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Peter Hadden

Northern Perspectives

(March 1990)

Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

1. The 1990s will be one of the most revolutionary decades in world history. International events will have a decisive impact on the perspectives for Northern Ireland.

2. The present period has been characterised by a dramatic shift in the fortunes of Thatcher and the Tories in Britain. The so-called “Iron Lady” is no longer so invincible. Our general perspectives are being graphically borne out by these developments.

3. The Tories are gripped by an economic and political crisis. It has been caused, on the one hand by the developments in the economy and on the other hand by the effects of the Tories policies.

4. As explained elsewhere there has been no real development in the British economy in the 1980s. Rises in productivity in industry have been a result, not of massive investment and the re-tooling of industry, but of massive lay-offs, the destruction of less productive industry and the intensification of the exploitation of the working class. Britain as an industrial power has been in constant decline since the last century. The former “workshop of the world” is now 16th out of 21 in the productivity league in Europe. Because of the lack of investment Britain cannot compete as in the past and is being elbowed out of its former markets by its rivals.

This lies at the root of the present economic crisis. The Thatcher boom is being exposed as largely a myth.

5. In 1979 Britain’s trade deficit was £0.5 billion. Ten years later it stands at 40 times that figure. In the first month of 1990 the trade deficit was £1.9 billion. Sterling has fallen in value against other major currencies. Inflation stands at 7.7%. To hold inflation in check the Tories have raised interest rates to 15%, in turn raising mortgage rates. Tax cuts and a rise in real living standards for a section of the working class and the middle class in the 1980s have now been reversed. This change was one of the factors which provoked the “summer of discontent” in 1989. The measures introduced by John Major, the Tory Chancellor, in the autumn of 1989 have not succeeded. Inflation has continued to rise. Sterling continues to fall against other major currencies. It cannot be excluded that interest rates could rise again.

6. The Tories are faced with a dilemma. They can allow sterling to fall in the world’s money markets, helping exports but pushing up the price of imports and resulting in inflation. This would eventually lead to recession. Alternatively they can maintain or continue the rise of interest rates to defend sterling and hold off inflation. This could choke off economic growth and even lead to a recession earlier.

7. Already there are signs of a slowdown in the British economy. In 1989 British industry ran up an estimated £20 billion financial deficit. To cut this deficit companies will have to cut their stock holdings and investments. This is given an added twist by high interest rates. If the capitalists move to lower this deficit there could be a sharp downturn in the economy.

8. It is now likely that Britain could move into recession before the development of a recession in the world economy.

9. The Tories hope that they can manage a small recession or soft-landing this year. This would then give way to a new upswing in 1991–92. This they believe would boost their fortunes in time for the general election in 1991 or 1992. But this is a gamble for the Tories and may not payoff. Rather than an upswing developing in Britain in 1991–92 the economy could be devastated by the onset of a world downturn. Nevertheless even the continuation of the world boom would not guarantee a Tory victory.

10. All perspectives including those for the world economy and the British economy must be extremely qualified. The cyclical nature of capitalist production remains. The current upturn is preparing the way for a new recession. A new recession is inevitable at some stage. A new recession is likely, although not certain, to be of a severe character, possibly deeper than 1974 or 1979. A 1929-type recession is not entirely excluded.

11. The policies of the Tories have been the other major factor in turning the tide against the government. Tory plans for the NHS, water privatisation and many other proposals have turned the tables against them. The Tories lost the Vale of Glamorgan bye-election due to their policies. The June 1989 Euro-elections came as a shock to the Tories. It was their first defeat in a national election since 1979 and their lowest share of the vote since 1859.

12. However the poll tax has surpassed all other issues in importance. The majority of voters now see it as the most important issue and 75% oppose the poll tax. The poll tax and other policies have changed the fortunes of the Tories, and the poll tax has the potential to force the removal of Thatcher. The campaign for mass non-payment is leading to the biggest civil disobedience movement in British history. The Tories standing in the polls is now at its lowest since 1971. 65% have said Thatcher must go before the next election. The poll tax has caused the divisions both open and closed in the Tories.

l3. Another “summer of discontent” in 1990 looks very likely.

14. The perspectives for Thatcher and the Tories now look bleak. It is not possible, at this stage, to foresee how the anti-poll tax campaign will work itself out. If Thatcher and the Tories refuse to back down they could face electoral disaster. However even if they do retreat it would probably mean ditching Thatcher. Individual Tories are running scared of losing their seats at the next general election causing mounting pressure for Thatcher’s removal. But even the removal of Thatcher would most likely not save them from defeat at the next general election. The pace of events can move very quickly and Thatcher could even be removed this year.

15. A Labour victory in the general election is now the most likely perspective. However Labour’s changed position in the polls has absolutely nothing to do with Kinnock and the Policy Review – rather it’s despite this. Labour’s standing in the polls is due to the rising anti-Tory mood and the fact that Labour is the only real alternative to the Tories. While a Labour victory is the most likely perspective it would be a mistake to entirely rule out a fourth consecutive Tory victory. The next general election does not have to be held for over two years although a Tory victory is now very difficult to envisage. But Labour’s leaders are quite capable of shooting themselves in the foot. The party is now a virtual shell having lost hundreds of thousands of members in the last ten years. The emphasis on mass campaigning has been discarded in favour of a “Presidential” style.

16. Even in the event of a Tory victory, it would take place under entirely different objective conditions and would not be like the 1983 or 1987 governments. A new Tory victory under different circumstances could prompt a new radicalisation on the part of the working class.

Attacks on the working class could provoke bitter defensive battles. Kinnock’s position at the head of the Labour Party would be untenable.

17. If Thatcher leads the Tories into the next general election a landslide Labour victory is entirely possible.

18. Huge expectations would exist in a new Labour government. Many will feel the burden of 10–12 years of Thatcherism being unloaded. There could be a honeymoon period but under the conditions of capitalist crisis this is likely to be short-lived. Labour will come under the pressure of the capitalists, demanding cuts in living standards, and the pressure of the working class to defend and improve their conditions. The next Labour government will be more akin to the 1929–31 Labour government. At that time the centrist Independent Labour Party (ILP) emerged inside the British Labour Party with over 100,000 members. Despite the splitting away of the ILP, the Labour Party continued to move to the left in the 1930s. Then the forces of Marxism were a handful not able to affect the objective situation.

Under similar conditions in Britain in the next period, the ranks of the Labour movement will swing rapidly to the left – even to a centrist position. Because of the influence and tradition which Marxism has built over the past 25 years, a powerful Marxist tendency can be constructed. This of course will not be an even process and there will be setbacks and defeats on the road to victorious revolution.

19. In the course of the 1980s, the leadership of the labour and trade union movement has swung decisively to the right. Unlike in the 1960s and 1970s right-wing ideas have permeated right down to the shop-stewards and other shop-floor activists. Internationally left-reformism has been decimated. In the 1960s and 70s, a powerful shop stewards movement existed in Britain as a counter-weight to the attempted sell-outs of the trade union leadership. In the course of the 1990s, the trade unions will be transformed from top to bottom.

Decisive battles will take place in the workplaces, on the shop floor and in the trade union branches. The labour and trade union movement will be rebuilt.

20. The fate of the Northern Ireland economy is linked to the British and the world economy. Northern Ireland has been largely by-passed by the Reagan boom of the 1980s. Unemployment which stood at 7.9% in 1979 is now officially 14.1% according to the doctored Tory figures. Economists estimate that unemployment is set to rise this year. Nevertheless the fall in unemployment in the last period has not been due to any growth in the real economy. Figures have, in the main, been reduced by artificial and cosmetic means. Emigration, harassing the unemployed, massaging the figures and using Agency for Community Employment (ACE) and other government schemes have all played a role.

21. The private sector is very feeble in Northern Ireland. The total turnover in the private sector is a mere £3 billion – only two thirds that of Marks and Spencer’s. What exists in the private sector is largely dependent on government spending either directly or indirectly. Despite spending hundreds of millions between 1982–88, the Industrial Development Board have created only 13,737 jobs.

22. In the latter part of the 1980s consumer spending fuelled a boom in the retail sector. This had a knock-on effect in the building industry. This was aided by government spending and international handouts but was also due to a rise in credit. In 1989, bank lending rose by 8.9%. New hire-purchase agreements in 1988 were double the 1982 level.

23. High interest rates now threaten to choke off any new investments. The onset of recession in the British and the world economy will spell disaster for Northern Ireland. If unemployment doubles in a new recession, as it did in the last, joblessness would exceed 200,000 in the North.

This will create explosive movements and a large radicalisation of the working class and the youth. On this basis a mass Marxist force can be built. If the labour movement once again fails to show a way forward this would lead to a rise in lumpenisation and even despair and demoralisation.

24. In the main due to the economic “stabilisation” there has been a lull in the political situation if Northern Ireland in the last period. There were 61 killings due to political violence in 1989 – the third lowest level since 1970. Half of these were killed in the first four months, leaving the remaining eight months one of the most peaceful periods of the “Troubles”. In the 1970s nearly 2,000 died, in the 1980s there were 778 fatalities.

25. The Marxists had raised a warning that 1989 could have been a very violent year. This was a possibility as the Provisionals had threatened to intensify their military campaign and enter “the final phase”. Their intention was to mark the 20th anniversary of the arrival of British troops. A Provisional offensive in turn would have sparked off a spiral of loyalist assassinations. However this was raised conditionally. While the Provos had the intention of upping the ante, they faced objective difficulties. There was a less than enthusiastic mood for a Provo offensive in the Catholic areas on the part of the working class and a lack of volunteers. In the event the intended offensive never materialised.

26. Twenty years of poverty, sectarian terror, violence and brutal repression has left its mark on Northern Ireland society. In 1968-69, a revolutionary opportunity existed. That opportunity was squandered by the labour leaders and the left-wing forces which existed. The working class paid for the crimes of their leadership in the bloody sectarian reaction which followed. In the mid-70s, the working class intervened to cut across the escalating sectarian violence and the slide to all-out conflict. This opened up a period of years when class ideas came to the fore. Again opportunities were let slip. This prepared the way for new setbacks. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and the events which followed signaled a new defeat for the labour movement and resulted in a new period of heightened sectarianism. Two decades of sectarian reaction and lost opportunities have lead to a certain solidifying of polarisation and sectarian division.

27. The Anglo-Irish Agreement intended to strengthen the middle ground and prepare the way for a solution in the North. It has failed dismally. It was rendered inoperable by Protestant resistance. It remains now as a security pact between Britain and the South. However it does remain. Britain, at this stage, has no alternative. But rather than being a path to a settlement the Agreement has become a stumbling block. The Unionists say they are only prepared to talk if the Agreement is suspended. The SDLP are not prepared to concede this unless they are given guarantees in advance.

28. In January, Peter Brooke, made his Bangor speech where he said there was “enough common ground to make worthwhile the start of talks”. Shortly afterwards lines of communication opened between some Unionist leaders and Charles Haughey. Much effort has gone into the attempt to find some way of creating an opening in the meetings of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and allow talks to take place. This would have to be acceptable to the Unionists and the SDLP. While the ruling class are increasingly coming to terms with reality – that they have no solution – they still cannot give up trying. It is not ruled out that talks could take place. Nor is it excluded that some new political initiative could be launched which could prepare the way for elections to a new assembly. Neither is it inconceivable that this could open up the possibility of devolution and power-sharing. Most likely this would eventually collapse.

29. It is important to emphasise nonetheless that even if the politicians could arrive at this accommodation it will not have been brought about by the Anglo-Irish Agreement – rather despite it. It is the impasse which the Northern Ireland parties and the Tory government find themselves in, that pushes them towards the need for some sort of accord.

30. Even if these processes were set in motion that is no guarantee of success. The further the process towards some accommodation is developed the more brittle it will become. A local parliament can solve none of Northern Ireland’s problems and it would inevitably fall apart at some stage.

31. If the Tory government and the NI political parties find themselves at an impasse, so also do the Provisionals. After twenty years of Provisional military activity they are no nearer their goal. Their whole strategy is based on false methods and false ideas. Their narrow nationalist outlook blinds them to understanding the real nature or Imperialism. Rather than having the “will” to stay, imperialism would rather withdraw and economically exploit both parts of the island. However on a capitalist basis withdrawal would lead to a civil war creating enormous instability and threatening Britain’s profits internationally.

32. The Provisionals campaign of individual terror has taken them to a standstill. Their methods belittle mass struggle, exacerbate sectarian division and provide the pretext for the state to strengthen their repressive apparatus. In the early 1970s, the Provos developed a mass base amongst the Catholic youth. By the late 1970s their fortunes were in decline. This decline was cut across by the 1981 hunger strikes. This and the death of ten hunger strikers provided them with a renewed authority in the Catholic areas. This supplied them with a new layer of recruits and secured for them a mass electoral base.

33. Their strategy in the 1980s attempted to move from “the long war” to “the final phase”. In the summer of 1988 the Republican movement, better armed and equipped than at any time since the 1920s announced a new offensive. With Semtex, Kalashnikovs and the SAM-7, they planned to mark the 20th anniversary of the entry of the British Army and force them to negotiate withdrawal. But their offensive failed to materialise as explained above. In 1989 their military campaign ebbed.

34. Electorally the successes of Sinn Fein in the early 1980s gave way to setbacks. In 1989, Sinn Fein fared badly in local elections and the EC elections in the North, and in the general election and the EC elections in the South. The strategy of Adams/McGuiness/Morrison lies in tatters.

35. All these processes have combined to provoke deep soul-searching inside the Provisional republican movement. It now seems that some republican leaders have little hope of progress this side of a general election. Statements by McGuinness and Adams suggest that illusions exist in a future Labour government or a future Tory government not led by Thatcher. There has been much speculation about a possible IRA cease-fire. This however is not a likely perspective. A cease-fire is not seen, at this stage, as a credible alternative to continuing the struggle. Those who would initiate such a move have to carefully assess its consequences. A cease-fire would most likely lead to a split, probably a feud and most likely a wing of the movement carrying on the struggle.

36. Another scenario is that a section of the movement could internally advocate a cease-fire and eventually split away when this has been rejected. Out of such a development a new party could be established. Using left-wing rhetoric they could masquerade as a new radical alternative gathering ex-politicos and others behind their bandwagon. However such a development is not likely.

37. If the Reagan boom developed into a 1950–74 style economic upswing this could bring about the end of the Provisionals campaign. As with the IRA in the 1960s they would be reduced to a rump. The boom in Spain and in the Basque country has led to talks and raised the possibility of a cease-fire by ETA. However a new economic upswing along the lines of 1950–74 is ruled out. A future recession in Northern Ireland with increasing poverty, unemployment, despair and repression can provide the Provisionals with a basis for a revival of their fortunes, especially if a mass alternative to them is not built.

38. While the Provos campaign is at an impasse, the factors which gave rise to the Provos have not disappeared. The poverty, repression and sectarianism still exist. The failure of the labour movement to provide an alternative and the weakness of Marxism enables the Provos to maintain their base. Economic decay means that individual terror is endemic in Northern Ireland. It is more likely that the Provos campaign can continue at a lower level, at this stage, with periodic flare-ups, only to give way to deeper depression.

39. The loyalist paramilitaries are now in a deeper crisis than before the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. However they remain a danger. The first months of 1989 witnessed an upsurge in killings by the UVF and the UDA. This ebbed in the latter part of last year. Loyalist paramilitaries are always capable of periodic upsurges.

40. The mood in Protestant and Catholic areas is anti-sectarian but everything in Northern Ireland is extremely conditional. The degree of polarisation and brutalisation, combined with the total silence of the trade union leaders means that one spark is sufficient to ignite a cycle of sectarianism and heighten tensions.

41. The connection between the state forces and loyalist paramilitaries has been graphically exposed. Of course there is nothing new in these revelations. Loyalist killer gangs are unofficial death squads held on a leash by the state. They are turned mainly against republicans but are also a threat to the Marxists and other socialist activists.

42. The existing loyalist paramilitaries will never redevelop their mass basis in the Protestant areas. They exist through intimidation, fear and terror. As the resistance to the Anglo-Irish Agreement underlined, mass Protestant reaction would travel a different path. The paramilitaries would be mere auxiliaries to such movement.

43. The key force in the North is the working class. Despite the setbacks and defeats which the working class has endured over the last twenty years, its industrial power remains intact. In fact it is precisely the resistance albeit mainly of a passive nature, of the working class that has halted the drive to all-out sectarian conflict. At times the working class have moved onto the offensive as in 1975–76. Again in 1986, a section of the class moved, the DHSS workers and remains on the alert in opposition to sectarianism. These movements have been in opposition to the leaders of the trade unions.

44. Ultimately the working class face the stark choice. They will arm themselves with the programme of Marxism and crush sectarianism and the system which breeds it or the working class will go down to a crushing defeat paving the way for all-out conflict and sectarian civil war.

45. The lull in the general political scene is mirrored by a lull in the class struggle. The last major generalised movement of the working class took place in 1982. Since then there have been important industrial battles. But many of these have only involved limited sections of the working class. Apart from the Chelsea Girl strike which was important although involving a small number of strikers, the last major dispute was the Telecom workers strike in early 1987 – three years ago! One of the main factors causing this lull is the role of the trade union officialdom who have sold out and betrayed the movement at every stage. The role of trade union officials from NICTU in the Chelsea Girl strike, in co-operating with the state forces in harassing Marxists is a portent of what is to come. The right-wing trade union leaders in the course of the capitalist crisis move closer to the capitalist state.

46. In the last period trade union branches and Trades Councils have been reduced to shells of their former selves. Older activists have dropped out and have not been replenished by new fresh layers moving into action. The shop stewards in the past were prepared to struggle against the sell-outs of the trade union leaders.

Today this layer is missing. Only a few exceptions remain. Many others who would have been prepared to conduct a struggle have been victimised.

47. Previously we have explained that the class struggle has a tendency to move in tandem with the movement in Britain. The national question has complicated this process. When the movement in Britain begins to retreat the reversals are generally deeper in the North. However, the opposite is also the case. When the movement in Britain goes on the offensive and involves workers in the North, they generally take a more militant stance. All issues in Northern Ireland are posed in a much sharper fashion because of the nature of society.

Northern Ireland took the first regional general strike against Thatcher on April 2nd 1980. It was also the most militant region during the 1982 health strike. In a future generalised movement of the working class in Britain, the workers in the North will quickly move into the vanguard in terms of militancy and solidarity.

48. Fresh layers of young workers in their teens and early twenties will move to transform the trade unions. The first battles will take place on the shop floor and in the trade union branches to remove the current layer of shop stewards and union representatives. The recent action by young workers in Shorts against the sell-outs of their own shop-stewards is a pointer for the future.

Neither is it excluded that movements could by-pass the official structures, including the Trades Councils. This of course would prepare the way at a later stage for the transformation of the mass organisations.

49. Mighty class battles will force workers to draw political conclusions and the need for political action by the trade unions. As the working class moves into action internationally they move from the industrial front to the political front and back again. In the next period this process will also begin in Northern Ireland. But it has been and will continue to be complicated by the national question. The old NILP failed to advance a clear independent class alternative when the situation erupted in 1968–69. This led to their collapse. While Labour remains the traditional mass organisation of the working class it is not now a living tradition. That tradition will be rekindled. History teaches that the working class moves first to its traditional mass organisations. It would only be in the most exceptional of circumstances that the mass of workers would move directly to a revolutionary party. In fact the absence of Labour can strengthen illusions in reformism.

50. The birth of a Labour Party will be very traumatic and a few still-births can not be ruled out. A party could emerge but be quickly destroyed. The events which build a Labour Party will be both protracted and explosive. The life of a Labour Party could be quite short. If its creation is delayed for a whole period, when it does emerge, the majority or its ranks could move in a centrist and even in a revolutionary direction very quickly.

51. What will be decisive is the influence of Marxism inside a future Labour Party. This will be one of the factors determining whether the party degenerates or acts as the mid-wife to the creation of a mass revolutionary party. Out of huge class battles a mass socialist Labour party will be built. Only such a party can unite the working class and advance a socialist solution to end capitalist misery, sectarianism and repression. Such a party will not be built by the tops of the movement. However there are many qualifications to be made to any general perspectives.

52. There have been steps taken by some trade union leaders to have a region of the British Labour Party established in Northern Ireland. The creation of the Tory Party here has added to the speculation that Labour will follow. It is important to add that there is no question or the Tories making a breakthrough here. Only a mass Labour Party can breakdown the sectarian voting blocks. As an option, a region of the British Labour Party should not be totally excluded. From the viewpoint of some workers it may seem an easier option to establish a region of an already existing party rather than building a new party from scratch. The trade union leaders would also see a region of the British Labour Party eventually as the lesser of two evils. They would be terrified or the influence the rank and file could exert in a Northern Ireland based Labour Party. They would prefer the security of a bureaucratically dominated region of the British Labour Party.

53. The ideas of a region of the British Labour Party can get an echo. But the opposition to the idea from the leadership of the Party is not an insignificant difficulty. Most likely a Northern Ireland based Labour Party will be built from below but a region of the British Labour Party, while it is not the most likely perspective, cannot be excluded.

54. The relationship between a future Labour Party in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Labour parties is something which will only be decided on the basis of events.

55. The 1990s will be an explosive decade. The revolutionary struggles in the colonial world and the intensification of the class struggle in the advanced capitalist countries in the 1970s marked an end to the post-war stability. The 1980s have been a very contradictory and complex period especially in the industrialised nations.

The boom since 1982 has strengthened illusions in capitalism. The leadership of the workers’ organisations have been totally taken in by these developments. While mass unemployment and widespread poverty remained a section of the working class and the middle class in Japan, the US and Western Europe benefitted from the boom. This provided a degree of stability to the regimes of Thatcher, Kohl and Reagan. The overthrow of the Stalinists dictators in Eastern Europe has been distorted find used in the ideological offensive of capitalism to bad-mouth the ideas of socialism.

56. This has compounded the situation in Northern Ireland. It comes on top of the lost opportunities, the setbacks and the sectarian reaction.

57. In the 1990s it is extremely unlikely that world capitalism can avoid a major recession. This will have an explosive effect on the consciousness of the working class. The myth of a “booming Britain” and of “new realism” in the labour movement will be exposed. The upsurge of class struggle in the 1970s, cut across in the 1980s will now re-emerge on a higher level. The 1990s will see the greatest radicalisation of the working class since the period after the Russian revolution. Those events had a dramatic effect in Ireland. As early as 1907 the forces of labour and capital came to the verge of all-out confrontation in Belfast. 200,000 workers marched to the City Hall. The police mutinied. Sectarianism was forced onto the defensive. “We have lost a lot of staunch Unionist workmen”, shrieked one Unionist leader. “They have gone to the labour and socialist programmes. ” This prepared the way for even stormier class battles after 1918. The working class and particularly the young workers will return to these socialist and anti-sectarian traditions.

58. The young workers are the vanguard of the class. They will be the first to move into action and reject the old ideas of division. They will inject enthusiasm, energy and élan into the struggles ahead. They are not worn down with the past defeats and betrayals. They will enter and transform the trade unions into fighting organisations. They will be the core around which a mass revolutionary party will be built. The priority of the Marxists is to orient to this generation of youth, to ensure they don’t end up demoralised or in the paramilitary organisations. They must be won to the banner of Marxism.

59. The forces of Marxism in the last period faced many difficulties. Marxists came under attack. In the aftermath of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement one supporter was assassinated, many others were forced from their homes and attacked. The Marxists also faced threats and attacks from the state. But these events have hardened and steeled the forces of Marxism. Every supporter active under these unfavourable circumstances is worth a hundred or a thousand when the objective situation becomes favourable.

60. In the next period the Marxists must prepare for the impending battles of the Red Nineties. In the current period the time must be used to train and develop cadres. New supporters must be won, educated, consolidated and trained as cadres. Time however is not unlimited. The toppling of dictatorships in Eastern Europe underlines how rapidly events can move. As we entered the 1970s we lacked the forces to cut across the slide towards sectarian reaction. Today we have more substantial forces than we had going into the 1980s. If our forces today are successfully trained, educated and prepared we can make rapid gains in influence and numbers in the period opening up. This will lay the basis for the creation of a mass Marxists tendency in the years ahead.

March 1990

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Last updated: 20 February 2015