From Militant International Review, No. 55, January–February 1994, pp. 14–17.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Every past attempt by the British ruling class to come forward with a solution to the Northern Ireland troubles has ended in failure. Is there really any reason to believe that their latest effort, the Downing Street declaration and negotiations surrounding it, will fare any better? Both the Dublin and London governments argue that the declaration marks a new approach which allows for a possible resolution of the national conflict. But does it?
The key clause reads: “The British government agrees that it is for the peoples of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish.”
This precisely worded fudge is complemented by self-assurance by the Dublin government that Irish self-determination must be exercised “subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”.
The hope is that this ‘clarification’ of the constitutional position of the North will provide a framework within which agreement can be reached on a new assembly in the North, on power-sharing within it, albeit by another name, and on North-South structures in the form of joint committees on tourism, transport, energy, economic development, security and possibly other matters.
Dublin acceptance of the need for the consent of the majority in the North to any constitutional change is designed to appease the Unionists. The British recognition of the right, on the basis of consent, to establish a united Ireland, is designed to encourage an IRA cease-fire and lure Sinn Fein to the conference table.
Despite the media hype which followed the declaration there is very little in all this which is new or which represents any significant shift in the position of either government.
The Southern Irish ruling class have, in reality, neither the intent nor even the aspiration to rule the North. Although the British ruling class partitioned Ireland in 1920 in order to divide the working class, by the beginning of the 1960s they would have prepared to withdraw and rely on economic as opposed to political or military means to dominate Ireland and exploit its resources. Protestant resistance has meant that they could not take even a single step along this road. Nonetheless this has remained their preferred option.
In November 1971 the then prime minister Edward Heath made a statement of which the present declaration seems little more than a paraphrase: “Many Catholics in Northern Ireland would like to see Northern Ireland united with the South. That is understandable. It is legitimate that they should seek to further that aim by democratic and constitutional means. If at some future date, the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want unification and express that desire in the appropriate constitutional manner, I do not believe any British government would stand in the way.”
The main emphasis of British policy over the past two decades has been on military containment through repression, but from time to time government ministers have returned to this theme. The negotiations which led to the setting-up of the 1973 power sharing assembly with its arrangements for links through committees with Dublin, involved similar assurances as those given today. The preamble to Margaret Thatcher’s last Northern Ireland folly, the Anglo-Irish agreement, was likewise along these lines.
If there is a difference today it is not so much to be found in the speeches of Major or Reynolds or in the ‘all things to all people’ terms of this declaration. It lies in the changed nature of the situation itself.
Twenty five years of the troubles have taken a toll on all sides. The huge anti-sectarian rallies organised by the trade unions last November showed the war weariness of the population and the disgust at atrocities such as Shankhill and Greysteel.
Based on the fact that the majority of the Protestant community, weary for peace, now favour some concessions to the SDLP and even to Sinn Fein if it could end the violence, the Official Unionists have gone along with the government’s proposals. Paisley has moved into ritual opposition but his thunderous denunciations of ‘sell-out’ have so far hardly turned a hair in the Protestant communities. The paramilitaries view him with scepticism and have refused to back his ‘Save Ulster’ campaign. A series of rallies were announced at the end of last year but as yet none have taken place.
On every side there has been some shifting of political positions but the biggest shift has undoubtedly come from the republican movement. It is the possibility at some stage of an IRA cease-fire which really gives the current discussions and proposals more weight than previous government initiatives. In a sense the whole episode of talks between the governments for more than a year, of which December’s declaration is only a part, all boil down to a wide-ranging but concentrated effort to engineer the terms of a cease-fire.
As Militant Labour has consistently argued, the methods of individual terrorism ultimately lead to a dead end. The experience of the IRA campaign bears this out. Although the IRA have the ability to continue with some degree of armed struggle virtually indefinitely, they have no prospect whatsoever of victory. It is in recognition of this that at least a section if not the majority of the republican leadership now favour a cease-fire.
This view has been strengthened by the success of Sin Fein which can now depend on about 40% of the Catholic vote and which has a firm majority in the Catholic working class areas of Belfast. One reason for the turn to the IRA in the 1970s was that there didn’t seem to be any alternative means of struggle for the youth. Now when Gerry Adams says “If people like me and others are developing unarmed methods of struggle, unarmed strategies for republicanism to move forwards, then that should be encouraged”, (Irish News, 8 January 1994) he is not advocating a strategy that compliments the IRA, but an alternative to it.
A clear political shift to the right at the top of Sin Fein and the IRA is another factor in the current processes. Gone completely is the semi-socialist rhetoric of the 1980s. Clearly affected by world developments during the 1980s, including the collapse of Stalinism, the Sinn Fein leaders now propose involving world capitalist institutions such as the United Nations or the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe to help bring about a solution.
More recent developments in South Africa and the Middle East have increased their illusions in some form of negotiated, democratic settlement. The British ruling class have sensed these changes in the IRA and Sinn Fein. Hence the secret discussions and overtures, public and private, to the republican leadership.
A cease-fire is now a real possibility. Even if the IRA reject the Downing Street declaration outright, which they have so far been careful not to do, it is still possible they would lay down their weapons and adopt some of the ‘unarmed strategies’ advocated by Gerry Adams to oppose it. A behind the scenes agreement on the release of prisoners over a period may be enough.
This does not mean that the quarter century of troubles are about to come to an abrupt end. In the first place an IRA cease-fire is not certain and, if it takes place, may still be some time off. Secondly there would be the possibility of a split with a section of the movement continuing the ‘war’. Thirdly there is the factor of loyalist paramilitaries who have been responsible for more deaths than the IRA in the last two years. An IRA cease-fire would not necessarily mean that they would let up on their campaign of assassination of Catholics.
However, if the IRA campaign was halted, huge pressure would build on other paramilitary factions to follow suit. A group which tried to continue the struggle in opposition to the Provisional leadership would probably face isolation with few open doors and few safe houses in Catholic areas. Provided a mass feeling of a sell out did not develop among Protestants, there would be a mood that the loyalist groups should call a temporary halt at least.
This is only one of a number of possible scenarios. Were it to come about it might offer a partial respite from the sectarian violence and the military repression.
However, a respite based on war weariness and the partial exhaustion of various forces is not a solution. The conflict is not just a matter of various paramilitary campaigns but is more importantly the fact that the working class is divided along sectarian lines. There is nothing in the entire round of discussions and declarations which will bring the working class one step along the road to unity.
The national problem remains unresolved. The problem now is not just the existence of the North, but the existence of two poverty ridden states in Ireland. To Catholics the Northern state has meant 50 years of discrimination followed by 25 years of repression. As discrimination has been eased over the past twenty-five years a layer of middle-class Catholics have moved out of the hard-line Catholic areas and are largely accommodated to life in the North. However for the Catholic working class the state offers only poverty, unemployment and repression. They cannot be reconciled to its permanent existence.
The aspiration of Catholic workers for a united Ireland is a desire for change and an improvement in their lives. It is not an acceptance of things as they are in the South. The existing Irish capitalist state, with the second highest unemployment levels in Europe, holds little attraction for them – but it utterly repels the Protestants.
Protestants fear that in a capitalist united Ireland they will end up as second class citizens, discriminated against in the same manner in which Catholics were discriminated against in the North. No amount of assurances from Sinn Fein, the SDLP or the Dublin government will make the idea of reunification attractive to them. The economic reality of what the marriage of two poverty ridden states would mean, will easily out-sway all the platitudes about ‘minority rights guarantees’.
In the North living standards are maintained by high levels of public spending. Public spending now exceeds revenue by 25%. The gap is made up by the annual subvention (hand-out) from the British exchequer. It has been estimated that if this were cut, living standards would fall by one third.
The Southern economy is already afflicted by high unemployment and a debt burden equal to 93% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). If there were a united Ireland with no additional revenue the South would need to transfer some 12% of its GDP to bridge the expenditure gap caused by the loss of subvention to the North. The result would be a deep slump North and South.
Nationalists argue that the gap could be made up from outside funding. Certainly an agreement in the North would be backed by some international money – but nothing like what would be necessary. Take the European Union for example. If they undertook to fund the British subvention it would mean that half the European reserves targeted for regional and social issues would be spent on this.
The idea that the creation of an all-Ireland market would somehow overcome these problems is spurious. John Hume’s figure of 94,000 job created by the removal of the border has been drawn from the air. A combined market of only five million would not allow Irish capitalism to develop and overcome its problems.
Were a united Ireland to be imposed on Protestants they would resist. The result would be civil war and the likely repartition of the island. It is this fact which makes absurd the Sinn Fein argument that Britain can solve the problem by declaring first of all that the Irish people have the right to self-determination and then ‘persuading’ the Protestants that their future lies in a united Ireland.
When dealing with the complex and emotive issue of the national problem it is above all necessary to be concrete. Self-determination of all the Irish people as posed by Sinn Fein means an all-Ireland referendum to out-vote the Protestants. The reality is that there can be no united Ireland without the agreement of the majority – that is, the working class, Catholic and Protestant – in the North. Protestants will not be voted into a united Ireland against their will and the democratic sounding rhetoric about self-determination would be seen simply as a deceit which is exercised could provoke a civil war.
The idea that the British ruling class and government becoming ‘persuaders’ would make any more difference is no more sound. At present Protestants favour the link with Britain; only a minority supporting the idea of independence. But if the link was seen to be severed by the British the majority of Protestants, rejecting re-unification, would turn to the idea of an independent Ulster as the lesser of two evils. The Catholics of the North would never accept this and it would simply provide an alternative route to civil war.
There is no capitalist solution to the national problem and certainly the carefully worded ambiguities of the Downing Street declaration contain no answers. In fact because both governments are attempting to pressurise the paramilitaries by offering very different explanations of the agreement to the different sides, it may make things worse in the long run.
Unionists are being assured that the declaration guarantees the link with Britain for so long as they have a majority. Nationalists are being encouraged to believe that the all-Ireland structures are a step on the road to a united Ireland. Even on the basis of the best possible scenario of a partial respite in the violence this is a recipe for a renewed, probably worse, violence at a later stage.
It is only the broad labour and trade union movement which is capable of overcoming sectarianism and providing a solution. The potential for this was shown by the tens of thousands who supported last November’s anti-sectarian rallies.
Instead of building on these successes the union leaders have sat back and allowed the initiative to go to the governments and the politicians. Their silence and inactivity gives de facto support to the declaration, to the Tories and to the main so-called ‘moderate’ parties in the North. Labour’s front bench at Westminster have acted throughout as an echo of Major and Mayhew.
Such support is a dangerous trap for the working class of Northern Ireland. The troubles are rooted in poverty and the insecurity it brings. The Tory government by its attacks on living standards and services are increasing that poverty and are therefore authors of the problem, not of a solution. All the major political parties rely on the continuation of sectarianism to get themselves elected. It is no good looking for them to commit political hari kari by overcoming sectarianism.
Whatever the outcome of the present talks there will be an urgent need for independent action by the labour movement. If the talks collapse, leading to an escalation of sectarianism, such action as that taken in November will be necessary. Likewise if apparent concessions to Sinn Fein produce a backlash among Protestants as happened after the Anglo-Irish agreement, the trade unions will need to act to defend the lives of working class people.
On the other hand if there is an agreement and a partial respite in the violence this will give the labour movement a much needed opportunity to develop working class unity and ensure that future discontent takes the form of united class struggle, not internecine sectarian conflict.
If there is to be a new assembly this will be given powers over local services. It will be charged with implementing Tory cuts and privatisation. It will be asked by the Tories to oversee the privatisation of water.
If it is an assembly of bigots these things will be carried through – just as privatisation and other Tory policies have been implemented on the local councils. There is now an urgent need for the trade unions, together with the genuine community organisations, to prepare a political initiative of their own. Meetings of shop stewards and community activists should be held in every area to build a new political party, a mass socialist Labour Party to challenge the Tories and the bigots. A conference of rank and file trade unionists, community representatives and of the various independent Labour groups which already exist, should be called to build such a party.
This would campaign to unite the working class against Tory policies, against state repression, and for a socialist solution. The real way forward lies through unity of the working class in the North, unity with the working class in the South and in Britain to form a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.
Militant Labour in Northern Ireland rejects the Downing Street declaration. We cannot wait for the Tories, sectarians and paramilitaries to make up their minds about what they agree on and whether working class people are going to continue to die. We will be stepping up our campaign for a real political initiative – the building of a socialist voice against sectarianism and Toryism in all their forms.
Last updated: 14.7.2012