From Militant Irish Monthly, January–February 1983.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Seeing no alternative many Catholics, especially the youth, voted for Sinn Fein candidates in the Northern Assembly elections. Primarily this was a protest vote against the policies and .methods of the British Tory government and the green Tories of the SDLP. Even Jim Prior was able to recognise that through this vote young Catholics were raising two fingers at the British Government.
Now Sinn Fein are gearing up to fight the coming Westminster elections. If there is no alternative capable of capturing the votes of the working class, it is possible they can maintain or even develop their position.
On this question, it is necessary for socialists to be clear and categorical. The growth of Sinn Fein can only ultimately worsen the conditions of the mass of the Catholic population, the same conditions which caused some of them to register this protest vote. Any development of their support would be a blow to the Labour movement and to the struggle for socialism.
Sinn Fein are recognised by all as the political wing of the Provisional IRA. Their participation in the recent election followed a bitter division in the republican movement, with the arguments of the old abstentionist wing eventually loosing out. There has been speculation that this new turn marks a break from past militarism and a complete turn towards political means of struggle. There are also those who carry this point further and attempt to find in the emergence of a new leadership in Sinn Fein, the birth of a new left-wing socialist movement in the North. On every count these conclusions are wrong.
The provisional newspaper, An Phoblacht/Republican News followed the election successes with the headline The war goes on. Delegates to the Sinn Fein Conference at the end of October not only passed, but passed unanimously, a motion emphasising that “all candidates in national and local elections and all campaign material be unambivalent in support of the armed struggle.”
Not only will the Provisional campaign continue – with the backing of Sinn Fein – but the support for Sinn Fein actually reinforces this campaign by creating the illusion that it has the enthusiastic backing of the Catholic population. In turn this only serves to reinforce the political polarisation in the North. It is in this way that future support for Sinn Fein will be a blow to the labour movement and will act against the interests of both Catholic and Protestant workers.
The methods of the Provisionals and INLA are a complete dead-end. More than 130 years ago, Marx and Engels, writing in the Communist Manifesto, explained that capitalism, because it was forced to concentrate production into large scale units, created its own gravedigger in the form of the working class. 65 years ago, the actual course of history confirmed for all time this analysis. In a backward country, where they comprised less that 10% of the population, the Russian working class were able to take power, drawing the other oppressed layers of society behind their socialist banners.
Time and again during this century, in defeat as in victory, history has stamped out the basic
lesson – only the working class can change society. No small group, no matter if armed to the teeth, no matter how well trained or skilled, can perform this task for them. Mass action, such as strikes, demonstrations and general strikes are the only means by which the class movement can grow in a knowledge of its own strength and its ability to change society.
The conspiratorial methods of the individual terrorist run counter to the mass mobilisations of workers and are alien to the labour movement. Individual terrorism as practised by the Provisionals, INLA, or similar groups in other countries, is a tactic of despair which is doomed from start to finish.
What is true in general is doubly and trebly true in the special conditions of Northern Ireland. Here it is not enough to say that the working class must change society. It has also to be recognised that the majority of the working class are Protestant.
There can be no socialist movement in the North which does not face the elementary question of the unity in struggle of the working class, Catholic and Protestant. Those who attempt to find shortcuts to socialism by basing themselves on one or other section of the working class always have, and always will find, that these short cuts lead backwards.
No matter what their intentions, the effect of the Provisional’s methods is to reinforce sectarianism. The killings of off-duty and ex-UDR men, such as Tyrone bus driver, Jim Gilson, or horrific bombing atrocities such as that at Ballykelly (which, while carried out by the INLA was greeted in Republican News with the congratulatory headline Eleven Brits die in INLA attack) could not be better designed to provoke a sectarian backlash.
The Provisionals would not and could not deny this. In their quarterly magazine, IRIS (July–August 1982 edition) an IRA spokesman, explaining the difficult conditions under which they operate stated: “in the occupied area we have over 50% of the population (the loyalists) collaborating with the enemy.”
Rory O’Brady, head of Sinn Fein, writing in the first issue of IRIS, manages the following contorted justification of the sectarian basis of the Provisional’s activities. “The nationalist people must liberate themselves, and, in so doing, they will liberate also the loyalist people who are caught in a trap of history and unable to liberate themselves.” The truth is that it is the working class, Catholic and Protestant, who will liberate themselves and, in so doing, will relegate to the dustbin of history those who, like Rory O’Brady, attempt to hold them in the trap of sectarianism.
For the Provisionals there can only be two roads. Either, and this is the most likely way, they will continue with their campaign as in the past and will end up isolated and with no more prospect of victory than they have now or than they had in 1969–70 when they began. Or else they can choose to dramatically step up their actions towards an all-out confrontation.
In November 1981 the Provisionals shot dead South Belfast MP, Robert Bradford. Protestant reaction in the form of Paisley’s attempts to muster a Third Force raised speculation about a civil war. An IRA spokesman in Republican News (19th November 1981) answered this speculation with a few calculated remarks:
“This situation is quite simple. If a civil war, as they suggest or allege, is to be a consequence of the execution of a British MP, then it must be an inevitable consequence of any struggle for a united Ireland.”
“We are not intent on provoking a civil war, but we will not abandon our struggle because of the threat of it. British Imperialism and one of its symptoms, loyalism, must be stood up to.”
All workers will shudder at the consequences which the Provisionals are so lightly prepared to consider. It is quite correct that any attempt to move towards a united Ireland on the basis of the nationalist programme of Sinn Fein and the methods of the Provisionals would be bound to provoke armed Protestant resistance. If pursued, a civil war would be certain. The outcome would be a long way from the ‘gaelic idyll’ of Sinn Fein’s right-wing old guard. It would end in the repartition of the country the entrenchment of partition and the creation of reactionary states, North and South.
As with the military campaign the new political departure of Sinn Fein which is based in this campaign, is also a dead-end for the Catholic working class. Much has been made in the media of the new “radical” image of Gerry Adams and other Sinn Fein candidates.
It is true that there is a deep division within this organisation which reflected itself even during the Assembly campaign. On the one side are the O’ Bradys, O’Connells and the old leadership with their programme of undiluted right-wing nationalism. On the other side are those like Adams who differ in that they are prepared to mix their nationalism with agitation on social questions. The Sinn Fein Assembly platform was really two platforms.
In the traditional republican rural areas such as Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the appeal of candidates like Owen Carron was to the most backward sectarian ideas. Suffice to say that his manifesto was headed Vote Sinn Fein. Vote Nationalist and was empty of even a mention of the word socialism let alone a single class demand. In the urban areas such a manifesto would have no appeal. Hence the programmes of Adams, McGuinness and others, concentrated on attacking the Tory record on questions like unemployment and housing.
However, beyond such demagogic class appeals, the real differences between those two wings of Sinn Fein are not so great. O’Brady of the old guard could state in IRIS No. 1 referring to the Protestants:
”What we have here is a right-wing privileged class. Even at the level of the ordinary people, they have marginal economic advantages and privileges in jobs, housing, political patronage and soon.”
At the 1981 Ard Fheis the “radicals” clashed with the old guard in opposing the so-called ‘federal solution’ contained in the previous policy document Eire Nua. Gerry Adams spearheading the attack denounced federalism because it was a “sop to loyalism.”
His speech echoed the attitude of O’Brady on the Protestants:
”We must recognise that loyalists are a national political minority whose basis is economic and whose philosophy is neo-fascist, anti-nationalist and anti-democratic.”
When stripped of its semi-socialist rhetoric, the position of the so- called ‘radical wing’ of Sinn Fein is the same position as the past leadership. They also stand for the building of a united ‘nationalist’ i.e., Catholic, movement to defeat imperialism and only then move on to tackle the social question. Their main election slogans were not clear demands on jobs, houses and socialist policies now, but instead were the same slogans of the Carrons and O’Brady’s – “Break the British Connection! Smash Stormont! For a new leadership and a principled Irish stand.”
Sinn Fein were able to successfully dress themselves in ‘radical’ clothes and appear as the only anti-establishment candidates in the Assembly polls. They succeeded because there was no genuine class alternative. Now it is up to the labour and trade union movement to draw the necessary conclusions and see that an alternative is build for the Westminster election. A trade union based labour party must be created and must be built into a mass force on the basis of clear socialist policies.
Workers can be won from the blind alley of nationalism only if the labour movement spells out and campaigns for the alternative. A fighting labour party in Northern Ireland could drawn Catholic and Protestant workers together around its banner.
It alone could spearhead a successful mass struggle to end the miseries brought about by capitalist rule in the North. Alongside the working class in the South and in Britain, it could remove the border and establish a socialist Ireland as a step to a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. Despite the false claims of Sinn Fein, this was the road to which Connolly. In all his life’s activity pointed and this-is the path that Connolly, were he alive today, would take.
Last updated: 14.7.2012