Peter Hadden, Belfast Young Socialists, Officials’ Ard Fheis – Adopt socialist ideas demand rank and file, Militant Irish Monthly, No. 9, January 1973.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Official Sinn Fein Ard Fheis took place on the weekend 16-17 December against a background off mounting repression North and South and the development of near civil war in the six counties. The decisions taken by the delegates, who filled the Mansion House in Dublin, could have a vital bearing on the fate of the Irish working class in the coming months.
The growth of the Officials has been accompanied by a thirst for knowledge and a questioning of the basic position of the movement on the part of the rank and file. Already within the movement distinctly different trends of political thought can be seen to be developing. On the one hand there are those who support the stance of the organisation over the past period and call for a campaign on limited democratic demands. In opposition are those who argue for a full class programme which would incorporate the basic demands for democracy but only as an overall fight for socialism. This position found its ideas reflected in a resolution from Donegal which was critical of the movement’s previous abstraction of democracy from the struggle for socialism.
In contradistinction to both these positions there are those who, in the words of one resolution, demand that ‘all bickering must cease between both factions of Sinn Fein’, and that the Officials take the first step on the road to eternal unity by refusing to take part in any further slanging matches against the provos.
These differences were not resolved one way or another at the Ard Fheis. In fact the resolution dealing with unity with the Provisionals was not even discussed. For the Officials to adopt the position of this resolution would be an enormous step backwards. Nevertheless such ideas cannot be wished into oblivion. Differences of this nature if pushed to the background today will return with vengeance to haunt the movement tomorrow. The ideas of the resolution should have been honestly and openly debated at the Ard Fheis. Only people unsure of their own position are afraid to discuss the ideas of others.
While the Ard Fheis resolved little, the reports of the actual debates and many of the resolutions passed, reflect the genuine desire on the part of large sections of the organisation for a full socialist and revolutionary programme. A motion from the Ard Comhairle which called for the immediate nationalisation of all financial institutions together with mineral and oil wealth of the country was passed. The contents of this resolution were expanded upon by Tomas Mac Giolla during his presidential address. His major theme was the subservience of the Irish economy and people to international profiteers and speculators. “There is no parallel in the world for this total foreign control, for this total exploitation of a people and for this total subservience of a government to multi-national corporations.”
In particular the leftward orientation of the delegates was reflected in the recognition of the importance of the organised labour movement and the need for rank and file republicans to play an increasingly active part within it. During the Sunday session a resolution was passed which in the words of the Irish Times reported “urged that Sinn Fein adopt a more militant policy of involvement in industrial disputes and through these efforts, impress on the workers the need for a socialist solution to their problems.”
Also by 154 votes to 96, a resolutions calling for a Trade Union defence corps was passed. This tallies with the position spelled out in the December edition of the United Irishman, where the editorial states “it is also the immediate duty of the ITUC to provide a firm honest lead by organising workers into anti-sectarian groups who could patrol the most threatened areas.”
In the spirit of these resolutions a turn towards the organised Labour movement would enable the Officials to play an important role in the building of a mass socialist movement North and South. Any tendency which cuts itself off from the mass organisations of the working class can only have a passing effect on the class struggle. The call for a Trade Union Defence Force marks an important recognition that only the organised Labour movement has the power to overcome sectarianism. But in itself this is only half the question.
What is true in relation to defence is equally true in relation to political organisation. The Ard Fheis called for discussions with the leaders of the Protestant working class organisations such as the UDA. Acceptable in themselves, such discussions will never provide a real bridge to the Protestant working class. The possibility of any degree of class unity that can arise out of talks with the bigoted representatives of Protestantism is less than slender.
In the past when class ties have been forged in the North they have arisen from the industrial movements and have resulted in the growth of the Labour Party. Such was the case after the 1907 and 1919 strikes in Belfast. It was only the cowardice and treachery of the pink unionists who headed the labour movement, particularly after partition, that allowed sectarianism to grow.
Protestant workers, when in the future they cast aside the political mantle of their exploiters, are not going to turn in the direction of revolutionary nationalism. Rather they will turn to the labour movement, in particular to the task of creating a political party based on the trade unions. Just as it is the trade unions who alone can end the reign of assassination and terror, so also it is only within the organised Labour movement that a political organisation representing both sections of the working class can Belfast built.
In isolation, the demand for a trade union defence force will find little echo. But if linked to the creation of a mass party of Labour based on socialist policies, it could begin to take on flesh. This is the programme for which Sinn Fein should campaign within the trade unions, in particular spelling out the demand for the calling of a conference of all Labour and Socialist organisations and all trade unions, North and South, to build a mass party of the working class.
Within such an organisation the Marxists of the Officals rank and file, together with the Marxist elements fighting within the Labour Parties North and South, would gain the ear of both Catholic and Protestant workers. As Tomas Mac Giolla, during his address, said; “I believe that the Labour movement at this crucial time in the nation's history must do a reassessment and analysis of its role. Labour must wait no longer. Its place is in the leadership of the struggle for the reconquest of Ireland.”
To consistently advocate such a policy the Officials would have to turn their backs upon the position which they have adopted over recent years. Yet Tomas Mac Giolla at the Ard Fheis saw nothing wrong with past policies. “I must emphasise that the failure of the revolutionary movement to maintain its initial momentum was not due to policy failures.”
Mac Giolla, despite his leftward slant, repeated the fundamental errors which have sown confusion in the movement in the past. Three basic ‘democratic’ demands he listed as the cornerstone of the Northern struggle. An article in the December issue of the United Irishman, CRA call to defeat terror, spells out a similar position. “In the short term the most immediate demands concentrated upon are; The end of internment in any form, a full and comprehensive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, and the immediate demilitarisation of the North by the withdrawal of troops to barracks, except where they are needed to prevent sectarian attacks. If the broadest unity can be built around these demands, the basis will be laid for a brighter future.” (Our emphasis).
The ideas of this article are in total opposition to the socialist policies discussed and adopted by the Ard Fheis. Either the Officials have one position or they have the other. It is not possible to turn to the Trade Unions as the only force capable of ending sectarianism and at the same time give any support tot eh activities of the British army.
To demand that the army of Imperialism stay in Ireland to keep the peace and nothing else is nonsensical. The army is the instrument of the ruling class and will be used accordingly. Capitalism cannot be democratised into acting against itself. It can only be overthrown. There can be no short term ‘solution’ distinct from the establishment of socialism. Despite any limited concession, imperialism in the final analysis will always mean exploitation and repression. Only the building of an independent working class movement can point a way forward.
A campaign of limited, purely ‘democratic’ demands has nothing in common with the aspirations of the majority of the Officials rank and file, as the Ard Fheis has shown. The calls for “immediate” nationalisation, for the labour movement to lead the struggle must be forgotten is such a campaign is accepted. “Broadest unity…around these demands” means, not class unity but precisely the opposite. It means unity of the Catholic workers with all sorts of Green Tories who will argue for paltry concessions but will always sell out the real struggle against the financial stranglehold of imperialism.
Republican Socialists are being asked to join hands with these people whose political ancestry can be traced in a line of direct descent from O’Connell, through Redmond, Cosgrave, De Valera to Jack Lynch and the Fianna Fail stooges of today.
“Labour must wait no longer”, says Mac Giolla. This years’ Ard Fheis has shown that large sections of the Officials are beginning to see through the muddled programme which has held their organisation back in the past. The differences which were not finally resolved by the Ard Fheis cannot be plastered over. They must be hammered out through open debate within the movement. The way forward is clear:
- For a class appeal to the Provo rank and file.
- No to unity with Green Tories and bigots. For class unity of Protestants and Catholics.
- For a genuine intervention in the labour movement around the demands for a Trade Union Defence Force and for the creation of a mass workers party based on the trade unions and pledged to the immediate nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy with democratic workers’ management.
- For the linking of the struggle in Ireland with that of the workers in Britain and internationally around a platform of socialist internationalism.
Last updated: 30.4.2011