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Peter Hadden

Anglo-Irish Talks – can they solve the crisis?

(November 1985)

From Militant Irish Monthly, November 1985.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

It now seems most likely that the current Anglo-Irish talks will lead to some form of agreement between the Westminster and Dublin governments.

Predictably even the prospect of an agreement has already prompted a sectarian outcry from politicians in the North. One DUP leader has spoken of the British government coming to its senses after the first thousand Protestant dead.

The precise terms of possible agreement are not yet clear. But what is certain is that the whole issue will be seized upon by unionists, and also by nationalist politicians to heighten sectarian tension.

Against this background the silence of the trade union leaders in the North on the whole matter has been deafening. Meanwhile the Labour Party leaders in the South have capitulated on the issue to their green Tory coalition partners in Fine Gael. As a result the arena has been cleared for bigots of both sides. No independent class viewpoint has been put forward. For those who, within the labour movement, North and South, advocate independent socialist policies, the difficulties

and dangers of this situation are obvious. These dangers will multiply if unchallenged. What is required of the working class organisations is not silence but socialist action. It is necessary that a voice which is neither unionist nor nationalist is at last heard in the North – the voice of the working class.

But a first condition for socialists to be able to stand firm against sectarian pressures is a classanalysis of the situation.

National question

Why are these talks taking place? Would an agreement real1y be a step along the road to a united Ireland? An understanding of the fundamental ideas or Marxism on the national question provides the answers. Ours is an epoch of economic crisis, of stagnation and contraction of the productive forces of world capitalism. In the colonial and ex-colonial world, where the masses endure conditions of grinding poverty, starvation and. semi-starvation, wars, national, tribal, racial and religious conflicts are the order of the day.

In the advanced capitalist countries the last decade has brought a return to mass unemployment and falling living standards. Even in relatively “stable” states such as France, Italy. Spain. Britain. Belgium and Germany national tensions which have lain dormant or semi-dormant have re-emerged or have the capacity to do so. In short, the reverse side of the economic paralysis of capitalism is a tendency towards the sharpening of national antagonisms between states and within states. If capitalism is not over-thrown this tendency will become primary no matter what “deals”, “accords” or “solutions” the various capitalists and their representatives may cobble together along the way.

In the Middle East, in Africa, Asia and now also in Europe, the only way in which national conflicts can be ended and the rights of national minorities guaranteed is through the socialist transformation of society.

This is the world background to the Anglo-Irish talks. On one side of the table are the representatives of British capitalism. Britain, once the foremost imperialist nation in the world has now been reduced both economically and militarily to a fifth rate power. On the other side are the representatives of the feeble capitalist class of Southern Ireland, a class which has long acquiesced the domination of its own market to American, British and European capital. Over the fifteen years of the troubles in the North both these parties have a record of complete paralysis.


This indeed has been no accident. It has not been because the various governments in Dublin and London over that period did not have the right ideas. Rather this political paralysis has been a reflection of economic and social reality and the fact that it is completely impossible to resolve the conflict on the basis of capitalism.

The basis of the national problem in Ireland today lies in the partition of the country. This has created an artificial state in the North, ruled by Britain, but with a large Catholic minority who have suffered fifty years of discrimination and who will not accept the present state.

Against this is the fact of the existence of a Protestant population one million strong, who are totally opposed to any link-up with the state they see in the South.

On the basis of things as they are – a capitalist state in the North with endemic poverty and unemployment which cannot be made stable, and a likewise poverty stricken state in the South which no amount of window dressing can make appealing to Northern Protestants, there is no possible solution. In a nutshell capitalism in Ireland means conflict.

The Anglo-Irish summits may possibly result in agreements on this and that secondary issue. On the fundamental questions of the constitution it can come up with nothing. After these talks there may be an agreement. There will not be a settlement. When the ruling class in Britain today pleads for an end to the conflict, they conveniently forget that it was their forbears who created the problem. British Imperialism imposed partition on Ireland in 1920. Their primary purpose was to derail the growing revolutionary unity of the working class. At that time the over-whelming hulk of the non-food processing industries of Ireland (shipbuilding, engineering and textiles) were situated in the greater Belfast area. Under the terms of the Government of Ireland Act, and the subsequent treaty. Britain retained direct control of this area and also maintained its access to the ports of Ireland for military purposes.

By the 1950s and 1960s partition no longer served any useful purpose for British capitalism. This was a period of economic upswing and of a relative lull in the class struggle. The old methods of divide and rule were of no immediate purpose. Military decline plus the technical and scientific developments in armaments made the question of access to Ireland’s ports irrelevant.

In 1965 the British and Irish governments signed a free trade agreement which effectively opened the Southern, market fully to domination by British capital. By the end of the 1960s the South was no longer an under-developed agricultural country but an important market. In 1968 it was the fifth largest importer of British goods. Two thirds of major British companies had subsidiaries there.

Economically, militarily and now politically the sectarian statelet in the North which Britain had propped up for almost 50 years had by this time become an anachronism and a hindrance. The border was an unnecessary destabilising factor in Ireland. For these reasons pressure was put on Unionist administrations in the North to change. From the 1950s areas of North-South economic co-operation were opened up. In early 1965 Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill met his southern Fianna Fail counterpart for talks, first in Belfast then in Dublin. There were also ministerial meetings as that between future prime ministers Brian Faulkner and Jack Lynch.


The London Times, on the day after the first O’Neill – Lemass talks, in its editorial applauded the talks and at the same time chose to leave out the fact that it was the British government who partitioned Ireland:

“Captain O’Neill belongs to a generation of Ulstermen concerned with the challenge of economic necessities and free from the urge to fight old battles. Mr Lemass although he is older and served in the Easter Rising and the Civil War, is equally a man of the sixties rather than the twenties ... The building up of home industries and the extension of overseas markets are the targets of the island as a whole. They are more likely to be hit if the demon of border suspicion cannot at last be exorcised”.

At this stage British Imperialism would have preferred reunification. Yet four years later they were forced to commit a permanent presence of troops to the streets of the North. Despite their preference for eventual reunification and withdrawal they found themselves forced to commit themselves ever more deeply.

What thwarted their every attempt to undo partition was the very sectarian monster they themselves had created. The northern state let could never be peacefully dissolved and there existed no force which could coerce and then maintain one million hostile Protestants in a united capitalist Ireland.

Today the British ruling class would still prefer withdrawal. The North has become an even greater drain on resources. In 1968 the annual budget subvention was £72 million. In 1984 it was £1,200 million. In addition there is the annual cost of retaining the troops, some £400 million per year.

Ruled out in the 1960’s capitalist re unification is a thousand times less possible today. In the interim almost 2,500 people have died and there has been enormous polarisation of the communities. Living standards in the North have fallen drastically. Unemployment in 1967 was 8% and today the true figure is well over 20%. In fact, GDP per head is now actually higher in the South than in the North.

Yet a comparison between the two states should not be made in terms of which is better, but which is poorer. Both are poverty-ridden and crisis-ridden. And poverty does not suddenly become attractive simply because those looking at it face poverty themselves.

Nominal GDP may be higher in the South but so are prices. And, overall, state services are still much worse. 35% of people are dependent on the state for some or all of their income, in effect one-third of the population. l7% of the workforce are out of work.

As with the Tories in Britain the Fine Gael-dominated government is in the process of solving these problems by attempting to cut real wages and reduce services. Seeing this the fear of Protestants is that in a 32-county Ireland, ridden with economic crisis, they would be made scapegoats and would bear the brunt of attacks on living standards.

Reunification out

Workers in the North are well used to hearing the fire and brimstone speeches of Paisley and Co. and treat them, the present batch included, with deserved scepticism. Yet in the event of any real move to unity with the Southern state these politicians would be taken at their word. The Protestants would resist. An early warning signal, just the tip of the iceberg, was flashed across the bows of the British government when their ban on a loyalist march in Portadown this summer provoked a protest demonstration 20, 000 strong. An attempt to end partition would result in civil war. While the RUC and UDR ranks held firm against Protestant marchers in Portadown and Castlewellan, in such a circumstance they would go over to the side of the loyalists. The result of a civil war, if it were to be carried through to the end, would not be reunification but horrific slaughter and repartition.

There can never be a capitalist united Ireland. The British Army could not bring it about but even if, for the sake of argument, we allowed that they could, there would be no force in Ireland which could prevent the forcible secession of the North.

More so even the methods of the Proves can never in a thousand years achieve it. If they succeed in accomplishing anything it can only be by provoking civil war which would produce the opposite of reunification.

It is impossible to reunify Ireland against the wishes of the working class in the North, and this includes the Protestant section of the working class. More sharply put, it is only the working class of Ireland acting – together to overthrow the rotten capitalist states North and South who can remove the border.

No change

Therefore, from the point of view of the British ruling class the Anglo-Irish talks have got nothing to do with reunification. Even less so in the case of the Southern bosses and their political representatives!

Throughout the colonial world the role of the “national” or “local” bourgeoisie in every country has been to stymie, mislead and attempt to betray each genuine movement for independence. They have been more concerned with holding in check the movements of the masses in their countries than with struggling against the domination of their economics by the major imperial powers.

This lackey role has been well played by the Irish capitalist class throughout its history. Even the achievement of nominal independence for the South did not end British domination. By the 1960s the Southern economy was a satellite of British capitalism. All that has changed in the years since, especially since the South joined the EEC, is that there has been an increased penetration by American and European capital. Foreign domination remains but it is shared between a number of powers. Between 55% and 60% of manufacturing exports came from foreign companies. Of these 36% are American and 24% British. Geographically and through its past industrialisation Ireland may be a developed country, but in its economic relationship with the advanced capitalist world it remains a colony.

60 years after independence the Southern ruling class have not managed to develop their industrial base to gain control of their own market. The effete class are totally incapable of extending their influence to gain control of the territory and the market of the North.

In truth, the Southern bosses have no interest in and not the slightest desire for reunification. For their political representatives in Fine Gael and also in Fianna Fail, a United Ireland is a matter for speechifying and a kite to be periodically flown to divert the attention of workers away from the economic mess at home, and nothing more.

Even the document which these parties accepted at the end of the New Ireland Forum discussions as an argument for reunification is a convincing argument against. The facts presented to show that unity would be possible, show the opposite. It explains that the annual British handout or “subventions” is now equal to 27% of the North’s GDP. It estimates that a federal Ireland which had to take this payment on board would end up with 32% unemployment by the 1990s, and this on the assumption that the violence would end! Southern capitalism could not afford a united Ireland. They accept partition. They have no wish to have a deal with half a million disinterested Catholics with high expectations of a better deal, let alone with a million hostile Protestants. Were unity on offer they would refuse it. Given all this, what can possibly emerge from these talks?

The answer is nothing of any real substance. The British government may grant a few concessions to the minority in the North. Among those mooted have been the repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act and some reform of the structure of the UDR. Possibly an Anglo-Irish commission of some type maybe set up especially to deal with economics and security matters. Should the Tories ignore reality and attempt to go further they will get a bloody nose and will be forced to retreat From the South may come more co-operation on repression and perhaps a vague statement respecting the wishes of the majority – in the North to remain with Britain but also expressing the long-term aim of reconciliation and unity.


Whatever the precise terms of a possible agreement, nothing fundamental will change. If an Anglo-Irish talking shop is set up, the South will be given only a consultative role. Full executive power will remain with Westminster. In terms of actual change in the constitutional position North or South the entire affair will be sound and fury signifying nothing.

What then is the purpose of the talks? If it were simply a question of more cooperation on security and economic affairs all the publicity and the show-piece summits would have been unnecessary. Behind the scenes deals would have achieved just as much. On security questions there is already the closest co-operation as the obvious collusion in the hasty extradition and even more hasty re-extradition of Dominic McGlinchey has proved.

While further cooperation on repression will be welcomed by imperialism this is not the prime reason for the summits. In 1983 the three main Southern parties joined with the SDLP in the New Ireland Forum talks . Eventually they produced a report outlining three options for the future. Margaret Thatcher wasted no words in her response.

“I have made it quite clear that a united Ireland was one thing that was out. A second solution was a confederate system; that was out. A third solution was joint authority; that is out. ”

Eleven months of discussions, 317 submissions and eventually a 38 page document were publicly dealt with in the manner of a schoolmistress marking a bad homework.

Assembly doomed

From the point of view of both Britain and the South all the Forum options were obviously non-starters. But the Forum discussions were not held with any intent of coming up with any answer. Rather they were an attempt by the Southern government to buy time for the SDLP in the North.

It was to counteract the argument of Sinn Fein and the Provos that their method, the “armalite and the ballot box” alone could achieve reunification that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail co-operated in the Forum. They were trying to fool the Catholic population in the North into believing that the constitutional methods of the SDLP were getting somewhere.

Thatcher’s frosty response was a boost to the arguments of the Provos. The current talks are an attempt to redress the balance and to try to cut across the credibility of Sinn Fein by throwing a lifeline to the SDLP. If some deal is patched up it is most likely that the SDLP will accept it, trying to play down its shortcomings with the illusions of better things to come by proclaiming it an “interim measure”, “one along the road” etc. Britain’s last political initiative, the Assembly, is fast running out of steam. The promise of “rolling devolution” has been dropped from the political vocabulary of government ministers. Next year Assembly elections would be due. With both the SDLP and Sinn Fein boycotting this institution these elections would be a sham.

The Assembly – cannot survive. But the British government are reluctant to see a complete political vacuum develop, fearing that this would ultimately be a boost to the paramilitaries.

New structure

Yet no new initiative can succeed unless it can involve the SDLP along with the major unionist parties. The British government are now considering some new political structure, possibly of advising committees to the government ministers who run public services such as health, housing and education. To take such a step they need to entice the SDLP back into the political fold. The few concessions which may be given through the Anglo-Irish talks are the carrot they are prepared to offer.

These are the real reasons for the summit. Understanding this the question then for socialists is can there be success in these more limited terms? Can stability be achieved? Throughout the troubles, as one failed initiative followed another, Militant consistently explained that the real divisions within society would only be papered over but never healed by agreements reached at the top. Inevitably these paper deals would be torn apart as the underlying strains made themselves felt.

So with whatever might emerge from these summits. It is possible that the package now under discussion might never see the light of day. But it is more likely that because both sides fear the counter productive effects of complete failure that something, no matter how slender, will emerge.

There will be a loyalist reaction. The more that is conceded by Britain the fiercer will be the reaction. Because the loyalist politicians and paramilitaries do not have the muscle or the support this will most likely not take the form of a new attempt at a 1974 style stoppage or any other all-out confrontation. The loyalists fear that this time, as in 1977, they would get a bloody nose. More likely there will be a prolonged campaign of disruption and possibly of withdrawal of political co-operation designed to make an agreement unworkable. Only if a final package went too far in concessions to the South would there be a different scenario. Then there would be a massive loyalist backlash and the government would have to retreat. It is much less likely that Thatcher’s saner advisors would permit her to make such a stupid blunder.

On the basis of minor concessions the attitude of the Tories will be to attempt to ride out the first waves of Protestant opposition hoping to split the unionist camp over their methods. It is not excluded therefore that some of the measures contained, possibly even the setting up an Anglo-Irish commission, might be put into operation for a period. The hint of a substantial sum of money from America in the event of an agreement could be a factor in buying the government a limited breathing space, but nothing more.

Such ramshackle construction as an Anglo-Irish commission or some new parliamentary tier in the North would in reality mean nothing. The roots of the violence and of the continued sectarian polarisation lie in the poverty of the North. The Tories, while devising various fragile political structures to bring “stability” are in reality destabilising the North. They are doing this by cutting health care, attacking the unemployed and presiding over the capitalist system which has turned the North into an industrial desert.

No Tory solution

The same party who “destabilised” Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth and Tottenham into riot areas, can do no better in Northern Ireland. These talks will not better the conditions of either Protestant or Catholic workers. Nor will a new version of the Assembly, or the Convention, or of Stormont. In the end, later or sooner, these schemes will collapse. The military holding operation, the one consistent element in the policy of Imperialism since 1969 will continue.

The net result of this Anglo-Irish initiative will in the end be to make things worse. It will achieve nothing but will have provoked a sectarian backlash from the loyalists in the process. For socialists it is necessary to draw the lessons. The crisis of capitalism, internationally and in Ireland will lead to a worsening of national tensions, which can only be cut across by the working class taking the road of socialist struggle. Capitalism means instability and violence in Ireland. It is no good looking to the bosses, to the Tories or to the sectarian parties North and South for an answer.

While the ruling class can produce agreements and initiatives which inevitably will lead to more violence, the working class has the power and the ability to solve the problem. What is needed in Ireland is not more Tory schemes but independent united action by the working class around socialist policies and for a socialist solution.

NEXT ISSUE: The Anglo-Irish talks – How the labour movement must respond.

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