Ten years on from the Anglo Irish Agreement we have arrived at a new situation. With the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in place there are fresh openings, real possibilities of making inroads in Protestant and Catholic areas and especially among the youth.
But a condition is that we maintain a clear class position on the national question, one that diminishes both unionism and nationalism and reinforces working class unity and socialism.
To do this it is not enough to mechanically repeat old demands and old formulations. Nor can ideas and slogans be simply sucked out of the air because they may be momentarily popular in this area or that. Rather a number of things must be taken into account – the method of marxism on the national question, the history of Ireland, before partition, events since then – and applied to the situation today.
In moving on from the programme Militant put forward at the beginning and early in the Troubles we have to estimate the changes which have taken place since. If we were to hang an arrow indicating the main thrust of events above the decades leading up to the Troubles, it would point towards integration and away from sectarianism. If we did the same for the two and a half decades since it would point firmly in the reverse direction.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the sectarian reaction which over the first few years was particularly fierce, was in part compensated for by world events, by what was happening in Britain and to a lesser extent in the South. The huge industrial movements against the 1970-74 Heath government helped the labour movement in Northern Ireland sustain itself at a particularly difficult time.
The toppling of the dictatorships in Greece, Spain, and especially Portugal, the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam, victories over Portuguese imperialism in Angola and Mozambique, struggles in Central America, revulsion at the dictatorship in Chile, and other tumultuous events of this time helped maintain a socialist consciousness among the youth.
At the end of the 1970s and in the early ’80s the working class of the North participated in the vanguard of the industrial movement against the incomes’ policy of the Labour government and then against the anti-working class assault of Thatcher.
In these years world developments acted to slow up the drift to sectarian division. During the latter half of the 1980s and in the nineties, although the sectarian reaction had dulled somewhat compared to the early ’70s, the setbacks it inflicted were compounded by what was taking place internationally.
First there were the defeats suffered by the working class, notably the defeat of the inspirational miners’ strike of 1984-5. Then there was a significant shift to the right at the top of the workers’ traditional organisations, the trade unions and the Labour and socialist parties. There was an emptying out of these organisations and the virtual disappearance of any left currents within them. Finally there came the collapse of Stalinism after 1989. A wave of revolution against the rotten totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe ended in a wave of victorious counter revolution which saw capitalism, in a particularly palsied form, restored both there and in Russia.
If the 1960s were characterised by a raising of class consciousness and a stirring of revolt among the youth, the 1980s and early 1990s stand out as a time when consciousness was lowered all round and in which the working class felt itself inhibited from engaging in battle. One effect has been that the idea of socialism is not as readily accepted and understood as it was in the earlier period. There is a lingering feeling that socialism would not work, that it did not work in Russia, and that one area in which it most acutely failed was in dealing with the national question. Therefore, young people in particular, do not automatically see that a socialist united Ireland would be an answer where a capitalist united Ireland is not. There is need for ever greater care, for more explanation of this concept, than there was a decade ago.
The diminution of class consciousness and the corresponding tightening grip of sectarian ideologies has been quite marked in recent years. It is rooted in a physical separation into two communities which leaves the Northern Ireland of today a very different society from that which existed twenty five years ago. The August 1969 pogroms ended the process of integration of areas. After internment in 1971, the widespread intimidation resulted in the greatest population shift then seen in Europe since the second world war. Overnight some mixed areas became almost entirely of one community or another. The campaigns of random sectarian assassinations carried out by the loyalist paramilitaries in the main, meant that many people preferred the security of living among others of the same religion. This has led to the situation where nearly half the people now live in areas which are either 90% Protestant or 90% Catholic.
Side by side with geographical separateness there is now a political polarisation which is virtually complete. Labour, as a force to unite sections of both communities – 100,000 votes in the 1970 general election – has all but disappeared. Alliance, which makes much of its non-sectarianism, bridges only sections of the middle class and in any case is both pro-state and pro-union.
Even the trade unions, once a powerful force for unity, have been diminished in stature by the feeble role of their leaders. In many Catholic working class areas the trade union leadership is seen as little more than a pliant tool of the state, as collaborators rather than evangels of struggle.
As soon as the Troubles began they deserted the stage of politics, and thereby gave the sectarians a hand up to the monopoly position they now enjoy.
In truth the union leadership was no less craven twenty five years ago. But at that time there existed alongside them a substantial layer of activists, Catholic and Protestant, who were motivated by class issues and were actively opposed to both sectarian ideologies. There was a shop stewards’ movement which was powerful, confident and capable of acting independently of the union bureaucracies.
Today this layer has thinned. There are many good shop stewards, but not with the confidence their predecessors once had. They are much less an independent factor drawing the advanced sections of the working class together.
In the past this layer was united industrially and politically. Now it is more often the case that they are united industrially but stand apart politically. When the Troubles began the most class conscious section of Protestant workers were opposed to the Unionists and leaned towards opposition to the unionist state. Now their equivalents may be among the best class fighters, may describe themselves as socialists, but are likely to also sternly defend partition, the link with Britain and vehemently oppose a united Ireland. This consolidation of Protestants in defence of partition is in no small measure down to the IRA campaign which in the name of overthrowing the state has only managed to reinforce it.
In Catholic areas the beginning of the Troubles took the form of a rejection of nationalism on the part of a growing section of the working class and the youth. The idea of class unity had a powerful appeal. So too had the call, not just for change, but for socialist change.
This was particularly the case in Derry which was the cradle of the civil rights struggle. In the months after October 1968 the city was in a ferment of discussion, it became a laboratory in which socialist and revolutionary ideas were put to the test.
The Catholic working class areas of Belfast had had a long and proud Labour tradition. The old style nationalist ideas which maintained a base in border areas died as a force in west Belfast in the 1930s. Republicanism never had a broad base of active support in these areas before the seventies. If nationalists or republicans wanted to present themselves in the area they had to do so with a Labour or socialist face.
The Falls and West Belfast seats at Stormont and Westminster, when not in Unionist hands, more often went to some variety of Labour candidate – Northern Ireland Labour, Republican Labour, Anti-Partition Labour or Irish Labour. Even in 1983 when Gerry Adams took the seat from Gerry Fitt, who stood as a socialist, Sinn Fein’s nationalist message was clouded in radical socialist sounding rhetoric.
An interview with Adams in Magill magazine in July 1983, just after his election victory, shows the radical note he was striking at the time:
“I have found that once you explain things on the basis of the proclamation, saying the ownership of Ireland should belong to the people of Ireland and what Connolly and Pearse said, and how this should be updated by the nationalisation of major industries and how financiers and multinationals shouldn’t be allowed to suck the wealth out of Ireland, people start coming around.” 
It is a long road from this to lunches on Wall Street, meetings with investment bankers, sordid deals struck with the representatives of Irish capitalism, and handshakes with British ministers. Adams and Sinn Fein have taken this road and in so doing have dealt a blow against the class traditions in Catholic working class areas, supplanting these with a banal nationalism.
The result? – just as there are many good Protestant militants who see themselves as Unionists so there are many Catholic shop stewards and union activists who are tireless on the class questions but who deride the prospects of class unity and see themselves as republicans or nationalists.
The difference is reflected in the current use, really the misuse, of language. In the past, areas were described as being Catholic, Protestant, mainly Catholic, mainly Protestant or mixed. They could be given a religious but never a uniform political label. Then during the Troubles new terms were used which have gradually gained acceptance. Catholic working class areas are known as ‘nationalist areas’, Protestant as ‘loyalist areas’. We have always rejected these adjectives as an oversimplification of reality and as an insult to the many people within them who are not loyalists or nationalists. What is however significant in showing how consciousness has been thrown back is the fact that these labels are accepted and used without hesitation by many people in the areas themselves.
The gap between the working class North and South has also widened. After a decade of pronounced downturn in the class struggle the result is a growing separation. There is no longer a Labour organisation in the North to provide a basis for political unity. From the Southern side the turn to the right by the Irish Labour leadership, their readiness to form an alliance with the devil if it would keep their seats on the ministerial chairs, and their common front with every political representative of Irish capitalism on the issue of the North, denies them any positive influence or effect on the working class movement in the North.
All-Ireland trade union unity has remained, but in an ever more nominal form. As the union leadership has moved to the right, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has become ever more bureaucratised, more removed from trade union members. Its conferences are not allowed to discuss political matters, great effort is made to ensure that anything which might even prove controversial is not debated. The move to biennial conferences, an all-Ireland conference one year, a conference of the Northern Ireland Committee the next, is a step away from a single movement in any meaningful sense.
There has also been a further drawing apart of peoples North and South. Apart from poignant moments such as the death of Bobby Sands, the predominant attitude of workers in the South has been to leave well alone. Northerners, they feel, should compromise and sort the problem out themselves
Once again the question arises, have two nations now developed? There is no doubt but that events have moved several notches along the scale in this direction. Still, just as all-Ireland trade union unity has become tenuous but still exists, so that decisive point whereby a new nation could be said to have emerged has not been passed.
No matter to what degree a sense of Northern-ness has been reinforced by the Troubles, this is countered by increased Catholic alienation from the state. While the Catholic middle class are in practice prepared to adapt to the state, provided they continue to do well, the Catholic working class feel more alienated than ever. Nothing can be sold in their communities which smacks of a return to the old days of Unionism and which has no ‘Irish dimension’. The idea of a Northern nation – in other words that a purely Northern settlement would be acceptable to Catholics – is fantasy.
Not a Northern nation – and still not two nations within the North either! The stronger side of the recent social and political equation has certainly been sectarian division but there has been another side also.
While virtually every change over twenty five years has deepened the religious divide, there has been one important exception. Catholics and Protestants still come together in the workplaces. In fact, if anything, the change has been towards greater integration of the workforce. The old Unionist owned industries with their ‘Catholics need not apply’ policy have declined. New foreign owned companies have no interest in maintaining discrimination. The expanded public sector, with a few exceptions such as teaching, is integrated. Fair employment laws have had a certain effect in evening up the religious balance. The fact that Catholics are still more than twice as likely to be out of work shows the problem is not solved, but does not contradict the fact that in most factories and offices, the workforce is mixed.
In the 1930s, exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, discussed with his supporters in the US whether or not they should raise the slogan of self-determination for the blacks who were then concentrated in the southern states.
Although the blacks were not a nation Trotsky considered that given their separation from whites, their ill treatment and the ongoing chauvinism of white workers, they could develop a national consciousness under certain circumstances. He argued that the Trotskyists should support the slogan of self-determination if the demand for it came from the blacks themselves.
However Trotsky had an open attitude on the question whether the blacks who were a racial, rather than a national minority would evolve in the direction of separation or not. He allowed that under certain conditions – the invasion of the US by Japan for example, a feeling might develop among blacks of a plague on both your houses and the call for a separate state – a 49th state – might gain support. On the other hand he wanted to probe the question of whether there were points of unity between black and white workers which might cut across this and would affect the slogans to be raised. The fact that the newly formed trade union centre, the CIO, made a turn after 1936 to recruit blacks was an important consideration in the background of the discussions.
In the event the situation changed when from the beginning of the second world war a large migration of blacks began out of the southern states to the cities and factories of the industrial north. The issue of separation receded.
Similarly the fact that workplaces in Northern Ireland have stayed mixed and that growing out of this the trade unions, with very few exceptions, organise Protestant and Catholic together, is of immense significance. If it had been otherwise, if this point of contact had been broken, the Troubles would have gone much further, possibly to the point of civil war.
Despite the blows inflicted by the ruling class, by bigots from both camps, despite an indolent and rotten leadership, the trade unions held together. More than this they were able to act as catalysts for the recent huge movements which united Protestant and Catholic workers against the sectarian killings. The mass protests called by a reluctant ICTU leadership after the Teebane atrocity in 1992 and again after the horror of Shankill and Greysteel in 1993, showed the unbroken determination of the working class not to be pushed over a sectarian precipice.
When Trotsky discussed the problems of the southern states of the US it was a matter of two races who were quite apart in all aspects of their life-style and living conditions. Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland face basically the same problems. Tory attacks on the health service, rising electricity prices, the threatened privatisation of water, affect both communities alike.
In the absence of any political party which could represent working class interests, and given the tendency of the union leaders to keep their heads down on these questions, a myriad of campaigning community organisations have sprung up. Although most often based in one community or the other, the idea of building cross community campaigns is increasingly accepted as a sensible and practical way to get things done. In other words the tendency to class unity from the bottom up continues to reassert itself.
All of this has acted and acts as a check on the development of a separate Protestant ‘national’ identity. Protestants remain, in terms of Ireland as a whole, a minority religious community, not a national minority. The idea of independence put forward, half-heartedly it is true, by the UDA is not taken seriously. Apart from the powerful economic arguments against, the fact is that, despite all that has happened, Protestants have not developed a sense of being a separate nationality.
They have a sense of Northern-ness, a sense of being British, which is more political than cultural or national, and a sense also that they are one strand of what it is in total to be Irish. Former loyalist prisoner Eddie Kinner, interviewed in the Irish Democrat, expressed some of the conflict of attitude which makes up the Protestants sense of who they are:
“The unionist people need to have the strength to say that they are both Irish and British and proud of it. They shouldn’t have any fear of identifying their Irishness. They get a real culture shock when they go over to England and get called Paddy.” 
Trotsky’s method in relation to the black question in the US was to weigh possible future, as well as present, developments. In Northern Ireland we have just had the ceasefire announcements by the IRA and loyalists. Like the August ’69 pogroms these announcements are likely to prove an historic turning point. The former marked the real beginning of the Troubles, the latter probably registers their ending in the form they have taken.
It would therefore be light minded in the extreme to base a programme on things as they were before the IRA and then the Combined Loyalist Military Command called a halt, and not take into account both changes which have already taken place and also possible future changes.
We cannot offer up a blueprint for what is going to happen. But we can state for certain that the situation has changed profoundly and, if the ceasefires hold, the changes to come will work their way through into every nook and cranny of political life. Generally, the longer the ‘peace’ holds the less the situation will resemble what went before.
While nothing has been solved and while none of the fundamentals of the problem will be solved on a capitalist basis, the greater likelihood is still that the ‘peace’ will last for a period, perhaps even a protracted period. The key factor is the mood in both Protestant and Catholic working class areas that there must be no going back to the killings. The bigots are still there, the politicians are the same motley crew, but it is already noticeable that their sectarian verbal jousting is increasingly at odds with the general mood.
By the time the ceasefires had been declared the strands of working class unity were delicate and worn thin. Now there is a new period in which there is every prospect that they will be re-woven and strengthened. The vital integration in the workplaces may take on new significance if there is an increase in strikes.
It is too early to say whether the lifting of the fear of sectarian assassination will promote any significant reintegration of working areas. However as social issues such as cuts, closure of facilities, privatisation come to the fore there are likely to be more community based struggles. Many of these will have the potential to cross the sectarian divide. New issues will arise – for example opposition to the problem of drug trafficking and abuse – which may link Protestant and Catholic areas.
The demand for integrated education at both primary and secondary level will probably increase, and not just from middle class parents. Among the youth, as with their counterparts across Europe, there is a holding back from politics and a general disdain for politicians. The easier atmosphere in Belfast means that young people from the more hard line districts are more likely to go out of their area to mixed city centre bars, to clubs, raves or whatever.
As far as young people are concerned all the political parties, Sinn Fein included, are part of the political establishment. The sectarian message of these parties is likely to increasingly conflict with whatever tendencies may develop among youth to mix with people of their age from the ‘other side’. A sustained period without substantial sectarian violence could prepare for a new rebellion of the youth against the political old guard, just as a previous generation rebelled twenty five years ago.
The almost total political polarisation is a key feature of the present, on the negative side. Yet one possible scenario is that future industrial and political struggles, future integration of the working class in other ways, could see flesh put on the call for a new Labour or socialist organisation. The bond of political unity extinguished in the early 1970s with the demise of the NILP and all other Labour forces, apart from ourselves, could be re-tied, the negative could become a positive.
It is by no means definite that this will happen, or that working class unity will develop in the other ways outlined. The peace process could come apart at an earlier stage, or sectarianism could develop in other ways. However even the fact that the more positive perspective is a possibility and quite a strong possibility, is something which has to be taken into account when working out demands and slogans. It would be entirely wrong to base a programme on the fact of the sectarian division as it is now, when a more favourable situation may be in the process of developing.
It is not just the changed form of the sectarian division but the changed content of the national question itself, that has to be taken into account. Twenty five years ago it was the issue of democratic rights for the Catholic minority which was to the fore. From this flowed the question of the odious nature of the state itself and the need to unite Catholic and Protestant workers as the only force which would bring about a change for the better.
Today much of the discrimination in housing, jobs and in the drawing up of electoral boundaries has gone. That which remains is a residue of the past not the result of current policy. Even on issues such as facilities and funding for Irish language projects the state is prepared to move. It is in the best interests of the ruling class to defuse the situation by eliminating discrimination as far as is possible.
Militant Labour continues to oppose every aspect of discrimination which remains. Where, for example, there is adequate demand from parents for Irish speaking schools we support the call for funding on a par with other schools.
The Department of Education put up bureaucratic arguments to justify its past refusal to provide full funding. It used the same enrolment criteria as for every other school to decide the issue.
This is an example of extreme insensitivity to the rights of minorities. Where there exists a clear cultural minority demanding educational recognition, special criteria have to be applied. Just as we recognise special needs in education and demand the resources to cover these, so we recognise and uphold the wishes of groups of parents to ensure that their language or culture is catered for in their children’s education. The idea of a positive allocation of resources to minority needs in education has to be linked to the struggle for adequate funding for all schools, employment of more teachers, reduction of class sizes etc. The call for positive discrimination in employment is a somewhat different matter. We are not in favour of replacing the old discrimination against Catholics with a new discrimination against Protestants when it comes to appointments and promotion. Nor are we in favour of putting Protestants at the head of redundancy lists to even up the religious balance of a workforce.
In short we are not in favour of visiting the sins of the past onto the current generation of Protestant youth coming out of the schools seeking work. Our position is essentially a negative one – against all forms of discrimination in relation to appointments and promotion.
This must be linked with the demand for jobs for all. Instead of begging US multinationals to give us work we demand the public ownership of industry and services so that the state can provide jobs. This is the way to bring jobs to areas of high unemployment along the border and west of the Bann.
There are other immediate democratic questions which have arisen during the Troubles. These are less to do with discrimination and more with the huge repressive apparatus built up by the state and leaned most heavily against Catholic working class areas.
Our programme on the national question needs to include the call for the dismantling of the means of coercion and repression currently in the hands of the state.
We demand the immediate repeal of all emergency legislation and the restoration of the basic democratic rights denied by these laws. Alongside this we need to put forward demands for repeal of other Tory repressive legislation not aimed directly at Northern Ireland but rather introduced specifically to curb working class protest against government policies. This includes all the anti-trade union legislation and the more recent Criminal Justice Act.
We call for the immediate repatriation of all prisoners serving jail sentences in British jails for offences arising out of the Troubles. Further to this we demand the release of all prisoners convicted of offences arising purely out of the Troubles. While advocating this as a general position we make clear that we would not campaign for the release of those whose motivation was not political but purely sectarian and who remain the enemies of working class unity.
We have always supported the call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops, but have linked this call to the need for action by the working class to provide defence against sectarian attack. The new circumstances allow us to put it forward in a much more straight forward manner – although we still urge action by trade union and community organisations to stamp out the low level but ongoing sectarian clashes.
The RUC are not an acceptable police force in Catholic areas. However the more supportive attitude of Protestant workers compels us to take up the issue of policing in a skilful manner, avoiding terminology which is likely to be misinterpreted and misunderstood in any area. For this reason we deliberately do not use the slogan ‘Disband the RUC’ but neither do we retreat from the position that they are not an acceptable force. We say replace the RUC with community police services which should be under the control of locally elected committees.
Every national movement has two sides, a more forward looking side which revolts against oppression and leans towards socialism, and a more reactionary side which expressed itself as the desire of its leaders to become the new oppressors of ‘their’ nation.
Insofar as the revolt of the Catholic working class after 1969 was the beginnings of national revolt, it was the more forward looking aspect which was on view for the first period. Hence the need to be particularly sensitive to the aspiration of the Catholic masses in this period.
Today that aspect is still present in the form of the struggle against repression and against whatever residue of discrimination remains. But increasingly it is the other face of nationalism, the face of would be rulers and would be oppressors which is on view. This is something which will bring right wing nationalists into collision with the Catholic working class, especially the youth, over a period. As repression eases, military bases are closed, and the army is pulled back and probably withdrawn, this is likely to be the more pronounced feature. Take away the issue of prisoners and policing and, apart from a long term objective of a united Ireland, what is left is Sinn Fein’s demand for equal treatment, involvement as equals in the political process.
While of course opposing the petty restrictions imposed on Sinn Fein such as the old and ineffective policy of TV dubbing of their spokespersons, we can see that if this is the new content of the national struggle it amounts to very little indeed. The demand for equal treatment put forward by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Co., is, given their current right wing nationalist policies, simply a demand that they should have the same authority as Paisley, Trimble and others to misrepresent people.
It is a view which measures a peoples’ freedom not by actual changes they have won, but by the respect which their leaders are given by the world’s most powerful – and most reactionary – politicians. Just as our earlier programme had to be very sensitive and sympathetic to the mass resistance of Catholic to oppression in the first years of the Troubles, so we must in equal measure be unsympathetic to the attempts by the Sinn Fein leadership to ingratiate themselves into the US and Southern Irish establishments.
For Protestants the content of the problem has changed even more decisively. Twenty five years ago Protestant reaction developed in defence of the Unionist state and the abuses upon which that state was based. It took the reactionary form of Paisley’s counter-demonstrations at Civil Rights marches, of the burning of Catholic houses in Belfast organised by John McKeague’s Shankill Defence Association and of the intimidation of Catholics from the shipyard and other workplaces in 1970. Buried somewhere within this reaction was a more democratic motivation; fear of being forcibly coerced into a united Ireland.
Today the balance between the democratic and the reactionary aspects of Protestant resistance has tilted some-what in favour of the former. Stormont has gone, killed off in 1972, buried ever since and now accepted by all to be beyond resuscitation. Not even the DUP call for a return to the good old days of supremacy. Catholics are wise enough not to take Paisley and his colleagues at their word, but the fact that they have to take the position they do shows that there is no deeply felt mood anywhere in the Protestant population to go back to things as they were.
Every recent survey of attitudes confirms this. For example a Belfast Telegraph poll taken at the time of the IRA ceasefire found 54% of Protestants in favour of power sharing. In a survey soon after, this went up to 65% with only 21% against. 58% even said the Unionists should participate in the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. 49% said the broadcasting restrictions then in force against Sinn Fein should be lifted, this at a time when only 9% of Protestants believed the IRA ceasefire to be permanent. There has been a considerable relaxation of attitudes since then and few voices against equal treatment for all, including power-sharing, in the North.
The issue which did provoke broad Protestant opposition among Protestants was Dublin involvement. Only 37% of all surveyed were in favour, 53% against. A separate breakdown for Protestants was not given but if can be assumed that since most Catholics would have been in favour, a overwhelming majority of Protestants must have been against.
It is fear of being delivered by Westminster into the arms of Dublin, not a desire to preserve Northern injustices, which is the most pressing concern of Protestants today. This fear has been heightened by the IRA ceasefire and what has followed.
This is a paradoxical situation. The IRA ceasefire came about because of the failure of the tactics and strategy of the republican movement, not because they had succeeded in shifting the British government.
Gerry Adams now argues that it is around the table that progress can be made, compromise reached. In 1983 an IRA spokesman argued differently:
“We recognise that, even if the entire nationalist population in the six counties voted for Sinn Fein, that wouldn’t be enough. There must be an increase in political activity in the 26 counties so that they also demand that the Brits get out. Even that wouldn’t be enough, because the only thing colonial rulers will listen to is force. There must be a big escalation of military activity by us – and there will be.” 
In an interview published alongside this Adams echoed these words.
“I believe the use of force in the six counties is justified by the British presence. They don’t give people much choice. At the end of the day they won’t be argued or talked out. A movement that wants them out will either have to use force or the threat of force.” 
The threatened escalation – the big push – attempted by the IRA, backed by Libyan arms, in the mid-1980s ended in failure. They were back to the strategy of a long and unwinnable war of attrition.
On the political side significant advances were promised:
“Our longer term objective is to become the majority nationalist party as well as of course making considerable inroads in the 26 counties.” 
The actual outcome was failure on both counts. Hopes which the republican leadership had in developments beyond Ireland coming to their assistance proved completely misplaced. At this time they entertained illusions in the contacts they had built up with some Labour MPs.
“Ken Livingstone thinks there maybe a big swing to the left and the party (Labour) might eventually come to power committed to withdrawing from Ireland.” 
All of this came to nothing. The ceasefire was declared on the back of a strategy in tatters. In reality it marked a setback, an historic blow against republican ideology and republican strategy, the full measure of which will only become apparent over time. Yet this was not how it was presented. The republican leadership have covered the tracks of their retreat by deliberately creating an impression of progress having been made, and of a huge breakthrough in the offing. It is with the feigned air of a victor that Gerry Adams has been strutting around the US, seeking the political backing of bankers, businessmen and politicians. The alliance with the SDLP, the linking of arms with Dublin governments plus the applause from Clinton have given an impression of stridency to nationalism. British ministers now saying publicly what they have thought privately since the early 1960s, that their best interests in Ireland lie in withdrawing from the North – has seemed to add substance to this impression.
Demographic changes have brought about an increase in the Catholic population of the North. The 1991 census estimated them to be 43% of the 1.6 million population as compared to 37% in 1971. According to some estimates there will be a Catholic majority in about 40 years. Although there is a question mark over this due to a falling Catholic birth rate and the uncertain effects of immigration/emigration the idea of an eventual Catholic majority has come to be widely accepted.
The result of this, in the context of a seeming strengthening of nationalism, is a general feeling that somewhere down the road there will be a united Ireland. Paradoxically this weakens rather than strengthens republicanism and instead adds to the hand of what are termed the ‘constitutional nationalists’.
The feeling that there will be a united Ireland is also a feeling that it will come about in the medium to long term and certainly not in the short term. A survey of opinion in the South published by the Sunday Tribune in October 1994 found that 83% were in favour of a united Ireland at some time in the future. Of these only 28% wanted it in 12 months, 35% thought it should take five years, 31% thought 20-25 years and 5% more than twenty five years.
In Catholic areas of the North there is a similar feeling that a united Ireland will come but likewise a consensus that it will take a considerable time, probably closer to the 20-25 years than the five. It is this feeling which deals a powerful blow at all aspects of republican ideology and tactics.
If the mass of Catholics expect a united Ireland – but accept that they have to wait – it leaves no room for a military struggle to force it now. It also puts pressure on republican politicians to join the ranks of those they once disdained as quislings, to become ‘constitutional nationalist’ and to accept a compromise solution ‘in the interim’. This is the process of transformation taking place within the republican movement at present.
In Protestant areas the sense that a united Ireland is a real possibility translates itself very differently politically. Contrary to what the more bellicose politicians in and around the DUP had hoped, there is no mood for war. The advantages of peace in the hard hit working class areas far outweigh the long term prospect of partition ending.
Rather it reinforces a mood for compromise. Better agreement now – provided it does not stray over the line of constitutional change – than no agreement and forced change at a later date.
The feeling that the politicians should talk is particularly strong in the working class areas and among the so called fringe loyalist groups, the PUP and UDP. Working class Protestants are no longer prepared to act as unthinking foot soldiers of middle class Unionists.
This feeling rests on a platform of fear and great uncertainty about the future. There is a sense of isolation, a sense of betrayal at the hands of the British government, a sense that Catholics are united with powerful backers while Protestants are divided and left to shiver on the windowsill of the union. Overall this translates into a sense that, when it comes to minorities the modern minority are the Protestants.
In 1968-9 Protestants were opposed to a capitalist united Ireland but they did not see it as a very real prospect. Today the feeling is very different. The opposition has been hardened and the prospect seems frighteningly real. Protestant fear of coercion is now something which has to be given more weight in a programme of democratic and transitional demands on the national question. The democratic right not to be forced into another state against their will must be upheld.
This is one reason why we have always opposed the slogan ‘self-determination for Ireland’ as put forward throughout the Troubles by various ultra-left groups in Britain and more recently raised by Sinn Fein as one of their ‘core’ demands.
At first glance this might seem a democratic enough call. But demands cannot be separated from their actual meaning or the effect they would have in practice. Closer inspection reveals that far from democratic, it amounts to nothing more grand than a different device to coerce the Protestants – coercion by ballot rather than coercion by bullet.
Self-determination in the shape of an all-Ireland referendum simply means control the destiny of the Protestants by out-voting them. It is an unworkable idea. Should an all Ireland referendum on a united Ireland take place, Protestants would refuse to take part and would not accept the result. The actual effect of this democratic sounding but light minded proposal would be to hugely increase the conflict.
There is no possibility of such a referendum and the call for self-determination for Ireland as a whole is therefore quite meaningless. The so-called constitutional nationalists, the SDLP and all the major parties in the South, have, in reality, also come round to this view.
Gerry Adams still talks of self-determination, but is now always at pains to add that once British interference is gone, the Irish could decide how that self-determination should be exercised. This is simply a coded way of saying that he and Sinn Fein accept the right of the people of the North to decide their own future. In fact the principle of no change without consent is now accepted by all except a few ultra-left groupings and some fringe republicans who, rather than face reality, prefer to live in the past.
These people invoke the authority of Lenin to justify their call for self-determination for Ireland. In fact their approach has nothing whatsoever in common with Lenin.
Lenin put forward self-determination as a guarantee of the right to secede. If it were to be raised at all in the current situation it could only have meaning as the right of the people of Northern Ireland to secede from Britain. It has no meaning as the right of the two states in Ireland to come together, something which could only be achieved by the agreement and clear consent, separately arrived at, of the majority of both states.
But, object the advocates of this demand, Ireland is a single nation and as such must enjoy the single right to self determination accorded to all nations. In approaching the question in this way they have forgotten Lenin’s advice – to avoid turning demands into meaningless generalisations but rather to apply them to time, to place, to actual circumstances.
Ireland is not unique in its position as a single nation divided between different states. The Kurdish people are a single nationality who live in a number of states, notably Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
Do we put forward the demand for a referendum of all the Kurds to set up a new Kurdish state? No – such a call would be even more meaningless, further removed from reality, than the call for one referendum in Ireland. We uphold the right of the Kurds in each state to secede from that state.
If Kurdish peoples were to secede from their various states, the decision whether they would amalgamate into a new Kurdistan could only be by the agreement of each group. In practice such a peaceful and democratic redrawing of the borders of this volatile region would only be possible on a socialist basis.
The case of the Basque peoples is a similar example. Here is a single nationality denied a separate state and divided between two countries. The majority of Basques live in Spain but a minority live across the border in south west France.
When we raise the call for self-determination for the Basques living in Spain, we mean specifically the right of the people of the four Basque provinces in Spain to secede. In France the same right must be applied to the two Basque provinces on the French side of the border. The idea of a single referendum on the setting up of an independent Euskadi (Basque state) would mean in practice that the Basques of Spain, being the majority, could determine whether those in France stay within that state. This is not only impractical, it is undemocratic and we do not put it forward.
49. Magill, July 1983.
50. Irish Democrat, May 1995.
51. Magill, July 1983.
Last updated: 4.1.2011