Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan. (February 2013)
This brief statement on perspectives for Northern Ireland is produced with the understanding that there is a need to produce more thorough material, on history, on perspectives and on the national question. This is an initial contribution to a much fuller discussion which must now take place within the organisation.
Changes in the world situation and in world relations are analysed in material now being prepared by the International. These documents, together with the most recent documents of the British section and the Southern perspectives statement, are all essential to an understanding of Northern perspectives.
Throughout the Northern Ireland troubles the starting point of our analysis has been the impossibility of resolving this problem on the basis of capitalism. This remains entirely correct today and is now accepted by the more serious bourgeois commentators.
Were there to be a significant development of the productive forces North and South, and a general rise in living standards over an historical period, we might draw different conclusions. Then it might be possible to find some form of reconciliation, some democratic settlement of the conflict, which would hold at least for a period.
But this is to accord capitalism a progressive function which it does not have. Even in the period of the 1945–74 post war boom, the efforts of the British and Irish ruling class to reach an accommodation over partition failed. The last years of this world upswing saw, not a reconciliation, but the development of the modern troubles. Internationally, this is a period of sharpening national conflict, even in the advanced capitalist countries. In Northern Ireland, with the situation complicated by the fact of over two decades of violence, a capitalist settlement would require an even greater period of economic expansion and this is ruled out.
The world economy remains in recession – in 1991 overall growth in all countries, including the ex-Stalinist states, was only 0.2% in real terms. During the first half of this period, over 50% of the OECD, the 24 most developed economies, were in recession. For the US this has been the longest slowdown in the post war period. Now the Japanese and German economies on which the hopes of the capitalists of recovery were based, face stagnation and possible recession.
In Britain, GDP in 1990–1 declined by 2.4%. Apart from energy and water supply, every economic sector recorded a fall. Manufacturing investment, crucial to any recovery, fell by a dramatic 15.6% during this period.
At a certain stage there will be an economic recovery, most likely in the form of a weak boom. Although we cannot say for certain either when a recovery will begin, how long it will endure or how extensive it will be, we can say that a return to a period of general and sustained growth, a new golden age for capitalism, is excluded.
Perspectives for the southern Irish economy are dealt with elsewhere and are important for this analysis. The Northern Irish economy remains weak, subservient to British and world capital and heavily over dependent on public spending and on services. Its manufacturing sector has never recovered from the body blows of recession in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The 1979-81 recessions in the US, Britain and other countries so badly affected Northern Ireland that its industrial output did not begin to recover until the first quarter of 1983, two years after the recovery began in Britain.
While it had an effect on consciousness, especially after 1988 when there was a sharper growth for two years, the 1980s boom had only marginal effects in Northern Ireland, especially on the manufacturing sector of the economy. The areas which experienced most growth were in the service sector, notably financial and business services, further exposing the speculative nature of the boom. Between 1981 and 1990 manufacturing registered an average growth of 1.4% in Northern Ireland. Services grew 6.4% and financial and business services 6%.
The current recession has had a greater impact on the service sector that that of 1979-83. In part this has been due to government policy. Northern Ireland had previously been excluded for political reasons from some of the assaults made against the public sector in Britain. In recent years moves to privatisation and to a tightening of budgets have been more severely applied. Between September 1990 to September 1991 public sector employment fell by 24, 000, in part due to privatisation of services, in part to cuts and job losses. In an economy in which services account for 71% of employment and in which over 200,000 people work in the public sector, more than double the numbers in manufacturing, this can only have the effect of deepening the recession.
It is probable that any recovery in the Northern Ireland economy will be delayed for a period after recovery begins in the British economy as was the case after 1981. While there were economic benefits for a layer of the population with secure jobs in the boom, for those without jobs or in small scale workshops, the retail sector and in much of the service sector, there was in many cases a worsening of conditions and a lowering, in relative terms, of wages. Unemployment did not fall significantly and has risen again in the present recession. The February 1992 jobless figure was 103, 885, or 14.2%. However using 1982 methods of counting unemployment, this figure would have been 147,400, or 21% – a similar figure to that of the early 1980s. Even in a future boom there is unlikely to be any significant fall in unemployment. For a large section of the working class and the youth in Northern Ireland the best that capitalism can offer in on-going poverty, joblessness and emigration.
These economic perspectives underscore the intractable nature of the national problem on a capitalist basis. Any fundamental change in the present constitutional position would provoke up-heaval and if carried through, would lead to civil war. The Protestant population will never consent to assimilation into the poverty ridden state they see in the South. Attempts to coerce them would provoke civil war, the outcome of which would not be reunification, but a repartition of the island, and an exodus of Catholics from a constricted Northern state, so adding a further historical injury to complicate the national problem in the future.
An independent Northern Ireland, not now viewed as an option and something which would only become acceptable to Protestants as a desperate last resort, would likewise lead to civil war. Integration with Britain would also be opposed by Catholics and would lead to a development of nationalism and of the armed struggle and would only serve to make things worse.
The strategists of capitalism in Britain have carefully considered all these options and have rejected each one. While they no longer have any economic or strategic interest in maintaining direct control over the North, the development of the troubles has forced them to abandon their efforts, begun in the 1960s, to move in the direction of capitalist reunification. Instead they rely on a military holding operation aimed at exhausting the opposition of the Catholic population and at the same time seek some form of internal settlement based on compromise on all sides.
The British ruling class have succeeded, by military means in the main, in partially containing the violence. However they recognise that containment is not a solution and that unless political progress is made new upsurges of violence are certain and at some point the conflict will spiral out of control.
The latest attempt to get politicians to agree to talks reflects the understanding of the ruling class overall that military means alone will not do. The British government favour the setting up of an Assembly with some form of power-sharing administration and with devolved powers over matters other than security which they would not be prepared to transfer. Almost seven years on from the failed Anglo-Irish Agreement, talks involving the British and Irish governments and all the main panics except Sinn Fein, have begun. In attempting to reach agreement in relationships between Belfast, London and Dublin and on the format of a new Northern Ireland Assembly, these talks are attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. Hence the painfully slow progress to date.
It is impossible on the basis of the capitalism and of the military methods of the army and RUC to persuade the Catholic minority to permanently accept partition and the Northern state. Likewise it is impossible to persuade Protestants that they should be ruled in any way by Dublin. Just as a fundamental change in the existing constitutional arrangement is ruled out so also is a lasting internal settlement which could permanently reconcile these antagonistic aspirations of the two communities.
This does not mean that an agreement on some form of future assembly is not possible, arising out of the current or some future round of talks. An enormous gulf on all the key issues separates the parties in these talks. This is not just a division between the SDLP and Unionists, but within these blocs; particularly among the Unionists, between those will support devolution and those who favour integration. If the talks succeed and an Assembly were to be established for a period, a political realignment among Unionism, would be possible. However all that has been agreed in the talks to date are procedural matters. They could collapse at any time. But even if these talks break down, the British government would have little option but to attempt to bring the parties back to the negotiating table. There are difficult issues; what form of power-sharing, some degree of Dublin involvement, the removal of Articles 2 and 3 of the Southern constitution, but it is possible these could be overcome and agreement reached to hold elections to a new assembly.
This would be an agreement at the top which would paper over rather than resolve, the real divisions in society. Like all previous failed solutions up to and including the Anglo-Irish Agreement, it would be prone to breakdown and collapse.
This would be an agreement and not a solution and events ultimately would either render it impotent or else destroy it. Nonetheless it cannot be excluded that a new Assembly would last longer and take on more life than the power-sharing Assembly set up in the 1980s. An open UWC style loyalist revolt at Dublin’s involvement would not be inevitable in the early stages if an agreement was carefully worded and was sanctioned by both Unionist parties. Catholics would be extremely sceptical but they might adopt a wait and see altitude to the involvement of the SDLP in a new power-sharing government, even with Paisley.
Our organisation would have to give serious consideration to contesting the elections to a new Assembly. One position would be one of opposition to power-sharing and instead for the building of a socialist Labour Party and for an Assembly with a Labour majority.
The sectarian divisions between Catholic and Protestant workers and the ever present threat of sectarian violence cannot be overcome by the existing political parties whether or not they combine in a new power-sharing government. Nor can they be overcome by the state forces who, while they have exercised a measure of containment, have not halted the violence and would be impotent in the event of an escalation of the conflict and moves towards civil war.
Sectarianism is now synonymous with capitalism in Northern Ireland. An independent movement of the working class could organise defence against the murder gangs and could unite workers to isolate the bigots. But given that the pace of the class struggle in inevitably uneven, especially given the weakness of the forces of Marxism, there will be opportunities for the bigots to regroup and resume the offensive. Sectarianism will only finally be overcome in the course of the socialist revolution and in the construction of a socialist society which can offer advantages to all and can allow for previously insoluble conflicts to be democratically resolved.
1992 began with a sectarian onslaught in the form of tit-for-tat atrocities. In turn, and as a direct result of our intervention, this led to the biggest anti-sectarian movement since 1975–6. All the initiative and impetus for this movement came from below, from trade union activists and from the communities. Insofar as it went forward, it was on the basis of this initiative. At the top the trade union bureaucracy trembled at the prospect of what was developing, preferring to hide behind the coat-tails of the churches and if the myriad of ineffective middle class peace groups.
Despite the lack of leadership the trade union anti-sectarian initiatives did make an impact but took the movement only so far. A blow has been directed at the sectarian murder gangs but it has been a partially numbing blow, slowing the pace of the killings for a period but not eliminating any of the underlying problems.
In large measure as a direct result of the work of our organisation, there is now a greater readiness on the part of workers to respond to sectarian attacks with mass protests. An intensification by the provisional IRA of their campaign and a new sectarian offensive by the loyalist paramilitaries are likely at some point. A break down in the talks process would open the prospect of a prolonged political vacumn and might prompt paramilitary action. It is quite possible, given the still largely anti-sectarian mood, that this in turn could trigger a mass movement and that the trade union leadership might again be forced to give some sort of a voice to such a movement.
This would offer new opportunities and again largely depending on our ability to intervene at the crucial moment, such a movement could go much further than the ICTU bureaucracy would like. However, again because of our historical weakness, there are limits beyond which it would not go and even a major movement would be unable to deliver a death blow to the paramilitary and sectarian organisations.
The economic stabilisation and the effects of the ’80s boom, the war weariness and anti-sectarian mood, and the more carefully exercised state policy of tight military containment, have combined to push the provisional IRA and the republican movement as a whole onto the defensive. There are similarities with the situation at the end of the 1970s when IRA activity, support and morale waned over a period of years, and were only rejuvenated by the H Block issue including the hunger strikes.
Individual terrorism is a blind alley for the Catholic youth. Marxists have always explained that it is only the methods of mass action which can overthrow capitalism. Individual terrorism substitutes the actions of individuals to the mass movement of the working class. It reduces the masses to the role of spectator and invariably leads to isolation, rendering the state more powerful in the process. In Northern Ireland the Provisional strategy is doubly flawed given that it is based on only one third of the population, that it positively repels the other two thirds thereby giving the state a ready body of support to lean on, and that it is based on a false analysis of the situation based on a nationalist, not a socialist, political perspective.
On the other hand the alienation of the population of Catholic working class areas through on going repression together with the economic and political impasse means that the IRA campaign, or some offshoot from it, can be continued at some level almost indefinitely. Implicit in the situation is the possibility of some event or events antagonising the Catholic community and so giving a further boost or boosts to the IRA campaign. The fact that the Tories have won a new term could create an over-confidence and lead to a heavy-handed approach in dealing with Catholic areas, which could back fire. The appointment of the Mayhew/Mates ministerial team with their militaristic backgrounds and the deployment of the paratroopers, are warning signs. Most likely the ruling class will seek to check any prolonged excesses but the possibility that even in the short term some event could aid the Provos must be allowed.
The growth of Sinn Fein in the wake of the hunger strikes created illusions that here was a radical political force which would supplant the SDLP much as the SDLP had supplanted the old Nationalist Party. As we predicted this has not happened. The Catholic community remains polarised between these two parties and is likely to remain so for some time. Sinn Fein has moved to the right, dropping much of its radical populist baggage, even in the urban areas. However given the absence of a mass socialist alternative, Sinn Fein is likely to retain a large measure of support among the Catholic working class and in particular among the Catholic youth, for a further period.
Sinn Fein’s strategy of mass political action and the IRA’s reliance on the tactic of individual terrorism arc mutually exclusive, not complimentary. Inevitably this has given rise to sharp tensions within the republican movement. Within it there arc wings which lean either to military or to politically action, but to date a major split has been avoided, partly to avoid the prospect of a major feud within the IRA. However a split at some stage in the future remains a possibility.
Divisions on the question of the armed struggle have surfaced openly in the recent period, with open calls made for a ceasefire. In the event of an agreement between the political parties which would involve some further concessions to the SDLP these divisions would probably sharpen. One section of Sinn Fein and the IRA clearly fear that they would be isolated by such a settlement. Hence their clamour for inclusion in the talks. Another section would see it as a cue to escalate their activities to prise the SDLP out of such a “reconstructed Stormont”. On this scenario or on others which may open up, the possibility that the IRA might call a ceasefire while not the most likely perspective cannot be excluded.
Most likely such a ceasefire would not hold. There have been two previous ceasefire, both in the 1970s, and both came part in face of the relentless pressure of the sectarian conflict. If there was a prolonged ceasefire, a section of the Provisionals, either independently or linked with the INLA/IPLO, would most likely regroup to continue what for a period would be a less intense military campaign.
The mass movement of Protestants after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was not, to the UDA or UVF. Rather new right wing loyalist organisations, the Ulster Clubs and later Ulster Resistance, were founded, the latter bringing together UDA paramilitaries and loyalist politicians in a new reactionary force. As the momentum of mass resistance subsided, these organisations have dwindled into inactivity, their arms stored for a 'doomsday' situation.
While the mass of Protestants looked in other directions, there inevitably was a trickle into both the UDA and the UVF. This, but more especially the rearming of these groups, with supplies of sophisticated weaponry smuggled in during the latter part of the '80s, has paved the way for a new offensive in their campaign of sectarian killings. The ousting of the UDA old leadership and their replacement by younger leaders in their politically faceless Inner Council, has also led them to intensify their campaign.
These groups arc tolerated and at times used as semi-official death squads by the state. They can maintain themselves, through splits, feuds and crises for a whole period and can retain the military capacity to spark off periodic episodes of sectarian terror. However in the event of a mass movement to reaction among Protestants, they will at best be able to play the role of murderous auxiliaries.
The key to a solution lies in the hands of the labour movement. Only the unity of the working class fighting for a socialist solution can show a way forward. Those who in the past have sought shortcuts by relying on other forces and adopting other methods, have created only setbacks and defeats. Those who act similarly in the future will achieve only the same or worse results.
During the troubles, the labour movement has had opportunities to cut decisively across sectarianism and place the workers' movement on the offensive. These have been squandered by the right-wing leadership. For almost a quarter of a century the sectarians have generally held the initiative and it has been the labour movement which has been on the defensive. During this period the old Northern Ireland Labour Party was destroyed and the unions lost at least some of the reserves of support they once enjoyed in the working class communities.
However these have been set hacks, but not crushing defeats. Trade union unity has been maintained, the basic organisations of the unions are intact and there have been countless strikes and community struggles which have united workers across the sectarian divide.
The latter part of the 1980s brought a downswing in activity within the union and a significant shift to the right took place at the top. This was a feature of the international situation, a product of defeats such as that of the miners, of the boom and of the capitulation of the left reformists and the consolidation of the grip of the right. In Northern Ireland, it was compounded by the effects of sectarianism, notably the reaction to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.
Products of this downturn in rank and file participation and the firming of the grip of the right, have been a bar on political discussion in many unions and in the ICTU, the move to bi-annual ICTU and NIC-ICTU Conferences, sell ours on privatisation, on regional pay and other issues. The failure of the unions to confront sectarianism and repression, at least until forced to partially combat sectarianism in 1992, has rendered them an irrelevance in the eyes of many or those outside their ranks who under other circumstances would have looked to them for a lead.
There is little difference between right and left at the top. In many factories and other work places the leading shop stewards have capitulated to management and are a barrier to struggle.
However this swing to the right and the fact that the union bureaucracies are more distant and difficult to shift into action has a reverse side. In Britain there has recently been the development of rank and file bodies in various industries, organised by shop stewards and activists who are frustrated by the impediments of the bureaucracies and who want to get things done. Similar developments can occur in the North and can be important levers in transforming the unions. Even defeats such as the imposition of regional pay in large parts of the public sector will have the reverse and positive effect on placing greater weight on local negotiations. With public sector unions in the North no longer a rubber stamp for what takes place in Britain, the way will be opened for greater scrutiny of the local leadership and greater membership participation. Developments in the Post Office and other work places where we have a base are a forerunner of what will happen on a much wider scale in the future.
It is difficult to foresee any generalised industrial movement in the immediate period hut given the recent industrial upsurge in Europe, this cannot be excluded. More likely there will be on going partial struggles – on privatisation, conditions, pay and other issues. These will be important precursors of bigger conflicts which will occur in the future.
Our organisation has established a key base in a number of unions. We have either been in the leadership or been heavily involved in all important recent struggles. All this is capital for the future. We can speed the development of the left in the unions and depending on events and the success of our intervention can quickly come to play a leading role.
In the early 1980s the swing to the left in the trade unions was accompanied by a swing towards political involvement. The call for the development of a Labour Party began to gain momentum. With the acceptance both of the British Labour Party and of a number of key unions of the call for a conference of Labour, the first concrete steps to the building of a Labour Party in the North were almost taken.
The subsequent shift to the right has been a shift away from political involvement. This has been compounded by the strenuous efforts of British Labour Party leaders and some trade union officials to lessen union ties with that Party. In this climate of attempted de-politicisation of the unions, the moves towards the building of a Labour Party in Northern Ireland have been reversed and the call has not received a significant echo for a period of years.
We retain the perspective that this process will in turn be reversed, that a politicisation of the unions will take place and that at some stage the bureaucracies in at least some unions will be compelled to move to the establishment of a Labour Party.
The fact that the re-emergence of Labour has been a protracted and difficult process, together with the shift to the right of the movement in Britain and the South, but particularly in Britain, make the perspectives for the development of a Labour Party much more complex now than in the past.
The British Labour Party remains the traditional organisation of the British working class and the fundamental perspective of a turn of workers hack to this party remains generally true. However the immediate perspective is for a further shift to the right, a dwindling of activity and an attack on trade union involvement in the Party.
Unless the Tories introduce state financing of political parties it is unlikely, this side of a further election defeat, that the union link with Labour will be broken. However in the short term as the Party moves to the right under the Smith leadership a split or splits to the left will become a possibility. It could not be excluded that such splits would take on flesh and could endure as an attractive force at least for a period. This would make the call for one mass Labour Party in Northern Ireland more complex.
Given the situation in Britain of a movement away from direct union ties with the Labour Party it is difficult to envisage a movement from the top of the unions in the direction of forming a Labour Party in Northern Ireland in the short term.
The call for the establishment of a region of the British Labour Party which is supported by some branch union officials is unlikely to make progress. The Smith leadership will oppose it, the leadership of key unions are against, and the stultifying of democracy in the Party will make it more difficult for its advocates to get a hearing.
In the unlikely event that the British Labour Party would be established, and especially if it was set up before a generalised movement of workers towards Labour in the North, a serious question mark would hang over its ability to sink roots. Under the present internal Party regime it would act as an adjunct of the State, supporting police and army methods. Workers would find it difficult to turn it into a champion of their struggles even on the economic plane as the first item on its agenda would be expulsions and exclusions. It is quite possible that it would make no greater impact than the Conservative Party has managed to do. A split in the Party in Britain would further complicate this question.
With no Labour Party in existence for almost two decades the sectarian parties, although only empty shells, have a crushing electoral predominance which they will retain until such time as a mass socialist alternative is built. The crisis and fragmentation of the Stalinist Workers Party has further eroded the existing left vote. For this reason our involvement in the 1992 general election was timely and successful. There is no prospect of the Workers Party or its splinter, the Democratic Left, recovering to become a substantial force. Our results have left us poised to partially fill the vacuum created by the absence of any left political force. Already all shades of “Labour” organisations have crawled out of the wood-work, stung into action by our success and each claiming to be the genuine inheritors of the Labour crown but none have any genuine basis among the working class. With a certain turn to the electoral plane we can retain our position as the most serious force on the left.
However, a sense of proportion is required. Our participation in elections remains primarily a propaganda exercise pointing to what would be possible if a Labour Party were to be built and building support for our programme. It will take a movement of the working class, a movement of enormous proportions, to create a new political force to break the sectarian political mould which has now hardened over two decades.
In the longer term the most likely perspective is of a politicisation of the trade unions from below with, at a certain stage some sections of the bureaucracy moving to the establishment of a labour party. Perspectives for a possible split in the British Labour Party mentioned above can partially adjust this perspective but the development of a leftward moving Labour Party is still the most likely perspective. While we must not overestimate our role and potential influence and must avoid making the error of the sects in substituting ourselves for the mass workers organisations, neither must we underestimate our potential. By carrying out work under an independent banner, and dependent on events and our intervention, we can develop as an important independent force. This in turn can be a factor in transforming the unions, prompting a section of the bureaucracy to act in order to cut across us.
The 1980s were a decade of political and industrial defeats for the working class and of an historic retreat on the part of the reformist leaderships. These struggles have left a legacy of tiredness on a layer of activists. Combined with the effects of the collapse of Stalinism there is widespread confusion in the workers movement.
All this has had a two sided effect. There has been a clearing of the decks with the destruction of the forces of Stalinism and in the wearing out of a generation of shop floor activists who will be replace in the next period. This leaves our forces poised for the future. We are the only tendency internationally who defend the ideas of the planned economy and who are based on the perspective of a struggle to overthrow capitalism.
Women now make up 49% of the workforce and are predominant in many low paid and badly organised areas and in much of the public service. In future struggles there will be a tendency for women to come to the fore, but on issues which arise from the workplaces and on conditions in the estates, repression and domestic violence. Already there have been movements in which women workers and women from the estates, have played the major role – the Ormeau anti-sectarian movement, the mass struggle to break a sex ring on the Shankill Road are two examples.
It will become necessary for our organisation to take special measures to instigate and intervene in women’s struggles and on issues which mainly effect women, with the aim of drawing working class women into the organisation.
Our idea’s are increasingly in accord with the new generation of youth now growing up. It is a European factor that in the schools there is a fresh generation still in their early and mid-teens who have not tasted the effects of defeat and betrayal and who already are demonstrating a capacity to struggle. These people offer a huge reservoir of potential support for us.
There is potential for explosions among the youth in Northern Ireland over the coming years on a range of issues. Today the issue of sectarianism is to the fore. In the future other issues may arise. We have the possibility of conducting independent youth work in the form of various campaigns and around a socialist banner which can draw quite significant layers towards our organisation. On specific issues our youth work can draw thousands or youth into action and can affect the objective situation.
The question of questions in Northern Ireland is that of leadership. Despite the by now quite entrenched sectarianism we will have opportunities to develop and build a mass tendency of Marxism which can link with the movement in the South and in Britain and lead the working class to victory and to the socialist revolution and through it to a democratic resolution of the conflict.
Last updated: 1.2.2013