From Militant International Review, No. 31, Spring 1986.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Anglo-Irish Agreement is a bosses accord. It has been designed by the Westminster and Dublin governments to serve the interests of big business in Ireland. For the working class, Catholic and Protestant, it offers nothing. It will not alleviate the poverty which is now endemic, north and south. It will not reduce, let alone end, unemployment, now over 20% in the north and 17% in the south.
Hardly was the ink dry on this agreement when the Thatcher government showed the true face of Toryism and announced a drastic cut in housing expenditure coupled with further cuts in the Health Service in Northern Ireland. The real solution of the Tories to the problems of Catholic and Protestant workers is to make them worse!
This agreement will, however, have one effect. It will produce instability, upheaval and violence. Because it will have solved nothing its final net effect will, at best, be to increase sectarianism. At worse, if the Tories try to hold this unworkable agreement together and greet Protestant resistance with bayonets, they could participate a full-scale sectarian bloodbath.
Clearly this is a very dangerous moment in the history of the Irish labour movement, and of the labour movement in Britain also. Open sectarianism conflict in Ireland would threaten the very existence of the trade unions, north and south. It would be a setback of a quite serious character for the working class of Britain also.
If ever there was a time when the entire labour movement of Ireland and Britain should be moving into action to avert potential disaster that time is now. Yet the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have maintained a deafening silence on the whole issue. In Britain and in the South the respective Labour Party leaderships have acted as the shadows of Thatcher and Fitzgerald on the question.
From the leaderships of the movement there has not been so much as a hint of an independent class position. If the labour movement emerges intact form the present crisis it will not be as a result of the actions of Neil Kinnock, Dick Spring or the ICTU leaders, or at least of their actions to date. It will be despite the damaging and dangerous policies of bipartisanship and silence.
The standpoint of these leaders is based on an illusion. It is the illusion that, on the basis of capitalism, there can be a solution to the national question in Ireland.
One of the greatest accomplishments of capitalism in the past was the creation of nation states through the breaking down of feudal barriers and the assimilation of peoples and cultures. This was possible in the period of capitalist expansion when the system still played a hugely progressive role in developing the productive forces.
Now we live in an epoch of the death agony of capitalism. The productive forces now strain at the limitations of private property and the nation state. The system can no longer satisfy the appetites of the gigantic monopolies and consortiums for expansion. Far from developing production, existing productive potential can no longer be used. Now, even in periods of boom, only 80% of the productive capacity of Europe and America is utilised. In the underdeveloped world capacity utilisation of 50% and even 30% is the norm.
Modern day representatives of capitalism look to the destruction of the existing productive forces, and not to the creation of new wealth. This is the rationality behind the madhouse economics of monetarism.
One of the distinguishing features of this period is the tendency for national conflicts and antagonisms to emerge and re-emerge with ever more ferocity. Already in the colonial and ex-colonial worlds, where the states which exist are, at best, caricatures of the nation states of the West, wars, national, tribal and religious conflicts are on the order of the day. Capitalism, in these areas, means ultimate Lebanonisation and barbaric disintegration. Only the working class, fighting for a socialist solution, can draw behind itself and unite all sections of the oppressed.
Also, in the advanced capitalist states national differences, even some which have been apparently resolved, have now the capacity to appear of reappear. In the long-rub failure by the working class to overthrow capitalism in Italy, France, Belgium, Britain, etc. could be punished by the break-up of these states, a development which would be entirely retrogressive and reactionary.
Where a national problem exists it cannot be resolved on the basis of capitalism, or of Stalinism for that matter. So the conflict between India and Pakistan, and within Pakistan, are permanent features of capitalism in this area. As the world crisis of capitalism deepens so these antagonisms will sharpen unless and until the working class shows a way out. Only a socialist federation of the sub-continent can provide an answer. So also in Sri Lanka, in Zimbabwe, in the Middle East, in Cyprus, Spain and in deformed workers’ states such as Yugoslavia, where the issue is already acute.
Capitalism, and now Stalinism, are reactionary impediments to economic development. Their contribution on the national question is also negative and reactionary. This general conclusion holds true for the national problem in Ireland and will be confirmed by the failure of the latest attempt at a capitalist solution - the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
The roots of the national problem in Ireland lie in the partition of the country. Partition created an artificial statelet in the North with a Protestant majority, but with a large Catholic minority which cannot be permanently reconciled to the state’s existence. On the other side one million Protestants are totally opposed to any link-up with the state they see in the South. So long as the alternatives appear as either a poverty-stricken capitalist North, or the merging of the two poverty ridden states, north and south, into a capitalist united Ireland, so long will there be an irreconcilable gulf between the Catholic and Protestant working class. In a nutshell capitalism means conflict in Ireland.
Most ironical about the present situation is the fact the British ruling class would now prefer a united Ireland. When this same class imposed partition in 1920 their prime purpose was to avert the danger of revolution in Ireland by splitting the working class along religious lines. It was a classic example of the age-old tactic of divide and rule. There were other factors, the retention of control over Irish ports for military purposes, the fact that they could still directly control the northern industrial region of Ireland, but first and foremost it was to derail the movement of the working class.
Thanks to the failures of the leaders of the Irish trade unions and the Labour Party this tactic was successful at the time. But the dialectic of history has turned the tables on the ruling class.
By the 1950s and ’60s partition was an anachronism form the point of view of British capitalism. Socialist revolution, in Europe at least, seemed off the agenda. Advances in military technique and the long-term decline of Britain as a military power, rendered the matter of bases in Ireland unimportant. Economically the southern part of Ireland was developing into an important market. By 1968 it was the fifth largest importer of British goods. Two-thirds of British companies had subsidiaries there.
Under such conditions the border was of no purpose to imperialism. Just the reverse. The northern statelet had become a permanent drain on the British exchequer while the division of the island had created a source of permanent instability. The problem for imperialism is that capitalist reunification is completely impossible. Standing in the way are the one million Protestants as who were given a state in 1920 and for whom a capitalist united Ireland can never be acceptable. Despite its partial development over the past two decades, the South remains a relatively backward economy, especially in terms of infrastructure and social services. It is in deep economic crisis with a national debt equal to 130% of Gross National Product (GNP).
The crisis of world capitalism, and of sickly Irish capitalism, plus the austerity measures of the present right wing Fine Gael dominated coalition government have led to a 20 per cent fall in the living standards of the working class in recent years. 17 per cent of the workforce are unemployed and 35% of the population are dependent on state benefits for all or part of their income.
On top of all this Protestants see a state dominated by the Catholic Church, with restrictions on divorce and contraception. They fear that in a debt-ridden, poverty stricken capitalist united Ireland, they would be made the scapegoats and would end up as a discriminated against minority.
Militant has consistently explained that an attempt to coerce the million Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland would be resisted by force. At times this idea has been derided by individuals like John Hume by some republicans and by sections of the left of the British Labour Party among others. ‘It is all a bluff’ they would say. Given the reaction of the Protestants to even the smell of a united Ireland which they detect in the Anglo-Irish Agreement there can be no more argument on the question.
A serious step to capitalist reunification would provoke civil war. The Protestants, because of their strength of arms, with 20,000 in the UDR and RUC, with the legally held firearms in the Territorial Army, with the paramilitaries, with their access to aircraft, munitions and even missiles through defence industries like Shorts, and because they would be fighting with their backs to the sea, would emerge as victors. There would be wholesale slaughter, a massive movement of populations leading to the repartition of Ireland and the retrenchment of the sectarian division.
As an aside, this is the crushing answer to the strategy and tactics of the Provisionals. Their methods of individual terrorism can never succeed in defeating the British army. All that fifteen years of these methods have achieved is increased repression plus greater sectarian division. By dividing and disorientating the working class they serve only to reinforce the hold of imperialism in Ireland.
The ultimate logic of the Provo’s strategy is military confrontation with the Protestants. There are those within their ranks who see salvation as lying on the other side of a sectarian holocaust. They believe that civil war would force the South to intervene and seize the North.
All advocates of such sectarian lunacy deserve only the contempt of the working class in these islands and internationally. James Connolly predicted that partition would bring a ‘carnival of reaction’. The same can be said of civil war and repartition – except a hundred times more so.
British Imperialism, whiles its hands are tied, would still prefer unification. Not so the weak and effete southern bourgeoisie. This class has completely abandoned its original mission; to capture the national territory of Ireland and develop a unified nation state. For its political representatives in both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael the removal of the border is a vote getting slogan with absolutely no content.
The very document adopted by these parties at the end of the New Ireland Forum discussion, supposedly a justification for reunification, is in reality a convincing argument against. It points out that the British subvention to the North is now a staggering 27% of the Province’s Gross National Product. It projects that a United Ireland which had to pay out such a sum would end up with 32% unemployment by the 1990’s. This is hardly a prospect to fire the imagination of northern Catholics let alone Protestants. And then there is the cost of security, now £400 million per year which the Forum report assumes would simply become unnecessary!
The Southern ruling class and the capitalist parties all accept partition. They do not seek the inheritance of the economic desert of the north with its half a million disaffected Catholics let alone its million embittered Protestants.
But just as the capitalist united Ireland is impossible so any solution based on the existing statelet is likewise unworkable. The 1970’s saw the ending of Stormont and brought direct rule. Then came the power-sharing executive and the Sunningdale Agreement. These were shattered by Protestant resistance in the form of the 1974 Ulster Workers Council stoppage. Within two years the next initiative, the Constitutional Convention, had come and gone. One year after that new constitutional talks were set up and ran into the sand. In 1980 the Constitutional Conference of Humphrey Atkins was put on ice. The following year saw the launching of a new set of proposals which ultimately led to the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, now on the verge of collapse.
This litany of failure is not accidental. There can never be a lasting solution within the north. To the Catholics this state has meant 50 years of unionist domination followed by a decade and a half of British military repression. Alongside the discrimination goes the poverty. Male unemployment among Catholics is now estimated at 38–40%. The British ruling class now largely accept that they have ‘lost’ the Catholic working class who are completely disaffected. Their initiatives, including this latest agreement, are designed mainly to win hearts and minds in the ‘leafy Catholic suburbs’. Because such deals can do no more than paper over the fundamental divisions within society they are bound sooner or later, to fall to pieces. The ultimate fact is that the Catholic minority cannot be reconciled with the existence of the present impoverished state. The aspiration for a united Ireland, which to the Catholic working class means taking control of their own destiny and changing things north and south, will not be relinquished.
So the latest deal, like its predecessors, is a reflection, not of strength and foresight, but of the impasse of the British ruling class in Ireland. Despite the furore of the Protestants the new agreement has nothing to do with reunification. It is a cosmetic exercise designed to bolster the SDLP by giving a few paltry concessions to the Catholics. At the same time it aims to step up cross border co-ordination of repression. Thatcher’s hope as that this pact would woo the SDLP, deal a blow to Sinn Fein, split the Unionists and thereby lay the basis for devolved government and some form of internal settlement. On all accounts she has been sadly mistaken. The entire episode is fated to prove a gross miscalculation on the part of two governments, a miscalculation with potentially disastrous consequences.
The agreement cannot succeed. Its most fundamental proposal, the establishment of an intergovernmental conference though which the Dublin Government is to be granted a consultative role in the running of the north is unworkable from start to finish. Those ‘concessions’ to the minority which merge emerge from this new body, for example the repeal of the Flags and Emblems Act, RUC men patrolling along with the UDR, would make no real difference to Catholics. To remove the Flags and Emblems Act would simply make it legal for Catholics to do what they do anyway, fly the Tricolour and have street names in Irish. And one Catholic youth in Derry aptly summed up the cynicism with which Catholics would greet the appearance of the RUC alongside the UDR: “All it means is that when the UDR beat you up at a checkpoint, you’ll be charged with disorderly conduct for your troubles.” (Fortnight, 2 December 1985)
Yet even these mealy-mouthed changes would inflame the Protestants. Paisley’s response would be predictable – “They tell us that our sovereignty is unchanged. Why then do we now have two national flags?” Etc.
On the other hand, if Thatcher were to try to make the deal palatable to Protestants by presenting it as a recipe for increasing security and nothing more, she would soon run into Catholic opposition. Eventually even the SDLP would be forced to withdraw their support or lose creditability. In truth the agreement is an unsustainable attempt to face in all directions at the same time. Most likely by offering only worthless sops to the Catholics mixed with larger measures of repression, with the Protestants seeing only the sops and the Catholics feeling only the repression, the end result would be to alienate both Catholics and Protestants. The ruling classes will discover that the circle of Northern Ireland politics cannot be so neatly squared.
Were it simply a matter of another initiative which must eventually run into the sand the question would no be so serious for the labour movement. But, because this agreement attempts to go further in the sense of showpiece involvement if the Dublin government, its consequences will be all the more serious. The danger is that it may not so much fall apart as be blown to bits in the furious sectarian backlash it will provoke.
Thatcher’s most serious miscalculation has been to underestimate the extent of Protestant reaction. The scale of Protestant opposition was brought home in two events almost as soon as the deal was signed.
First there was the demonstration in Belfast called one week later. This was not so much organised as announced. No special posters or leaflets were issued, it was simply called for by the Unionist leaders using the organisation of the Orange Order in particular. In the event the turnout was larger than that achieved by Carson during the mass resistance to Home Rule in 1912. Estimates vary between 100,000 to 200,000, or between 10–20 per cent of the Protestant population. Translated onto a British scale it would mean a turnout of between 5.5 and 11 million.
Second was the strike and demonstration of Protestant workers on 11 December, the day of the first meeting of the intergovernmental conference. Significantly not only did the shipyard and Shorts workers come out, so did workers at the key Ballylumford power station. When Paisley tried to organise a stoppage in May 1977 the refusal of the Ballylumford workers to give their support was a decisive factor in ensuring his defeat.
This anger is because of the open-ended nature of the agreement which to Protestants seems to accord the Dublin government a say in virtually every aspect of life in the north. While the agreement stresses that this is only a consultative role the Protestants see it as joint sovereignty. It is regarded as a foot in the door, the first opening to a united Ireland.
Also both in the manner in which the agreement was reached and its present implementation could not have been better designed to make Protestants suspicious and arouse their anger, All negotiations were held in secret. The intergovernmental conference will discuss in secret. It all appears to have been done above the Heads and behind the backs of the Unionists.
From a socialist point of view the whole thing is entirely undemocratic. The right-wing Tories in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail are no guardians of the rights of either Catholic or Protestant workers. They are elected by no and accountable to no one in the north.
Playing on the anti-democratic character of the deal Paisley and co. have struck a deep chord among the Protest working class. On the part of these leaders the howls of protest about consultation and democracy are sickening hypocrisy and nothing more. These latter-day converts to democratic principles and their forebears, are the same politicians and parties who for 50 years withheld democratic rights from the Catholic minority and who in 1968–9 took to the streets to physically counter the mass campaign for civil rights!
The tragedy of the present situation is that these people have been given an enormous boost. Far from splitting the Unionists and isolating the Democratic Unionist Party Thatcher has provided Paisley with a pedestal around which to draw mass Protestant support. It is those who dare dissent, and they are few, who are isolated. In the coming weeks and months, providing the agreement remains, this Protestant opposition seems certain to intensify. Protestant opposition will harden not relent. The stage has been set for a massive increase in sectarianism.
The January by-elections were one of the most sectarian elections for decades. Now back in Parliament the Unionists threatened to present a motion opposing the agreement. If this is lost they have stated that they will withdraw from Westminster and form all institutions of local government in the North. Pressure will now come on to the MP’s to abide by their commitment to resign.
Paisley is coy as to what will be the next move. But strong hints have been given of a rent and rate strike, of advice to UDR and RUC members to resign. Although not yet widely talked about, a repeat of the 1974 Loyalist stoppage might be attempted at a certain stage. If things were to go this far events could then begin to have a logic of their own.
Paisley may be guarded in his comments as to where all this might lead. Not so some of his lieutenants in the DUP. Their words are a warning to the labour movement, which it will choose to ignore at its peril. So Gregory Campbell, DUP Assemblyman for Derry, states:
“We must form ourselves into a provisional government, that provisional government must have a defence; and that defence must be armed. The Protestant people must be armed.” (Magill, 14 November 1985)
DUP Chief Whip Jim Allister described his own role if the agreement is not endorsed:
“I would act in concert with thousands of other Loyalists in arming ourselves. No self-respecting individual is going to do anything but resist. In those circumstances there are no lengths which Ulstermen would not be prepared to go to stop it. None.” (Magill, 14 November 1985)
In the same article Sammy Wilson, DUP Assemblyman for East Belfast openly threatens violence in the South. But the final word must go the Rev. Ivan Foster of Fermanagh DUP:
“I wouldn’t be joining the army of Ulster as a chaplain. I would be joining as Joe Bloggs, an ordinary foot soldier. I know how to use a gun. There’s no use carrying a gun of you don’t intend to use it. And if I am ambushed I have one prayer, ‘Lord let him miss the first time’.”
Inherent in these options is the final option of UDI. Among the mass of Protestants there is little or no support for this at present. But is it appeared that the choice was independence or rule from Dublin, the Protestants en masse would feel no choice but to support the former. There is a certain logic in the Unionist’s campaign of resistance which, at the very least, points them in this direction.
To advocate UDI is merely a more polite way of advocating civil war. The development of armed Protestant reaction seeking control of the state would prompt a corresponding move in the Catholic areas to defence. Just as the Protestants will never accept capitalist unification, so the Catholics will fight before they would place themselves under the iron heel of a Protestant state. An attempt to engineer UDI would inevitably spark a civil war and end up repartition. It would be a disaster for all workers, Protestants included.
Even if things do not go so far the situation which will open up if the Unionist MPs withdraw from Parliament will be fraught with dangers. Standing in the wings are the paramilitaries. Both the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have been reduced to semi-activity in recent years. This agreement has given them the opportunity to begin to reorganise, using the recently formed ‘Ulster Loyalist Front’ as a cover. Within a few days of the massive Belfast demonstration UDA posters started to appear in some towns. UVF leaflets and posters have been openly circulated in key factories such as Shorts and the shipyards. While the mass of Protestant workers will not turn again to these vicious murder machines they can recruit among the lumpen strata and are capable of acts of extreme sectarian provocation designed to inflame the situation. So too are the Irish National Liberation Army and the Provos, or sections of the Provos. Likewise sections of the RUC and UDR are capable of carrying out atrocities to shipwreck the agreement.
The British ruling class do not want civil war. It would mean upheaval in Britain. Far from sorting things out in Ireland it would bring about Middle East style instability with Catholic refugees driven into the south, with a perpetual guerrilla offensive against the new northern state with attacks on British property and with international repercussions such as possible action against British goods in America. It is therefore most likely that Thatcher will be forced to back down art a certain stage.
For years the military strategy of the British bourgeois has been the ‘Ulsterisation’ of the security forces. This has been in part accomplished, not in the sense that British control on security has been lessened, but through the greater reliance upon locally recruited foot soldiers to implement the will of the British Chiefs of Staff.
In 1973 there were 16,000 British soldiers out of a total security force of 30,000. Now out of a total of 28,000 only 9,000 are from Britain. There are almost 20,000 UDR and RUC, both full and part time.
If these forces were to begin to crumble in the hands of the British generals, alarm bells would start to ring which would be heard all the way to Downing Street and Westminster. This, and/or the possibility of massive sectarian violence, even civil war, would leave the government no alternative but to extricate themselves from the mess by one way or another scrapping the agreement.
For the present there are no obvious signs of a shift on the part of the government. Thatcher is busy comforting herself with a massive 426 majority. For the most part the capitalist press are still proclaiming the myth of Thatcher’s invincibility. After all, she defeated Galtieri, the hunger strikers and the miners! Why not the Protestants also! The Times, now descended to the level of the yellow press, in an editorial (2 December 1985) accepts,
“That a year from now the Cabinet may still be facing widespread disobedience from many of Northern Ireland’s one million Protestants. The government therefore needs to prepare, psychologically as well as physically, for a siege.”
Despite such defiant noises it is most likely that reality will strike home among the ruling class in Britain and even in the dense skulls of Thatcher’s cabinet at a certain stage. The government are in a no win situation. There seems so prospect that they can gain the acceptance of any substantial section of Protestants for this agreement. Nor will it satisfy the Catholics and lead to an ending of the IRA campaign. Alienating both communities and creating disaffection in the RUC and UDR, they would need to commit 50,000 troops just to hold the situation and then with no guarantee that events would not at any moment spin out of their control. So, trapped in a blind alley of their own construction, there seems little doubt but that the ‘Iron Lady’ will have to beat a hasty retreat.
The response of the trade union and labour leaderships can only be measured against this background of a very real danger of sectarian reaction. In Britain the right wing Labour leaders have given unqualified support to the Agreement. By doing so they have squandered a marvellous opportunity to open up class divisions among the Protestant population in the north.
Protestant workers often comment that they support Labour on social questions: but the Tories on the constitution. Now it is the Tories who they see as selling them out on the national question. Class opposition from Labour would have struck a chord among working class Protestants. But Kinnock’s support for Thatcher only serves to bolster Paisley and like bigots and, in the end, could be the factor which will save Thatcher’s bacon when the agreement crumbles. Similarly Labour’s role in coalition in the South of Ireland has reduced them to a faint echo of Fine Gael. This subservience of right wing nationalism also helps cement the all class alliance of Unionism. It confirms the fears of many Protestant workers that the working class movement in a united Ireland would be overwhelmed by the church and by a green Tory state.
Worst of all has been the position of the trade union leadership in Ireland. The sum total of their response has been a statement of a few lines declaring that as this is a ‘constitutional question’ they can make no comment.
This is the old and worthless tactic of reacting to danger by ‘rolling over and playing dead’. Better, say the ICTU leaders, to lower our heads and keep quiet than to expose ourselves to sectarian attack. There is not a shred of justification for this argument.
Silence by the leaders will not protect the movement from attack. It will be seen by the enemies of the movement for what it is – a profession of weakness and irresolution and will be a signal to these people to move onto the offensive. Nor will silence at the top stop the Anglo-Irish Agreement being discussed within the unions. It will merely ensure that it is the bigots who have the first opportunity to raise the issue and that the discussion takes a sectarian form.
The situation is too serious by far to allow this cowardly response by the leadership to go unchallenged. On the worst scenario the very existence of trade unions would be at stake. Civil war would result most likely in military police dictatorships coming to power in both states following repartition. In the north Protestant military reaction would be of a particularly vicious character.
A new northern statelet would be an economic catastrophe. 75% of Northern Ireland’s imports come from Britain. For exports the figure is 85% to Britain. Of the rest of its trade 45% of imports and 57% of exports are with the South. This would all be disrupted. The huge British subvention would be gone. 75% of the workforce are in the public sector, mainly in services. These would be devastated. The survival of the state would mean the pauperisation of the mass of the population. Such a regime would be compelled to use fascist methods to achieve this smashing down of the living standards of the working class. In a general sense civil war would create a Middle East situation. For the working class of the north, in particular, it would be more like a Chile solution.
This is not the most likely outcome, but even in events short of civil war there are dangers. Far from being excluded, it is now likely that some loyalist bigots will at some stage raise the question of an Ulster TUC, as was last seriously put forward after the 1974 Stoppage. Campaigning against the involvement of Dublin politicians and civil servants in the north, it is a short step to also campaign against the presence of Dublin based trade unions.
Things must be called by their right names. An Ulster TUC would mean a Protestant TUC. It would mean sectarian division in the trade unions. And if it were to take flesh it would not stop there. Accompanying its establishment would be a campaign to drive Catholics, and with them socialists and genuine trade unionists, from the workplaces. Northern Ireland’s history gives ample precedence for this.
This would not be the first attempt by bigots, north, south, orange and green, to split the trade unions. To date all have failed. Even partition did not break the all Ireland unity of the then Irish Trade Union Congress. There can be no greater tribute to the resistivity of the working class and particularly the class-consciousness and courage of its advanced layer of trade union activists than this. Every sectarian offensive to date has been beaten off. Catholics and Protestants still organise together and fight together through their class organisations.
However, if the situation does seriously deteriorate, the silence of the trade union leaders will, at the very least, put this unity in jeopardy. Within the North the Labour and Trade Union Group and supporters of the Irish Militant have mounted an offensive within the trade unions to challenge the position of the leadership. They have demanded that the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU produce a socialist response to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, that this be circulated in the working class movement and that a special rank and file delegate conference be called to discuss this and also to consider how the movement can defend itself and its membership from the dangers of sectarian attack, both political and physical.
What is the basis of a socialist solution to the national problem and a socialist reply to this agreement? First, it is the understanding that only the working class, by overthrowing capitalism in Ireland, can resolve the national problem. Capitalist solutions are various roads to disaster. The national question and the class questions are inseparably linked. Socialism in Ireland not only would mean the removal of the border, it is the only way the border will ever be removed. Socialism in Ireland and Britain would allow the present bond of imperialist exploitation to be replaced by the voluntary federation of equals. A socialist reply to the agreement must therefore centre on the slogan ‘a socialist united Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.’
Only by putting forward, carefully explaining and then campaigning on this slogan can the labour movements of these islands satisfy the aspirations and allay the fears of all workers, Irish and British, Catholic and Protestant.
Given a bold leadership the potential for the emergence of a mighty class movement is enormous. A greater percentage of workers in Northern Ireland are organised in the unions than in Britain.
Strikes are solid and have never, in recent decades, been cut across by sectarianism. By putting forward socialist solutions to the class problems and to the national problem, by taking action to protect workers against sectarianism, by opposing all forms of repression and by building a mass Labour party, the trade unions could become the decisive force in the north.
That this project has suffered a setback and that sectarian reaction is now capable of developing is the responsibility of the trade union leaders who have failed to take advantage of past opportunities to overcome sectarianism.
During the past decade and a half there have been ample opportunities for the labour movement to establish itself as the authoritative voice of all sections of the working class. Fighting trade unions and a fighting socialist Labour Party could have done to the bigots in Ireland what the labour movement in Liverpool has done to their co-thinkers there.
In 1968/9 the revolt of the Catholic working class and the sympathy which at first existed among Protestant workers, provided one such opportunity. Anyone who doubts what then was possible has only to listen to what the same DUP leader, Gregory Campbell, who now advocates a Protestant provisional government, has to say about those times:
“I saw nationalists were campaigning for better living conditions, voting rights, and yet everything they were campaigning for, I hadn’t got either. I hadn’t got hot running water. I had to go outside to the toilet … Maybe in the early days there was a socialist ideology in the Civil Rights movement, but it was always couched in terms of republicanism which obviously distanced me and people like me from it.” (Magill, 14 November 1985)
Instead of seizing the opportunity the trade union leaders, as now, made the mistake of burying their heads in the sand. The working class paid the price in the form of half a decade of sectarian reaction. Again in 1975–76 at the time of the Better Life for All Campaign and the Peace Movement the mass of the working class could have been mobilised to deal a crushing blow to the bigots. And again in 1977 when the demise of the Ulster Unionist Action Council stoppage created such an opening. Or in 1982 when the massive campaign around the Health Strike would have been a sufficient springboard for the building of a Labour Party in the North. Even in recent months there has been quite significant movement of workers with strikes by health workers, barmen, meat workers, teachers, civil servants among others.
If the movement emerges unscathed from the present situation the lessons must be learnt. There have been and, under that circumstance, there will again be opportunities to defeat sectarianism. But these are not unlimited. Ultimately the movement must either adopt a class position on the national question, or it will be engulfed by it.
The sectarian polarisation since the Hillsborough accord already represents a setback for the working class. Further setbacks are likely unless this agreement is very speedily done away with. In such a volatile climate it is not possible to foresee the scale of the setback which will have been suffered. Most likely it will be of a partial character, a blow from which the movement will recover.
1912–14 was also a dangerous period for the younger and weaker Irish labour movement, faced with armed Unionist reaction, an armed nationalist movement and possible civil war. Yet four years later, due to the international factors of war and revolution, the experience of the mass slaughter of 1914–18 and the inspiration of the Russian Revolution this was turned into its opposite. 1918–20 were years of revolution in Ireland. Had there been a revolutionary leadership the working class could have taken power.
One feature of the present period of world economic crisis is a tendency for the aggravation of national antagonisms. But it is not the only or the most fundamental feature. The primary characteristic of the epoch is the movement of the working class to struggle. In the colonial countries we have movements to revolution, as with the revolution of a continental character developing in Latin America. In the Stalinist states we have and will have movements such as that in Poland. In the advanced countries the beginnings of the process of revolution are particularly to be seen in the countries of Southern Europe.
Those in Northern Ireland who lack an international perspective will be unable to keep their heads. It is these great events which shape and will shape the character of the period. Against this background, a partial setback in Ireland will quickly give rise to new opportunities. But the fundamental precondition of success, in Ireland and in all these countries, is a leadership which understands the lessons of history, which will not abandon its independent class position and which will fight unflinchingly for a socialist solution to the economic crisis and to the national problem.
In the class struggle no experience, of victory of defeat, of even the most bitter defeat, is wasted – provided that its lessons are assimilated by the working class. If the advanced workers learn from this setback and act upon their conclusions, in other words if a Marxist leadership is built within the workers organisations in Ireland, the way forward will be prepared.
Last updated: 26.1.2012