The starting point of a programme must be the need for unity of the working class in the North, between North and South and with the British working class also. This means preserving and developing trade union unity. It means a programme for the democratisation of the trade unions and for the building of links, top and bottom, between the unions in both parts of Ireland and in Britain. Side by side with the task of building political organisations of the working class goes the need to also link them together as far as is possible.
Should Militant Labour change its position and now advocate a socialist federation of Ireland? No. This demand would emphasise separateness. It would not appear as an interim step to a single country but as an acceptance of two states. A federation on the basis of the existing border would not satisfy Catholics as it would seem to fall somewhere short of their raised expectation of unity.
If posed as a repartition it would stress to Catholic workers and to Protestant workers their differences, it would be telling them that they must be prepared to stand apart from one another – just at a time when there is a possibility of the re-building of class unity. At this stage this slogan would tend to lower, rather than raise, class consciousness.
The reasons which caused us to drop ‘a socialist united Ireland’ as a slogan during the 1980s are even more powerfully valid today. Protestant workers see in this only the ‘united’, not the ‘socialist’. Posed thus baldly it would be a barrier to explanation, not a bridge.
We have been putting forward the alternative formulation ‘for a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland’. This remains the best way of presenting our ideas. The slogan is sufficiently open not to lead to mistaken interpretations, it is sufficiently removed from republican formulations not to immediately trigger Protestant sensitivities. It emphasises the need for socialism before it raises the specific nature of a socialist state in Ireland. Thus it points to the need to change society, not just remove a line from the map.
Given the long history of conquest, and now with a European consciousness developing, the reservation may come up, why a particular relationship with Britain? We have a responsibility to counter nationalist prejudice at home. We have to be able to distinguish between class opposition to imperialism and anti-British or anti-English sentiment. We defend the former but oppose the latter. In so far as reservations about a federation with Britain are out of fear of domination we are prepared to add the clarification ‘on a free and equal basis’. But in as much as they are merely prejudice against the English we need to counter this, explaining that on a socialist basis our geographical proximity and common language would argue for a special relationship.
However the sense of being part of Europe does need to be taken into account. If a socialist federation with Britain was seen as an alternative to links with the rest of Europe it would appear even less ambitious than the capitalists with their idea of a European union. We should therefore add also ‘as part of a European socialist federation’.
The advantage of the slogan ‘a socialist Ireland’, that it is an open formulation, is also a disadvantage unless we ourselves are clear what lies behind it. The slogan is there to invite explanation, it is open so as not to turn people off before we can clarify it. But this is useless if we are not agreed on the explanation, if we give different answers to the question does it mean a united Ireland or not?
Our answer to this must be that a single socialist state is our preferred option. Any other alternative raises the prospect of an ongoing division between the working class. To Catholics, North and South, the idea that we tear down every aspect of capitalist rule, but leave the border, would seem both absurd and unacceptable. If this were proposed we would have to recognise the right of Northern Catholics to say no and to opt to join the Southern socialist state. This would mean drawing a new line between Protestants and Catholics in the North, when, to get this far presupposes that they would be united as never before.
To Protestants we argue the case for one state – with strong links with the working class in Britain. However given the entirely legitimate fears of Protestant workers that a united Ireland in any form equals coercion, we have to be able to provide an assurance to the contrary.
By opposing a capitalist united Ireland we have stood against the forcible coercion of Protestants. Now we need to add the firm guarantee that there would be no element of coercion on a socialist basis either.
In practice this means a guarantee that, should the majority of Protestants firmly oppose being part of a socialist united Ireland, they would have the right to opt out, that is to establish their own socialist state. They would not have the right to co-opt a substantial Catholic population into that state and so the boundaries would have to be redrawn.
This would create difficulties. Under capitalism it would mean a Bosnian-style civil war for territory. Even under socialism it would be extremely complex, but it could be done by agreement. It might mean for example that Belfast would be an open city shared by two populations who formally belong to different states. A similar status would have to be accorded to Brussels and to Jerusalem on the basis of socialism.
Such a solution would pose many difficulties but it would be possible. Precisely because of the complexities and even allowing that two socialist states would have open borders which would give permanence to sectarian division, it makes much more sense to have a single state.
What we say to Protestants is that it would be better to have a solution which can unite Catholics and Protestants and put old capitalist inspired enmity to the side, but the choice is yours. A socialist society will accommodate you in whatever decision you make.
We will always accord this right to Protestants, but it may not always be necessary to raise it. The strengthening of class unity, development of a party of the working class and of a socialist consciousness, may mean that the issue will recede and the idea of a single socialist state will become acceptable without reservation. For now we do not need to present the right to opt out in our list of demands. Rather it is for use when we set about more fully explaining our programme, verbally or in more lengthy written material.
The left republicans will of course squeal ‘sell out’ to Unionism. We have never taken much notice of their opinions and are all the better for that. When they do criticise us we need to ask them what would be their answer if Protestants were to say no to a socialist united Ireland. Either they would coerce them or they would accept our position. There are no other options open.
Finally there is the question of autonomy. Would we advocate autonomy for Protestants? Lenin was clear that the main criteria for granting autonomy was not culture or religion, but the fact of a territorial basis upon which it would be exercised.
Where there is a demand and a basis for autonomy we do more than uphold it as a right, we advocate that it be introduced. The problem with the idea of autonomy for Protestants is that it would have to be exercised in a real territory with real boundaries. To bring this about means working out the same lines, if not the degree, of separation of Protestant from Catholic as would come about with two states. To say now we are for a single socialist state but with autonomy for Protestants means that we would be advocating this division.
At a time when the thrust and emphasis of our programme has to be to stress class unity this call would be both unnecessary and divisive. In effect we would be saying to Protestants and Catholics, you must unite to build a socialist state but once we get it we think its better that you each should administer your affairs separately. This would educate in division, not unity.
A possible alternative is the idea of autonomy for the North or part of the North. There is a certain case for this since things have been run in a different way in this area for three quarters of a century. There are different approaches to schooling, house building, road construction, etc, etc. However it would be premature to raise this at this moment. A socialist state means the maximum amount of decision making devolved to local level in any case. Whether an area, the North, or perhaps several counties of the North, would want to operate as an autonomous administration unit is impossible to determine now. If a demand for such autonomy was clearly present leading up to and in the course of the transformation to socialism and after we would support it, as we would for other parts of the South also.
Dealing with a living process and with ever changing consciousness, to give a finished programme to the national question would be like a doctor giving a single prescription to cover all illnesses. We have to respond to issues as they come up, being consistent, not in always parroting the same answer, but in the method by which we come to our conclusions.
At present the British ruling class have clearly and with virtual unanimity, stated their preference to withdraw from Northern Ireland. This is a fundamental factor in determining the current shape of the national conflict. The fact that the Sinn Fein leadership have become convinced that this is Britain’s real intent has been important in propelling them along the road of peace.
That this is the current strategy of the ruling class does not mean that it will necessarily be their last word. just as their interests and their policy shifted and altered in the decades before partition, so further shifts are not only possible, they are likely.
There is no doubt that present government policy has broad support in ruling circles. Even in the Tory party there has been no evidence of any substantial unionist wing opposed to the government’s declaration of no “selfish” interest in the North.
One reason is the fact that Protestant opposition offers an insurance against Northern Ireland leaving the Union. Those among the ruling class still with unionist leanings, can take comfort from the fact that, while the government’s Framework Document offers the right to secede, a majority are clearly against exercising this right.
Were it to come to secession and complete withdrawal from Ireland the present unity among the ruling class would likely fracture. Fear of the knock-on effect Northern Ireland secession would have in Scotland or in Wales, would likely drive a substantial section into opposition.
The issue of Scottish nationalism could itself cause a change of heart on British ‘neutrality’ over the North. During the pre-1914 Home Rule crisis Ulster provided a convenient theatre upon which the more conservative wing of Capital did battle against Liberal reforms and in defence of the Empire.
If at some future time there was a development of Scottish or indeed of Welsh nationalism to the point where independence was threatened, it is possible that a section of the establishment would once again beat the Orange drum. Protestants in Northern Ireland could again be called upon to resist, this time not for the sake of the Empire, but for the sake of the union between England, Scotland and Wales.
A new period of industrial upheaval would also cause sections of the ruling class to drop the notion of neutrality and whip up sectarian division. Divide and rule as a tactic to de-rail the working class movement, has been put on hold, not abandoned. Today the threat of socialism is quite distant. If in the future there are movements along the lines of 1918-20 it is probable that sections of the ruling class will bring it forward again.
Any developments of this character would cast the national question in a new light. Our general programme and our more immediate demands and slogans would have to be reviewed and updated.
Even now new issues are arising which we need to consider. The publication of the Framework Document, for example, poses questions we have to address. One is our attitude to a new Assembly for the North. In the past, while Militant Labour has been prepared to participate in elections to a new local parliament, we have not called for the establishment of such a body.
The reason was that any return to a local administration, smacked in Catholic areas of a return to Unionist domination. Having swept Stormont away there was understandable opposition to anything that might smack of its reestablishment.
Now there is a different situation. The ending of the IRA military campaign and the republican leadership’s abandonment in total of the idea of struggle, means that it is accepted that the ending of partition is not an immediate option. The tactic of boycott or abstention is only valid when there is an alternative which can be put forward. The only alternative to an Assembly is continued direct rule, control colonial-style by government ministers and administration by centrally appointed quangos.
The attitude of Catholics is that provided there is also a North/South element of a new deal, a new Assembly would not be a Stormont. They feel that they would occupy a position of strength within it. Even Sinn Fein are lining up to participate if there is a political agreement to set one up. Given this, it makes little sense to oppose its establishment.
Once the idea of an Assembly begins to see the light of day it will be necessary to back it, but go further, demanding that it be set up on a democratic basis, that it be elected by a system of proportional representation, and that it have a full range of powers including powers to nationalise industry, raise local taxes, etc.
The cross border bodies recommended by the Framework Document are undemocratic by their nature. It is proposed that powers over agreed areas be delegated to a small triumvirate of people drawn from the Northern Assembly and from the Dail. In opposing these bodies we need to be careful to do so in a positive manner. Whereas the Unionists just say no we have to put forward positive alternatives, starting with the need for the working class to link together North and South. We are, for example, in favour of the workers organisations examining the provision of all services and benefits, North and South, and then campaigning to have these “harmonised” upwards on the basis of the best available in either state.
Other issues will also arise from the Framework Document. It is likely that there will at some time be a referendum on the removal of Articles 2 & 3 of the Southern constitution. We can only decide our attitude to this at the time, based on the actual wording proposed. However given the shift in attitudes North and South, and the recognition that any change in the constitutional position must be with the consent of the people in the North, it is inconceivable that we could vote to leave the constitution as it is.
Last updated: 4.1.2011