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Peter Hadden

Northern Ireland: An opportunity for class politics

A discussion paper for the 1998 Conference of the Socialist Party


Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

1. Our Party has a long and proud tradition of work, stretching back over three decades, in Northern Ireland. We stand today on the organisational and theoretical foundations laid during our activity under the Militant and Militant Labour banners. With a few brief exceptions this work was carried out under difficult circumstances, generally unfavourable for the advancement of Marxist and socialist ideas.

2. To have held together a socialist organisation and, above all, to have maintained and developed our class outlook, despite the hostile pressures created by the sectarian conflict, has been a major achievement. Every other organisation on the left has in some way succumbed to alien class or reactionary sectarian pressures. We alone can stand over the general thrust and even virtually all of the detail of the analysis, programme and work we have conducted.

3. We now have an opportunity to capitalise in terms of size and influence on this long and arduous “pre-history”. Due to a combination of circumstances – changes in the world situation as well as the new juncture in politics in Northern Ireland – there is now an historic opening for our ideas and for our Party.

4. The collapse of Stalinism after 1989 was an epoch shaping event. At the time we recognised that it represented a setback. But we countered the notion that it was an historic defeat for the working class akin, for example, to that suffered in the 1930s. We argued that its deepest effects were ideological, that it made it more difficult to argue the case for socialism or for any alternative to the market.

5. Above all we resisted the idea, which at the time gained an echo even among the sections of the left, that the opening of new markets in Russia and China, combined with the introduction of new technology; would usher in a new golden age for Capitalism. Instead we characterised the economic period which opened in the early 1970s and which continues to day; as one of Depression, in which the overall rhythm of production, as always manifest through boom and slump, points downwards. We argued that the deepest effects of the working class in the West were ideological.

6. For a period in the early 1990s our view appeared to be contradicted by fact. The upturn in the world economy; especially in Asia, and the tendency towards globalisation, seemed to point away from crisis to a new expansionary epoch. The idea of a system in advance, and of an unstoppable movement towards a single world economy run by huge Trans National Corporations, percolated into the working class, leading both to illusions in the system and to a sense of helplessness in face of this “new” global capitalism.

7. The economic and political crisis in Asia, which began in the autumn of 1997, and the economic shock waves it has sent around the globe, has presented a very different reality. The original projections of the bourgeois of a short-lived crisis, even of a “correction” of the past excesses of overproduction in countries like South Korea, have now been abandoned. The crisis in Asia has deepened to catastrophic proportions.

The world bourgeois today tremble at the possible consequences. Economics professor Paul Krugman has been featured in Fortune Magazine with his view that: “never in the course of economic events – not even in the early years of the Depression – has so large a part of the world economy experienced so devastating a fall from grace”.

8. In the space of twelve months economic crisis has extended beyond Asia to Russia, which has experienced economic and, with it, social collapse. The contagion has now touched Latin America where the largest and most important economies have shown the same symptoms of disease as did the Asian economies a year ago. Europe and the USA will not emerge unscathed. The prospects facing world capitalism are at best of a recession, with some areas in deep slump, or else, on a worse case scenario, of a slump affecting all the major sectors of the globe.

9. The relationship between economic crisis and the level of combativity of the working class is compound, not linear. Under certain conditions economic downturn can trigger struggles, especially defensive struggles against cuts and closures. Or recession, especially severe recession, can have a stunning effect, temporarily numbing the working class and sapping the will to struggle. But whatever effect the coming downturn will have on industrial movements it will have profound political implications.

10. Internationally the bourgeois have been preparing to triumphantly celebrate the new millennium. The idea to be put forward is of change and improvement, of new technology, new methods of communication welcoming a new age, all on the basis of the Capitalist system, the system which has brought us this far. In fact the new millennium is likely to dawn with capitalism in the throes of crisis and recession. This alone is likely to have a profound effect on consciousness. In general the coming crisis will shatter many of the illusions which have been built up in the market over the past decade. Workers will again begin to sound out the possibility of an alternative to this system. The idea of public ownership, of the planning of production, in short the idea of socialism, can come forcefully back onto the agenda.

New Labour Government

11. In Britain the New Labour Government has enjoyed an opening honeymoon period, inevitable after eighteen years of Tory rule. Among the working class, and especially among the poorest most oppressed sections of society, there is already massive disillusionment with Blair’s continuation, even reinforcement, of Tory policies.

This has not yet developed into mass opposition, in part because of the heavy blows the British working class suffered under Thatcher, but also because there has not appeared to be any viable alternative to Blair’s policies. Days lost due to strikes have remained at historically low levels.

12. The ongoing policies of privatisation, attacks on social security claimants, attacks on students, and the attempts to hold down wages, coupled with the impact of recession, is bound to provoke massive opposition. At what point and in what manner this will translate into industrial and social movements against the government we cannot say. No matter how events unfold it is certain that a political space to the left of New Labour will be prepared. The votes for Socialist Party candidates in the local elections in a number of areas, but especially in Coventry, are a foretaste of what will come.

13. No doubt the actual unfolding of the class struggle in Britain, as elsewhere, will be complex, with many unexpected turns. What is clear though is that the current juncture marks the beginning of the end of what has been a barren period for the forces of Marxism in Britain. If subjective difficulties can be overcome there is now the prospect of our Party developing into a mighty force as part of the recovery and resurgence of the left. This in turn will have important consequences for our work in Ireland, north and south.

14. During the last 30 years there have been other times of economic crisis and political upheaval internationally. There have been periods when the working class in Britain has moved decisively into struggle and when there have been significant shifts to the left as a result. But in every case these have coincided with turmoil and heightened sectarian tension in Northern Ireland. This has blunted their impact and has acted as a partial brake on the class struggle locally.

15. The early 1970s are one example. Then the Heath Government in Britain was shaken by huge industrial struggles, the mark of a confident and combative working class flexing its muscles. In 1974 the British miners brought down Heath. The first year of the then elected Labour Government of Wilson saw this class pressure maintained, to be reflected in significant concessions on wages. All this took place during the worst period of the Troubles, the period of the rise of the paramilitaries and of the highest death rates.

16. The election of Thatcher in 1979 was followed by an upsurge in struggle as one section after another of the working class resisted her policies. Labour in opposition at first moved quite decisively to the left. In this situation we were able to build a powerful base of support both within the unions and in the Labour Party. Northern Ireland stood in at least partial contrast. This was the time of the hunger strikes and, on their back, of the rise of Sinn Fein and with it the intensification of sectarian political polarisation.

17. Sectarian upheaval certainly dulled the impact in Northern Ireland of the class struggle and of the political shifts to the left in Britain and beyond. Nonetheless it never entirely insulated the north from world events. The number of days lost through strikes in the north has tended to rise and fall in line with the tempo of the class struggle in Britain. There were significant strikes in the north during the Heath years. And, as we have often pointed out, not one of these strikes – or of those which took place at other times – has been broken directly by sectarianism, despite the tension, the polarisation and the conflict within society as a whole.

18. Likewise the leftward shift in British society; reflected in the partial transformation of the Labour Party in the early 1980s, penetrated the working class in Northern Ireland. A layer of the class responded to and was politically motivated by these events more so than by local developments. The rise of Sinn Fein after the hunger strikes was coloured by the general leftward, anti-capitalist, anti Tory sentiment that prevailed in catholic working class areas. The nationalist core of the Party was masked, at least in the urban areas, by a radical semi socialist rhetoric which matched the mood of the time.

19. It is no coincidence that this period saw the most dramatic development of our organisation. Despite the ongoing sectarianism, despite the political polarisation, there was a significant layer of workers and youth who looked beyond the immediate situation and could be drawn to a socialist and international perspective. The painstaking organisational and political work we had conducted under the more difficult circumstances of the 1970s really only bore fruit at this time. In less than two years we doubled the size of the organisation, recruiting as many people as it had taken the work of the last decade to assemble.

20. Today an even more explosive, even more favourable situation is opening internationally. We can really look forward to titanic events that will shake the foundations of capitalism, convulse existing political relations, throw up new political formations, challenge existing orthodoxies and unseat prevailing ideologies. Unlike the early 1970 or early 1980s, these events are likely to coincide with a dramatic new turn in the situation in Northern Ireland. The coming world crisis is gathering force just as the main sectarian forces which sustained the Troubles over nearly three decades are exhausted and moreover when the ideologies which provided the fuel and motivation for these forces are widely discredited and historically redundant.

21. World economic crisis, the resulting political upheaval, the stirrings of opposition to New Labour in Britain, and the coming unstuck of the supposed “tiger” economy in the south, will take place at a time when the old sectarian forces in the north are on the back foot. All this, when put together, points to a set of circumstances unique in the last thirty years. It raises the possibility that we are entering a period more favourable for the advancement of class ideas than any since the start of the Troubles. Of course there are factors that can cut across this but the very possibility of such a development has to be fully appreciated so that the necessary organisational and political preparations can be put in hand.

Events of this summer

22. The starting point for an assessment of the prospects for Northern Ireland has to be the huge transformation that has been wrought by the events of the summer. We need not exaggerate. There has not been a solution or anything like one. The sectarian polarisation, expressed demographically and politically; is more complete than ever. Not a single fundamental issue has been resolved. On the national question there remain two communities, poles apart, with no prospect of permanent common ground being reached on the basis of capitalism.

23. Nonetheless a massive change has taken place, surpassing anything which has happened since the start of the Troubles. The past thirty years have seen many dramatic twists and turns but the most critical events have reinforced the sectarian direction in which events were first propelled in 1969 and after. The significance of recent events is that they have done the opposite. They open at least the possibility that the wheel of history could be shifted in a new direction. In a sense the contest between those who wanted to reach a compromise “interim” deal and those who were prepared to reach to the depths of sectarian hatred and violence to prevent this – which has been what the peace process has been all about – has now been resolved – for the time being – in favour of the former.

24. The conflict is not over. Unchecked by the working class it will most certainly reassert itself in some manner at some point. The sectarian division remains but the paramilitary expression of this division, which has been a defining characteristic of the last thirty years, is effectively gone. Paramilitary activity remains as an instrument of control over working class areas but not in the form of the organised military campaigns of the past. In this sense the phase of the conflict we have gone through for three decades has come to an end.

25. Historical outcomes are neither predetermined nor automatic. Whenever the conflict of contending forces reaches a critical juncture, opening the prospect of change but placing all in the balance, a single event, the outstanding role of a single individual, even accidental occurrences, can be decisive. Sometimes even momentous shifts of history can take place on a narrow and fragile hinge. What happened this summer provides a dramatic example.

26. The peace process began when the- ruling classes in Britain and the South recognised that a change had taken place at the top of the IRA, that a key section of the leadership were prepared to give up the armed struggle; It was recognised also that similar processes were taking place within the loyalist paramilitaries. A shift in State policy took place at the end of the 1980s. In place of a strategy of isolating and defeating the IRA there was begun instead an attempt to incorporate the republican leadership, and the loyalists also, into an all-embracing deal.

27. The change in the world situation after 1989 reinforced these processes and made possible a deal that would not have succeeded earlier. The collapse of Stalinism created the illusion, not just of a triumphant capitalism, but of “one world order” policed by the military power of US Imperialism. This helped bring about a profound change in thinking at the top of national liberation movements around the globe, from South Africa to the Middle East. In Ireland the Republican leadership joined with the Social Democratic leaders and the Arafats and Mandelas in swallowing the prevailing ideology. The end result was de facto acceptance, not just of the market and capitalism, but of the “honest broker” role of US Imperialism.

28. The British and Irish governments have driven the peace process – powerfully backed by the US. Locally the main “constitutional” parties, except for the DUP, have backed it. But it is the fact that the Sinn Fein leadership, all hopes of a military victory long abandoned, has gone along with the idea of an “interim” settlement that has made the decisive difference.

29. The outlines of a settlement were, there when the formal process began and before. The IRA was militarily contained, in reality defeated. Since it is never possible to win more on fundamentals at the negotiating table, no matter what “clever” arguments and tactics are used, than has already been won on the battlefield, neither a United Ireland nor even any significant constitutional change, were ever possible from the talks. On the other hand, as right wing unionism had not and could never succeed in rebottling the Catholic population into a sectarian orange state, neither could there be any return to things as they were before the Troubles.

30. If there was to be an Agreement it could only, be the negotiated expression of the existing balance of forces, outright victory neither for nationalism nor unionism, but recognition of the rights of Catholics within the framework of the present state. This or that ingenious detail might arise in talks but only as added colour to the original inescapable outline.

31. That all but the fine print of a deal could have been set down long before a single Party entered Castle Buildings does not make it inevitable that such a deal would be reached. Powerful sectarian forces on both sides opposed an agreement. The process itself strengthened these forces and presented them with issues that could be used to try to wreck it.

32. The years of the peace process have been among the most convulsive of the Troubles. There has been no “step by step” transition to “peace”. Rather it has been a roller coaster ride during which the North has more than once been lurched to the brink of sectarian civil war only to draw back and, in so doing, provide new momentum to the talks. For a decade or more leading up to the cease-fires there was a measure of stability, based on the containment of the IRA. The peace process broke this down introducing the expectation and the fear of change. The greater uncertainty led to increased polarisation, especially as both sectarian camps in the negotiations tried to marshal “their” communities behind their agenda. In this volatile situation the emergence of the conflicts over parades, especially over Drumcree, threatened to collapse the whole process and tip Northern Ireland over the brink of sectarian conflict.

33. This year’s disputed march from Drumcree had the capacity to do just that. The fate of the Assembly and the Good Friday Agreement hung precariously at this point. The Agreement was in place but only just. A majority of unionist voters actually voted for No candidates in the Assembly election, leaving Trimble with only the slenderest majority in terms of seats.

34. Two days before tens of thousands of Orangemen were due to assemble at Drumcree church after the 12th (13th) July parades, negotiations between residents and the local Orange Order broke down and further meetings were put off until after the 12th celebrations. At this point the ruling class had run out of options. They had no alternative but to try to find a military way out. Even if the State had succeeded in holding a line at Drumcree the resulting violence and the use of police and troops against Orangemen could well have produced enough defections to the No camp to bring the Assembly crashing down.

35. It was the tragic – but, for the ruling class and the pro Agreement camp, the politically fortuitous – petrol bombing incident in Ballymoney which rescued, and in fact reinforced, the peace deal at this point. The horrific deaths of three young children provoked an instant wave of shock and revulsion. The mood for confrontation over Drumcree, even among the mass of Orangemen, instantly dissipated. By refusing to acknowledge this, and by failing to recognise that, if only for tactical reasons, their one good option was to conduct some form of retreat, the Portadown Orangemen merely contributed to their own isolation. The Drumcree protest could be left to wither, without confrontation. This was a major defeat for the hard-line anti Agreement unionists and an important victory for Trimble.

36. It could be argued that the Ballymoney atrocity only had this effect because the underlying mood was already anti sectarian and that this mood would eventually have asserted itself in some other way, ending with the same result. There is no question that the very fact of the Agreement and of the Yes vote in the Referenda reinforced the deeply felt desire for peace within both communities with a hope that it could now be achieved. It is possible that further steps towards all out conflict could, as happened in the past, have triggered a mass movement in opposition and that the peace process would have been set back on track.

37. This is possible but not certain. If there has been a single defining characteristic of the peace process it has been the extreme volatility of the mood in working class areas. At times a general mood for confrontation has developed. On other occasions there has been a firm and positive groundswell in favour of talks and a deal. Under such conditions timing and circumstance can very often prove critical. An atrocity of a different character might not have had the same impact as the murder of three young children. There might have been a sectarian reaction, not a general mood of revulsion. Or if the Ballymoney deaths had come two nights later, in the context of a military settlement of Drumcree and of the widespread violence this would have triggered, the finger of blame might not have been pointed as fixedly at the Orange Order.

38. By mid-August when the Real IRA targeted Omagh the overall situation was not so critical, not so delicately balanced as at the time of Drumcree. That the overwhelming majority in catholic areas was for a continuation of the peace process and against a return to “war” was indisputable following the Referendum and the Assembly election. The Unionist No camp was significantly weakened by the defeat they suffered at Drumcree. The likelihood was that the Assembly could be got up and running, but with ongoing opposition including ongoing attacks carried out by the hard-line paramilitary groups. The Real IRA was drawing around it dissidents from all the other republican paramilitaries, although its support was mainly in rural/border areas and in the South. Given the mood in the catholic working class areas they faced an uphill task in trying to sustain a campaign.

39. Whether these activities would have been the extended last gasps of the IRA’s long war or whether the Real IRA would have succeeded in provoking a strong enough loyalist backlash to wreck the Agreement remains, and will remain, an unanswered question. Omagh put paid to their campaign. Whereas there might have been a protracted dying away of paramilitary activity, it brought a sudden and definitive end.

Like the Quinn murders, it was a fortuitous event for both the British and Irish governments, for Trimble and Mallon, for Gerry Adams, in short for all whose vested interests and political careers had been irreversibly laid with the peace process.

40. As with Ballymoney it is possible that an Omagh, under different circumstances or at a different time or place, might have had different, even opposite, consequences. As it was, the very scale of the atrocity; the fact that it was Omagh, a mixed and relatively unscathed town, the fact that Catholics and Protestants were killed and maimed, and the fact that it came when the mass of Catholics were already convinced of the futility of armed struggle, created unprecedented anger and revulsion – in Omagh, across the north and beyond. The mass reaction that followed was broader and deeper than any previous, even that which came after Shankill and Greysteel.

41. The deep anger against the Real IRA could be compared to that which gripped Protestant working class areas in the early 1970s in what became a sectarian response to the IRA campaign and which provided broad support for the paramilitaries for a period. This time the angry response gripped both communities and was for an end to violence not for retaliation. It transcended sectarianism and transcended the Troubles.

Another opportunity scorned

42. Our call for a one-day general strike as the only adequate response to Omagh exactly touched the mass mood. Had the trade union leadership acted promptly in the immediate aftermath of the bomb there could have been a complete close down with probably the biggest rallies ever seen in the North. It would have been a vivid and unforgettable demonstration of the power of the working class and of its capacity to draw other sections of society behind it. It could have been the dramatic birth of an independent working class movement which, while giving critical support to the peace process, would have raised its own voice and asserted its own agenda.

43. This was one of those narrow historical openings when the issue of leadership becomes critical. There was a space of a few days in which a bold and courageous lead could have fundamentally transformed the situation, giving the working class a confidence and a sense of power that would have had a lasting effect. There have been few such opportunities over the past thirty years and none as clear-cut or as simple to accomplish as this. But unfortunately the potential was more than matched by the degeneration that has taken place at the head of the trade union movement.

44. The majority of the trade union leadership in Northern Ireland has long since abandoned any concept of the independent mobilisation of the working class. During the 1990s they have swallowed the prevailing ideology of capitalism and the market. Their buzzwords are “social consensus” and “social partnership”. In terms of the peace process they are more or less fully incorporated into the State via joint employer – church – trade union bodies like G7 and New Agenda. It is not that they were unaware of the mood after Omagh. Rather they sensed it and trembled at the potential which confronted them. Instead of issuing a call for action they issued a joint statement with the employers and then hid behind the clerical smocks of the Clergy; backing the Church organised vigils and refusing to support trade union organised protests.

45. The “lefts” in the unions performed little better. Since the collapse of Stalinism we have made efforts to co-operate and work with ex-Stalinists and other lefts, with some degree of success. But critical moments are the most severe and ruthless test of political currents and ideas. The mainly ex-Stalinist trade union left failed miserably to respond to the decisive moment after Omagh. They initiated no action, no workplace meetings, called no demonstrations, no rallies. Apart from Derry Trades Council it was only ourselves in Mid-Ulster, through the local Trades Council, who called people onto the streets. There is a lesson – the need to build a genuine left centred around Marxist ideas with an important enough foothold in the workplaces and unions to ensure that at future decisive moments the key of history does not go unturned.

46. An enormous mass movement did take place after Omagh, but it took place from below without leadership, without direction. People seized upon the Church vigils as the only organised opportunity to publicly show their sympathy; their disgust and their anger. Omagh town centre was packed to capacity for the biggest event of the day. Elsewhere people turned up at rallying points in their thousands. There were vigils in towns, villages, hamlets, road junctions, and outside supermarkets. Crowds turned up spontaneously at many places where no vigils had been organised.

47. It was this mass movement of mainly working class people – and the revulsion which propelled it – which drew the line under the paramilitary campaigns. The Real IRA and the INLA had no choice but to call a complete halt. The Continuity IRA maintains a campaign in name only. For the first time in a generation there is no republican military activity against the State, and no immediate basis for any sustained or effective resumption of such activity. This is a fundamental change which affects all key aspects of perspectives.

48. The response to Omagh also cut across the polarisation which had been growing along the fault line of religion through the peace process. The community; including the working class reacted as one, blurring what had been the increasingly distinct division into two communities, one viewing itself as nationalist, the other unionist. This shows that sectarianism, even the reinforced sectarianism of the recent period, can be overcome that what seems immovable and permanent in “normal” times can be rapidly and furiously melted down in times of huge upheaval.

49. What this mass movement, motivated by sentiment, accomplished could only be consolidated on a political basis. Omagh had such an impact that its effects will last for some time, but not indefinitely. Without political change the old lines of division will re-arise, the sense of separation will reassert itself. What the trade unions missed was the opportunity to begin to transform politics, to give the sense of unity between the working class that arose so powerfully after Omagh a lasting political expression.

50. Only on the basis of the development of working class politics can the fact of the Assembly and the Cease-fires be a step towards a lasting solution. For the foundations of the Agreement to consolidate and harden would require the divisions within society and especially between the working class to be overcome. Peace would have to lead to integration both geographically and politically.

51. Instead the Agreement, in the name of overcoming sectarianism, puts in place a political structure that perpetuates it. The inbuilt veto’s for unionists and nationalists within the Assembly; and the requirement of power-sharing between these two blocs, assumes that the sectarian division will remain as the permanently dominating political feature. This projected “solution” begins from the assumption that there is no solution. It makes the emergence of a political force outside of nationalism or unionism harder to achieve and therefore makes a real solution more difficult. Like previous “experiments” in power-sharing in the Lebanon and Cyprus this will ultimately prove its nemesis.

52. Even in the short term the Assembly will face big difficulties. The settlement has come on top of a society that is still intensely polarised. The right wing sectarian forces, especially on the loyalist side, have been wounded by Ballymoney – and also by Omagh – but are far from crushed. The parliamentary arithmetic is unchanged and Trimble rests upon a slender political base.

53. Issues such as decommissioning and the composition of the Executive are immediate problems. Down the line the question of policing will be raised. The Assembly may be taken to the brink of collapse on these or on other issues but, given the over-all balance of forces after the summer, it is now most likely that it will survive into the medium term at least.

54. A number of factors point to this conclusion. One is the ongoing disorientation of the unionist No camp and their inability to come up with a positive and coherent alternative. The idea of a return to Stormont is as anachronistic as the opposite but no less fossilised views of groups like Republican Sinn Fein.

55. Of even greater significance is the far more clear-cut defeat which republican dissidents have suffered. The fact that they have been routed politically in the referenda and then militarily after Omagh provides Gerry Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership with much more political elbowroom. On issues like decommissioning it makes the previously unthinkable become not just thinkable but deliverable. Even token moves by the IRA on the destruction of weapons would deliver a blow to Paisley and allow Trimble in turn a little more elbow space on issues like north south bodies and on Sinn Fein’s role in the Executive.

The Assembly and its Executive

56. An Assembly with an Executive made up of the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, with even the DUP trying to look in as Ministers from a distance, would be an entirely new departure for Northern Ireland. The possibility that this agreement will hold together for an extended period is now a major consideration for our Party, affecting perspectives, programme orientation and tactics.

57. Nationalists have never held power in Northern Ireland – outside the brief participation by the SDLP in the power-sharing Executive in 1974. Even that is still remembered with anger in Catholic working class areas, especially the poacher-cum-gamekeeper role of SDLP Ministers in pursuing rent and rate arrears accrued with SDLP backing during the anti-internment protests. Unionists have not held power since 1972. Since that time no party has held responsibility for matters such as Health, Education, Housing, Transport or Environment. All have been able to deflect working class anger by railing at Westminster on economic matters, and have been able to ensure that constitutional issues have dominated politics locally.

58. The fact that each party has been able to bask in the luxury of permanent opposition has been a brake on the development of any alternative. The working class learns from experience, and for more than a quarter century it has had no experience of either unionism or nationalism in government, no direct taste of their anti-working class policies. Now that this is coming to an end the basis for a major political transformation is about to be laid.

59. It is instructive to recall what happened at the time of partition. The division of the working class, which was then brought about, was a huge setback, a major defeat. Labour candidates did stand in the first elections to the newly established Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921. They were basically routed, gaining less than 2,000 votes in total. Yet, within a few years of the new government of industrialists and landowners coming to power, the left began to regain its feet. In 1924 it re grouped as the Labour Party (Northern Ireland) soon to become the Northern Ireland Labour Party. One year later, in the second Northern Ireland Parliamentary election, this Party took three seats in Belfast, topping the poll in part of East Belfast.

60. A number of factors played their part in this speedy recovery. Not least there was the world background. Events in Northern Ireland were played out in the recently cast shadow of the Russian Revolution. Although backward and impoverished, Russia at this time was a relatively healthy workers state which offered an alternative pole of attraction to a significant layer of the working class. This was particularly so given that the new Northern Ireland State was founded under conditions of severe crisis, with mass unemployment and terrible poverty affecting all working class areas. Rank and file militancy ensured that the trade unions were separate from the State. In fact it was the big industrial unions that provided the leaven for the formation of the NILP.

61. All historical analogies are limited. None of the, factors that shaped the growth of the Left at that time can be reproduced exactly to day. But what happened in the 1920s does demonstrate the capacity of the working class to draw conclusions from experience and to recover from the shock of setbacks and defeats. The Parties now entering government will find it extremely difficult to maintain their base of support among the working class. The degree to which this support will ebb and the speed at which this will take place will depend on events.

62. The undermining of the authority among the working class of the Executive and the Parties which make it up will be neither straightforward or uniform. The very fact of the existence of the Executive and of Trimble and Adams in the same cabinet room will give it a certain lease of life. When the background has been thirty years of “war”, and when the only alternative seems to be even worse conflict than what went before, the new “historical turn” indicated by the Assembly will have an attraction which will last for a period. This alone is likely to give the incoming administration some breathing space. A majority of people are likely to extend it a measure of credit thereby providing a certain honeymoon period.

Economic perspectives

63. The key is what happens on the economic front. An expectation has grown up that the British, Irish, US and European bourgeois will throw money at the north in order to cushion the Assembly and consolidate the peace. Ministers will find their budgets swollen with cash and will be saved from painful decisions on cuts. After all the cost would surely be a lot less than the cost of renewed conflict. Two US Presidential visits and endless trade missions to the US and other areas have played to the notion that foreign companies who would not come because of the conflict will now flock in and mop up unemployment.

64. Certainly if there was a significant boost to jobs and services and if people in working class areas started to feel a difference, the Executive would be bolstered, the peace deal would be reinforced. Four years ago there were even more inflated dreams of a peace dividend – at that time deliberately played up by the establishment in order to help entice the IRA to the 1994 cease-fire. Very little of this ever materialised. Any current expectations of Dollars and Euros pouring in to underwrite the Agreement, or of an economic boom on the back of incoming private investment, are also likely to be dashed.

65. After the downturn of the early 1990s the N.I. economy recovered, actually at a faster pace that the UK economy as a whole. Manufacturing grew strongly until 1997, expanding by around 4% in 1995 and again at that rate in 1997. Employment also grew and has continued to grow. A layer of the working class experienced an improvement, achieving a real increase in their living standard.

66. But there has been no real change in the fundamental and underlying weakness of the economy – the fact of a small and relatively declining manufacturing base, an over dependence on services, public and private, and a huge outside subvention necessary to balance the books, the increase in manufacturing output came through productivity gains not through a broadening of the economic base. Much of the productivity increase in turn came through an increase in exploitation, not new technique.

Between 1990-97 manufacturing output grew by 2.4% per annum. Productivity also grew by 2.4% per annum and there was no increase at all in the manufacturing workforce. And at the end of it all Northern Ireland’s manufacturing productivity still lags in the slow lane, 16% behind that of Britain. Although manufacturing growth over this period appears robust compared with Britain, this is only because it is a comparison of poor performance with even poorer. Manufacturing employment in Britain actually contracted by an annual 2% over the same period.

67. The overall employment increase has come from a rise in service sector employment. Whereas services accounted for 70% of total employment in 1990 this had risen to 74% in 1997. Within the overall service sector there has also been a shift from public to private services, the product of the right wing free market policies of Thatcher, Major and Blair. Private service employment was 25% of total employment in 1990, but had risen to 29% in 1997 (as compared to 36.4% in government services).

68. It seems that the manufacturing sector in Britain and Northern Ireland has been in recession from about the beginning of this year. In Northern Ireland the Clothing, Footwear and significantly the Engineering sectors have led the way into this dip. This is before the effects of the economic catastrophes in Asia and Russia have hit locally. According to a Price Waterhouse Coopers partner, up to 40% of Northern Ireland jobs could be threatened by the loss of export markets and by a flood of cheap imports from countries whose currencies have collapsed.

69. The idea of a peace inspired rush of inward investment sits uncomfortably alongside this economic prognosis. Anyway the notion that there was a pool of willing investors who would not come only because of the Troubles is very questionable.

It is true that political stability is a factor in investment decisions but it is only one factor. Relative stability in any case had existed for a decade or more before the start of the peace process because for that length of time the IRA campaign had by and large been contained. The key criterion is profitability. Firms have come to Northern Ireland because of the attractions of cheap labour, an educated English speaking workforce, IDB grants, and a location with easy accessibility to the main European market.

70. There is a skilled cheap workforce – industrial wages are 20% lower than in Britain. But other countries on the European periphery, especially those in the East queuing to join the EU offer much lower wage rates still. There are generous government hand-outs to provide incentives to potential investors although a tightening of EU policy on grants to business would mean that IDB subsidies might have to be cut from an average of 26% of total costs to 20%. But above all the development of a world recession will likely re-establish the tendency which emerged in previous recessions for branch subsidiaries of the big corporations to be closed as part of an overall retrenchment. It could be that Trimble and Mallon will preside over an outward not an inward movement of Capital on the part of the Trans National Corporations.

71. Can the service sector take up the slack caused by what may be a severe downturn in manufacturing? Not if current government policy is maintained. Whereas there was a slight expansion of public sector employment in the early part of this decade this has since been reversed. According to Coopers and Lybrand the Tory public spending limits which have been adopted by Blair mean that between the 1996/7 and 1999/2000 financial years there will be an average annual decline in real terms of public expenditure of 1.3% per year. Again according to Coopers and Lybrand, the effect will be to knock 0.5% of Gross Domestic Project each year. Brown’s recent budget has announced some additional money, but the amount or the impact is unclear. It will probably not be enough to do more than slow down the decline.

72. Perhaps the Labour Government will adopt a different public spending yardstick in Northern Ireland in order to secure one of its few political success stories. This has not been the case so far and there is no evidence that there is about to be a change in Government policy. It would be very difficult for Blair to hold the line of tight spending limits in Britain and allow a surge of spending in Northern Ireland to break these limits. In the context of a deepening recession the Government may be compelled to pump money in to try to reflate a flat economy. This would be a case of last minute surgery applied to try to find a way out of economic crisis; not a new economic beginning brought about by peace.

73. Could any money saved on security be re-channelled through the Assembly to bolster the spending of other Ministries? While this would be welcome and should be demanded it would not be a real increase. A significant cut in security spending is actually likely to have a deflationary impact on the local economy. It would mean the loss of well paid jobs in the RUC as well as very substantial cuts in the prison service.

As policemen and women and prison officers spend money in the local economy this would have a knock on effect. There is already a huge retail over-capacity brought about by the sudden inrush of Supermarket chains like Tesco’s and Sainsbury’s since the start of the peace process. It is estimated that capacity equivalent a new Belfast has been added in the last four years. One study has also estimated that every job created in new out of town developments ends up costing three retail jobs elsewhere. It is more likely that the British Treasury will claw back any savings on security, but even if a portion of this money were reallocated this would be the lessening of a cut, not the allocation of new money.

74. Public spending is likely to remain constrained unless the world crisis forces a switch from broadly deflationary to reflationary policies. It is just not conceivable that private services will fill the gap. Private financial services may not withstand the shock waves of world-wide financial crisis coming from Japan, Russia and elsewhere. Many private services are also heavily dependent on levels of State spending through awards of contracts etc. A generalised economic crisis is bound to curtail this sector.

75. This leaves the “special” money which comes from outside sources, the EU structural funds, and the Peace and Reconciliation money from the US, Europe and elsewhere. Between 1994–9 Northern Ireland has and will receive approximately £850 million from the EU structural fund. This has gone to a range of projects. Its effect is seen in the changed skyline of Belfast for example. Some has been used by the government to run various programmes through existing Departments and is therefore more of a subsidy to the British government. Northern Ireland is due to lose its Objective 1 status and will no longer qualify for this level of funding. It will be phased down gradually to allow a soft landing but the new Administration can look forward to less from the coffers of Europe, not more. There is little likelihood of any flexibility because of the progress in the peace process. Even before recession adds to the financial constraints in Europe, the Structural Funds have been tightened up to take account of the extra demand which enlarged membership and more Objective 1 Regions will bring.

76. In overall economic terms the much publicised peace funds are chickenfeed. They will not have a significant long-term effect on the economy. The International Fund for Ireland has been in operation for over ten years and allocates about £33 million pounds per year. It claims to have “helped” create 26,000 jobs north and south. There is no evidence about the nature of these jobs or how long they have lasted. The Peace and Reconciliation Programme set up after the first cease-fires is more substantial.

Between 1995–9 it will have allocated about £280 million mostly to the north and mostly to the voluntary and community sectors. The impact on jobs has been quite minimal. In 1997 it was estimated that this money was sustaining about 1,000 jobs. This money is due to run out in 1999 and unless some new funding is found many of these short-term contract jobs in the new “industry” of community employment will be lost.

77. Northern Ireland has developed a dependent economy, dependent on outside investment to provide a manufacturing base, on outside financial services as national and international institutions are encouraged to set up centres along the Lagan, and on the Westminster government to maintain spending. This means that the Assembly is at the mercy of Westminster policy and of whatever decisions are taken in the Boardrooms of the big Corporations. This is building not on tiger but on chicken legs. The full frailty of this is likely to become apparent in recession.

78. For Trimble, Mallon and their ministerial colleagues the first years of their new Assembly – should it last this long – are likely to be ones of economic famine rather than feast. This will shorten any honeymoon, create instability and most importantly mean that they will have to face and contend with the hostile pressures and movements of the working class. It will also clear the space for the emergence of new ideas and new politics.

79. As though aware of this UUP and SDLP leaders have been dampening expectations and warning/boasting that they will be prepared to take the hard decisions that go with office. As early as last May Trimble himself wrote in this vein in the Belfast Telegraph stating that some of the new Ministers might quickly long for the old days of opposition after they have to decide to close schools and hospitals. SDLP economic spokesman, Sean Farren, recently indicated in the Irish News that the Assembly would adopt the economic policies common to both the British and Irish governments – “stability through low inflation, strict control of public debt and strong wage control”.

80. The problems facing the new ministers are stark. The Minister in charge of Transport will face a chronically underdeveloped public transport system, with services non-existent in many rural areas and with Belfast choking because of its overdependence on the car and its lack of adequate public transport. The Housing Minister will inherit the consequences of the shift from public to private Housing. Housing was the one area where real change and improvement did come about through the Housing Executive. Recently this body has been starved of funds; some of its services have been sold off. The result is that the stock of unfit accommodation still stands at an estimated 44,000 dwellings. The person in charge of the economy will be the Minister of hand-outs to foreign companies and of a low wage economy. Almost 20% of the workforce, some 77,000 are in jobs that pay less than £4.50 per hour. 7% (28,000) earn less than £3.50. The Social Services Minister will be in charge of implementing New Labour’s attacks on the benefits system, on the unemployed and on lone parents.

Because of the higher levels of poverty, these cuts bear down harder in Northern Ireland than in Britain. Lone parents, mostly women, head one in four of all families. In turn three quarters of female lone parents are on income support. The Education Minister will be in charge of the elimination of student grants and imposition of fees. And so on ...

81. The huge movement against cuts in local hospital services may mean that the Assembly will not be able to implement the British government’s current proposal for services to be concentrated in a handful of “golden” hospitals. Which of the Assembly’s new intake will with their first act commit political hara-kiri by voting to shut down Hospital services in their area? But money spent on maintaining services saved in one area will have to come from somewhere else. The Executive will have the cake of the Public Expenditure Block and will be able to cut it as they wish. The problem is that a bigger slice on one plate means a smaller slice on another.

82.The inability of the Executive to deliver real change will mean an erosion of support among the working class for all the Parties within it. This will be particularly difficult for Sinn Fein because their support is concentrated among the working class and because their inability to deliver will be on two fronts – on the economy and on the National Question.

83. The Sinn Fein leadership were only able to win majority support for the abandonment of the military tactic by convincing enough of their hard-line supporters that they were putting in place an alternative form of struggle which would more surely achieve the same goals of British withdrawal and eventual reunification. Throughout the peace process this hard-line wing has attempted to ring fence the catholic community from the State, and to weld it behind Sinn Fein. The issue of parades has been deliberately used to segregate “nationalist” territory and to give the republican movement a controlling influence over working class areas. The Agreement has been sold to hardliners as one further step away from the Union. It has been argued that provided the alienation of the catholic population from the State is maintained the Deal can be used as a vehicle both to achieve equality and to make partition even less tenable.

84. In fact the Agreement is more a victory for unionism, more a guarantor of the constitutional status quo than an agency of change. Adams and McGuiness are now finding that the political road they have chosen has a single direction with no escape routes. And they have gone too far down it to start to turn back. The establishment of the Executive and its survival will require further concessions from them, probably first on decommissioning, but ultimately on political matters such as policing. All this is being sold on the threadbare argument that Sinn Fein need ministerial positions because these are the routes to seats and influence on the all-Ireland bodies. These lame and powerless bodies which deal with co-operation on as yet unspecified matters of second rate importance can be beefed up into ...! The credibility of the line of argument disappears at this point. Sinn Fein will discover that there is a fundamental contradiction between a strategy of maintaining catholic alienation from the State and, at the same time, participating in the foundation of new institutions of that State, including new policing structures, which, once agreed, will have to be welcomed into catholic areas. It is not possible to lead a struggle for the dismantling of a State by accepting ministerial positions within it!

85. How this contradiction works itself out will depend on events and particularly whether the alternative of class struggle begins to emerge. The more politically intransigent voices within the republican movement are isolated for the moment.

Disillusionment and apathy within the catholic working class, plus hesitancy to follow any route that points to sectarian confrontation, may allow the Sinn Fein leadership to continue on their present course and to abandon every tenet of republicanism on the way. The loosening of their presently firm basis of support in catholic working class areas could allow class issues to surface and an open class opposition to Sinn Fein to form. The emergence of a united movement of the working class would most likely produce a sectarian response from the core of Sinn Fein. In turn this could open up big divisions within the party and its periphery with a substantial section open to the idea of a socialist alternative.

86. Disillusionment with the Assembly will grow over time among the working class. It is possible that this can take a sectarian form. Within the power-sharing Executive the lines of sectarian division will remain. It will probably not just be the constitutional issues that will prove contentious. Even the allocation of departmental budgets could cause divisions along sectarian and along party lines. As well as the “usual” squeals from Ministers that their responsibilities are underfunded we are likely to hear squeals from Parties that their Ministries are being deliberately starved of funds; that such and such an area is not allocated money because there is a Sinn Fein Minister – and so on. The fact of power-sharing will not wipe away sectarian suspicions, allegations and actual discriminatory practices but will merely give them a different ground for expression. All the major parties are likely to use sectarianism to try to hold on to their working class base and to try to break future united movements of the working class.

87. Those opposed to the Deal will continue to try to find some issue around which they can whip up enough support to pull the new government apart. The DUP and other unionist dissidents will continue to portray the whole thing as a carefully laid nationalist trap that will end with a United Ireland. They may well demagogically campaign on social and economic issues in order to maintain working class support and to deflect working class anger along sectarian channels. But if they eventually take the ministerial positions on offer, even on their terms of non-attendance at any cabinet meetings along with Sinn Fein, they may find it more difficult to mount an offensive against the failure of other Ministers to deliver change. Hard-line republicans are also likely to use the absence of any real improvement in conditions in Catholic working class areas to their advantage. They will try to show that the new Stormont is a revamped version of the old in order to undermine the authority of Adams and McGuinness.

A class opposition to the Assembly?

88. It cannot be ruled out that an issue will arise which will provoke such a response among either Protestant or Catholic workers as to make the position either of Trimble or of Adams impossible. But it is also possible that class issues will come to the fore and that disillusionment with the new government will express itself in class more so than in sectarian terms.

89. There are many local issues on which campaigns are currently taking place. Will the Assembly stand over the dumping of toxic waste at Mullaghglass? Or will it accept some other site on someone else’s backyard? Will it go ahead with the selloff of Belfast Harbour and with it acres of prime development land in the centre of the city? Will it implement New Labour’s benefit cuts? Will it adopt New Labour’s paltry minimum wage figure? When struggles take place on such issues the Assembly will provide a local focus, a target for demonstrations and protests, which has been missing up to now.

90. In recent years there has been a downturn in strikes and local struggles. 1992 saw the lowest strike figures ever recorded with a total of 5 Strikes and 7,734 working days lost. In 1996 there were only three strikes but 20,201 working days were lost. The number of days lost fell again in 1997. However strikes have tended to be bitter, none more so than the ten week battle in the summer of 1997 at Montupet. Even the Northern Ireland Officer of the ICTU, while trying to pressure the Montupet workers to go back to work, confessed to one of the strike leaders that this was the most bitter strike he had experienced.

91. Other struggles have been explosive in character, particularly the battle to save services in local hospitals. Twice this year there have been enormous demonstrations on this issue – in Dungannon in May and in Downpatrick in September. In each case virtually the entire local population was mobilised, with turnouts rivalling that of the massive vigil held in Omagh one week after the bomb.

92. An increase in the tempo of the class struggle in Britain will have knock on effects in the north. Developments in the south will also leave their mark. The new Executive will have to deal with future Montupets, future campaigns on social issues. Workers listen attentively to the response of local Ministers to their demands. Once the anti-working class nature of the major parties starts to expose itself political conclusions will follow. Any future elections would pose concretely the question who is to represent working class interests within the Assembly.

93. How the pressures of the class struggle will reflect themselves politically is an extremely complex question. It will not be as straight forward a matter as a clearing of the existing decks and the setting up of a new party. The internationally established tendency of the recent period has been towards regroupments, coalitions, alliances, as the first step to the rebirth of working class politics and parties. This may also be the predominant characteristic locally especially in the short term.

94. Within the Assembly there are smaller parties who would have liked to have been part of the government but who find themselves excluded by the D’Hondt system of ministerial selection which they accepted during the negotiations. The PUP has sunk roots in Protestant working class areas in and around Belfast. During the talks they dulled their initial radical image by doing little more than provide a prop for Trimble. It is possible that they will continue with this role, seeing their two votes as vital to maintain Trimble’s majority among unionist delegates. Or they could find themselves voicing Protestant working class anger and begin to develop an opposition role. In that case they could sink even deeper roots. In one sense they would then be an obstacle to the emergence of a new formation in that they would in part fill the vacuum for one section of the working class. However, in another sense, by fragmenting Unionism along class lines, they could actually speed its development.

95. The leading figures in the Women’s Coalition were quite open about their ambition to be Government Ministers. They are led by careerists very much in the New Labour mould. But, locked out of the Executive, it is possible that they too might find themselves voicing opposition to cutbacks and other attacks. On this basis they might take on a certain flesh. The idea of broadening the Coalition into a Peoples Coalition has apparently been raised, presumably by Communist Party members within it. It requires a leap of imagination to see the present two Women’s Coalition delegates becoming involved in any workers struggles. Nonetheless the fact that the party has two seats means that it, or a section of it, may play a role in the emergence of some future realignment of the left.

96. It is impossible at this stage to sketch the possible future political development of the left except in the broadest outlines. What happens in the unions is vital. The trade unions at the top have undergone a process of bourgeoisification similar to the mass working class parties. The unions however retain an umbilical connection with the working class that acts as a check on how far this process can go. Despite the contraction in union membership 39.6% of the workforce in Northern Ireland is still organised. Future struggles, including unofficial and rank and file led battles, will leave their imprint on the official union structures. Were a section of the unions to shift to the left and start to adopt a political agenda this would have a big effect and could be the catalyst around which a new working class formation could emerge.

97. The emergence of some political formation to fill the gap to the left of Labour in Britain could quickly lead to moves to follow suit from within Northern Ireland. Our Party, with one and possibly more than one Dail seats-in the South, could have a similar effect. Even without these more dramatic developments it is likely that the coming period will see efforts to open discussions between the existing left parties and organisations to see if some common platform can be agreed in anticipation of a second Assembly election. We would have to carefully assess the forces involved and the potential in deciding our attitude. Overall, while building our party, we must remain alive to all other developments and be prepared to respond to every positive opening.

98. We may well be on the threshold of a new and much more favourable period. We could soon be faced with the chance to grow, both numerically and in terms of influence, as at no other time in our history. Our Party is uniquely poised to take advantage of this situation. We are the only group on the left with coherent ideas that match the present reality and with a clear tactical understanding.

Tasks for the Socialist Party

99. Because we have taken the question of ideas and analysis seriously we are the only group on the left which is theoretically equipped to face into the new situation. The debate we recently held on the National Question was an essential prerequisite for our ongoing work under present circumstances. Formulations that we previously put forward, and which were correct in a previous period, would to-day trap us uncomfortably close to the camp of left republicanism – just at a time when whatever ground existed for that ideology is fast disappearing.

100. We have understood that Partition created not one but two sectarian states. The resulting problem of the conflicting aspirations of Catholics and Protestants in the north cannot be resolved on the basis of capitalism. We have further recognised that recent developments have changed the nature of the problem. It is no longer enough to describe the National Question within the north as a problem of the rights of the catholic minority. Political and demographic changes, also changes in consciousness, have created a problem of two minorities, Catholics in the north and Protestants in the increasingly all Ireland context. Both minorities have rights and both rights must be equally respected in our programme.

101. The Catholic minority has the right to full equality in the north and also the right, should it wish to exercise it, to say no to its inclusion in the current State. Similarly the Protestant minority in Ireland as a whole has an equal right to say no to its incorporation into a United Ireland. To take any other position today would be to support the coercion of the Protestant community.

102. These rights are mutually exclusive and cannot be reconciled under capitalism. The choice between a capitalist United Ireland and the status quo is no choice. Limited to these options there can only be ongoing conflict and, ultimately, civil war. At times the conflict can reach stalemate, and the exhaustion of the contending forces may allow a temporary accommodation as with the present settlement. But, unresolved, the conflict will reassert itself at some point. Only as part of the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a socialist society can the National problem be finally resolved.

103. We have updated our programme on the National Question in line with our analysis. Our general slogan of a Socialist Ireland as part of a voluntary Socialist Federation of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and of a broader European Socialist Federation or Confederation remains. But within this slogan it is not enough to say that Protestants will eventually come round to accept a Socialist United Ireland and refuse to address the question, “what if they don’t?” While putting forward the preferred option of a single socialist state we have to accept that this can only come about with the agreement of the Protestant working class. Our programme must include an unconditional guarantee that Protestants would not be coerced, they would be granted the right to opt out should they wish, in effect the right to establish their own state and determine its external relations.

104. Our approach on the National Question carries through to other issues. On parades we resisted the notion accepted by most of the left that this was solely a question of the rights of residents. When the disputes at Drumcree first threatened to explode we refused to adopt the one-sided slogan of residents groups of “no consent, no parade”. Instead we put forward the idea that this was a conflict between two rights, the right to march and the right of residents to object, and that the only way to resolve it was through local negotiation. At the time this position was not widely accepted. We met some resistance even within our own ranks. But over time it has been entirely vindicated.

105. The confirmation of our ideas and our analysis provides us with a firm theoretical platform from which to build. Likewise our flexible approach to tactics and the way that this approach has been applied means that our party is now strategically positioned to grow. Over the past decade our organisation internationally has engaged in an extremely rich discussion on tactics and on the nature of the party we are trying to build, a discussion which is still ongoing.

106. The dominant feature of world relations in the post war period was the existence of two superpowers and the rivalry between them. This, and the crushing weight of the mass workers parties at least in the advanced countries, set certain parameters for our work. In this period it was possible to work out broad perspectives for a whole historical period. From this it was possible to draw tactical conclusions which likewise could be applied over years, even decades.

107. This situation no longer applies. The collapse of Stalinism has ushered in a new era in world relations, a period of instability and rapid change. In this situation perspectives tend to be short term and much more conditional. From perspectives flow the programme, the tasks and the tactics of the party. Any discussion on perspectives is now incomplete if it does not go on to review and update all three.

108. In short much of the tactical and methodological approach which we adopted in the post war era would be counterproductive today. From the 1960s right through to the 1980s our organisation worked within the Labour Party in Britain and, where we had forces, within the other mass reformist parties of the working class. This tactic was based on the perspective that the first instinct of the working class in moving into struggle would be to try to change these parties either by joining or applying pressure through the trade unions or other bodies. The tactic was correct and helped build quite powerful forces in Britain, Ireland and a number of other countries.

109. Although carried on for an extended period this was a tactic. There were some within our ranks who lost sight of this and wanted to continue with this work even when conditions had changed. By the late 1980s it was clear the old mass parties were becoming bourgeoisified, that the direct relationship with the working class was being broken and that future line of advance would more likely take the form of the emergence of new parties and formations. Differences over this and over the decision by the majority to make a turn to open work led to a rift in our organisation.

110. In Ireland we conducted the open turn in 1992, setting up Militant Labour, and followed this in 1996/7 with the establishment of the Socialist Party. Our successes have entirely vindicated these decisions. However, the building of a revolutionary organisation in this complex and contradictory period poses new challenges and new difficulties to be overcome.

111. It is possible for some longstanding comrades, schooled in the work of the previous period, to lose their footing in this period. A search for ready-made formulas, cut and dried answers to every question, will not produce results. It is as necessary as ever to be firm on revolutionary principles, but it is now much more essential to be light-footed on the application of these principles. We need to develop flexibility in organisational forms, in programme and in tactics. Much of the discussion and disagreement within our International on these questions revolves around how this can be done.

112. There are no blueprints or pocket manuals on how to build. Nonetheless there are issues on which we need to remain firm. One is the nature of the party we are building. We must be flexible, but flexible around a revolutionary core. Another is the manner in which we organise. A revolutionary organisation needs revolutionary discipline. After the downfall of Stalinism it became common for workers to confuse revolutionary methods of organisation with the undemocratic practices of the Stalinist parties and States. We have always based ourselves on the Democratic Centralist method of organisation that had been adopted by the Bolsheviks. In order to avoid confusion with Stalinism we have made a concession on terminology and now use the term Democratic Unity. The content, however, is unchanged and undiluted. Internally we have full democracy on all matters but we apply centralism and discipline to all our public work.

113. In the course of building, our general objective is to avoid the opposite pitfalls of opportunism and ultra-leftism. Just as past work within the mass workers parties produced pressures towards accommodation with social democratic ideas and practices so independent work produces opposite pressures towards political sectarianism. The idea can develop that we ourselves can fill the political space on the left, that we therefore will not need at some point to orientate to other forces, that we can succeed solely by raising our banner ever higher, shouting our ideas ever louder. 114. This is the present approach of the Socialist Workers Party. For them all issues and all tasks come down to one task – build the SWP. They have no concept of the rhythms of the class struggle. Their only rhythm is that of their own party building. Their “broad” campaigns are never anything more than their own organisation under another name. This is an approach that will doom them to sterility.

115. A serious approach to party building is necessary. When working independently it is necessary to develop a party profile, to campaign under the party banner, to be audacious, to miss no opportunity to recruit. It is necessary to stretch every muscle and sinew to try, as far as is possible, to fill the political vacuum. Also required, however, is a sense of proportion, an understanding that the broad mass of workers, outside of very exceptional circumstances, will not turn automatically to us, that other political currents, especially that of left reformism, will also develop.

116. We can recruit a substantial layer of the working class directly to our ranks. We have correctly put in front of ourselves the task of building a small mass party in this period. But even if we succeed in this it will still be necessary to find a bridge to other layers of the class whose first instinct will be to look for easier solutions. The question of alliances, joint campaigns, electoral pacts, and even of new merged parties made up of various trends, will come up. So too will the issue of fusions with other revolutionary currents with whom we have agreement on programme and method and, most importantly, when this agreement has been tested practically through common work. Most important in reaching the broader layers will be the application of the united front tactic. Ultimately the ability of a revolutionary party to win the majority of the working class will depend on the successful application of this tactic.

117. There is no contradiction between independent party building at one point and work under a broader banner at another. To have the perspective of working in or alongside future left regroupments is an added incentive to build our own forces in the meantime. The stronger our Party the greater influence it will have on future formations, the greater our ability to intervene within them. 118. In guarding against sectarianism today we guard also against opportunism, against liquidationism, tomorrow. Coalitions, Alliances, other forms of co-operation with other forces, are justified provided they allow us to reach a broader audience for our ideas than we could reach under our own banner. This work inevitably requires certain compromises. Generally we are prepared to make concessions in order to be part of a broader structure and to get our ideas across to workers we would not otherwise reach. But we always insist on the right to retain our ideas and to put these forward and always strive for the best possible organisational environment in which to do so.

119. Generally the conditions for this type of work have not existed internationally in recent years. The genuine forces with which we might seek some form of political alliances have not been present. Here and there, there are individuals and small groups with whom our sections might be able to link up. But there is little evidence that doing so would give us any significantly broader appeal or wider audience among the working class. What we might gain would generally not outweigh what we would lose in terms of the political and organisational compromises we might be required to make. In Scotland the comrades have argued that local conditions are different and that the basis does exist for a broader organisation. The majority within the International up to now remain unconvinced, seeing the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party as an unjustified sacrifice of organisational and political principle in return for very little that we could not have gained under our own banner.

Lessons from the Labour Coalition

120. We have tried to apply this general tactical approach to our work in Northern Ireland. Since the open turn we have already had to adapt our tactics and have undertaken various forms of work. At first we worked independently as Militant Labour. Even then we participated in a whole number of campaigns jointly with other groups where this was possible. In 1996 we joined the Labour Coalition and for a period combined work within the Coalition with work under our own banner. The decision to form the Socialist Party was taken and implemented while we were still members of the Coalition. Since its demise we have continued to concentrate on raising our own profile.

121. Each tactical turn has been possible only because of what we managed to achieve through previous work and previous tactics. The Labour Coalition was formed in 1996 in the run up to the Forum Election. The first meeting was convened by Mark Langhammer, a Newtownabbey Labour Councillor and member of B&ICO. Malachi Curran and Hugh Casey, both Councillors and former members of the SDLP, were present. The system of election adopted by the government for the Forum and talks prompted these people to come together. We were invited because of our vote in the 1992 General Election in South Belfast. Our success in independent work thus guaranteed our place in this new broader body. It also meant that from the outset we were the biggest, most energetic and best organised group within it.

122. Under other circumstances it would have been impossible for us to form any kind of workable alliance with most of those who made up this coalition. Apart from us it was made up of the remnants of B&ICO, one of the most bizarre of the left sects to have emerged from the stable of Stalinism and Maoism, ex-SDLP councillors and a smattering of individuals, some with positions in the trade unions. However the circumstances of the election justified its formation.

123. In order to guarantee that the PUP and UDP won seats there was to be a top up system giving talks seats to the top ten parties. This allowed the possibility of new groupings being elected and in particular of at least one place for the left. As no single group on the left could hope to win on their own the formation of the Coalition was not only justified it was necessary. If the initiative had not first come from others we might have had to try to create some-kind of left alliance ourselves. Not to urge co-operation and not to participate would have been utterly sectarian. In fact the Workers Party have paid a huge price for the fact that they snubbed their nose at the Coalition and insisted on fighting the election under their own banner.

124. The very fact of the formation of the Coalition created a wide interest and began to attract people beyond its initial founders. The election intervention, with over 70 candidates, followed by the winning of the tenth place at the talks, generated great enthusiasm. There was a real potential for the Coalition to take off, as the Women’s Coalition had begun to do.

125. During the initial discussions on programme, slogans and election work we won on most of the points we raised. The manifesto represented some degree of political compromise but only in that it left certain issues quite open. There was nothing in it we could not accept. We retained the right to put forward our full programme and in fact ran, with agreement from the Steering Committee, on our own manifesto in five of the eighteen seats. We also had a fair share of the media time.

126. Yet even before the election result was announced a witch-hunt against us was initiated by B&ICO. They manoeuvred Malachi Curran and Hugh Casey into the talks without anyone’s agreement and then moved to stifle our demands, for election to these positions via a general meeting, by trying to drive us out. We organised successfully to defeat this, mobilising our ranks and appealing to the broader Coalition membership. It was B&ICO who ended up leaving with their tails between their legs.

127. A cost of this battle was that we had to accept Malachi Curran and Hugh Casey as the talk’s delegates. To move against them at the height of the struggle with B&ICO would have been to open a second front and invite defeat. Although they were the worst choice of Talks delegates – two inept careerists without the inclination or the ability to use the positions to build support among the working class – we had no choice but to try to work around them, building democratic structures and putting in place measures to ensure accountability. We also insisted upon and won a voice in the Talks team. For months Curran and Casey resisted our efforts to adopt a constitution and hold a Conference. But by November we defeated them on this, winning the support of all the politically unaligned members of the Steering Committee for our arguments.

128. This victory effectively ended the Coalition. Curran and Casey by this time were getting used to the comforts and prestige of the talks and were not prepared to bow to any measure of accountability. They made clear that they would no longer accept the authority of the Steering Committee, in other words they declared the independence of the talks team from the Coalition and were preparing to cut themselves adrift. This left no option but to move against them. In February 1997 we successfully moved a vote of no confidence on the Steering Committee and began the process of deselecting them.

129. The Coalition had run out of steam by this time. Most of those who had come around at the time of the election had dropped away disappointed at the failure to make any impression in the talks. The mass of workers had probably forgotten or were unaware that Labour was in the talks. We ceased any efforts to build it. We publicly launched the Socialist Party and conducted with our own public work under this title.

130. Still, for a full year, we carried on with our challenge to the Secretary of State in order to remove them. We did so because we do not lightly surrender gains that we have helped achieve for the working class movement. Although the momentum of the Coalition was long gone and could not be rekindled, the positions in the talks offered a platform for our ideas which was not otherwise available. In the end, especially after the unaligned members of the Steering Committee became disillusioned and dropped away, it was not a matter of re-establishing the Coalition. It was simply a case of better that we should have the platform to use to advance socialist ideas than that Malachi Curran and Hugh Casey should continue to sleep on it.

131. That we won all the arguments is confirmed by the fact that neither Patrick Mayhew nor Mo Mowlam were ever able to turn us down. All they could do was stall and ensure that no decision was taken until the talks ended and it was too late. That we did not win does not mean that it was wrong to make the attempt. We did not come out of the Labour Coalition empty-handed. By our methods of democratic argument we won over many waverers and lowered suspicions of our organisation. A number of the Coalition Forum candidates joined our Party and remain active within it.

132. The biggest gain – potentially – is in the West Tyrone area. Here was the one area where a local labour grouping emerged and began to take on flesh. This was helped by the role of our comrades in the area but also by the fact that it had a local councillor, Johnny McLaughlin. Over the course of the internal Coalition disputes the West Tyrone activists backed the stance taken by us. On the Steering Committee Johnny McLaughlin backed us on every political and organisational issue. When we were faced with hefty bills due to the cost of legal action he stood firm accepting that this would mean a personal financial liability, while all of the other unaligned “lefts” capitulated.

133. Following the demise of the Labour Coalition we are back to the position that the best course for us is to develop our own banner. The fact that we have a TD position in the south is an added argument. We have already been able to use this position to good effect, to help register our political ideas and also to intervene directly as we did at Drumcree and in Omagh.

The Assembly elections

134. The gains that we made through the Labour Coalition – consolidated and used properly – can strengthen us and help us to build our own party. The Assembly Elections provide an example. This was the first election in which we considered standing as the Socialist Party. There were powerful arguments in favour of an intervention. The Curran-Casey rump of the Labour Coalition was standing claiming to be the main voice of the left, and in passing claiming that their actions had succeeded in side-lining the Socialist Party. We needed to challenge this perception. Just as our intervention in 1992 had secured our passage into the Labour Coalition so by putting ourselves forward now we would be registering the existence of our party and placing a marker for the future. Given the perspective that class opposition to the main parties in the Assembly would prepare political space for the left it was especially important that this marker was laid down in this election.

135. The difficulty was that, given the sectarian nature of the contest, we could only expect a very low vote. Even in Mid Ulster where we have an unrivalled record of work at community and trade union level the sectarian polarisation would guarantee at best that we would get second and third preferences but would be eclipsed on the first count. To emerge with a miserable vote would have been counterproductive, merely confirming any impression that we were side-lined.

136. However the fact that Johnny McLaughlin was prepared to run on our ticket allowed us to stand in other areas knowing that a respectable vote in West Tyrone would underpin our overall campaign. Without this it would have been better not to run anywhere. The alternative idea of running only in West Belfast and Mid Ulster was never an option.

137. After an excellent campaign in all areas we managed to achieve our minimum objectives. Outside of West Tyrone our votes were modest, but Johnny McLaughlin’s vote was the highest achieved by any left candidate (apart from the particular circumstances of the Workers Party vote in West Belfast). Our West Tyrone vote was better than that of any of the Labour candidates including Malachi Curran in South Down. This, despite the more extensive coverage they enjoyed and despite the huge resources they had accumulated through the talks.

Steps needed to take the Party forward

138. In the election we conquered new ground in West Tyrone. The obvious priority once it was over was to consolidate this ground in the name of the Socialist Party. The chapter of working under West Tyrone Labour had come to an end. A year of Blair in government meant it was time to drop the Labour tag. The Labour Coalition had long come apart. The task was and remains to dissolve West Tyrone Labour and regroup as many of those in and around it – including Johnny McLaughlin – as the West Tyrone branch of the Socialist Party. A branch with local roots and with a public position in one area could then be a lever to extend the influence of the party elsewhere. It would also be important for any future discussions with other sections of the left on electoral co-operation.

139. The importance of this can be seen when looked at from the negative view. If we do not succeed we will lose the political ground we captured during the election. We will no longer be as well positioned strategically among the left. Not to make the effort to consolidate our West Tyrone election gains would be akin to surrendering them without a struggle. Of course we cannot guarantee that we will succeed in drawing this wider layer into the party. Nor can we guarantee that we will hold them if we do – or that the consolidation and development of this branch would not bring its own problems, which we may or may not be able to overcome. There are no guarantees in politics – other than that to do nothing is to guarantee failure.

140. What we are proposing in relation to West Tyrone is in line with the method of building that our party in Ireland and other sections of our international have had to adopt. We are going through a very particular historic conjuncture that has its own special features to which we have to adapt. The number of activists in the broad labour movement has declined. Left political forces have also faded. At the same time there have been and are bitter struggles on industrial and social issues.

141. Where we have intervened we have very often been the only people with any experience of disputes or any idea about organisation and about tactics. In many cases we have found that we have had to play a leadership role, exerting an influence far beyond our numbers. The water charges campaign in the south is only one example.

142. This work has brought us in contact with a broad layer of local activists who have been impressed by our ability to achieve results. In trying to bring these people into our party we immediately confront another problem of this period – the problem of consciousness.

143. The collapse of Stalinism had a huge negative impact on consciousness. Even among working class activists, those involved in community and workplace organisation, the idea of socialism, let alone of the revolutionary transformation of society, dimmed.

144. A layer, especially of youth will come to our party in search of a socialist and. revolutionary alternative. But many workers will approach us because of our record in campaigns, our intervention in strikes, our involvement in community issues. They may do so because they have been impressed with our serious approach, our tactical ability, our achievements in struggle, more so than by our general ideas and explanation. Our approach has to be to bring such people into the party, even if they only have a hazy concept of what we are about and even if there remain disagreements on issues that we might have considered fundamental in the past.

145. Our party must present itself as a broader party which represents the best class fighters and is proud to have them in its ranks. In recruiting we strive for political understanding and agreement. We cannot, however, insist on full agreement on the fundamentals of Marxism, on our historical analysis or on the fine print of our programme as a precondition of joining.

146. Our aim is to build among the broadest possible layers, but to do so without diluting our revolutionary ideas, methods or structures. This can only be achieved if recruitment is followed up with consolidation, education and training. There needs to be a constant process of. bolshevisation from within.

147. In regard to in West Tyrone, Mid Ulster or any area where we are involved in day to day work in the community this has to be the approach. It is a major breakthrough that we now have a councillor and public figure in the area prepared to consider joining our party. That someone who wishes to join is a public representative makes no essential difference to our approach to recruitment. There are conditions that we apply to public representatives before we would accept their membership, fundamentally an agreement to represent the ideas of the party at all times. If Johnny McLoughlin were prepared to accept this condition we should enthusiastically accept his membership. We need to seize the opportunity and work from there.

148. A broad approach to recruitment but a strict approach to consolidation is possible, but on one condition – that within the party there is a cohesive revolutionary leadership and a backbone of committed comrades who know what has to be done and are up to the task.

149. It is not enough to deal with the strengths of the party or its successes. A document and a discussion that does not also deal with the weaknesses and problems, and with ways to overcome them, stops short at the level of tub-thumping.

150. Our perspectives point to an opening in the objective situation. A review of our ideas and our interventions shows that our party is geared up politically and is strategically poised to benefit. Unfortunately this does not guarantee~ that we will succeed, or that the opportunity will not pass us by.

151. Internal difficulties exist within the organisation and are a handicap to growth. The nature of the discussion we had over the election and over West Tyrone is one example. Uncorrected these problems can prevent us intervening in coming events with the single mindedness and the energy which will be necessary. Already since the Assembly election we have lost time in developing the situation in West Tyrone and the potential which was there last June may already have partially slipped away.

152. Whatever difficulties we have are confined to the top of the organisation. They are not reflected among the active and positive rank and file members, or in our interventions. However because of the crucial role of leadership in a revolutionary organisation any loss of cohesion at the top can have an extremely negative effect. This is especially so in a difficult objective situation and at times of retrenchment of the revolutionary forces. Now that the task is to gear up the entire party to take advantage of the new opening the role of the Regional Executive Committee and the other leading bodies is vital. We need a cohesive leadership which acts in a disciplined revolutionary fashion to energise and reactivate the entire party. The example and lead in this must come from the top.

153. The problem is not that there are differences. It is not possible to build a revolutionary party without encountering differences, without debate and without at times sharp clashes over issues. Debate that is conducted openly can be constructive and beneficial. A polemic around a point of difference can serve to clarify and to educate the whole organisation. It can be possible to resolve differences and sharpen the work of the party in this way.

154. The real difficulty comes when differences arise, very often on secondary matters, with a consistency which points to a more fundamental disagreement but one which never quite comes out. If a difference is only half formulated or never fully expressed it ends up only as a complaint. In any debate it is never enough just to raise opposition. It is always necessary to present an alternative. Only when an attempt is made to do this can the real essence of a disagreement be uncovered. We need a full debate involving the whole membership on any alternative proposals on perspectives, programme or tactics in order to clarify and attempt to reach full agreement on all basic matters.

158. Until recently we had suffered a fall in the numbers active and in the activity levels of those who were active. The work we have put in over recent months has begun to turn this situation around. There has been an increase in activity levels, some comrades who were inactive have come back into activity and we have recruited important new members. We have re-established our publications, have increased the pace of our activity and generally raised the profile of the party. Our work in the trade unions is being put on a sounder footing and we have recruited, or are in the process of recruiting, a number of people with important positions in this field. We have taken up community and environmental issues as with the campaign against toxic dumping in West Belfast. In Mid Ulster our community involvement has led to an important community organisation supporting our campaigns and even helping us out the in election. We are playing a leading role in campaigns against hospital cuts. This is the real face of our party and this type of work has to be continued and developed.

159. To maintain this improvement and to begin to shape the party for the immense tasks that lie ahead we must first and foremost re-lay the political and organisational foundations around which to rebuild. This is the purpose of this document. Hopefully the discussion around it will lead to a fuller agreement and to an even greater urgency about building. Following this discussion we need to put in place a cohesive and revolutionary leadership and work to develop a powerful force of committed and energetic comrades who can drive the work forward.

160. The methods of democratic unity need to be re-established. Decisions, once taken, must be implemented. In a broader party it is harder to apply this concept in the ranks. It is necessary to convince the membership of the need to act, not to resort to organisational strictures. But to allow this loosening of centralism at the bottom and still have a party which functions it is necessary to have a corresponding tightening of centralism at the top.

161. This can be the most important discussion on perspectives and tasks we have ever held. It is a necessary discussion to prepare us for the immense tasks ahead. We can emerge with a party that is strengthened politically and strengthened organisationally. We can then face with confidence the immediate task of building the Socialist Party into a “small mass” party in the north.

The key tasks of the party in the immediate period include the following:

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Last updated: 19 July 2015