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Peter Hadden

Northern Perspectives: Perspectives and Tasks


Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

Editorial Note from ETOL: Peter Hadden drafted nearly all of the Northern Ireland Perspectives documents for the Committee for a Workers International in Ireland.
These documents were discussed/amended as needs be at the Irish CWI National Committee and then taken to the Irish CWI conferences for debate. They were meant to offer a broad political forecast, to help orientate the political work of the membership.
While some small modifications were made in the discussion process, it would be fair to say that the final documents are essentially those drafted by Hadden, which is why they are included in this collection.

1. The events of the past year have tended to bear out the analysis we have put forward in recent Conference documents and in other written material.

2. For this reason, and because of the pressure of other work, the National Committee is presenting a relatively brief statement, rather than a document, to this year’s Conference. This statement should be read in conjunction with other material, especially the article on the North in the Winter 2005 issue of Socialist View which deals with more recent developments including the loyalist riots of last September, plus the pamphlet – Towards division, not peace – which provides a more fundamental analysis of events leading to the paramilitary ceasefires and what has happened since.

3. In this material we explained the reasons for the increase in sectarianism that took place, particularly in the first years of the “peace process”. We pointed out that a “peace process” left in the hands of the sectarian parties and the right wing governments would not succeed in bringing any lasting solution.

4. This has been confirmed by what has happened during the past decade. The talks that have taken place have only been about securing a deal at the top between the heads of the various sectarian forces; a deal which is based upon the perpetuation of the division within society.

5. The result has not been so much a peace process as a process of unprecedented sectarian polarisation and division. Northern Ireland is now more sharply and deeply divided along sectarian lines that it was at the time of the ceasefires.

6. This division is registered in demographic terms and also in terms of attitudes, especially on “divisive” issues such as parades and policing. It is also registered politically – firstly in the crushing dominance of the DUP, the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Fein and, then in the rise of the DUP and Sinn Fein at the expense of their rivals.

7. The growing division in society, reflected in this almost total sectarian political polarisation, is the fundamental underlying reason for the collapse of the Assembly and the, currently unbridgeable impasse in the efforts to re-establish it.

8. All the attempts by the British and Irish governments to restart the talks on restoring devolution have so far come to nothing. All the deadlines they have set for talks or for a deal have had to be abandoned.

9. As the months of suspension tick back, the whole talk’s process is rapidly running out of steam. In order to put pressure on the parties, Peter Hain announced last year that he would stop the payment of MLA salaries this June unless they reached a deal to restore the power sharing Executive. There is absolutely no prospect of this happening.

10. Having made his threat, Peter Hain now has little choice but to carry it out if the politicians do not reach agreement, thereby dealing a further blow to the prospects of the Assembly ever being revived. There is no possibility whatsoever of a deal by June. Hence the latest proposal of the two governments, made over the heads of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, to restore the Assembly in “shadow” form in the early summer and give it a deadline of a few months to elect an Executive. This would allow the MLAs to collect their money for a few more months but it is unlikely to achieve anything more than this.

11. This is really a last throw of the dice by the two governments. If there is no agreement by the time the next Assembly election is due, this will mark the definitive end of the Good Friday Agreement. The idea of calling another election to a body that had run a full term without meeting would lack all credibility. It would be back to the drawing board for the governments and the political parties.

12. An eventual deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein, that the other parties would then support, cannot be completely ruled out. However the longer the deadlock continues the more difficult it will be to find any way of breaking it.

13. All this is a big blow to the hopes entertained by the ruling classes in Britain and the South that a settlement to the conflict could be arrived at. It is a particular blow to Tony Blair who, faced with the foreign policy disaster of Iraq, now may have to abandon any hope that the “hand of history” would restore his faded prestige a little by dealing him a favourable outcome in Northern Ireland.

14. The one comfort for Blair, Ahern and Co. is that, despite the on-going political stalemate and despite the growing sectarian polarisation, the intensity of the conflict has waned in the last few years. Sectarian attacks are continuing, there is trouble at the sectarian interfaces – but not at the level of two or three years ago.

15. This is not because any of the underlying issues have been resolved or are on the way to being resolved. Rather it is because of the war weariness of people in the working class communities on both sides of the divide. There is no meeting of minds on the various contentious issues but neither is there any desire for confrontation at the moment.

16. The events of the mid and late 1990s, when each summer’s marching season brought bitter conflicts that threatened to get out of hand, gave working class people on both sides a glimpse of what an all-out sectarian conflict would be like. As a result there has been a perceptible drawing back from confrontation all round. This, and not any initiatives from the governments or the politicians, has been the basis of the recent relative lull in the conflict.

17. This has provided a temporary breathing space but it is not a situation that can last indefinitely. The riots that swept Protestant working class areas last September were an indication of the underlying volatility. They served as a warning of how quickly this polarised situation can re-erupt into sectarian violence.

18. The years since the ceasefires, despite the incessant talk of a process of a “conflict resolution”, have actually reaffirmed the fundamental conclusion we drew at the outset of the Troubles: that a lasting solution or “resolution” cannot be achieved on the basis of capitalism.

19. It is not possible to come up with a capitalist solution that will assuage the fears and reconcile the conflicting aspirations of the two communities. No matter that the boom years of the Celtic Tiger plus the more modest growth of recent years has meant that average income in the south has long surpassed that of the north, the vast majority of the Protestant community remain as implacably opposed to a united Ireland as ever.

20. Protestants fear that, as a minority in a 32-county Ireland, they would face the same type of discrimination as the Catholic minority suffered especially during the fifty years that followed the establishment of the Northern Ireland state. Any attempt to coerce Protestants into a capitalist united Ireland would provoke armed resistance and civil war.

21. On the other hand, Catholics – working class Catholics in particular – will not acquiesce to the permanent existence of the Northern Ireland state. If the only choices on offer are either partition and the existence of two capitalist states or else capitalist reunification there can be no prospect of a settlement. All capitalist roads lead ultimately to conflict, not to peace.

22. Historical processes never work themselves out in a straight line or at a uniform tempo. The underlying drift of events – in the absence of a movement of the working class to cut across sectarianism – is in the direction of sectarian conflict; ultimately of civil war and some form of balkanisation or repartition.

23. This does not mean that the situation is permanently poised on the precipice of such a conflict. Civil war in Northern Ireland is not a likely immediate prospect, mainly because of the resistance of the working class to such an outcome.

24. The fact that capitalism cannot solve the national problem does not exclude that there will be periods, even prolonged periods, of stalemate in the conflict or that there will be accommodations and compromises which will be temporary but still which may last for some time.

25. At the moment none of the sectarian forces in the north can make a decisive breakthrough at the expense of the “other side”. This, plus the general war weariness of the working class communities, is the basis of the present stalemate and impasse.

26. We cannot predict with any certainty how long this situation will continue, only that it will not last indefinitely. Either it will break down in the direction of renewed and probably worse sectarian conflict or else the political landscape will be altered by a movement of the working class that will push sectarianism to the background

27. The indications of how things could potentially unravel in the direction of renewed sectarian conflict are already there for all to see. In general Protestants and Catholics have drawn exactly conclusions from the zero sum game that passes for a peace process.

28. For Protestants the peace process, by and large, has brought an increased sense of insecurity. There is a feeling that the Protestant community is on the retreat, demographically, territorially and in terms of political influence. The changes that have been implemented or are in the offing are generally seen as weakening the position of Protestants and correspondingly strengthening the hand of nationalism and republicanism.

29. These fears have been fuelled by unionist politicians of all shades. Throughout the process their role has been to slow up and obstruct the implementation of change, both the changes agreed in negotiations and those imposed by the British government. The sense that the government is pressing on with change has led to a feeling that politics doesn’t work and was one of the factors that led to last September’s riots.

30. Catholics tend to view things very differently. The peace process was only possible because, recognising that the IRA campaign had no chance of success, a majority of Catholics were prepared to accept the fait accompli of the existence of the northern state for the moment – provided that their lot within it improved and provided they could retain the longer term aspiration for reunification.

31. They see the peace process as an attempt to redress past grievances and achieve equal status within Northern Ireland. They generally feel that the promised changes, if they were implemented, would be for the better. So, while the pressure from the unionist side has been to slow up the process, the pressure from nationalists has been to try to speed up the implementation of change.

32. If an Assembly were to be set up and an Executive established, this sectarian tug of war would continue. The sectarian division would be reinforced, not reduced and the whole fragile structure would be liable to come apart at any moment.

33. Even a prolonged period of IRA inactivity or similar moves towards “disbandment” by the main loyalist paramilitaries would not make a fundamental difference to this. The main destabilising factor is the fact of two sectarian camps pulling in opposite directions, not the existence of paramilitary organisations.

34. In any case paramilitarism in some form will continue. The main paramilitary groups, despite their public pronouncements, are not likely voluntarily to completely let go their lucrative criminal fund raising activities or the effective “control” they exercise over many working class communities. Even if their centralised structures are wound up, some of the forces that make them up will continue to organise and operate on a local level.

35. The sense that change if it comes will be in a nationalist direction, towards the gradual erosion of the state, means that the mass of Protestants have never been more than lukewarm towards the whole process and a majority are now firmly against the Good Friday Agreement.

36. Among Catholics the hopes that the Agreement would bring real change and tangible benefit are fast turning to disillusionment and dissatisfaction. In working class areas the hoped for change for the better has not materialised. The overt discrimination and brutal state repression may have largely gone but there has been no let-up in the levels of deprivation and poverty.

37. At the moment Catholics see little option but to stick with what is left of the peace process and apply more pressure for real change. There is no mood for a return to war. It is clear to most people that the decades of armed struggle did not succeed. There is also the realisation that a new round of military attacks would tend to see republicans bracketed along with reactionary organisations like Al Qaeda.

38. This does not mean that we can categorically rule out that, at certain stage, sections of the broad republican movement would embark on a new military campaign or that such a campaign would gain a certain base of support among the working class and the youth.

39. Ideas and methods that have become discredited can sometimes re-emerge if, after a period, alternative ideas and methods are seen to have failed. The ideas of right wing nationalism were thoroughly discredited at the outset of the Troubles in 1968/9. Yet these ideas have forcefully re-arisen in the form of the current leadership of Sinn Fein.

40. A new and sustained armed campaign is not possible now and is unlikely in the medium term. However, among a significant section of republican activists, the current leadership of Adams/McGuinness/Kelly is increasingly seen as out of touch and discredited.

41. Their response, every time their strategy of preparing for entry into coalition with right wing parties, north and south, and of leaning on the governments in Dublin and Westminster and on George Bush, runs into the sand, is to shift even further to the right. They are currently holding out on policing, not because they have any real differences with the other parties but because, having given way on almost everything else, this is about the only bargaining card they have left for future negotiations.

42. If at the end of it all, Sinn Fein come away empty handed, or if all they achieve is to put people into ministerial seats to carry out right wing anti-working class policies and defend the status quo, it is not just the current leadership but their ideas and analysis that can end up widely discredited.

43. It was this analysis – that the British government can be brought on board to help “persuade” Protestants of the benefits of a united Ireland – that, for republicans, formed the theoretical bedrock for the ceasefires and the peace process. An alternative view – that the military campaign failed not because the methods were wrong but because the leadership called it off for nothing more than a few promises – can develop at a certain point.

44. A new campaign would not just be a repeat of the past. Under current conditions it would be much more blatantly sectarian and would provoke an even more sectarian response. It would speed the process of the balkanisation of the north.

45. We cannot be certain whether a future generation of Catholic youth will be drawn to the false methods of individual terrorism. That will depend on events and, in particular on the capacity of the working class movement to show an alternative way of fighting back.

46. The fact that no solution is possible on a capitalist basis does not make an eventual descent into an inescapable sectarian quagmire an inevitable, or even the most likely, outcome. The working class has the capacity and – before there can be an unstoppable slide towards civil war – will have the opportunity many times over, to provide a socialist way out.

47. When the ceasefires were declared and the negotiations began it was against the background of the general period of retreat for the working class movement here and internationally that followed the collapse of Stalinism. The ebbing of the class struggle, the shift to the right of the former parties of the working class and of the trade union leadership and the general lowering of class and socialist consciousness all had the effect of reinforcing the rise in sectarianism that was the main characteristic of this period in Northern Ireland.

48. This was the period when Imperialism’s victories over Iraq, Serbia and later in Afghanistan reinforced the belief that the demise of the Soviet Union left the US as the only world’s only superpower whose military prowess nothing could stand against.

49. Now these factors are beginning to turn into their opposite. The myth of US military invincibility is being daily shattered in Iraq. There is a general increase in the tempo of class struggle internationally, from the ferocious insurrectionary battles that have shaken countries like Bolivia to the mighty movements of the working class in European countries like Germany, Italy and France.

50. After enjoying two terms of relative stability the Blair government is now facing more serious and determined resistance from the working class – as the series of battles over pensions indicates. This New Labour government is rapidly coming to resemble the sleaze ridden, crisis torn Tory administration that it replaced in 1997.

51. Whereas world factors acted as a brake on the class struggle during the 1990s, and in so doing helped clear the field for the forces of sectarian reaction, the current situation that is developing internationally will have an opposite impact.

52. This does not mean that the class struggle in Northern Ireland must wait on world developments. Within the north there has already been a certain recovery from the situation of the late 1990s. The number of strikes has risen. There is a growing militancy as workers are beginning to rediscover at least some of the confidence that was lost through more than a decade of defeats and setbacks.

53. Some of the very factors that are stymieing the peace process and which potentially open the way to sectarian reaction can also potentially give an impetus to the class struggle.

54. A feature of the current situation is the growing contempt with which the politicians of all the main parties are viewed by working class people. The fact that these parties, between them get well over 90% of the vote does not disguise the disdain in which they are generally held. Sinn Fein, with its very different history, was until recently a partial exception to this but, as it has shifted to the right, it has increasingly come to be viewed in much the same way as the more firmly rooted establishment parties with which it is rubbing shoulders.

55. This growing disillusionment with politicians can find a more sectarian expression as with the “Love Ulster” campaign or support for the various strands of dissident republicanism. But in the main it is a positive development and can create an opening for a class alternative to unite the working class and the youth against both the sectarianism and the right wing economic policies of all the main parties.

56. The inability of the capitalists to deliver economic development and a real improvement in living standards lies at the root of the political impasse and the declining support for the peace process. Twelve years ago newspaper columns were filled with expectations of the benefits the “peace dividend” would bring. Today this phrase is no longer part of the vocabulary of the peace process.

57. For people in the working class communities, Catholic and Protestant, there has been no tangible economic benefit. It is not possible to create lasting stability on the basis of massive poverty and increasing exploitation. If the labour movement does not offer a way of fighting back, the discontent at the economic deprivation can take a sectarian form. But this discontent can also lead to united struggles by the working class which will cut across the sectarian divide.

58. In recent years, the growth in the Northern Ireland economy has outpaced that of Britain. In 2005 GDP grew by 4.5% compared to a 1.7% rise in Britain. Manufacturing output in the year to the third quarter of 2005 was up by 3.1% in Northern Ireland compared to a negligible 0.1% rise in Britain.

59. These figures do not give a fully accurate picture of what is happening. They disguise the on-going imbalance of the Northern Ireland economy and mask its underlying fundamental weakness.

60. Manufacturing output may have gone up but the rise is entirely down to increased productivity – up 5.2% in this period – in other words to an increase in the rate of exploitation of labour. The manufacturing sector itself is continuing to contract, mirroring the deindustrialisation that is taking place in Britain. Over the same period the number of jobs in manufacturing shrank by 2%, down to 86,840, barely half the figure of thirty years ago.

61. In the South one of the factors which gave an impetus to the economy in the Celtic Tiger years was the influx of foreign direct investment. This is now much less of a factor as the growth in the economy has become based on services and construction, not on manufacturing.

62. That the north missed the boat on this entirely is indicated by the fact that, while one third of the Fortune 500 companies, the top companies in the US, have some presence in the south, not a single one of these companies operates in the north.

63. The economy is hugely reliant on the public sector which accounts for 68% of economic activity. This compares with a corresponding figure of 37% for Southern Ireland and 41% for Britain. 31% of the workforce is directly employed by the public sector – against a European average of 20%.

64. This position is only maintained through the annual subsidy (subvention) that is paid by Westminster in order to balance the books. At the moment this amounts to £5 billion plus an added £1.5 billion in security costs. That this is more than the annual value of manufacturing exports – worth £4.5 billion in 2004–5 graphically illustrates capitalism’s long term inability to develop the economy.

65. New Labour’s answer echoes the inflammatory “spongers” comment made by Harold Wilson during the Ulster Workers Council strike thirty years ago. Secretary of State, Peter Hain has described the Northern Ireland economy as “unviable” because of the over reliance on the public sector and the weakness of private industry. He has attacked the “dependency” culture and insisted that Northern Ireland must pay its own way.

66. Hain’s answer is to continue with public spending cuts and wholesale privatisation supposedly to curb the “civil service mentality” and “encourage initiative”. Alongside this is a punitive programme of increased local taxes, including water charges. In other words the burden of the failure of the private sector to invest and develop the economy is to be planted firmly on the shoulders of the working class.

67. These policies will not revive manufacturing or lead to economic development. Privatisation is carried out to produce profit not to make services more streamlined and efficient – as the chaos brought by the part privatisation of the MOT centres most recently illustrates. All that it will “achieve” is the infliction of greater hardship on working class people.

68. Hain’s neo-liberal policies also pose a threat to his own efforts to continue a peace process. The decline in manufacturing has hit hardest in Protestant working class areas where the bulk of these jobs at one time were concentrated. Whole areas that once were the manufacturing hub of the economy have been turned into industrial deserts.

69. If it were not for the fact that the public sector has been able to provide an alternative source of jobs for the 220,000 who work directly in it and the many thousands more whose jobs depend upon it, the collapse of manufacturing would have a massively destabilising impact. The availability of jobs in the public sector and in related services has provided a degree of social cohesion without which even the semblance of a peace process could not have been sustained.

70. In a different and contradictory way the neo-liberal agenda being pursued by the government has inadvertently helped provide them with a limited political breathing space. Their attacks have provoked resistance from the working class, igniting movements which have drawn people together across the sectarian divide.

71. As class issues come the fore the usual diet of divisive issues served up by the politicians tend to be pushed to the background. The dulling of any mood for sectarian confrontation has helped buy the government a little more time to try to press for an agreement. It is not a great comfort to Peter Hain that this small achievement is not down to the success of any aspect of his policies but, rather, is an unexpected by-product of the opposition these policies have provoked.

72. The question of questions now is whether a movement of the working class can develop to cut across sectarianism and point the way forward to a socialist solution.

73. The willingness and the capacity of the working class to struggle are not in question, as recent strikes have clearly demonstrated. Up until recently the legacy of a long period of retreat and of defeats, together with the obstructive role of the trade union bureaucracy, severely limited the capacity of the working class to struggle.

74. The relentless attack on wages, conditions and services has changed this, forcing workers to take action. As of yet there have not been sustained general movements against the government’s policies on the scale of what has happened in other European countries. Nonetheless there have been significant struggles reflecting the anger that is accumulating beneath the surface.

75. By and large these have been defensive battles – against cuts, to try to maintain real wage levels or to defend pensions and other conditions. In the course of these struggles workers have once again been able to experience the power they possess and have begun to regain some of the confidence that ebbed away during the late 1980s and through the 1990s.

76. Significant struggles have taken place over the last year. Last April there was a one day strike by education workers against cuts. This powerful movement did not halt the cuts only because the trade union leaders retreated from further follow up action.

77. The ballot for all out strike action by civil servants in which our comrades played a leading role, again showed how the mood is changing. Although the vote was lost it was a narrow defeat, 6,023 voting to strike with 6,835 voting against on a 64% turnout.

78. The northern Regional Executive Committee has produced a document analysing this vote and dealing with some of the tactical issues that came up during the pay campaign, which is available for all comrades to read. As the document points out, Peter Hain can take only cold comfort from the fact that this vote was lost. The real significance of the vote was the fact that over 6,000 civil servants were prepared to take on the government in an all-out strike without strike pay.

79. Other important struggles have taken place – one day strikes by classroom assistants and by lecturers in third level education as well as a number of smaller disputes. Most significant of all was the three week strike by postal workers.

80. The importance of this dispute, which we have dealt with in other material in the paper and the journal, was firstly that it was unofficial and therefore took place in defiance of the anti-union laws and secondly that, because it remained solid throughout, it ended in victory. The working class movement needs victories, especially after a long period of retreat, and this strike can have a major impact in increasing the readiness of other workers to take action.

81. Apart from this, this strike was historic because it provided a dramatic display of class unity in action. The postal workers were at pains to ensure that any sectarian tensions and divisions that do exist were kept at bay during the dispute. By far the most memorable incident was the march up the Shankill Road, across the peace line and down the Falls Road.

82. The dispute which, at the time of writing, is developing over pensions has the potential to dwarf all these struggles. Having partially given way to civil servants, teachers and fire-fighters under threat of industrial action by protecting people in posts, the government and the local authority employers are attempting to press ahead with an attack on local government pensions.

83. With no concessions on offer that would let them off the hook the leadership of UNISON, the T&GWU and a number of other unions in Britain and Northern Ireland have had to go ahead with strike action involving 1.5 million members. An initial strike day in March is to be followed by a series of regional strikes and then by further national action in May.

84. It is not certain that all this proposed action will all go ahead – the government may press the local authorities to offer a deal similar to that already accepted by civil servants and other public sector workers. However there is also the potential for this battle to develop into the most serious confrontation between the unions and the government since Blair came to power in 1997.

85. In the ballot for strike action Northern Ireland had the lowest turnout. This was in part due to disruption caused by the postal strike but in the main was because the union leaderships did not conduct an effective campaign. The result understated the anger on this issue. If the days of strike action go ahead, the mood is likely to harden even further.

86. We should not underestimate the potential importance of this issue. Some of the biggest movements in Europe in recent years have been strikes and mass demonstrations called in defence of pensions. In Germany, Belgium, and other countries these struggles have had a big impact on consciousness pointing workers to the need for new parties to represent their interests.

87. By and large the main role of the trade union leadership is to act as a brake on struggle. The current leadership has been conditioned by the decade of retreat and downturn in struggle. A majority of these leaders would prefer to continue cosying up to employers and the government under the mantle of “social partnership”.

88. But faced with a relentless neo-liberal offensive it is not possible for them to maintain the pretence of “partnership”. Trade union leaders, especially those in the public sector, have been forced to partially reflect the anger that is building up among their members.

89. In Britain the beginnings of a shift to the left has taken place in the unions in recent years. The initial stages of this radicalisation was shown by the election of the so called “awkward squad” of leaders in unions like the T&GWU, AMICUS and UNISON; even though in practice these leaders have turned out to be anything but “awkward”.

90. A more genuine left leadership has emerged in unions like the PCS, RMT and the mu. It is no coincidence that the PCS and FBU are unions where we have built an important influence. We are a vital component part of the harder left leadership that has developed in these unions.

91. The process of the transformation of the unions both in Northern Ireland and in Britain is still at a quite elementary stage. Overall there is still a low level of membership participation. The numbers of new activists coming forward to strengthen and radicalise the unions at branch and workplace level is still relatively small.

92. Nonetheless there is no question that a change and an improvement on the historically low levels of activity of the 1990s is taking place. During recent disputes such as the postal workers’ strike new activists did step forward. As the tempo of struggle intensifies fresher and more combative layers will emerge in the workplaces and will shake up the unions from below.

93. As workers move into activity in the unions and into struggle they will come into collision with the over cautious and conservative approach that is firmly ingrained at the top of most unions. In some cases this can lead to the removal of the current leadership, as has already happened in the FBU for example.

94. Or, again has already happened in the case of the local government strike over pensions, sections of the leaderships may be forced to put themselves at the head of strikes and other struggles in order to contain them. They will find that this is no easy matter. If workers gain in confidence through struggle the appetite for further action will grow, increasing the pressure on the leadership to lean further to the left than they ever intended or else face the wrath of their members.

95. The emergence of a new layer of shop floor activists, as this occurs, will transform the situation in the unions. This layer will come up against the obstacle of the current leaderships. Old lessons about the need to organise to change the unions will have to be relearned. We will have a vital role to play by intervening both to build our forces and to accelerate the general shift to the left that will take place.

96. The superiority of our ideas and methods has already been shown in many recent disputes. We have played a leadership role in some from the outset. In others we have been able to intervene and draw the best activists around us. We have been an important part of the change and the radicalisation that is taking place.

97. As in the unions, so in every other field of our work. Our role as revolutionaries is not to sit passively and wait on events to move the working class in our direction – it is to intervene to influence and help shape these events.

98. In understanding this we need a sense of proportion. We still have only small forces and we cannot substitute ourselves for the working class or substitute our activities for objective processes.

99. There is always a danger that, like the ultra-left sects, we can have an exaggerated view of our own importance. However, for us, there is an opposite and even greater danger that we underestimate the influence and the impact our organisation can have and can draw passive conclusions as a result.

100. Nowhere is this more true than in relation to the issue that will be most central to our work over the next period – the battle to defeat the water charges. We cannot say for certain what will happen when these charges are introduced. However, given the mood that we have encountered in our campaigning work on the issue, there is no question that there is the potential for this to develop into a major confrontation with the government.

101. A number of forces have entered the field to oppose the charges. But it is already clear that ours is the only serious campaign on the issue. For the trade union bureaucracy, the Coalition Against Water Charges, which they initiated and dominate, is only a matter of going through the motions in opposing the charges.

102. All this body has done is (dis)organise a petition and attempt to get the local politicians on board – conveniently forgetting that all the main parties accepted water charges in principle when they held power in the Assembly. As far as the trade union leaders are concerned the battle will be over in April 2007, when the charges are due to come in.

103. Communities Against the Water Tax, which was set up by former members of our party, is likewise an ineffective shell of an organisation which has all but disappeared from view. It is not entirely excluded that it could take on some flesh over the next year but only if the union leadership and others who are opposed to our call for mass non-payment try to give it some life so that they can use it as a counterweight to the We Won’t Pay Campaign. What is excluded is any possibility that Communities Against the Water Tax, so long as it remains based on the NGO type structures in the community and voluntary sector, will offer any serious resistance to the charges.

104. The bankruptcy of these rival forces means that the field is clear for the moment for us to build the We Won’t Pay Campaign as the only force seriously preparing to oppose the charges. This offers us a huge opportunity but also places an immense responsibility on our shoulders.

105. It is possible that the introduction of water charges could lead to a massive struggle which would have important and lasting repercussions in Northern Ireland. A mass non-payment campaign, if it can be organised, could bring people in the working class communities together in a repeat of the class unity and solidarity glimpsed during the postal workers’ strike, but on a much more sustained and higher level.

106. A campaign of this character would represent a challenge to the political parties and the paramilitary organisations, none of whom are in favour of non-payment and all of whom tremble at the prospect of working class people coming together across the sectarian-divide. Splits could open up in organisations like Sinn Fein over the issue. If a non-payment campaign can be built and sustained there is also a possibility that the water charges can be defeated.

107. All this is only a possibility. At this stage we cannot be certain whether the mood will build for a sustained battle. The only thing we can be sure of is that, unless we successfully put our weight behind the building of mass non-payment, there will not be a successful struggle against the charges.

108. The battle against water charges, if it goes ahead, will have a big impact on political consciousness. Already workers are beginning to draw conclusions from the upturn in industrial struggle; conclusions which put them increasingly at odds with the current political standpoint of the majority of trade union leaders.

109. In Britain the union leaders, including most of the so-called awkward squad, want to maintain the link with the Labour Party. The ranks of the unions, as they move into struggle are now beginning to look in the opposite direction, towards a break with Labour and are less likely to be satisfied with empty words about “reclaiming” the party.

110. In Northern Ireland the union leaders continue to stand aloof from direct political involvement. In practice they do play a political role, but it is a negative one of bolstering and helping to sow illusions in the local sectarian parties. Rather than expose the anti-working class policies and ingrained sectarianism of these parties the strategy of the union leadership of meekly lobbying them and constantly putting them on trade union platforms gives them an unwarranted credibility.

111. This strategy is ever more out of touch with the mood of the trade union rank and file and of the working class as a whole. Workers are generally contemptuous of the local politicians. They get overwhelming support in elections because there is no alternative and because, in a sectarian headcount, people will vote for the devil they know rather than back the “other side”.

112. As the class struggle develops and deepens, the need for a new party to represent working class interests can come more concretely onto the agenda, especially among the activists in the movement and among young people. Most workers we reach with our propaganda think the call for a new party is a “good idea” but do not see it as a practical proposition at the moment.

113. For this reason an initiative towards a new working class party would not be likely to attract significant fresh forces at the moment. It would be little more than a rearrangement of the existing left and would make little headway.

114. This can change under the impact of events, not just here, but in Britain and internationally. It would be better for us if there was an Assembly and it was the local parties who were introducing water charges and selling off services. But even out of power the contempt for these parties can grow to the point where working class people start to look for an alternative.

115. If an initiative towards a new party would draw significant fresh layers into activity and would therefore make an impact we would be in favour of participating in it or even of launching it ourselves. As an interim measure we might consider launching a campaign for a new party as our comrades in England and Wales have done.

116. For the moment none of this is posed. It is possible that in the next period we can make an electoral breakthrough in the south by winning a second Dail seat. This would help raise the profile of the Socialist Party in the north. It is also possible that the party in the north can make significant headway in sinking roots in the communities through the anti-water charges campaign.

117. Our immediate task is to concentrate on our own independent work, raising the profile and building the forces of the Socialist Party and, alongside it, of Socialist Youth. At the same time we need to remain flexible and be prepared to take an initiative on the need for a new working class party should circumstances change.

118. New parties of the working class that emerge in this period will be inherently unstable. There is no social basis for reformism as there was during the exceptional period of the post second world war economic upswing which allowed the mass social democratic parties a relatively stable existence over a whole historical period.

119. Any new parties that are formed now will immediately come under the intense antagonistic pressures of the ruling class for a continuation of the programme of counter reforms on the one side and of the working class on the other. There is no guarantee over the future of these parties. We have already seen new and relatively new formations like the PRC in Italy or, on a smaller scale, the SSP in Scotland, shift to the right thereby placing a question mark over their future.

120. The difficulties they face will be compounded in situations like that in Northern Ireland which are complicated by the national question. Given the deep and powerful grip of sectarian ideas and the capacity of the sectarian organisations to raise issues that will tend to divide workers, it would be very difficult for any working class party to sink lasting roots here unless it adopted a consistent class position on the national question.

121. Our party is the only organisation to have been able to work out and put forward such a position. Other forces on the left lean to one degree or another into one or other sectarian camp and have shown themselves utterly incapable of a class approach on this most sensitive issue.

122. Whether and for how long a new party of the working class would survive would in part depend on our influence within it, especially on our ability to influence it on the national question as well as on other issues. Hence the independent work we carry out now to build our party can be vital in strengthening our influence if and when we send some or all of our forces into a new formation in the future.

123. The emergence of a new party of the working class is not an end for us. Rather it would provide us with a forum in which our ideas could reach a wider audience. Whether we are carrying out independent work or whether we work for a period inside a broader formation, the key and overriding task is to build our revolutionary forces.

124. A more favourable situation has opened up which presents us with opportunities to build. The work that we are doing means that we can recruit the best fighters in the unions, the workplaces and in the communities.

125. In recent years we have had a particular difficulty recruiting and consolidating women in the party. This has now begun to change mainly through the successes of our youth work. It can now change in other areas of the work also. The best response we have had for our work on water charges has been from women. If a serious struggle develops over this, it is likely that it will be women who will step forward to play the most critical role in the communities.

126. Two thirds of those due to take part in the strike by local government workers over pensions are women. Women make up the majority of many low paid grades and occupations in the public sector which is now the central arena of industrial struggle. Many will be radicalised and politicised and can be drawn to our ideas and our organisation.

127. The area where we have and can make the greatest headway is among the youth. The influence of the sectarian and paramilitary organisations is not what it was among young people. Many are quite consciously looking for an alternative to the dead end of sectarian politics and are open to socialist ideas. We need to seize this opportunity while it is there to help ensure that another generation of working class youth is not lost to para-militarism and sectarianism.

128. There are similarities between the situation today and that of the early 1980s when class issues came to the fore and we were able to make headway in the building of our party. We should discuss what happened at that time and the lessons for today.

129. Favourable opportunities such as that have been the exception over the past thirty years. A revolutionary organisation must make the most of such openings or it will be left behind. In the early 1980s we more than doubled our forces in the space of two years or so. With an energetic and urgent approach we can more than match this today.

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Last updated: 20 February 2015