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Ireland and Ulster

Letter to The New International, June 1939

Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Republic Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


To the Editors:

The importance of the Irish question is increased manifold by the presence in America, England, and Australia of millions of Irish proletarians, whose attitude toward our movement is largely dependent upon our position on Ireland. It is therefore mandatory that we face the problem soberly and analytically. Comrade Morgan’s article is unfortunately compounded of pure emotion, and in addition involves numerous distortions and mis-statements of fact. [1] Sympathy for Ireland’s wrongs and hatred of the British empire are not a sufficient basis for deducing the proper position on a subject of such complexity. The vital considerations are: 1) What are the consequences of the old policies pursued, and 2) What policies can achieve the desired results.

Ireland alone of all British possessions may be said to have become a colony by accident rather than design. British policy always aimed at absorption rather than segregation of the Irish. Had this aim been achieved (as in the case of the Scotch and Welsh), Ireland would today be part the British monarchy and the Irish would be petty stockholders in the great British Empire.

This policy failed primarily because the Protestant Reformation came at a time when Ireland was not ready for it. The Irish remained Catholic. Onerous burdens and disabilities were placed upon them by a monarchy striving to consolidate its absolutism on the basis of religious uniformity and centralization. The aim of these measures was not to set the conquered apart from the conquerors, but simply to stamp out heterodoxy. Irish Protestants suffered no persecution. The Irish were oppressed not as Irish but as Catholics, and English Catholics were subjected to much the same treatment.

The early rebellious movements in Ireland contained no progressive features. During the Seventeenth and early Eighteenth centuries, the Irish fought not for separation from Britain, but simply for the restoration of Stuart despotism: the Stuarts, being Catholic, would not enforce anti-Catholic legislation. This in turn caused an intensification of the repression. But however non-national the oppression may have been in its origins, it was thoroughly national in its incidence, and the problem entered into the consciousness of the Irish as “national” problem.

By the middle of the Nineteenth century, the Irish had secured the removal of virtually all the Catholic disabilities. The Irish were the legal equals of the British. But the difference between the living standards of the two peoples was a glaring fact. The Irish attributed their situation to their English landlords. But in actual fact, the methods of exploitation practised in Ireland differed only in minor details from the methods practised in England. The poverty of the Irish was the consequence of their birth rate. During the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries the population of both England and Ireland increased rapidly. But whereas in England the agrarian increment was drained off by the growing towns, Ireland experienced no parallel development. The agricultural population became redundant. Landlords in England, as well as in Ireland, charged whatever rents the traffic would bear. But whereas in England there were a thousand tenants bidding for every thousand farms, in Ireland there were two or three times that number. The Irish tenants, competing for a very limited acreage, bid the rents up and their labor down. When five thousand workers apply for one thousand jobs, a similar development takes place. But whereas industrial unemployment is the product of capitalist decay, Irish “agricultural unemployment” was due simply to the fact that the habitable earth, and Ireland in particular, is limited in size. Had the landlords been Catholic instead of Protestant, and residents instead of absentees, the situation would not have differed materially. Even national liberation was and is no cure for such a situation. Unfortunately one cannot guarantee that, even in a state of complete and utter national independence, even under a proletarian dictatorship, a tiny island with no minerals, an indifferent climate, and a poor soil will be able to provide eight million persons with strawberries and cream. Under capitalism in 1850 it failed to provide them with potatoes.

During the last years of the Nineteenth and the early years of the Twentieth century, the bulk of the land of Ireland was transferred from the absentee landlords to the native tenants, as a result of Britain lending the tenants the purchase money. This brought a slight improvement. More important was the reduction of the population by half as a result of emigration.

Since 1922, Ireland has had its own independent government. Under the Cosgrave protection policy, a native bourgeoisie was hatched, to flap its puny wings impotently. In 1937 De Valera secured the ending of the land annuity payments, the surrender of British forts within the Free State, and the severance of connection with the British crown.

These various steps in the direction of national liberation were progressive. Whatever the historical origins of a sentiment of nationality, it is wholly legitimate for it to seek expression in the formation of an independent state. It is the duty of revolutionists to support such national movements, but it is equally their duty to note the point at which a progressive nationalism becomes reactionary.

Ireland today is an independent capitalist nation, with a native bourgeoisie, a class of native landowners, an independent army, and a republican form of government. The standard of living of the masses can he raised only by the socialist development of industry (to the limited extent possible) and the reduction of the population. The latter can be achieved only by large-scale migration – no longer possible under world capitalism – or by a steep reduction of the birth rate – prevented by bourgeois and church forces. Ireland, in short, has solved the problems of the national revolution, and confronts today the problem of social reorganization.

But the Irish ruling class has an effective means of stifling revolutionary development. It has only to appeal to ancient grievances and anti-British sentiment: perfidious Albion is the source of all woes. The bourgeoisie must keep this agitation within bounds; it cannot alienate its chief customer. But the workers do not understand the business aspect of the situation; they throw bombs.

The nominal basis of the agitation, the fact which causes some to denominate Ireland an oppressed nation and others to call her a British colony, is the British occupation of six counties of Ulster. In the agitation of the nationalists, Ulster is represented as a child torn from its mother’s bosom, longing to return, and thwarted only by superior force.

In actuality, two-thirds of the population of Ulster is Protestant and British. Far from desiring union with Ireland, the Ulstonians (or Orangemen) are fanatically anti-Irish, and are ready to resist Irish “reunification” with gun in hand. The demand of the Irish that Britain withdraw her garrison from Ulster is not the demand for the self-determination of an oppressed people; it is a demand for a hunting license to shoot Protestants. The Irish are here fighting a wholly reactionary struggle against the principle of self-determination.

The arguments adduced in favor of reunification are 1) historic right, 2) natural frontiers doctrine, 3) presence in Ulster of many Irish, 4) military insecurity against British attack. A similar set of arguments could be adduced to justify Hungary’s ambition in Transylvania or Poland’s seizure of the Corridor. Like its Hungarian prototype, Irish expansionism is also based far less upon the economic requirements of the ruling class than upon the “revisionist” sentiment of the broad masses. The longing of every people for a large territory, an economically viable state, and a secure frontier, are not without much justification. But the realities of the present situation make impossible the gratification of these demands. It is impossible to ‘free’ certain peoples without enslaving others. A “just” set of boundary lines for the states of Europe is an unrealizable fantasy. The task of the European proletariat is not to rectify frontiers but to destroy them.

The incorporation of Ulster into Ireland would not obliterate the boundary line; it would perpetuate it. Thenceforth the struggle between the two national and religious groups would constitute the sole content of Irish political and cultural life. Class struggle and socialism would recede far into the background. The solidarizing of the exploited of both national groups would be delayed for decades.

The consequences of nationalist agitation in Ireland are already manifest in Ulster. Irish revisionism has driven the British population into the arms of Toryism: only the Tories can be counted on to block reunification. Politics in UIster is the struggle between Irish candidates and Tory candidates; no liberal or labor current exists among the British there. If Ulster is today a stronghold of the British Empire, the Irish revisionists have themselves to thank for it.

Sixteen years of Irish revisionism have not erased the Ulster frontier, nor have they produced any class solidarity between British and Irish workers. Bombing British bridges and post offices, far from winning converts among the British, will only deepen the existing fissure between the two peoples; to the British workers the Irish will appear as homicidal maniacs, not exploited brothers.

The Irish workers must resolutely reverse their policies of the last sixteen years. They must renounce revisionist aims and set themselves the task of overthrowing their own native exploiters. The seizure of power by the Irish workers and peasants would destroy at once the present firm solidarity of the British workers with their capitalists. The revolution might he extended in short order to Ulster and even Britain herself. Only in this manner will the liberation of the Irish from exploitation become possible.

It is thus the firm responsibility of the Fourth International to tell the Irish: We cannot support your demand for Ulster, for it is reactionary. You must recognize the principle of self-determination, and turn your energies against your class oppressors. Only thus can you win the support of the British workers, without which no Irish movement can succeed.

In taking this position we will greatly intensify the difficulties of propagandizing the Irish. That cannot be helped. When we tell the Polish workers that Poland is not entitled to the frontiers of John Sobieski, or the Turkish workers that Turkey is not entitled to the frontiers of Suleiman the Magnificent, we also do not increase our popularity. But we cannot endorse policies that in their consequences are reactionary. To free the masses from the enslavement of their emotions and prejudices is our first responsibility.


VF, New York


Author’s Note

1. For example, contrary to Morgan’s statements, Ireland never provided the bulk of the wheat consumed in England, and the famine of 1846 was caused not by the repeal of the Corn Laws but by the potato blight of the preceding year.

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