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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland – For Workers’ Unity and Socialism

(January 1982)

From Inqaba Ya Basebenzi, journal of the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the African National Congress, No. 5, January 1982.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

For workers in Northern Ireland, poverty and the threat of violence have become a way of life. This is by far the most poverty-stricken region of the United Kingdom. Almost half the children are being brought up in families with incomes below the bread line. Housing is the worst in Western Europe, with 15% of homes unfit for habitation and about 20% lacking basic amenities. The official unemployment figure is 19%. The true figure is much higher.

These conditions are shared more or less equally by Catholic and Protestant workers. The impression often given of a wide gap between the living standards of Catholic and Protestant workers is false through and through.

Of the 1.7 million people living in this province two-thirds are Protestants. The vast majority are workers who suffer the same deprivation as Catholic workers. Different areas may have different political slogans on the walls. The overcrowding, the lack of amenities, and the poverty are the same.

On top of poverty, workers for more than a decade have had to endure the effects of turmoil and sectarian violence. Over 2,000 people have been killed in this period. 25,000 (one person in 60) have been injured. Translated, for example, onto the scale of South Africa the equivalent figures would be almost 40,000 dead and almost half a million injured.

This conflict is presented by the capitalist media, both in Ireland and internationally, as simply a feud between the two communities, with religious and cultural differences at its base. Such an explanation explains nothing. Only when examined in a class manner can the apparent mysteries of Northern Ireland be unravelled.

The real roots of the violence are found in the worsening poverty. It is in the working class areas that the violence has occurred. Working class people have been the ones to suffer while life in the middle class areas have gone on virtually unaffected. Those now in prison serving long sentences arising from these “troubles” are almost exclusively working class.

Recent riots in the most deprived inner city areas of Britain have shown that mass unemployment goes hand in hand with petrol bombs in areas other than Northern Ireland.

But the particular form which the disorder has taken in Northern Ireland has been due in the first place to the lack of any class alternative presented by the workers’ leaders, and, secondly, to the past polices of British Imperialism in Ireland.

Ireland was Britain’s oldest and closest colony. There, she perfected the bloody methods of subjugation which were practiced on the peoples of Africa, Asia and other continents. Among the weapons of conquest developed against the Irish was the tactic of “divide and rule”.

The Protestant population of Ireland originates from settlers encouraged by the British centuries ago to go to Ireland from places like Scotland and to take lands confiscated from some of the native Catholics. This they did, especially in the north east of the country. But these “planters”, as they were known, soon became assimilated into the local population and eventually joined in opposing British rule.

At the end of the 18th century, for example, a rising took place which united Protestant and Catholic against colonial exploitation and was eventually put down in blood.

Then and since, the British ruling class have resorted to the weapon of religious or sectarian division to maintain their rule.

When the development of industry a strong labour movement emerged which brought together Catholic and Protestant workers. Among the leaders of this movement were such figures as the revolutionary Marxist, James Connolly.

British Imperialism responded to this danger by whipping up sectarianism with a vengeance. They went to the lengths, in 1920, of partitioning the country in order to divide and control the movement of the working class.

Partition, resulting in the creation of an artificial state with an in-built Protestant majority in the north, gave a powerful injection of sectarian bitterness which has helped fuel and shape the current troubles. For generations, Catholics have suffered discrimination in employment, housing and civil rights. On a capitalist basis, there are no solutions to the problems of sectarianism and economic deprivation.

The economy is set for further decline. This area has suffered worse than any other region of the British Isles from the current world recession. Its old, largely uncompetitive shipbuilding, engineering and textile industries are in terminal decline and there are few sources of new investment to replace lost jobs.

The weakness of the manufacturing base of the economy is shown by the fact that 75% of the workforce are employed in service industries, particularly public administration. With Tory government inspired cutbacks in public spending this sector is now also losing jobs.

As unemployment rate of 20–25% is just one ingredient which will cut to shreds all efforts to resolve the conflict on the basis of capitalism. Over the past ten years every attempt at a political settlement, involving some liberalisation of the regime of the sharing of political power between Catholics and Protestants, has been blown apart by the seething discontent and violence.

The only consistent answer of the ruling class has been that of repression. Nothing better demonstrated this than the attitude of the Tory government to the recent prison hunger strike. Rather than give way and grant basic concessions on prison conditions, the Tories preferred to sit out the deaths of ten hunger strikers.


While the representatives of capital would now prefer to see Ireland united – in order to continue with their profitable domination of both parts of the country – they are incapable of achieving this objective. Although the northern state was an artificial creation, it has now existed for 60 years. Its Protestant majority would not be prepared to enter an all-Ireland state unless they could see that to do so would be in their interests.

At present there are 110,900 unemployed in the north and about 130,000 in the south. Capitalist reunification would simply mean joining together the dole queues. It would mean the merger of two poverty-ridden states. As such it would hold no attraction, particularly for the million northern Protestants.

They fear that in an all-Ireland state ruled by the capitalist parties, they would end up as a repressed minority, much as Catholics are discriminated against in the north. Such an outcome the Protestants would resist. Should the issue be forced, the result, almost certainly, would be a civil war situation.

From the ashes of such a conflict there would emerge, not a united Ireland, but a smaller, wholly Protestant statelet in a part of the present territory of Northern Ireland. The Catholic population of this area would be expelled. A Palestine situation, with the nightmare of refugee camps, perpetual guerrilla struggle, and a deeper division than ever between workers, would be the result.

Neither the southern Irish, not the British governments are capable of taking any concrete steps to reunification. The Southern government, representing the weak Irish capitalist class, are not and have never been prepared to lead a struggle against partition. They dread the prospect of ruling over the explosive north, with its inevitable destabilising effects on the rest of the country.

Likewise the British ruling class, faced with the reaction of the Protestants, would be forced to drop such schemes. A small forewarning has already been seen in the mobilisation of Protestant paramilitary armies.

In Ireland partition is a burning aspect of the national question which remains to be solved. As in the semi and under developed countries, the national question is insoluble except through the action of the working class as part of the overall socialist transformation of society. Even the simple task of bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland, let alone the unity of the country, is inseparable from the development of the working class movement and the struggle for socialism.

Those socialists who deny this instead apply the completely false theory of stages of the revolution. Some argue that it is impossible to fight for socialism until there is “peace” or until the national issue is removed through reunification. Instead of independent class action they advocate “all class alliances” to win these more “immediate” objectives.

Such theories merely bind the workers’ movement and lead it into alliances with class enemies. There are no such stages to the struggle. Rather the immediate task is the mobilisation of the working class, drawing behind its independent banner all other oppressed sections of society.

A particular twist to this “stages” theory is given by the republican (Catholic) paramilitary groups, especially the Provisional IRA. Not only do they argue that Ireland must be united before workers can be brought together in struggle, they also believe that their methods of individual terrorism will bring this about.

If the campaign of bombings and shootings practiced for more than 10 years by the Provisionals has served one purpose, this has been to demonstrate the futility of such methods. In the early 1970’s the Provisionals, chiefly in response to British army repression, gained a mass base of support n Catholic areas, particularly among the youth. They directed this support into an intensive campaign of individual terror, arguing that they would thereby force withdrawal of the troops and bring about a united Ireland.

The result has been to push further into the background both these objectives. Their campaign, far from weakening the state, has provided the excuse for a vast increase of repression. The youth who flocked with enthusiasm into their ranks have had their revolutionary energies squandered. Many are dead, imprisoned, or demoralised.

Capitalism can only be overthrown by a conscious movement of the working class, not by small fighting detachments who take upon themselves this task. Invariably individual terrorism is the road to isolation and decline.

Not only has the Provisionals campaign paved the way to terrible repression. But their methods have proven incapable of resisting this repression. The Tory government was able to defeat the recent prison hunger strike by Republican prisoners precisely because of the isolation of the Provisionals and other similar groups.


In any capitalist country the methods of individual terrorism, as a substitute for mass action, are to be spurned. Based on a minority section of the working class in Northern Ireland it has been doubly futile. It has totally alienated the mass of Protestant workers, driving many towards right wing clerics and bigots such as Paisley. Deepening the sectarian divide, it has made more difficult the struggle for socialism.

The solution lies in the hands of the working class movement. There can be no answer except through the unity of the Catholic and Protestant workers in struggle against their common exploitation.

From the picture of unending religion based conflict projected by the world’s capitalist press, such a solution would seem impossible. But the bosses’ press does not tell the truth about Northern Ireland. Any more than its does elsewhere.

The truth is that on many issues workers are already united. In Northern Ireland there are 300,000 trade union members, both Catholic and Protestant. The number and percentage of workers in the unions actually increased in the 1970s, despite both the economic recession and sectarian violence.

Almost daily there are economic struggles – on wages, conditions, redundancies. Catholic and Protestant share common picket lines in the disputes. Not one such struggle has been defeated because of sectarianism.

The history of Northern Ireland is in fact rich with occasions when the working class united against the bosses and the state. During the 1930s’ such a joint movement on the issue of unemployment led to united demonstrations (some more than 100,000 strong) and barricades erected jointly in Catholic and Protestant districts, shaking the very foundations of the state.

Why then, is the working class are potentially so strong, and if they have such revolutionary traditions, have the divisions not been overcome? The answer is that the many opportunities to consolidate class unity have been misled – mainly as a consequence of the mistakes or failures of the top leaders of the trade union and labour movement.

Towards the end of the 1960s a movement of workers and youth developed against the northern state. Beginning on the issue of anti-Catholic discrimination this aroused class anger and gained the sympathy of many Protestant workers. An opportunity existed to unite workers, through struggle not only on the question of discrimination, but also for decent houses, jobs and better wages for all.

Yet the leaders of the labour movement, which alone can unite workers, refused to intervene. They adopted a policy of silence. As a result the energies of the youth were not tapped by the class organisations, but eventually found a sectarian expression. From this missed opportunity for the labour movement stemmed the turn by many young people to the methods of the Provisionals.

More recently there have been movements through the trade unions of opposition to the assassination of workers by sectarian killer gangs. In 1976 the union leaders were forced by the pressure of their ranks to organise protest marches against these atrocities. Thousands of workers joined in.

More recently still there have been movements of Catholic and Protestant workers against the attacks on living standards by the Tory government in Britain. On April 2nd 1980 the province was virtually paralysed by a half-day general strike called by the unions against Tory policies.

Yet on each occasion the momentum of class struggle was not maintained. The union leaders called off the 1976 campaign against sectarianism. No serious attempt has been made since April 2nd 1980 to build on the class anger demonstrated that day.

On issues such as the prison hunger strike and the wave of sectarian killings now taking place, the union leaders have failed to act. Thus the hunger strike issue became dominated by sectarians. While 10 prisoners died the union leaders did not even issue a press statement on the question.

Class action

Within the labour movement, however, the demand for class action on al these questions is receiving ever greater support. The Labour and Trade Union Group are a body of socialists and trade unionists who have fought within the unions for a campaign to end sectarianism, oppose repression and unite the working class around socialist policies.

In particular the Group are fighting for political action to be taken by the unions. No mass political party of Labour exists in Northern Ireland. The trade unions maintain the fiction that their organisations can be “non political”. They argue that party politics would be divisive. As a result they leave workers as open prey to political bigots and reactionaries.

What is needed in the building of the industrial unity of the working class into a political unity, through the creation of a political party of Labour based on the trade unions.

The Labour and Trade Union Group are fighting for a conference of the labour movement to establish such a party and to work out a socialist programme on which it could fight. Around such a programme workers could be united in action to end sectarianism, to resist repression and overthrow capitalism.

Specifically this means the mobilisation of the trade unions against attack by sectarian assassins. The working class can only rely on its own strength, not that of the state, to protect itself.

Throughout the troubles the army has been responsible for repression and has failed to stop the killings. The Labour movement should campaign for the withdrawal of the troops and their replacement by a Trade Union Defence Force.

Fighting for the withdrawal of the army means an appeal to the rank and file soldiers, with demands for trade union rights for soldiers, the election of officers, etc. Class action by the labour movement, as opposed to the methods of the Provisionals, is the only means of forcing the withdrawal of the troops.

Common struggle

Were the labour movement in Ireland, north and south, to be armed with such demands it could join together in struggle, despite the border imposed by capitalism. Already the structures to allow for such a struggle exist. The trade union movement is united across the border. In the future the southern Labour Party could be linked to its sister party when it is built in the north.

From such unity in action the country could be united on the only basis possible – a socialist basis.

It would be impossible to construct a socialist society in Ireland in isolation from the movements taking place in Britain. Workers have the same enemies whether they happen to live in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland. Against common exploiters there must be a unified resistance and a common struggle for a socialist federation of the British Isles.

The alternative must be set out starkly as well. If the labour movement fails, over the next few years, to challenge the thugs and bigots, workers will again be left to the mercy of these people. The bloodshed of the 1970s would be as nothing compared to what would follow.

But the working class have the power ten times over to prevent such an outcome. What is required, and what the forces of Marxism in Northern Ireland are fighting for, is to ensure that the working class is armed with a programme and a leadership with the will to smash sectarianism.

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