Chris Harman


Ireland After the Hunger Strike

(January 1981)

From Socialist Review, 1981 : 1, 19 January–15 February 1981, pp. 15–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The hunger strike of republican prisoners in Northern Ireland ended a month ago. But the issues that provoked it have not gone away. There are the beginnings of a new bombing campaign in Britain. And in Northern Ireland the ‘dirty protest’ is continuing until the prisoners are certain they have won real concessions from the British government. Chris Harman analyses the background to the Northern Irish war.

* * *

November and December saw the biggest mass protests in Northern Ireland since the fall of Stormont back in 1972. As the four year old ‘dirty protest’ of the republican prisoners culminated in the hunger strike, there were demonstrations of the Catholic population throughout the towns of the North, complete with strikes in towns like Derry and Newry and among certain Catholic workers in Belfast. The scale of the protests forced the Tories to try to compromise over the prisoners’ demands.

Yet the ending of the hunger strike produced considerable confusion. Most republicans and many socialists outside the prisons regarded it as a considerable victory at first. Yet a fortnight later the ‘dirty protest’ was still continuing, and there were reports of threats of a further hunger strike.

The confusion arises partly from an ambiguity throughout the H-block campaign. It was built around five demands that were posed in humanitarian terms, as if they were something different from political status. Yet the basic aim of the ‘dirty protest’ was to stop ‘criminalisation’ of the republican struggle and to force recognition that the prisoners were political. Of course, once the campaign was underway on this basis, every serious supporter of political status had to back it. But as the Irish socialist group, the Socialist Workers Movement, has correctly pointed out, “‘Humanitarianism’ has been cleverly used by the Brits to cover their tactical retreat while strengthening their political rule.” The Tories could easily promise more humane conditions, without budging an inch on criminalisation.

The confusion has deeper roots, however, than this ambiguity alone. To see what these are, it is necessary to reiterate some of the basic facts about the Northern Ireland situation – including some which were all-too-easily forgotten in the urgent struggle for solidarity with the hunger strikers. These concern the conditions under which the struggle is taking place, and the obstacles these place before more than partial success, unless the whole strategy of the struggle is recast.

The northern state

Any account of the struggle has to begin with an analysis of the Northern Irish state. It is not possible to wish away the sectarian, artificial character of this state – as do the TUC’s ‘Better Life for All’ campaign, the CP’s demand for a ‘Bill of Rights’, or the proponents of a ‘two-nations’ theory.

The Northern state and sectarianism are inextricably interlinked. The partition of Ireland could not have occurred 60 years ago but for the ability of the Northern Ireland industrialists and landowners to mobilise behind them the key sections of workers in the Belfast area. And that mobilisation depended on traditions and institutions that had provided Protestant workers with advantages over Catholic workers since the time of the industrial revolution.

There already existed a sectarian pattern to employment. Jobs in the core sections of industry, especially skilled jobs, were the almost exclusive preserve of Protestants (even today there are virtually no Catholic workers in the shipyards or main engineering factories of Belfast); Catholics were forced into ‘marginal’ areas of employment – bartending, transport, general labouring.

Unemployment among Catholics was always, in boom or slump, about twice the Protestant level.

The new state was formed on the basis of this fundamental divide within the working class and set out further to deepen it. Significantly, partition was preceded by the driving from the shipyards of thousands of Catholics and of Protestant opponents of sectarianism. Employment in the police, the special constabulary, the civil service, the judiciary, local government, even, in some areas, refuse collection, became dependent upon ‘Loyalism’ – i.e., upon being a Protestant who backed the sectarian divide, the British connection and the Tory-Unionist government.

The allocation of jobs in industry, the state and local government was very much determined by the interlocking structures of the Unionist Party and the Orange Order – a mass party, tying the individual futures of a wide stratum of Protestant workers to the state and their employers. A network of cadres existed within the working class itself, opposed not just to revolution, but even to the most minimal reform, capable of drawing on to the streets in annual displays of Protestant supremacy one worker in four or five, only challenging the authorities if they seemed likely to tamper with Protestant ascendancy.

The other side of Orange privilege within the Protestant population was discrimination and repression against anyone who happened to have been born into a Catholic family. They were discriminated against in terms of employment and housing, deprived of equal electoral rights (via gerrymandering and plural voting), subject to repression, including physical attack and imprisonment without trial, by the overwhelmingly Loyalist police and the 100 per cent Loyalist special constabulary, every time they tried to protest.

The state was initially established to protect British interests. That is not to say that Orangeism was simply a conspiracy of the British ruling class – there was often a certain tension between the two. But in the turbulent years after World War One Orangeism provided Britain’s rulers with a means for protecting many of their interests while making concessions to the Irish national movement.

Some of these interests were economic – the textile, shipbuilding and engineering of Belfast were significant parts in the overall structure of British capital. Others were to do with the military-strategic needs of British imperialism – a presence in the North East of Ireland was seen as crucial in protecting these as late as 1947 in a British cabinet paper:

‘It is a matter of first class strategic importance that the North should continue to be part of His Majesty’s dominion ... It will never be to Great Britain’s advantage that Northern Ireland should become part of a territory outside His Majesty’s jurisdiction. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Great Britain would ever be able to agree with this even if the people of Northern Ireland desired it.’ (Quoted Guardian, 6 December 1980)

State structures are rarely a simple reflection of the immediate economic or strategic needs of ruling classes. They lean on institutions that persuade sections of other classes to participate in capitalist rule. And these structures take on a life of their own, tending to persist even when the economic or strategic needs that created them have passed away.

In the case of Northern Ireland, it is probably the case that with the final dismantling of the old structures of the British empire in the 1960s (colonial independence, the abandonment of, the ‘East of Suez’ claim to a share in global hegemony, the collapse of the sterling area), that the need for a direct presence in Ireland disappeared.

Economically, the South was becoming, more important than the North, and contained an established capitalist class which saw the need for stability throughout the island. The economies of both North and South were increasing interlocked with the operations of British and multinational firms who wanted to plan their operations on an integrated, 32 county basis. Economic and strategic interests seemed to be pressurising the rulers of the North and the South towards one another and away from the map drawn in 1921. An unprecedented meeting actually took place between an Orange Unionist premier and his Southern counterpart.

But the state created by the British presence would not simply go away.

When in 1968 and 1969 the Catholic section of the population campaigned for elementary civil rights within that state (hardly anyone raised the question of the border at that time), the state apparatuses responded as they always had previously by resorting to the crudest repression, culminating in August 1969 with all-out armed attacks on the Catholic ghettoes by mobs of Orange bigots backed up by the special constabulary (the ‘B-specials’) and the police.

Faced with state structures that no longer suited their immediate needs, British governments sought to reform them. But they shied away from anything which would have led to dissolution of those state structures, fearing that the result would be a threat to the remaining British interests in Northern Ireland and to the credibility of the British state as a whole.

So in 1969–70 the British Labour government sent in troops to supervise reform – but also to prop up the sectarian state against those who wanted the sort of serious reform which would have undermined that state. By 1971 72 the main function of the troops was to aid the Unionist state against its opponents – above all with internment in the summer of 1971 and the cold blooded shooting down of anti-internment demonstrators in Derry early in 1972.

It was the failure of reform that gave birth to the Provisional IRA. The sequence of events is important. The IRA was an insignificant force until the assaults on the ghettoes in August 1969. It was only as it became clear that reform could not do more than scratch the surface of oppression that ‘young people began to turn to the IRA, and to give new life to those in the IRA (the later Provos) who wanted a serious military struggle.

Critics of the Provos (including some socialist critics) tend to view republicanism and the demand for an end to partition as an antiquated romantic nationalism imposed on the civil rights struggle (such, for instance, is the tone of many of the contributions in the recent volume of essays attempting Marxist analyses of the Irish situation, Divided Nation, Divided Class, edited by Austen Morgan and Bob Purdy).

This is to forget that it was the failure of an alternative perspective to republicanism, that of the early civil rights campaign, which drove so many activists towards the Provos. A central element in the republican tradition – its view of the partitionist state as a source of their oppression – tied in with their own all-too-practical experiences.

The mass of the Catholic population never went that far. They hedged their bets, often identifying with particular actions of the IRA in defence of the Catholic enclaves against British troops and Orange sectarianism, but electorally backing the main party committed to the reformist road, the SDLP. Republican abstentionist candidates never got more than about five per cent of the votes in elections in urban nationalist areas.

After the battering the case for reform had received in 1970-72, it seemed to receive a great boost in 1972–4. First, within weeks of Bloody Sunday, in the wake of a huge wave of protest North and South of the border, Stormont, the ‘Protestant Parliament’, was replaced by direct rule from London: Orange sectarianism no longer handed out the orders at the top of the state machine, even if it continued to man most of its subordinate structures.

The British government went so far as to negotiate directly a (shortlived) ceasefire with the Provos and to grant political status to republican prisoners. And then in 1973–4 a joint Unionist-SDLP ‘executive’ was imposed on the province. It seemed to many that reform had won.

But the elimination of certain elements of the old state structure (single party control of national and local government) was not the same thing as dismantling the sectarian structures built into the very existence of the state. The sectarian division in terms of jobs remained; the police continued to identify (and be identified) with the traditions of Loyalism; the courts continued to treat Loyalists rather less harshly than republicans; and the British army showed (especially in the argument over housing allocation) that brought the Provo truce to an end less than three weeks after it was agreed that it regarded placating Loyalism as more important than placating the Catholics.

The more reform was endorsed officially, the more the cadres of Loyalism within the lower middle and working classes resorted to sectarianism in an effort to halt reform. The period of reform was also the period of systematic assassination, of the rallying of the UDA and the UVF, of two Catholic deaths to each Protestant one.

It culminated in the last ditch stand of Loyalism against reform in the summer of 1974: the Loyalist strike, which closed down most Northern Ireland industry while the British army sat back and did nothing. The British government and state were not prepared to smash the Loyalism which had tied the majority of the Northern Irish working class to their rule for so long. They preferred to witness the collapse of the laboriously constructed Unionist-SDLP coalition.

The best testimony to the failure of reform is what has happened to the Catholic party most associated with it. The SDLP remains as respectable, as ‘moderate’ and as middle class as ever. But it has been forced to split with those like Gerry Fitt who put collaboration with the Unionists – even when the Unionists would not collaborate – above reform, and to campaign now for an end to the ‘constitutional guarantee’ of Britain to the six county statelet.

The impasse

The need to destroy a state structure is one thing. The ability to do so is another. The experience of the last 12 years is that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland has little choice but to confront the whole six-county set-up if it is ever to end institutionalised discrimination and repression. Bat the experience is also that the struggle cannot go beyond a certain point without running into a seemingly insuperable obstacle: the oppressed population are a minority within the state, and their very success has prompted the majority to harden its opposition to them. This above all, was the lesson of the success of the Loyalist strike in 1974. Nothing which has happened since has indicated that this obstacle is weakening.

Of course, if the British troops were to withdraw, the Protestants would be forced to face the reality of being on their own alongside a majority in Ireland as a whole who resent their privileges, and would eventually change their tune. But that is to beg the question. While the British troops remain, the attitude of the Protestant workers remains a factor confining opposition to the state to a minority within it – and to a minority which discrimination keeps away from the real centres of political or economic power.

Hence the impasse into which every method of fighting the sectarian state has run – whether that of constitutional reform, of armed action, or, for that matter, of mass agitation.

The impasse is not a new thing; we noted in the old IS journal back in 1969:

‘There were always limits within which the Civil Rights movement had to operate. These were the limits of what could be achieved by mass mobilisation within the boundaries of the six counties ... against an opposition made up in the main of the Protestant working class.’ (IS (old series) 40)

The impasse could only be broken either by breaking the hold of Loyalism over the Protestant working class, or by drawing the nationalist majority in Ireland as a whole into the struggle by spreading it to the South.

Protestant workers

There is a view that the first option can be achieved merely by preaching Catholic-Protestant unity in trade unions, tenants and community struggles. This underlies the (differing) perspectives of the Communist Party, the Militant group and Sinn Fein the Workers Party. We argued against such a perspective back in 1969:

‘While the long term goal may be Catholic-Protestant working class unity, this will not be achieved by a mechanical coming together around economic demands. At the moment the Catholic worker regards his total oppression ... as more important than economic issues, the Protestant worker his ideology and marginal privileges. Long term unity can only come through a political movement, based in the main upon Catholic workers, that fights the social and political structure of Orangeism, and by its success poses the .Protestant worker with real achievements, not just abstract propaganda. But these will not be achieved without forcing back the Orange repressive apparatus – against the desires of sections of the Protestant workers.’ (ibid.)

The argument was and is correct. In 12 years of turmoil, which have seen the fragmentation of the old Orange-Unionist political machine, no significant section of Protestant workers has moved away from Loyalism. The splits from Unionism have been to the right, not the left.

Indeed, so powerful has been the hold of Loyalism that many socialists have moved to a position of defining the Protestant workers as a monolithic bloc of ‘labour aristocrats’ who can never be drawn to non-sectarian, socialist ideas. It is pointed out (for instance in Mike Farrell’s The Orange State or Geoff Bell’s The Protestants of Ulster) that attempts to challenge sectarianism inside the Protestant working class with class-based politics have always, in the end, come to nought. The implication is that this will always continue to be the case.

But recognition of the immense obstacles to class politics among the Protestant workers should not lead to a complete writing off of them in this way.

Their privileges are marginal privileges and by no means evenly distributed within the Protestant population. There has always been a large unskilled Protestant working class and quite considerable numbers of Protestant unemployed.

The Protestant slums are slums – with, for instance, half the houses in the Shankhill area having no bath in 1971, half no indoor WC, a third no hot water. The wage rates for Protestant workers in Belfast may have been higher than in Dublin or in most British cities in 1901; today they are considerably lower.

The industries in which Protestants have been most privileged – shipbuilding, engineering, textiles – are in a deep state of crisis today after prolonged decline even in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. The shipyards for instance, now employ a mere 6,000 workers where once they employed 20,000. It is true that the decline of industry in the Belfast area, with its Protestant majority, is matched by the wretched state of the majority Catholic areas of the West, where very little industry developed in the first place and unemployment levels can be as high as 40 per cent (the official Strabane figure today). But within Belfast and East Antrim the toll of the last year has hit the traditionally Protestant industries.

Finally, to say that those arguing for class unity and struggle among the Protestant workers have always been, defeated, in the end, by Loyalism, is to recognise that they have existed. On occasions they have been able to lead massive struggles – in the strikes of 1907, 1919, 1944, and in the unemployed protests of 1932 – even if they have not been able to stop the majority of these workers being rapidly drawn away again by Orangeism.

As well as these high points of class struggle there have been reformist organisations (the trade unions, the Northern Ireland Labour Party – now virtually defunct – and the CP) with a considerable base within the Protestant working class. Such organisations have often been dismissed on the grounds that they accepted the border and did not challenge the fundamentals of Loyalism. As an argument against those who see the way out through the ‘Better Life for All’ campaign the point is fair enough. As a complete evaluation of the political life of the Protestant working class it is not.

The reformist organisations have tried to co-exist with Orangeism, to avoid conflict with it, while gaining marginal improvements for workers through collective action. That is why, when the chips are down, the initiative has always remained with the Loyalist right. But that does not mean that the reformists are the same as the Loyalist right, any more than social democrats anywhere in the world who prepare the way for the far right are the same as the far right.

Of course, all the components of the Protestant working class act politically against a background of relative privilege, justified by ideology of Protestant supremacy. But they do not all respond in the same way to this background.

Since 1969 the Loyalist organisations have had things very much their own way, driving out of the community or forcing into silence those who would counter them. But that does not mean

that things will always be like this. Working class consciousness is never a fixed, static thing, with only one dimension. It varies with the relationships of workers to one another, to the world of production and to the ruling class. The rhythms of capitalism itself force workers into struggles that contradict many of their previous experiences. New ideas take hold of sections of the class, that can challenge the ideology they have previously professed. Whether these new ideas win out over the old depends on how effectively those who hold them intervene in the struggle.

The Loyalism that has hegemonised the Protestant working class has been a Loyalism in crisis, continually splintering and resplintering as British governments have responded to the Catholic struggle by refusing to allow Loyalism complete control over the six-county statelet. And now this fragmented Loyalism faces the most severe economic attack upon the conditions of Protestant workers since the slump which drove, Protestants and Catholics to fight the police alongside one another in 1932.

Protestant workers will not respond to the crisis by automatically looking to forms of united class struggle. The immediate response to increased unemployment can be a further slide to the right, as they cling ever more tightly to their residual privileges. But it would be a foolhardy prophet who denied any possibility of a class response: there have been militant strikes involving Loyalist workers (the lorry drivers, the firemen); there have been contingents of Protestant workers on unemployment demonstrations in Britain. Out of such responses new elements of class consciousness can emerge, however feeble, to compete in the ideological battle with the various fragments of Loyalism.

Given the grip of the Loyalists on the Protestant communities, it is likely that any real lead in ‘promoting class-based struggle will have to come from outside. But this does not excuse socialists who may be forced themselves to operate from within the Catholic ghettoes from explaining to Protestant workers what needs to be done, how to confront the problems which the crisis poses for them – and to do so in a language which; the best Protestant workers can understand.

Unfortunately, this lead from outside: has not been forthcoming in the last 11 years. Those on the republican side – including almost all the socialists on the republican side – have failed abysmally when it comes to addressing themselves to the problems of Protestant workers Nothing has been said about the problems they face – how to fight over wages and conditions, the run-down of factories, the destruction of jobs, the role of the state in encouraging these things, the role of Loyalism in preventing real opposition to them.

In the struggle to split a section of Protestant workers from Loyalism, a particular onus lies on revolutionary socialists in Great Britain. Many Protestant workers have close connections with workers in the lowlands of Scotland, and much of the Protestant working class is organised into British trade unions. Historically, a rise in the tempo of class struggle in Britain has often found its reflection in militancy among the working class in Belfast. The problem is that British trade union leaders have been content to use this militancy, simply to recruit members, without in any sense encouraging Protestant militants to fight sectarianism and the Loyalist organisations within their own workplaces and union branches.

It is up to socialist, rank and file trade unionists to develop a different approach – to draw Northern Ireland Protestant workers into combine committees, anti-unemployment demonstrations, battles inside the unions – but at the same time to argue out with them the nature of Loyalism and the six county state.

The South

In 1969 our (quite correct) pessimism about the Protestant working class was accompanied by an optimistic view of the ability of forces in the South to come to the aid of the Catholic minority in the North.

‘It is what happens in the rest of Ireland that alone can provide some long term solutions to the problems of the North,’ we wrote. South, as well as North, we argued, continued ‘to be subordinate to British capitalism’ with the consequence that workers and small farmers faced ‘the lowest levels of social welfare’ in Western Europe, the concentration of industrial development in the East, the failure to invest in house-building on an adequate scale, an emigration rate a quarter of the birth rate ...’ This was accompanied, we argued, ‘by a tradition of radical republicanism and opposition to the division of Ireland, an anti-imperialist if not an anti-capitalist ideology, particularly strong among workers and small farmers.’

A sequence of causes and effects was hoped for, in which the rebellion of the Northern ghettoes would produce a radicalisation of the Southern workers, leading them to clash with their own ‘green Tory government’ and to challenge the hold of British imperialism over the whole island.

The picture was not completely false. It was fear of turmoil in the South that forced the British government to impose limited reform in the North in 1969, and to dissolve Stormont within weeks of Bloody Sunday in 1972. Concern with the stability of the South still plays a part in preventing the launching by the Tories of an all-out Orange pogrom on the 1920–21 scale, which alone could smash resistance in the Catholic ghettoes and destroy the IRA’s ability to fight.

But, at the same time, it has to be admitted that spontaneous responses in the South to what has been happening in the North have not been the magic key for unlocking the Northern impasse.

In fact, there has been a shift in consciousness among all classes in the South away from active concern with the Northern question. Outside the border areas and the traditional republican regions of the West, there is almost a wish that Northern Ireland did not exist. Belfast can seem as remote from Dublin as it does from London.

That this applies to workers as well as to bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie was shown in the period of the hunger strike. The first demonstration in Dublin involved only a few thousand local people (as opposed to demonstrators bussed in from the North). Although this improved as things, moved towards a climax, there was no automatic identification with the Northern protests.

In Dublin and Waterford, for instance, only a minority of workers in a handful of factories responded to the call for token strike action.

There has been an objective basis for this shift in attitudes over the last ten years. Irish capitalism has been able to thrive in the interstices between the more advanced capitalisms of Britain, the European powers, and the US, despite the world-wide prevalence of crisis. While British (and Northern Irish) industry has stagnated for a decade, Irish industry has boomed. The number of industrial jobs had already grown from 246,000 in 1963 to 283,000 in 1971. It grew in every year from 1971 to 1979, and even in the last year has fallen by proportionately much less (by 5,000 jobs) than the corresponding figures for Britain or Northern Ireland.

A recent report on the Southern and Northern economies noted that both had grown at roughly the same per capita rate in the period 1971-8. But while in the North growth ‘stemmed mainly from public spending,’ with the industrial sector continuing to decline, in the South growth came from the ‘Common Market and industrial sectors.’ (Quoted Irish Times, 23 December 1980)

It is true that much of this growth has been in multinational firms; but Irish capital too has grown, gaining from its collaboration with the multinationals. And certainly, there has been a decisive shift from the old pattern of Irish capital’s development being cramped by its entanglement with Britain. The links it makes today are as likely to be with Japanese or American capital as British. It no longer makes sense to speak of the South as simply a neo-colony of British imperialism.

The changed fortunes of the Irish ruling class have had important implications for the population at large. The old indices of backwardness have changed markedly. Ireland today is a predominantly urban society. The old bugbear of emigration is no longer the problem it was. In the 1970s immigration – chiefly the return of Irish people who had had to seek work abroad in the 1950s – actually exceeded emigration. For the first time since the famine the population of Ireland started growing. Some of the most visible scars of the long years of imperialist domination began to fade.

The workers have experienced an expansion of job possibilities and their wages have risen so that they are probably as high as those in Britain in real terms, and higher than those in Northern Ireland. They no longer see the border as something that necessarily stunts their prospects. The basis has been laid for a reformism which accepts the border and British domination of the North, while fighting for improved conditions for workers (one expression of this is the new stance of Sinn Fein the Workers Party which has jettisoned its old republicanism to rejoice in the industrial development of the Southern state). Hence the lack of an active interest in the North among many groups of workers and the unwillingness to strike over the H-block issue.

The rural population too has experienced unprecedented prosperity, via the EEC Common Agricultural Policy. The traditional small farmer base of republicanism in the West has been considerably eroded.

This does not mean that the traditional slogans of Irish nationalism no longer have any resonance. They remain part of the dominant national ideology, propagated in the schools, through the Gaelic sporting events, embodied in the main political party, Fianna Fail. It is still the case that an opinion poll can show 20 per cent of the population as agreeing with ‘the goal’ of the IRA. But nationalism is no longer an active mobilising force in any class: only 2.8 per cent ‘strongly support the Provos.’ (Figures quoted in Irish Times, 23 December 1980)

The decline in the base of active republicanism was shown graphically in the H-block campaign. Those who dominated the H-block committees watered down the demand for political status in order to try and broaden the base of support. In practice this did not gain many active allies but rather merely led to increased reliance upon the traditional bearers of the ‘national’ ideology – the church and sections of Fianna Fail. These in turn did hot do more than the minimum needed to maintain their ‘nationalist’ credentials, while laying the basis for a deal to get the British government off the hook.

Southern socialists cannot ignore the border, just because opposition to it does not gain automatic support. The oppression of the Catholic workers in the North and the division in the Northern working class necessarily weakens the Southern working class. The more the forces of repression are successful in the North, the easier it is for the Southern ruling class to increase repression. The close interconnection between British and Irish capitalism makes it impossible to ignore one in the interests of a ‘pure’ struggle against the other.

But support for the Northern struggle will never be gained by mere nationalistic tub-thumping. It needs to be built for in the South as class support, as something which grows out of the self-activity of Southern workers. Significantly, apart from the traditional republican areas of the border and the West, it was where socialists had been active around economic issues inside the workplaces that there was some response to the call for strike action in solidarity with the prisoners.

The Provos

The Provos cannot be dismissed simply as a nationalist hangover from the past somehow imposed from outside on the Northern situation. The Provos grew as a result of the failure of reform to improve appreciably the situation of those in the Catholic ghettoes.

But that does not mean they can lead that struggle to success and that the job of socialists is merely to cheer them on from the sidelines, giving them advice on how they could be a little more successful.

The Provos come from a certain political tradition – the 190 year old tradition of Irish bourgeois nationalism. And this leads them to policies that cannot overcome the impasse of the North.

First there is what might be called ‘elitism’. The republican tradition is one of conspiracies, aimed at restoring the ‘nation’ by means of military action by the minority who make up ‘the army of the nation’.

All other factors are regarded as subordinate to the operations of this military force. A mass movement may on occasion be useful – but only if it provides volunteers and funds for the ‘army’. It can just as well be a hindrance, by diverting attention from the need for military action.

Hence the peculiar phenomenon of the Provos failing to build mass political organisation in the Catholic ghettoes at the times when they have been popular there: if you want your most able cadres to be planning armed operations, you don’t expose them by giving them a public political role.

In the same way, the traditional republican judges political ideas by their ability to gain support for the military struggle. If adopting a left wing posture can gain support among a certain audience (for instance, if addressing a socialist audience outside Ireland) then a left wing terminology will be adopted. If, however, it is the support of a right wing audience that is being pursued (for instance among Irish Americans) then the stance will be a traditional Catholic nationalist one and ‘Marxism’ will be denounced.

Alongside the military elitism there is necessarily another characteristic of the movement – its cross-class basis. For traditional republicanism what matters is raising the widest possible base of support for the armed struggle, and it does not matter from what class this support comes. So while there is one small capitalist in the Ireland or the US who will support the national struggle, no programme will be put forward that might conceivably antagonise them.

So although the Provo’s programme talks about the goal of a ‘democratic socialist republic’, this is posed in the vaguest way which would antagonise virtually no one who might possibly support them.

It is this cross-class nature of the republican organisation that makes it more or less incapable of talking coherently about the problems facing Protestant workers or workers in the South. For to do so, you have to offer something tangible – a class struggle for jobs, housing and decent working conditions. And that has to be waged not merely against the state, but also against some of the bourgeois nationalists to whom the Provos look for support. An obsessive concern with the daily struggles which do take place inside any workplace – including the Protestant dominated shipyards and engineering plants of Belfast – is beyond the comprehension of the Provo leadership (and some socialists outside the Provos, who dismiss such talk as ‘economism’).

After all, why lie obsessed with the best ways of waging the class struggle if you believe salvation will ultimately come from a highly armed, highly disciplined, secret military organisation? So the Provos have little to say to the Protestant workers in the North, apart from inviting them to accept a nationalist’ rhetoric which they have been brought up to fear and hate. Although the Provos are not a sectarian organisation, they must seem it to any isolated Protestant worker who is having doubts about Loyalism, since all they offer is a destruction of the basis of Protestant privilege without any vision of a class struggle for socialism to replace it.

Things are scarcely better in relation to the Southern workers. Although there are many individual Provo supporters in the factories of the South, no attempt is made to organise them into systematic intervention in everyday Struggles over wages and conditions. So When it came to the day of action over H-block, the initiative had to be taken by other, socialist organisations or by individual trade unionists sympathetic to the Northern struggle.

What has been said so far applies most obviously to the traditional republican leadership within the Provos. These are mostly Southern based and are in direct line of descent from the petty bourgeois nationalists who fought the British before partition and who attempted to maintain the republican struggle after it. However, there is a certain contradiction within republicanism today. This tradition finds its main base of support today among overwhelmingly working class volunteers from the Northern ghettoes. These see things much more in class terms than do the traditional leaders and do, from time to time at least, find themselves influenced by non-Provo socialists who succeed in initiating mass movements within the ghettoes (for instance, in the H-block campaign).

This has found expression in what is sometimes called the ‘left Provo’ trend in the North. But this is not an organised current. Despite talk of the need to take up class issues and private grumbling about the Southern traditional republican leaders, it continues to coexist with people who see things quite differently. The ‘left’ still tolerate the subordination of everything to the military struggle, and the need for a cross-class alliance to gain support for it. Hence the spectacle 14 months ago of one of the leading left Provos in the North, Gerry Adams, telling the press:

‘There is no Marxist influence within Sinn Fein. I know of no one within Sinn Fein who is a Marxist or who would be influenced by Marxism.’ (Irish Republican Information Service, 3 November 1979)

The domination of militarism within the movement is not some ‘accident’ that can be overcome by debate. It is, in a sense, the principle of the movement. It is the armed struggle which attracts recruits and determines the whole structure of the movement. Being able to suggest a successful military tactic is more important within the movement than being able to argue for a tactic to mobilise masses. Indeed, the only real alternative to military struggle that has ever been conceived of by the movement is the other side of military struggle – negotiations by the leaders of the movement with its foes to arrive at a military truce.

Yet, without a class perspective, there is no way in which the impasse in the North can be broken. That is why it is so foolish for socialists to behave as if all that is possible is to be a sort of civilian support force for the Provos.

This does not mean dismissing the left within the republican movement out of hand. It does mean recognising that the left will be impotent while it remains entrapped in the traditions and organisations of republicanism.


For 11 years the pattern has been this: the British government has been unable to follow a policy of consistent mass repression, Stormont style, against the Catholic ghettoes and therefore has been unable to smash the cadres of the republican movement; but neither have the ghettoes been able to marshal the forces needed to smash finally the hold of Orangeism and throw out the British security forces that sustain the six-county statelet. Each side has made limited, temporary advances, but neither has been able to sustain these positions against the reaction they have provoked among the mass base of its opponents.

The British could hot keep up the swing to all-out repression typified by internment and Bloody Sunday. The republicans could not keep forcing the British government to the negotiating table – and with it the establishment of special status for prisoners – as in 1972. Each has more or less paralysed any initiative of the other. This is now reflected even at the military level, with the Provos tying down large numbers of the security forces, but in turn being held back by these forces from anything like the level of shootings and bombings of seven or eight years ago.

Such a war of attrition takes a considerable toll on both sides. On the republican side this is measured in terms of the hundreds of imprisoned volunteers. On the British government side things are slightly more complex.

The war has not had anything like the same impact on British society that the Vietnam War had on America: it has not meant a million British conscripts going to risk death, opening many Up to radical ideas. It has not provoked massive anti-draft campaigns in Britian; it has not led to riots on the campuses and among black people in inner city areas; it has not forced the British military budget to rise by a third – as the US arms budget did at the height of Vietnam, fuelling inflation and driving the great financial interests into the peace camp.

After 11 years of the war, a hard-fought campaign by socialists inside the British working class movement could not get more than perhaps two or three thousand people out on the streets of London in support of the five demands of the hunger strikers. This is not a result of any failures to take Ireland seriously by the British left; it is because the war has not had the impact on British society that would create hostility to it, almost regardless of the actions of the left. What was so crucial in the American decision eventually to withdraw from Vietnam – the gaping division within American society – has not developed in Britain out of the war in Ireland. In such circumstances, Ireland is not a radicalising factor in Britain which leads people to question other aspects of capitalist, society; rather, it is only when people have questioned these other things, that they begin to understand the significance of what is happening in the six counties.

Marx is often quoted to the effect the British revolution depends on the Irish revolution. If this means that no revolution could achieve final success in Britain which did not witness the smashing of Loyalism and the six-county statelet, it is absolutely right. If it means that the Irish struggle is the detonator that will explode British society, it is probably wrong. At the time Marx wrote, the Irish immigrant population occupied roughly the role now played by Afro-Caribbean and Asian immigrants – it was a large, super-exploited nationally oppressed section of the British working class, to be found concentrated in the major industrial areas. The struggle against Irish national oppression was connected to the struggle to overcome racialist division within the British working class, with aroused Irish workers playing a vanguard role in the revolutionary struggle of the class as a whole.

Such are not the conditions today. We have to fight for solidarity with the struggle of the Catholic workers of the North against oppression – if only because the structures that oppress them can be expected to throw their weight well and truly on the side of reaction if any broader working class struggle develops in either Britain or Ireland. But we should not expect the fight to be an easy one or to develop any great momentum of its own.

There seems to be a certain weariness with the war in Ireland developing in governing circles in Britain. The cost of the war is still minimal, as compared, say, with the cost of the missile programme. That was why in the mid-seventies it did not seem to worry the ruling class at all: they had to station and train their army somewhere, and Ireland seemed a good, enough place, especially as it enabled them to develop the most effective anti-subversion force in Western Europe. The cost of ‘aid’ to Northern Ireland was more resented – but there was the compensating knowledge that much of the aid flowed back into the coffers of British firms, operating in the six counties.

Today the much greater depth of the economic crisis means that at least a section of the ruling class is thinking that it can no longer afford either the war or the aid. It is looking to cutting its costs anywhere it can, and would be as glad to rid itself of ‘the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone’ as the hospitals of South London. Hence the indications that the Tory government is looking once again at possible ways of disengaging itself. This could explain the visit of almost all the leading elements in Thatcher’s cabinet to Dublin last month, and the mysterious 80 minute-long private discussion between Thatcher and the Irish Premier Haughey.

Yet attempts at limited disengagement are not going to produce the victory the Provos desire. The government wants to repeat its tactics in the hunger strike on a larger scale. The Tories would like a compromise which divides the opposition within the Catholic ghettoes, which gives the Southern government greater responsibility for ensuring the stability of the North, and which reduces the ability of an Orangeism that no longer fits their interests to blackmail them. But they do not want anything that would seem like a republican victory and which would drive the Loyalists to all-out confrontation. That is why Thatcher has insisted the changes being discussed in Dublin were ‘institutional’ not ‘constitutional’.

Past experience indicates that, whatever British governments want, any change imposed on Northern Ireland is likely to end in turmoil on the streets. Ian Paisley has already been trying to exploit the Dublin talks in order to assert himself as the spokesman for Loyalism and to put rival organisations in the shade. If Thatcher and Haughey move in any direction when they meet again in a few months time, the Irish issue is likely to be at the centre of British politics again.

Last updated on 21 September 2019