The national question is probably the most debated question in Irish politics. And for good reason! Irish history, especially recent history, is littered with the debris of organisations which have failed to comprehend or come to terms with it.
Today the debate has shifted ground somewhat. Old notions which, outside of strictly unionist circles, were once generally accepted – that the roots of the problem lay in the crimes of the British ruling class, and that it was because of their misdeeds that the partition of Ireland came about – are now increasingly challenged.
This shift reflects no great advance in thought or understanding. Historians today write in the shadow of twenty five years of conflict. Like most of the stratum of intellectual ‘opinion makers’ very few of them are capable of seeing beyond the parapet of their immediate historical setting. Rather they offer up only a mental reflection of what they see around them. They tend to take the fact of sectarian division as their starting premise. Transferring this premise into the past they then paint their picture of history accordingly.
The result is an exaggeration of sectarianism and a profoundly pessimistic view of both present and past. This ‘new history’ tends to downplay any united movements of Catholic and Protestant, and in particular glosses over those struggles which have united the working class over the course of the past hundred years. Accepting the sectarian divide as a permanent feature it tends to explain events solely as a product of this divide.
What this leads to is a whitewash of the role and responsibility of the British ruling class down through the centuries. After all most ‘opinion makers’ take at face value the present Westminster government’s ‘neutral’ posture of “no selfish, strategic or economic interest”. If they are benign and neutral today, why not in the past also? So, when it comes to partition, the predominant view now being put forward and increasingly accepted is that this was the inevitable product of the divisions between unionism and nationalism, not something brought about or helped along by the British government.
Coming to the present, the direction of this line of thought is towards the idea of two nations. Little or nothing that is currently flowing off the printing presses contradicts this trend. Indeed, if fact could be established merely through the constant repetition of an idea there would by now be two nations in Ireland.
This new line of thought cannot just be dismissed with a sleight of hand. It needs to be examined, answered and an alternative explanation put forward. A socialist response which is merely a reiteration of arguments and slogans put forward twenty five or thirty years ago will not do. Socialist ideas must be up to date and must take into account the effects of the last twenty five troubled years.
This is what this book sets out to do. It is an analysis, written unashamedly from a socialist point of view, of the national question, both how it has arisen and how it presents itself today.
Troubled times began as a document produced for, discussed at and adopted by the July 1995 National Conference of Militant Labour in Ireland. It was written as part of a lengthy discussion on the national question which extended over two years.
The book is in three sections and a brief explanation of what each is about may help non-members of Militant Labour who did not participate in this debate. The first is an answer to the ‘new history’ and its tendency to set the sectarian divide in stone. It begins in early times at the start of recorded history, takes a glance at developments through the centuries, but, in the main, is an explanation of the real reasons for partition.
The second section examines the way in which the national question has changed since partition, and in particular what have been the effects of the twenty five years of the Troubles. It deals with the question which regularly comes up of whether or not the differences between the two communities/two states mean that there are now two nations in Ireland.
It goes on to attempt to tackle the difficult question of a programme which socialists could put forward on the national question. In the past, many socialist organisations have lost their bearings entirely when it comes to this task. Some have preferred to ignore the issue altogether in their propaganda, others have put forward a one-sided position and have fallen into one or other sectarian camp as a result. Here is the outline of a socialist position which could unite, rather than divide, the working class.
In preparing this book for publication a few changes have been made to the original text, all with the aim of making it more accessible to the general reader. The third and final section which deals with the national question as it arises internationally today and with the demands which socialists and marxists, including Lenin, have advanced on the issue, was the first section in the original.
It has been put at the end only because some of the ideas within it maybe unfamiliar to those who have not had the opportunity to read or discuss the views of marxists on the national question. Better first to see these views concretely applied as they are to Ireland in the first two sections, and then to go on to the more general theoretical points. That it has been put at the end does not mean that it is any less important than the other sections. On the contrary it deals with key questions such as what constitutes a nation which are essential in helping define what exactly are the differences between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland.
The points it makes on programme are also important especially as some of the demands of Lenin – e.g. self determination, autonomy – have often been applied to the Irish situation in a manner which has nothing in common with the way in which they were raised by Lenin. This section explains what such demands really mean and what are the circumstances in which they may be usefully put forward.
A few other minor textual changes have been made mainly for stylistic reasons although in general the style of the original document has been retained. This means that references to ‘we’, ‘us’ or ‘our’ are to the position Militant Labour holds or has held in the past. Rather than change all of these to the third person and so interrupt the flow of the text it has been felt better to leave most of them as they were in the original.
Last updated: 4.1.2011