The national question is probably the most debated question in Irish politics. And for good reason! Irish history, especially recent history, is littered with the debris of organisations which have failed to comprehend or come to terms with it.
Today the debate has shifted ground somewhat. Old notions which, outside of strictly unionist circles, were once generally accepted – that the roots of the problem lay in the crimes of the British ruling class, and that it was because of their misdeeds that the partition of Ireland came about – are now increasingly challenged.
This shift reflects no great advance in thought or understanding. Historians today write in the shadow of twenty five years of conflict. Like most of the stratum of intellectual ‘opinion makers’ very few of them are capable of seeing beyond the parapet of their immediate historical setting. Rather they offer up only a mental reflection of what they see around them. They tend to take the fact of sectarian division as their starting premise. Transferring this premise into the past they then paint their picture of history accordingly.
The result is an exaggeration of sectarianism and a profoundly pessimistic view of both present and past. This ‘new history’ tends to downplay any united movements of Catholic and Protestant, and in particular glosses over those struggles which have united the working class over the course of the past hundred years. Accepting the sectarian divide as a permanent feature it tends to explain events solely as a product of this divide.
What this leads to is a whitewash of the role and responsibility of the British ruling class down through the centuries. After all most ‘opinion makers’ take at face value the present Westminster government’s ‘neutral’ posture of “no selfish, strategic or economic interest”. If they are benign and neutral today, why not in the past also? So, when it comes to partition, the predominant view now being put forward and increasingly accepted is that this was the inevitable product of the divisions between unionism and nationalism, not something brought about or helped along by the British government.
Coming to the present, the direction of this line of thought is towards the idea of two nations. Little or nothing that is currently flowing off the printing presses contradicts this trend. Indeed, if fact could be established merely through the constant repetition of an idea there would by now be two nations in Ireland.
This new line of thought cannot just be dismissed with a sleight of hand. It needs to be examined, answered and an alternative explanation put forward. A socialist response which is merely a reiteration of arguments and slogans put forward twenty five or thirty years ago will not do. Socialist ideas must be up to date and must take into account the effects of the last twenty five troubled years.
This is what this book sets out to do. It is an analysis, written unashamedly from a socialist point of view, of the national question, both how it has arisen and how it presents itself today.
Troubled Times began as a document produced for, discussed at and adopted by the July 1995 National Conference of Militant Labour in Ireland. It was written as part of a lengthy discussion on the national question which extended over two years.
The book is in three sections and a brief explanation of what each is about may help non-members of Militant Labour who did not participate in this debate. The first is an answer to the ‘new history’ and its tendency to set the sectarian divide in stone. It begins in early times at the start of recorded history, takes a glance at developments through the centuries, but, in the main, is an explanation of the real reasons for partition.
The second section examines the way in which the national question has changed since partition, and in particular what have been the effects of the twenty five years of the Troubles. It deals with the question which regularly comes up of whether or not the differences between the two communities/two states mean that there are now two nations in Ireland.
It goes on to attempt to tackle the difficult question of a programme which socialists could put forward on the national question. In the past, many socialist organisations have lost their bearings entirely when it comes to this task. Some have preferred to ignore the issue altogether in their propaganda, others have put forward a one-sided position and have fallen into one or other sectarian camp as a result. Here is the outline of a socialist position which could unite, rather than divide, the working class.
In preparing this book for publication a few changes have been made to the original text, all with the aim of making it more accessible to the general reader. The third and final section which deals with the national question as it arises internationally today and with the demands which socialists and marxists, including Lenin, have advanced on the issue, was the first section in the original.
It has been put at the end only because some of the ideas within it maybe unfamiliar to those who have not had the opportunity to read or discuss the views of marxists on the national question. Better first to see these views concretely applied as they are to Ireland in the first two sections, and then to go on to the more general theoretical points. That it has been put at the end does not mean that it is any less important than the other sections. On the contrary it deals with key questions such as what constitutes a nation which are essential in helping define what exactly are the differences between Catholic and Protestant in Ireland.
The points it makes on programme are also important especially as some of the demands of Lenin – e.g. self determination, autonomy – have often been applied to the Irish situation in a manner which has nothing in common with the way in which they were raised by Lenin. This section explains what such demands really mean and what are the circumstances in which they may be usefully put forward. A few other minor textual changes have been made mainly for stylistic reasons although in general the style of the original document has been retained. This means that references to ‘we’, ‘us’ or ‘our’ are to the position Militant Labour holds or has held in the past. Rather than change all of these to the third person and so interrupt the flow of the text it has been felt better to leave most of them as they were in the original.
This book has not been written and produced for academic reasons. It is intended to clarify issues and to provide a platform around which to campaign. For those who agree with what it says there can only be one conclusion – join and get active in Militant Labour. Help make these ideas and this programme a living reality.
The creation of two states
Chapter 1: Early history
In the early years of the Northern Ireland Troubles a great many of the most widely read histories were written from a nationalist, republican or left republican perspective. That was the view of history which tended to predominate.
Now, with the exhaustion of the IRA campaign, and the realisation by Sinn Fein leaders that the decisive sections of the British ruling class would prefer to withdraw but that the problem to be confronted is that of Protestant opposition, the theoretical foundations on which this outlook has been based, have been systematically eroded. Republicanism faces more than a military impasse – it finds itself in an ideological cul-de-sac also.
Inevitably there has been a backlash. In recent years an alternative school of opinion has grown up. An established group of Northern authors have chosen to reinterpret events from a broadly pro-union viewpoint. One example is the Cadogan Group which has brought together economists, historians and some politicians to present an intellectual case for unionism. It has to be said that a good number of their counterparts on the broadly nationalist side have gone along with many of their conclusions, especially on matters of history.
Both are agreed on the historical permanency of the division between Catholic and Protestant and are at one in their pessimistic view of the prospects for any united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers emerging in the future.
In answering the limitations of the old, generally pro nationalist versions of history, this new school have leaned in the opposite direction, presenting a no less one sided account.
These people are surrounded in a deep fog of confusion about current events, especially when it comes to the national question. Rather than unlock the past and use it to help illuminate the present, by their efforts they only manage to re-seal it in their own confusion.
The key to understanding history and to unravelling the complexities of the national question is one and the same – a class analysis and class approach. To work out a programme today it is necessary to see things not just as they are but as they have developed historically. In the past, Militant had to rebut the over-simplifications and distortions of pro-nationalist historians. To this must now be added the task of answering some of the arguments of this new revisionist school of history.
Displayed on a large UDA mural in East Belfast is the figure of Cuchulainn, a legendary hero of the Ulster sagas, tales of Ulster from the period of Ireland’s iron age. At first sight a figure from Ireland’s Celtic past is a surprising choice for a UDA mural.
In fact this mural can be linked to one of the most extreme and potentially one of the most reactionary of the efforts to reconstruct history. Organisations like the UDA which have declared for independence as the solution, have searched for some theoretical, some historical justification for this position.
They have found it in the writings of people like Dr. Ian Adamson a local Unionist politician and sometime historian. For some considerable time – from the start of the Troubles at least – he has produced publications examining the history of Ireland, especially of Ulster, all designed to prove that Ulster people have a distinct identity which sets them apart from the rest of Ireland.
For a long period no-one took much notice of this line of argument. But when the UDA among others begin to toy seriously with the idea of an independent Ulster, Dr. Adamson’s ideas begin to receive a broader hearing in loyalist circles.
All along Protestants were being told by nationalists that they should come to their senses and realise that they were just as Irish as their Catholic neighbours. They should forget about Britishness and join in a United Ireland.
Here was someone with a novel reply. Yes Protestants and Catholics in the North have a common stock, a common identity. A common identity – with each other that is -but a separate identity from the people of the South. So it is Northern Catholics who should come to their senses and see that they are one people with Protestants but different from Southerners. They should unite with Protestants, not for a united Ireland, but for an independent Ulster. As Dr. Adamson concludes his book, The Ulster People:
“Ulster’s historical and cultural heritage was not only extremely rich and varied, but contained within it the proof of the common identity of the Northerners”. (1)
To prove this he begins by debunking the myth of the Irish as a ‘pure’ Celtic people. Even after the Celts invaded Ireland they were, he argues, a small minority, much as were the Normans after they invaded Anglo-Saxon England. The earlier Neolithic or Bronze age peoples, among them those known as the Cruthni who were numerous in Ulster, remained the majority.
Dr. Adamson goes on to list what is known of the battles between Ulster and other parts of Ireland and the resistance put up by Ulster to conquest by those groups of Celts who were known as the Gaels.
It is into this picture that the “Hound of Ulster” Cuchulainn fits. Because of his physical appearance, short with dark hair, Adamson has him as a pre-Celt, a Cruithin. According to one legend, The Tain, when Queen Maeve of Connaught invaded Ulster, the fighting men of Ulster fell ill with the ‘pangs’ and Cuchulainn had to defend the ancient kingdom on his own.
As Ulster’s King Conor recovered from his ‘pangs’ he summoned his warriors with the words:
“I swear that unless the sky with all its stars should, fall upon the earth, or the ground burst open in an earthquake, or the sea sweep over the land, we shall never retreat one inch, but should gain victory in battle”. (our emphasis) (2)
From the fabled figure of King Conor and the mists of pre-recorded history across the centuries to Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Sir James Craig, whose response to nationalist claims on northern territory was the blunt phrase ‘Not an Inch’- can this be a common identity?
Dr. Adamson points to a distinct sense of northern ness through history. He also lays emphasis on the close ties between the peoples of Ulster and those of Scotland. There is evidence that the Cruthni and the Picts of Scotland were one people. Close connections were established during the early Christian period between Ulster and Scottish monasteries.
After Elizabethan forces defeated the Earls of Ulster, large areas of their territories were settled by planters of English or Scottish stock. This began in 1609 and involved much of Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan, Derry and Armagh.
Antrim and Down were settled differently. These lands were taken by swindlers who bought them cheaply and then offered them to voluntary settlers. Those who took up the offer were mainly refugees from Scotland, members of Protestant sects who were persecuted for their democratic anti-monarchist tendencies during the reformation at the end of the seventeenth century. They brought with them their language, which in a significant number of cases was Scots Gallic, and their custom, both of which left their mark on these areas.
From this is developed the idea of the Scots-Irish as a distinct identity. During the eighteenth century Scots-Irish ‘dissenters’ were persecuted alongside Catholics under the Penal Laws. At least a quarter of a million emigrated to North America where their distinct character seemed to make the label ‘Scots/Irish’ fit. Can it be that it was in displaying their ‘stern and stubborn’ Ulster character, that Davy Crockett, Ulysses S. Grant, Stonewall Jackson and many other famous ‘Scots-Irish’ made their mark on United States history?
All this is very interesting and certainly a grain of truth runs through it. But like all truths, once they are taken too far they become untruths. Dr. Adamson presents an extreme view. Groups like the UDA go further, the tiny fascists groups in Northern Ireland go further still. Alongside the more extreme ideas of these people, there is a tendency in the historical mainstream which has swallowed many of these arguments and in whose writings the idea of a separate and common Ulster identity is reiterated.
But to place a dot here and a dot there on the graph of history and then to draw a line between them and across the centuries to the present is not a sound historical method.
When it comes to debunking the nationalist myth of a pure Celtic race it is well said, and it needs to be said, but it has been said before. Here is what the marxist historian T.A. Jackson in his classic Ireland Her Own argues on the question:
“The Gaels, who reached Ireland in comparatively small parties, at different times, came from various points – Spain, Western France, and Belgium – after a long period of wandering in the grassland belt of Europe……… In Ireland they found an aboriginal population which was likewise of mixed descent. The Gaels did not exterminate the aborigines; in time they fused with them. Any theory, romantic or fascist, which supports a ‘pure’ Gaelic blood as a determinant of Irish Custom, is completely worthless”. (3)
That regional differences existed in Celtic and pre Celtic Ireland is beyond dispute. So is the fact that the Northern area under the Kings of old Ulster based at Navan Fort fought to retain control of their territories as did later clan leaders.
This was the nature of pre-feudal society, not just in Ireland but across Europe. The clan system was a system of primitive communism, that is production almost entirely for consumption by the producing community, a society without private property or hereditary wealth. It is true that in its later stages, even before the Anglo-Norman conquest put this system to an end, this was breaking down and the elements of a system based on class division and private property were beginning to emerge.
However it was a society in which the concept of a centralised state or of national identity did not and could not exist. Although there was a High King of Ireland this was a far cry from the centralised monarchies seen in medieval feudal Europe, or established in England by the time of the Anglo-Norman invasions. Beneath the High King was a loose system of shifting alliances between various clans.
Territorial differences existed not just between north and south but between and within all the ancient Earldoms and Kingdoms. The subsequent Ulster plantations did accentuate differences between Ulster and the rest, especially as they introduced a substantial Protestant population. But other invasions left their mark on other parts of the country too. The Vikings not only invaded but, as also was the case in England, they set up permanent settlements in places like Dublin, Cork, Wexford and Limerick.
Anglo-Norman conquest led to direct control over the area known as The Pale around Dublin, some three centuries before the final conquest of the rest of Ireland. This first ‘plantation’ in Ireland gave that area a distinct character also.
By the end of the seventeenth century the conquest of Ireland was complete. The country was united as a colony of England and was given a subservient parliament based on a narrow and sectarian franchise, with scant powers and which was to meet only every second year.
Every remnant of the old clan system was eliminated, replaced by feudal social relations in which land was very often in the hands of absentee English landlords. Penal laws, introduced in 1642, were levelled against Catholics and against Dissenters who made up the majority of the non-Catholic population of Ulster.
Restrictions on trade of woollen manufactures and other goods hampered any development of Irish industry. The surplus drawn from the land by absentee landlords went to investment in England not Ireland. Only in Ulster was there a partial exception. There, the custom which had once applied throughout the whole country, whereby the tenant had security and a limited interest in his holding, was retained.
The one industry which was allowed to develop was linen. It was given royal subsidies to help it compete with the French and Dutch. Linen production was concentrated in the north, and throughout the eighteenth century, was a rural cottage industry. Flax was grown along with food, was spun and woven in the home and then taken to the expanding linen markets, at first of Dublin and then Belfast, for export.
By the late eighteenth century the seedlings of an Irish capitalism had emerged, especially in the North. Power driven machinery to spin cotton, introduced to Belfast in 1770, provided that city’s first experience of the industrial revolution.
But whatever industrial development took place was hamstrung and handicapped by the restrictions imposed by the colonial rulers. Even the linen industry suffered badly from the blockade imposed on the American colonies after they declared independence in 1776.
Out of all this a national consciousness, based on the diversity of the Irish people, grew and developed, spurred on by the suffocating effects of English rule and colonial domination. Irish culture in the form of an interest in books and theatre, began to develop. This was especially the case in Belfast where the most forward looking citizens, mainly of Presbyterian stock, promoted a revival of Irish music.
The artisans, craftsmen and small scale manufacturers of the north were united with the downtrodden peasantry of the rest of the country in a common desire to lift off the yoke of colonial oppression, to end landlordism, repeal the penal laws and to allow Irish goods to trade as determined by an Irish not an English parliament. The American War of Independence and even more so the French revolution stimulated the desire of the Irish to have their own nation state free of foreign influence and domination.
This growing sense of nationhood had its highest political expression in the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791. One of its key leaders, Theobald Wolfe Tone, expressed its aim as:
“to unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past divisions and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter”. (4)
In 1798 the United Irishmen rose in rebellion seeking to drive out the English garrison and to emulate the great liberating events of the French revolution. When Wexford was seized and held by the insurgents they adopted the new calendar of revolutionary France.
The leader of the rebellion in Antrim was Belfastman Henry Joy McCracken, arguably the greatest of the main leaders. As McCracken’s forces marched from just north of Belfast to try to seize Antrim town, they did so to the stirring rhythms of the Marsellaise.
The rebellion failed. Wexford was retaken. The risings in Antrim and Down were put down. A French force which landed in Mayo arrived after these defeats and despite the brilliance of its commander, General Humbert, proved to be too little too late.
From revolution to counter-revolution. The British response to the rebellion, once they achieved the upper hand, was a merciless campaign of retribution to subdue the Irish in their own blood. The rising which lasted from May to September was followed by an Autumn of court martials, hangings, shootings, imprisonment and transportation.
The defeat came about through a mixture of disorganisation, hesitancy, over-caution and treachery on one side and brutal repression on the other. Acting on the information of informers, the government was the first to act. The entire leadership was arrested before the rising had even begun. In the North they used the weapon of divide and rule, sowing division between Protestant and Catholic. The garrison in Ulster promoted the newly formed Orange Order as a counter-weight to the United Irishmen.
In general, outside of Antrim and Down, the rising displayed the classic characteristics of a movement based on the peasantry; it was sporadic, localised and disorganised. The emerging Irish bourgeoisie, the class who stood to gain most from it, demonstrated only timidity and a general lack of confidence in its ability to succeed.
Hence these immortal words of Henry Joy McCracken written to his sister while in hiding only days before his capture:
“These are the times that try men’s souls. You will no doubt hear a great number of stories respecting the situation of this country, its present unfortunate state is entirely owing to treachery, the rich always betray the poor”. (5)
This was Ireland’s attempt at a bourgeois revolution. It is impossible to say what would have happened if it had succeeded. The eventual defeat of Napoleon and the victory of reaction in Europe might have led to a new war of conquest. Or independence might have been maintained. In that case the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, the ending of feudal land relations and the establishment of a centralised nation state might have been carried through.
Ireland then would have become a single nation state based on the assimilation of all its peoples, as with the nation states then formed and still to be formed in Europe. A single and independent nation – yes. But a unified nation free of division, welded to a single culture and way of life as romantically put forward by nationalists – no.
In every bourgeois revolution the forces which come together to attempt to carry it through are an amalgam of various class interests. There are the merchants and manufacturers who seek freedom to develop their enterprises and increase their wealth. There are the peasants who want to own the land they work. And there are the labourers and artisans, the embryo of the future working class, who are the most consistent democrats and who want to take the revolution furthest.
These were the people who made up the Levellers and put forward elementary communistic ideas during the English civil war. Similar ideas were present also in the ’98 rebellion. Belfast linen weaver Jemmy Hope was a close friend of McCracken and became a leader of the United Irishmen in the town. He survived the rising and his memoirs show his awareness of the rival class interests involved:
“Ulster was the seat of politics; in which there were three parties: those whose industry produced the necessaries of life, those who circulated them, and those whose subsistence depended on fictitious claims and capital, and lived and acted as if men and cattle were created solely for their use and benefit, and to whom a sycophantic clergy were ever ready to bow with the most profound respect. The town of Belfast was the centre of this factitious system, and with few exceptions, the most corrupt spot on the face of the earth”. (6)
For a brief moment of history the bourgeois revolutions brought together all the class interests which stood against feudalism and colonialism, at times with sufficient force to break the old order, at others not. They did so under lofty ideals and in the name of the whole nation, but the reality of what victory brought was not rule by all the people, but capitalist society and capitalist rule. As Engels said of the French revolution it was fought to establish the ‘Kingdom of Reason’. In fact it established the ‘Kingdom of the Bourgeoisie’.
Victory in 1798 would have led to those forces which coalesced around the green banner of the United Irishmen coming apart and re-forming over time around the opposite poles of the class struggle – Capital and Labour.
Instead history took a different course. The rebellion was defeated. Reaction triumphed. Instead of independence the 1801 Act of Union incorporated Ireland into what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The building which housed the old toothless Irish parliament facing Trinity College in Dublin was occupied instead by the Bank of Ireland. Reaction in Ireland was reinforced in 1815 by the final demise of Napoleon and the triumph of the Grand Alliance of Emperors and Kings who were restored across Europe.
In the period leading to 1798 and that which followed, one of the great laws of revolution and counter revolution in Ireland was established. It is a law which held good throughout the nineteenth century, through the period of partition and which holds good right up to the present.
At times when the tempo of revolution is on the ascendant all strata of the oppressed, exploited and downtrodden tend to unite, while those divisions of region or religion which have at times stood between them, tend to be pushed to the background. This law holds good also in reverse. In periods of set-back, retreat, defeat, and especially when these features are sustained, the old historic divisions tend to come to the fore in a modern form.
For those historians who are rewriting history from a generally pro-unionist point of view, and who accentuate regional and religious differences as the norm, this law is a closed book. They display no feel for the changing tempo of events; for the ebbs and flows of the revolutionary process, the very factors which make or un-make historical progress.
1 Ian Adamson The Ulster People, Pretani Press 1991 p104
2 Ibid. p19
3 TA Jackson Ireland Her Own, Lawrence & Wishart 1971, P25
4 Ibid. p117
5 Mary McNeill The Life and Times of Mary Ann McCracken, Blackstaff Press 1988, p177
6 Jemmy Hope The Memoirs of Jemmy Hope, B&ICO publication 1972, p17
Troubled Times – Chapter 2
Roots of partition
A consensus reached by this new school is that the 1920-21 partition of Ireland was a product of ‘natural’, historically established, divisions, that it was inevitable from the mid-nineteenth century or earlier and that British imperialism played only the neutral role of an arbiter in the whole affair.
Divide and Rule (Militant booklet on partition by the author), written nearly twenty years ago, mainly as a challenge to the simplified, romanticised picture painted by nationalists, has already answered these arguments. But in the struggle to develop revolutionary ideas, theoretical ground which was conquered in the past has very often to be conquered again. Without repeating all the main points of Divide and Rule it is necessary to re-examine and re-clarify this period by dealing with the new arguments which have come up.
This is not a merely academic exercise. The answers to the questions how and why partition came about shape both our attitude to the national question today and the programme we put forward to deal with it.
If, for example, we accept that imperialism played an essentially benign role, and that the division between Irish people made partition unavoidable, in effect that there existed or were coming into existence two nations in Ireland, we then give an historical justification to the two states which emerged.
In that case the desire felt by people in the South for eventual re-unification could not be seen as an anti-imperialist sentiment, a desire to undo a crime perpetrated by imperialism. It becomes a desire, at bottom an imperialist sentiment, to have control over the territory of another people, over a separate nation.
Even the most false theories can be bedded on a seam of truth. Militant Labour has never held the view, which is the tenor of some nationalist accounts, that imperialism conjured partition up out of nothing, duping one section of the Irish people with a slight of hand and then coercing the other.
Partition did have historical roots – in the divisions which emerged in the period of ebb of the national struggle after the defeat of the ’98 rising. These divisions were deliberately fostered and encouraged by imperialism whenever it suited them to do so, in 179$ and after, in order to weaken and divide the opposition to their rule.
These divisions laid the basis for partition in that they made it possible, but not inevitable. That is one seam of the argument, one side of the truth. The other side, which is now being challenged or ignored by the pro-unionist school, is that partition itself, in its concrete historical setting, was carried through by imperialism to suit its own ends. The idea of British imperialism as benign arbiters is pure invention. As with the commander of the northern British garrison, General Lake’s order in 1798 that every government militia should have an Orange Lodge within it, and as with all subsequent attempts by British politicians to beat the Orange drum, partition was brought about in pursuit of a policy of ‘Divide and Rule’.
Only this complex all-sided approach explains what took place in the nineteenth century, in the first part of this century and helps throw light on the national question today.
The ’98 rebellion was the first and the last attempt by the emerging Irish capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, to lead a movement for independence. From the moment of its defeat, this class, weak both economically and politically, withdrew from the national struggle. Their only subsequent role was to obstruct and betray every new movement.
The larger capitalists, as they developed, threw in their lot, psychologically and in every practical sense, with their British counterparts The rising northern capitalists and those in Dublin, bound themselves by ties of kith and kin, of military service in helping hold those ‘other colonies’ in subjection, as well as ties of money and self-interest, to the British capitalist class.
The Irish bourgeoisie were never again a unifying factor capable of drawing other strata behind them. They could play no progressive role in unifying a national movement or helping develop a national consciousness.
If the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution -the distribution of land, extension of the franchise to break the political monopoly of the old aristocracy, and the consolidation of a nation state — were now to be carried through; it would have to be by some other class.
Such capitalist development as took place in Ireland in the nineteenth century was uneven. By the end of the century the main concentration of industry, apart from agriculture related and food processing industries was in the north-east corner around Belfast.
First a cotton industry developed in Belfast and other towns such as Lisburn and Bangor. It was spurred on by the mechanical spinning techniques of the industrial revolution, but, after 1824, when the tariffs which protected Irish cotton from British competition were lifted, it declined.
Mills began to be adapted to flax spinning instead of cotton. By the 1850s flax and linen were triumphant and little remained of the old cotton mills. When the American Civil War broke out in 1861 the cotton mills of Lancashire were starved of their raw materials and fell idle. Belfast linen took the place of their goods on the world market and the industry boomed.
By the end of the decade Belfast, with 9,000 power looms had become the linen centre of the world. Vast wealth was accrued by the new capitalist lords of linen.
An engineering industry producing industrial machinery developed alongside linen. Shipbuilding had been carried out in Belfast from the late eighteenth century when the first two small yards were set up. It underwent a massive expansion in the latter part of the nineteenth century with new yards and a huge increase in output – up from 20,000 gross tons in 1881 to 200,000 by 1912.
These industrialists looked to Britain and to markets beyond. When the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was raised they reacted with alarm. Their interests were not those of small-scale producers in other parts of the country who sought a protected Irish market. For them tariffs would mean a wall blocking off both the supply of raw materials and the access of their products to British, European and US markets.
The linen bosses were among those who put themselves forward as stout defenders of the interests of ‘Ulster and its people’ during the resistance to Home Rule. The real interest they were defending was their own.
In the flax mills the ‘linen slaves of Belfast’, as James Connolly called them, could have told a different story. The linen lords and other capitalists had never had any regard for the interests of those of the ‘Ulster people’ who spun their flax, wove their linen and created all the wealth they used to toast ‘their’ achievements.
Conditions in the mills of this linenopolis were a blight on the face of the city. Children as young as eight slaved at the looms. The ever-present clouds of dust fibres destroyed their lungs. In the 1870s the average working life in the flax preparing areas was 16.8 years. There were strikes – as in 1874 when 43 mills employing Protestant and Catholic struck against a ten per cent wage cut – but the linen bosses managed to prevent union organisation right through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
Self-interest caused the large capitalists of Ireland, especially of the north-east, to line up with the old aristocracy who were opposed both to land reform and Home Rule, and launch the Unionist movement of the late nineteenth century.
There had long been divisions between Catholic and Protestant tenants in rural areas. These had been whipped up by the landlords with the help of institutions such as the Orange Order. Founded in 1795, it began as a minority movement among Protestants, based on the descendants of English settlers, not on the Presbyterians and dissenters. In the early part of the nineteenth century it remained a tool of the landlords and was used to mobilise opposition not only to Catholic emancipation, but to the 1832 reform act which extended the franchise and did away with the pocket boroughs through which the landowners dominated parliament. It was anathema to forward-looking Protestants like Jemmy Hope, who in his memoirs commented:
“The character of the Orange Lodges was such, that no man who had any regard for his character would appear in them.” (7)
Orangeism remained a largely rural affair although in country areas its sectarian message was by no means unchallenged. The United Irishmen had shown how Catholic and Protestant tenants could stand united in defence of their common interests. In the towns relations were generally good. In 1794 when the first Catholic church, St. Mary’s, opened in Belfast, the Belfast Volunteers, forerunners of the United Irishmen, paraded and formed a guard of honour for the arrival of the priest for the first mass.
It was not until the 1830s that signs of the sectarian divisions which were to be a key factor in Belfast’s history began to appear. Fundamentalist Presbyterian preachers, Henry Cooke notable among them, began from this time to preach a gospel of anti-Catholic sectarianism, very different from the doctrines which had been put forward by the United Irishmen.
With rural migration to Belfast its Catholic population grew. 1843-9 saw famine devastate rural Ireland – the destitution, starvation and de-population brought about more by landlordism than the potato blight. Ulster was not as badly affected as the south-west, but its rural counties, particularly Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh did suffer. Many impoverished, starving and mainly Catholic tenants from these areas moved to Belfast hoping to find relief and work in this, the industrial centre of Ireland. By 1850 one third of the population were Catholic and it had a distinct sectarian geography.
Appalling living conditions and increased competition for work raised sectarian tensions. Skilled workers were mainly Protestants. In the shipyards and engineering factories they were paid wages akin to similar trades in Britain, far more than the unskilled who had no union organisation.
Inevitably there was craft conservatism, a desire to preserve skills, protect trades and be able to hand on the unionised and better-paid jobs to their families. Very often this translated into sectarianism as workers in various trades opposed skilled jobs going to Catholics.
Sectarian riots took place in Belfast in 1857, in 1864 and at various times over the following two decades. Catholic shipyard workers found themselves intimidated by Protestant shipwrights – the percentage of Catholic workers in Belfast’s shipyards fell in the last decades of the century.
Home Rule opposition
When, in 1911, the aristocrats and capitalists of the Ulster Unionist Council, financed and assisted by every shade of reactionary on the conservative wing of the British establishment, launched their crusade against Home Rule, many working class Protestants aligned themselves with this resistance.
All of this would seem to confirm the nationalist picture of Protestants as concerned only with protecting their craft privileges and as easy dupes of their masters. Those of the pro-union school would say no, these things demonstrate the separate line of development, present through history, which was leading the northern or Protestant (take your pick) ‘nation’ towards a separate state.
Both explanations are wrong. They leave out two things. One: that a key reason for the pro-union attitude of the Protestant masses was the narrowing of the nationalist movement to the point where it could have no appeal to them. Second: even in the midst of all this backwardness and confusion a new unity of Catholic and Protestant was being prepared which, if it could reach its fruition, had the potential to dwarf even the majestic movement of 1798.
’98 had been fought for independence and for an improvement in the material lot of the people. The unity displayed at that time was based on a coming together of the national and the social interests of the Irish people against landlordism and against colonial domination.
The rise of the United Irishmen represented the victory of revolutionary ideas over those of constitutional reformers such as Grattan whose methods had become discredited. The following century saw the reverse – the domination of the national movement by constitutionalists and reformers rather than by its radical and revolutionary wing.
The radicals – among them the towering figure of Michael Davitt – took the struggle against landlordism as their starting point. In the hands of its more conservative wing the national movement was purified of its social content. The very factor which united Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in 1798 was jettisoned.
This degeneration of nationalism in the hands of its most ’eminent’ parliamentary champions began in the 1840s with Daniel O’Connell’s campaign for repeal of the Act of Union. O’Connell was for limited independence, not separation. On social questions he was conservative. His idea of land reform was that the landlords, from whose stock he came, should treat their tenants well. When elected to the British parliament he resolutely opposed the Chartist uprising. He denounced early Irish trade unions as too militant and the cause of the decline of industry in Dublin. Given his leadership of the Catholic Association during the battle for Catholic emancipation, it was easy for demagogic Presbyterians like Henry Cooke to caricature the Repeal movement as being out for Catholics only.
After O’Connell the other major parliamentary campaigners for Home Rule continued in the same vein. John Redmond, who straddled the centuries as leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, was a landlord, defended landlordism and also adopted a conservative stance on social questions.
In 1910 a Liberal government led by Lord Asquith came to power. Because it was dependent on the votes of the Redmondites, Home Rule, as the price for this backing, seemed on the cards. Asquith’s Liberals were greeted by a wave of struggles by the working class demanding concessions. In 1911 it was forced to give way and introduce a programme of social legislation. Redmond strongly opposed the extension of this legislation to Ireland insisting that a Home Rule parliament would not be able to afford it.
At best Home Rule as put forward by such people meant only the same penury, the same exploitation but administered by different faces. To Protestant workers it seemed worse than this. It was clear to them that gains which were being secured by the British working class would not be applied by a parliament of Redmondite landowners and of small business interests from the less-developed southern areas. Tariffs put up to assist these interests would threaten their export-orientated jobs. So long as the Home Rule formula equalled the same but worse there was no way they would support it. Such backing as sections of the Protestant working class gave to the lords and ladies of Unionism, was in large part given to retain their connections with the British working class whose struggles and achievements seemed to offer the best hope for the future.
It was not possible on the basis of capitalism and certainly not of landlordism to frame a new national movement which was genuinely broad in its appeal. Stripped of its social content, Irish nationalism could not unite all of the oppressed, irrespective of religion. Inevitably it tended to narrow, to degenerate, and to represent itself as Catholic nationalism – never the same thing.
This is the down-side of the history of the time. It is the only side picked upon by the modern pro-union school. Writing at a time of sectarian conflict and a low point in the class struggle their approach to history is to pick out every similar low point as the norm and ignore or down play all else. Just in fact as those of their ilk writing about the recent Troubles can see only a catalogue of sectarian events and have written out the working class or the labour movement as even a player.
There was another side to events pre-partition. The capitulation by the Irish capitalists to British rule after 1798 meant that the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution were left to be completed by others. At the end of the nineteenth and in the first decades of the twentieth century a class emerged which was capable of doing this – the working class. It had the capacity to create a new unity of Catholic and Protestant, to complete what was left undone by the capitalists, not as a gift to this class, but in the course of carrying out its own historic mission, the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of a socialist society.
Even during the nineteenth century, whenever social and class issues came to the fore, the tendency was to the dissolution of old sectarian divisions and unity in struggle. Davitt’s Land League forged this unity of Catholic and Protestant tenant in its land agitation of 1879-82. This over spilled politically to the point where landlords and their nominees found themselves challenged and threatened at the polls.
Jemmy Hope The Memoirs of Jemmy Hope, B&ICO publication 1972, p16
Troubled Times Chapter 3
Rise of the working class
With the arrival of the working class as a force sufficiently strong to make its independent mark on history, the potential for unity of Catholic and Protestant in the north east and of workers throughout Ireland was put on a new and higher level. This arrival was signalled at the beginning of the 1890s by the first stirrings of the unskilled. A wave of militancy was sweeping the industrial workplaces of Britain as the unskilled and previously unorganised formed unions. Now efforts were made to bring this new unionism to Ireland. Organisers from the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) and the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers (NUGGL) came over to help Irish unions organise. In the case of the latter it was Eleanor Marx who came, visiting Derry in 1891 to assist with the organisation of the shirt factories.
Sixty nine strikes were reported in 1890, up from thirty in 1889. In 1892 Belfast Trades Council organised a march of 12,000 in support of linen lappers who were locked out for five weeks by their employers. Catholic and Protestant bands took part, stewards wore orange and green rosettes – a forerunner of the ‘non-sectarian labour band’ which James Connolly would parade in Belfast some twenty years later.
Also in 1892 building tradesmen went on strike – successfully. There were strikes by dockers in ports around the country, the most bitter in Belfast, where a dispute dragged on for four months. This was a precursor to the great 1907 strike by Belfast dockers and carters. Two years later came the seven week strike by linen workers mentioned earlier.
Out of this the Irish Trades Union Congress was founded in April 1894. Last year (1994) the centenary of this event was celebrated – by a trade union leadership who, are not only a hundred years removed, but are worlds removed from the traditions of struggle which created the first trade union centre in Ireland.
The current ICTU leadership who shrink away from politics and who embrace the market economy with open arms, need to be reminded that the 1895 ITUC congress voted to establish a political fund and that, in 1898, it adopted a call for the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. These resolutions were not acted upon, although Belfast Trades Council courageously and successfully took the first steps to an independent political voice for Labour by fielding candidates in local elections.
This first wave of new unionism was unsuccessful. Most of the strikes were defeated, militancy declined and the new unions withered to little more than bridgeheads for the future. But as the 1905 revolution in Russia was a dress rehearsal for October 1917, so these pioneering struggles were a preface for mightier movements to come.
New unionism’s second offensive began in Belfast in June 1907 when recently arrived NUDL organiser James Larkin called out 500 dockers. From these beginnings a bitter dispute developed with carters and coalmen coming out. There was clear sympathy and support from other sections of the working class in the city. As Catholic and Protestant workers united it was the forces of sectarianism and of the state which began to fracture. Police, who found themselves used to protect scabs and help break the strike, mutinied in protest at their own workload, hours and conditions. Even Belfast’s Orangemen were divided, with the Independent Orange Order, whose membership was almost exclusively from the working class, giving support to Larkin.
Eventually the strike was settled by the intervention of the British leadership of the NUDL – and on less favourable terms than Larkin thought might have been achieved. There were other struggles in Belfast – notably the 1911 mill workers dispute in which Connolly played an important role – but after 1907 the active focus of the discontent moved elsewhere.
A wave of strikes across much of Ireland in 1911 saw workers turn to the recently formed Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), Larkin’s answer to the betrayal by NUDL leaders in 1907. By the end of 1911 it had 18,089 members, 13,009 of whom had joined that year. Employers responded with lockouts to break the union. 550 ITGWU members were locked out in Wexford from August 1911 until February 1912. In August 1913 the Dublin employers, led by William Martin Murphy, attempted a similar tactic.
The Dublin Lockout was an unforgettable chapter in the history of the Irish labour movement. Under Larkin’s leadership, and that of Connolly, the Dublin workers stood firm by the union. Against them were pitted not just the employers but the state and the Catholic hierarchy. It polarised society in Ireland and beyond. Even George Bernard Shaw, speaking at a rally in London, advised the workers to arm themselves.
The strikers did, in fact, respond to physical attacks by setting up a worker’s militia. Known initially as the Transport Union Citizen Army it soon became known simply as the Citizen’s Army.
1907 had divided Protestant sectarian organisations along class lines. Now the ‘nation’ and the ‘nationalist movement’ were similarly divided. Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) leader, Joe Devlin, called for Catholic unions. Arthur Griffith, leader of Sinn Fein, denounced the lockout complaining that Irish workers were only inflicting damage on Irish industry. It lasted until February 1914 when it ended, more as a draw than a clear victory for either side. Although the workers were starved back to work the union remained. The new unions for general workers this time were there to stay.
Like the struggles of the 1890s this new surge of militancy had its political effects. In 1912 the TUC passed a motion, moved by Connolly, calling for a Labour Party to be set up. The decision was reaffirmed in 1914 – Congress that year voted to change its title to the Irish TUC and Labour Party (ITUC&LP).
These events took place against the backcloth of the Home Rule crisis, the mobilisation of unionist and nationalist militias and the seeming threat of civil war. This was an argument fought out in the capitalist terms of which set of bosses do you want to exploit you, which set of gangsters should rule you, and as such could only polarize and divide Protestant worker from Catholic.
The emergence of the working class as an independent force offered the alternative of a struggle against all exploitation, a struggle for independence, for socialism and also for internationalism.
The challenge facing the labour movement was to place itself at the head of the struggle for national liberation and in so doing restore to that struggle a social content. If it could succeed in this it would have the possibility to unite the vast majority of the Irish people against imperialism and against capitalism, just as, at an earlier stage of historical development, the United Irishmen had united the mass of the people against colonialism and against landlordism.
The outbreak of war in Europe left the question whether or not this challenge would be faced unanswered. Instead there followed a period in which all the conflicts brewing in Ireland were put on hold. Redmondite nationalists and Carsonite unionists put their differences to the side as both their leaders became energetic crusaders for the war effort. The class struggle entered a period of ebb.
It was in this situation that Connolly egged on the paltry forces of revolutionary nationalism to take part alongside the Citizen’s Army in the Easter Rising of 1916. It was intended by Connolly to be a blow which would inspire workers in Europe to rise against the imperialist slaughter taking place in the trenches. The idea that it would detonate a broader movement in Ireland or in Europe was a forlorn hope, as Connolly himself almost certainly knew. The fault of the rising was that it was premature. A deep anti-war sentiment had not yet developed – indeed many in Dublin who spat on the defeated insurgents did so because they saw them as having stabbed the soldiers in the trenches in the back. It was only the vengeful programme of executions which changed the popular mood in Ireland to one of sympathy. But by then Connolly had been executed and the Irish working class deprived of its greatest leader – this on the eve of events in which he could have made his greatest contribution.
The Easter Rising did leave an imprint on the consciousness of the working class of the southern part of Ireland at least. But at the time it was isolated and did not precipitate further movements.
Events outside Ireland were to have a more immediate and more dramatic impact. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 came as an inspiration and a beacon of hope to the working class of all countries, but especially of Europe. Very quickly revolutionary situations developed elsewhere, most importantly in Germany in 1918. In Ireland it provided a powerful impetus to the working class, helping to unleash a new movement in the direction of social revolution.
Troubled Times Chapter 4
The final two years of the war saw the beginnings of a revival of the class struggle in Ireland. The ITGWU began to reorganise itself, in 1917 breaking new ground with the recruitment of agricultural workers. Then, in 1918, a tremendous new offensive movement of the working class, surpassing anything which had gone before, was begun. It is difficult to place precise dates, like parentheses, around such a movement. Inevitably it had its prehistory and its aftershocks, but generally we can say that from April 1918 to the middle part of 1920 this movement was in the ascendant. This period saw the highest expression of the class struggle which the Irish working class have yet attained.
Yet the outcome was not socialist revolution, but partition. The modern historical school of sceptics, point to this as a confirmation of their analysis. Unable to ignore this movement, they instead choose to enlarge its every negative feature. They triumphantly point out that in the end working class unity did not resolve the national question, but rather was breached by it.
There is a false method at work here. It is the same false method being displayed now by the vast majority of historians of the current Troubles. Because they are unable to see beyond the sectarian divisions they start out from the premise that the Troubles, in the sectarian form they have taken, were inevitable. The negative conclusions they then arrive at come as no surprise.
Proponents of the idea of ‘separate development’, North and South, take as their premise the inevitability of partition. From this they work back to find the ‘proof’ in preceding events. They minimize the potential of the revolutionary movement of 1918-20. To answer them we have to look at what actually happened.
On April 20th 1918 a special labour movement conference of 1,500 delegates lit the torch of this new workers’ movement. It decided on a one day general strike against conscription. April 23rd, the day of the strike, brought the greatest shut down there had ever been in Ireland. All over the country factories, transport, even pubs remained firmly closed.
Only in the northern area was there an exception – something which has been made much of by those who look for sectarian division in everything. This, they say, was a sign that even the working class movement, north and south, was following different paths.
In fact the evidence indicates that there was broad sympathy in the north, among Protestant and Catholic workers, for this strike. Anti-war sentiment by now was a European, not a southern Irish, factor and it was strong in the northern counties also. There was no strike only because the union leaders hesitated and did not call workers out in Belfast and other northern areas. Still, the 10,000 who demonstrated the day before at Belfast City Hall showed the anti-conscription mood that was present there as well.
The strike showed the power of the working class and gave it confidence in itself. There followed an unprecedented strike wave. Building workers, hotel and restaurant staff, carters, transport workers – the list of those who took action is endless. Even undertakers and domestic servants were out at some stage.
Moreover the movement spread across the country: Limerick bakers, flour millers in Kilrush, gas workers in Dungarvan… the full extent of the strike wave begun in 1918 and carried on through 1919 is so great as to be impossible to record fully. Suffice to point out that during these two years there were three national and 18 local general strikes.
The real feeling in the north was shown by the unofficial action taken by Belfast engineering workers alongside those of Glasgow for shorter hours. This was probably the only major dispute of the period which did not directly involve the ITGWU, by now synonymous with trade unionism in much of Ireland.
The strike lasted from late January to late February. Although the strikers were mostly Protestant, there were Catholics employed in the industry and they came out. The strike committee likewise was mainly Protestant, but a number of Catholics were prominent within it.
Like the dockers and carters strike of 1907, this dispute polarised the city. The strike committee published its own newspaper and organised a workers’ police force. Their newspaper took up one of the old anti-Home Rule rallying cries of the Carsonites and presented it in a new form: “Labour in Belfast has discovered that, when it must fight it must fight alone. No helping hand is stretched out to help it on the way. Labour will fight, and Labour will be right. Labour can stand alone.” (8)
Differences exaggerated Far-reaching class conclusions were being drawn. Yet the proponents of ‘separate development’ play down their significance. Always searching on the underside of events for their cues they make much of the fact that offers of sympathetic action made by workers in the South were turned down.
Here is an example of how a single decision, torn from its context can be used to exaggerate sectarian differences. In fact there was a possibility of much wider action on the question of hours. A special conference of the ITUC&LP was held in Dublin on 8 February to consider the possibility of a national wages and hours movement. There were calls for the 44 hour demand of the Belfast workers to be taken up throughout the country.
Despite this the strike committee decided not to approach the ITUC&LP. No doubt one element of this decision was their hesitancy about the pro-Sinn Fein leanings they could detect within the leadership of this body.
But there were other probably more decisive factors. The Belfast workers received offers of support and of solidarity action from other workers in the city. Early in the dispute, linen workers in the Belfast mills made an approach offering to come out for shorter hours, but the strike committee turned them down also. There was an element of craft prejudice and also of male chauvinism in this decision. There were doubts among the strike leaders about whether the female linen workers would stick out a struggle. The Strike Bulletin argued that:
“custom has decreed that the amelioration of onerous conditions is generally secured by the craftsmen first though we do not think there is any inherent reason this should be so”. (9)
By the time of the ITUC&LP special conference, the dispute in Glasgow had entered a critical phase. The city had been occupied by troops, sent to break the strike, since the start of February. Rather than back down, the Glasgow workers issued a call to workers in the rest of Britain to come to their aid. A mass meeting of Electrical Trades Union members in London threatened to switch off the power in the capital from 6 February.
On the eve of this action the government issued a ban, using powers under the Defence of the Realm Act. The ETU leaders hesitated and postponed, in reality called off, their action. Also at this time the national leaders of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), to praises from the government, dealt the strikers a blow by suspending the Glasgow, London and Belfast district committees of the union. This was a turning point and a few days later the Glasgow workers voted to go back. In Belfast they carried on until the end of the month but with little prospect of any further concessions now that they were standing alone.
At this stage, to broaden the dispute meant an all-out confrontation with the state and a battle with their own union leadership. With the strike in Glasgow beginning to crumble, the Belfast workers opted not to spread the action. From the point of view of winning an outright victory this decision, and the refusal of the linen workers’ offer, were clearly mistakes. They were a victory of hesitancy over militancy – but it is not difficult to understand why they were taken.
Nothing is gained by prettifying or denying the negative features which may be present in any workers’ movement – nor is anything gained by exaggerating them. Within every battle against the employers there is another battle – socialist ideas versus more backward ideas from the past.
It is when it enters the arena of struggle that the working class finds itself as a class and learns to put old ideas, old prejudices to the side. The fact that hesitancy, possibly even a degree of prejudice influenced some decisions of the 1919 strike committee in no way obscures the huge impact this dispute made or the effect that it had in enormously raising the consciousness of the Belfast working class as a whole. This was to be seen in subsequent developments in the city which will be mentioned later.
National struggle The revival of the working class movement in 1918 was paralleled with an intensification of the national struggle. The old idea of the Redmondites of limited independence in a British context held no place in the more radical climate of the time. In the 1918 general election they were swept aside by Sinn Fein, with its call for outright independence to be achieved through struggle, not just by negotiation.
The newly elected Sinn Fein members refused to take their seats at Westminster. Instead, in 1919, they set up their own Irish parliament, or Dail, and issued a declaration of independence. This was backed with a military campaign launched by the newly formed IRA. The British government replied with a counter-campaign of reprisals and atrocities.
It wasn’t that the industrial movement was a backcloth to the national struggle – or visa versa. In truth the two were intricately but firmly woven together.
With the exception of the north-east that is. Here the class movement was developing in tandem with the industrial and socialist offensive on-going elsewhere in Ireland. But when it came to the national question, building and maintaining class unity was a more difficult thing.
Sinn Fein’s programme, all the radical rhetoric borrowed from the labour movement put aside, was at bottom for an independent capitalist Ireland. Its message to labour was that your separate demands must wait. Independence first, other social change only for discussion later. What this meant was shown in practice when the underground courts set up by Sinn Fein and backed physically by the IRA were used to end land seizures.
Just as capitalist Home Rule held no attraction for Protestant workers, neither did capitalist independence. Protestant workers could only have been won to a national struggle if this was part of a struggle for socialism and was fought, not under the banner of nationalism but that of internationalism.
Instead of striving to take the leadership of the national struggle, which they were well poised to do, the ITUC&LP leaders capitulated to Sinn Fein. In mid-1918 the ITUC&LP decided to contest the forthcoming general election and a programme was subsequently worked out in which Labour candidates would stand. However the ITUC&LP leadership made no concrete preparations to stand, held no special selection meetings, mounted no campaigns in local areas. Their lack of preparation and the compromises they had already made to Sinn Fein meant that the question was bound to provoke opposition. Sinn Fein were at this time adopting a policy of abstention from Westminster, a policy which the ITUC&LP endorsed for its own candidates arguing that attendance in the British parliament would be pointless due to the war.
The issue of abstention provoked dissension in trade union ranks. Earlier courtship of Sinn Fein by senior union figures made it difficult to argue that this was anything other than Labour pursuing Sinn Fein’s agenda. With the end of the war in sight it was clear that prominent ITUC leaders were in favour of dropping this policy. But in that case many of the most militant ranks of the movement would be likely to vote for Sinn Fein with its seemingly more bold policy of a complete abandonment of Westminster.
The threat of a division over the issue was used by the right wing of the movement, William O’Brien of the ITGWU included, to justify reversing the decision to stand. Al-though left wingers such as Cathal O’Shannon, also of the ITGWU, opposed, the right carried the day at a special conference in November.
The result was to give Sinn Fein a free run and to elevate them to the position of undisputed political leaders of the national struggle. More than this, the ITUC&LP leaders gave Sinn Fein candidates every material assistance, helped with propaganda and did what they could to bolster them in the eyes of the working class.
‘Labour must wait’ became the joint philosophy of Sinn Fein leader De Valera and of the dominant leaders of the ITUC&LP. This helped sustain those elements of difference which existed between the broad mass of Protestant workers in the north and the rest of the working class. In the hands of these leaders the national question was certain to be divisive.
Unity from below At this point those who argue that partition was the inevitable result of these divisions, nothing to do with British imperialism or its henchmen in Ireland, lay down their pens. But there is far more to the question than this. People like De Valera and Labour leader William O’Brien pointed the movement one way. Within the movement itself there was an opposite tendency strengthened in every struggle, which pulled in a different direction. In the south the ranks of the labour movement and of Sinn Fein were beginning to go far beyond the programme of their leaders. They were embracing the idea, not just of a republic but of a workers’ republic or, as it was often put, of a ‘soviet republic’. The Protestant working class in the north were also unmistakably moving in the direction of socialism and of internationalism.
The role of leaders like O’Brien pointed to division, to the isolation of the advanced workers from the broad mass of the working class especially in the north. But with the broadening and deepening of the class struggle their ideas were being challenged. From below a socialist consciousness was being developed, socialist goals were being advanced. North and south, Protestant and Catholic, the working class were advancing, at an accelerating pace in the direction of unity around socialist ideas.
Across the country the movement was overtly socialist in its character. Not for nothing sections of the Belfast press dubbed the 1919 Belfast strike the ‘Belfast Soviet’. At this time the outstanding socialist and revolutionary, Peadar O’Donnell, was leading struggles in other parts of Ulster in his role as the organiser of the ITGWU. He brought together Protestant and Catholic mill workers in Caledon.
When, led by O’Donnell, Monaghan asylum workers occupied their workplace, the red flag was flown over the building. Elsewhere in the country a rural movement involving agricultural labourers and workers in agricultural processing plants began in earnest. Red flags and socialist slogans appeared everywhere – adorning platforms, carried on parades and held at rallies. The word ‘soviet’ seemed on everyone’s lips.
In Limerick in April 1919 ‘soviet’ became more than a word, it became a fact. When the British military authorities declared the city a special military area where everyone would have to carry special permits, the local trades council replied with a general strike.
From the first day of the strike the city came to a standstill. For two weeks Limerick had a workers’ government which regulated prices, distributed food, even printed its own money. It was the first ‘soviet’ to be established in Britain or Ireland.
The radicalised mood rubbed off on some leaders who were forced to give it partial expression in their speeches. One prominent figure, Cathal O’Shannon, speaking in Dublin’s Mansion House stated:
“The soviet idea was the only one that would confer freedom on Ireland.” (10)
He sent a message to the British Daily Herald urging the English working class to set up an “English Soviet Republic”. (11)
O’Shannon was a delegate from the ITUC&LP to the conference of the Second International in Berne where a decision was taken to support a call for a general strike on May Day 1919. The ITUC&LP leadership issued this call in Ireland and were met with a massive display of solidarity. Across the country the shut down was complete, in towns large and small there were demonstrations with red flags and the call for a socialist republic to the fore.
It is true that again much of Ulster including the Belfast area did not take part. In some areas the reason was simply that local union leaders did not call workers out. In Belfast the ITUC & LP’s courtship with Sinn Fein did mean that its authority was not automatically accepted in that city. Elsewhere the ITGWU provided the leadership of the strike. It was not a significant force in Belfast.
All this is but a detail. Two days later, on May 3rd, 100,000 workers marched from Donegal Place in the centre of Belfast across to the Ravenhill Road in the east of the city and then to the Ormeau Park for a massive public rally. All unions, including the ITGWU, took part, Catholic and Protestant marched side by side.
And like so many other marches in other parts of the country it was bedecked with socialist flags, banners and slogans. The rally in Ormeau Park was so large that three platforms had been erected so that speakers could address the crowd simultaneously.
The message from the platforms was of support for socialist ideas, acclaim for the Russian Revolution and for internationalism. Its main theme was the need for “undiluted, uncamouflaged representatives” (12) of labour to stand in elections to challenge the other parties.
Strikes continued through 1919 and into 1920. Dockers in Dublin and Limerick came out as did Dublin gas workers and transport workers in a number of areas. Forty four new branches of the ITGWU were formed during the second half of 1919. During the year as a whole there were no less than twelve local general strikes.
The rising influence of socialist ideas was vividly shown in April 1920 when the ITUC&LP called a general strike demanding the release of 100 prisoners held without charge in Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail. The strike began on April 13th and lasted until the 15th, when the authorities caved in and the prisoners were released.
This was an immense demonstration of the power of the working class when called to action. It is true that the workers of the north east did not take part but, by this time, their lack of response was understandable.
It should be remembered that the proposal for partition was already well advanced. The Government of Ireland Act which put forward this proposal had been through its first and second readings in Westminster. On the national question the movement north and south had already been pulled in different directions.
Workers’ power Every all-out general strike although it maybe called on a single issue very quickly goes beyond that issue to wider questions. As a general strike develops, the outlines of an alternative state controlled by the working class become visible. The question of power, of which class runs society, is posed. So it was with the 1920 strike. Apart from the north-east, the strike was solid everywhere. From the first day, workers’ organisations, trades councils, ITGWU branches, took over the distribution of supplies, organised policing and other services in towns and cities alike.
Limerick, Cork, Galway became centres of workers’ power. So too did smaller towns, even villages. In Tralee the trades council took control, setting up its own ‘police’. ‘Red Guards’ patrolled Naas. A report from Muine Bheag to the ITGWU gives a flavour of the overall mood:
“On the second day of the strike we held a public meeting in the Market Square and publicly proclaimed the establishment of a provisional soviet government…” (13)
Just as the engineering strike in the north saw unionist ideas put to the side to be replaced by socialist and internationalist ideas, so the 1920 strike showed the potential for the working class acting from below to go beyond the tail-ending by its leaders of Sinn Fein, and take the leadership of the national struggle. Although starting out from different points the working class throughout the country could have been united politically as well as industrially, under a socialist rather than any other flag.
Britain’s military commander, Neville MacCready, arriving in Dublin during this strike, clearly had in his mind this danger when he commented:
“Red murder stalked through the length and breadth of the land”. (14)
The tendency for the movement in all parts of the country to dovetail politically was apparent right into 1920. Although the national leadership of the ITUC&LP had embraced Sinn Fein from 1918, socialists in the north refused to endorse this course.
The Belfast Labour Party did put up candidates in the 1918 general election, standing in four seats. Although Sinn Fein candidates stood against them in every seat they managed to prevent this from driving Protestant workers behind the unionists. Their manifesto opposed the politics of ‘Celt against Saxon, Catholic against Protestant’. (15)
It demanded the ‘socialisation’ of wealth under democratic control. The results showed the potential. They won 22 per cent of the votes where they stood, polling 12,164, against 41,176 for the unionists and only 3,319 for Sinn Fein.
In January 1920, Labour fielded its forces in local elections. This time there was no repeat of 1918. A special conference of trades councils was called and it was agreed to put up candidates nationally.
341 out of the 650 Labour candidates who stood were successful. The scale of this success is well measured by a comparison with the 422 seats won by Sinn Fein.
35 Labour or union-backed candidates stood in Belfast, 22 of them in the name of Belfast Labour Party. Depending on their definition of Labour different historians quote different figures for the numbers elected but most now settle for 12.
When the labour movement was seen in alliance with Sinn Fein the national character of the movement was diminished. When it stood alone, as in these elections, the result was a single movement north and south behind the socialist policies which, in words at least, it put forward.
The 1920 elections saw the ranks of the working class movement still pressing forward in the direction of socialist ideas. The possibility still existed that socialist militancy would overwhelm the ‘Labour must wait’ philosophy of the heads of the labour movement.
Yet within weeks the working class suffered the first of a series of blows and the process of socialist radicalisation was thrown into reverse. Ultimately the class offensive begun in 1918 was defeated.
8 Austen Morgan Labour and Partition, The Belfast working class, 1905-23, Pluto Press 1991, p240
9 Ibid. p240
10 C. D. Greaves The Irish Transport & General Workers Union, Gill & Macmillan 1982, p234
11 Ibid. p234
12 Morgan p249
13 Greaves p267
14 Ibid. p268
15 Morgan p255
Troubled Times Chapter 5
Strategy of the ruling class
Old divisions plus the tragically false course pursued since 1918 by the trade union and Labour leaders helped clear the way for this defeat, but were not themselves the instrument which brought it about. That instrument was partition. Its architect was the capitalist class in Britain. The image of this class and its representatives sitting back and eyeing these events with a neutral eye is quite absurd. They acted, with more than a small degree of desperation, to preserve their interests in Ireland and elsewhere, to protect their system from overthrow.
The conclusion which Militant has reiterated many times, that the British ruling class partitioned Ireland to suit its own ends, is straight forward and entirely accurate. However, like any scientific formula, it represents the essence of the question and conceals behind it a complicated web of events, relationships and interests. Similarly when we argue that the British ruling class have pursued a strategy through the Troubles, and are now doing so with the ‘peace process’, we understand that different capitalist spokespersons have different views, and that there are various, sometimes conflicting, capitalist interests involved. Nonetheless, it is possible to detect a general trend.
The ruling class is a complex social organism. When we say it acts in a certain way we do not intend to conjure up an image of some kind of executive body meeting in a room to decide strategy. Within the present ruling class there are various layers and conflicting interests – financiers, industrial capitalists, top state functionaries, military chiefs, law lords and so on.
Rarely does this class take a single view. Even when there is an overwhelmingly predominant view there will be voices who will speak out against. In periods of revolutionary upheaval divisions which at other times are curtained off from public view tend to come into the open and become more pronounced.
The capitalist class does not rule directly but through governments – whether these are broadly democratic, military police dictatorships, or fascist regimes – over which it has to find ways of exerting its influence and ultimately its control. Consequently capitalist governments, responding to other pressures within society especially the pressure of the working class, can take measures which are temporarily at odds with the interests of the capitalists. Even when governments act faithfully at the behest of their capitalist masters the details of policy, the nuances of negotiation, have to be left to the politicians.
Just as politics is dynamic and ever changing, so the ruling class have no once and for all policy which they pursue. As world relations and class relations change so must their tactics and their strategy.
So when we state that British imperialism partitioned Ireland all of this complexity is understood as implicit in this statement. We do not mean that British capitalism at some point fixed on the idea that partition would be necessary and over years and decades worked towards this objective. We mean that in the concrete conditions which existed in 1919-1920, they seized on this drastic remedy as the only way they could see of protecting their interests.
To see how the policy of the ruling class developed it is necessary to go back to the beginnings of the Home Rule crisis. The first Home Rule bills were brought before parliament by the Liberal government of Gladstone in 1886 and again in 1893. At this time the landlord system was intact in Ireland. Behind the pressure of the Irish masses for self-government was their desire to have the power to scrap this system.
The policy of the Liberals, representing more the industrial wing of capital in Britain, was to introduce land reform to defuse the social agitation on this question and to offer limited Home Rule, really a form of devolution, to curtail the call for separation. The Tories, who opposed both bills and who led their defeat in the House of Lords, were influenced by the landowners and by the more aristocratic and backward-looking wing of the ruling class.
Yet the increasingly dominant power of manufacturing capital soon told, even on the Conservatives. It was a Conservative government which, apart from the on-going issue of annuities which continued to be paid to the old landowners, in 1903 finally resolved the land issue by passing legislation to buy out the landlords and allow the tenants to buy the land.
At this point, the threat of social agitation on the land issue having receded, the ruling class would have been prepared to allow limited measures of self-government – precisely to forestall any demand for independence. Yet only a few years later when the Third Home Rule bill came before parliament a fundamental schism opened up between the two major parties reflecting a division within the ruling class.
Two elections in 1910 produced minority Liberal governments which had to lean on other parties, including the Irish Parliamentary Party of Redmond, for a majority. Redmond made Home Rule the price of his support. On 11 April 1912 Liberal Prime Minister Asquith introduced the Third Home Rule Bill.
The reaction from the Tories was swift and ferocious. Tory leader Bonar Law linked with Dublin Unionist Edward Carson, who had served in the previous Tory government and now sat on the opposition front bench, to organise to resist this bill.
Ulster provided the centre for this resistance. As the Ulster Unionist Council, with Carson as their figurehead, began to mobilise mass opposition, Bonar Law publicly voiced his approval. On 20 July he spoke to a large crowd at Blenheim Palace:
“I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go, which I should not be ready to support and in which they will not be supported by an overwhelming majority of the British people.” (16)
In September Carson unveiled an Ulster Covenant with a pledge not to accept a Home Rule parliament. 237,368 Ulstermen signed this declaration. Women were made to sign a different but similar covenant and 234,046 did.
At the start of 1913 the Ulster Unionist Council launched an Ulster Volunteer Force to be made up of 100,000 of those who had signed the covenant.
Each of these steps and the others which were to follow have been well documented and are not in dispute. The real issue is why this unionist reaction was promoted and assisted by the British Tories and by considerable sections of the British ruling class.
The answer lies in the changed conditions which existed both in Ireland and in Britain since the period of consensus after 1903. A new threat had developed in Ireland in the form of Larkinism. The British ruling class was at one with William Martin Murphy and other Irish employers in trying to destroy this, to them, particularly virulent form of new unionism. Those who rallied to the Tory-Unionist resistance feared that concessions given in the context of this social movement might only whet the appetite for further concessions, with, for them, unthinkable consequences in Ireland, and unwelcome effects outside Ireland.
At this time the British Empire covered one quarter of the continents and encompassed 425 million people, over 300 million of them living in India. The knock-on effects of events in Ireland on this restless mass of humanity was always a prime consideration. It was no accident that among the most prominent backers of Carson were those sections of the political and military establishment most closely associated with maintaining British rule of India, South Africa and other colonies and dominions. Historian Nicholas Mansergh in his book The Irish Question concludes:
“The appeal for readiness and, if need be, resistance, was directed to Ulster but it was not for Ulster. It was for the integrity of the Empire that Ulster was to fight”. (17)
Not just for the empire but for the most conservative and reactionary section of the Establishment in Britain. Between 1909-1914 Britain was embroiled in a social and constitutional crisis which split the ruling class, with one wing prepared to use extra-parliamentary means to try to preserve the status quo. To these people Ulster provided a stage on which they could act to bring the Liberal government into line.
During this period there was a major strike wave in Britain which involved whole sections of the working class, an upsurge in struggle which has been accurately labelled by historians as the ‘Great Labour unrest’. Militancy was on the rise and pressure was being applied on the Liberal government to make substantial concessions. As events unfolded there was a growing fear among the ruling class that the Liberals were going too far and might be pushed much further.
In 1909 Liberal Chancellor Lloyd George introduced his so-called ‘people’s budget’, which was to finance the old age pension scheme, the government had enacted the previous year. It included provisions for a tax on wealth, including death duties and land taxes. These very rudimentary provisions for a welfare state, the changes which Redmond opposed being applied to Ireland, were dumped by the House of Lords using its constitutional veto. The Liberals replied with a proposal to abolish this veto.
The two elections of 1910 were fought in the throes of this constitutional crisis. Liberal victories cleared the way for a Parliament Bill introduced in April of that year, which proposed to limit the Lords veto. In future it would be able to hold up but not overrule legislation passed by the Commons. Further measures such as an elected second chamber were considered but not brought forward. All of this excited a furore of opposition from the more conservative wing of the ruling class. Nonetheless the government’s bill became law the following year, the Lord’s permanent veto was gone, and one consequence was that for the first time Home Rule became a practical possibility.
Asquith’s Home Rule Bill was being brought to parliament in April 1912, Bonar Law, along with no less than 70 Conservative MPs, came to Belfast to a huge opposition rally at Balmoral. Their concern was not just with Home Rule. It was to use the Unionists as a cudgel against the Liberals. Bonar Law reminded his Ulster audience that the opposition to Home Rule was linked to other questions: “Once again you hold the pass, the pass for the empire… the government have created by their Parliament Act a boom against you to split you off from the help of the British people. You will burst that boom. That help will come, and when the crisis is over men will say to you in words not unlike those used by Pitt – you have saved yourselves by your exertions, and you will save the empire by your example.” (18)
The workers movement was soon a target of this Unionist and Conservative reaction. The summer of 1912 saw some 3,000 Catholics and several hundred Protestant socialists and labour activists evicted from the shipyards, the Sirocco factory and other Belfast workplaces.
The following year, with the Home Rule Bill still being debated, Bonar Law issued a stern warning to the government that even if this legislation should get through parliament, there were “things stronger than parliamentary majorities.” (19)
A taste of what these words might mean was given early in 1914, when the Home Rule Bill was offered for its final reading. Churchill, then a prominent Liberal, ordered troops to the north and was met with a mutiny by army officers based at the Curragh in County Kildare. The government backed off and rescinded its order.
The Curragh mutiny had a shock effect. It brought it home to both wings of the establishment that the division between them risked the possibility of armed conflict. There was pressure from elements on both sides for a compromise.
The idea of partition had been considered for some time. It was implicit in the Unionist threat to set up an Ulster Provisional Government in the event of Home Rule even though this was not put forward because they favoured a separate state, but because they believed this threat would make the whole scheme inoperable.
Churchill had privately argued for a separate deal for Ulster. Even before the Curragh mutiny Liberal leaders had persuaded Redmond to accept the temporary exclusion of some of the Ulster counties. In March 1912 Asquith made this idea public when he spoke in parliament, offering exclusion for six years. At the time Carson and the Tories rejected the idea – a “sentence of death with a stay of execution of six years” (20) – was Carson’s retort.
Then came the Curragh mutiny and the fear of civil war. Attitudes began to change and all sides began to search in earnest for a compromise. Even Bonar Law spoke about the need for a settlement by consent. A Times editorial on 30 April summed up the change in attitude of some who had been on the anti-Home Rule side:
“We have constantly opposed the principle of Home Rule for Ireland and continue to do so. We should regard any form of settlement on the lines proposed, not with jubilation, but with sorrow. For us too it would spell defeat and not victory. Yet there are some defeats more honourable than victory and we place the preservation of the internal peace of these realms, and the salvation of the Empire from disaster, above the cause of a single parliament for the United Kingdom.- (21)
There was general pressure for talks to provide a solution. The Home Rule Bill went through the Commons in May but there was an understanding that there would be some amendment dealing with the position of Ulster. In July a conference was held involving government and opposition, unionists and nationalists, to discuss this issue. Both British parties wanted a compromise but they could not get Carson and Redmond to agree on the size of the excluded area, particularly the fate of Fermanagh and Tyrone.
It is probable that an agreement could eventually have been reached through further negotiation. Both Irish parties would have come under pressure from their erstwhile British allies to strike a deal.
Home Rule would have been applied to part of Ireland, with either four counties or six counties excluded. On the length of the exclusion some compromise could have been arrived at, perhaps neither permanent exclusion nor the six years ‘commuted death sentence’ but a mechanism for the situation to be reviewed within a certain time.
For the working class it would have been a disastrous outcome. Sectarian divisions would have been reinforced and the task of creating a party of labour which had just been accepted by the ITUC would have been made immense.
The Redmondites had set out with limited objectives and would have settled for limited results. The real interest of the Unionists had been in scuppering the whole question of Home Rule, not in partitioning the country. It would have been very much a second best option.
For the British ruling class who had closed ranks in securing a deal it would have been a result born of pragmatism. The division among them had led one section of them to go to the brink of civil war in Ireland. The compromise of partition seemed the best way to avoid a conflict which they had been instrumental in unleashing. When the issue arose again in 1919 and 1920 it was for very different reasons that the British ruling class once again came up with the answer of partition.
Would agreement have been reached? Could this have been sold to the UVF or the Irish Volunteers who were still busy mobilising? We cannot answer these questions with certainty. Outside events interfered to jolt the frame of history in another direction.
Days after the all-party conference broke down, Britain issued an ultimatum to Germany to pull its troops out of Belgium and war became inevitable. All parties to the Irish conflict agreed to suspend their differences and support the war effort. The Home Rule Bill became law but with it there was a commitment to further discussion on the outstanding areas of difference before it could be implemented.
Nothing ever came of this. True in the latter part of the war, from July 1917 until May 1918, an Irish Convention was summoned by Prime Minister Lloyd George but this was just a talking shop set up to keep the Irish occupied during the war and to encourage the United States to come into the fighting on the British side.
The deliberations of this Convention – on the shape of a new Home Rule government – were by then an irrelevance. Home Rule was no longer an acceptable basis for a settlement. Redmond died in March 1918, before the Convention reported, but his cause of limited self-government was already dead before him. His party was being displaced by Sinn Fein (who were not involved in the Convention) and Labour – which of these would be predominant was not yet decided. The call for Home Rule was replaced by the demand for outright independence.
Among the pro-unionist school of historians who paint a picture of the British ruling class as a neutral arbitrator between warring Irish factions, there are those who go further and say that the real interests of British capitalism, at this time and since, lay in complete withdrawal. This is a completely hollow idea which sits particularly uncomfortably alongside the stormy events of 1918 and after.
The 1918 general election resulted in the formation of a coalition government between a wing of the Liberals led by Lloyd George and the Conservatives led by Bonar Law. This was a government of crisis faced by social ferment and upheaval on every front. Its uppermost concern was to withstand and defeat the rising tide of revolution and to defend, untouched as far as possible, the status quo.
To the call for independence for Ireland this government answered with an emphatic and unequivocal ‘no’. There may have been divisions among the ruling class on Irish policy before the war, but now, in their determination to resist the clamour for a separate republic, there was unanimity.
There were two main reasons for this stance. Firstly there were the direct interests, strategic and economic, which British imperialism had in retaining overall control of this its oldest and strategically most vital colony. The country’s industrial base, heavily concentrated in the north east, functioned as a component of British capitalism. The powerful magnates who owned the shipyards, the factories and the mills were regarded and regarded themselves as part of the British capitalist class. Imperialism wished to hold onto this industrial prize.
Ireland’s strategic importance lay in its proximity to the ‘mother country’. Events in other colonies were somewhat blurred by distance. Canada was 3,000 miles away, South Africa 6,000, Australia 10,000, while Ireland lay on Britain’s doorstep.
During the war Britain had been able to draw on its resources and had relied heavily on the use of its ports. There was a consensus among the government, the military establishment and the capitalists themselves that in military terms Ireland ranked above the other colonies and dominions as essential for the defence strategy of Britain.
The second key factor determining the attitude of the British ruling class was their fear of the knock-on effects of independence. Before the war the Conservatives had baulked at Home Rule partly because they believed it would loosen the ties of the Empire. Independence, especially in the context of post-war unrest, made this a far more real concern, one now shared by both major parties and by the ruling class as a whole.
After the war the Empire was enlarged through the formation of British protectorates in Iraq and the Middle East. It is true that they withdrew from Afghanistan and from Persia but this was only under pressure from US and French imperialism and was part of the re-division of the post Ottoman world.
British policy in their new protectorate of Iraq showed clearly their attitude to the rights of subject peoples to independence. Despite an international agreement that the Kurds should have the right to a separate Kurdish state, the new British rulers refused this to Iraqi Kurds. In this case direct control of the oil-fields of Iraqi Kurdistan was a more important concern than the rights of the Kurds.
During the war India had been deceptively quiet. But as with Ireland this quickly changed when the war ended. In 1917 India had been offered a measure of self-government, something close to the dominion status of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, but to be implemented by what the British called ‘gradualness’, in other words at a snail’s pace.
Oppression in India
The masses of the Indian sub-continent sought independence and were not satisfied with this step. The attitude of the British ruling class to this demand was the same as to the similar demand for independence for Ireland – outright rejection and brutal coercion.
They introduced the Rowlatt Act in 1919. This instituted virtual martial law in much of India and provoked massive opposition. A one-day general strike and day of action, what the Indian people call a Hartal, was called for 6 April 1919. It led to a shut down, to protests and demonstrations and to some violence.
In one incident five Englishmen were killed in Amritsar and a missionary lady was attacked. The commander of the local British garrison General Dyer declared martial law. A week later 10,000 people protested against the martial law decree which among other things banned public meetings. They were surrounded by troops who opened fire with machine guns and massacred 379 people. The same General Dyer who ordered his troops to fire and who refused to allow doctors into the area to treat the wounded also ordered every Indian neighbour of the missionary who had been attacked, to crawl along on their bellies any time they moved up or down their street.
The fact that a large body of the English establishment went out of their way to support the actions of the troops in Amritsar, indicated clearly what the prevalent attitude was to the idea of withdrawal from, and independence for, colonies such as India, Egypt or Ireland. The House of Lords went so far as to pass a motion condoning General Dyer’s actions.
It was not just the effects in the colonies which the government and the ruling class feared. Their overriding concern through this whole period was with the prospect of socialist revolution – in Europe, in Ireland and at home.
Much of central Europe in particular emerged from the war in a state of revolutionary ferment. For the capitalists there was no doubt where the source of the contagion lay – in the fact of Bolshevik rule in Russia. The British capitalists favoured joining other powers in military action to aid White reaction in Russia. Within the British cabinet there were differences.
Lloyd George was hesitant about intervention but it was the views of pro-interventionists like Churchill, who spoke contemptuously of the “foul baboonery” (22) of Bol shevism, which prevailed. Saving Europe from Bolshevism was the number one concern of the time. Speaking at the postwar Paris Peace Conference, Lloyd George warned his fellow statesmen:
“Europe is in a revolutionary mood. The whole of the existing social, political and economic order is being called into question by the mass of people from one end of Europe to the other.” (23)
A secret report to the British cabinet in November 1918 described a;
“very widespread feeling among the working class that Thrones have become anachronisms, and that the Soviet may still prove to be the best form of Government for a democracy. “(24)
Throughout 1919 the Foreign Office based itself in Paris. Lloyd George spent much of his time there. All this leaves little doubt as to what were the main concerns of the government during this, the period when its scheme for the partition of Ireland was being hatched.
A profound radicalisation was also taking place in Britain. It was reflected in the 1918 general election in which the Labour vote went up from the eight per cent won in 1910 to 22.2 per cent. Labour, with 59 seats, were now the main opposition.
Through 1919 and 1920 the government was besieged with strikes. There were protests and strikes among soldiers who as they de-commissioned found that ‘the land fit for heroes’ was nothing more than the same slums, the same dole queues and the same exploitation as before the “great sacrifice”.
There was a major confrontation with railway workers. Miners, disappointed that a special report, the Shankey Report, had not recommended nationalisation of the pits, demanded that the TUC call a general strike. Troops were deployed in Glasgow to help crush the 1919 engineering strike. Shortly after this strike ended a new menace emerged in the form of the Triple Alliance, an agreement by railworkers, miners and dockers to stand together in struggles.
A letter from Lord Milner, a prominent figure in the establishment, to the Field Marshal of the General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, showed the concern felt in such quarters about these strikes and about the government’s inability to halt them:
“We are in chaos in England as regards strikes, which under Lloyd George’s regime are being dealt with by every sort of men and every sort of department, each acting on a different principle from the others.” (25)
Threat of revolution
The social and national revolt in Ireland threatened to overspill in the direction of socialist revolution. Should that happen it would trigger revolution in Britain also. There were many twists and turns in the application of British policy between 1918 and the signing of the Treaty which gave recognition to the new 26 county state. But there was a single strategy. This was to derail and defeat the revolutionary movement of the working class, to disrupt the growing unity being displayed by workers, Catholic and Protestant and in the process to halt the independence movement.
The 1918 strike against conscription woke the British government to the dangerous situation beginning to unfold in Ireland. Their first response was to try to keep the labour movement in safe hands and at a safe distance from Sinn Fein.
100,000 Irish soldiers were demobilised after 1918. Advisers to the government recommended unemployment benefit and reconstruction grants be paid in order “to keep the soldiers out of Sinn Fein and Bolshevism”. (26) Years later little had been done, discontent remained among the war veterans, and many became important participants in the working class struggles.
While trying to wean the union leaders away from Sinn Fein the government was, at first, opposed to any concessions on the national issue. Given the general radicalisation they feared that even the mildest gesture on their part would merely whet the appetite for more. Lloyd George was at first convinced that even the limited degree of self government proposed in the 1914 Home Rule Bill might dangerously encourage those demanding independence and a republic. He wrote to Bonar Law in 1918 and expressed his view that:
“such an attempt could not succeed and it must be postponed until the condition of Ireland makes it possible”. (27)
The government’s remedy for the condition of Ireland was to ‘improve it’, General Dyer style, by coercion. The Dail set up by Sinn Fein was banned. To the military campaign launched by the newly formed IRA it replied with curfews, with internment and with a policy of military reprisals.
A Restoration of Order Act passed in August 1920 allowed court martial for treason and replaced coroner’s inquests with closed military courts of inquiry. It was martial law by another name. “If it is war they (the IRA) want, they cannot complain if we apply the rules of war” (28) was the justification put forward by Lloyd George.
While there was no serious let up in this policy at any time during the independence struggle, there was a growing recognition that on its own it would not do. In fact, it could be counter-productive. In Ireland it was bringing the working class more and more into the national struggle – as the 1920 strike over prisoners showed. It was also arousing opposition in Britain. There, the Labour Party eventually organised a mass campaign of some 500 well attended rallies all over the country, demanding peace in Ireland.
The army chiefs were not confident that they could hold the line by military means. The fact that they had to draft in irregulars, the notorious Black and Tans, was a sign that the army was becoming over-stretched. At the time of their deployment, Sir Henry Wilson expressed his worries about military over-commitment. “In no single theatre are we strong enough, not in Ireland, nor in England, nor on the Rhine”. His uncomforting conclusion was that, if there was industrial trouble in Britain, “we shall be boiled”. (29)
The significance of the 1919 Belfast engineering strike may be lost on some modern historians. It was understood by the British administration in Ireland at the time. The Viceroy of Ireland, Lord French, recommended that the government undertake a change of policy as a result of this strike. In a memorandum to the cabinet he commented:
“I did not however, consider that the time was ripe for a move in the direction of an immediate release of the prisoners until the strikes in the north occurred and a very dangerous crisis was at hand which might plunge the whole country in (sic) disaster. Bolshevik propaganda was undoubtedly at the root of those strikes, and it came to my knowledge that a close alliance exists between the Bolshevik element and the advanced Sinn Fein sections … Moreover, I found out that this junction with the Bolsheviks was condemned in the strongest manner by the real Sinn Fein leaders such as John McNeill, De Valera and Griffiths (sic)”. (30)
French had come to recognize that the greatest threat in Ireland came from a united working class movement which could draw towards it the most radical sections of Sinn Fein. The significance of the Belfast strike was not just that it united the working class of Ireland, but that it was part of the industrial movement in Britain also. The mainly Protestant workers of Belfast threatened not to be an instrument of division, but to provide a bridge directly linking the movement in Ireland with that of Britain.
French’s only crumb of comfort, that the ‘real’ leaders of Sinn Fein were busy condemning strikes, was the opening for a change in government tactics. Instead of concentrating on isolating and smashing Sinn Fein, their main objective switched to an attempt to disrupt the unity of the working class and defeat ‘Bolshevism’. To achieve this, and to thwart the independence movement, they would have to split Sinn Fein and bring its ‘real’ leaders on side. Subsequent government initiatives including partition were intended to achieve these ends.
16 ATQ Stewart The Ulster Crisis, Faber 1967, p57
17 Nicholas Mansergh The Irish Question, London 1967, p165
18 Stewart p55
19 AG Boyce Englishmen and Irish Troubles, Johnathan Cape 1994, p30
20 George Dangerfield The Damnable Question, Quartet Books 1979, p82
21 Boyce p31
22 Rhodes James The British Revolution, British Politics 1880-1939 Vol. 2, Hamish Hamilton 1977, p142
23 Donny Gluckstein The Western Soviets, Bookmark 1985, p10
24 Ibid. p10
25 Rhodes James p135
26 E O’Connor Syndicalism in Modern Ireland, Cork University Press 1988, p71
27 Boyce p44
28 Times 20 November 1920
29 Boyce p49
30 O’Connor p71
Troubled Times Chapter 6
Partition carried through
The 1914 Home Rule Bill was technically on the statute book and the government was required to come up with a decision on whether to scrap it or put it into operation. In October 1919 a special cabinet committee was set up to look into this, but in reality to come up with an answer to the threat not just of independence, but of socialist revolution. Lord French was one of those who was appointed to serve on it. On November 4th it reported:
“In view of the situation in Ireland itself, of public opinion in Great Britain and still more of public opinion in the Dominions and the United States of America, they cannot recommend the policy either of repealing or of postponing the Home Rule Act of 1914.” (31)
In advocating a new Home Rule Bill they recommended significant changes on the old. The 1914 Bill had proposed a single parliament for Ireland but with the north or part of the north to be excluded. The new proposal was for two parliaments, each with similar powers to those envisaged in 1914, and with a Council of Ireland to control matters of common concern. The powers of this council could be enlarged with the agreement of both parliaments. After consideration it proposed that the northern area should be made up of six of the nine Ulster counties.
The purpose of this was to partition the country so as to divide the working class, while at the same time allowing the government to pursue its tactic of splitting Sinn Fein. It was not unionist pressure which persuaded the government to set up a parliament in the north, a measure of ‘Home Rule’ which unionists had never asked for or desired. This, and the associated proposal for a Council of Ireland was to allow imperialism to divide the country while giving an impression that their policy was really to see Ireland as one self-governing entity. This was the bait which they hoped Griffith, perhaps De Valera, and other moderate Sinn Fein leaders would swallow. With the working class divided and weakened, and with Sinn Fein split, the government would then be able to use coercion to tame those who stood against.
This is the real meaning of the deliberations of the special cabinet committee, and of the Government of Ireland Act which implemented their main proposals and brought about partition. At this particular moment the ‘historical separateness of Ulster’ currently being exaggerated by historians was being melted down in the furnace of the class struggle. Partition was imposed to re-establish it.
As the Government of Ireland Act made its way through the Westminster parliament in 1920, unionists in Ulster prepared for its implementation by a ferocious assault on the labour movement and a determined effort to break the unity of the working class. Belfast Labour would still have been exultant at its success in the 1920 local elections when Carson made it the target of his venom at that year’s Twelfth of July Orange platform. “The most insidious method is tacking on the Sinn Fein question and the Irish Republican question to the labour question”.
At this point of his speech a voice from the crowd reminded him that; “Ireland is the most Labour centre in the United Kingdom”. Carson did not contradict this: “I know that. What I say is this – these men who come forward posing as the friends of labour care no more about labour than does the man in the moon…. Beware of their insidious methods. We in Ulster will tolerate no Sinn Fein, no Sinn Fein organisation, no Sinn Fein methods.” (32)
Carson’s words and those of other unionist leaders were intended to invite attacks on the organisations of the working class. By lumping Labour and Sinn Fein together in the same breath he gave the excuse. Small organisations made up of Protestant bigots, such as the Belfast Protestant Association, or the Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association, took these leaders at their word.
Late in July systematic expulsions began from the two Belfast shipyards, from engineering firms and from some linen mills and smaller factories in Belfast. These were more extensive attacks than in 1912, more than 7,000 workers were expelled as opposed to some 3,000 then. Of those expelled an estimated 1,800 were Protestant. These, and many of the Catholic victims, were trade union, labour and socialist activists. A delegate from the printers trade union told the 1920 British TUC conference:
“Every man who took part in the trade union movement and in the labour movement has been absolutely driven from the (Queens) Island.” (33)
These expulsions, which Carson publicly commended, were a turning point for the labour movement. The class offensive begun in 1918 was halted, in the north at least. The tendency to united action by workers, Catholic and Protestant, north and south was thrown into reverse.
Sinn Fein’s response, which was to organise a boycott of Belfast goods through the rest of Ireland, only helped to confirm and widen the growing separation of Protestants in the north from the rest of the working class. This was especially so when, despite the initial opposition of Cathal O’Shannon and some on the left of the union, the ITGWU gave its active support to the boycott.
Cuts in pay
The workers left behind in the Belfast factories were rewarded by the employers with a round of pay cuts. Left leaderless by the expulsions they could not resist or even take part in resistance. When, for example, the British shipbuilding employers withdrew a pay rise they had given to joiners in May, joiners in Britain went on strike but those in Belfast voted not to take part. In the 1919 engineering dispute and other past struggles the Belfast workers had been in the vanguard. Now the marvellous unity demonstrated during this ‘Belfast Soviet’ was broken.
Although the industrial movement in the rest of the country continued, with land seizures, occupations, strikes, even local `soviets’ – it did not decisively end until the defeat of a series of important strikes by dockers, farm labourers in County Waterford and other well organised sections of the working class in 1923 – the ruling class were successful in removing the biggest potential threat to their rule, the possibility of a united movement of the working class of Ireland as a whole.
The Government of Ireland Act did not succeed in its other objective of splitting Sinn Fein – not even the most moderate of Sinn Fein leaders could be persuaded to switch from the carriage of independence to that of ‘Home Rule, plus partition’, even if it did have the words ‘Council of Ireland’ embroidered on its side.
The only immediate option now left to the government was to try for a military solution. Coercion, reprisals, repression became ever more the watchwords of its policy. On December 23rd the Government of Ireland Act became law amid a sustained effort to subdue the southern counties by force. Two weeks earlier, on December 10, counties Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary had been placed under martial law. Two days later part of Cork city was burnt by the Black and Tans in reprisal for an IRA ambush. The new year opened in a similar vein. On 4th January martial law was decreed in counties Clare, Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford.
Although it had not achieved all that the ruling class had hoped, the Government of Ireland Act did put them in a more advantageous position. With the fact of a divided territory and a divided working class it was easier to lean on one part of the country while dealing blows against the social and national revolt in the other. It was in their best interests to bolster the new northern state. During and after its painful delivery British imperialism spared no resource, material or other, to help it through its infancy.
Not so, say the school of ‘Ulster separateness’, ‘inevitable partition’ and ‘British neutrality’. To these people partition was forced by Protestant resistance. British imperialism merely shuffled the cards which the various participants in Ireland handed to them. They had no particular interest either in the formation of the northern state or in maintaining it. Not only where they prepared to undo partition, this was their preferred course of action.
So runs the argument. Because there is a reaction against the republican oversimplification that imperialism divided the country without reference to Ireland or the Irish, it is an argument which has recently gained some support. But it simply does not fit in with what happened.
During the pre-war crisis the unionists had concentrated on developing resistance in Ulster because they thought this the best way to destroy the whole idea of Home Rule. The British put forward the idea of partition towards the end of this crisis at a time when the Tories and Liberals were seeking a compromise. They felt the proposal would leave the unionists with no choice but to accept, because the very nature of their campaign in Ulster would make it difficult for them to explain to public opinion in Britain why they should refuse this ‘offer’.
When Lloyd George again raised the issue in 1916 the unionists found themselves in a similar quandary. Carson felt they could not reasonably object and still keep the British public behind them. He persuaded a reluctant Ulster Unionist Council, for the first time, to back this idea. Even then many unionists looked to partition only in the hope that it would bring down the whole Home Rule idea.
What they had come to was a policy of exclusion of Ulster or some part of Ulster. The modified idea contained in the Government of Ireland Act that there should be two states and two parliaments was thought up and put forward by the British cabinet for the reasons already explained. The unionists had never sought, demanded or campaigned for a separate state.
As for the idea that it was unionist pressure which forced the hand of the government, the real truth is that no such organised pressure existed. There were none of the mass rallies, seditious speeches or armed volunteers of the 1911-14 crisis. The unionist leadership did not feel that this earlier resistance had worked, they felt their English ‘allies’ had manoeuvred against them, and they were not wont to repeat it.
After 1918 the remnants of the UVF handed many of its arms over to military custody. In 1919 Carson issued threats to revive the UVF but nothing was done.
Those extreme loyalist organisations which did exist were a far cry from the pre-war UVF. They had more of the character of lumpen gangs made up mainly of unemployed Protestants who were taught to blame Catholics and labourites for their plight. They did not mobilise around grand appeals to resist Home Rule. Rather their sordid business was to act as shock troops against the labour movement. Take the Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association as an example. Until 1919 there had been two organisations for war veterans in Belfast – the ‘Comrades of the Great War’ and ‘The Discharged Soldiers and Sailors Federation’, commonly known as ‘The Federation’. Dawson Bates who was Secretary of the Ulster Unionist Council wrote to Carson complaining that the ‘Comrades’ was “very socialist in its management” (34) and that ‘The Federation’ was going the same way.
The Ulster Ex-servicemen’s Association was a rightwing loyalist split from ‘The Comrades’. It grew in 1920 as did other seedling fascist organisations and was among the instigators of the August 1920 workplace expulsions.
The attitude of the unionist leaders was to encourage these organisations in their attacks on Catholics and on the labour movement, but always from a distance. They let the UESA, the Ulster Protestant Association and others do their dirty work for them while they kept their hands clean.
At the same time as they applauded, sometimes secretly, the actions of these lumpen gangs, the well-to-do and respectable unionist leaders were concerned that they might get out of hand, going too far with pogroms against Catholics. There were plenty of signs that the UESA, BPA and others were keen to develop their influence further. This was especially so after the August expulsions when they moved to set up vigilante groups in some areas, but there was evidence of it earlier.
While leaning on these lumpen bands the unionist hierarchy preferred that they would have a force more directly under their control. In July 1920, in the same breath as they invited attacks on socialists and Catholics in the workplaces, leading unionists began to take concrete steps to reform the UVF.
This decision had nothing whatever to do with pressurising the government to partition the country or give them a state. The Government of Ireland Act was by now all but law. The decision was taken amid rising concern that troops would have to be withdrawn from the north to quell strikes in Britain. Knowing that they were to be given a state, the unionists wanted to have a ready-made instrument of coercion which they could use to keep its citizens, Protestant and Catholic, some of their more zealous supporters included, in line. While beginning to re-establish the UVF, with mixed success, unionist leader James Craig approached the British government with a proposal for a special Ulster constabulary. On 1 September he sent a memorandum to the cabinet which, of course, spoke about the need to have a force to counter Sinn Fein but added that it would also be;
“partly to restrain their own followers from acts which are regrettable and in large measure ineffective…. a special constabulary would ensure that as large a proportion of the population as possible were brought under discipline.” (35)
There was concern at this proposal in lower circles of government. Officials in Dublin Castle pointed out that it would inevitably be a Protestant force which would engage in its own ‘disciplined’ pogrom.
But within the top circles of government Craig was pushing at an open door. The earlier steps to re-form the UVF had only been taken after consultations with the government through Sir Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland. He had told the Unionists that Lloyd George was privately in support of the idea.
Ministers had no illusions about what would be the nature of such a force. Indeed its sectarian make-up was part of its appeal. It would provide an extension of the divide and rule tactic underlying the Government of Ireland Act.
Churchill argued that ‘Protestants’ should be given weapons and “charged with maintaining law and order and policing the six counties” .(36) On September 2nd Bonar Law wrote to Lloyd George:
“We cannot afford to have everyone in Ireland against us and I think now the time has come when we ought to make special arrangements to let the loyalists in Ulster be in a position to preserve order there”. (37)
This sentiment re-echoes that of General Lake, one hundred and twenty years earlier, when he boasted of helping divide Orangemen and United Irishmen and argued that Orangemen should keep their weapons:
“Were the Orangemen disarmed or put down, or were they coalesced with any other party, the whole of Ulster would be as bad as Antrim and Down”. (38)
It is in line with that age-old policy of divide and rule and in total contradiction to the idea of a ‘neutral’ British administration.
By September 8th the decision to set up a force of special constabulary had been taken. This decision was implemented by the British who appointed a senior civil servant, Sir Ernest Clark, to carry it through. Clark acted in close liaison with the leaders of the UVF and with no pretence that the new force would be anything other than the UVF in different uniforms. The arms and finance for it came from the Westminster parliament who retained direct control over it until November 1921, months after the Northern Ireland government had taken office.
So much for the idea that Britain’s hand was forced by unionist ‘resistance’. To accept this we would have to accept that the nonexistent ‘threat’ from people the British ruling class were in cahoots with was of greater concern to them than the threat posed by a radicalised nationalist movement, but more particularly by the forces of working class unity and ‘Bolshevism’.
31 Boyce p45
32 Morgan p267
33 Ibid. p270
34 Ibid. p262
35 Ibid. p289
36 Michael Farrell Arming the Protestants, Pluto Press 1983, p32
37 Brian Barton Brookeborough. The making of a Prime Minister, Queens University 1988, p38
38 Liam De Paor Divided Ulster, Pelican 1971, p27
Troubled Times Chapter 7
Proponents of this general idea have one last argument. During the Treaty negotiations with Sinn Fein leaders in the autumn of 1921 Lloyd George was prepared to transfer those powers over Northern Ireland held at Westminster to a Dublin parliament. Proof that the British had not wanted partition and that they wished to relieve themselves of the burden of Ireland as a whole?
In fact what did happen demonstrates none of this. By the middle of 1921 it was clear that a policy of coercion alone was at best going to involve a long war of attrition against the national movement. The dangerous consequences of this lay in the increasing outcry in Britain, particularly from the labour movement, at the reprisals and atrocities which were becoming commonplace. Ireland was becoming an issue in every by-election and was providing a focus for opposition to the government.
While coercion could be maintained, and was also in part effective in curbing the IRA, the government, concerned at the effects of a protracted war, began to consider other options. Once again they looked for proposals which might split the Sinn Fein leadership and bring its more malleable sections over to the side of compromise.
The idea of dominion status for Ireland, or for part of Ireland, an idea previously rejected, was put forward as a possibility. Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand were already dominions, that is they enjoyed self-government but remained within the Empire and had a special relationship with Britain. The idea had been put forward in relation to India during the war.
By June Lloyd George had come round to the view that De Valera and other Sinn Fein leaders would accept a settlement short of a republic. He wrote to De Valera and to Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Craig, inviting them to discussions in London. In July the government offered the IRA a truce during which negotiations would take place.
For their part the IRA were militarily at a low ebb and felt in no position to refuse this offer. Their campaign based mainly on isolated acts of terror and largely divorced from the movement of the working class, was not the best or most effective method of carrying out a struggle. Its military commander, Michael Collins, wrote later to Sir Hamar Greenwood admitting:
“You had us dead beat. We could not have lasted another three weeks. When we were told of the offer of a truce we were astounded. We thought you must have gone mad.” (39)
In July the British made De Valera a formal offer of dominion status. It was posed as the same status as other dominions but in reality what the British were offering was considerably less in certain aspects. Dominion status in Ireland was to be subject to conditions – guarantees for British defence including access to the Irish ports, the Irish to be responsible for a proportion of Britain’s national debt, free trade to be preserved, and the Northern Ireland parliament to retain its powers except by their own consent. Of these conditions the Times accurately commented: “Broadly they represent the extreme limit of concession to which the British people is likely to allow this government, or indeed any other British government, to go.” (40)
Negotiations proper between Irish and British delegations began in London in October. At one point during the discussions – and this is what modern historians seize on – Lloyd George did appear to pressure Craig to accept that Northern Ireland’s subordination to Westminster become a subordination to a new all-Ireland parliament.
The reason why this came about and what actually resulted are both instructive. Both sets of negotiators were keen to be seen as occupying the high ground so as to win what both saw as the vital battle of courting public opinion in Britain. The Irish felt that they would be on weak ground if the discussion concentrated on dominion status and they were seen to be intransigent on the British offer. They tried to concentrate the discussion on partition which they felt to be the British government’s weakest ground.
For their part the British were anxious that if there were to be a breakdown, it should not be over the issue of partition. Earlier Lloyd George had advised the king that if the discussions were to be concentrated and perhaps bogged down on the status of Ulster, if would have dangerous consequences, not on the Irish settlement only, but on India and elsewhere”. (41)
Breakdown over partition would mean the British would have to return to a policy of coercion over what would be presented by the nationalist side as the obstinate refusal of Ulster Unionists to budge. If there was to be a return to ‘war’ far better and clearer, from their point of view, that it should be on the issue of Ireland remaining within the Empire. It could then be presented to the British public as a war made necessary by the obstinate refusal of Irish nationalists to accept the ‘reasonable’ offer of dominion status.
In order to shift the ground of the discussions Lloyd George offered that if the Irish would accept his proposals for dominion status, he would go to the unionists and try to persuade them to go under an all-Ireland parliament. A remark made by him on 25 October shows his reasoning: “If they accept all subject to unity we are in a position to go to Craig; if they don’t the break is not on Ulster. My proposal is put Ulster on one side and ask Sinn Fein for their views in writing.” (42)
His whole purpose was to take partition out of the discussions until such time as the Irish delegation said yea or nay to dominion status and to remaining within the Empire. A wily negotiator he approached members of the opposing delegations separately. It was when he had extracted the assurance that he wanted from Arthur Griffith and knew that at the very least the Irish delegation would split, that he wrote to Craig and made the proposal that is now being cited as proof of British neutrality in the whole matter of Ireland’s internal politics.
Lloyd George met with Craig on 5th and 7th November. By the end of the first meeting Craig was in broad agreement with the latest government proposals but with certain important provisions. One was that responsibility for security would immediately be transferred from Westminster to the Northern Ireland parliament. This was done with effect from 22nd November. Further discussions between Craig and security chiefs ended with the Ulster Special Constabulary being given an extra 20,000 rifles and 5,000,000 rounds of ammunition.
Craig was also assured that, relieved of the imperial contribution, the North’s tax burden would be lighter under an all Ireland parliament. The way to get a Presbyterian, Lloyd George assured his secretary, is through his pocketbook. Craig seemed to be on the verge of accepting the whole proposal, yet two days later at the second meeting, he flatly refused Lloyd George’s offer.
This abrupt about face came about it seems through the intervention of Bonar Law. A few months earlier in March, Bonar Law had resigned from the government as ‘ill health grounds’. His place as Tory leader was taken by Neville Chamberlain.
By the time of Lloyd George’s meetings with Craig he had returned from a period on ‘recuperation’ in the South of France, his political ambitions sufficiently refreshed to consider a challenge for the Tory leadership. Once again Ireland seemed to offer him a convenient vehicle. He spoke out against any weakening of Ulster’s position and threatened to lead a revolt from within the Tory party. Bolstered by such a powerful ally, Craig felt confident enough to reject Lloyd George’s proposal.
That was as far as the proposal got. An alternative suggestion was put to the Irish to entice them to settle. Dominion status would mean the setting up of a Free State. The northern area would be included but the northern parliament would have the right to vote itself out within one month. If they did so a Boundary Commission would be set up to ‘revise’ the border between the two states “in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants”. (43)
This was sold to Griffith as a ploy to deceive the unionists. The Northern state, suggested the British, would lose so much territory that it would not be able to survive. In fact the Boundary Commission when it was established was deliberately biased towards the unionists and transferred no territory to the South.
Once again the pro-Unionist challenge of Bonar Law became a factor in the negotiations. On 12 November Lloyd George suggested to Griffith that Bonar Law was about to lead a challenge at a Conservative conference in Liverpool which might unseat Chamberlain and so upset the whole process of negotiations. He claimed that the existing Tory leadership were planning to ward off this challenge by announcing their support for the idea of a boundary commission – but that to be able to do so successfully, they would need to be able to say that it would not be opposed by the Irish delegation.
The conference was to be held on 17 November giving Griffith only a few days to ruminate on the issue. In the end he gave way and declared his acceptance of this proposal. The threat from Bonar Law, which Lloyd George conveniently exaggerated, came to little at the Tory conference -but by this stage Griffith had given his assent and the issue of partition was effectively taken out of the negotiations.
Lloyd George’s device to switch discussion to the fundamental issue of dominion status, worked and worked well. Although the idea of an all-Ireland parliament was gone, Griffith’s acceptance that Ireland would stay within the Empire was there on record. The Irish delegation was split and the way was opened to agreement. On December 6th a treaty was signed.
This is the real explanation of Lloyd George’s offer of an all-Ireland parliament. That it was made in no way negates the idea that British imperialism partitioned Ireland for the reasons we have so far mentioned many times. By the time Lloyd George met Craig with this proposal partition had already served its purpose. It had helped forestall the prospect of socialist revolution. It had also helped disorientate the independence struggle.
British interests protected
When Griffith capitulated to what were to be the terms of the Treaty regarding dominion status, the idea of independence had been abandoned. British imperialism had not started out with the intention of granting dominion status. But dominion status plus the key limiting conditions meant that their strategic economic and military interests were protected.
On this basis Lloyd George’s suggestion of an all-Ireland parliament would have been accepted by a section of the ruling class. The guarantee of free trade meant that the northern industries would not be cut off from the rest of the British capitalist economy. The military safeguards spelt out in the eventual Treaty allowed the British imperial forces access to “such harbours and other facilities” (44) as the governments would agree in times of peace and the British would ‘require’ in times of war.
The job of partition in bringing the national and social revolution in Ireland to heel was accomplished when these terms were accepted. The only worry was that dominion status would be merely the first step; that an Irish government would use its self-governing powers to move towards independence at a later stage. From this point of view there was some advantage in the idea of adding into the state a powerful minority which could be relied on to firmly oppose any and every such move. Lloyd George’s proposal may have been nothing more than a ruse on his part but it was still a quite forward-looking notion, too forward looking to be acceptable to Bonar Law, to many Tories or probably to the bulk of the British establishment at that time.
It has been necessary to deal with the new arguments about partition at length and in detail. At first glance this might seem like an indulgence but it is not. Without clarity on this question it would be quite impossible to go on to work out a programme on the central aspect of the national issue which confronts us today, that is the continued existence of the border.
Our starting point on this – that British imperialism partitioned Ireland to suit its own interests – is neither wrong nor simplistic, but is a necessary and quite accurate shorthand for the complex arguments and analysis presented earlier.
39 Boyce p140
40 Times 15 August 1921
41 Dangerfield p332
42 Tom Jones Whitehall Diary Vol III, p146
43 Farrell Arming the Protestants, p83
44 Articles of Agreement for a Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland,1921
Troubled Times Chapter 8
Section Two – Forever divided?
Two sectarian states
Following partition the new state in the North consolidated itself using coercion and repression and with the assistance of generous amounts of finance and weaponry from Britain.
The first elections to the new Northern Ireland parliament were held in 1921. Labour candidates, standing in Belfast, found their meetings and campaign activities attacked and disrupted by right wing loyalists from organisations like the UESA. In the general sectarian atmosphere which prevailed, the 1920 local election successes were but a memory and they polled badly.
The Unionists won an outright majority and set about ensuring that this would always be the way it would be. They strengthened their grip through a policy of blatant discrimination and by the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries.
Some of the new generation of dissident or ‘fringe’ Unionists decry this as a ‘mistake’ and a lost opportunity. David Irvine of the Progressive Unionists, for example, has argued that Carson warned Unionists that they would be judged on how well they treated the minority.
In truth the early Unionist policy cannot be explained away as just a mistake. Gerrymandering was necessary to take councils such as Derry, out of nationalist hands. Discrimination was necessary to make Protestant workers feel that they would receive preferential treatment and so encourage them to throw their lot in with their unionist employers rather than with Catholic workers. The whole rotten system was necessary in order to keep workers divided, and to ensure that politics always equalled religion. This was no ‘normal’ state. Should the Unionist lose their majority, the state itself would be threatened. Their ‘ill treatment’ of the minority was not an error but was their only way of guaranteeing themselves a permanent majority in the new parliament.
That there was no mass uprising by Catholics against their inclusion in the new state, not even in border counties like Fermanagh and Tyrone, indicates the scale of the defeat inflicted by partition on both the social and the national struggles. The majority of Catholics felt they had no option but to accept things as they were for the time being, and to hope that the outcome of the ongoing war in the South would see a change. Then, left abandoned by the signing of the Treaty, their only hope rested with the Boundary Commission. After this body delivered a unionist verdict, they were left to face the reality that partition was firmly in place and that they were going to remain on the ‘British’ side of the border.
The history of northern nationalism, whether of its military or its constitutional arms, has been, ever since, a history of failure to come up with any strategy or any means to undo this situation.
In the southern area it took civil war between the conservative wing of the republican movement, who supported the Treaty, and the more militant anti-Treaty wing, before the new state could firmly establish itself.
Following the defeat of the anti-Treatyites, the subsiding after 1923 of the revolutionary wave of workers’ struggles begun in 1918 allowed the most reactionary elements of the national movement, together with the big ranchers and businessmen to consolidate their grip. Like their Northern counterparts they used the tools of coercion and repression to construct a sectarian state.
Southern Unionists were nearly all from the old Protestant ascendancy. In order to protect their property and their social status, they quickly accommodated themselves to the new state. This fact does nothing to disguise its sectarian character. The 1937 constitution gave formal expression to the Catholic sectarianism which had been there from the outset. It recognised various churches but gave special recognition to the Catholic church. It embraced Catholic teachings, both on social questions and on the upholding of private property.
A subservient class
Partition gave a comprehensive expression to the failure of the weak and subservient Irish capitalist class to carve out a unified national territory for itself and build an Irish nation state. In as much as an Irish capitalist class developed, it was now as the ruling class of the Southern state. As a class it remained weak and subservient to the dominating power of British capitalism.
When De Valera’s Fianna Fail party came to power in 1932 it did so with the support of small farmers, of the petty bourgeoisie and of a section of the working class. Reflecting the pressure of these layers it tried to defy British economic power by raising tariffs. The hope was that Irish capitalism might develop behind this protective shield. This ‘economic war’, begun in 1932, had to be abandoned in failure in 1938 when the additional tariffs imposed in 1932 were scrapped.
By the late 1950s Irish capitalism was forced to a policy of the scrapping of all tariffs as the only way it could enjoy some of the benefits of the post war boom. Economic development henceforth was to be on the basis of free trade – with grants and incentives to foreign multinationals to entice them to Ireland.
In December 1965 an Anglo/Irish Free Trade Agreement was signed. All British tariffs on Irish goods were to be scrapped and Irish tariffs on British goods were to be phased out over a ten year period. British dominance was thereby reinforced.
If, more recently, there has been a change in this situation it has been due to the decline of British capitalism, the entry of both Britain and Ireland into the EEC, and the penetration and increased domination by European, US and other foreign capital over the Southern economy. Ireland remains a tenth rate capitalist state, with a ruling class who, although they have grown in self-confidence, are in reality just as toothless as ever.
Economic weakness and lack of political ambition are two sides of the same coin. The weak Southern ruling class have lacked both the will and the desire to reunite the country and attempt to build a single national capitalist economy. Their consciousness is of what they are – the ruling elite in the 26 county state. In the decades since partition they have been almost completely cut off from the North economically as well as politically.
Today only 6% of the Republic’s total exports are to Northern Ireland. Only 8% of the North’s exports go South. Most of this trade, in. both directions, is not industrial but agricultural, the export of live animals; food, fertilizer, etc.
Facing difficulty enough retaining their grip over the Southern population who at least have some adherence to the state, they have no wish to add in the unstable mix of one million hostile Protestants and a Northern Catholic working class now well tutored in the politics of resistance.
Articles 2 &3
Articles 2 & 3 of the 1937 constitution, which appear to stake out a territorial claim over the North, have to be seen in this light. What these two Articles really do is provide constitutionally for the fact of partition.
They pay lip service to reunification while allowing Irish governments, ‘in the meantime’ to legislate only for the South. As far as Irish capitalism is concerned, for ‘in the meantime’ read ‘forever’. The aspiration for unity contained in these Articles has as much meaning for them as the socialist objectives of Clause Four of the British Labour Party constitution had to the reformist leaderships of that party.
Partition and the subsequent Treaty with the South were a satisfactory outcome for British imperialism. It was in their interests thereafter to preserve this status quo. Their hold over the North was a useful counterweight to the moves by De Valera to go beyond the original terms of the Treaty. The North also proved of military importance during the Second World War. Its heavy industry was turned to war production. Its ports, especially Derry, and its airfields were vital in the Atlantic war against the German U-boats.
It was only during the 1950s, more than three decades after partition, that British interests began to change. One by one the factors which led them to introduce and then to maintain partition disappeared.
This period saw an unprecedented and unstoppable revolt which spread from country to country and continent to continent across the colonial world. It became impossible for the imperialist countries to continue to rule their colonies in the old way. They were forced to retreat, ceding power to local rulers, mostly drawn from the independence movements.
Bit by bit the British Empire was dismantled. India won its independence in 1947. The late ’50s and early 1960s saw the wave of de-colonialisation spread to British possessions in Africa. The biggest of these, Nigeria, gained its independence in 1960. It was in that year that Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, made his famous ‘Winds of Change’ speech in which he argued that there was no choice but to relinquish direct control over those colonies which remained.
In the South a republic was declared in 1948. Yet far from lessening Britain’s dominant influence, the subsequent moves away from any form of protectionism increased its importance as a market for British goods and as a destination for British investment. The 1965 Free Trade Agreement reinforced this and by 1969 the Irish Republic had become the fifth biggest market for British companies.
Meanwhile the old manufacturing base in the North, suffering from decades of under investment, was in decline. Even in the context of the post war world economic expansion, the North experienced severe recession after 1958. Between that year and 1964, one third of its linen plants closed. 40% of shipbuilding jobs were also lost between 1960-64. The area was of lessening economic significance to British capitalism whose sights were beginning to shift to the new opportunities for profits south of the border.
Those military strategic factors, so vital in 1920, and to an extent during the second world war, were no longer of importance. Whether or not the Royal Navy would have access to Irish ports was of scant military significance in this post-Hiroshima age, where even the British fleet contained long range Polaris nuclear submarines. In any case Britain was no longer a major military power, more of a bit player acting on the side of the US in the new cold war era.
Overall this was a time of unprecedented economic expansion and of relative stability for the major capitalist powers. The threat of social revolution, of Bolshevism, which had preoccupied the capitalists after 1917, was no longer an imminent danger in the advanced capitalist world.
The tactic of divide and rule was superfluous to the immediate requirements of imperialism in Ireland. What they sought were conditions of political stability to allow them to increase their economic penetration of the island as a whole. Partition was fast becoming an anachronism, serving no particular purpose but rather providing an unwanted source of potential instability.
Something along the lines of the offer made and then dropped by Lloyd George during the 1921 Treaty negotiations, was increasingly the preferred option of the ruling class – but for very different reasons.
Understanding that the Northern state, into which they had deliberately placed a one third Catholic minority who did not and would not accept its permanent existence, was an explosive mix, they preferred to wash their hands of the problem. They favoured transferring ultimate sovereignty over the North to an all-Ireland parliament, possibly still leaving the two regional parliaments in place.
The 1960s presented the capitalists with the most favourable opportunity they were likely to get to implement some such solution and lay the national problem to rest. There was economic upswing and political stability. Even Ireland North and South benefited to some extent from the boom in the form of new inward investment by foreign multinationals.
In 1963 Terence O’Neill, representing a more moderate face of Unionism, became Prime Minister of the North. O’Neill recognised the economic sense of greater co-operation with the South. His Dail counterpart, Sean Lemass, head of Fianna Fail, was of like mind. Twice in 1965 they broke historic ground by meeting together, first in Belfast, then Dublin.
Yet, under these the most favourable circumstances that would arise, nothing was done, the border remained, the national problem was left unsolved. The British ruling class encouraged every measure of North-South co-operation. The Times praised O’Neill for meeting Lemass, describing him as one of “a new generation of Ulstermen concerned with the challenge of economic necessities and free from the urge to fight old battles over again”. (45)
Beyond such encouragement they took no concrete steps to fulfil their real ambition which was to withdraw. They did not even apply pressure on the Unionists in government at Stormont to end the blatant discrimination against the Catholic minority.
That they did nothing was because they feared that Protestant resistance to change would lead to civil war, a civil war that would have disastrous consequences for British capitalism, and would end with a worse problem than before it started.
Civil war would immediately threaten British property and trade in Ireland. It would overspill to Liverpool, Glasgow, London and other centres of large Irish population in Britain. Across the world it would be Britain which would bear the blame. Boycotts of British goods, especially in the United States, would likely result.
And in the end it would produce only more instability. The outcome would probably be the repartition of Ireland, leaving a smaller and exclusively Protestant state in the north east. Ethnic cleansing, Bosnia style, would mean a flood of Catholic refugees across the border. The weak Southern state would not be able to assimilate this new influx, whose eyes would be turned, like the Palestinians, to regaining the land and homes they had lost – all in all a recipe for further upheaval and violence right on Britain’s doorstep.
For these reasons the British ruling class could not proceed to implement the changes they would have liked. They retained their preference for withdrawal but contented themselves with making do with the status quo for the time being at least.
In short, partition, once consolidated, created a problem which could not be solved on a capitalist basis. To nationalists it is a simple matter. It created a sectarian state which must be dismantled before progress can be made. This was the theoretical stance upon which republicans began their military struggle in the early 1970s. It has been thoroughly discredited by all that followed.
The real problem is that partition created not one but two sectarian states. The Northern state was, justifiably, unacceptable on a permanent basis to those Catholics who lived within it. But the idea of being merged with, or as they saw it, submerged into the Southern state was also unacceptable, and with just as much justification, to the Protestants.
In this is the real core of the national problem and the real explanation of why there cannot be a capitalist answer. So long as the choice is a capitalist one – either two poverty ridden states or their merger into one – so long would conflict and violence be inevitable. This was the problem as it presented itself to, and confounded, the strategists of capital in the 1960s. Despite the changes wrought by the Troubles it remains the core of the national problem today.
That there can be no capitalist solution – this is the starting point of Militant Labour’s programme. We reject all capitalist solutions – the status quo, Ulster independence, integration with Britain or capitalist reunification, as various roads to ruin.
We do not share the view of nationalists, left republicans and some socialist groups, that because partition was a crime, we have to support every capitalist step to reunification as ‘progressive’. This position has been one factor leading the Communist Party towards a split and an early grave over the issue.
This line of argument ignores the fact that the problem is not of one but of two sectarian states. In working out our approach we have to weigh things concretely, measuring precisely their effects. There is no road to a capitalist united Ireland and it is not the role of socialists to sow illusions that one can be found. Were events to move in this direction the result would be civil war and a disastrous setback for the working class.
This is why we say we are just as opposed to moves in this direction as we are to the other capitalist options, all of which, either in the short or the long term also point to civil war. Those ‘socialists’ who take a different view need surgery to have the cataracts formed by overexposure to romanticised nationalist ideas removed from their eyes.
In fact a central error made by the labour movement North and South, has been to either align itself to one or other capitalist solution or else to attempt to ignore the question altogether. These are pitfalls to be avoided. For Militant the task is the difficult one of formulating a class approach and programme around which class unity can be built.
45 Times 15 January 1966
Troubled Times Chapter 9
Those who argue that there are two nations in Ireland, whether they say a Protestant nation or a Northern nation made up of Protestants and Catholics, look into the mists of time to prove their case. As we have seen, their argument that the existence of two nations, formed through history, brought about partition, is quite false.
However there is a follow on argument which needs to be answered. Did partition and the prolonged existence of two states so amplify the divisions which had been there, that two separate nations eventually did develop?
It is certainly the case that the formation of new states can lead directly to the emergence of new nations. The Jews in Palestine at the time of the British Protectorate were a distinct religious community, but not a nation. However when Israel was formed, and then with the influx of Jews from Europe and North Africa, a national consciousness quite different from the consciousness which had existed among Jews in the area before, was forged. It is now possible to describe the Jewish population of Israel as belonging to an Israeli nation.
Partition did cut across those tendencies to assimilation which had been so pronounced in 1919. The fact of two states following separate lines of development surviving over decades, across generations, could not but reinforce divisions.
Greater division – yes. But two nations – this is a different matter. So much rubbish has been written on this especially by those who have argued this idea, that it is difficult to clear away the theoretical fog which surrounds the issue. In fact anyone who sets out to do so, but who lacks the essential tools of a marxist analysis, is virtually certain to end up quite lost.
Formal logic, the stuff of much philosophy and the approach of too many political scientists and historians, teaches us to divide all that we see around us into rigid fixed categories. We are taught to identify things by placing them into their appropriate mental box; structures of a certain sort are houses, of a different type are flats, rocks are of certain types, animals belong to species and people are of nations. Each category is viewed as distinct, equal to itself and quite separate and apart from all others.
Marxist philosophy, dialectical materialism to give it its scientific title, sees the world differently. It views things not as fixed and eternal, but as ever changing. It begins from the basic premise that everything which exists does so in a continuous and unending process of change. All things come into being and pass away. They do not appear from nothing but come from something else and ultimately become something else again.
Houses are constructed from various materials which only in their proper place make them identifiable as houses. Once in existence they are subject to an unending process of decay. Even the best DIY expert can only delay and offset, but not counter the erosion of nature and the decay of materials. The seemingly eternal rock formations around us were once of molten form and have been changed by wind, rain, glaciation. Even the most durable become sediment and change into another form. Species too evolve and alter, new species develop as old ones disappear. And nations are the product of a particular time. They are a general bracket which we put around people, but none, not even the most settled are fully homogeneous. None will endure forever. Under capitalism in this the period of its death agony there is a tendency to fragmentation, as internal differences grow – under socialism nations and nationalism would be redefined and have an entirely different meaning from the present.
In criticising formal logic marxism does not reject all its categories as completely invalid. If we went to the opposite extreme and viewed the world as simply a melting pot of change without definition we would be unable to make sense of anything around us. We not only maintain the categories of formal logic – the division of society into classes is one example – we give them added meaning by understanding their limitations.
No two things are the same, nor does any thing stay the same, but so long as the differences or changes are within certain limits we can comfortably place them under a single heading. Although a car is produced to one specification, no two models coming off the production line are exactly identical. But so long as the differences are slight they are not important for all practical purposes and the cars can be grouped together as of a particular make or model. On the road each car faces different conditions, different treatment and each one becomes progressively less like the rest. Still so long as the differences are within limits of tolerance the original name and model are still appropriate to identify them.
From quantity to quality
It is when small quantitative changes added together produce something quite different, when a thing is no longer essentially the same as what it was, that old definitions become outmoded and new ones have to be applied. A well treated car may still be on the road while one produced alongside it has been scrapped and turned into a cube of compressed metal. It is now neither the original make nor model, the difference is of quality, not just of quantity.
Marxism deals therefore not with fixed final results, but with processes, with the constant process of change to which everything from inorganic matter to social phenomena is subject to.
The manner in which this change takes place is also important. It is not that a thing starts at one point and marches in an undeterred straight line until it becomes something else. No. Changes take place in a more erratic form as a result of the dynamic interplay of conflicting pressures.
H20 at one point of extreme temperature forms as ice. At another point it becomes steam. In between it is water. In its state as water it can never be at an exactly constant temperature. It unceasingly becomes either hotter or colder always moving either towards the state of ice or that of steam. Yet we know from the water around us that it can remain in this liquid state for a lengthy period, so long as a form of equilibrium exists in which changes in one direction are cancelled out by changes in the other.
The answer to the question whether or not two Irish nations, or an Irish and a British nation in Ireland, developed after partition, can only be answered by posing another question – did the changes brought about after partition amount to a qualitative difference or not?
From the moment the new states became consolidated there were tendencies towards separation, but as with the heating and cooling of water in the earth’s environment, there were also countervailing tendencies.
On a practical day to day basis the people of the Southern state quite quickly adjusted themselves to its existence. Their immediate and most pressing concerns were with improving their lot within it – the North was a long way off politically if not geographically. The fact that new generations have come and gone, living their lives with the reality of partition has tended to reinforce this separation.
On the other hand there is a deeply felt national feeling, a sense that an injustice was committed through partition, and a desire for ultimate reunification. This is an antiimperialist sentiment which has never quite died away. It has arisen at different times in various forms, re-firing passions about the North which otherwise over time had cooled. It took a particularly nationalist form in border areas during the 1950s when Sinn Fein was temporarily on the rise North and South. In 1966, with the celebrations of the Easter Rising it found a more radical expression. Concern for the plight of Northern Catholics moved tens of thousands in the South into action of some form during the August 1969 pogroms, after Bloody Sunday and again during the hunger strikes.
For those living in the North the same factors of a separate government, separate laws, separate economic development, a very largely separate news media etc., tended to set them apart from the South. A sense of a Northern identity was certainly heightened, especially among those living away from the border areas.
But this tendency which might theoretically have led over a period to a separate national identity has been countered by opposite tendencies. The new state quite deliberately excluded Catholics. It garnished itself in the trappings of Protestantism. Its first Prime Minister, Craig, later Lord Craigavon, boasted that; “we have a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. (46) The Catholic minority, treated as second class citizens, never gave their allegiance to this state and were never fully integrated within it. Whatever sense they felt of Northerness, of a common fate with Protestants, was challenged by their feeling that progress for them would have to go hand in hand with the dismantling of the state.
Working class unity
Among the advanced sections of the working class the sense that their movement was an all-Ireland movement was maintained. In periods of ebb of the class struggle and especially when trade union and Labour leaders, North and South, courted unionism and nationalism respectively, this all-Ireland sense was reduced. When the class struggle was on the upbeat, when class issues came to the fore, it tended to be reinforced, very often through grass roots solidarity.
The most significant organisational expression of this cross border unity was the fact that the trade union movement remained united on an all-Ireland basis. There were serious attempts by bigots on both sides to break this unity, as with the Fianna Fail promoted split off of the Congress of Irish Unions in the 1940s, but it survived.
Politically the movement has in reality been divided since partition. Although the ITUC and LP remained nominally a single industrial and political organisation, in practice its all-Ireland political arm never grew. The Irish Labour Party and the NILP were separate parties from the time of the latter’s foundation in 1924.
Even they did not escape the tendency to unity whenever class questions came to the fore. Both parties grew and shifted to the left during the 1960s. As they did so their leaders came under pressure from their ranks and from trade unionists to move closer together. The 1967 NILP conference adopted a call for a Council of Labour to bring both parties together. In 1968 the motion was implemented and the Council of Labour established with the NILP, the Irish Labour Party, the small Northern Republican Labour Party of Gerry Fitt, all participating. Among its aims was the following:
“to promote socialist principles and policies in both parts of Ireland and to secure the return of socialist governments in Ireland, North and South.” (47)
Tendencies towards the emergence of a Protestant, as opposed to a Northern nation have likewise been rivalled by counter tendencies. Once in power the Unionists did their utmost to cultivate a Protestant ethos and identity. Protestants were British, distinguished by their ‘British way of life’ and in this were unlike their Irish Catholic neighbours. While Catholics in their separate church-run schools learned Irish history with a nationalist and church influenced slant, Protestants were taught to recite the kings and queens of England. They learned nothing of their own country, nothing of 1798, nothing of partition and nothing about this state they were growing up in.
There is no doubt that the fact of a state which leaned on and promoted one section of the community and discriminated against the other did widen the division between Protestant and Catholics.
Against this was the reality that, whatever the discrimination, the state could not deliver a secure future to the Protestant working class. It was born in recession, after 1929 much of its industry was faced with collapse, the thirties were a decade of hunger and poverty for Protestant workers as well as Catholics, and even during the ‘boom’ years after the war unemployment stayed stubbornly at twice the UK average. Housing in Protestant working class areas was in the same deplorable condition as in Catholic areas, the huge inner city ghettos of Belfast stayed this way until after the collapse of the Stormont parliament in 1972.
Despite the defeat of partition, the powerful tendency to class unity quickly re-established itself. New struggles began to take place from the mid 1920s. In 1932 the strike by Outdoor Relief workers left an indelible mark of class unity in this supposedly Protestant state. It was followed by many similar occasions when Protestant and Catholic workers fought together against the employers and against the government.
That aspect of the difference between the two communities which partition accentuated was primarily political, not cultural or national. The Unionist movement had never been a national movement – it had never asked for nor sought a state. There were certain cultural differences between Protestant and Catholic which the Unionist leadership attempted to widen. They make it their business to be on the platforms of all the main Orange parades. The Orange marches in which some Protestants participated repelled Catholics, just as Hibernian parades in which some Catholics took part repelled Protestants.
For all their efforts – unionists and nationalists – could not elevate this into the existence of two distinct cultures. When it comes to broader aspects of life-style and culture there have always been far greater similarities than differences. Even the music played by Orange and green bands is essentially the same.
What partition did do was widen the political polarisation and make it more difficult to overcome. The two communities were more rigidly divided than before on the questions for or against the existence of the state, for the link with Britain, or for a link with the Southern state.
Even this division has never been uniform or complete. Political unity of Catholic and Protestant workers has been possible as and when class politics have risen to challenge those based on religion. Within a few years of the founding of the state the newly formed Northern Ireland Labour Party began to eat into the Unionist vote. It scored spectacular successes in successive elections in 1945. Between 1958, when it returned four MPs to Stormont, and the late 1960s, it offered a serious challenge to Unionists and Nationalists and threatened to emerge as the most powerful political force in the state.
Partition meant that a single nation state was not built and could not be built on the basis of capitalism. There were two states but still only one nation, albeit that within this nation there were pronounced differences, aggravated by history between North and South and between Catholic and Protestant.
Further it set in motion tendencies and counter tendencies each drawing society in an opposite direction. Were the tendency to division to dominate over a period the likely result would be two nations. But this qualitative transformation would only be possible on the back of big events and would be a change which would not come about unnoticed.
In the case of Israel it was the extreme circumstances of the formation of the state which created a clearly visible Israeli national consciousness. In the background of its formation stood the holocaust and the profound psychological effect this mass murder had on Jews generally and on those who formed the European exodus to Israel in particular.
The state itself arose out of civil war in Palestine, the expulsion of the Arabs, expropriation of their lands, the destruction of their villages. To survive it had to defeat the surrounding Arab states in war. Its Zionist rulers went much further than the Unionists could go in moulding a new national ethos and culture and were much more successful in doing so. They invented – or re-invented – a language which all citizens had to learn from scratch. They created the symbols not just of statehood but of nationhood and developed a national psyche. Today those who wish to take out Israeli citizenship must go through an intensive residential induction course in which they not only learn the Hebrew language but have to undergo indoctrination in the values of the state, must learn its history and are expected to adopt its customs.
What exists there today bears no resemblance to the Palestine of the Ottoman empire or the British protectorate. Fundamentally altered in terms of culture, language, as well as politics and geography, there is no question but that a nation made up of the Jewish people of Israel has emerged.
Were there to be events of a similar magnitude in Ireland the result would be the creation of a new nation based on the Protestants. This would become possible for example, on the basis of civil war, repartition and the emergence of a new Protestant state in the north east.
On the other hand should the tendencies towards working class unity become dominant the way would be opened to the ending of partition and the establishment of a socialist Ireland in which all differences, whether regional, cultural or religious would be respected.
Partition did not draw society past either of these poles. The Ireland which emerged was short of being a nation state but someway short of being two nations either.
Those who argue that this situation has changed since then and that two nations have subsequently emerged have an onus to show when and how this happened.
46 Michael Farrell The Orange State, Pluto Press 1976, p92
47 Constitution of the Council of Labour (author’s papers)
Troubled Times Chapter 10
A mood for change
There was no fundamental shift of consciousness, outlook or of relations between the various sections of the working class during the first few decades of the new states. Then, from the 1950s the ground began to shift away from sectarian division. It is no accident that during the 1960s, right up to the eve of the Troubles, the idea that there were two nations as opposed to two states held very little currency.
By 1968 all the critical indicators pointed to the opposite, and had done so with increasing force for more than two decades. Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s the tendency was to the breakdown of the old sectarian divisions and to the unity of the working class.
Old sectarian housing patterns were dissolving. The new housing estates being built around Belfast tended to be mixed. Even in the inner city areas the lines of delineation were becoming more blurred.
There was a greater social integration in clubs and bars. The thriving rock scene in Belfast in the mid and late ’60s was of no particular sectarian colouration. There was even nothing uncommon or unusual for some Catholic youth to join in the drinking and ‘celebrating’ at the 11th night bonfires.
In this more relaxed atmosphere loyalist gangs such as those which had attacked Catholic and socialist workers before partition and were still at the same business in the 1930s, seemed more and more anachronistic. By the late ’50s they were not much more than a memory.
This is not to say that sectarianism on the Protestant side had died out. Far from it. The Unionist Party was in government and still attempted to play the Orange card mainly to slow up the march of Labour. However the growing support for the NILP did demonstrate that Unionism was losing its grip over sections of the Protestant working class.
This was the time when Paisley began his evangelical crusade against the ‘Rome ward trend’ of the Protestant churches. His publicity-seeking activities drew scant support. To most Protestant workers and youth he was a crank, obsessed with issues about which they cared very little.
There were no loyalist paramilitaries. The tiny handful of hard line loyalists who briefly formed a UVF in the mid 1960s were out of step with their communities. Their new formation was ineffective and short lived. The murder of a Catholic barman who had gone to a Shankill Road pub for a late drink one night in 1966 provoked only disgust among Protestants. The O’Neill government replied by banning them – to the relief of most Protestants – and the organisation disintegrated.
The idea that there is a direct organisational line from the present UVF to this earlier outfit is false. Individuals such as its founder Gusty Spence may have overlapped, the Paisleyite inspiration may have been the same, but the UVF had to be re-formed from nothing when the Troubles began.
Paradoxical as it might seem, the start of the Troubles came after an historic shift away from the ideas of nationalism and of republicanism among the Catholic population generally.
In 1956 the IRA launched a military campaign with raids across the border modelled on the flying column attacks of the 1919-21 War of Independence. For the next six years this ‘border campaign’, so called because it was confined to border areas, continued in the form of sporadic and ineffective attacks. Catholics in the border areas looked on passively while those in Belfast paid little or no heed. The leadership called it off in 1962 admitting that it had failed to draw broad support. Their ceasefire statement acknowledged:
“Foremost among the factors motivating this course of action has been the attitude of the general public whose minds have been deliberately distracted from the supreme issue facing the Irish people – the unity and freedom of Ireland”. (48)
The border campaign served to educate the next generation of Catholic youth of the futility of individual terrorism. To most of the fresh generation who poured onto the streets at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the IRA was a museum relic, not relevant to present needs.
Nationalism likewise was on the wane. Briefly it flared up as a force in the 1950s only to rapidly die away. In 1955 Sinn Fein, through a combination of circumstances which gave them a clear run for nationalist votes, managed to poll 150,000 votes in the 1955 Westminster election. In a Southern general election two years later they polled a credible 65,000 votes, in part a rural nationalist vote, in part a radical vote which defected from Labour following its participation in coalition. In elections in 1959, by which time it was clear that the IRA border campaign would flounder, the Northern vote virtually halved, to 77,000. The presence in the South dwindled away also. It was a brief flurry of national sentiment, not betokening a new revival, rather a concentration of its force on the way to its eclipse.
By the late 1960s nationalism both as an ideology and as an organised force was losing its grip on the masses. The Nationalist Party was seen as feeble and inept, doing little more than provide a convenient foil for the Unionists.
This is not to say, as is often suggested, that Catholics had abandoned the idea of a united Ireland and were moving towards an acceptance of the Northern state, content merely to seek change within it. Among middle class Catholics it is true that a pragmatic view was taking hold. As far as they were concerned, since nationalism could hold out no hope of ending partition, it was better, for the time being, to concentrate their energies on securing better treatment in the North. John Hume was a representative of this view.
There was a different outlook among the Catholic working class especially among the vibrant generation of youth who emerged into struggle at the end of the ’60s. They saw only poverty and discrimination in the North, but in the South what they saw was as bad if not worse.
Changes since the war had widened the gap between North and South, making the South less attractive by comparison. The Unionists, against their judgement, instinct and will, had been forced by the pressure of the working class to follow the post war Labour example and introduce the Welfare State. The Northern economy had grown in the 1950s, only to stagnate in the 1960s. For the South the ’50s had been another decade of stagnation; unemployment rose and a colossal figure of 400,000 people were forced to emigrate.
Turning away from nationalism, the Catholic youth did not embrace the Northern state but began to look to more radical solutions. Deep down the shift was to a socialist consciousness; after 1966 the socialist ideas of James Connolly underwent a revival among the youth, North and South.
The ’60s was a decade of growing class unity. It began with significant struggles by workers in the Belfast shipyard, in the Shorts aircraft factory and other big industries against redundancies and threatened closures. Other important strikes took place during the middle years of the decade, although overall this was not a time of intense class struggle. Then in 1967 and into 1968 a strike wave developed which affected broad layers of the working class and indicated an underlying radicalisation.
Politically this industrial anger was reflected in the growth of support for Labour; for the NILP in Protestant and Catholic areas, and for the smaller Republican Labour Party in some Catholic seats. The NILP did not just gain electorally, its branches filled out and it began to shift to the left, away from the ‘Labour Unionism’ espoused by its most senior figures.
The sectarian division remained but the various sections of the working class and the youth were moving away from the old ideas and, albeit setting out from different points, were shifting in a common direction. Northern militancy was matched, at times surpassed, by a rising level of struggle in the South. In 1965 the South topped the world strike league. Strike figures rose the following year. Under this pressure the Irish Labour Party, not only grew in support but, like the NILP, began to fill out. By the end of the decade its slogan, for the future, ‘the seventies will be socialist’, illustrated that even its tops had been swayed by the radicalisation.
As well as a tendency to unity in the North, there was the beginnings of a drawing together of the Labour movement North and South. The split in the trade union movement had been healed since 1959 when the Congress of Irish Unions re-merged with the ITUC to form the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). The formation of the Council of Labour was another step in this process.
Civil rights agitation
World factors – opposition to the US over Vietnam, the revolutionary events of May 1968 in France, support for the Prague Spring – gave added impetus to this burgeoning socialist movement. The first months of the mass civil rights agitation from October 1968 until the end of the year saw it reach the height of its potential. Had a revolutionary leadership, with sufficient social weight to affect the situation, existed at that time, sectarianism could have been broken and both the Unionist state and its green reflection across the border could have been swept away.
For reasons explained fully in Beyond the Troubles? (by Peter Hadden – printed copies are available from the Belfast SP office) and Militant publications this potential was not realised. The situation began to move in the opposite direction, towards sectarian rather than class conflict. Even then the possibility existed for quite a time that in this period of intense and turbulent mass activity, events could reverse themselves and ground lost to sectarianism could be made up.
The events of August 1969 acted as a pivot marking the change from one generally favourable period for class ideas to a period characterised by the onset of sectarian reaction. In the form of pogroms, barricades and the introduction of troops to the streets, it spelt out the real beginnings of the Troubles.
Yet even within this gathering tempest there were opportunities for socialist and revolutionary ideas to take on flesh. When the initial fighting died down large tracts of Catholic Belfast and Derry were sealed off behind barricades. For weeks the state forces, including the army, were kept out of these areas. Behind the barricades, especially in the Bogside and Creggan areas of Derry, there was intense discussion and debate about what way forward. Despite efforts by right wing nationalists to stifle this debate, the ideas of socialism held a powerful attraction.
The single issue of defence against pogroms had caused the barricades to go up. But as was shown by the 1920 general strike over the release of prisoners, a struggle begun on a single question, if deepened and developed, irresistibly raises other questions. The 1920 general strike posed the question who would run the industries, who would distribute supplies and keep order once the strike ended. The existence of the barricades likewise posed broader issues -what would be the form of the state which would eventually be allowed back into the areas, would it be a bosses state or would the working class be in control?
Had the barricades stayed in place long enough it is quite possible that, even though they started out by physically sealing Catholic workers off from Protestants, a message would arise from within them around which class unity could be rebuilt.
It was because they were aware of this that the state quite frantically leaned on all shades of ‘moderate’ and non socialist opinion, including the most hard line republicans within these areas to try to talk the barricades down. This was also the reason a significant section of the Southern ruling class decided to play the ‘green card’. They went out of their way to finance and arm a right wing section of the republican movement, both to halt the shift of republicanism to the left and to create an ogre which would repel Protestants.
The Civil Rights Movement rallied around basic demands for reforms within the state. It exploded as a mass movement in anger at the state’s response which was to baton civil rights protestors off the streets in Derry in October 1968. Overnight it became a virtual uprising of the Catholic working class, especially the youth. The message from Civil Rights ‘moderates’ may have been that this was just about reforms but the reality was that the movement was leaning much further, to complete opposition to the state.
This was no turn to nationalism, but a firmer than ever rejection of nationalism, of its symbols, of its ideas and of the individuals who put these forward. Later in the Troubles the various symbols and slogans of resistance raised in the Catholic areas would become indistinguishable one from the other but at this stage those of left and right were sharply distinct. They were raised one in opposition to the other.
When on one occasion a tricolour was raised on a Derry barricade, the defenders debated whether or not it should be there and voted to take it down. The Starry Plough was flown in the area because it was recognised to represent something different. It stood for the ideas of Connolly and of socialism.
When, at this time, the slogan of a workers’ republic was put forward it did not sit comfortably alongside the idea of a capitalist united Ireland. It was seen as a rejection of that idea and as an alternative to both the Unionist and the Southern states. The slogan of a socialist united Ireland meant specifically not capitalist unity. At this stage – before they became blurred by long association with republicanism – these socialist symbols and slogans had both meaning and content.
Protestant working class
The Protestant working class had never settled comfortably under the umbrella of Unionist rule. The 1960s saw them move in industrial and political opposition to the Stormont administration. They were frustrated and angered by the poverty, and by the class discrimination from which they also suffered. The more advanced sections of the Protestant working class were also actively repelled by the repressive and sectarian nature of the state, and by its aristocratic and reactionary overlords.
When a sectarian reaction developed among Protestants it began as a defence of the state and in opposition to democratic rights for Catholics. It was made up of people like Paisley, his eccentric adjutant, Major Bunting, the neo fascist John McKeague and others whose message was that supposed Protestant privileges should remain and that Catholics should be put back in their place.
There was not a homogenous Protestant response to the civil rights struggle. The most reactionary elements came out in violent opposition, the advanced sections of the working class and youth gave support, the great majority were unsure. Only if the defence of one state were to become mixed up with opposition to being swallowed up by another state would the majority of Protestant workers go behind the bigots.
Collision with state
Those Protestant workers involved in unions, Labour and socialist organisations had found that, since the Unionists and the state were one and the same thing, their battles with the Unionists brought them into collision with the state. While a section of backward Protestants rallied to defend the state, the more advanced and class conscious had been moving into opposition and were drawing socialist conclusions, perhaps expressed differently but essentially the same as the conclusions being drawn by the Catholic youth. Which way the broad mass of Protestant workers would move was not yet decided.
In this situation, to have pronounced that there were two nations and to have drawn the programmatic conclusions which follow from this would have been the height of folly. Militant would have ended up defending the fact of two states, arguing for socialism within the confines of each and only then putting forward the idea of a socialist federation to link the two.
This position would have cut us off from the most revolutionary section of society – the Catholic youth. We would have found ourselves arguing against their best instincts in having to defend the fact of partition. It would have left us lagging behind the most advanced of the Protestant working class, reinforcing sectarian prejudices rather than opening up class divisions.
In examining what Militant did say it needs to be borne in mind that we were a small propaganda group – hardly even that – and could reach only a layer of Catholic youth and of trade union and labour movement activists, Protestant and Catholic.
We fully supported the struggle of Catholics for democratic rights. Our difference with the leadership of the Civil Rights Movement was our insistence that this should be linked to the overall struggle for jobs, houses, decent conditions and democratic rights for all.
We stood for a socialist united Ireland linking this slogan with a call for a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. Even then we did not raise this in the crude manner which the ultra left sects have always put it forward. We called for a conference of all Labour forces, notably the NILP and Republican Labour to build a broader socialist challenge to the Unionists. We demanded that the Council of Labour, which in the hands of the Labour leaderships was a toothless talking shop, be built into an active campaigning organisation tying together the socialist struggles, North and South. We explained that it would be out of such practical unity of the working class and of its organisations, that a new socialist society could be built in Ireland.
This general position was accepted without difficulty by the best of the Catholic youth and the most advanced Protestant workers. The question has arisen in discussion whether it would have required modification if we had won the ear of the broad mass of Protestants.
This question itself belies a mistake of method. For Militant to have gained such a broad influence presupposes a significant development of the class struggle and a raising of class consciousness among both Protestants and Catholics. Under these circumstances our ideas would have seemed more real, more concrete; they would have been backed up by the example of actual events. We would have had to explain our position skilfully – the slogan of a socialist united Ireland would not always have been to the fore. It could only have advanced as an immediate campaigning slogan when events pointed to its necessity. Perhaps a slightly different emphasis might have been given in exclusively Protestant workplaces or areas – but the position itself would have been maintained. It was the setbacks suffered by the labour movement, and the resulting lowering of consciousness which caused any subsequent difficulties with this demand.
Slogans which are crystal clear at one time can become debased and devalued as circumstances change. In discussions on our general programme we have pointed out that the slogan for Britain of ‘Labour to power on a socialist programme’ which at one time brilliantly and succinctly encapsulated our orientation and our objectives, has become meaningless. The shift to the right of the Labour leaders has been so great that the idea of them introducing socialist policies is now met with complete disbelief.
If at the outset of the Troubles, the slogan of a socialist united Ireland clearly meant not a capitalist Ireland, not so after a time. Many of the first wave of recruits to the IRA joined believing that they were fighting for socialism. But when the old guard leadership spoke as they did of a democratic socialist republic it was quite clear to those looking on that behind this mask of rhetoric they meant something different.
The situation was not helped by the myriad of self styled revolutionary groups in Britain and Ireland who, from the word go, chorused their approval of the Provos, acting as ‘socialist’ cheerleaders on the sidelines.
Inevitably the distinction between what socialists wanted and what nationalists were fighting for became hazy. In the minds of Protestants they were one and the same. With everyone talking about a socialist republic or a workers’ republic and at the same time chanting ‘victory to the IRA’ the idea of a socialist united Ireland to many meant nothing more than a united Ireland.
The purpose of slogans and of language generally is to explain and clarify. When a slogan no longer does this it is time to find a better form of words to express the same idea. The first issues of the Irish Militant, published in 1972, carried a sub-heading ‘For a socialist united Ireland’. Even at this early stage of the Troubles things had already moved so far back that this proved a barrier rather than a bridge to important sections of the working class. It was quite quickly replaced with the more finely tuned slogan ‘For workers’ unity and socialism’. The original idea was retained as the position of the organisation but was presented less in headline fashion, more through careful explanation.
More than a decade later the Anglo-Irish Agreement was interpreted by Protestants as a deal signed over their heads aimed at eventually delivering them into a united Ireland. They closed ranks in opposition.
By this time the word ‘united’ in the slogan was a barrier even to explanation. To Protestants the issue was simply yea or nay to a united Ireland – if the answer was yea in any form there would be no hope of going further to discuss the niceties of what type of society this would be. Consequently we dropped ‘united’ from the slogan and put forward the more open formula of ‘a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland’. This has served well in allowing Militant to stress the idea of a socialist society first, and then being able to deal with how it would be structured after.
The change was not just for Protestant areas but to make our position clearer to all. In Catholic areas and in the South it was a necessary alteration in that it set us apart from the general milieu of left republicans who chanted about ‘smashing the state’, ‘ending partition’, ‘driving out imperialism’ with far greater emphasis than they spoke about socialism.
48 Farrell The Orange State, p221
Troubled Times Chapter 11
After the Troubles
Ten years on from the Anglo Irish Agreement we have arrived at a new situation. With the IRA and loyalist ceasefires in place there are fresh openings, real possibilities of making inroads in Protestant and Catholic areas and especially among the youth.
But a condition is that we maintain a clear class position on the national question, one that diminishes both unionism and nationalism and reinforces working class unity and socialism.
To do this it is not enough to mechanically repeat old demands and old formulations. Nor can ideas and slogans be simply sucked out of the air because they may be momentarily popular in this area or that. Rather a number of things must be taken into account – the method of marxism on the national question, the history of Ireland, before partition, events since then – and applied to the situation today.
In moving on from the programme Militant put forward at the beginning and early in the Troubles we have to estimate the changes which have taken place since. If we were to hang an arrow indicating the main thrust of events above the decades leading up to the Troubles, it would point towards integration and away from sectarianism. If we did the same for the two and a half decades since it would point firmly in the reverse direction.
During the 1970s and early 1980s the sectarian reaction which over the first few years was particularly fierce, was in part compensated for by world events, by what was happening in Britain and to a lesser extent in the South. The huge industrial movements against the 1970-74 Heath government helped the labour movement in Northern Ireland sustain itself at a particularly difficult time.
The toppling of the dictatorships in Greece, Spain, and especially Portugal, the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam, victories over Portuguese imperialism in Angola and Mozambique, struggles in Central America, revulsion at the dictatorship in Chile, and other tumultuous events of this time helped maintain a socialist consciousness among the youth.
At the end of the 1970s and in the early ’80s the working class of the North participated in the vanguard of the industrial movement against the incomes’ policy of the Labour government and then against the anti-working class assault of Thatcher.
In these years world developments acted to slow up the drift to sectarian division. During the latter half of the 1980s and in the nineties, although the sectarian reaction had dulled somewhat compared to the early ’70s, the setbacks it inflicted were compounded by what was taking place internationally.
First there were the defeats suffered by the working class, notably the defeat of the inspirational miners’ strike of 1984-5. Then there was a significant shift to the right at the top of the workers’ traditional organisations, the trade unions and the Labour and socialist parties. There was an emptying out of these organisations and the virtual disappearance of any left currents within them. Finally there came the collapse of Stalinism after 1989. A wave of revolution against the rotten totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe ended in a wave of victorious counter revolution which saw capitalism, in a particularly palsied form, restored both there and in Russia.
If the 1960s were characterised by a raising of class consciousness and a stirring of revolt among the youth, the 1980s and early 1990s stand out as a time when consciousness was lowered all round and in which the working class felt itself inhibited from engaging in battle. One effect has been that the idea of socialism is not as readily accepted and understood as it was in the earlier period. There is a lingering feeling that socialism would not work, that it did not work in Russia, and that one area in which it most acutely failed was in dealing with the national question. Therefore, young people in particular, do not automatically see that a socialist united Ireland would be an answer where a capitalist united Ireland is not. There is need for ever greater care, for more explanation of this concept, than there was a decade ago.
The change in the North
The diminution of class consciousness and the corresponding tightening grip of sectarian ideologies has been quite marked in recent years. It is rooted in a physical separation into two communities which leaves the Northern Ireland of today a very different society from that which existed twenty five years ago. The August 1969 pogroms ended the process of integration of areas. After internment in 1971, the widespread intimidation resulted in the greatest population shift then seen in Europe since the second world war. Overnight some mixed areas became almost entirely of one community or another. The campaigns of random sectarian assassinations carried out by the loyalist paramilitaries in the main, meant that many people preferred the security of living among others of the same religion. This has led to the situation where nearly half the people now live in areas which are either 90% Protestant or 90% Catholic.
Side by side with geographical separateness there is now a political polarisation which is virtually complete. Labour, as a force to unite sections of both communities – 100,000 votes in the 1970 general election – has all but disappeared. Alliance, which makes much of its non-sectarianism, bridges only sections of the middle class and in any case is both pro-state and pro-union.
Even the trade unions, once a powerful force for unity, have been diminished in stature by the feeble role of their leaders. In many Catholic working class areas the trade union leadership is seen as little more than a pliant tool of the state, as collaborators rather than evangels of struggle.
As soon as the Troubles began they deserted the stage of politics, and thereby gave the sectarians a hand up to the monopoly position they now enjoy.
In truth the union leadership was no less craven twenty five years ago. But at that time there existed alongside them a substantial layer of activists, Catholic and Protestant, who were motivated by class issues and were actively opposed to both sectarian ideologies. There was a shop stewards’ movement which was powerful, confident and capable of acting independently of the union bureaucracies.
Today this layer has thinned. There are many good shop stewards, but not with the confidence their predecessors once had. They are much less an independent factor drawing the advanced sections of the working class together.
In the past this layer was united industrially and politically. Now it is more often the case that they are united industrially but stand apart politically. When the Troubles began the most class conscious section of Protestant workers were opposed to the Unionists and leaned towards opposition to the unionist state. Now their equivalents may be among the best class fighters, may describe themselves as socialists, but are likely to also sternly defend partition, the link with Britain and vehemently oppose a united Ireland. This consolidation of Protestants in defence of partition is in no small measure down to the IRA campaign which in the name of overthrowing the state has only managed to reinforce it.
In Catholic areas the beginning of the Troubles took the form of a rejection of nationalism on the part of a growing section of the working class and the youth. The idea of class unity had a powerful appeal. So too had the call, not just for change, but for socialist change.
This was particularly the case in Derry which was the cradle of the civil rights struggle. In the months after October 1968 the city was in a ferment of discussion, it became a laboratory in which socialist and revolutionary ideas were put to the test.
The Catholic working class areas of Belfast had had a long and proud Labour tradition. The old style nationalist ideas which maintained a base in border areas died as a force in west Belfast in the 1930s. Republicanism never had a broad base of active support in these areas before the seventies. If nationalists or republicans wanted to present themselves in the area they had to do so with a Labour or socialist face.
The Falls and West Belfast seats at Stormont and Westminster, when not in Unionist hands, more often went to some variety of Labour candidate – Northern Ireland Labour, Republican Labour, Anti-Partition Labour or Irish Labour. Even in 1983 when Gerry Adams took the seat from Gerry Fitt, who stood as a socialist, Sinn Fein’s nationalist message was clouded in radical socialist sounding rhetoric.
An interview with Adams in Magill magazine in July 1983, just after his election victory, shows the radical note he was striking at the time:
“I have found that once you explain things on the basis of the proclamation, saying the ownership of Ireland should belong to the people of Ireland and what Connolly and Pearse said, and how this should be updated by the nationalisation of major industries and how financiers and multinationals shouldn’t be allowed to suck the wealth out of Ireland, people start coming around.” (49)
It is a long road from this to lunches on Wall Street, meetings with investment bankers, sordid deals struck with the representatives of Irish capitalism, and handshakes with British ministers. Adams and Sinn Fein have taken this road and in so doing have dealt a blow against the class traditions in Catholic working class areas, supplanting these with a banal nationalism.
The result? – just as there are many good Protestant militants who see themselves as Unionists so there are many Catholic shop stewards and union activists who are tireless on the class questions but who deride the prospects of class unity and see themselves as republicans or nationalists.
The difference is reflected in the current use, really the misuse, of language. In the past, areas were described as being Catholic, Protestant, mainly Catholic, mainly Protestant or mixed. They could be given a religious but never a uniform political label. Then during the Troubles new terms were used which have gradually gained acceptance. Catholic working class areas are known as ‘nationalist areas’, Protestant as ‘loyalist areas’. We have always rejected these adjectives as an oversimplification of reality and as an insult to the many people within them who are not loyalists or nationalists. What is however significant in showing how consciousness has been thrown back is the fact that these labels are accepted and used without hesitation by many people in the areas themselves.
The gap between the working class North and South has also widened. After a decade of pronounced downturn in the class struggle the result is a growing separation. There is no longer a Labour organisation in the North to provide a basis for political unity. From the Southern side the turn to the right by the Irish Labour leadership, their readiness to form an alliance with the devil if it would keep their seats on the ministerial chairs, and their common front with every political representative of Irish capitalism on the issue of the North, denies them any positive influence or effect on the working class movement in the North.
Trade union unity
All-Ireland trade union unity has remained, but in an ever more nominal form. As the union leadership has moved to the right, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has become ever more bureaucratised, more removed from trade union members. Its conferences are not allowed to discuss political matters, great effort is made to ensure that anything which might even prove controversial is not debated. The move to biennial conferences, an all-Ireland conference one year, a conference of the Northern Ireland Committee the next, is a step away from a single movement in any meaningful sense.
There has also been a further drawing apart of peoples North and South. Apart from poignant moments such as the death of Bobby Sands, the predominant attitude of workers in the South has been to leave well alone. Northerners, they feel, should compromise and sort the problem out themselves.
Once again the question arises, have two nations now developed? There is no doubt but that events have moved several notches along the scale in this direction. Still, just as all-Ireland trade union unity has become tenuous but still exists, so that decisive point whereby a new nation could be said to have emerged has not been passed.
No matter to what degree a sense of Northernness has been reinforced by the Troubles, this is countered by increased Catholic alienation from the state. While the Catholic middle class are in practice prepared to adapt to the state, provided they continue to do well, the Catholic working class feel more alienated than ever. Nothing can be sold in their communities which smacks of a return to the old days of Unionism and which has no ‘Irish dimension’. The idea of a Northern nation – in other words that a purely Northern settlement would be acceptable to Catholics – is fantasy.
Not a Northern nation – and still not two nations within the North either! The stronger side of the recent social and political equation has certainly been sectarian division but there has been another side also.
While virtually every change over twenty five years has deepened the religious divide, there has been one important exception. Catholics and Protestants still come together in the workplaces. In fact, if anything, the change has been towards greater integration of the workforce. The old Unionist owned industries with their ‘Catholics need not apply’ policy have declined. New foreign owned companies have no interest in maintaining discrimination. The expanded public sector, with a few exceptions such as teaching, is integrated. Fair employment laws have had a certain effect in evening up the religious balance. The fact that Catholics are still more than twice as likely to be out of work shows the problem is not solved, but does not contradict the fact that in most factories and offices, the workforce is mixed.
In the 1930s, exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, discussed with his supporters in the US whether or not they should raise the slogan of self-determination for the blacks who were then concentrated in the southern states.
Although the blacks were not a nation Trotsky considered that given their separation from whites, their ill treatment and the ongoing chauvinism of white workers, they could develop a national consciousness under certain circumstances. He argued that the Trotskyists should support the slogan of self-determination if the demand for it came from the blacks themselves.
However Trotsky had an open attitude on the question whether the blacks who were a racial, rather than a national minority would evolve in the direction of separation or not. He allowed that under certain conditions – the invasion of the US by Japan for example, a feeling might develop among blacks of a plague on both your houses and the call for a separate state -a 49th state – might gain support. On the other hand he wanted to probe the question of whether there were points of unity between black and white workers which might cut across this and would affect the slogans to be raised. The fact that the newly formed trade union centre, the CIO, made a turn after 1936 to recruit blacks was an important consideration in the background of the discussions.
In the event the situation changed when from the beginning of the second world war a large migration of blacks began out of the southern states to the cities and factories of the industrial north. The issue of separation receded.
Similarly the fact that workplaces in Northern Ireland have stayed mixed and that growing out of this the trade unions, with very few exceptions, organise Protestant and Catholic together, is of immense significance. If it had been otherwise, if this point of contact had been broken, the Troubles would have gone much further, possibly to the point of civil war.
Despite the blows inflicted by the ruling class, by bigots from both camps, despite an indolent and rotten leadership, the trade unions held together. More than this they were able to act as catalysts for the recent huge movements which united Protestant and Catholic workers against the sectarian killings. The mass protests called by a reluctant ICTU leadership after the Teebane atrocity in 1992 and again after the horror of Shankill and Greysteel in 1993, showed the unbroken determination of the working class not to be pushed over a sectarian precipice.
When Trotsky discussed the problems of the southern states of the US it was a matter of two races who were quite apart in all aspects of their life-style and living conditions. Catholic and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland face basically the same problems. Tory attacks on the health service, rising electricity prices, the threatened privatisation of water, affect both communities alike.
In the absence of any political party which could represent working class interests, and given the tendency of the union leaders to keep their heads down on these questions, a myriad of campaigning community organisations have sprung up. Although most often based in one community or the other, the idea of building cross community campaigns is increasingly accepted as a sensible and practical way to get things done. In other words the tendency to class unity from the bottom up continues to reassert itself.
All of this has acted and acts as a check on the development of a separate Protestant ‘national’ identity. Protestants remain, in terms of Ireland as a whole, a minority religious community, not a national minority. The idea of independence put forward, half-heartedly it is true, by the UDA is not taken seriously. Apart from the powerful economic arguments against, the fact is that, despite all that has happened, Protestants have not developed a sense of being a separate nationality.
They have a sense of Northernness, a sense of being British, which is more political than cultural or national, and a sense also that they are one strand of what it is in total to be Irish. Former loyalist prisoner Eddie Kinner, interviewed in the Irish Democrat, expressed some of the conflict of attitude which makes up the Protestants sense of who they are:
“The unionist people need to have the strength to say that they are both Irish and British and proud of it. They shouldn’t have any fear of identifying their Irishness. They get a real culture shock when they go over to England and get called Paddy”. (50)
Trotsky’s method in relation to the black question in the US was to weigh possible future, as well as present, developments. In Northern Ireland we have just had the ceasefire announcements by the IRA and loyalists. Like the August ’69 pogroms these announcements are likely to prove an historic turning point. The former marked the real beginning of the Troubles, the latter probably registers their ending in the form they have taken.
It would therefore be light minded in the extreme to base a programme on things as they were before the IRA and then the Combined Loyalist Military Command called a halt, and not take into account both changes which have already taken place and also possible future changes.
We cannot offer up a blueprint for what is going to happen. But we can state for certain that the situation has changed profoundly and, if the ceasefires hold, the changes to come will work their way through into every nook and cranny of political life. Generally, the longer the ‘peace’ holds the less the situation will resemble what went before.
While nothing has been solved and while none of the fundamentals of the problem will be solved on a capitalist basis, the greater likelihood is still that the ‘peace’ will last for a period, perhaps even a protracted period. The key factor is the mood in both Protestant and Catholic working class areas that there must be no going back to the killings. The bigots are still there, the politicians are the same motley crew, but it is already noticeable that their sectarian verbal jousting is increasingly at odds with the general mood.
By the time the ceasefires had been declared the strands of working class unity were delicate and worn thin. Now there is a new period in which there is every prospect that they will be re-woven and strengthened. The vital integration in the workplaces may take on new significance if there is an increase in strikes.
It is too early to say whether the lifting of the fear of sectarian assassination will promote any significant reintegration of working areas. However as social issues such as cuts, closure of facilities, privatisation come to the fore there are likely to be more community based struggles. Many of these will have the potential to cross the sectarian divide. New issues will arise – for example opposition to the problem of drug trafficking and abuse – which may link Protestant and Catholic areas.
The demand for integrated education at both primary and secondary level will probably increase, and not just from middle class parents. Among the youth, as with their counterparts across Europe, there is a holding back from politics and a general disdain for politicians. The easier atmosphere in Belfast means that young people from the more hard line districts are more likely to go out of their area to mixed city centre bars, to clubs, raves or whatever.
As far as young people are concerned all the political parties, Sinn Fein included, are part of the political establishment. The sectarian message of these parties is likely to increasingly conflict with whatever tendencies may develop among youth to mix with people of their age from the ‘other side’. A sustained period without substantial sectarian violence could prepare for a new rebellion of the youth against the political old guard, just as a previous generation rebelled twenty five years ago.
The almost total political polarisation is a key feature of the present, on the negative side. Yet one possible scenario is that future industrial and political struggles, future integration of the working class in other ways, could see flesh put on the call for a new Labour or socialist organisation. The bond of political unity extinguished in the early 1970s with the demise of the NILP and all other Labour forces, apart from ourselves, could be re-tied, the negative could become a positive.
It is by no means definite that this will happen, or that working class unity will develop in the other ways outlined. The peace process could come apart at an earlier stage, or sectarianism could develop in other ways. However even the fact that the more positive perspective is a possibility and quite a strong possibility, is something which has to be taken into account when working out demands and slogans. It would be entirely wrong to base a programme on the fact of the sectarian division as it is now, when a more favourable situation may be in the process of developing.
It is not just the changed form of the sectarian division but the changed content of the national question itself, that has to be taken into account. Twenty five years ago it was the issue of democratic rights for the Catholic minority which was to the fore. From this flowed the question of the odious nature of the state itself and the need to unite Catholic and Protestant workers as the only force which would bring about a change for the better.
Today much of the discrimination in housing, jobs and in the drawing up of electoral boundaries has gone. That which remains is a residue of the past not the result of current policy. Even on issues such as facilities and funding for Irish language projects the state is prepared to move. It is in the best interests of the ruling class to defuse the situation by eliminating discrimination as far as is possible.
Militant Labour continues to oppose every aspect of discrimination which remains. Where, for example, there is adequate demand from parents for Irish speaking schools we support the call for funding on a par with other schools.
The Department of Education put up bureaucratic arguments to justify its past refusal to provide full funding. It used the same enrolment criteria as for every other school to decide the issue.
This is an example of extreme insensitivity to the rights of minorities. Where there exists a clear cultural minority demanding educational recognition, special criteria have to be applied. Just as we recognise special needs in education and demand the resources to cover these, so we recognise and uphold the wishes of groups of parents to ensure that their language or culture is catered for in their children’s education. The idea of a positive allocation of resources to minority needs in education has to be linked to the struggle for adequate funding for all schools, employment of more teachers, reduction of class sizes etc. The call for positive discrimination in employment is a somewhat different matter. We are not in favour of replacing the old discrimination against Catholics with a new discrimination against Protestants when it comes to appointments and promotion. Nor are we in favour of putting Protestants at the head of redundancy lists to even up the religious balance of a workforce.
In short we are not in favour of visiting the sins of the past onto the current generation of Protestant youth coming out of the schools seeking work. Our position is essentially a negative one – against all forms of discrimination in relation to appointments and promotion.
This must be linked with the demand for jobs for all. Instead of begging US multinationals to give us work we demand the public ownership of industry and services so that the state can provide jobs. This is the way to bring jobs to areas of high unemployment along the border and west of the Bann.
There are other immediate democratic questions which have arisen during the Troubles. These are less to do with discrimination and more with the huge repressive apparatus built up by the state and leaned most heavily against Catholic working class areas.
Our programme on the national question needs to include the call for the dismantling of the means of coercion and repression currently in the hands of the state.
We demand the immediate repeal of all emergency legislation and the restoration of the basic democratic rights denied by these laws. Alongside this we need to put forward demands for repeal of other Tory repressive legislation not aimed directly at Northern Ireland but rather introduced specifically to curb working class protest against government policies. This includes all the anti-trade union legislation and the more recent Criminal Justice Act.
We call for the immediate repatriation of all prisoners serving jail sentences in British jails for offences arising out of the Troubles. Further to this we demand the release of all prisoners convicted of offences arising purely out of the Troubles. While advocating this as a general position we make clear that we would not campaign for the release of those whose motivation was not political but purely sectarian and who remain the enemies of working class unity.
We have always supported the call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops, but have linked this call to the need for action by the working class to provide defence against sectarian attack. The new circumstances allow us to put it forward in a much more straight forward manner – although we still urge action by trade union and community organisations to stamp out the low level but ongoing sectarian clashes.
The RUC are not an acceptable police force in Catholic areas. However the more supportive attitude of Protestant workers compels us to take up the issue of policing in a skilful manner, avoiding terminology which is likely to be misinterpreted and misunderstood in any area. For this reason we deliberately do not use the slogan ‘Disband the RUC’ but neither do we retreat from the position that they are not an acceptable force. We say replace the RUC with community police services which should be under the control of locally elected committees.
Every national movement has two sides, a more forward looking side which revolts against oppression and leans towards socialism, and a more reactionary side which expressed itself as the desire of its leaders to become the new oppressors of ‘their’ nation.
Insofar as the revolt of the Catholic working class after 1969 was the beginnings of national revolt, it was the more forward looking aspect which was on view for the first period. Hence the need to be particularly sensitive to the aspiration of the Catholic masses in this period.
Today that aspect is still present in the form of the struggle against repression and against whatever residue of discrimination remains. But increasingly it is the other face of nationalism, the face of would be rulers and would be oppressors which is on view. This is something which will bring right wing nationalists into collision with the Catholic working class, especially the youth, over a period. As repression eases, military bases are closed, and the army is pulled back and probably withdrawn, this is likely to be the more pronounced feature. Take away the issue of prisoners and policing and, apart from a long term objective of a united Ireland, what is left is Sinn Fein’s demand for equal treatment, involvement as equals in the political process.
While of course opposing the petty restrictions imposed on Sinn Fein such as the old and ineffective policy of TV dubbing of their spokespersons, we can see that if this is the new content of the national struggle it amounts to very little indeed. The demand for equal treatment put forward by Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Co., is, given their current right wing nationalist policies, simply a demand that they should have the same authority as Paisley, Trimble and others to misrepresent people.
It is a view which measures a peoples’ freedom not by actual changes they have won, but by the respect which their leaders are given by the world’s most powerful – and most reactionary – politicians. Just as our earlier programme had to be very sensitive and sympathetic to the mass resistance of Catholic to oppression in the first years of the Troubles, so we must in equal measure be unsympathetic to the attempts by the Sinn Fein leadership to ingratiate themselves into the US and Southern Irish establishments.
For Protestants the content of the problem has changed even more decisively. Twenty five years ago Protestant reaction developed in defence of the Unionist state and the abuses upon which that state was based. It took the reactionary form of Paisley’s counter-demonstrations at Civil Rights marches, of the burning of Catholic houses in Belfast organised by John McKeague’s Shankill Defence Association and of the intimidation of Catholics from the shipyard and other workplaces in 1970. Buried somewhere within this reaction was a more democratic motivation; fear of being forcibly coerced into a united Ireland.
Today the balance between the democratic and the reactionary aspects of Protestant resistance has tilted some-what in favour of the former. Stormont has gone, killed off in 1972, buried ever since and now accepted by all to be beyond resuscitation. Not even the DUP call for a return to the good old days of supremacy. Catholics are wise enough not to take Paisley and his colleagues at their word, but the fact that they have to take the position they do shows that there is no deeply felt mood anywhere in the Protestant population to go back to things as they were.
Every recent survey of attitudes confirms this. For example a Belfast Telegraph poll taken at the time of the IRA ceasefire found 54% of Protestants in favour of power sharing. In a survey soon after, this went up to 65% with only 21% against. 58% even said the Unionists should participate in the Dublin Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. 49% said the broadcasting restrictions then in force against Sinn Fein should be lifted, this at a time when only 9% of Protestants believed the IRA ceasefire to be permanent. There has been a considerable relaxation of attitudes since then and few voices against equal treatment for all, including power-sharing, in the North.
The issue which did provoke broad Protestant opposition among Protestants was Dublin involvement. Only 37% of all surveyed were in favour, 53% against. A separate breakdown for Protestants was not given but if can be assumed that since most Catholics would have been in favour, a overwhelming majority of Protestants must have been against.
It is fear of being delivered by Westminster into the arms of Dublin, not a desire to preserve Northern injustices, which is the most pressing concern of Protestants today. This fear has been heightened by the IRA ceasefire and what has followed.
This is a paradoxical situation. The IRA ceasefire came about because of the failure of the tactics and strategy of the republican movement, not because they had succeeded in shifting the British government.
Gerry Adams now argues that it is around the table that progress can be made, compromise reached. In 1983 an IRA spokesman argued differently:
“We recognise that, even if the entire nationalist population in the six counties voted for Sinn Fein, that wouldn’t be enough. There must be an increase in political activity in the 26 counties so that they also demand that the Brits get out. Even that wouldn’t be enough, because the only thing colonial rulers will listen to is force. There must be a big escalation of military activity by us – and there will be”. (51)
In an interview published alongside this Adams echoed these words.
“I believe the use of force in the six counties is justified by the British presence. They don’t give people much choice. At the end of the day they won’t be argued or talked out. A movement that wants them out will either have to use force or the threat of force.” (52)
The threatened escalation – the big push – attempted by the IRA, backed by Libyan arms, in the mid-1980s ended in failure. They were back to the strategy of a long and unwinnable war of attrition.
On the political side significant advances were promised:
“Our longer term objective is to become the majority nationalist party as well as of course making considerable inroads in the 26 counties” (53)
The actual outcome was failure on both counts. Hopes which the republican leadership had in developments beyond Ireland coming to their assistance proved completely misplaced. At this time they entertained illusions in the contacts they had built up with some Labour MPs.
“Ken Livingstone thinks there maybe a big swing to the left and the party (Labour) might eventually come to power committed to withdrawing from Ireland.” (54)
All of this came to nothing. The ceasefire was declared on the back of a strategy in tatters. In reality it marked a setback, an historic blow against republican ideology and republican strategy, the full measure of which will only become apparent over time. Yet this was not how it was presented. The republican leadership have covered the tracks of their retreat by deliberately creating an impression of progress having been made, and of a huge breakthrough in the offing. It is with the feigned air of a victor that Gerry Adams has been strutting around the US, seeking the political backing of bankers, businessmen and politicians. The alliance with the SDLP, the linking of arms with Dublin governments plus the applause from Clinton have given an impression of stridency to nationalism. British ministers now saying publicly what they have thought privately since the early 1960s, that their best interests in Ireland lie in withdrawing from the North – has seemed to add substance to this impression.
Demographic changes have brought about an increase in the Catholic population of the North. The 1991 census estimated them to be 43% of the 1.6 million population as compared to 37% in 1971. According to some estimates there will be a Catholic majority in about 40 years. A1though there is a question mark over this due to a falling Catholic birth rate and the uncertain effects of immigration/emigration the idea of an eventual Catholic majority has come to be widely accepted.
The result of this, in the context of a seeming strengthening of nationalism, is a general feeling that somewhere down the road there will be a united Ireland. Paradoxically this weakens rather than strengthens republicanism and instead adds to the hand of what are termed the ‘constitutional nationalists’.
The feeling that there will be a united Ireland is also a feeling that it will come about in the medium to long term and certainly not in the short term. A survey of opinion in the South published by the Sunday Tribune in October 1994 found that 83% were in favour of a united Ireland at some time in the future. Of these only 28% wanted it in 12 months, 35% thought it should take five years, 31% thought 20-25 years and 5% more than twenty five years.
In Catholic areas of the North there is a similar feeling that a united Ireland will come but likewise a consensus that it will take a considerable time, probably closer to the 20-25 years than the five. It is this feeling which deals a powerful blow at all aspects of republican ideology and tactics.
If the mass of Catholics expect a united Ireland – but accept that they have to wait – it leaves no room for a military struggle to force it now. It also puts pressure on republican politicians to join the ranks of those they once disdained as quislings, to become ‘constitutional nationalist’ and to accept a compromise solution ‘in the interim’. This is the process of transformation taking place within the republican movement at present.
In Protestant areas the sense that a united Ireland is a real possibility translates itself very differently politically. Contrary to what the more bellicose politicians in and around the DUP had hoped, there is no mood for war. The advantages of peace in the hard hit working class areas far outweigh the long term prospect of partition ending.
Rather it reinforces a mood for compromise. Better agreement now – provided it does not stray over the line of constitutional change – than no agreement and forced change at a later date.
The feeling that the politicians should talk is particularly strong in the working class areas and among the so called fringe loyalist groups, the PUP and UDP. Working class Protestants are no longer prepared to act as unthinking foot soldiers of middle class Unionists.
This feeling rests on a platform of fear and great uncertainty about the future. There is a sense of isolation, a sense of betrayal at the hands of the British government, a sense that Catholics are united with powerful backers while Protestants are divided and left to shiver on the windowsill of the union. Overall this translates into a sense that, when it comes to minorities the modern minority are the Protestants.
In 1968-9 Protestants were opposed to a capitalist united Ireland but they did not see it as a very real prospect. Today the feeling is very different. The opposition has been hardened and the prospect seems frighteningly real. Protestant fear of coercion is now something which has to be given more weight in a programme of democratic and transitional demands on the national question. The democratic right not to be forced into another state against their will must be upheld.
This is one reason why we have always opposed the slogan ‘self-determination for Ireland’ as put forward throughout the Troubles by various ultra-left groups in Britain and more recently raised by Sinn Fein as one of their ‘core’ demands.
At first glance this might seem a democratic enough call. But demands cannot be separated from their actual meaning or the effect they would have in practice. Closer inspection reveals that far from democratic, it amounts to nothing more grand than a different device to coerce the Protestants – coercion by ballot rather than coercion by bullet.
Self-determination in the shape of an all-Ireland referendum simply means control the destiny of the Protestants by out-voting them. It is an unworkable idea. Should an all Ireland referendum on a united Ireland take place, Protestants would refuse to take part and would not accept the result. The actual effect of this democratic sounding but light minded proposal would be to hugely increase the conflict.
There is no possibility of such a referendum and the call for self-determination for Ireland as a whole is therefore quite meaningless. The so-called constitutional nationalists, the SDLP and all the major parties in the South, have, in reality, also come round to this view.
Gerry Adams still talks of self-determination, but is now always at pains to add that once British interference is gone, the Irish could decide how that self-determination should be exercised. This is simply a coded way of saying that he and Sinn Fein accept the right of the people of the North to decide their own future. In fact the principle of no change without consent is now accepted by all except a few ultra-left groupings and some fringe republicans who, rather than face reality, prefer to live in the past.
These people invoke the authority of Lenin to justify their call for self-determination for Ireland. In fact their approach has nothing whatsoever in common with Lenin.
Lenin put forward self-determination as a guarantee of the right to secede. If it were to be raised at all in the current situation it could only have meaning as the right of the people of Northern Ireland to secede from Britain. It has no meaning as the right of the two states in Ireland to come together, something which could only be achieved by the agreement and clear consent, separately arrived at, of the majority of both states.
But, object the advocates of this demand, Ireland is a single nation and as such must enjoy the single right to self determination accorded to all nations. In approaching the question in this way they have forgotten Lenin’s advice – to avoid turning demands into meaningless generalisations but rather to apply them to time, to place, to actual circumstances.
Ireland is not unique in its position as a single nation divided between different states. The Kurdish people are a single nationality who live in a number of states, notably Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
Do we put forward the demand for a referendum of all the Kurds to set up a new Kurdish state? No – such a call would be even more meaningless, further removed from reality, than the call for one referendum in Ireland. We uphold the right of the Kurds in each state to secede from that state.
If Kurdish peoples were to secede from their various states, the decision whether they would amalgamate into a new Kurdistan could only be by the agreement of each group. In practice such a peaceful and democratic redrawing of the borders of this volatile region would only be possible on a socialist basis.
The case of the Basque peoples is a similar example. Here is a single nationality denied a separate state and divided between two countries. The majority of Basques live in Spain but a minority live across the border in south west France.
When we raise the call for self-determination for the Basques living in Spain, we mean specifically the right of the people of the four Basque provinces in Spain to secede. In France the same right must be applied to the two Basque provinces on the French side of the border. The idea of a single referendum on the setting up of an independent Euskadi (Basque state) would mean in practice that the Basques of Spain, being the majority, could determine whether those in France stay within that state. This is not only impractical, it is undemocratic and we do not put it forward.
In working out our programme we do not descend into abstractions but deal with things as they actually are and measure demands by their actual effect in either advancing or acting as an obstacle to the cause of class unity and socialism.
49 Magill, July 1983
50 Irish Democrat, May 1995
51 Magill, July 1983
Troubled Times Chapter 12
A programme for today
The starting point of a programme must be the need for unity of the working class in the North, between North and South and with the British working class also. This means preserving and developing trade union unity. It means a programme for the democratisation of the trade unions and for the building of links, top and bottom, between the unions in both parts of Ireland and in Britain. Side by side with the task of building political organisations of the working class goes the need to also link them together as far as is possible.
Should Militant Labour change its position and now advocate a socialist federation of Ireland? No. This demand would emphasise separateness. It would not appear as an interim step to a single country but as an acceptance of two states. A federation on the basis of the existing border would not satisfy Catholics as it would seem to fall somewhere short of their raised expectation of unity.
If posed as a repartition it would stress to Catholic workers and to Protestant workers their differences, it would be telling them that they must be prepared to stand apart from one another – just at a time when there is a possibility of the re-building of class unity. At this stage this slogan would tend to lower, rather than raise, class consciousness.
The reasons which caused us to drop ‘a socialist united Ireland’ as a slogan during the 1980s are even more powerfully valid today. Protestant workers see in this only the ‘united’, not the ‘socialist’. Posed thus baldly it would be a barrier to explanation, not a bridge.
We have been putting forward the alternative formulation ‘for a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland’. This remains the best way of presenting our ideas. The slogan is sufficiently open not to lead to mistaken interpretations, it is sufficiently removed from republican formulations not to immediately trigger Protestant sensitivities. It emphasises the need for socialism before it raises the specific nature of a socialist state in Ireland. Thus it points to the need to change society, not just remove a line from the map.
Given the long history of conquest, and now with a European consciousness developing, the reservation may come up, why a particular relationship with Britain? We have a responsibility to counter nationalist prejudice at home. We have to be able to distinguish between class opposition to imperialism and anti-British or anti-English sentiment. We defend the former but oppose the latter. In so far as reservations about a federation with Britain are out of fear of domination we are prepared to add the clarification ‘on a free and equal basis’. But in as much as they are merely prejudice against the English we need to counter this, explaining that on a socialist basis our geographical proximity and common language would argue for a special relationship.
However the sense of being part of Europe does need to be taken into account. If a socialist federation with Britain was seen as an alternative to links with the rest of Europe it would appear even less ambitious than the capitalists with their idea of a European union. We should therefore add also ‘as part of a European socialist federation’.
The advantage of the slogan ‘a socialist Ireland’, that it is an open formulation, is also a disadvantage unless we ourselves are clear what lies behind it. The slogan is there to invite explanation, it is open so as not to turn people off before we can clarify it. But this is useless if we are not agreed on the explanation, if we give different answers to the question does it mean a united Ireland or not?
Our answer to this must be that a single socialist state is our preferred option. Any other alternative raises the prospect of an ongoing division between the working class. To Catholics, North and South, the idea that we tear down every aspect of capitalist rule, but leave the border, would seem both absurd and unacceptable. If this were proposed we would have to recognise the right of Northern Catholics to say no and to opt to join the Southern socialist state. This would mean drawing a new line between Protestants and Catholics in the North, when, to get this far presupposes that they would be united as never before.
To Protestants we argue the case for one state – with strong links with the working class in Britain. However given the entirely legitimate fears of Protestant workers that a united Ireland in any form equals coercion, we have to be able to provide an assurance to the contrary.
By opposing a capitalist united Ireland we have stood against the forcible coercion of Protestants. Now we need to add the firm guarantee that there would be no element of coercion on a socialist basis either.
In practice this means a guarantee that, should the majority of Protestants firmly oppose being part of a socialist united Ireland, they would have the right to opt out, that is to establish their own socialist state. They would not have the right to co-opt a substantial Catholic population into that state and so the boundaries would have to be redrawn.
This would create difficulties. Under capitalism it would mean a Bosnian-style civil war for territory. Even under socialism it would be extremely complex, but it could be done by agreement. It might mean for example that Belfast would be an open city shared by two populations who formally belong to different states. A similar status would have to be accorded to Brussels and to Jerusalem on the basis of socialism.
Such a solution would pose many difficulties but it would be possible. Precisely because of the complexities and even allowing that two socialist states would have open borders which would give permanence to sectarian division, it makes much more sense to have a single state.
What we say to Protestants is that it would be better to have a solution which can unite Catholics and Protestants and put old capitalist inspired enmity to the side, but the choice is yours. A socialist society will accommodate you in whatever decision you make.
We will always accord this right to Protestants, but it may not always be necessary to raise it. The strengthening of class unity, development of a party of the working class and of a socialist consciousness, may mean that the issue will recede and the idea of a single socialist state will become acceptable without reservation. For now we do not need to present the right to opt out in our list of demands. Rather it is for use when we set about more fully explaining our programme, verbally or in more lengthy written material.
The left republicans will of course squeal ‘sell out’ to Unionism. We have never taken much notice of their opinions and are all the better for that. When they do criticise us we need to ask them what would be their answer if Protestants were to say no to a socialist united Ireland. Either they would coerce them or they would accept our position. There are no other options open.
Finally there is the question of autonomy. Would we advocate autonomy for Protestants? Lenin was clear that the main criteria for granting autonomy was not culture or religion, but the fact of a territorial basis upon which it would be exercised.
Where there is a demand and a basis for autonomy we do more than uphold it as a right, we advocate that it be introduced. The problem with the idea of autonomy for Protestants is that it would have to be exercised in a real territory with real boundaries. To bring this about means working out the same lines, if not the degree, of separation of Protestant from Catholic as would come about with two states. To say now we are for a single socialist state but with autonomy for Protestants means that we would be advocating this division.
At a time when the thrust and emphasis of our programme has to be to stress class unity this call would be both unnecessary and divisive. In effect we would be saying to Protestants and Catholics, you must unite to build a socialist state but once we get it we think its better that you each should administer your affairs separately. This would educate in division, not unity.
A possible alternative is the idea of autonomy for the North or part of the North. There is a certain case for this since things have been run in a different way in this area for three quarters of a century. There are different approaches to schooling, house building, road construction, etc, etc. However it would be premature to raise this at this moment. A socialist state means the maximum amount of decision making devolved to local level in any case. Whether an area, the North, or perhaps several counties of the North, would want to operate as an autonomous administration unit is impossible to determine now. If a demand for such autonomy was clearly present leading up to and in the course of the transformation to socialism and after we would support it, as we would for other parts of the South also.
Dealing with a living process and with ever changing consciousness, to give a finished programme to the national question would be like a doctor giving a single prescription to cover all illnesses. We have to respond to issues as they come up, being consistent, not in always parroting the same answer, but in the method by which we come to our conclusions.
At present the British ruling class have clearly and with virtual unanimity, stated their preference to withdraw from Northern Ireland. This is a fundamental factor in determining the current shape of the national conflict. The fact that the Sinn Fein leadership have become convinced that this is Britain’s real intent has been important in propelling them along the road of peace.
That this is the current strategy of the ruling class does not mean that it will necessarily be their last word. just as their interests and their policy shifted and altered in the decades before partition, so further shifts are not only possible, they are likely.
There is no doubt that present government policy has broad support in ruling circles. Even in the Tory party there has been no evidence of any substantial unionist wing opposed to the government’s declaration of no “selfish” interest in the North.
One reason is the fact that Protestant opposition offers an insurance against Northern Ireland leaving the Union. Those among the ruling class still with unionist leanings, can take comfort from the fact that, while the government’s Framework Document offers the right to secede, a majority are clearly against exercising this right.
Again the Orange drum
Were it to come to secession and complete withdrawal from Ireland the present unity among the ruling class would likely fracture. Fear of the knock-on effect Northern Ireland secession would have in Scotland or in Wales, would likely drive a substantial section into opposition.
The issue of Scottish nationalism could itself cause a change of heart on British ‘neutrality’ over the North. During the pre-1914 Home Rule crisis Ulster provided a convenient theatre upon which the more conservative wing of Capital did battle against Liberal reforms and in defence of the Empire.
If at some future time there was a development of Scottish or indeed of Welsh nationalism to the point where independence was threatened, it is possible that a section of the establishment would once again beat the Orange drum. Protestants in Northern Ireland could again be called upon to resist, this time not for the sake of the Empire, but for the sake of the union between England, Scotland and Wales.
A new period of industrial upheaval would also cause sections of the ruling class to drop the notion of neutrality and whip up sectarian division. Divide and rule as a tactic to de-rail the working class movement, has been put on hold, not abandoned. Today the threat of socialism is quite distant. If in the future there are movements along the lines of 1918-20 it is probable that sections of the ruling class will bring it forward again.
Any developments of this character would cast the national question in a new light. Our general programme and our more immediate demands and slogans would have to be reviewed and updated.
Even now new issues are arising which we need to consider. The publication of the Framework Document, for example, poses questions we have to address. One is our attitude to a new Assembly for the North. In the past, while Militant Labour has been prepared to participate in elections to a new local parliament, we have not called for the establishment of such a body.
The reason was that any return to a local administration, smacked in Catholic areas of a return to Unionist domination. Having swept Stormont away there was understandable opposition to anything that might smack of its reestablishment.
Now there is a different situation. The ending of the IRA military campaign and the republican leadership’s abandonment in total of the idea of struggle, means that it is accepted that the ending of partition is not an immediate option. The tactic of boycott or abstention is only valid when there is an alternative which can be put forward. The only alternative to an Assembly is continued direct rule, control colonial-style by government ministers and administration by centrally appointed quangos.
The attitude of Catholics is that provided there is also a North/South element of a new deal, a new Assembly would not be a Stormont. They feel that they would occupy a position of strength within it. Even Sinn Fein are lining up to participate if there is a political agreement to set one up. Given this, it makes little sense to oppose its establishment.
Once the idea of an Assembly begins to see the light of day it will be necessary to back it, but go further, demanding that it be set up on a democratic basis, that it be elected by a system of proportional representation, and that it have a full range of powers including powers to nationalise industry, raise local taxes, etc.
The cross border bodies recommended by the Framework Document are undemocratic by their nature. It is proposed that powers over agreed areas be delegated to a small triumvirate of people drawn from the Northern Assembly and from the Dail. In opposing these bodies we need to be careful to do so in a positive manner. Whereas the Unionists just say no we have to put forward positive alternatives, starting with the need for the working class to link together North and South. We are, for example, in favour of the workers organisations examining the provision of all services and benefits, North and South, and then campaigning to have these “harmonised” upwards on the basis of the best available in either state.
Other issues will also arise from the Framework Document. It is likely that there will at some time be a referendum on the removal of Articles 2 & 3 of the Southern constitution. We can only decide our attitude to this at the time, based on the actual wording proposed. However given the shift in attitudes North and South, and the recognition that any change in the constitutional position must be with the consent of the people in the North, it is inconceivable that we could vote to leave the constitution as it is.
Militant Labour stands out as unique in that we have maintained a consistent class position on the national question. We have refused to bend into either sectarian camp. When we look around us we see that every other left organisation has already had or is about to have a split on this issue. Some conclude from this that the national question inevitably divides socialists. We say no, it is when socialists depart from a class position that they face internal dissent and division. The national question is cruel ground for opportunists of any shade. If a principled socialist position is taken, this issue can not only strengthen a socialist organisation, it can be the source of its firmest unity, its greatest strength.
Troubled Times Chapter 13
Marxism and the national question
The national question is, without doubt, one of the great issues facing socialists and marxists today. Lenin described Tzarist Russia as a prison house of nationalities – 57% of its peoples were non-Russian. He argued that without a correct approach on this issue the Bolsheviks would not have been able to lead the working class to power in 1917.
What Lenin said applies with increasing force to virtually every corner of the globe today. It applies most assuredly to Ireland.
Of course the question was somewhat different in the days of Marx and Engels and even of Lenin. Marx wrote at a time when the capitalist system was still capable of developing the productive forces and taking society forward. A feature, indeed one of the crowning achievements, of capitalism in this, its progressive phase, was the assimilation of peoples into nations and the creation of nation states.
Lenin lived in the epoch of imperialism – that period at the close of the last, and beginning of this, century, which saw the rest of the globe carved into spheres of control and influence of the major powers. The export of capital to the less developed countries meant that their political and military domination was further cemented by an economic enslavement to these mighty capitalist states.
Marx, while faced with the progressive features of capitalism in creating nation states was always sensitive to its other side – the domination and subjugation of countries and of nations by the ascending capitalist states. His writings on Ireland and his conclusion that: “The English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke” (55) is an example. Marx advocated independence for Ireland, adding that:
“after separation there may come federation.” (56)
In a similar vein Lenin opposed all forms of national oppression:
“Whoever does not recognise and champion the equality of nations and languages and does not fight against all national oppression or inequality is not a marxist; he is not even a democrat.” (57)
After 1917 the Bolsheviks used the example of the Russian revolution to inspire as well as give concrete assistance to the national liberation movements in the colonial countries.
Yet Lenin also in his pre-World War 1 writings on the national question repeatedly laid stress on the tendency still of capitalism in the more developed areas of the globe to bring peoples together into nations. He pointed to: “capitalism’s world-historical tendency to break down national barriers, assimilate nations – a tendency which manifests itself more and more powerfully with every passing decade, and is one of the greatest driving forces transforming capitalism into socialism”. (58)
Lenin’s programme on the national question was drawn up for countries like those of Eastern Europe and Asia which could not stand against the economic power of the imperialist states and which were denied the route of historical development which these had taken.
Of the national question in the more developed states, he was able to say:
“In most western countries it was settled long ago” (59) and further, that, by 1871;
“Western Europe had been transformed into a settled system of bourgeois states, which, as a general rule, were nationally uniform states. Therefore to seek the right to self-determination in the programmes of west European socialists at this time of day is to betray one’s ignorance of the ABC of marxism.” (60)
Even at the time this was probably a one-sided view but it is certainly no longer apt. Lenin, who argued the need to analyse the national question within concrete and definite historical limits, would be the first to revise this conclusion for today. Two world wars and now with a second period of prolonged economic depression since Lenin penned these lines, the national question presents itself anew, not only in the ex-colonial world but in the ‘settled states’ of the West. Alongside the economic crisis of capitalism, the historical failure and now outright capitulation of reformism and the absence of any mass revolutionary alternative have laid the conditions in many countries for nationalism to arise or re-arise in some form.
A further twist has been provided by the collapse of Stalinism. From the Balkans, through the Caucuses, to central Asia a torch of national/ethnic and religious conflict has been lit. In some cases this has reached the level of civil war, elsewhere it registers still as smouldering discontent. Nowhere can it be extinguished fully on the basis of the re-imposition of capitalism on these societies.
Broadly the tendency to assimilation of peoples into nations, apparent in the last century, and even then most often by the most brutal methods, has, in the present epoch, been replaced by the opposite tendency – to the accentuation of division, even to separation. The case of German reunification, brought about by unrepeatable circumstances, stands as a single exception.
The nation states which have emerged in the ex-colonial countries, especially in Africa are caricatures of the nation states of western Europe. They are based, not on the natural assimilation of peoples, but on the artificial boundaries imposed by imperialism in the past.
A complex of identities exists in these areas. There is a general feeling, often linked to an anti-imperialist sentiment, of a broader identity – expressed as pan-nationalism, pan-Africanism, a sense of being Latin American or whatever. All attempts to give this an organisational form on the basis of capitalism, for example efforts to merge Arab states, have failed and will always be liable to fail.
There is also a certain sense of ‘national’ identity based on the states which now exist, no matter how artificial their boundaries. Arabs will describe themselves as Arabs but also as Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese or whatever.
Beneath this, and because of the historical weakness and economic impasse of most of these ‘nations’ other identities based on tribe, religion, caste, etc, tend to rise.
In pre-independence days, the struggle to wrest free of the control of imperialism acted as a unifying factor and helped develop a national consciousness in colonial countries such as India and most of Africa. After independence, and with national movements based on capitalism in power, this national consciousness has tended to decline. In other words once these independence movements defined themselves as capitalist governments which could neither break the economic domination of the West nor deliver a secure future, they were no longer able to draw together the peoples of different tribal, ethnic, religious or regional identities. Most often people associated with one ethnic group placed themselves at the top of the heap and by discrimination against others, opened the sores of future conflict.
Only the working class movement, fighting on a state and a regional level for a socialist solution, can cut across the tendency to division. Outside of this national/ ethnic/ tribal conflicts are bound to intensify – at their most extreme leading to wars, mass displacement of peoples and to a situation whereby states may remain on the map but in reality will have ceased to exist as centralised units. In many cases their actual break up will occur.
The conflict in ex-Yugoslavia has given the peoples of Europe a close up of what, for more than four decades, they would probably have viewed as an African or an Asian problem. Already in some European countries – Belgium and Spain for example – there are acute national problems. In others the lines erased by the past assimilation of peoples threaten to reappear. National problems, if they have not yet arisen, have the capacity to arise in all the once more ‘settled’ nation states of the advanced capitalist world.
It would be wrong to have an apocalyptic view. The development of nationalism is never in a straight line. Rather it progresses or falls back in a series of ebbs and flows which most often are opposite reflections of the advances and retreats of the class struggle.
A new movement of the working class in Europe could, for example, erode the basis of nationalism and likewise could deal a blow against racism for a whole period.
Nonetheless, it remains the case that the national question is with us today in a new, more virulent, more complex form than that faced by the world workers’ movement at the time of the Russian revolution. It is a problem which will only be solved – and even then not without difficulty – by the overthrow of capitalism, and the building of socialism worldwide.
55 Lenin The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Publishers, 1979 Edition, p51
56 Ibid. p48
57 Lenin Critical Remarks on the National Question, Progress Publishers 1976 Edition, p17
58 Ibid. p16
59 Lenin The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Publishers, 1979 Edition, p17
60 Ibid. p17
Troubled Times Chapter 14
Finding a solution
The historical epoch may be different, the problem may present itself differently, but still the approach taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks remains thoroughly modern, thoroughly illuminating today.
That is not to say that a ready made programme tailored to all situations can be found in the writings of Lenin or any marxist. No such programme exists and those who search for it will search in vain.
Demands on the national question must be related to actual circumstances and to the consciousness of various layers, particularly of the working class. And as neither conditions nor consciousness are fixed or static but are constantly changing, so demands need to be re-evaluated, fine-tuned and altered. What was correct twenty five years ago at the dawn of the Northern Ireland Troubles may no longer be appropriate in the changed situation brought about by twenty five years of sectarian violence.
What we take from Lenin and from marxism generally, is a method of approach and analysis which, if skilfully applied, can help unlock the complexities of the national question today.
If Lenin stressed one point on this subject it was the need to be concrete, to view things as they have arisen, as they are and as they are developing. His advice – to avoid supra-historical dogma and abstraction, but deal with actual historical circumstances – remains valid whether we are dealing with Ireland on any other country.
“The categorical requirement of marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definite historical limits and, if it refers to a particular country (e.g. the national programme for a given country) that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.” (61)
Our approach is as internationalists, never as nationalists. The development of the nation state and of modern nations has been a product of capitalism and has helped take society forward in the past. But modern productive techniques have far outstripped the limitations of national boundaries. Even the regional markets which the capitalists are attempting to create in their various spheres of influence – Europe, North America and the Far East – are not large enough to satisfy the productive appetites of the huge modern corporations. The financial markets have become globalised with billions of dollars daily switching from country to country, continent to continent, at the push of computer buttons.
The nation state is an outmoded anachronism from the point of view of production, of finance, and of a harmonious development which can protect the climate, environment and eco-system of the world. It is not for sentimental but for entirely practical reasons that we are for a world plan of production to replace the anarchy of capitalism; that is of production based on private property and the nation state.
The starting point of our programme is the need for the unity of the working class of all races, creeds, tribes and nations, both within the boundaries of existing states and on an international level. We reject the reactionary ‘one nation’ philosophy espoused by Disraeli in the last century and regurgitated by modern Tories and increasingly by right wing leaders of the British Labour Party.
Within every capitalist nation there are two distinct groups – the ruling class and their acolytes on the one side and the working class on the other, with various other strata in between. In items of mutual interest, life-style and even of broad culture, especially in the modern electronic age, the working class of one country have far more in common with workers of other countries than with their own rulers.
Bourgeois nationalism sets out to disguise this fact stressing that we are all French, English, German, etc, whether we live in a dilapidated terrace or a mansion, whether we travel by bus or private helicopter, whether we are idle and penniless on the dole, or idle and cossetted by wealth, living off shares and investments. To this national solidarity of oppressor and oppressed, marxism counterposes the international solidarity of all the oppressed against all oppression.
For the most advanced sections of the working class such a straightforward appeal to class solidarity and internationalism may be enough. But where a national issue has arisen perhaps in the form of opposition to national oppression, for the majority of people, workers included, it will be necessary to go beyond this.
There will be a need to show that socialists stand opposed to all national oppression and are the firmest advocates of the rights of nationalities and indeed of all minorities within a state. The experience of Stalinism, which, while it failed in every area, failed particularly visibly on the national question only reinforces this.
Hence the need for a programme of democratic demands; against oppression, against the suppression of language, literature and other aspects of the culture of a nation, and including the right to self-determination i.e. the right of a national minority within a state to secede from that state and establish itself as an independent nation.
While nationalism itself is ultimately divisive it has two quite distinct aspects which cannot be lumped together. The nationalism of a fascist demanding a new Reich is not the same as the nationalism of a Palestinian in a refugee camp striving for a homeland for his or her people.
The former is entirely reactionary, while the latter represents an elementary yearning for freedom and for a better life. One is a brake on history while the other, in the form of mass national liberation movements has been one of the greatest engines of historical change in this century.
The difference is not just between various manifestations of nationalism but also within national liberation movements themselves. Within every national movement there are different and ultimately conflicting class elements.
On the one side is the nationalism of the emerging ruling strata or elite. They want to establish their nation so that they can ape the rulers of other capitalist nations, and enjoy the same fruits of exploitation as they do.
On the other side is the nationalism of the oppressed who want to break free of domination in order to better their lot. Ultimately there is the same difference between these two aspects of nationalism as there is between the rulers and the ruled in states like Britain, Germany etc.
A marxist programme supports all that is progressive in national movements but offers no measure of support to their backward features.
Essentially, this is a negative programme. We are against the suppression of culture, language, nationality. But we do not promote any particular culture, language or nationality over any other. We opposed the banning of the Irish tricolour by the Unionist state in Northern Ireland as a denial of the national rights of those Catholics who identified with it. Militant opposed the ban but we ourselves did not, and now that it is lifted, do not carry that flag or promote it over any other national emblem.
The aim of this largely negative programme is to say to those who look to nationalism as a solution that it is the working class who are the only real guarantors of their national and democratic rights as well as their economic liberation. Its intent is not to promote nationalism, but to open up class divisions in national movements, to develop class unity and to promote the class struggle.
The best way to assess whether a demand or a set of demands is correct, is to pose the simple question – does it make it easier to gain the ear of nationalist minded workers, does it advance the class struggle?
This was the approach of Lenin:
“The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle”. (62)
“While recognising equality and equal rights to a nation state, it (the working class) values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletariat of all nations, and assesses every national demand, every national separation from the angle of the working class struggle”. (63)
It is with this proviso that Lenin advanced and defended the right of nations to self-determination as a key element of the Bolshevik programme and later of the programme of the Third International.
Right to self-determination
The right to self-determination means basically the right to secede from a state. Marxists do not apply this right to each and every minority but to historically evolved communities, who have a distinct sense of national identity and who have or could have the territorial basis to realise themselves as a nation.
The issue of whether or not such a state would be economically viable is a red herring. No small state is independently fully viable in this age of multinational corporations and global finance. If this were to prevent us from guaranteeing the right of self determination it would cut us off from subject nationalities discussing secession.
To uphold the right to secede is not necessarily to advocate secession – at least that is to national minorities within a state. In relation to colonies or territories occupied by foreign armies it is a different matter. Under such circumstances marxists stand unequivocally for independence and for the withdrawal of imperialist troops. So Marx stood for Irish independence. So Trotsky demanded of the Republican government during the Spanish civil war that it issue a decree guaranteeing Morocco its independence. So Militant supported the Vietnamese in their long war against French and then US imperialism.
Where it is a question of a national minority within the boundaries of an existing centralised state, Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Sardinians in relation to Italy, the future of the Scottish and Welsh nations in Britain, the question is not so straightforward.
Here Marxists hesitate before becoming proponents of independence and have a responsibility to point to the pitfalls of this course. This is especially so of marxists based among the subject nationality. While dealing sympathetically with the national aspirations of that people they need to counter illusions that capitalist independence will be an answer to their problems. Above all they need to point to the dangers of such unity as exists between the working class of that state being broken.
Even the idea that the national problem would be solved by secession is most often also an illusion. It is more likely that such a ‘solution’ of one problem would only lead to the creation of others.
Yugoslavia has given a living, if extreme example. The hiving off of Slovenia and then Croatia upset the delicate balance of nationalities in what remained of the old state and helped precipitate civil war. Slovenia was fortunate to have a relatively homogenous population. Croatia had within it a substantial Serbian minority and its independence created in turn the problem of a new minority seeking to escape the clutches of the new majority in Zagreb.
In the ex-Stalinist world there are more Croatias than Slovenias. Likewise in the countries of the colonial world, the past crimes of imperialism have left a potentially explosive patchwork of tribal, religious and national minorities and sub-minorities.
And in the advanced countries the question is not so different. Were Belgium to divide between the French speaking Walloons and the Flemish, it would be a matter of time before new tensions would arise in the new states. Among the four Basque provinces in Spain there is a substantial Spanish minority who actually are a majority in one province – Navarra. There are certain similarities, but also differences, between this situation and Northern Ireland where the Protestants have proven a hopelessly complicating factor to those who seek neat and easy solutions. Does this mean that in every case Marxists uphold the right to secede but in practice would argue against? The answer is no. Whatever position that would be taken would depend on the actual situation, on class relations within the state and on the perspectives both for the development of national sentiment, and for the class struggle.
The key is the effect this stance would have on the class struggle and the unity of the working class. In a case where the desire for separation had clearly achieved a majority among the working class, where this had been shown to be both deep seated and enduring and where the likely prospect was of its increasing, we would have to consider going further than the right to secede and demand independence. This would be more than a programmatic question. We would have to advocate, and where possible conduct, a struggle in both parts of the existing state to achieve independence, posing at the same time the idea of a socialist federation.
If the working class movement in such a case did not support independence it would risk losing the most combatative sections of the working class to whatever radical nationalist forces might emerge. The nationalists would point a finger at the working class of the dominant nation accusing them of chauvinism.
The problem in Israel/ Palestine has elements of a colonial situation but also of that of a national minority within a state. Here there can be no doubting the deeply felt and enduring desire, cultivated by decades of oppression, of the Palestinian masses for their own state.
In order to gain a hearing for socialist ideas among the Palestinians it is necessary for marxists, not just to support the call for a state, but to put forward a programme of struggle to achieve it. Anything less and we would not be taken seriously.
The best answer is to advocate two socialist states, one for the Palestinians, one for the Israelis. This means a redrawing of existing boundaries since a viable Palestinian state could not just be based on the occupied territories, but would also have to include those Palestinian areas of Israel where a majority would opt to join it.
The alternative of a single socialist state for Israelis and Palestinians would seem fanciful to both sides and would seem to Palestinians to fall short of their aspiration for a land of their own. The division between Israelis and Palestinians is far deeper, far more fixed than that between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In formulating a programme there is no alternative but to accept the reality of this division and put forward the idea of two socialist states, of Jerusalem as an open city and the capital of both, and of a socialist federation of the entire region, as the only plausible answer.
On the other hand where the demand for separation is not at such a level, where the working class remains torn between the conflicting pressures of nationalism drawing it apart and of class bonding them together, it would be foolish to advocate secession. In such a case to do so would be to stand on the nationalist side of the working class and would serve to reinforce nationalism.
Despite an undoubted rise in nationalist sentiment this is still the situation in Scotland. The unity of Scottish with English and Welsh workers and the existence of Scottish Militant Labour as an emerging force potentially capable of playing a significant role in limiting the growth of the SNP, are not unimportant factors.
Nonetheless it is also necessary to recognise the strength of nationalist feeling in Scotland and its potential to grow rapidly on the basis of disillusionment with a Labour government in Britain. At this stage we answer this with the demand for extensive autonomy in the form of a Scottish Assembly with wide ranging powers. If there is a further development of Scottish nationalism which is likely to be sustained, it is possible that we may have to go further and support independence, arguing for a socialist Scotland as part of a socialist federation of Scotland, England and Wales.
When it comes to autonomy it is not the right to autonomy but autonomy itself that we uphold. Autonomy means the devolution of powers to be administered on a local basis.
What powers would be devolved would depend on the actual situation and on what was demanded. It could mean that only defence, foreign affairs, and some aspects of the economy would be conducted at the centre. Control over health, education, housing and other services could be devolved. Policing could be under local control as could environmental regulation, transport and taxation. Autonomous powers could include the right to take control of industry and land and to enforce legislation on working conditions and health and safety. Local control over the legal system would mean that a devolved parliament could scrap the Tory anti-trade union laws, substituting legislation which protects the rights of workers.
Existing centralised capitalist states will resist such extensive powers of autonomy. For us it is a question of setting out clearly the powers we seek and conducting a struggle to achieve them.
Where today there is a genuine support for autonomy we would give support to that demand – provided it was territorially based and could be realised. It is ludicrous and also potentially divisive to argue that all minorities, even those scattered across a state, should be given autonomy if they desire. Autonomy needs to be based. on a region or a national territory if it is to make practical sense. It could be applied to Scotland but not, for example, to the Scottish people living in London.
This is not to say that we ignore or take lightly the rights of minorities scattered across the territory of a dominant culture or nationality. We oppose all discrimination and also uphold the rights of minorities to have their language, culture and customs respected, especially when it comes to the education system. But where there is not the territorial possibility of realising it, we stop short of the demand for autonomy.
A state made up of territories, each enjoying varying degrees of autonomy, is not the same thing as a federation. In the case of autonomy a centralised state will agree to cede various, formerly central, powers to local control.
A federation can only come about differently. It presupposes the existence of independent states which have agreed to combine in certain areas for their mutual benefit. In the first case powers are devolved from the centre, in the second they are transferred from different states by agreement, to a new federal centre. Implicit in this is the right of each member state to cede from a federation should it wish.
So, while we talk of the right to autonomy and to selfdetermination, that is the right to be free of suffocating central decision making, or of national oppression, it makes no sense to talk of the right to federate. It is the difference between the right to divorce and the right to marry. One must be upheld as the right of either party, while the other can only come about by mutual consent.
Capitalist society cannot guarantee the equality of treatment of nationalities or other minorities, the respect of all cultures, languages, etc, which we demand. Nor can it provide the real measure of freedom from overcentralised decision making intended in the call for autonomy and the right to secede.
Those capitalist states which call themselves federations, the United States or Germany for example, are in reality no such thing. They are centralised states which exercise only a degree of autonomy to their component parts, but which, in practice, deny the right to secede.
Only within a socialist society could all these freedoms be truly applied. Socialism would mean that the contradiction between centralised and local power would be broken down. There would be the maximum devolution of powers to local control.
Decisions which had to be taken at a central level would not be taken in contradiction or opposition to local democratic bodies, but would be taken as a culmination of discussion on these bodies and then would be referred back to them for implementation. Such genuine participatory democracy is not possible under the capitalist system, which drains the energies of the working class in the workplace. A drastic cut in the working week would give the working class the key ingredient of time to allow it, for the first time, to take part in the planning and running of society.
A socialist federation means a federation in the true sense, achieved through negotiation and agreement and with no element of compulsion. When we put forward our slogan of a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland, we add the rider on a free and voluntary basis’. We need to do so because of Ireland’s long history of domination by England and because the concept of a federation has been debased both by the USSR and by those capitalist states who misuse the term.
Strictly speaking the rider is not necessary. The clarification is in the term ‘socialist federation’ itself. Such a federation can only be on a free and voluntary basis, otherwise it is not a socialist federation.
The method of Lenin on the national question has nothing in common with that of Stalin, whose role was as the brutal suppresser of national rights and culture, even of whole nationalities. Similarly, socialism is not the same as the bureaucratic, dictatorial caricature which existed in Russia and Eastern Europe. That offered no appeal, no model to which the working class in Ireland could look.
Neither capitalism, nor the now crumbled failure of Stalinism, offer any solution to the national problem. But the idea of building a genuine socialist society – that is a very different thing. Socialism means taking the major industry and all key services into public ownership and running them democratically with need replacing profit as the motive. It means no privileged elite, only the right of people themselves to manage their own affairs. It means creating an international brotherhood and sisterhood, a unity based on respect of difference and in which all national and minority rights would be guaranteed.
It is the unity of the working class, built in the struggle for such a society, which will solve the national problem in Ireland.
61 Lenin The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Progress Publishers, 1979 Edition, p12
62 Ibid. p21
63 Ibid. p23