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Peter Hadden

Sinn Fein blocks workers’ unity

A reply to Ken Livingstone

(Summer 1985)

From Militant International Review, No. 29, Summer 1985.
Transcribed by C. Crossey and Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

During the 1970’s the Labour leadership in Britain maintained a disastrous policy of bipartisanship with the Tories on the question of Northern Ireland.

This meant Labour support for the repressive methods of the state. It meant a Labour administration from 1974–1979 which intensified this repression. Under Secretary of State Roy Mason and his henchman Don Concannon, both MP’s who represent mining communities in Britain, draconian methods were practiced and perfected by the state in readiness for later use against the British miners, among others.

Since 1979 a discussion on Northern Ireland has opened up within the British labour movement. The rejection of bipartisanship by the Labour Party conference in 1981 was a huge step forward. How can the Tories who have created four million jobless in Britain be expected to solve the problems of Northern Ireland? Through this discussion Labour now has the opportunity to work out an independent class position on Ireland

Unfortunately a number of prominent figures on the non-Marxist left of the Labour Party, most notably Ken Livingstone, have abandoned the policy of the right in favour of a no less disastrous policy of their own: Ken Livingstone has rejected bipartisanship with the Tories – and instead advocates a policy of bipartisanship with the nationalists of Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA. In this article Peter Hadden explains how Ken Livingstone’s stance on N. Ireland in recent years has done a disservice to the cause of socialism in Ireland and thereby to the movement in Britain also.

During the 1981 hunger strike Bobby Sands won a Westminster seat in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. After his death the seat was won by Owen Carron of Sinn Fein. Following this success Sinn Fein went on to contest a number of elections and have managed to win about 40% of the Catholic vote. In the recent local government elections they won 59 seats and 11.8% of the total vote.

Ken Livingstone, and those who until the recent split in its Editorial Board were his co-thinkers around the journal, Labour Herald, were completely mesmerised by Sinn Fein’s initial success. Livingstone himself predicted (Labour Herald 4/3/83) that Sinn Fein “is likely to emerge as the main voice of the Catholic minority at the next General election.”

Such projections have proved wildly optimistic. Today Sinn Fein leaders are careful not to raise the expectations of their supporters as they did at first. So Danny Morrison has more soberly acknowledged that “it could well be that we will not overtake the SDLP in the foreseeable future.” (Magill, Sept. 1984)

All criticism absent

That Sinn Fein’s success has been more modest than he (and they) first foresaw has in no way dulled Livingstone’s enthusiasm. He has visited Belfast (26/12/83) at their invitation and was shown Catholic areas. He did not contact or attempt to meet any trade union or Labour organisation while here.

In Britain he has shared platforms with Sinn Fein (and with the Young Liberals) on the issue of Troops out. More recently he has been a mover behind the decision to invite a “representative of Republican opinion”, in other words a Sinn Fein representative, to address the next London Labour Party Conference.

Labour Herald has carried a number of articles and interviews with Sinn Fein personnel, each one published without comment or criticism. In fact this journal, of which Ken Livingstone has been one of three Co-editors from its foundation in 1981 until May this year, has acted as a platform for Sinn Fein and as an apologist for the IRA.

The entire effect of Livingstone’s activity and of such propaganda, has been, on the one side, to discredit Labour in the minds of many workers, Catholic and Protestant, in Northern Ireland, and, on the other, to allow Sinn Fein a veneer of credibility they do not deserve. Small wonder Adams, Morrison and co. have been grateful for his efforts: “Ken Livingstone’s visit here in Feb. ’83, Gerry Adams going to London after the exclusion order was lifted in July ’83, all these things have been very important in terms of the struggle.” (Morrison, Magill, Sept. 1984)

To justify his support Livingstone has to present Sinn Fein as something its leaders do not even claim it to be. Finding their image in Britain a little tarnished he sets about embellishing it with a socialist tinge: “Most people have a conception of the IRA and Sinn Fein as a predominantly Nationalist organisation ... how much of this was true in the past I do not know, but over the last four years a new leadership of Sinn Fein has broken out of the simple Nationalist mould.” (Labour Herald, 4/3/83).

It would come as news to the present Sinn Fein leadership that they are not a predominantly Nationalist organisation! But no matter. Their ally in the GLC has even greater praise for them. “Sinn Fein is also developing a full programme of social and economic reform akin to the Labour Party.” (Labour Herald, 4/3/83)

It would be difficult to depart further from reality than these statements. Sinn Fein is not a socialist organisation. Nor will it evolve in that direction. True, some of its recent propaganda is embroidered with radical sounding phrases, references to democratic socialism etc. But so also was the material produced by Sinn Fein and the IRA in the early 1970’s, when it was under the leadership of right wing Nationalists and sectarians like Ruairí O'Brádaigh.

The basis of Sinn Fein whether led by O'Brádaigh or Gerry Adams is Nationalism not Socialism. It’s election material has been nationalist in content and crudely sectarian in appeal. So Owen Carron defended his Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat in 1983 with material which did not mention socialism and with the slogan “Save this Nationalist Seat”. Danny Morrison in Mid Ulster stressed that with increased Sinn Fein support, “Mid Ulster will be returned to the Nationalist people.”

In the urban areas class issues have been taken up but always in a purely sectarian manner. Take for example Gerry Adams’ 1983 election manifesto

Of the low wages, bad housing (equally as bad in the Protestant Shankill areas of this constituency as in the Falls) of the education cuts, school closures, of all the problems which affect Protestant workers, not a word. Of socialism, in this particular leaflet, not a mention either.

Radical Phrases

Sinn Fein’s vote is in part a traditional nationalist vote which previously went to the right wing Irish Independence Party (IIP). They also have won the support of an important section of the Catholic working class, especially the youth. To these people Sinn Fein is an anti-establishment, anti-Tory party. Many vote for it because it is the only body which has taken up the issue of repression. In this sense part of this vote is a distorted class vote which has gone to Sinn Fein because of the absence of any alternative.

Does this not confirm Livingstone’s argument that this is a potentially socialist party? On the contrary Sinn Fein represents a dead end for these youth. Even if they were to emerge as the major force among the Catholic community it would matter not one jot. So long as the working class vote along sectarian lines the Tories and the bigots will come out on top. The real victors in the May 1985 Council elections were not Sinn Fein but the Unionists. The Official Unionists won 190 seats and Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party, 142.

Against this the combined total of the Social Democratic and Labour Party and Sinn Fein seats was 160. Sectarianism means permanent Unionist rule. Only on a class basis can the stranglehold of the local Tories and bigots be ended. Sinn Fein’s success reinforces rather than weakens Unionism. It has also reinforced the SDLP by driving behind it a solid anti-Sinn Fein, anti-IRA vote. It can offer no way out to those who support it.

In any case the Sinn Fein leaders do not claim that electoral success can ever bring victory. Following the local government election result. An Phoblacht (3/5/85) on its front page states: “Tragically and unfortunately it is landmines and ambushes and the sustaining of an armed struggle – the cutting edge – which will eventually inflict upon British thinking the conclusion that they have to withdraw.”

In applauding the strategy of Sinn Fein, Livingstone is also applauding and legitimising the campaign of the Provisional IRA. In his articles in Labour Herald criticism of the Provo’s methods is absent. Rather Livingstone, weighing up the campaign, states: “The IRA know they cannot win a military victory over the British army. But equally they know they cannot be defeated”.

Does he then conclude that the campaign should be ended? No! He goes on “there is no doubt there could be an immediate ceasefire if the government were prepared to commit itself to a complete withdrawal from Ireland within two years” (Labour Herald, 4/3/83). In other words, until such a guarantee is given the campaign is justified. In the early 1970s the Provisionals gained a mass support among the Catholic youth. Mass unemployment, poverty and discrimination, together with events such as the introduction of internment and the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, and above all the silence of the Labour Movement on these questions, drove these youth en masse towards their ranks.

Then there were vast illusions among the youth in the ability of the Provo’s methods of individual terrorism to quickly succeed. The bomb and the bullet seemed a quick and effective way of hitting back. So the Provo’s paper An Phoblacht/Republican News could confidently carry headlines such as “English withdrawal any week now” (24/9/74).

Fifteen years of military activity have largely worn out these illusions. There is no longer any talk of a quick victory but of a long war of attrition. Danny Morrison talks of a campaign wearing down the will of the British to remain in Ireland. The IRA he states will “be successful in inflicting a political defeat, not a military defeat on the British army, but a political defeat on the British government”, Magill Sept 1984. The time scale he projects is not “any week now” but “five to ten years”.

No military victory

The reality is that not in ten, twenty or 100 years could the Provos succeed in inflicting either a political or a military defeat on British Imperialism. The Provo’s methods of individual terrorism are entirely counterproductive. The working class is the only force capable of overthrowing capitalism. In Ireland only the working class can resolve the remnants of the national question by overcoming sectarianism, forcing the withdrawal of the troops and reuniting the country.

The key to the entire situation is class unity and the development of the mass struggles of the working class. The Provo’s campaign is a handicap to both. Individual terrorism runs counter to mass action. It allows no role to the mass movement other than to gaze on and spectate. Rather than develop the consciousness of workers of their own power it teaches only helplessness and sows confusion.

Setting out to weaken the state it does the opposite. In Northern Ireland the Provos methods have provided the state with the excuse to step up repression and to equip itself with a plethora of repressive laws. Such is the consequence of this misnamed “urban guerrillaism” everywhere.

The Provos also deepen and reinforce sectarianism. By dividing and weakening the working class they actually set back the struggle to end imperialist domination.

The responsibility of socialists is to state things as they are. Ken Livingstone is doing no favours to the Catholic youth who look to Sinn Fein and the IRA. Rather than embracing and bolstering the Sinn Fein leaders he would be better trying to win these youth away from the blind alley of nationalism and individual terrorism and to a socialist solution. His excuse for not doing so is that it is not the business of British socialists to “tell the Irish what to do”. Instead the movement in Britain should offer only “self determination”. The rest is up to the Irish.

This is not internationalism but its opposite. Socialists in one country have not only a right, but a duty, to assist, advise and comment on the class struggle and the struggle against national oppression elsewhere. Livingstone’s attempt to hide his analysis behind empty phrases about “self-determination” is not only wrong it is completely dishonest. While saying it is not his role to advocate a position he, in effect, puts one forward, basically that workers should support Sinn Fein and support the IRA. Word for word his programme and analysis is identical to that of Adams and co. Like them he rejects the possibilities for socialism and advocates a capitalist solution.

Sinn Fein are adamant that there is no room at present for class unity or for socialist objectives. Far from pressing social and economic demands “akin to the Labour Party”, Gerry Adams is quite explicit: “We must be mindful of the dangers of ultra-leftism and remember at all times that while our struggle has a major social and economic content, the securing of Irish independence is a pre-requisite for the advance to a socialist republican society” (1983 Ard Fheis address).

Owen Carron writing in Labour Herald has stated: “You have to remove the British connection and then you'll get unity in the working class. It won’t work the other way round” (2 October 1981).

A new Lebanon

Gerry Adams, again in Labour Herald, asked if Tory cuts would create conditions for class unity, replies: “Unfortunately no .... The British presence is the key factor in preventing communities from coming together and sustains sectarianism ... in theory there is the basis for unity but in practice, when you are dealing with religious-political philosophy’s they will always play the orange card” (17 June 1983).

Put in plain language what these statements mean is that the class struggle must be postponed. First a capitalist united Ireland. Until then the sectarian division is legitimate. Only when partition is ended can there be the possibility of socialism. As Adams puts it: “Sinn Fein would have a preference for a democratic socialist society but in a post-withdrawal situation we will be bound by the democratic wishes of the Irish people.” Socialism is not something to be fought for – but a mere private preference!

In 1918 De Valera appealed to the labour movement to take a back seat with his insistence that “Labour must wait”. First remove the British presence and then conduct the class struggle. The Labour leadership heeded his call, the struggle for independence fell into the hands of the petty bourgeois nationalists of Sinn Fein and the terrible set-back of partition was the result.

“Labour must wait” is again the position of the Sinn Fein leaders and in effect also of Ken Livingstone. For the moment all parties representing all classes must come together to arrange a settlement. “A future Labour government”, according to Livingstone, “must refuse to be bound by the Unionist veto, announce a planned withdrawal and convene a conference of all Northern and Southern Irish parties to agree the constitutional guarantees that the Northern Protestants will require” (Labour Herald, 4 March 1983).

This is to be effected within two years of a Labour victory. “It’s the time you would need to organise the finances necessary to maintain the welfare state provisions in the North, which the South couldn’t fund at this stage”. (Ken Livingstone in an interview with Tariq Ali in June 1983 published in Who’s Afraid of Margaret Thatcher? pp. 59–60).

All this is the purest fantasy. In the first place the weak Southern capitalist class and their political representatives in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have no interest in ending partition. When the leaders of these parties make noises about reunification it is in part holiday speechifying and in part an effort to divert attention from the social and economic problems at home.

Not “at this stage” or at any stage could Southern capitalism afford to fund the North. The Northern state is an artificial creation maintained by the huge subvention, now equivalent to 29 per cent of its GDP handed out by the British government.

The Southern economy already faces chronic problems. Unemployment is over 17 per cent. Its foreign debt is equal to 128 per cent of GNP, the worst figure in the OECD area. With a budget deficit equal to 7.5 per cent of GNP the government is attempting to introduce Thatcherite austerity measures, cutting the already low level of state services. Yet the New Ireland Forum report, supposedly an argument in favour of reunification, projected that the budget deficit in a united Ireland would rise to 17 per cent of GDP, and this on the assumption that the violence would end!!

Even if the Southern bourgeois did wish it, capitalist reunification would still be impossible. When the British ruling class divided Ireland they did so primarily to cut across the class struggle. By the 1950s and 1960s, especially with the opening up of the Southern economy through the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement, the British bosses would actually have preferred to do away with the border.

Today they would like to be able to withdraw their troops and to see the country reunited – on the basis of capitalism and dominated by British and world capital. However the chickens of imperialism have come home to roost. The very state which they created and maintained, and the million Protestants within it, present an insurmountable barrier to capitalist reunification. The ruling class have been forced to recognise that, no matter how much they would wish otherwise, they have no alternative but to retain the troops and hold onto the North.

“Half an idea”

The wishes of the British ruling class have run up against the “loyalist veto” which Ken Livingstone states must be abolished. This veto is not a scrap of paper or a mere constitutional guarantee. It is the fact that the Protestants would fight rather than accept a capitalist united Ireland.

Despite the poverty of the North, the Protestants see worse, not better, in the South. They fear, quite correctly, that in a poverty-stricken united Ireland which on today’s figures would have 400,000 out of work, more than the total manufacturing workforce, they would be made the scapegoats and would become a discriminated against minority.

On a capitalist basis and if no alternative means of defence were provided by the labour movement the removal of the troops would mean civil war. So also would capitalist reunification.

Fighting with their backs to the sea the Protestants would not be defeated. Civil war would not lead to reunification. Out of the ashes of such a conflict and on the bones of thousands of workers who would be killed would emerge at best a Lebanon, with the cantonisation of the North, and at worst the repartition of the country and the emergence of a small, entirely Protestant state in the North East.

Nothing would be resolved and the seeds of future conflict would be sown, just as they were in the Middle East after the formation of the Israeli state in 1948.

This is the reality which has dictated the policy of every British government since 1969. The same reality will confront the next Labour government. No matter what Ken Livingstone now imagines, that government would not be able to impose a capitalist reunification on Ireland. The choice is simple. Either it moves to a socialist solution in Britain and thereby allows the Irish working class to follow suit or else it will be forced to continue with policies basically no different from its predecessors.

It is not possible to get away with half an idea or half an argument. There is a certain logic to a line of thought which must be followed through. Sinn Fein and Ken Livingstone accept that Protestants will not be won over to their nationalist viewpoint. Class unity to these people is impossible. No other conclusion is open to them other than that Protestant resistance to a united Ireland must be faced up to and smashed. The logic of Ken Livingstone’s position, although he will not admit it, is that a civil war is necessary.

At least the Provos do more than Labour Herald and from time to time think their position through to its conclusion: “There is always, and it is endemic in the situation which exists in Ireland, a threat of direct confrontation with loyalist forces, which is perhaps inevitable in a post or directly pre-withdrawal situation. In that sort of situation we are not simply talking about the UDA and UVF. We are talking about the RUC and UDR”. (IRA spokesman, Iris, 1981) Or again, “It is very possible that people with this mentality (Protestants) would try to repartition the North as Harold McCusker has already suggested. And they have about 19,000 armed men in the RUC and UDR to help them do it. We don’t know how many of the loyalists would take that line, but everyone who opposes Irish self-determination with force will have to be met with force.” (IRA statement, Magill, 1983, our emphasis.)

These statements express the ugly reality of what Ken Livingstone’s position really amounts to – a recipe for a sectarian bloodbath in which the workers’ movement in Ireland and Britain would be the main loser. It is totally false to say that the working class cannot be united. The miseries inflicted by a diseased capitalist economy on both Catholic and Protestant workers are the basis for united struggle.

Northern Ireland is the most poverty-stricken region governed by Westminster. In 1983 GDP per head averaged £4,329 throughout the UK. In the South East it was £5,155. For Northern Ireland, where prices of consumer goods and fuels are highest, the figure was £3,156. Unemployment is 21 per cent overall and 50 per cent in some areas. The true figure for jobless is almost twice as much as the numbers employed by manufacturing industry.

Ken Livingstone on his return from Belfast reported that he was stunned by the social conditions of the Catholic areas of West Belfast. Of conditions in Protestant areas he had not a word to say; not surprising since he never visited any. If he had bothered to look he would have found exactly the same slums in Protestant as in Catholic working class areas.

Mass unemployment is now a feature of many Protestant areas, bringing them to a position not much better than the traditional and mainly Catholic unemployment blackspots like Derry, Strabane and West Belfast. Coleraine for example now has 34 per cent male unemployment, Ballymena has over 3,000 unemployed. For both Protestant and Catholic youth capitalism offers nothing except the YTPs and other cheap labour schemes.

Even during the 50 years of Unionist rule, when there was the most blatant discrimination against the Catholics, the misery also endured by Protestants time after time acted as the yeast of a united class movement. Today in the context of Tory cuts and falling living standards all round, the conditions exist to bring Catholic and Protestant workers together.

Class unity is not just a nice idea. It is both a necessity and a practical reality. Workers are already united – in the 250,000 strong trade union movement, in strikes, in demonstrations and in community struggles. Arthur Scargill, when visiting Belfast recently, pointed out that per head of population Northern Ireland workers contributed more money to the miners than any other region. This is just one example of the class solidarity which exists.

Another was provided on 25 April of this year when thousands of school students, Catholic and Protestant, went on strike, marched and demonstrated against YTP conscription. 3,000 marched in Belfast, 2,000 in Derry. During the day not a single sectarian incident was reported.

And what lead does Ken Livingstone offer to these and many other examples of workers united in struggle? Absolutely none! All his analysis would allow him to say to workers who struggle together is that they are wasting their time, class unity is not possible and the class struggle must wait! In the meantime support Sinn Fein and the IRA! In a nutshell this is what his position reduces itself to. It is not only incorrect, it is thoroughly reactionary in that it directs the class movement backwards.

Socialist re-unification

The only way forward for the working class in NI is through class unity around socialist policies. Already unity exists on the industrial plane. This should be extended into the political field. The trade unions must build a mass party of labour to challenge the Tories and the bigots. The working class are the true political majority in the North. With a political arm of their own and a clear socialist programme they and they alone can break the stranglehold of the existing major parties. In the past the potential for Labour has been shown. The old Northern Ireland Labour Party at its highpoint in 1962 won 26 per cent of the vote and took four Stormont seats. That election was the one time in the history of the state when the Unionist vote fell below 50 per cent, confirming that it is only Labour who can defeat the Unionists because only Labour can take away their Protestant working class support.

In the South the right wing labour leaders have buried their heads in coalition with Fine Gael. This policy is an obstacle to the class struggle throughout the country. Coalition must be ended and Labour returned to the independent socialist traditions of its founder, James Connolly. Fighting socialist Labour Parties North and South would allow the coming together of workers in both parts of Ireland.

Through this united struggle and by changing society North and South Labour could reunify the country on the only possible basis, a socialist one. Whether the working class take power and establish socialism first in Britain or Ireland is neither here nor there. In practice the class movement will interact. The socialist transformation either of Britain or Ireland would be a spur to the working class in the other country to follow. A genuine fraternal unity of the people of these islands through a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland would finally resolve the centuries-old conflict created by imperialist conquest in the past.

Socialists must also advocate the withdrawal of the troops, the disbandment of the sectarian RUC and UDR – but not in the way this is done by Ken Livingstone. To say “we will pull out and let them fight it out among themselves” is not a socialist or internationalist but a chauvinistic position. An alternative means of preventing sectarianism must be put forward: A defence force controlled by the trade union movement which could mobilise workers to take whatever steps necessary to prevent sectarianism.

For 15 years the voice of the bigots has been the only voice heard in Northern Ireland. The result is sectarian deadlock. It is now time for the united voice of the working class to be raised-against state repression, against all sectarian and paramilitary groups, for class unity and socialism. The labour movement in Britain can assist socialists in Northern Ireland, like those in the Labour and Trade Union Group and around the Irish Militant, who are struggling for class unity, by rejecting all forms of bipartisanship and advocating a socialist solution. If Ken Livingstone has nothing to say on the question other than to continue to embrace nationalism and sectarianism the labour movement in Ireland and Britain would be better off if he were to say nothing.

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