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Peter Hadden

Anglo Irish Agreement – workers movement
must put an alternative

(December 1985)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 146N, December 1985.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Last month we explained in detail the true nature of the Anglo-Irish talks. Our analysis has been completely confirmed by the package which has subsequently been announced. As we explain opposite this agreement will solve nothing.

There can be no capitalist settlement to the national conflict in Ireland. Only on the basis of workers unity and socialism can a solution, acceptable to all workers, Catholic and Protestant, be found. For the future the alternatives facing the working class of Ireland are either socialism or sectarian carnage.

Even the cosmetic exercise of their agreement has provoked a reaction which, unless Thatcher retreats, could lead to civil war. For this reason the entire episode provides a very sombre warning to the labour movement throughout Ireland. The lesson is clear. The labour movement will choose to ignore the national question at its peril.

This issue is an indication of the sectarian muck which can be stirred by bigots, by politicians and by governments when they wish in the future. In the last analysis the labour movement will either adopt a class position on the national question or will be engulfed by it.

It is with this understanding that the response of the leaders of the labour and trade union movement to the Anglo-Irish agreement must be judged. In the positions taken by the leaders of the movement either in Britain or in Ireland there is not so much as a hint of an independent class approach. Unless corrected this will prepare the way for a disaster for the Irish working class in the future.

It has been as though there never had been any Anglo-Irish talks as far as the role of the trade union leaders is concerned. The ICTU greeted the agreement with a statement saying that they could make no comment on such questions. NIC-ICTU leaders have declined invitations to put their views on television.

In Britain, Neil Kinnock and the Labour leadership have backed the Tories and welcomed the agreement. In a statement issued on 15th November they had not one criticism to make, not a single hint of a class approach to the question.

In the South the Labour leadership have acted throughout as the shadows of Fine Gael. Neither during the New Ireland Forum discussions nor in the more recent talks has the position of Dick Spring been anything other than an echo of that of FitzGerald.

The history of the Irish labour movement since partition is a chapter of errors as far as the position of the leadership on the national question is concerned. To take just two examples. Firstly the period 1945-1949. This began with an enormous upsurge in support for Labour in the North, part and parcel of the general radicalisation which swept the post-war Labour government to power in 1945.

Yet in 1949 the NILP lost all its Stormont seats and all the local government seats it contested. The party split. Rival Labour May Day parades were held in Belfast that year.

In part these reverses were due to disillusionment with the policies of the Labour government. In the 1949 local government elections Labour lost 115 seats in Britain. But more particularly the reason was the failure of Labour, North and South, to take a class position on the question of the border. In the South the Labour Party leaders were buried in coalition. They participated in an all-party alliance with the capitalist parties against the border.

In 1949 the coalition government left the Commonwealth and declared a Republic. The Unionists responded by calling a snap election, Prime Minister Brooke advancing the slogan “No republic, no coercion, no surrender”.

A section of the Northern Ireland Labour Party aped the Irish Labour leaders and bowed to nationalism, seeking an electoral arrangement with the nationalist Anti-Partition League. The majority of the party plummeted to the opposite depths and capitulated to unionism. Many Labour candidates spent their election campaign desperately trying to prove that they were as “loyal” as their unionist opponents.

The result was electoral demise. Not satisfied, the right wing NILP and trade union leaders called a special conference, pushed through a blatantly unionist motion and split the party. Again, in the years after 1968 the NILP and the unions had an opportunity to face up to the national problem and to unite tens of thousands of workers against sectarianism.

In 1968 the potential existed for the emergence of a united class movement. Initially the social upheaval of this period had the effect of swelling the ranks of the Labour Party and the Young Socialists. Had the leaders of the workers organisations then taken up the questions of discrimination against the Catholic minority and linked it to the overall questions of houses, jobs etc., for all workers, they could have found themselves at the head of the mightiest class movement ever seen in Ireland.

Instead the standpoint adopted by these leaders permitted the potential class movement to be de-railed and prepared for the years of sectarian reaction which followed.

Unions silent

Their position was that of criminal silence on all the major issues of the day. The trade union leaders chose to withdraw themselves and their organisations from political involvement, distancing themselves even from the NILP. The NILP leaders, for their part, broke their silence only to utter support for the British government and later, after the Alliance Party stole their clothes, moving in the direction of the out and out loyalist sectarianism which eventually destroyed their party.

To today’s leaders, North and South, we say, “those who fail to draw the lessons of past mistakes are doomed to repeat them”. And even more than their predecessors they will be severely punished for so doing.

In the past the movement has variously courted unionism, nationalism or silence. All are roads to ruin. All are different expressions of the same thing, a departure from a class analysis and a rejection of socialist ideas.

Today’s response by the ICTU, by Kinnock and by Spring is little different and no better than positions which prepared for defeat in 1949 and 1968. Spring and Kinnock have chosen to hide themselves behind the British Tories and the green Tories in Dublin. The ICTU and NIC-ICTU have maintained a silence even more deafening than that of 1968.

Their justification is that any statement by them would divide their membership. The truth is that by taking no position they clear the way for the bigots giving them a free hand to divide workers. The silence which they claim keeps the unions united today is a sure recipe for the opening up of sectarian division within the unions tomorrow.

When the Tories meet to discuss a solution they do so from their class point of view. They want a solution in Ireland which will best serve the interests of capitalism. As on wages, services, jobs and all other questions the interests of the working class on the national question are not the same as the interests of the ruling class. It is only the working class who can solve the national problem in Ireland. The labour movement must end its policy of either open or silent support for the Tories and present a socialist alternative.

What does a class position on the national question entail? In the North it means the unity of the working class in struggle against unemployment, low wages, cuts in social services etc. It means a struggle for jobs, for a 35 hour week, a national minimum wage, a massive programme of useful public works and for the nationalisation under democratic workers’ control of major industries to make these possible. Also it means united opposition to all forms of repression.

The existing state forces are agencies of repression and cannot do this. The RUC and UDR are sectarian forces which remain sectarian no matter if they receive the blessing of a Dublin government or not. The movement should stand for their disbandment, for the withdrawal of the troops and instead for action by the working class to stop the sectarian violence.

The implementation of this programme requires the building of a political arm of the trade Unions, a mass Labour Party committed to socialist policies. In the South a class approach on the national question presupposes a final end to the policy of Coalitionism. Labour must fight against the green Tories and nationalists and for the class interests of the Southern working class before it can have any attraction for the working class in the North.

Labour, by struggling against the poverty-ridden states, North and South, could unite the working class of the entire island around their common interests.

A capitalist united Ireland is impossible because it would never be acceptable to the Protestants. But on the basis of socialism the border would be an unwanted anachronism. The end of capitalism in Ireland would also mean the socialist reunification of the country.


Socialism is international. Workers in Ireland have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class of Britain. A movement to socialism in Ireland would have immediate effects on Britain and vice versa. It is not possible, in the manner of crude nationalism, to separate the development of the class struggles in Ireland from that in Britain.

Against this agreement which is a bond of imperialist exploitation forged by the ruling class, the labour movement should put forward the slogan of voluntary unity on an equal basis, a socialist united Ireland as part of a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. This is the response the rank and file of the labour movement should be demanding to this Agreement. In the South rank and file activists must demand an end to coalition and the adoption of an independent class position free of any association with nationalism.

In the North the threat of sectarianism makes a class response from the labour movement all the more urgent. Here the demand must immediately be raised for a special rank and file delegate conference of the trade unions to adopt a socialist alternative to the Anglo-Irish proposals. A document outlining a socialist position on the national question should immediately be drawn up and circulated. This document should also be discussed in the unions in the South and a conference of the ICTU called to back the proposals of the unions in the North.

If the labour and trade union movement throughout Ireland and in Britain were to adopt a class approach a conference of these organisations could be established to counter-pose a socialist solution to the proposals which will emerge from the constitutional conference of the bosses’ parties as proposed by the Anglo-Irish agreement.

Nor can the unions in the North remain passive if sectarian violence increases. The unions have a responsibility to protect their members from physical attack from bigots. They must prepare to launch a campaign as in 1975–76 to defeat sectarianism, taking whatever action is necessary to protect workers both in the workplaces and in the communities.

Such is the sure bedrock of a class standpoint from which the labour movement will depart at its peril. Only by presenting such a clear and unambiguous alternative will the movement be capable of withstanding the pressures of unionism and nationalism. The working class, Protestant and Catholic, North and South, would respond to such ideas. Armed with a class programme they would be able to deal with sectarianism once and for all. But the response of the present right-wing leadership demonstrates their complete failure to come to grips with the national question, a failure which if uncorrected by the movement will pave the way for disaster.

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Last updated: 16 December 2014