In Ireland, the most pronounced and obvious difference we have had with the SWP has been over the North. During the course of the Troubles our parties have adopted positions so divergent that any form of practical co-operation on issues relating to the North would have been impossible.
For most of this period, the SWP has approached the conflict from the standpoint of Republicanism, putting forward what can, at best, be characterised as a left-Republican position. By contrast, we have rejected all forms of sectarianism and have consistently advocated the unity of Catholic and Protestant workers as the only possible road to a solution.
You will, no doubt, deny the charge that you have been lodged in the camp of left-Republicanism for much of the last thirty years. Your letter specifically does so and lays claim to a different political legacy.
“The claim that we supported the tactic of armed struggle is wrong and most probably designed to win cheap support from forces to the right of both the SWP and the SP – we have consistently attacked the armed struggle as counterproductive and helped to initiate labour movement demonstrations which opened the way to peace,” (SWP letter, 11 January 1999).
This illustrates a difficulty in conducting any form of political dialogue with the SWP. It is not just that you chop and change your ideas to correspond with the then-prevailing mood, but that you do so in total denial that there has been a change, or that you ever said anything different from what you are saying today. In regards to the North, your party suffers from a severe case of political amnesia. The above statement from your letter is quite simply a lie. We will illustrate this by quoting what you actually said.
These quotes will show that your views have chopped and changed in what at first might seem an almost random manner. But there is an underlying consistency in these shifting sands of political inconsistency. To uncover this, all that is necessary to do is to take soundings of the mood swings in the Catholic working class areas. When Catholics welcomed the British Army, you were silent about the role that troops would play. Only when the repressive methods of the troops turned this support into enraged opposition did you oppose their role. When the IRA enjoyed a mass base of enthusiastic support among the Catholic youth, you defended their military campaign. Now that the predominant mood is against a return to war, the SWP are opposed to a return to “futile” military methods.
Today you are against paramilitary methods and for class unity. Had this change come about through an honest reassessment and correction of an analysis that has turned out to be mistaken, we would be prepared to discuss with your members to see if there is now political common ground between us. No revolutionary organisation is immune from mistakes. The real test is how it faces up to its errors, how it goes about correcting them. A change of position, properly debated and explained at every level of the party, can strengthen an organisation, creating a firmer theoretical base.
A change carried out in the manner of the SWP, behind the backs of the membership, with no explanation except denial that it has taken place, will do no such thing. It means that we can have no confidence that what you are saying today will be what you are saying tomorrow, and neither can your membership have any confidence. The working class will not take seriously a “revolutionary” organisation whose opinions are contoured, like desert sand, according to the prevailing political wind.
A change of policy arrived at blindly and empirically is bound to be piecemeal. So your shift from the sinking ideology of left-Republicanism to the firmer ground of class politics, has been partial and incomplete. Your upper body may have shifted towards the labour movement, your feet remain fixed where they were, in the camp of left-Republicanism. When class issues are to the fore, we have the new thinking of the SWP on the North. When the issues of parades like Drumcree emerged, and a confrontational sectarian mood developed in Protestant and Catholic areas, your party very quickly reverted to its old ways of thinking.
In replying to the specific issues raised in your letter we will refer to the actual record of your party on the North, not to what you now falsely claim that record to have been. When it comes to our policies and our role, your letter contains quite blatant distortions. We will put these to the side and set out what we have actually said and done.
On the issue of the “armed struggle,” the differences between us have been as night and day. At the outset we explained the reasons for the emergence of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. The factors which gave the Provisionals a mass base of support among the Catholic working class youth were the apparent failure of mass action, in the form of the civil rights movement, to deliver real change; brutal repression by the army and police, especially internment and Bloody Sunday; the poverty endemic in Catholic areas; and finally the failure of the labour movement to offer any alternative means of fighting back.
We understood the reasons for the IRA campaign and we did not see the IRA, as is implied in your letter, as the root cause of the violence. But we stood against the illusions which were widespread among the most combative of the Catholic youth that the Provisionals’ methods offered any way forward. The first issue of Irish Militant, produced at the beginning of 1972, carried an article on the Provisionals. Its headline summed up our attitude: Provisional IRA strategy will not defeat Imperialism. In this, and in other material we produced at that time and since, we opposed the tactic of individual terrorism.
We explained the difference between guerrillaism – which can have a certain legitimacy in underdeveloped countries as the method of struggle of the peasantry – and individual terrorism, which has none. We argued that the efforts and sacrifice of those radical Catholic youth who joined the IRA would be wasted. Far from weakening the state, individual terrorism tends to strengthen it by giving the excuse for a whole raft of repressive measures which otherwise might not have reached the statute books. Inevitably, it would be the people in the working class areas in whose name the campaign was being fought who would feel the full severity of this repression. Against these false methods we counterposed mass action by the working class as the only way to change society.
We went further. The Provisionals’ campaign was not only futile, it was totally counterproductive. It was based on only one section of the working class and had the effect of infuriating the other. It helped deepen the sectarian divide and, in so doing, weakened the working class, the only force capable of showing a way forward.
We took seriously our responsibility to warn the Catholic youth of the blind alley into which they were facing. We did so when the tide of history was against us, when it was not popular; not “revolutionary” to resist the turn to the gun, and not after the event when history had already proved the point. Not so the SWP – or for that matter the rest of the “revolutionary” left – who capitulated to the pressures in the Catholic areas and acted as left apologists for the Provisionals.
Did the SWP, as you claim, stand against the stream and oppose the military tactics of the IRA during the early 1970s when thousands of the best of Catholic youth were moving to embrace these methods? Here is what you actually said – and it is a long way from your current claim to “have consistently attacked the armed struggle as counterproductive.”
“The only way to minimise loyalist threats and at the same time keep up the anti imperialist struggle is to ensure that the military campaign is subordinate to the political interests of the working class.” (The Worker, June 1972) What precisely does this mean? The following makes it quite clear:
“Attempts to link the various aspects of the anti-imperialist offensive, North and South, must be made by socialist republicans within their organisations and in the resistance movement. Only when the military campaign is directed by such political ends will Whitelaw’s attempts at splitting the anti imperialist side be overcome and the possibility of making an impression on Protestant workers become a reality.”
This was the general position which the SWP adopted, basically that the problem with the military campaigns was that it did not have socialist republicans – like the SWP – leading it and giving it political direction. At times, the unconditional support for the Provisionals was hedged with criticisms of aspects of the campaign. Whether the emphasis was on acting as cheerleaders for the IRA, or on criticisms which would distance the SWP from IRA actions, depended opportunistically upon the mood at the time. The allies, such as the SWP, which the IRA won for itself on the “revolutionary left” would turn out to be fair-weather friends.
Here is just one example. In October 1974 the British Socialist Worker (19 October) had this way to say on the subject of the troops and IRA activity in Britain:
“It’s up to us to fight to get them (troops – editor) out, by making their dirty war so unpopular with British workers that the Government cannot continue with it. That means we support all those in Ireland who want to get rid of British troops, including the IRA. When people get hysterical, about IRA bombs in Britain tell them that 20,000 troops in Ireland is like 660,000 foreign troops occupying our towns and cities.”
A few weeks later on 21 November the IRA planted bombs in the centre of Birmingham which killed 19 people and injured hundreds. There was an immediate wave of revulsion and an angry anti-IRA and anti-Irish mood swept Britain. On November 30th the Socialist Worker ran with a headline Stop the bombings. The SWP got over the difficulty of supporting the IRA campaign in Ireland where it remained popular among the most combative of the Catholic youth, and opposing it in Britain by drawing the following distinction:
“For we recognise that the Provisional IRA does not operate only, or even mainly, as an organisation carrying out terrorist attacks in Britain. Most of its energies are directed to a quite different task – that of defending the Catholic part of the population of Northern Ireland against murderous attacks, whether they come from the British army or from loyalist thugs. We have to continue to support it in this defence role – at the same time as completely dissociating ourselves from action which kills or maims workers.” (Socialist Worker, 30 November 1974)
Of the IRA bombing campaigns which had been blitzing towns across Northern Ireland since 1971, not a mention. Of the sectarian nature of some of these attacks, including on occasions the blowing up of pubs in Protestant areas, not a word. In England, condemnation of unpopular actions and a call to halt – in Ireland a prettification of the IRA campaign and full support for it to continue.
By the 1980s the IRA campaign was faltering and losing support. The SWP accordingly altered the balance of support and criticism a little in the direction of the later. There was greater emphasis on pointing out that the IRA’s methods would not succeed. But there was no call on them to stop. Rather as the January 1986 issue of Socialist Worker put it: “We give unconditional support to the IRA in their fight against the Northern State. And we defend their right to take up arms against British imperialism.”
More recently this position has been dropped. With the IRA cease-fire in place and deep opposition among the working class to any resumption, the SWP have accepted the accomplished fact, forgotten about the “right to take up arms,” and come out against a return to war. Recent SWP material has carried similar theoretical arguments against individual terrorism as those put forward by the Militant/Socialist Party since the early 1970s, arguments which the SWP, for more than 20 years, categorically rejected.
The Socialist Party and before it, Militant, have always stood for the unity of the working class, Catholic and Protestant, as the only basis for a solution. We have explained that this unity can only be built around the common interests of workers, not around the ideas either of Nationalism or of Unionism. Contrary to what you imply this does not mean ignoring issues such as repression, the role of the state, parades, or the national question. It means taking these up in a class manner which can unite workers, not in the sectarian manner they have most often been raised.
Recently the SWP has begun to pay lip service to the idea of class unity. Your letter even claims that you played a role in initiating labour movement demonstrations against sectarianism, a claim which will be greeted with incredulity by those who were actually involved and who knows that the SWP played no role whatsoever in these movements.
In the early 1970s the sectarian reaction seemed unstoppable and the idea of class unity was, to most people, a dim and distant prospect. While the Socialist Party/Militant defended workers unity as the only way forward, the SWP were swept along by the tide. The tiny forces of the SWP were presenting themselves as a radical wing of the “resistance” movement which had sprung from Catholic areas and whose cutting edge was the Provisionals. The “problem” of the Protestant working class was dismissed as something to be dealt with in the future, when immediate issues such as the presence of the troops was resolved.
The arguments set out in SWP publications of the time come close to the Stalinist “theory of stages,” first unity with other non-socialist forces to “solve” the national question, then, and only then, can the class issue come onto the agenda. Eamonn McCann writing in Socialist Worker (25 May 1974) argued:
“If the troops get out, it will at least create the conditions for the Irish people, North and South, to work out their own future, free from outside interference. Which, of course, they have every right to do. In that situation it is likely that Protestant sectarianism would fragment if Protestants lost the British backing which they’ve come to except as their right. The basic point is that the development of working class politics in Ireland is desperately difficult while the National Question is still unresolved.”
Four years later Eamonn McCann, writing in the SWP journal, Socialist Review (No. 6, October 1978), doesn’t bother to camouflage his nationalist conclusions with even the scantiest socialist dressing:
“And we are no longer marching for more ‘civil rights,’ but against the root cause of all our political ills: British domination. Because the main lesson to be learned from the last decade is that the real problem never was the way Britain ran the North. It was the fact that Britain ran the North. And until Britain leaves, there’ll be no end of trouble.”
The idea of Protestant and Catholic workers uniting and fighting for a socialist solution is at no time part of the thinking of the SWP, other than as the music of some distant future. How could any prospect of achieving class unity be seriously considered when the party held the following opinion of the Protestant working class:
“Orange bigotry is based on Protestant privilege today as surely as it was when the Orange Order as founded in 1795. Then, the privilege was to do with access to the best land on the most favourable terms. Today, it has to do with jobs, houses, social prestige and access to political influence. The fact that, from the Protestant worker’s point of view, the privilege is pretty small, matters not at all. When tuppence half-penny is looking down on tuppence, the half-penny difference can assume an importance out of all proportion to its actual size. The same is true for the ‘poor whites’ of the southern states of the US or the skin head racists of the National Front in Britain.” (Socialist Worker, No. 25, April 1986)
Or, the same sentiment put rather more succinctly and to the point:
“In this sense Protestant workers can be compared to the poor whites of the Southern states of the USA. Their cheap labour goes hand in hand with their racism.” (Socialist Worker, No. 21, December 1985).
Even were the “privileges” enjoyed by the Protestants to come under attack you held out no real hope that the “ignorant” Protestant workers could be won away from loyalism:
“Despite the wave of redundancies that have hit the Protestant industrial heartlands, the perspective of most Protestant workers has been to even more firmly hold on to their privileges and their state.” (Why we need a revolution in Ireland. An introduction to the politics of the Socialist Workers Movement, Socialist Worker Pamphlet, p. 27)
You go on:
“This is not to say that all Protestant workers are inevitably bound to loyalism. Their privileges are marginal. They have no objective interest in upholding those privileges above and beyond what could be achieved by uniting working class action. But given the grip of loyalism in the Protestant communities any real lead in this direction will have to come from outside.” (ibid., our emphasis.)
And even then the best hope is only that some Protestant workers will be won over:
“It is therefore only in the high point of a challenge against both Irish states that sections of Protestant workers will be broken from loyalism.” (ibid.)
Given this attitude it is not surprising that the SWP held out no real prospect of building class unity. The breaking of Protestants from loyalism would have come from the “outside.” The fact that there were powerful trade unions and a rich labour tradition, especially in Protestant working class areas, is dismissed as “economic unity” which cannot last. Of the fact that workers involved in industrial struggles are capable of drawing far reaching political conclusions there is nothing. Unity between Catholic and Protestant workers is therefore and objective, but not immediate task. The road to this unity is through the “nationalist” community. When Catholic workers link arms to struggle for socialism they will show a way to their more “ignorant” Protestant brethren and break them from their “racism.”
Here is how this strategy is explained in Socialist Worker (January 1986):
“Our alternative to the present armed struggle is for Catholic workers in the North to organise as a class against imperialism to put their case to Southern workers. If a mass movement developed out of this, Protestant workers in the Six Counties could be broken from loyalism and workers revolution would be on the agenda.”
Today the emphasis of the SWP – on most occasions – is on class unity. But as with the about face on the IRA campaign the calls for Protestant and Catholics to unite are now made in complete denial that your party ever had any other position. You have never clarified whether the condescending and sectarian – in the Northern Ireland sense – attitude you have had to the Protestant working class has been rejected or whether, although deep down and hidden for the moment, it remains your view.
Which brings us to your claim to have helped initiate the labour movement campaigns against sectarianism. Every activist in the North knows that this is not true. Socialist Party members have been involved in organising working class action against sectarianism since the mid 1970s when we participated in the 1976 Trade Union Better Life For All Campaign. During the 1980s our members were the head of the DHSS workers who established a tradition of striking against sectarian threats, whether from Republicans or from loyalists. In 1992, we organised a general strike in Mid-Ulster against the IRA atrocity at Teebane and against the sectarian attacks on Catholics being carried out mainly by Billy Wright’s Mid-Ulster UVF. Our members who took this courageous initiative well recall being chastised by SWP members for organising a “loyalist” strike.
How could the SWP have been part of labour movement campaigns which were demanding a halt to all paramilitary campaigns when you were giving “critical” support to one of the organisations which these movements were directed against? We argued that the broad labour movement was the vehicle which could mobilise workers to defeat sectarianism. You took a different view. You looked, not to the labour movement, but to republicanism, to achieve this.
“While never flinching from our profound differences with the Provos, we recognise that they are presently leading the fight against sectarianism and bigotry.” (Socialist Worker, No. 21, December 1985)
Your references to the position of the Socialist Party on repression and on the sectarian nature of the state, are wide of the mark. When the Civil Rights campaign developed we, with the very small forces we had at the time, gave full support to the struggle to end discrimination. We did not leave it at this but pointed out that Protestant working class people also suffered discrimination and poverty. We called for the civil rights demands to be broadened to class issues so that they could appeal to the Protestant working class.
This was not done and the civil rights movement could only draw its mass support from the Catholic community. In August 1969 the pogroms in Belfast and the threat of even worse pogroms in Derry at the hands of the RUC and B Specials, raised the prospect of a sectarian bloodbath. When the troops were sent in the general feeling in Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry was of relief, of a siege having been lifted. There were some underlying suspicions but it is a fact that the majority of Catholics welcomed the sight of British army uniforms.
The Socialist Party – then Militant – warned against illusions that the troops were sent to protect lives or that this would be their ongoing role. We predicted that:
“The call made for the entry of British troops will turn to vinegar in the mouths of some of the civil rights leaders. The troops have been sent to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business.” (British Militant, September 1969)
We immediately raised the call for the troops to be withdrawn, but we did not leave it at this. While the troops were not capable of protecting working class areas – their withdrawal without some alternative would have left the armed forces of unionism on one side, and, on the other, would have moved thousands of Catholics to look to their own paramilitary and defence organisations. It would have sparked civil war.
Alongside the demands for the withdrawal of troops we called on the unions to act bring Catholic and Protestant workers together in a trade union defence force. The non-sectarian committees which patrolled parts of Belfast and which prevented intimidation in 1969 offered a model of what could be done. By the 1980s, with the trade union leaders moving to the right and losing any confidence they might have had among the working class, and with the sectarian tensions subsiding, we changed our formulation and called on trade unionists and community activists to take the lead in setting up anti-sectarian committees and in attempting to link these across the sectarian divide.
Throughout the Troubles we have consistently opposed repression, but have done so in a class manner, explaining how repressive measures introduced today against republicans or against loyalists can be used in the future against working class movements which threaten the interests of capitalism. In so doing we have been able to gain the ear of Protestant and Catholic workers where others, including the SWP, have not.
In fact the only time a motion calling for the withdrawal of any section of the troops was passed by a major trade union was in 1993 when Socialist Party members proposed an emergency motion at the NIPSA Conference calling for the withdrawal of the parachute regiment. We won the argument and succeeded in getting this motion passed overwhelmingly in a conference hall packed with delegates from Protestant and from Catholic backgrounds. Interestingly the one SWP member who was a delegate neither spoke in favour of the motion, nor voted for it.
We also successfully took up the H Block issue in a number of unions. We organised a visit by the Young Socialist representative on the NEC of the British Labour Party to the H Blocks to meet prisoners. He then successfully moved a motion on the NEC which committed the Labour Party to support our position.
It is quite true that, unlike the SWP, we did not simply parrot the demands of the republican movement but put forward our own class programme on the prison issue. We put forward a charter of prisoners’ rights which went further than the five demands of the hunger strikers. As to the question of political status we did not go along with the call that all convicted on offences arising out of the Troubles should automatically be granted political status.
To recognise that someone is a political prisoner is to acknowledge that he or she has been unjustly imprisoned for political reasons. We stand not just for political status and special conditions for such people; we stand also for their release. While many of those in the H Blocks could justifiably be called political prisoners, we were not prepared to apply this label to those who, for example, had carried out heinous sectarian crimes and done so quite consciously. We were not going to campaign to award political status to people like the Shankill Butchers, then early into their sentence. Instead we called for a labour movement investigation of all cases so that the working class could determine for itself who was a political prisoner, and not simply read off a script supplied by the Republican movement or by loyalists.
Just as revolutionary phrasemongering is the stock in trade of the SWP on all other issues, so the defiant breast beating about “oppression” in Northern Ireland is just radical sounding rhetoric which quickly turns into opportunism in practice. Here, again SWP policy is determined by, and changes with, the prevailing wind.
The duty of Marxists is to tell the working class the truth, even when the price of doing so may be temporary isolation. When the troops were sent onto the streets in 1969 it was difficult to stand against the mood of support and explain what their real role would be. The SWP capitulated to the mood and welcomed the arrival of the troops. Whenever this is raised the current SWP leadership in Ireland merely shake their heads and deny that this was their position.
Here is what Socialist Worker actually said at the time the troops were sent in:
“The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists.” (Socialist Worker, No. 137, 11 September 1969)
Yes, your position was for that troops should ultimately be withdrawn when the time was right. In the meantime you supported their presence and role as the only “realistic” means of offering defence of the Catholic areas. But then everyone, including the Labour Government, was for the eventual withdrawal of the troops – after they provided the necessary “breathing space.” Your position was nothing more than a left echo, a “socialist” justification of the standpoint of the government and the ruling class.
When, under the whip of repression, the mood in the Catholic areas changed, so did the position of the SWP. By 1973/4 Socialist Worker headlines were demanding “Troops out.” The shift was from one opportunist position to another, from talk of the troops providing a breathing space, to opposition to their presence but from an out and out nationalist point of view. Completely absent from this material is even a hint of a class analysis, a class perspective or a socialist perspective. It is undiluted nationalism from beginning to end.
The SWP analysis on the troops and on Britain’s role was a left echo of the arguments of the Provisionals and other Republicans. The British presence was the root of the problem. They were in Ireland propping up Protestant supremacy. Force out the troops, end the Protestant veto, call the Unionist bluff, and the door to progress will be open!
This is what you argued:
“The supporters of Protestant supremacy and its right wing paramilitary groups can only be encouraged by the presence of the troops. British support, British troops, provide the essential support for Protestant power. They give it the confidence necessary to wage sectarian war on the Catholics. As long as Britain supports a Protestant state in Northern Ireland, and is prepared to commit troops to support that state, Protestant and Catholic sectarianism will flourish. The removal of the troops would take the crutch away from Protestant superiority. It would weaken its confidence and its influence with the majority of Protestant workers.” (Socialist Worker, 16 October 1974)
This argument is wrong on every count. The British ruling class were responsible for laying the seeds of the conflict at the time of Partition. But, by the 1960s, before the Troubles began, they would have preferred to withdraw and allow the creation of a capitalist united Ireland which they would have hoped to dominate by economic, not by direct political or military, means. They were unable to do so because there was no way they could convince the million Protestants in the North to accept a united Ireland.
To have attempted to coerce the majority in Northern Ireland into another state would have meant armed resistance and civil war. The British ruling class would then have paid the price for their past role of fomenting the divisions between Protestant and Catholic. The SWP may not have understood that Protestant resistance to a capitalist united Ireland was no bluff, but the British ruling classes were not so blind.
By the 1960s, their strategic objective was to disengage. They have been unable to move even a step in this direction because of the realities on the ground. After 1969, they were faced with a revolt in Catholic areas and chose to lean on the Protestant majority while trying to crush this revolt by military means. This was not to try to preserve the Orange State or allow a return to Stormont. While using repression with one hand the British ruling class attempted to offer concessions to woo the Catholic middle class with the other. They tried to limit and curtail, as far as possible, the sectarian excesses of the Unionists. The policy pursued by the British government during the recent peace process is not something new. It is a continuation of the policy they tried to pursue, under less favourable circumstances, at the outset of the Troubles.
Instead of attempting to analyse the real interests and real policy of the British ruling class, the SWP swallowed the Nationalist argument and arrived at Nationalist conclusions. The “root of the problem,” is described as “the British political and military presence in Northern Ireland.” (H Block – Workers action can win, p. 2) If this is the problem the prescription to resolve it becomes the unity of the so-called “anti-imperialist forces.” It is a slither away from the Stalinist idea of stages and a canyon away from Marxism.
As to the obvious fact that the withdrawal of the troops, without an alternative to provide defence, would have led to Unionists and Nationalists arming to fill the vacuum and brought about a Bosnia, the SWP glibly shrugged their shoulders.
“If the troops leave won’t all hell break out? Maybe people in Northern Ireland, mostly Catholic workers, have been living through enough hell for the past three years anyway, one of the reasons being the troops’ presence.” (Eamonn McCann, Socialist Worker, 25 May 1974)
During the H Block campaign the SWP published a pamphlet called H Block – Workers action can win. It is a good example of how the SWP took up the issue of repression. The objectives are agreed – to win a victory which can loosen the British presence, the “root cause of the problem.” The only criticism of the Nationalist leadership of the H Block campaign is that they are too compromising on the issue of political status and that they haven’t done enough to mobilise the working class to action.
Of a socialist perspective, or the independent interests of the working class, there is absolutely nothing. And the problem of Protestant opposition to the H Block campaign is solved simply by ignoring it. In fact, while there are occasional references to “loyalists” the pamphlet manages not to mention the word Protestant even once! It talks of strikes in “Waterford, Dundalk, Derry, Drogheda and parts of Belfast.” (H Block – Workers action can win, p. 11) For “parts of Belfast,” read “Catholic parts of Belfast.” This is in line with the general attitude of the SWP at the time which was to write off the Protestant working class and call for unity between Catholic workers in the North with Catholic workers in the South as the way forward.
We therefore find it ironic that you accuse others, and ourselves by implication, of a condescending attitude to the Protestant working class when you state: “We categorically reject the patronising approach that issues to do with sectarianism of the state and oppression cannot be discussed in areas such as East Belfast.” (11 January letter). We have never held this view. We have always worked in both Protestant and Catholic areas and have been able to put forward all aspects of our programme – because we raise these issues in a class, not a sectarian manner.
The SWP did not do so. The real truth is that when you were presenting a nationalist rather than a socialist case on the issues of “sectarianism and the state” you not only did not attempt to put your case to the Protestants, you justified this by dismissing the Protestant working class and arguing, in effect, for “Catholic class unity.” Only by changing your programme and then vehemently denying that you ever had done so, have you attempted, more recently, to make a partial turn to Protestant areas.
That this has been only a partial turn, brought about by the change in mood and the fact of the united class movements against sectarianism, and not by an honest reappraisal of past mistakes, has been shown by your approach to the parades issue. You attack us for referring to the dispute over parades as a “clash of rights” and for not clearly opposing the “so-called ‘right to march’ of bigoted Orangemen through Catholic areas.” (11 January letter)
Let us set out our actual position on parades. We view the Orange Order as a reactionary, sectarian organisation which has been one of the props of Unionist power in Northern Ireland. However, there is a question of degree. It is an exaggeration to portray it as a semi-fascist organisation equivalent to the British National Front or the Ku Klux Klan.
Orange parades, whether the SWP likes it or not, are part of life in Protestant working class areas. There are many working class Protestants who would have nothing to do with the Order or with Orange culture, and it is true that the Order has been in decline – until the parades controversy.
But, if the thirty years of repression directed against Catholic areas have taught anything, it is that the surest way to promote an ideology or culture is to try to ban it and drive it underground. The vast majority of Protestants, including those opposed to the Orange Order, would defend the right to march. They would particularly do so when the opposition to marches is clearly seen to come from republican-inspired groups.
The Socialist Party does not defend the right of Orangemen to march through Catholic areas. Nor do we uphold the right of republicans to hold parades through Protestant areas if there are objections from residents. However, the disputed marches are not through housing estates, but along what organisers consider to be main arterial routes or through town and village centres. Here the issue is more complex and needs to be looked at concretely.
To say a road or a town centre is Catholic/nationalist or Protestant/loyalist is to say more than “no feet” of the opposite religion are welcome on it. Signs painted up saying a village is 100% nationalist are intimidating and offensive to Protestants who live in or around it, just as the red, white and blue graffiti which bedecks many areas is offensive and threatening to Catholics.
For many years, nationalist parades were banned from Belfast city centre. The excuse given was that they caused offence to the majority of people, especially given the IRA bombing campaign which devastated much of the city centre. Our position was to defend the right of nationalists, and other minorities, to march through the city and to oppose the narrow sectarian view that the space outside Belfast City Hall was for only one religious tradition.
At a time when both communities feel their rights and traditions are under threat, there needs to be sensitivity on all aspects of the national question. To deny the Orange Order the right to march would only serve to inflame Protestants and would increase support for the Order.
We do not support the right of the Orange Order to march through Catholic housing estates or through any strictly residential areas where they are not wanted and cause offence. Where there are disputed routes which residents view as Catholic districts, but parade organisers see as arterial routes or as open town centres, we uphold the rights of residents to object and to insist on negotiation. In such circumstances of two conflicting rights, the right to march and the right to object to march, there will either be negotiation and agreement or else force will decide. In that event there is a danger of all out sectarian confrontation which could engulf the North and which would disastrously set back the cause of working class unity and socialism. To the two opposing rights of residents and parade organisers we add a third – the right of the working class to insist that we are not going to be drawn into a sectarian maelstrom due to the intransigence of either side.
In calling on community activists and trade unionists to take the initiative in brokering local agreements we rejected the slogan initially put forward by nationalists of “no consent – no parade.” The idea of consent or permission runs counter to the notion of dialogue and negotiation. On the other hand, where parade organisers refused meetings, as at Drumcree, we have fully supported the right of residents to say no to parades until such time as face-to-face discussions take place.
In the summer of 1996, the whole issue came to a head over Drumcree. Northern Ireland was taken to the brink of all out sectarian conflict. The week-long stand off tapped a mood of sympathy and support in Protestant areas which went far beyond the membership and periphery of the Orange Order. Then, under pressure of widespread and possibly uncontainable violence, the state backed down and forced the parade down Garvaghy Road.
Instantly, the mood within the Catholic community changed to rage and anger at what was universally seen as a betrayal. All eyes became fixed on the next major flashpoint – the annual Apprentice Boys march through Derry. A confrontational mood developed in Catholic area, whipped up by residents’ groups which had been formed under republican influence to oppose parades. There were proposals to block the centre of Derry to keep the Apprentice Boys out.
At that moment the call which we issued – for pressure from the working class on both sides to negotiate and come up with an agreement – jarred with the general mood and was not widely accepted. Nonetheless we persisted. We argued the point in a meeting with the Bogside Residents Committee. We went onto the streets in Derry city centre calling for negotiation – at a time when the mood in the city was that the Apprentice Boys should be physically prevented from crossing the Foyle and entering the city centre.
This was an unpopular position but, once again, it was our responsibility to tell the truth, no matter how unpalatable it might seem. To halt the Apprentice Boys would have been to send out a signal, intentionally or unintentionally, that Protestants are no longer welcome in Derry City Centre. The result would have been widespread violence with attacks on Catholic communities like the Garvaghy Road and the Lower Ormeau Road. It could very quickly have spilled into civil war.
In the end, there were negotiations and while there was no formal agreement, it was enough to defuse the situation. Since then attitudes on parades have moved somewhat. There are intransigents on both sides who want to use the issue to provoke sectarian confrontation and derail the peace process. But most people now accept that there must be negotiation and local agreement on the regularity, route, conduct and stewarding of parades. The republican movement has moved a little. The “no consent – no parade” formula is no longer used. Instead, the common slogan is “no talk – no walk,” unnecessarily confrontational language for what is a more reasonable position – that unless parade organisers talk to residents their parades will be opposed.
What of the SWP stance on parades? How has it stood the crucial test of time?
Your view is that Orangemen should not be given any rights.
“But Drumcree has shown that Orangeism has as much to do with culture as the Ku Klux Kan ... Like racism it is a poison which should be oppose by all workers ... Socialists do not call for rights for Orangeism – but militant opposition to it everywhere it emerges.” (Undated leaflet, Mass resistance can beat Orangeism)
Unfortunately, you do not follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion which is, not that Orange parades should be kept out of Catholic areas, but that they should be blocked everywhere. If you were consistent, you would be organising opposition to the Orange Order on the Shankill Road every bit as much as in Derry.
When the Orangemen were forced down the Garvaghy Road in 1996, the SWP was swept along by the angry mood in Catholic areas. Your party did not pause for thought to consider what the nature of this movement was or where it was leading. Your paper eulogised at the riots which were taking place. You talked of an uprising in Derry arguing that the riots were “political” because they tried to burn council offices and the unemployment exchange! You criticised republicans for trying to keep a lid on the situation.
As to the Apprentice Boys parade, you not only echoed the call for it to be halted, you tried to make yours the most defiant voice of the opposition. A leaflet you issued carried the headline, completely meaningless in the circumstances: Workers’ unity against sectarian Orangeism. The leaflet began: “Every worker, Catholic or Protestant, should oppose the Apprentice Boys March on the 10th.” Your paper, under the slogan “Stop this Sectarian March,” carried an advertisement for an SWP bus from Dublin to go to Derry on August 10th.
In your enthusiasm, you mistook Derry 1996 for Derry 1968-69, not recognising that this movement was fundamentally different in character. The former was a radical movement directed away from nationalism and sectarianism towards class ideas. The more recent was a movement in the direction of all out sectarian conflict. Its ideological wellspring was nationalism, not socialism. The greater the development of the earlier revolt, the greater theopportunity for united class action and socialist ideas. The more developed and sustained the upheaval in 1996, the more likely that the prospects for call unity would be subsumed in a sectarian bloodbath.
In cheering on the “uprising,” and mobilising to block the Apprentice Boys, you were cheering on sectarian reaction, not revolution. You were encouraging events which would have had a disastrous consequence on the class struggle. As over the restoration of capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe, you showed yourselves, yet again, incapable of differentiating between revolution and reaction.
It is clear that some SWP members in the North, because they were closer to the reality of the situation, did not look on these events in the same positive manner as the Dublin-based leadership. Your 1997 Conference Bulletin rebukes your Northern membership for not sharing the leadership’s enthusiasm for what was happening: “Unfortunately the SWP in the North is not entirely immune to these moods. It was obvious that deep elements of pessimism surfaced in the Northern branches when the Drumcree crisis exploded. The temptation was to see events spiralling out of control, back into the mould of sectarian politics.” In fact, the ‘temptation’ of your members in the North was to see things as they were, not to accept the unreal picture which the SWP leadership was trying to paint.
Today, the call for negotiation over parades is accepted by all but the most die-hard bigots on both sides – and standing alongside them, the SWP. If you were to be consistent you would oppose dialogue between residents and the Orange Order. You would denounce any compromise agreement which allowed Orangemen to march as a “sell-out.” Instead, you should be for physical confrontation to prevent all Orange parades. The only basis on which this position would gain support would be in the context of an upsurge in sectarianism such as developed in the summer of 1996. A supposedly “socialist” position which takes on flesh only as part of a wider sectarian reaction is untenable.
On the national question, your letter states your position clearly: “The SWP calls for the smashing of the North’s sectarian state and the formation of an Irish workers’ republic.” Even leaving aside the fact that words can lose their original meaning and the terminology you use is that of left-Republicanism, not Marxism, this formulation is wholly inadequate.
It ignores the fact that partition created not one, but two “sectarian” states. It takes no account of the changes which have taken place over the past ten to twenty years which mean that the characterisation “sectarian state” is one sided and only partly true. The state which exists in Northern Ireland today cannot exactly be equated with the Unionist state of 1921-72, just as it is now a caricature to label the Southern state either “backward” or “clerical dominated.”
Your formulation is also one sided in that it says nothing about the relationship of the working class in Ireland to the working class in Britain and beyond. You have clearly made a significant concession to nationalist, anti-British sentiment in leaving this out of your programme.
The Socialist Party advocates a socialist Ireland as part of a free and voluntary socialist federation of Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland and of a broader European Socialist Federation or Confederation. It is necessary to put this forward to counter those nationalist prejudices which may exist within the Irish working class. Nowhere in your paper or other material do we find any formulation which does this.
We have updated our position to take into account the current realities and the existing consciousness of the working class, Catholic and Protestant, North and South. The national question is not exactly the same today as it was even thirty years ago. Then the burning issue was the rights of the Catholic minority who had suffered 50 years of discrimination at the hands of the Stormont regime. Among Protestants there was still a sense of security in the fact that they were the majority and had the backing of a heavily armed state.
Catholics today still feel themselves an oppressed minority within the North. But among Protestants there is a difference. The old sense of security has largely gone. With politics increasingly acquiring an all-Ireland and international dimension, Protestants also feel themselves to be a minority whose rights are under attack.
If we are to build unity on the national question the genuine aspirations and fears of both communities have to be taken into account. This means campaigning against all remnants of discrimination and opposing the status quo which forces Catholics into a constitutional arrangement they do not accept. It also means recognising that Protestant fears that they would finish up as second class citizens in a capitalist united Ireland are real and justified. Understanding that Protestants would never voluntarily accept a capitalist united Ireland we are as opposed to this outcome as we are to the status quo.
We believe that Protestants can be won to the idea of a socialist Ireland, that is a single socialist state with the maximum devolution of power to the local level and with the rights of all minorities fully guaranteed. But at this point the majority of Protestants have made plain that they are opposed to any form of united Ireland. The question has therefore to be answered: if the Protestant working class remain opposed to a socialist united Ireland would socialists coerce them into it? Only if we answer this question with a clear guarantee of no coercion will there be any possibility of overcoming working class Protestant opposition to reunification, even on a socialist basis. Taking the argument further, a guarantee of no coercion means, in practice, upholding the right of Protestants to opt out of a single socialist state and put in place an alternative administrative arrangement for a period. This is a concession, but a concession which is necessary to make in order to build class unity now.
The national question is one of the most difficult questions faced by Marxists. It has to be examined concretely, with an understanding of how it has arisen, as well as where it is headed. It cannot be viewed statically but rather as it changes and develops. It requires sensitivity as well as an ability to register the subtle shifts in consciousness taking place among various layers in society.
There is no once and for all set of demands which Marxists can dust off the shelf and put forward as the socialist answer to every conflict. Demands have to be worked out for each situation and amended as necessary as circumstances change. The key in formulating a programme is to pose the question whether or not a demand raises class consciousness and points towards the unity of the working class across national, ethnic or religious divisions, or whether it reinforces those divisions.
In a sense the programme of Marxism on this issue is a concession, a concession to the fact that nationalist sentiments exist and that this nationalism has the potential to overshadow class solidarity and to push class issues to the background. The slogan of self-determination – that is of the right of a nationality to secede from a state – which Lenin defended against Rosa Luxemburg and others who had an ultra-left position, is a concession to the fact that nationalism has a hold, or can develop a hold, over the working class. Were Marxists to deny this right it would be the forces of nationalism which would benefit, being able to put themselves forward as the only “champions” of “their” people.
Rosa Luxemburg made a mistake in one direction, tending to dismiss nationalism. It is possible to make mistakes in the opposite direction and lean too far into the nationalist camp. By making too many concessions to the programme of nationalists, Marxists can find themselves on the nationalist side of the consciousness of the working class, and their actions can reinforce that consciousness.
Working out a programme on the national question which answers the fears and concerns of the various nationalities but at the same time raises class consciousness is a skilful task, and one which the SWP has shown not even the slightest capacity to carry out. During the Troubles, you were found on the nationalist side of the Catholic working class, putting forward ideas which emphasised their separation from Protestants and could only have had the effect of reinforcing nationalism.
When it comes to Protestants you are in the opposite corner. Protestants, you tell us, are not a “community,” they have no “separate rights.” Echoing the sentiments of Rosa Luxemburg on the national question you protest that there are not two “communities,” that there is one working class; that all talk of separate rights becomes a prescription for “a form of Orange and Green socialism that would make permanent the divisions of the working class.” (11 January letter)
So when the parades controversy arises there are “Catholic areas,” and a besieged Catholic “community.” When you talk about the “Orange state,” there is a “minority Catholic community” who have been denied basic rights. All this is correct, although not in the manner you raise it or the conclusions you draw. But when it comes to Protestant sensitivities or Protestant rights there is only one community and any suggestion of anything different is working class heresy.
It is correct to talk of two “communities” in Northern Ireland. By “community,” we do not mean a separate nation. It is a term to describe the fact that the sectarian divide has deepened and that there has been a growing sense among working class people that they are either “nationalists” or “unionists.” To deny this after thirty years of sectarian conflict is to deny reality. Recognition of what exists is not the same as acceptance or acquiescence to it. If we are to overcome a problem it is first of all necessary to be able to see it and understand it. The development of a united class movement will not be possible in Northern Ireland without acknowledging the fact that the working class is divided; that there are two communities separated on many questions, but still united on many; and requires putting forward a programme which recognises and upholds the rights of both these communities.
Lenin explained that the Russian Revolution would not have succeeded had it not been for the understanding by the Bolsheviks of the national question and the programme which flowed from this. In Ireland, as in Tsarist Russia, the national question is a burning issue. The failure of the SWP to absorb even a single grain of the method of Marxism on this question means that, unless corrected, you can make no positive contribution to the struggle to overcome the sectarian divide.
The decade of the 1990s has been a difficult period for the genuine forces of Marxism. The collapse of Stalinism, the shift to the right of the former workers’ parties, the decline of strikes, the emptying out of the trade union structures and the general throwback of consciousness as the working class have bent a little under the weight of the ideological offensive by the ruling class – all this has made the task of building Marxist organisations considerably harder.
Revolutionaries base themselves on the working class and are not immune from the pressures which come to bear on the class. It is inevitable that a downturn in struggle and a lowering in class consciousness will take a certain toll on the forces of Marxism. On the other hand, such periods, like the period of reaction in Russia after 1905 in Russia, play their part in sharpening ideas and in hardening revolutionary forces which endure them and in this way assist in the preparation for future battles.
Such periods always tend to produce peculiar ideas and to throw up strange political formations. The SWP hailed the 1990s as a period of advance, ushered in by the “positive” developments in Russia and Eastern Europe. As working class organisations shifted to the right and as the working class generally drew back from struggle, the SWP rounded on left “pessimists” and sounded the call to charge.
Where the working class draw back from struggle, but the ruling class offensive against living standards and working conditions continues, a certain space for ultra-leftism can open up. The SWP, by defying the downward gravitational pull of the class struggle was able to step into the space and grow for a period in the early 1990s. Completely unconnected to the real tempo of the class struggle, the frenzied sectarianism and the reliance on “activism” at the expense of ideas meant it could recruit, especially among students.
A new period is now opening. The economic crisis in Asia, Russia and Brazil will spread to the rest of the capitalist world. The working class and the youth will once again take to the road of struggle. They will do so with the effects of the collapse of Stalinism diminishing, and with the failure of capitalism an everyday reality. Trade union activity will increase and the working class will attempt to rebuild for itself a political voice.
It is characteristic of sectarian groups that they will try to substitute themselves for the real organisations and real movements of the working class by puffing themselves up so as to appear more important than they really are. It is one thing to do this at a time when the class struggle is at a low ebb, when the trade union branches are empty, and when the old mass workers’ parties have crossed the class lines. Even then, the exaggerated profile which the sectarian tries to project presents a ridiculous spectacle.
It is another matter, altogether, to try to do it in the face of real mass movements of the working class. Small sectarian organisations which continue to puff themselves up to try to become visible will simply explode at a certain point. To intervene in the real movements of workers requires a sense of proportion, an acceptance that revolutionary ideas are held only by a minority at the outset and that frantic efforts to make it appear that this is not so will only repel workers. Intervention means an ability to participate in the class struggle alongside workers, to have answers to the most detailed questions of tactics and strategy and not just general prescriptions. It means being able to know when to go forward and when to advise workers to retreat. It means falling in line with the tempo and rhythm of the class struggle, not the tempo set within some sectarian cocoon.
Everything we have described of the work of the SWP shows that this is all a closed book to your party. It is never too late to learn, but the current indications are that the quickening beat of the class struggle and the emergence of real forces on the left will only draw from the SWP an even more frantic “in your face” approach. It is now only possible to defy the laws of political gravity for so long. At some point it will become clear that producing more placards and shouting louder than anyone else is no substitute for reality. The emergence of real struggles of the working class will leave the SWP behind. In all likelihood the failure of the sectarian “sell papers and recruit” strategy will tilt the SWP organisation more fully into the camp of opportunism.
For Marxists, the new period we are entering will provide enormous opportunities. It will become possible to sink realroots, establish a solid base of support among the working class and to grow. On the basis of huge events and of the experience and failure of reformism and left reformism, the most combative sections of the working class can be won to Marxism. In turn, the way can be opened to reach the broader layers of the class.
SWP members need to draw the appropriate conclusions. Either they will succeed in breaking their party from sectarianism and opportunism or else, the energy and effort they are now putting into revolutionary politics will be wasted, even counterproductive.
Last updated: 4.1.2011