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Peter Hadden

Does Britain want to get out?

(October 1981)

From Militant Irish Monthly, October 1981.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Is Britain about to withdraw? Will and independent Northern Ireland be established? Is a deal being done between London and Dublin? Such are the questions now on the lips of many workers as they react to the recent London-Dublin summits and the more recent public discussion in the press on possible solutions for the North, particularly the call by the Sunday Times for the setting up of an independent Northern Ireland.

Thatcher’s Government has been presented as being poised on the verge of a new, dramatic, bold switch of policy on Ireland which will resolve the “age old question”. The truth stands a great distance from the projected image. In reality the latest conjecture on new initiatives reflects not some new and firm strategy for a determined solution, but rather the hopeless floundering of the ruling class at their inability to come up with any answer whatsoever.

When Ian Paisley paraded a few hundred supporters on an Antrim hill top the Sunday Times in an editorial comment derided him as only encouraging “fools by his antics”. It commented: “He has been watching too much television about that disreputable buccaneer Sir Edward Carson.”

Divide and Conquer

Yet in 1920 the forces built up by this “disreputable” Carson were given arms and finance in order to establish their own state. To the British ruling class this partitioning of Ireland was necessary primarily in order to divide the working class movement in Ireland, and also to prevent this movement joining arms in struggle with the British working class. In pursuit of the tactic of “divide and conquer” British capital stood foursquare behind the Unionists, greeting their worst excesses as a cause for celebration.

By the late 1950s things had changed. The interests of the capitalists, to protect and extend their profits, remained as always. It was the means by which these interests could be maintained which had altered. In the general economic upswing which followed the Second World War and with the defeats of the immediate post war revolutionary upsurge, class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries temporarily subsided. At this time also the Southern Irish state abandoned its futile attempts to build up native capitalist industry behind tariff barriers. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement formalised the opening of this market to penetration by British capital.

From an economic point of view the border became a total anachronism. Thus, by the 1960s, the British ruling class would have preferred to withdraw their direct control from Ireland, allow reunification or a possible federal solution, and proceed to peacefully continue with the economic domination and exploitation of both North and South. This was the explanation for the grooming of so-called “moderate Unionism” in the guise of Terence O’Neill and for the meetings which were then encouraged between O’Neill and his Southern counterpart, Sean Lemass.

But in 1968–69 the sins of the fathers were visited upon the sons. The Unionist state acted as a Frankenstein monster which refused to accept the command to self-destruct. The development of the troubles blasted asunder all the hopes of the bosses of capitalist reunification. Rather than extricating themselves from direct involvement in Ireland, as was and remains their wish, they found themselves obliged to commit the army onto the streets.

Having been painfully taught the impossibility of capitalist reunification Imperialism’s policy for over a decade has been one of containment. Their methods have been a mixture of concession and repression, of the velvet glove and the iron fist. Which they have projected foremost has depended entirely on the situation. In recent years the emphasis of their “solution” has been measured in the language of military force. The objective throughout has been to achieve the reduction of violence to the “acceptable level” candidly spoken of by Tory Home Secretary Maudling, almost ten years ago.

Direct Rule

As a cover for this real solution which the army has been implementing on the streets there have been an endless series of political initiatives of varying shades. In March 1972 Stormont was declared beyond redemption and Direct Rule was introduced. There began a series of political discussion, chiefly designed to woo the Catholic middle class representatives and isolate the Provisionals within the Catholic communities. These culminated in the short lived power-sharing Assembly which was toppled in May 1974. Since then there have been more talks, the Northern Ireland Convention, and in the lifetime of the present Tory Government two attempts to set up some form of local administration. Each of these schemes has been different, but all of them have one thing in common – all have failed.

Now well into the second decade of turmoil, with almost 2,500 dead, the prospect of a solution, from the point of view of the ruling class, is just as remote as in 1969.

The Sunday Times in a special report published early this year pointed out that a number of civil servants in the Northern Ireland office have been racking their brains for over five years examining such options as “integration, independence, unification and repartition”. As the reporter explained: “The trouble is that this scrutiny has persuaded the Northern Ireland Office that all these options are impossible.”

But Thatcher, in her recent discussions with the Southern Prime Minister, Haughey, and the Sunday Times in its most recent espousal of independence, have attempted to declare otherwise. Their apparent turn to new and bold solutions reflected anything but boldness or determination. It is simply a declaration that “all else has failed and there is nothing to lose.”


By 1968 the ruling class had got their fingers burnt when they had dared dream of such schemes. Those who are ignorant of the past have to be re-taught its lessons. Already the Dublin-London joint studies and talks have collapsed, trampling underfoot some of Thatcher’s delusions. From the point of view of Haughey these talks were primarily for electoral purposes. The Southern ruling class has no interest in leading a struggle for reunification.

Forcible reunification would be resisted by the million Protestants. Their fears of becoming a discriminated against minority in a 32 county republic are not without foundation, as right wing Green Tories have little to learn from British Imperialism when it comes to the tactic of divide and rule.

Protestant resistance would mean civil war. From the ashes of such a conflict would arise, not the dream of unity as some nationalists and sections of the Provisionals imagine, but the expulsion of the Catholics from Belfast and the surrounding areas, the repartition of the country, refugee camps in the South and the prospects of an unending guerrilla war against a monolithic Protestant enclave. The attempt at capitalist reunification would “advance” us from the Northern Ireland of the 1920s to a Palestine.

Nor could independence be implemented. In the first place this is demanded mainly by organisations based on the UDA plus a few deluded individual politicians. Quite apart from the fact that an independent state would be economically unviable (its proponents readily admit that welfare benefits could not be maintained) it’s impossible ever to set such a state up. The first question would be that of security, of who is to control the security forces, and on that issue alone the scheme would collapse. If persisted with the result would be the armed defence of the Catholic areas against what would be Protestant security forces and a step to civil war.

Class Unity

Thatcher, the Sunday Times and others will be educated by history just as were their predecessors in 1968–69. These schemes will not be implemented. If attempted they will collapse when confronted by the realities of life. It is most likely that the Tories will simply resort to a continuation of “more of the same” under the secretary of state, Jim Prior. Direct Rule will be maintained, the army will continue to hammer home its brutal solution in the language of plastic bullets, lead bullets and repressive legislation. Further deaths and further attempts to achieve some degree of limited devolution will most likely be attempted when the Government considers the temperature about right.

In other words the solutions of capitalism are no solution whatsoever. Violence and instability are rooted in the squalor of mass unemployment and poverty. In the miseries of life in Northern Ireland for working people and for the youth are the seeds of permanent upheaval.

The real choice is not between the constitutional proposals of the capitalists, which are only a pick of which flag and which government it is better to be unemployed under. It is a choice of permanent violence under capitalism or the building of a movement based on the unity of the working class and socialist policies.

Class unity behind trade union banners and within fighting Labour Parties must be counter-posed to the schemes of the bosses, The working class united in a common fight for socialism, North and South, Catholic and Protestant, and with the British working class, alone can put an end to sectarian violence, repression, unemployment and poverty. The removal of the border by and through the establishment of socialism and the creation of a socialist federation of the British Isles is the only alternative to another decade of political chaos, sectarian violence and state repression, though even worse than the 1970s.

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