Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Chris Coleman

There Can Never be Genuine Democracy in Britain without Withdrawal from Ireland

Remarks made by Chris Coleman on July 12, 1991, on behalf of the Central Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) at one of a series of seminars organised by the London Regional Branch on issues in the struggle for genuine democracy in Britain.

First Published: 1991.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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In the last few days the latest much publicised government initiative on Ireland, Peter Brooke’s talks, to nobody’s surprise have come to complete collapse. In our view that was the intention from the start! The intention was not to solve the problem; the intention was to cause a diversion and to further institutionalise British rule and the divisions in Ireland, to give Britain a further pretext for its continued rule.

It is like a charade which is played out every ten years or so by the British government, whose basic intention is to put off actually finding some solution to the problem. If you look at the way these talks were conducted, the one question which was never raised by any of the participants was the question of principle, the right of any nation to self-determination and to rule itself. When you think that this is on the agenda throughout Europe, the one instance where the question is not raised is to do with Ireland. If you look back through the entire history of English and later British rule in Ireland, the one question which has constantly been avoided is the simple question of principle: the right of any nation to self-determination, to independence and freedom from interference from abroad.

The other thing that one sees again and again, looking back over the centuries, is that the policy towards Ireland constantly acts as a block towards democratic development at home. This goes right back to Cromwell’s time.

This evening we were intending to discuss mainly the effect of British policy towards Ireland on the issue of democratic rights and progress in Britain. I did not mean to talk too much about Ireland itself and the history of British rule in Ireland. But I thought it was important to make some main points. It is also not a bad thing for we in Britain to constantly remind ourselves of the extent of the damage and the reactionary nature of English colonial and British imperial policy towards Ireland, right back to the 12th century when the English first took control.

It is of course well-known that Ireland was the first colony of England. The first invasion took place in 1169. In Ireland, the English colonialists and the British imperialists tested and perfected their policy which they then used in their conquests throughout the world, of repression, of bribery, of deliberately exacerbating divisions among the people. They ruled right from the very beginning with the most extreme brutality. In Elizabeth’s time, in Cromwell’s time, again and again, through the time of the Black and Tans, right up to the present, British rule in Ireland has been marked by barbarism, by massacres, by virtual genocide. It has also been marked over the centuries by policies of suppressing industry, suppressing agricultural development, in order to keep Ireland from making progress. The effect of all this – the policies of oppression, the policies of suppressing development – as you know, have caused great social damage in Ireland over hundreds of years, in the sense of the very large number of Irish people forced to emigrate to all different countries of the world. This has been one of the great curses of Irish history, emigration, as well as the great suffering in Ireland itself.

It is interesting to note, as an indication of the extent of the damage done, the relative population sizes of Britain and Ireland. There was one point at the beginning of last century where there were roughly six million people in both. Just before the time of the famine of 1846-47 there were eight million people in Ireland, 12 million people in Britain. Following the famine the population of Ireland had gone from eight million down to four and a half million. It virtually was halved by death from the famine itself, by the massive emigration of several million people which was forced by the famine. The population of Ireland is still four and a half million now! The population of Britain was 12 million before the famine but it has gone up now to something like 55 million. The cause of this can be seen in British policy.

The other main feature of British policy towards Ireland has been the deliberate exacerbation of divisions among the Irish people. It is well-documented, for instance, that the British military commanders openly spoke of the need to build up the Orange Order in the years preceding the 1798 uprising in order to split the Protestant from the Catholic peasantry, who in alliance with the Protestant intelligentsia and other middle strata inspired by the French Revolution, were the main elements of opposition to British rule. There is ample evidence of the continuation of such a cynical type of policy down through the years and right up to the present day.

Throughout the centuries until 1801, Ireland was ruled as a colony. In 1801, there was union between Britain and Ireland. It was a union brought about by straightforward coercion and bribery. But one of the features of the relationship between Britain and Ireland has been that the Irish people constantly have fought in one form or another for independence and freedom from Britain. In 1798 there were uprisings, in 1848, in 1867, and so on. There was the Easter rising in 1916 which, although it was of a small scale and short-lived, was very significant, in the sense that the Irish people declared their complete independence and declared a republic of Ireland. It was very brutally repressed, but this was a turning point in Ireland’s history, in the sense that things never were the same after that.

When you look at British policy towards Ireland the most marked feature is the refusal ever to recognise, and this goes right up to the present day, that the Irish people are a nation, and, like any nation, have the right to the sovereignty and independence of their country. This is the main feature of the British ruling class attitude. And even when a form of independence was granted to the south, it was the most limited and grudging and enforced type of independence. It was never done by openly acknowledging the right of the Irish people to sovereignty and independence. And when all the talk now is about democracy, and the justification Britain gives for not acknowledging this right of the Irish people is that there is a majority in Northern Ireland who want to keep the union, it is interesting to look back at the last time when the Irish people as a whole voted in a general election. The fact is, the last time this happened, in 1918 and 1921, the vote was something like two-thirds, 70 percent even, for independence. It was in fact this election in 1918 which precipitated the independence war and ended with the Treaty and the partition of Ireland. In the election in 1918, against the greatest possible odds, with 36 of the Republican candidates actually in jail, 20 on the run, election meetings banned, election literature illegal -in spite of all those pressures, the election ended up with 73 Republican candidates elected. This was taken as an expression of the will of the Irish people, and so those not in jail or on the run formed a parliament in Dublin in January 1919, the Dail Eireann, in the Mansion House at which all the elected MPs from Ireland were invited, Unionist as well as Republican. Thus as a result of this election they formed the Irish parliament, set up courts around the country, began to raise loans to run the country, and so on. This was met by the most brutal repression by the British colonial power. The parliament was dissolved, anyone setting up courts or collecting loans was arrested. From this arose the war of independence, which was basically a war to defend the right of the Irish people to run their country and to oppose the repression of their elected representatives. There were further elections after 1918, held in the conditions of colonial war waged by the British, with the same sort of repression, and the results were very similar. In 1920 there were municipal elections, and again two-thirds of the councils elected were Republican. In 1921 there was a general election held in the midst of the war in Ireland, at which 136 MPs elected were Republican or nationalist, 44 were Unionist. So the Irish people even through the British elections had shown their desire to be independent, and the British had refused to accept the results or their implications.

The most bloody war then took place with the terrible atrocities committed from the British side by a force which was nominally a police force which became known as the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries, which, one reads later, served as a model for Mussolini’s fascisti and for the SS in Germany. The Irish fought with great heroism and by 1921 it was clear that Britain could not continue to rule Ireland in the old way. So the British government told the Irish negotiators that if they did not come to an agreement with the British within three days they would call a general state of emergency, mobilise the army and wage open war against the Irish. Thus by a mixture of trickery and open threats of war the Irish were forced to accept the Treaty of 1921, which gave a measure of independence to the south. At the same time, the one thing, as I said before, which was never acknowledged was the right of the Irish people to rule themselves. The Irish MPs still, even in their own parliament, had to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, Ireland was not responsible for its foreign policy, it could not decide on questions of peace and war, and so on. Most seriously, the country was quite artificially partitioned, with no justification in history, geography or anything else bar cynical electoral advantage to the British, and the northern part of Ireland, six of the nine counties of Ulster, remained part of Britain. That situation continues to the present day.

If you look at the various government agreements since that time of the nominal independence of the south, because eventually Britain had to do more than simply give a limited measure of home rule, in none of the British legislation or the agreements between Britain and the Free State and then the government of the Irish Republic, was it ever acknowledged by the British that the Irish are a nation and have a right of self-determination and independence and sovereignty. Even up to the last major Act concerning the Irish Republic’s position, which was the Labour government’s Ireland Act of 1949, it never openly accepted Ireland as an independent country. It simply acknowledged the fact that Ireland had seceded from Britain. It kept common citizenship, which was to allow the free flow of labour, and it added a clause that the north of Ireland could never join the south without the consent of the Stormont government, which if one looks at the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 which set up the Stormont government, does not grant the competence to make such a constitutional change! The main characteristic of British policy throughout the entire period is never to acknowledge the right of the Irish people to their independence and sovereignty.

The Stormont government was thus established in Belfast, which was a government of extreme reaction throughout its period of rule, a semi-fascist government, suppressing the rights of all the working people of all religions, and acting as a brake on every progressive movement in those six counties of Ireland.

In the late ’60s, as is well-known, a movement developed which became known as the Civil Rights Movement, against the Stormont government, and the present period of the Troubles began. Twenty years later we are in exactly the same situation of troops on the streets, the shoot-to-kill policies, mixed with various kinds of political deception, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and so on, political initiatives designed to institutionalise the divisions created among the people in the north of Ireland quite deliberately over the centuries by British rule, and to consolidate and institutionalise British rule of that part of Ireland. Every ten years or so, various initiatives take place, they end in failure, the carnage goes on, the same bankrupt policies are followed, and one can see no end in sight. The tragedy continues.

But at a time when the right of independence of nations is much talked about throughout Europe, it must be said that there are few nations in Europe which have a better claim to their independence than the Irish. This is not to speak against the national aspirations of any other people, because we support the right of every nation to self-determination. But it is very inconsistent that you have all these nationalist movements, many of which the British government supports, but within its state borders, you have part of a nation, a nation with more than a thousand-year history and a settled population over hundreds of years, a nation quite clearly living in its own island, and a nation which has against the greatest barbarity, against the terrible curse of emigration, stood out among the nations of the world as a nation which wherever it has gone, has preserved its national identity, has kept up its culture. You can find Irish communities, fiercely patriotic, in Australia, in Canada, the US, all over the world. In a nutshell, few nations have suffered so much but have a better claim to the right to nationhood and independence.

Even with all the repression and many confusions, again and again over the centuries the people have risen, thousands and’ thousands of people have been involved even up to recent times in great mass movements like arose at the time of the hunger strikes. So you have the two things in contrast. The main characteristic of British policy has been to refuse to even acknowledge the right of the Irish people to self-determination; on the part of the Irish, the strength of their patriotic feeling and the fact that they will go on fighting for however long it needs to establish that independence and to re-unify their country.

It seems to us that it is a matter of principle for people here in Britain to demand that Britain withdraws from Ireland. But what must also be considered is the effect of British policy towards Ireland on life in Britain itself.

If one looks back through history one can see that constantly life in Britain, democratic advance and progress in Britain, has been blocked and obstructed by Britain’s reactionary policy towards Ireland. You can go right back to the time of the Civil War when at its most positive time, when the masses of the people were most directly involved and forced upon the nobility and the rising bourgeoisie various measures such as the execution of Charles I and the setting up of a Republic, then the policy towards Ireland was a major factor in things taking a reactionary turn. Immediately following, Cromwell took his armies to Ireland, and laid waste to Ireland in the most terrible way. He massacred tens of thousands of people. This he did for a number of very definite reasons. One reason was to take the minds of the soldiers who had fought in the Civil War on the republican side in England away from the social problems at home, and also to seize new lands to pay the debts that the government had. In doing this they very often paid the officers and the soldiers by giving them land in Ireland. This invasion of Ireland was one of the factors which blocked the English revolution at a definite point, where the bourgeoisie and the new nobility had taken power and the land but blocked any progress further and made a compromise with the monarchy and the old remnants of feudalism.

Similar things have happened since, right up until the present day, when you can say that the British policy towards Ireland is still a block on progress, on questions of democratic rights and freedoms of the people in Britain itself, a virtual cancer on the life here in Britain. One can just think of some of the recent examples. For instance, the corruption of the legal system, which is caused directly by British policy towards Ireland and the necessities which the British government thinks it has. Virtually every major trial there has been to do with Ireland has now been shown to be a complete fabrication, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguires, and so on. Clearly, British policy results in the most nefarious activities on t he part of the police and the courts, right up to the top, towards the Irish people, as a means to try and suppress the movement of the Irish people for independence and their support in this country. It clearly has a corrupting effect on the entire legal system in Britain. In addition, Ireland has always been used as a testing ground for repressive measures against the people, which are then used here in Britain. For instance, the early experiences of the army in Ireland in the ’69/’70 period, the tactics they developed for suppressing demonstrations, those techniques are then brought back to Britain and used later, for instance, against the miners. You have various violations of rights of the people in Britain, starting with the Irish, which are then made general. So you have the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is brought in specifically as a way to attack the Irish community in Britain, and then after several years is widened so that it can be applied to any nationality. You have the various sorts of surveillance of any progressive movement in Britain -trade unions, the peace movement and others. It is invariably Ireland which is the starting point for the various methods used. For instance, the police Special Branch, which is the main agency for surveillance and interference in political affairs. Originally it was called the Special Irish Branch, set up specifically to deal with the Irish community, and related to the struggle of the Irish people, then generalised.

As well as that, the policies towards Ireland constantly fuel the militarism and the chauvinism in British life and government activity, which is used to win the people behind interference ’ in the affairs of other countries, various warmongering plans in support of the US, and so on. It fuels racism. In addition, the policies towards Ireland, as many people know very well, cause big divisions and splits among the working class here, particularly in some cities. The manoeuvring of various trade union leaders to keep Ireland off their agendas purely for membership reasons is but one example of the Irish issue blocking progressive developments in the trade unions. And then, not least, British policy towards Ireland results in the deaths of many of the sons of the working class who are sent to Ireland to do the dirty work of the British government. The point is that British policy towards Ireland, both historically and right up to the present time, has always had a very devastating effect on life in Britain. As internationalists we and all progressive people in Britain should demand that the Irish people be given through British withdrawal the right to re-unify their country and the right to their sovereignty. But out of self-interest also it is essential that the working class and people in Britain work for and demand withdrawal from Ireland in order to stop this centuries-old block on the democratic and progressive movement in Britain. There is also the question of neighbourly relations. The two countries are neighbours and naturally the people would like to live as good neighbours, as any two adjoining countries should. But when one occupies the territory of the other, then it is impossible for equal and good-neighbourly relations to develop. In addition, as a result of all these different historical processes, the peoples of the two countries are very inter-mingled. In Britain, there is not only a very large Irish community, people directly from Ireland, but there are large numbers of people of Irish origin. Without the end of British annexation of part of Ireland there is no way that the Irish in Britain are going to enjoy their full democratic rights as citizens and the discrimination and harassment of the Irish community end.

For all those reasons, we consider that the demand that Britain withdraw from Ireland is one of the most important democratic demands in Britain today. It is a most important thing to work for and develop a united front among the working class and people to demand that Britain withdraw from Ireland. And this must emphatically be irrespective of the .views held on the particular organisations and the conduct of the struggle for independence in Ireland itself. It is no more for the progressives in Britain to dictate the conduct of affairs in Ireland and to make their support or otherwise for withdrawal dependent on their liking for events in Ireland than it is for the British government and reaction to dictate events there. The only need is to demand withdrawal and allow the Irish people to sort out their own affairs.

On these questions that we have been talking about in these seminars, the issues of the need for a constitution in Britain, for laid-down rights, as we said before, we consider it is not possible to have genuine democracy in Britain while Britain occupies part of the territory of the Irish nation.

So on this question of mobilising people to work for genuine democracy in Britain, the question of Ireland is one of the crucial things. At the same time, if there is to be a constitutional reform for Britain in which the rights of nations are acknowledged, then clearly one of its major provisions has to be immediate withdrawal from Ireland.

Those were the things I wanted to say. Thank you.