Notes of the Month


Ireland and the British Crisis

(October 1974)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.72, October 1974, p.6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ONE OF the problems that is going to be made even more difficult for the new government by the economic crisis is that of Ireland. In the last six months the British ruling class has seen the collapse of its plans for stabilising its rule over the six counties. In January it could look to a Northern Ireland government that appeared to unite both the Catholic and the Protestant middle classes behind a policy for ensuring a stable environment for British investment in both the North and the South; today the intrasigent Loyalists have scooped up the Protestant vote, and have politically annihilated the Faulknerites. The Ulster Workers Council strike has destroyed the Northern Ireland Executive and the Catholic middle class is left without a reformist strategy with which to placate Catholic workers. Before the election the British government was already pointing to the targe cost of trying to stabilise its rule in the six counties – not so much in direct military terms (since the troops would have been kept and trained any case) as in terms of subsidies to big business to invest in the area. With the setting in of the crisis, the pressure for it to reduce its commitment will grow.

That doesn’t mean that British imperialism is going to abandon its hold on the six counties. Much more likely are attempts to ‘Ulsterise’ the conflict, just as the Americans ‘Vietnamised’ the struggle in Indo-China, with local mercenaries taking the place of foreign troops. In Irish terms, that means a return to some sort of open sectarian rule, with the institutions of Orangism being allowed to resume their 200-year old domination of local political and social life.

The Southern Irish minister, Conor Cruise O’Brien, recently outlined a development in these terms. He suggested that Loyalist candidates would win the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly later this year, and that the British government would then decide to withdraw its troops, leaving behind armed Orangemen to force the Catholics back into a position of institutionalised discrimination. O’Brien’s main aim was to persuade the Southern Labour Party that there was nothing it could do about this state of affairs. Revolutionary Socialists must reject his conditions. But the outline he draws of events is not at all improbable.

That means that the question of Ireland is likely to be thrust right back into the centre of British politics. It only needs to be added that the presence of Powell at Westminster sitting for the South Down Ulster constituency will give the issue added importance. Yet there is one aspect of the Irish issue on which revolutionaries in Britain continue to be confused. That concerns our attitude to the IRA. The issue is particularly important at a time when bombing in this country by sections of the IRA put the question in the forefront of politics in the factory.

The International Socialists have always argued that our position has to be one of ‘unconditional, but critical support’. The meaning of the formulation, however, is by no means self-evident, particularly to newcomers to revolutionary politics. To many people there seems to be a contradiction between ‘unconditional’ and ‘critical’.

What is really at stake is support for a movement which is fighting British domination of Northern Ireland, despite the fact that we disagree with the ideas and the tactics of its leaders.

The leadership of the IRA holds the view, pioneered by the Irish middle class, that it is possible to solve the problems of Ireland by driving out the British military forces, while leaving an Irish capitalism which is more and more interlinked with British capitalism. We disagree with that view. But we recognise that one of the obstacles – and a very important one indeed – facing the struggle for socialism in Ireland is domination by British imperialism. We support the IRA insofar as it fights, however inadequately, to remove that domination.

What does that mean in terms of the bombings? We certainly do not believe that armed operations in Britain help the Irish struggles (if they did, it would be our duty to assist them). In fact, they serve to confuse Irish workers as to the best way to fight British imperialism and to make it easier for the British bourgeoisie to inculcate chauvinistic ideas into British workers. As Marxists, we believe that the bombings make more difficult the linking of the Irish struggle for self-determination and the struggle of British workers for socialism. Yet that linking is essential for the success of both.

The ruling class is always trying to turn workers against revolutionary socialism by implying that it means random violence, wanton killing, massive bloodshed. An essential part of winning workers to our ideas is the argument that the force we talk about is quite different to the violence of capitalism – it is a limited force, directed against a minute section of the population, not random destruction. We cannot engage in such an argument without making it clear that we disagree fundamentally with methods of struggle that, for instance, involve leaving bombs in Kings Cross station or the Tower of London.

But for us, criticising the bombing cannot be the same thing as condemning the movement that does the bombing. Far from it. We have to make it clear that we support a movement whose main aim is the driving of British forces out of Northern Ireland, despite the fact that it does things of which we thoroughly disapprove. We have to explain to British workers why support for the IRA’s struggle is support for something quite different than the random violence implied by some of the bombings. We have to show, concretely, why it is that ordinary Catholic workers from Northern Ireland are driven into such a state of desperation by the repressive actions of the British army that they resort to such methods. And we have to try to win support in defending them against the forces of the British state.

Last updated on 18 November 2009