Our record on Ireland

Submitted by AWL on 13 May, 2006 - 12:07

Socialist Organiser [the publication at the time of the tendency now represented by Workers’ Liberty and Solidarity] traces its attitude on Ireland back to the small group of socialists who produced the journal An Solas/Workers Republic in 1966-7, under the umbrella of the Irish Workers Group.

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 believed in the mid-'60s that the adoption of a socialist coloration and the brand name 'Connolly socialism' by that movement was not progressive but confusing, and could only 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."

We believed that though there was national oppression - especially and directly against the Northern Ireland Catholics - this was in part the product of a split in the Irish bourgeoisie, and not simply a matter of 'British-occupied Ireland'.

"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, paper of the IWG, February 1967. Irish Militant was loosely associated with the British Militant until about 1966 and thereafter had no connection with it].

Basing ourselves on Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ and such documents of the Communist International as the ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Question’ (1920), we believed that the economic domination over Ireland by Britain and other great powers could not be eliminated except by the reorganisation of the world economy through the international socialist revolution.

"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 economic nationalism as being no more than the discarded and discredited former economic policy of the 26 County bourgeoisie 11932 - 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 economic programme of the Irish working class, for whom there could be no purely Irish solution.

"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. The only genuine liberation of Ireland will be from the inexorable - uncontrolled - pressures of international capitalism. All the essential goals of all the past defeated and deflated 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'.]

We naturally rejected the Menshevik-Stalinist notion that there had to be a two - stage revolution in Ireland - first 'the Republic' (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 leftwing but put 'the national question' first - represented historically by Paedar O'Donnell, George Gilmore and the Republican Congress of the 1930s, and in the mid-'60s by the 'left' of the Republican movement, the future Official IRA and Workers' Party.

We rejected the kitsch 'Trotskyist' response to the stages theories and the populists - the reflex invocation of 'Permanent Revolution'. The job was not to match texts with texts, ours against theirs, permanent revolution against stages theories, 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. 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.

Ireland was a relatively advanced bourgeois country, integrated into European capitalism, albeit as a weaker capitalism. That the 26 Counties was really independent politically - independent to the degree possible under capitalist world market economic relations - was shown by its neutrality in World War 2.

"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. Irish Militant was not linked politically to the existing Militant group.]

After 1968

The massive revolt of the Catholics in 1969 and after, and then the rapid growth of a new IRA after 1970, forced us to reconsider and modify these assessments, and to respond politically to new facts.

Many Irish socialists responded initially with a 'socialism-is-the-only-answer' message, neglecting the national question. We did not. On the contrary, we were 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 we did not forget what we had learned. We did not go in for romanticism and flights of fantasy, in the style of Socialist Action - then IMG - or Briefing, about the Catholic revolt being the socialist revolution. 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, July 23 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. Nevertheless. It had to be supported.

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.

(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 one man (sic) one house, one man one job, one man one vote, were inevitably seen by Protestants as a desire to re - divide and share what little there was. The issue could have been dynamically and progressively posed in these (transitional demand) terms: build more houses, thus creating more jobs, etc. etc.

(i) We criticised the civil rights movement (including such of its leaders as the then IS/SWP supporters in Northern Ireland, like Michael Farrell, who has since become a political satellite of the Provisionals) for political confusion on the national question and on the need to try to unite the working class around the Catholic movement (they wanted to play down the national question in the cause of uniting the working class in the Six Counties around civil rights and socialist propaganda). We also criticised them for organising provocative marches and demonstrations in Protestant areas which were helping stoke up a sectarian explosion.

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 20 years of war 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. We never had other than derision and scorn for the wild Third - Worldist fantasies and incredible 'permanent revolution' scenarios which the IMG - the closest group to us in its political responses in the early '70s - spun around the Catholic revolt.

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.

After 1972

Since 1972, despite many important twists and turns, the basic facts of the situation have remained unchanged, in stalemate. The British Army cannot defeat the IRA; the Catholics cannot defeat the combined forces of the British Army and the Protestants, the British government is not sufficiently energetic or sufficiently driven, to impose a rearrangement on the Protestants.

In the 26 Counties, there have been some impressive one-off waves of solidarity action - after Bloody Sunday in 1972, and during the hunger strikes. But the basic facts of the political set-up have not changed. The two Green Tory parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, remain dominant - as they were in the '60s. The Irish Labour Party remains a tail of Fine Gael - as it was in the '60s.

Thus the Irish national struggle remains essentially confined to 10% of the Irish nation - the Northern Catholics. That does not detract from the justice of their fight. It does limit its prospects.

It is possible that the situation in the North may be transformed by something from outside it. For example, by a revolutionary upsurge of working-class struggle in the South, creating a new basis for workers' unity in the North. Socialists should do all we can to help such a possibility emerge But we cannot guarantee it at will, and in the meantime we have to formulate ideas showing some way forward from the situation as it is now, not as we hope it will be some day.

We advocated a federal arrangement within Ireland from as early as 1969, but the importance of this element in our politics has increased with the 20 year stalemate.

In this and other aspects of the Irish/British question we differ from other Marxists. Militant has long refused to campaign in any way for British troops out of Ireland, instead they use general propaganda about the need for socialism to evade the issue. That is contemptible, But the attitude of those many on the left who argue that 'troops out' and 'the defeat of British imperialism' are the crux of the Irish question, and all else is pettifogging and probably 'capitulation to imperialism', is empty phrasemongering and in its own way just as shameful as Militant's evasions.

‘Troops out’ is a good slogan. But it is not sufficient. In most national liberation struggles we can say simply: the imperialist power should get out and hand over to the local nationalist movement. There is no all - Ireland nationalist movement. There is a nationalist movement of the Northern Catholics (10% of the population of the island) which is regarded with bitter hostility by the Northern Protestants (20%) and sporadic sympathy, but some alarm, by the Southern Catholics (70%). The situation is further complicated by the political split in the 10% of Ireland's people who are the half million Catholics in the Six Counties. According to election results, only about 1 in 3 of Northern Ireland's Catholics positively support the Provisional IRA or Sinn Fein.

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 is this more true than on the slogan 'Troops out of Ireland'. In early 1969 some of us argued against IS/SWP's almost-exclusive concentration on 'Troops out' (until the troops went on the streets, in August 1969, and IS dropped the call!). We criticised the implied illusion that the Catholic civil rights movement would organically 'grow over' into socialism; and argued for propaganda for the workers' republic.

In the mid-'70s we argued against the notion (put forward by the IMG - now divided into Socialist Action and Briefing - and others) that a mass movement could be built in Britain on the single slogan, 'Troops out'.

We use 'Troops out' as one means of focusing the issue in Britain. It is not a full programme, though some on the left sometimes talk and act as if it is. Even the Provisionals, more serious than their less thoughtful British followers, put precise demands on the way Britain should get out.

If British troops quit Ireland tomorrow, it is quite likely that there would be a sectarian civil war, leading to repartition.

Self-determination? Unify Ireland? The Provisionals are not strong enough to do it. The Northern Protestants are actively hostile to it. The 26 County ruling class has no real wish for it.

The scene would be set for a section of the Protestants to make a drive for the current UDA policy of an 'independent Ulster'. This drive would involve at least a massive crackdown on the Republicans, and, probably, the mass slaughter, rounding-up and driving-out of the Catholics. The Northern Catholics would, naturally, resist violently. Dublin would give some token assistance to the Catholics, but do nothing decisive. There would be mass population movements, a repartition: Ireland would be irrevocably and bitterly split into Orange and Green states. There would be a bloodbath.

The conventional left answer to this, that 'there's already a bloodbath', is no answer. Simmering war with hundreds of casualties is different from all-out war with thousands. Different not only in immediate human terms, but also in terms of the implications for the future possibilities of socialism - i.e. of the Catholic and Protestant workers.

The other answer, 'revolutions always involve bloodshed', is no better. There is no 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 this does not mean that we should fail to support troops out. That the situation and the prospects now are so bleak is in large part Britain's work.

But it does mean that we should couple the call for troops out with politically adequate proposals for a solution within Ireland - and condemn those who call for troops out without such a proposal as mindless phrasemongers.

The only conceivable solution, given the present facts of the situation or anything resembling them, is a united Ireland with federalism: i.e. an attempt to negotiate between the sections of the Irish people and conciliate the Protestants. This 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 can 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 is different from straight conquest of the Protestants. Logically, conquest is the only alternative to such conciliation, given the Protestants' attitude. But it is not possible - who would conquer them? - and not desirable either, from any working class point of view.

It is possible to evade these issues by wishful thinking. It is possible to fantasise that at the crucial point, the national struggle would magically 'grow overt into socialism, and in some 'dialectical' leap the Protestants would be converted to Republicanism. It is 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' are the things that really matter, and that a positive solution and the avoidance of sectarian civil war within Ireland is a secondary issue.

It is possible to delude oneself with a crude 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 is not Marxism. It is not serious, honest politics. We will not even be very 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 - until they explode in our faces. Such fantasies and evasions will never allow those socialists who poison themselves with them to make any political contribution to the work of uniting the Irish working class.

The federal proposal 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) can end the present impasse in a progressive sense is doubtful. Our programme is to develop that socialist movement; seriously, not by empty schematising about the present nationalist struggle becoming socialist if only it is intensified sufficiently, or national/communal issues fading away if only bread-and-butter trade union issues are emphasised loudly enough.

We should not blunt our socialist programme by false 'realism', by getting tied up in working out 'answers' for the present forces in the situation over which we have no control anyway. But a socialist programme 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.

Whether we 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 coldly 'saying what it is'.

Our errors

This summary demonstrates, we think, the consistency of the approach that some of us have had since well before the beginning of the Catholic revolt. Whatever inconsistencies may be found in this or that detail, the fundamental approach is correct.

That does not mean, however, that our politics have been completely adequate. Even in the early '70s, when we put most stress on solidarity with the Catholic revolt, we were critical of the IRA: on the whole, however, we tended to suppress criticism as much as we decently could - and that was too much. The basic principles, views and assessments were correct: but we tended to downplay our own assessments, criticisms and politics in deference to a petty - bourgeois nationalist formation because it was 'leading the struggle against imperialism'. We should not have been so self - effacing.


I . 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 secession was anyway the trend in Northern Ireland. Two 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. These survived until October 1969.

But 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.

Some of us were in IS at the time, and our (tentative) proposal about secession was contained in a resolution for IS conference, written in May or June 1969. At the September 1969 IS conference' the 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 IS leadership said that we wanted the repartition of Ireland. But our resolution explicitly said the goal should be to smash the Northern Ireland state and establish a united Ireland. Because of the weight of the IS/SWP, this misrepresentation of our position is widespread. It is to be found, for example, in the Penguin book 'The Left in Britain', edited by David Widgery.

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