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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland

No Capitalist Answers – For a Party of Labour

(25 September 1981)

From Militant [UK], No. 570], 25 September 1981.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

After years of Parliamentary Labour Party’s “bi-partisan” approach on Northern Ireland, the NEC’s conference statement on the question is to be welcomed.

A full discussion on the issue throughout the ranks of the labour movement is long overdue. This NEC statement is doubly welcome because it begins at least to point the party in the direction of an independent class position.

The statement recognises the need for the unity of the working class. It adopts the objective of the reunification of Ireland “by consent”, and points out that a “prerequisite of this consent is the creation of greater unity between and within the working class of Northern Ireland.”

Implicitly the report rejects the utopian notion of capitalist re-unification, and explains that a united Ireland “will be achieved with the introduction of socialist policies.”

Above all, it is the section which deals with the building of a Labour Party in Northern Ireland which stands out as a clear class statement. Among the trade unionists in NI there is a growing feeling that a Labour Party should be built in order to cement a political bond between catholic and protestant workers.

Analysing groups such as the old Northern Ireland Labour Party and the Social Democratic Labour Party, it correctly unmasks their pretence to be Labour organisations, and concludes that “no working class party exists, which is capable of bringing catholics and protestants together inside a single political organisation to further their interests as workers.”

It ends with a firm declaration of support for the principle of a Labour Party and a clear statement of how such a party can be created. Every section of the labour movement should echo these sentiments so that this call is deafeningly and unanswerably heard throughout the movement.

It is worth quoting this conclusion, so that it can become the basis of a campaign by Labour Party and trade union activists.

“We recognise the need for a class based party of Labour in Northern Ireland in order to give a clear political lead on the social and economic issues which unite catholic and protestant workers. The formation of such a party, however, must be rooted in the trade unions in Northern Ireland.

“We therefore believe that interested trade unions in Northern Ireland should support a Conference of trade unions, trades councils, shop stewards committees and other labour movement organisations in Northern Ireland to discuss whether it is possible to form such a Labour Party.”

This conclusion, together with the general thrust of the argument towards class unity, is incompatible with the policy of bi-partisanship which has been the only consistent policy of the parliamentary Labour Party over the past decade.

Bankrupt political parties

Bi-partisanship has manacled Labour to Tory policies on this question. The statement’s implicit rejection must now be made explicit if a socialist approach is to be adopted.

The NEC statement, however, does not represent a full socialist analysis of Northern Ireland. Rather it contains elements of an independent class position. But these are closely sandwiched between strong echoes of the party’s past policies.

This is an uncomfortable and unappetising mix which will break the teeth of anyone who bites hard upon it. What it fails to recognise is that class solutions are incompatible with capitalist ’solutions’. By attempting to put forward a crude mixture of both, the statement tries to look in two opposite directions at once, an impossible feat to accomplish.

This is clearest when so-called “short-term” and “medium-term” solutions are put forward. For example, it proposes in the “medium-term” that there should be an understanding with the political leaders in NI on the need for closer co-operation between the parties, as a step towards “sharing responsibility in government” and building “a bridge between the communities”.

Yet the need for a Labour Party is accepted because it is understood that only within such a party can catholic and protestant workers be united. A declaration for a Labour party is a declaration of the bankruptcy of the existing Tory and sectarian parties.

And with good reason! One leading Unionist Party member recently joined the controversy over plastic bullets. He agreed they should not be used – providing there was an alternative. Instead, he suggested that low-velocity lead bullets should be used so targets could be more precisely picked out and eliminated.

What “constructive discussion”, “Understanding” or “shared responsibility” can there possibly be with such people? A Labour Party is needed to destroy the hold of the Paisleyite Democratic Unionist Party, the SDLP, the Official Unionists and others. From its inception it can expect only the most ferocious opposition from such quarters.

To propose a government of these parties in the same breath as proposing a Labour Party, is to simultaneously propose that they be supported and destroyed. The reality of Northern Ireland is that there are no capitalist solutions. No adjustment of constitutional arrangements will cause the violence to evaporate. Direct rule, independence, power-sharing, integration with Britain, capitalist re-unification would all merely alter the stage within which the conflict is fought out, not end it.

The British ruling class created the problem. They used the weapon of religious division to set catholic and protestant apart and maintain their rule. As part of this policy the 1920 Government of Ireland Act was passed and the country partitioned.

Now the present representatives of capitalism are incapable of undoing their predecessors’ destructive handiwork. They cannot achieve peace or stability whether in the “short”, “medium” or “long” term.

The NEC Report itself gives some eloquent reasons why this is so: 19% of the workforce are without jobs; 14% of houses are totally unfit for habitation. Average earnings are only 90% of those of the UK, while costs are much higher.

Poverty, sectarianism and repression

Northern Ireland is the UK’s poorest region, and one of the poorest in Europe. More than half NI children are growing up on families whose income leaves them on or below the official poverty line.

Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side and in other British cities have now felt the violent consequences of deprivation and mass unemployment. Northern Ireland no longer appears so peculiar or so unique. Capitalism, through its Tory representatives, can only worsen the social and economic problems.

While tens of thousands are on the dole and on the breadline, while the youth have no jobs and no prospects whatsoever, while there is an environment of destitution, there will be social upheaval of one form or another.

The question in Northern Ireland is not whether this inevitable discontent can be dissolved by waving a wand of constitutional change. It is whether it can be directed by the labour movement into positive class protest or whether it will be squandered as in the past in fratricidal sectarian violence.

The unity of the working class in struggle for a socialist solution is the key. The mistake of the NEC document is to uphold this aim on the one hand, while on the other proposing “immediate” answers based on capitalism. The only “immediate” answer is class unity in action. Twelve years of so-called “practical” solutions should have made this evident.

As the NEC implicitly accepts, a capitalist united Ireland is ruled out. It has no attraction for NI’s one million protestants. Attempts to bomb and shoot them into submission will only intensify their resistance.

Capitalist unity forced on the protestants would precipitate a civil war, the expulsion of the catholics from the north and the likely re-partition of the country. It would set both the working class movement and the prospect of re-unification back for years, if not for decades.

Intensified sectarian fighting in the North, moreover, could spill over into Britain, raising the ugly spectre of sectarian conflict in Liverpool, Glasgow and other cities with big Irish populations. That could have horrendous consequences for the labour movement.

Only as part of the struggle for socialism based on the unity of the working class, catholic and protestant, north and south, can there be the removal of the border.

If, however, the unity of Ireland is the only real answer, as the NEC accept, then neither direct rule nor power-sharing will solve anything. And since re-unification is possible only through the building of a socialist movement, the question comes back to the key and immediate issue of the unity of workers.

When it comes to dealing with sectarianism, with repression and with the miseries of poverty and unemployment, there is only the struggle to build and strengthen the labour movement against these evils. There are no interim, no short-term, no long-term, capitalist palliatives.

In the inflamed situation in NI to move even a quarter of an inch from such a class standpoint is to move a mile. This is vividly demonstrated in the section of the NEC document which deals with repression, H-Block and the role of the army. The ruling class’s lack of any answer is spelt out in the language of naked repression: Repressive legislation, plastic bullets, non-jury courts, police torture. The labour movement has a fundamental responsibility to oppose such state repression.

This is in no way to condone the totally false methods of struggle of individual terrorism adopted by the Provisional IRA and INLA. Their activities have not only further divided and weakened the working class, they have also given the Tories the excuse to step up repression.

One year of hunger strikes in the H-Blocks has also demonstrated that groups like the Provos and those associated with them are totally incapable of resisting the repression their activities incur.

But while standing against individual terrorism, the labour movement cannot afford to give the slightest credence to the limitations of freedoms and rights imposed by the state. These restrictions can be used against the working class and their organisations as they move into struggle.

The NEC statement, because it does not base itself consistently on class and socialist solutions, gives guarded support to the military tactics of the state, condemning only the most severe excesses of that policy.

It does not stand for the total repeal of the Emergency Provisions Act, but only for the repeal sections of it. It does not demand the closure of the non-jury courts, but their modification. It opposes any call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops.

Such positions flow from the statements’ acceptance that there can be some short-term capitalist solution, it upholds the continuation of Direct Rules for the time being. But Direct Rule also means the methods by which the army retain their hold. Here the NEC are forced to swallow the fair with the foul.

In the intensity of Northern Ireland it is a question of either standing four square for an independent class approach or of being forced in to the arms of the ruling class and into the embrace of their military policy.

Ten deaths in the H-Blocks are the fruits of Thatcher’s brutal intransigence. The NEC calls for basic reforms of prison conditions for all Northern Ireland prisoners. These reforms would indeed provide for a settlement to the hunger strike, and must be supported.

However, on H-Block and on repression generally, it is necessary to go further. An inquiry into all aspects of repression should be set up by the labour movement, and its findings used as a basis for a campaign to repeal all repressive legislation, close the torture centres, and scrap the Diplock courts. This would bring down the edifice out of which the horrors of H-Block emerged.

With regard to those now in prison convicted of offences arising from the troubles, and the associated question of political status which the NEC simply opposes, there should be a review by the labour movement to establish who has been framed or tortured and who could be regarded as political prisoners. The labour movement would fight on behalf of such people but not those who have committed conscious sectarian atrocities.

One the question of British troops, a decade of killings has shown that the army cannot perform even the minimal function of preventing sectarian attacks. However the statement correctly says that the withdrawal of the troops without an alternative, would open the way to bloodshed on a far worse scale than anything yet witnessed.

From this the statement concludes the army must stay. But this means the working class must continue to suffer. If the removal of the army without an alternative means bloodshed, the answer is not to support the retention of troops, but to pose and build the alternative.

The trade unions in Northern Ireland are 300,000 strong. This mass force, mobilised in action against sectarianism through a defence force based on the trade unions, could do what the army can never do: protect the working class from the bigots of all sides.

The NEC statement is a step along the road to a class approach. But it is a step shackled by the retention of capitalist solutions. Nonetheless, it is an implicit rejection of bipartisanship and the past policies of Labour’s spokesmen on NI.

Above all, because its call for a conference of Labour could be of historic significance for the cause of class unity within Northern Ireland, the statement should be adopted despite its limitations. Such adoption must be the beginning of a campaign for the convening of a Conference of Labour in NI and the working out of a socialist solution.

A fighting Labour Party in NI would open the way to the unity of the working class throughout Ireland, a socialist united Ireland and a socialist federation of these islands. Delegates to the Labour Party Conference have an opportunity to open a new chapter in the history of the Irish working class.

The 1970s were a decade of sectarian division. A conference of the Northern Ireland labour movement and the creation of a Labour Party could open a struggle to make the 1980s the decade of the unity of the working class throughout Ireland.

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