to go into a Catholic-dominated united Ireland.

How could any Leninist refuse to back the Protestant minority, in the areas where it was a majority, in the demands that would arise for exclusion from the writ of the majority - in certain questions, and maybe in all? You could not, any more than you can in Sri Lanka refuse to back the Tamils - some of whom were once favoured by Britain, and some of whom now commit terrible sectarian acts against Sinhalese.

Things did not go that way in Ireland. We do not have a revolt of a Protestant-British minority against a Catholic-majority state. We have the revolt of an artificially created second minority, the Northern Catholics. We should support that revolt - but we should do it as Marxists who take a broad historical overview. There are enough Catholic nationalists and Catholic chauvinists. What are lacking are Marxists, internationalists, and consistent democrats in Lenin's tradition on the national question.

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