Source: Original electronic copy.
Markup: Emil 2006
Proofread: Emil 2006
The declaration of an unconditional ceasefire by the I.R.A. on the 31st of August represents a crushing defeat for the policy of individual terrorism. For 25 years the I.R.A. waged an armed struggle against British imperialism, with the declared aim of driving out the British army and achieving the unification of Ireland. Now, after a generation of bloody conflict, with 3,170 dead and 36,680 injured, the goal of a united Ireland is further away than ever. The I.R.A. has declared a “complete cessation of violence” without having achieved a single one of its goals. How has this situation come about, and what lessons does it hold for the Labour Movement of Britain and Ireland?
In the first place, it is necessary to place the responsibility for the problems of Ireland where they belong—at the door of British imperialism. Ireland was England’s first colony, and experienced long before the peoples of Africa and the Indian subcontinent the cold, calculating cruelty of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class. From the twelfth century on, the Irish nation was devastated by a series of wars of conquest unleashed upon it by the English invaders. The economy of Ireland was ruined, the people reduced to poverty and starvation, their social structures disrupted, their language and culture destroyed. Centuries of terrible oppression and injustice under English rule bred a fierce spirit of revolt, which took the form of repeated uprisings.
However, the history of Ireland is a striking demonstration of the correctness of the theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky explained that the bourgeoisie in the modern epoch is incapable of solving the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. In the case of colonial countries, that means first and foremost the struggle for national emancipation. All the heroic exertions of the Irish people were betrayed by the bourgeois nationalist leaders.
When the Liberal government of Asquith was finally compelled to accept Irish Home Rule on the eve of the First World War, the reactionary forces in the North of Ireland under Lord Carson armed and mobilised a mass Protestant force to prevent it. The British army officers in Ireland refused to obey the Liberal government, and the Tory Party came out in support of the Ulster Unionists, forcing the government to drop Home Rule.
During the First World War, the Irish bourgeois nationalist leaders in the Westminster parliament tried to ingratiate themselves with British imperialism by supporting the war and even sending Irish volunteers to the front. However, the abandonment of Home Rule in 1914 prepared the way for the Easter Rising of 1916, when the great Irish workers’ leader James Connolly joined forces with the Irish petit-bourgeois nationalists to stage an uprising against British Rule which was put down with great savagery by the British army.
The barbaric reprisals of British imperialism immediately after the defeat of the rising changed the whole situation. The leaders of the insurrection were shot in cold blood. Connolly, who was badly wounded, was strapped to a chair and shot. The other rebels were taken to Britain where they were interned without trial. This provoked mass revulsion and laid the basis for the war of independence in 1919-21.
At each stage of the Irish liberation struggle, the national question has been inextricably linked to social problems. At bottom, it is a class question. The emancipation of the Irish people can only be won through the emancipation of the working class, which has no interest in any form of national or religious oppression. On the contrary, the Irish bourgeois nationalists have consistently betrayed the movement to further their own narrow and selfish class interests. Faced with the threat of social revolution in Ireland, the British ruling class cynically set out to carve up the living body of Ireland, proposing a treaty which separated the North from the rest. This was accepted by the leaders of the Irish nationalists, although another wing rejected it. A bloody civil war ensued in the South in which there were more people killed than in the war against the British.
The partition of Ireland was undoubtedly a most reactionary act. Its arbitrary nature is shown by the fact that, whereas there were four northern provinces (Ulster) where Protestants were in a majority—Armagh, Down, Derry and Antrim—the treaty also included two other counties—Fermanagh and Tyrone—with Catholic majorities, in order to give it some semblance of viability. The acceptance of this showed the treacherous and cowardly nature of the Irish national bourgeoisie.
At this time, the South was an overwhelmingly agricultural country. The bulk of the industry was concentrated in the North, where the predominantly Protestant proletariat had shown its revolutionary potential in the period following World War One. The Southern bourgeois were no less terrified of the social movement in the North than the Protestant bourgeois who resorted to a bloody pogrom in the period 1920-22 to crush the workers. Privately, the Irish bourgeois were relieved to be rid of the “godless communists and Protestants” in the North.
The motives of British imperialism at the time were several. Firstly, fear of social revolution in Ireland; secondly, economic interests, and the links between the Ulster Protestant landowners and capitalists and the British Tory Party; last, but not least, military and strategic considerations. For generations, Ireland occupied a key strategic position for Britain, especially for naval bases at a time when the navy was the decisive element in Britain’s military machine. As late as the Second World War, Churchill considered invading Ireland to make sure it did not fall into German hands.
Partition led to the setting up of a reactionary state in the North based on Protestant superiority. For more than fifty years, Catholics were systematically discriminated against in employment and housing. While formally democratic, the electoral system was rigged so as to guarantee a permanent Protestant majority. The autonomous parliament, Stormont, was to be “a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people.” The Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.), and above all the hated “B-specials” were Protestant forces. This led to an enormous accumulation of anger and bitterness on the part of the Catholics.
The deliberate sowing of national and religious hatred between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland was yet another crime of British imperialism. In order to defeat the revolutionary struggle of the Irish people, the British resorted to the same tactic of “divide and rule” which they later used in India, Palestine and Cyprus. Yet there is nothing inevitable about this. The unity in struggle of the poor Protestants and Catholics at decisive moments runs like a red thread through the whole of Irish history. The first great war of Irish independence, the revolutionary movement of the “United Irishmen” at the close of the 18th century was led by an ex-Protestant freethinker and revolutionary, Wolfe Tone. Only one of the leaders came from a Catholic background.
Before the First World War, under the leadership of James Larkin, the Catholic and Protestant workers united in the great Belfast strike of 1907. The Dublin Lock-out in 1913 saw solidarity from Protestant workers, who collected food and aid to back the strike. In 1919, the predominantly Protestant workers of Belfast organised what was, in effect, a soviet. And in the 1930s, workers of both communities combined in the struggle against unemployment. In industrial disputes, Catholic and Protestant workers usually fought side by side. Even over the last twenty years there have been repeated attempts to achieve unity. Where action has been taken by the workers of mainland Britain, as in the strikes of the health workers, firefighters, and other groups, the workers of Northern Ireland have participated. Despite the crushing pressure of sectarianism, the trade unions remain the only mass organisations in Northern Ireland not divided on sectarian lines, and indeed are linked to the trade unions in both Britain and Ireland. In fact, the level of trade union membership in Northern Ireland is higher than in Britain in proportion to the population.
In 1968-69 decades of frustration and discontent erupted in the civil rights campaign, which began among the Catholic youth and rapidly assumed huge proportions, with mass rallies and demonstrations. This was not a coincidence. The protests of the students in Northern Ireland was undoubtedly influenced by the social explosion in France 1968, which fired the imagination of young people everywhere. This movement got an echo among the Protestants, especially the youth, a section of which joined in the demonstrations. When the civil rights marches were brutally attacked by reactionary Protestant bigots, there was widespread sympathy among Protestants. With correct Marxist leadership, the basis could have been laid for a united movement of Protestant and Catholic workers to take on the menace of sectarianism and fight for jobs, houses and decent wages for all.
The Civil Rights movement put forward a number of progressive demands for equal rights and civil liberties. However, they did not have a clear class perspective. This constituted an insurmountable obstacle, given the history of sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland. The Catholics suffered from five decades of oppression and discrimination in jobs and housing. But the majority of Protestant workers were, in reality, no better off. According to a government report, in 1976 in the Protestant area of Shankill Road in Belfast 79% of houses had no inside toilet, 81% had no hot water, and 49% were living on less than £25 a week. Under these conditions, the Protestant bigots could present the Civil Rights movement as a threat to the Protestant population. One of the leaders of the movement, Bernadette Devlin later admitted that “we realised that, however nicely we put it, more jobs for Catholics meant less jobs for Protestants. That was a realistic fear of theirs.”
The whole history of the struggle in Northern Ireland demonstrates that the only way to solve the problem is on the basis of a class programme. The moment you abandon the class standpoint, you enter on the slippery slope to disaster. All the other tendencies on the Left, bowed to the pressure of nationalism, with predictable results. The leaders of Sinn Féin, while paying lip service to a socialist Ireland in the dim and distant future, insisted that the struggle for socialism be postponed until the “question of the border” was settled. In this, they have been mimicked by all the sectarian groups in Britain, who have played a despicable role, acting as the cheerleaders of the I.R.A. for the last 25 years, with not the slightest pretence of a class position.
The Left reformists show an equal lack of understanding. They imagine themselves to be great realists. In reality, they have stood reality on its head. Ken Livingstone and Clare Short had in effect capitulated to the pressures of Irish nationalism, writing off the Protestant working class as one reactionary mass. Even Tony Benn, who deserves respect for his stand against the right wing of the Labour Party, has been incapable of maintaining a class position on the Irish question. We do not doubt the good intentions of the Lefts. But the way to a very warm place is paved with good intentions! The kind of non-class policies they have defended would have spelt disaster for the people of Northern Ireland, if they had been carried out. But, as we explained to them a long time ago, they could not be carried out, because of the relationship of forces.
The idea that the working class must set aside the fight for socialism until the “border question” is resolved is false from start to finish. It is a variant of the old Stalinist theory of “two stages.” This has had the most disastrous results wherever it has been applied—in China in 1923-7, in Spain in 1936-9, in Indonesia, Iraq, Sudan and Palestine over the last 30 years, and in Ireland also. The terrible experience of the last 25 years shows precisely that the only way to solve the national problem in Northern Ireland is through the united class action of the proletariat, leading to the overthrow of the bankrupt capitalist regimes in the North and South of Ireland, and in Britain also.
Long ago, Leon Trotsky explained that, in the modern epoch, the historic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, including the national question, could only be solved by the working class through the revolutionary reconstruction of society. A similar idea was expressed by the great Irish socialist and working class martyr James Connolly who, polemicising against the Irish nationalists, asked who the “Irish people” were, and gave the famous answer: “Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman—the hired liars of the enemy...Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a nation can be reared.” [source]
As we explained many times, the changed relationship of forces since the Second World War meant that British imperialism no longer had the same interest in maintaining direct control of Northern Ireland. Economically, the British capitalists controlled the bulk of the Southern economy. As Connolly had warned decades earlier: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the socialist republic, England would still rule you. She would rule you through the capitalists, through her landlords, through the whole army of commercial-industrial institutions she has planted in the country.” [source]
Above all, the strategic importance of Ireland for Britain had been practically eliminated. In the age of intercontinental missiles and nuclear submarines, the ports of Northern Ireland were no longer seen as vital, particularly bearing in mind the diminished role of Britain on a world scale. The initiation of talks between the Irish Prime Minister Seán Lemass and the Ulster Unionist leader Terrence O’Neill in the 1960s clearly showed that they were edging towards some kind of agreement at the time.
The problem for British imperialism was, and still is, that it has created a Frankenstein monster in the shape of Protestant bigotry and sectarianism which it cannot control. The Protestants of the North fear that, in a capitalist united Ireland, they would be the oppressed minority. Bad as they are, living standards and social security were, and probably still are, better than in the Republic. And, although the hold of the Catholic Church is not what it was, it still plays a prominent role, as shown by the reactionary legislation on divorce, contraception and abortion.
Contrary to the ideas of the I.R.A. and its sympathisers, it is not possible to bomb a million unwilling Protestants into the South. It would mean civil war and a Lebanon-type disaster which would make the horrors of the last 25 years look like child’s play. The strategists of capital understood that long ago. That is why British imperialism cannot leave the North of Ireland, much as they would like to. A civil war on sectarian lines in Northern Ireland would soon spill over into mainland Britain. Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and London would all be caught up in a nightmare of violence and destruction. That is something the British ruling class wants to avoid at all costs. That is why the I.R.A.’s campaign was doomed to defeat in advance, as the Marxists predicted 25 years ago.
The I.R.A.’s border campaign in the 1950s was a complete failure. In reality, for most people both in the North and South the issue of the border, while not resolved, had receded in importance. The failure of the Irish capitalist class to develop the productive forces manifested itself in large-scale unemployment and emigration. Many Irish workers emigrated from the South to the North, despite all the difficulties. It is a significant fact that the I.R.A. gunmen were forced to operate from the territory of the Republic at that time. They had virtually no base in the North.
The failure of the border campaign led the decision of the I.R.A. leadership to abandon the armed struggle in the 1960s. The I.R.A. had been taken over by a Stalinist tendency which was evolving in a reformist direction. The decision to break with the so-called “armed struggle” (in reality individual terrorism) was, in itself, a step forward. But they made a serious miscalculation in getting rid of their arms. Marxists are in favour of a peaceful transformation of society, which would be possible if the Labour leaders were prepared to mobilise the full strength of the organised working class to take power. But if the Tories and the ruling class resist, using armed force, then it will be necessary to fight to defeat reaction.
Marxists are implacably opposed to the methods of individual terrorism, but not from the standpoint of reformism and pacifism. We set out from the position that “the task of the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves.” The idea that imperialism and capitalism can be defeated by small groups of “urban guerrillas” or individual “heroes” is false and pernicious to the cause of socialism. Nine times out of ten, it leads to defeat, and the strengthening of reaction and the state, which it was alleged to be combatting. In the best case it can lead to the establishing of a monstrously deformed workers’ state, as in Stalinist China or Yugoslavia. But it can never lead to a genuine socialist regime, which, by its very nature, must be based from day one on the active participation of the mass of the working class in the control and administration of society.
A prior condition for this is that the working class—the only genuinely revolutionary force in society—must become conscious of its own power. From a Marxist point of view, that is progressive which serves to raise the consciousness and self-consciousness of the class. That is reactionary which tends to lower the confidence of the workers in themselves. From this point of view, the methods of individual terrorism, the idea that the destiny of society is determined by a small minority of “saviours” with guns and bombs is profoundly reactionary. If anyone still has any doubts on the subject, let them look at the concrete results of the last 25 years on the working class, and say in all honesty in what way this has benefited the cause of socialism and the working class in Ireland, Britain or anywhere else.
Guerrilla warfare is the classical method of struggle of the peasantry. It can play a vital role as an auxiliary to the movement of the workers in the urban centres in backward countries. But it can never be a substitute for the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, using the traditional methods of the general strike, mass demonstrations and insurrection. The very idea of “urban guerrillaism” is alien to the methods and traditions of Marxism. It is just another way of saying individual terrorism, which the Marxists, especially in Russia, have always combatted.
Even from the standpoint of the classical theories of guerrilla warfare, the tactics pursued by the Provisional I.R.A. were insane. The whole idea was that the guerrilla forces would be based on the support of the population (i.e. the peasantry), and merge with it—“to swim like a fish in water,” as Mao put it. But in Northern Ireland the population is divided between Catholics (Republicans) and Protestants (“Loyalists”). Moreover, the latter are the majority, and are implacably opposed to joining the Republic of Ireland. The idea that it was possible to force a million Protestants, with probably 100,000 armed, to join the South against their will, by means of a campaign of bombing and shooting, was doomed to fail from the outset.
From the beginning we stood alone in opposing the policy of individual terrorism and defending a class position. Every other tendency on the left of the British labour movement capitulated to the pressures of petit-bourgeois nationalism. What has happened in Ireland shows once again that the moment you abandon a class point of view on the national question, you are lost. As usual, the left reformists, Stalinists, and the 57 varieties of sects argued that we were “utopians”, that it was necessary to “solve the problem of the border” before the struggle for socialism could be posed, and so on. The recent developments show beyond the shadow of a doubt that our position was correct.
After 25 years, the strategy of the I.R.A. lies in ruins. The cause of Irish unification has been set back for decades by the legacy of bitterness fear and hatred between the two communities as a result. Thus the alleged “realism” of the nationalists has achieved precisely the opposite result to what was intended. The prior condition for a successful struggle against British imperialism is to achieve the united action of the working class, cutting across the sectarian divisions of religion and nationality. This can never be achieved on the basis of nationalism. The only realistic policy is, therefore, a revolutionary class policy aimed at the overthrow of capitalist rule north and south of the border, and in Britain as a whole. But for the leaders of the I.R.A. and their apologists this idea is a book sealed with seven seals.
The truth is that the I.R.A. played no role whatsoever in the mass mobilisations of 1968-69. An important role was played by the Derry Young Socialists, who were groping towards a Marxist position. Unfortunately, they were inexperienced and ill-prepared for the situation that faced them. The brutal attacks of the Paisleyite thugs and the R.U.C. and B-Specials on unarmed demonstrators provoked a massive influx of youth into the movement, Protestant as well as Catholics in the first stages.
When the Protestant reactionaries attacked the Catholic Bogside area in Derry, the Catholics found themselves defenceless. The so-called forces of “law and order”—the R.U.C. and B-Specials—played the leading role in these pogroms. Yet the Official I.R.A., in its reformist obtuseness, having sold its arms, was powerless to provide any defence. A genuine Marxist tendency would have initiated defence committees, based on the trade unions and local committees, composed of both Catholics and Protestants, to defend areas threatened with sectarian attacks. In the given conditions, they would have to be armed.
One wing of the I.R.A., the hard-line militarist faction, opposed the policy of the pro-Stalinist leadership. With the help of a right-wing faction of the Southern Tory Party, Fianna Fáil, they organised a split to set up the Provisional I.R.A. The ruling class in the South were worried about the growing social movement in the Republic. Right wing circles in the ruling Fianna Fáil party provided lavish financial support to the Provos, in order to split the movement and cause a diversion. They even organised the shipment of arms to the North.
The arms provided by the most reactionary section of the Southern capitalists enabled the Provisional I.R.A. to get a base in the North, which they did not possess before. The “Officials” were outmanoeuvred. Large numbers of radicalised Catholic youth flocked to the banner of the Provisionals. However, the sectarian attacks continued, to the point where even Civil Rights leaders like Bernadette Devlin called for the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland.
It is not generally realised that at the time all the Left - with the solitary exception of ourselves—supported the sending of British troops to Northern Ireland. Not only the “Communist” Party and the Labour Lefts, but also the S.W.P. and the rest of the sects! In fact, all those who ever since have been banging the drum for the “Troops Out” movement fell over themselves to justify it. The S.W.P. paper Socialist Worker, on the 21st of August 1969 claimed that:
“Because the British troops do not have the ingrained hatred of the R.U.C. and Specials, they will not behave with the same viciousness—although the former terrorists of Aden and Cyprus are not the angels the press present them to be.”
“The deployment of troops provides some kind of security against the lawlessness of the R.U.C. and the B-Specials...”
And yet again:
“Time is vital to bring aid to the Northern people. [?] The intervention of the British troops in Ulster only allows a temporary breathing space in which the defences of the Catholic community can be strengthened.”
The inclusion of coy phrases such as “only temporary” and “not the angels the press present them to be” cannot disguise the fact that the SWP presented the British army as the saviours of the Catholics. As if the army were some kind of neutral body, and not the instrument of British imperialism! Not a shred of class analysis here. Not an atom of understanding of the real nature of the problem, or the solution to it. Such has been the position of the sects and the left reformists from start to finish in relation to the Irish question.
The Marxists in the British Labour Movement, together with a small handful of supporters in the Derry Young Socialists alone defended a class position. We opposed the sending of British troops, and called for the setting up of a united workers’ defence force to combat sectarianism and organise a campaign for jobs, schools and homes and the expropriation of the monopolies as the only way to advance to the goal of a united socialist Ireland. This position was put in an emergency resolution to the Labour Party Conference in October 1969.
Contrary to the myth of the alleged impossibility of the unity of Protestant and Catholic workers, such a possibility was shown by the situation in areas such as the Ardoyne district of Belfast in the Summer of 1969. The shop stewards at the giant Harland and Wolff shipyard countered the threat of sectarian violence by calling a mass meeting to oppose sectarianism. Joint patrols of Catholic and Protestant workers were set up to prevent sectarian incidents in the shipyards. Instinctively the workers saw the need to defend the unity of the class and oppose the splitting of the workers along religious lines. In effect, this was the embryo of a workers’ defence force, an idea which the Marxist tendency had put forward from the first moment as the only way to oppose the sectarian madness and defend the unity of the class.
If this initiative had been taken up by the trade union leaders and extended to all the six counties, the menace of sectarianism could have been defeated at an early stage. Linked to a united struggle for jobs and houses and decent wages and conditions for all, it could have been the beginning of a struggle for the socialist transformation of society, North and South of the border. Precisely at this time, the Southern workers were also stirring. A big movement had begun, not on the “question of the border,” but on the social issues. That is why a section of the Southern ruling class moved to back the Provisional I.R.A. as a diversion. They were horrified at the mass movement in the South, which was even bigger than the movement in the North.
The Marxists stood for the creation of a joint workers’ defence force of Catholics and Protestants based on the unions. The most conscious workers were drawing the same conclusions, as the movement in the Ardoyne showed, but the Provos had other ideas. The very idea of uniting Catholics and Protestants was anathema to the leaders of the Provisional I.R.A. On the contrary. Their main strategy was to create so-called “safe areas” exclusively made up of Catholics. Like many other areas of Northern Ireland, the Ardoyne was mixed, with both Catholics and Protestants living there. The Provos set out to put an end to this.
In effect, they carried out a policy of “ethnic cleansing” systematically driving out Protestant families by threats and intimidation. They sabotaged the movement towards workers’ unity in the shipyards by killing Protestant workers, deliberately pouring oil on the flames of sectarianism. The reactionary Protestant paramilitary gangs acted in the same way, creating an infernal cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian murders. As a result, in proportion to the size of the country, we had the biggest transfer of population in Europe since the monstrous expulsion of the Sudetenland Germans from Czechoslovakia after 1945.
Before the “Troubles”, there were many mixed areas not only in the countryside but also in the cities, including Belfast. Now there is a huge gulf separating them. In Belfast there is even a wall, still more monstrous than the Berlin Wall which the hypocrites of the Western media shed so many crocodile tears over.
A whole generation of Catholic youth has grown up without ever knowing a Protestant, and vice-versa. The sectarian divide is greater, and the bitterness more intense, than at any time since the first Scottish and English settlers were planted on Irish soil in the 16th and 17th centuries. Is there anything remotely progressive in this?
The perspectives of the Provisional I.R.A. were false from the start. They thought that their military campaign would soon result in a British withdrawal. London would soon get tired of paying the price in lives and hard cash. “The Brits will be out by Christmas.” But there have already been 25 Christmases, and the British show no sign of leaving. The I.R.A. leaders were too blind to see that the British imperialists would be delighted to leave—if only they could! At present, British capital dominates the South. The involvement in the North is costing them at least £4,000 million a year between subsidies and the cost of the army and security. Yet they are prevented from leaving by the threat of civil war and the consequences of this for mainland Britain.
The I.R.A. and its apologists originally dismissed the threat of a Loyalist backlash as a bluff. This was light-minded in the extreme. We warned at the outset that, if there was any question of a serious move towards a united Ireland on a capitalist basis, the Protestants would fight to resist it. To imagine it was possible to coerce a million people into a united Ireland without civil war was the height of irresponsibility. There are around 100,000 Protestants with guns. Together with the overwhelmingly Protestant R.U.C. and U.D.R., this represents a formidable force. If it came to a serious conflict, the I.R.A. would stand no chance. Even the army of the Republic, if it intervened, would not be a serious obstacle. It would easily be swept aside.
What would be the result of such a conflict? Certainly not a united Ireland! It would mean the most ghastly bloodshed, with large numbers of dead on both sides, but with the Catholics suffering most. The Protestants would move to drive out the entire Catholic population. It would mean “ethnic cleansing” on a huge scale. The experience of Yugoslavia shows what this signifies. The Catholics would be driven out of Belfast. Possibly the Protestants would be driven out of Derry, though that is not sure. What you would then have is a re-drawing of the border, and the creation of a 100% Protestant state in the North, and a large and embittered population of Catholic refugees in the South, the basis for a new Palestinian problem, with the prospect of new terrorist actions and reprisals for decades. In the given conditions, there would inevitably be military police dictatorships on either side of the border.
Despite their cavalier dismissal of the threat of civil war, in private the I.R.A. have begun to understand the real position. At one point, about ten years ago, it seems that the British ruling class was weighing up the possibility of a withdrawal. Whereupon the I.R.A. changed its position, putting forward the idea of a “phased withdrawal.” In other words, they did not want an immediate withdrawal, which would put them at the mercy of the Orange reaction, but in effect wanted the British to hang around and fight the Protestants on their behalf! Crazy as this was, it showed that at least the I.R.A. had a clearer understanding of the situation than the “Troops Out” movement, who understand absolutely nothing.
The strategists of capital considered the options and decided it was too risky. In the first place, they would have to face an international outcry. The same Americans and Europeans who now blame the British for being in Ireland would soon blame them for pulling out if it came to civil war. More seriously, the violence would not be confined to Northern Ireland, but would rapidly spread to mainland Britain, the Republic of Ireland and even the U.S.A. and Europe, with attacks on British property, bombings and assassinations.
Therefore, although they would love to leave, the British are stuck with Northern Ireland. They cannot afford to leave, while the risk of civil war remains. They have hung on for 25 years, and would hang on for a lot longer, if necessary. That is why the I.R.A. campaign has failed, and was doomed to fail from the beginning.
A famous statesman once said of a political action: “It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake.” The policies pursued by British imperialism in Northern Ireland have been a mixture of odious crimes and blatant stupidity. The policy of internment without trial was both reactionary and stupid. It did not prevent the I.R.A.’s campaign, but served to recruit thousands of youth to the Provisionals. The massacre of 13 unarmed demonstrators by the paratroop regiment in Derry on Bloody Sunday 1972 had a similar effect.
When Margaret Thatcher allowed Bobby Sands and nine other hunger strikers to die it revealed the cold-blooded cruelty of the British ruling class, but also its ignorant shortsightedness. The Tories could have easily conceded the prisoners’ demand for elementary rights like the right to wear their own clothes, but deliberately chose to let them die. This also gave the Provisional I.R.A. a new boost.
The other tactics of British imperialism have fared no better. In 1973, they signed the Sunningdale Agreement. This was an attempt to manoeuvre with the “moderate” wing of Ulster Unionism and the middle class Catholic party the S.D.L.P. to set up a power-sharing executive and a Northern Ireland Assembly. This was brought down a few months later by a general strike organised by the so-called Ulster Workers’ Council, a sectarian body with nothing to do with the Labour Movement.
This was a reactionary movement, with pickets composed of Protestant paramilitaries using intimidation to stop workers from working. Nevertheless, in a distorted way even this showed the latent power of the working class. The power workers alone were able to bring the entire province to its knees. The army was impotent. The government had to capitulate, and the power-sharing agreement was dropped.
Later on the British authorities resorted to the policy of “shoot to kill.” Although they denied it, it is clear that they had the intention of wiping out the I.R.A. by the simple expedient of murdering suspected terrorists. This was exposed by the shooting of three I.R.A. members in Gibraltar by undercover S.A.S. men. However, the existence of democratic rights in Britain, conquered by the working class through generations of struggle, makes it difficult for the ruling class to maintain such a policy. The public revulsion aroused by these methods forced them to retreat, at least for the time being.
From the standpoint of the Labour Movement, these developments represent a serious threat. The introduction of internment without trial, Diplock Courts where people are convicted without a jury merely on the basis of confessions, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the “shoot to kill” policy—all these things can serve as precedents which can be used against the working class in the future. The I.R.A.’s tactics have not brought about a united Ireland, but have helped to strengthen the very state it was supposed to be combating. Such is the invariable logic of individual terrorism.
After a generation of armed struggle, the Provisional I.R.A. has been forced to admit defeat. That is the long and short of what has happened. Gerry Adams tries to put a brave face on it, claiming some sort of victory. But what has he gained? For 25 years the I.R.A. constantly repeated that its aims were a united Ireland, the withdrawal of the British army and the abolition of the Unionist veto. What did Gerry Adams have to say about these issues in his statement? Nothing at all. They are not even mentioned!
So after all these years, the British Army will not be withdrawn, the Unionist veto will not be abolished and the border will not disappear! So what was it all in aid of? So many sacrifices, so many dead, and for what? What concessions have been gained? The soldiers in Belfast have replaced their steel helmets with berets. There may be other concessions on policing Catholic areas. Some of the irritating border checkpoints will be removed. The broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin has been lifted. There is talk about involving Sinn Féin in the “democratic process.” Probably Whitehall will come up with some new plan for power sharing. They may even succeed this time in setting up an Assembly, which they failed to do in 1973-4.
Still, all these concessions do not amount to much when weighed against the declared aims of the I.R.A. or the terrible price paid by the people of Northern Ireland over a generation. Maybe there is some secret deal to arrive at a united Ireland which John Major doesn’t wish to reveal?
Knowing the workings of capitalist diplomacy, it would be surprising if there were no secret clauses. Certainly many Protestants fear that such a deal has been done. Paisley went to Number 10 Downing Street and accused Major to his face of lying, and was thrown out for his troubles. On the other hand Adams and McGuinness have a vested interest in letting people believe that they have something more up their sleeve. But it is not the case. Here at least, what you see is, more or less, what you get.
It is quite likely that there is a secret deal concerning the release of Republican prisoners. It would be almost impossible for Adams and McGuinness to sell any deal to their members which did not include that. However, the British will demand as a prior condition that the Provisionals hand in their arms. Since they have a huge arsenal, they will probably hand over part of it, and keep the rest “for a rainy day.” It is clear that the majority of the leaders of the I.R.A. have despaired of achieving anything from the “armed struggle” and therefore would be prepared to do this.
What is ruled out is any possibility of a secret deal to bring about a united Ireland, at least for the foreseeable future. That is understood by the serious capitalist commentators. Thus, the Economist of 3rd of September 1994, commenting on the Adam’s statement, said:
“But, extraordinarily enough, it [the I.R.A.] does seem to have given up its armed campaign without achieving any of its goals.”
Paisley has his own reasons for playing on the fears of the Protestants of a sell-out. If the deal holds and a power-sharing Assembly is established, he would be side-lined. Hence his belligerent reaction. However, it is doubtful if the majority of Protestants want to participate in a violent campaign at this stage. As long as there is no suggestion of a united Ireland, that is. Any move in that direction, and the whole situation would change.
Major is leaning on the official Unionist Party. Molyneux has supported the government and even given a guarded welcome to the I.R.A. ceasefire. He knows very well that there has been no deal for a united Ireland and that the Protestant veto is safe. Otherwise he would not give Major his support. That would be political suicide for any Unionist politician.
On the other hand, Major’s room for manoeuvre is severely restricted. He may need the votes of the Ulster Unionists in Westminster. More seriously, any move to eliminate the Unionist veto or weaken the Union would provoke the rebellion of the right wing and split the Tory Party from top to bottom. There are strong historical links between the Ulster Unionists and the Tory party, especially its most reactionary wing. Already there have been a large number of resolutions submitted to the Tory conference, demanding the maintenance of the Union.
The maintenance of the Protestant veto is not a caprice, but a necessity for the ruling class, given the present situation. Adams demands the abolition of the veto and calls for an all-Ireland referendum to settle the question of the border. In this he is echoed by the Labour Left. This is the height of stupidity. How do they propose that this is to be done? Benn, Livingstone and the “Communist” Party wag their finger at one million Protestants and inform them that they cannot have a veto! As if it were not a question of the real balance of forces!
At the end of the Second World War, the Polish government in exile in London, indignantly demanded that they should be recognised as the rightful government, at a time when Poland was occupied by the Russians. The Times politely pointed out to them that they had an unanswerable case, but 200 Russian divisions were a powerful argument! 100,000 armed Protestants are also a formidable argument. Who is going to disarm them? That, and not pious speeches about the “impermissibility of the veto,” is the question. Neither Gerry Adams nor Tony Benn have any answer to it. Under these conditions, all the talk about the veto is just so much hot air.
Things stand no better in regard to a referendum. At the same time as he announced the lifting of the ban on broadcasts—an empty concession, since it had already been circumvented through the use of actors’ voices—Major announced the holding of a referendum on Northern Ireland. This was aimed at convincing the Protestants that their veto was intact. If the question of a united Ireland is put in the North, the overwhelming majority will vote against. Even a significant number of Catholics will vote against it.
Adams knows this and is demanding a referendum on an all-Ireland basis. Reynolds already intends to hold a referendum on the Constitution, in order to remove the clauses laying claim to the whole of Ireland (the 32 counties). It is not clear what the wording of the referendum will be. But if, as is likely, the proposal is to accept that a united Ireland can only be brought about by consent, and if, as is almost certain, it gets a big majority, where does this leave the I.R.A.? It would be extremely difficult to get support for a renewal of the “armed struggle”, at least for the foreseeable future.
For years Sinn Féin, the Labour Left and the 57 varieties of sectarian grouplets shouted “Troops Out!” The Marxists were also in favour of withdrawing the British army from Northern Ireland. Indeed, unlike the aforementioned tendencies, we were the only ones to oppose them being sent! But we linked this question to the demand for the trade unions to establish a united workers’ defence force. Without this, the withdrawal of the troops, in the concrete circumstances, would have been the signal for a bloody all-out sectarian war. Belfast would become another Beirut, with calamitous consequences for the working class and the cause of socialism.
The attitude of the “Troops Out” movement was one of criminal light-mindedness on this issue. But now, it seems, everything has changed overnight! Adams and McGuinness no longer demand that the army of British imperialism leave forthwith. Indeed, they wish it to continue to play a “policing role“ on the outskirts of the nationalist areas. And this position is endorsed by Clare Short, the most vociferous advocate of the “Troops Out” line in the past!
Incidentally, the position of Adams and McGuinness completely explodes the myth that the I.R.A. could protect the Catholic areas. It is a tacit admission on their part that, under present conditions, the departure of the British army would mean a massacre of the Catholics. In reality, the I.R.A. can protect nobody.
Over the past three years, more people have been killed by the Protestant paramilitaries than by the I.R.A. Groups like the U.D.A. and U.V.F. have been acquiring more sophisticated weapons. This was shown by the big shipment of arms which was confiscated in Poland on its way to Northern Ireland a couple of years ago. Of course, the Protestant groups do not yet have the expertise of the I.R.A. But eventually they will catch up. The Irish authorities tried to play down the explosion on a train in Dublin recently. In fact, only the detonator went off. If the bomb had exploded, there would have been many more casualties.
The manifest failure of the I.R.A.’s military campaign, and the increased threat of a counter-offensive of the Protestant paramilitaries against Catholic areas, convinced the leadership of the I.R.A. that the game was up. In reality, Gerry Adams realised long ago that the British could not be defeated militarily. His strategy of “the Armalite and the ballot box” was intended to establish Sinn Féin as a mass political force. He aimed to overtake and even displace the S.D.L.P. But this failed utterly. Sinn Féin peaked at 10% in the North and a mere 3% in the South.
The British government began to manoeuvre with the middle class Catholic leaders of the S.D.L.P. (a nationalist Catholic party who, despite their name, have nothing in common either with Socialism or the Labour Movement) and the Irish bourgeoisie. The result was the Anglo-Irish agreement. In reality, the Southern bourgeois have no interest in a united Ireland. They would be horrified at the prospect of having to absorb a million hostile and sullen Protestants, with all the potential for turmoil that would signify, even if it were possible. Quite apart from the social and political dangers, there are the economic problems. It costs Britain £4,000 million a year. The Irish capitalists could not pay anything like this.
Despite the fact that there has been a certain growth in the Republic’s economy in the last few years, they still have the highest level of unemployment of any country in the European Union, except Spain, and disposable incomes are 22% below the EU average. On the other hand, taxes are already extremely high. How could the Southern capitalists cope with the social costs of re-unification? Compared to this, the problem that faced West Germany seems insignificant. As Connolly explained long ago, the Irish bourgeoisie’s nationalism always comes a poor second after their bank balances! Therefore, they are content to accept the present position, with a few formal concessions, purely for decorative purposes.
The Catholic population in the North is war-weary and sick of the violence which seemed to have no end. That is why they have greeted the ceasefire with relief and even a certain euphoria. Probably a significant section of the I.R.A. was equally tired of a situation of total impasse. Many who joined the Provisionals as 14 or 16 year olds are now middle aged and have spent all their lives fighting with no end in sight. Many are in gaol, serving long sentences. According to press reports, the Republican prisoners in the Maze have declared in favour of the ceasefire. This is a significant fact. The truth is that the activists have no perspective. With a correct Marxist leadership, many of them could have played an important role, developing a genuinely revolutionary struggle in the tradition of Connolly and Larkin. That is the only way to realise the historical aspirations of the Irish people.
The experience of the last 25 years has dealt a devastating blow to the false theories of petit-bourgeois nationalism and individual terrorism masquerading as “armed struggle” which has destroyed and disoriented a whole generation of youth in Northern Ireland. It is necessary to make a new start. But first of all it is necessary to break decisively with those false methods which brought defeat. It is necessary to go back to the ideas, methods and traditions of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, of Larkin and Connolly—the methods of the class struggle, not individual terrorism, of socialist revolution, not nationalism.
The I.R.A.’s ceasefire in reality is a defeat. As always, the tactic of individual terrorism has been completely counter-productive. The I.R.A. killed some individual members of the ruling class, Lord Mountbatten, Airey Neave and others, but the capitalist system does not rest on individuals. Eliminate one reactionary politician, and the next day he will be replaced with another, usually even more reactionary. And meanwhile, the ruling class makes use of terrorism to strengthen the state, introducing repressive and anti-democratic laws, like the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which can be used against the working class in the future.
Now all that remained for Gerry Adams is to proclaim a “pan-Irish nationalist front” and appear in the papers smiling and shaking hands with the reactionary bourgeois Albert Reynolds and the opportunist John Hume. All the fine words about “revolutionary struggle” and even “socialism” (in the distant future, “when the border question is solved”) finally boils down to this! John Major has given the I.R.A. nothing. Nothing at least of any substance. But he is dangling the carrot of parliamentary office and “participation in the democratic process.” This means that if the I.R.A. hands in its guns, Gerry Adams will be allowed to sit in some kind of new Assembly, or go to Westminster, if he manages to get elected.
In the past, in such situations, there would be a split in the I.R.A. between those who wanted to abandon the armed struggle and the militarists. This is what happened in 1969. It is not altogether ruled out, but seems unlikely, in view of all we have said above. Probably the majority of even the activists have had enough. And the reaction in the Catholic areas shows that the bulk of the population would not support it.
The Protestants are equally war-weary, but are suspicious of a sell-out by London. The unrest in the Protestant community has been manifested in some rioting and clashes with the police. The Protestant paramilitaries have staged a number of incidents, murdering Catholics and planting bombs, including the one on the Dublin train. There is bitter rivalry between the U.F.F. and the U.V.F., but they managed to issue a joint declaration in the name of the “Combined Loyalist Military Command” on September 8th, which ruled out an immediate ceasefire. However, the U.V.F. has had a more cautious position, and criticised Paisley for predicting a civil war in which they would have to do the fighting.
One of the main reasons why the situation has dragged on for so long is the fact that the paramilitary groups on both sides are heavily involved in gangsterism and racketeering. Large amounts of money are obtained from drinking clubs, betting shops, and also from protection rackets. A significant part of this ends up, not in the coffers of the organisation, but in private hands. Lumpen tendencies appear to be inseparable from terrorist organisations. Lenin put an end to the tactic of revolutionary expropriations and disbanded the guerrilla units as soon as the revolutionary wave of 1905-6 began to ebb. As part of the mass revolutionary movement, guerrilla detachments played an important role. But isolated from the mass movement, there would inevitably be a tendency towards demoralisation and lumpenism, degenerating into mere banditry. The Mafia itself originated in a guerrilla struggle against the Bourbons in Sicily, and the Triads were originally part of a Chinese nationalist force.
The Protestant paramilitaries may continue to cause trouble for a time. But, unless there is a move to a united Ireland (which is ruled out at this time), this will not lead to a general movement of the Protestants. More likely, they are trying to get into a stronger bargaining position so as to negotiate gains for themselves, following the example of the I.R.A., as they would see it. If they get too troublesome, the British government will not hesitate to use force to crush them. As the Economist (September 3rd, 1994) put it:
“They have killed more people in Northern Ireland over the past two years than the I.R.A. has; they too must be persuaded to abandon violence—or else be defeated.”
There is also the possibility of uncontrolled groups or small split-offs from the I.R.A. engaging in provocations. The small I.N.L.A. group has not yet declared a ceasefire, but will probably do so in the end. Given the mood in the Catholic areas, it is likely that those who engage in terrorist acts to break the ceasefire would be isolated, and denounced to the authorities.
The most likely outcome, therefore, is that the ceasefire will hold, and for a period of a few years, an uneasy peace will prevail, although, given the amount of combustible material, this cannot be taken for granted.
Lenin once said that the national question, at bottom, was a question of bread. The worldwide crisis of capitalism means a future of mass unemployment, poverty, uncertainty, and constant upheavals. At the same time, the crushing domination of the world economy is the most decisive feature of the present epoch. No nation, not even the largest and most powerful, can free itself from the irresistible pull of the world market. That is shown by the collapse of Stalinist “autarchy” (“Socialism in one country”) in Russia, China and the other deformed workers’ states.
The Irish capitalists have had 72 years to solve the problems of the Irish people and have failed. As James Connolly warned in advance, “independent” capitalist Ireland is more dependent on British big business and the other foreign multinationals than ever before. Formal independence has solved none of the problems of the Irish workers and small farmers. Bad housing, unemployment, emigration, high taxes, all remain. Despite the declining influence of the Catholic Church, especially among the youth, abortion, contraception, and, at least until now, divorce, are illegal. And the reunification of Ireland is as far away as ever.
The working people of both North and South face similar problems. On the basis of senile and degenerate capitalism, there is no way out. Even if an elected assembly is set up in the North, what could it solve? The U.S.A. and the E.U. have promised aid. But past experience shows that they are long on promises and very short on delivery, as Arafat and Yeltsin are painfully aware! On the other hand the incredibly obtuse and penny-pinching Tory government of John Major is tempted to make big savings at the expense of the people of Northern Ireland, where there is still higher unemployment and lower wages than in mainland Britain. Even in recent weeks, N.I.P.S.A., has warned of government plans to lay off another 1,000 civil servants in the North. Any attempt to move quickly to cut the Northern Ireland budget would create economic and social havoc. Only a government as dim-witted as this could contemplate such a step. Labour’s right wing, as usual, have embraced the policy of “me-tooism”. Shamefully, Tony Blair has fallen over himself to adopt an even worse position than Major in relation to the Unionist veto. Whereas Major, reading a foreign office script, is at least a bit guarded in his utterances, Blair spells it out in no uncertain terms. This will not cut any ice with the Loyalists, but will outrage and alienate Catholics, who might otherwise be sympathetic to Labour.
The right wing Labour leaders, like the Bourbons, learn nothing and forget everything. The biggest tragedy in Northern Ireland has been the absence of a genuine Party of Labour which, armed with real class policies, could have cut across the madness of sectarianism, and transformed the whole situation. In 1958 the Northern Ireland Labour Party won four seats in Stormont (the Northern Ireland parliament). In the 1964 general election, it got 103,000 votes. But as a result of the right wing following, in effect, a sectarian Protestant position, the N.I.L.P. collapsed, winning only 4,411 votes in 1979.
Marx explained that foreign policy is only the continuation of home policy. Tony Blair and the other right wing Labour leaders have abandoned all pretence to stand for Socialism. They imagine that the way to win elections is to make themselves as indistinguishable from the Tories as possible. They are trying hard to make themselves “respectable” in the eyes of the big monopolies and the City of London. In their blindness, they do not see that the situation is hopeless from a capitalist point of view. On a world scale, the capitalist system is terminally sick. Everywhere the symptoms of economic decline, social, moral and cultural decay and terrible human suffering stares you in the face. Mass unemployment, crumbling inner cities in Belfast, Dublin and London, crime, drugs, despair.
No matter how they twist and turn, no matter how many times they write and re-write the laws and constitutions, it will not stop the rot. An elected assembly in Northern Ireland would be no answer. How could it solve the problem of unemployment or build enough houses for all? The crisis of the social system will continue to gnaw at the bowels of society, spawning more frustration, crime, and sectarian madness. The only way out is to put an end to the root cause of all our ills, the system of rent, interest and profit.
Blair and the right wing will prepare a disaster for the British working class if they persist in trying to run capitalism better than the capitalists. They will prepare an even greater disaster for the people of Northern Ireland if they persist in the mad policy of “me-tooism”—the so-called “bipartisan” policy which makes Labour take all the responsibility for the reactionary policy of the Tories in Northern Ireland. Labour’s rank and file must reject this shameful collaboration with our enemies. We must fight for an independent Labour policy on the question of Ireland, and on all questions facing the working class, nationally and internationally.
For their part, Labour’s Left has also adopted a fundamentally false policy on the question of Northern Ireland, as we have seen. Only the Marxist tendency can be proud of the stand we have taken over the last 25 years, consistently defending a socialist class position, which remains the only way out for the people of Northern Ireland.
The present ceasefire can be welcomed—not because it will solve anything, which it will not—but because it can create a situation, at least for a time, where the class issues can come to the fore. However, this will not last forever. After a time, maybe three or four years depending on circumstances, it will break down, as frustration and anger grows at the failure to solve any of the basic problems.
It is a matter of urgency to fight for the establishment of a real Party of Labour in the North, cutting across the sectarian divisions. The trade unions must give a lead! Enough prevarication! Let the unions convene a conference open to all bona fide workers’ organisations to set up a Labour Party! It is necessary to unite our class under its own independent banner. It is necessary to fight for a socialist Ireland, as part of a socialist federation with England, Scotland and Wales, which in turn will be a giant step towards the Socialist United States Of Europe, and the Socialist World Federation.
Such a perspective seems difficult? But haven’t we had enough of so-called “easy” solutions in Ireland, above all for the past 25 years? We now see where these “easy” solutions and alleged short cuts lead! a short cut to the grave for thousands of militant youth. A short cut to disaster for the working class and the cause of socialism. To all the skeptics and cynics who cast doubt upon the ability of the workers to unite to fight for their emancipation as a class, sweeping aside the sectarian muck, we shall reply in the words of the finest son of the Irish and British working class, James Connolly:
“As we have again and again pointed out, the Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis, into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production, in Ireland ... Yet plain as this is to us today, it is undeniable that for two hundred years at least all Irish political movements ignored this fact, and were conducted by men who did not look below the political surface. These men, to arouse the passions of the people, invoked the memory of social wrongs, such as evictions and famines, but for these wrongs proposed only political remedies, such as changes in taxation or transference of the seat of Government (class rule) from one country to another. Hence they accomplished nothing, because the political remedies proposed were unrelated to the social subjection at the root of the matter. The revolutionists of the past were wiser, the Irish Socialists are wiser today. In their movement the North and the South will again clasp hands, again will it be demonstrated, as in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class, earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics, and out of both a united Social democracy.” [source]