Troubled Times republished – a Marxist guide to the national question

As the centenary of partition sparks heightened discussion on the future of the Northern Ireland state, Herald Books – the publishing house of the Socialist Party – has republished Troubled Times as a vital guide for those engaged in the struggle for socialism today.

“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.”

Peter Hadden, Troubled Times

First published in 1995, Troubled Times provides a unique, socialist analysis of the national question in Ireland and its historical evolution – from the pre-conquest period, through the partition of the island and the onset of the Troubles, to the beginnings of the ‘peace process’.

In Troubled Times, Peter Hadden points to the often-ignored role of class struggle in Irish history, and its demonstrated ability to challenge sectarian division by bringing workers and the oppressed together around their common interests.

The book provides an explanation of the Marxist approach to the complex question of national rights and how it should be concretely applied, particularly in Ireland.

As the centenary of partition sparks heightened discussion on the future of the Northern Ireland state, Herald Books – the publishing house of the Socialist Party – has republished Troubled Times as a vital guide for those engaged in the struggle for socialism today.

Purchase your copy here

Below, in a new introduction, Daniel Waldron explains why the ideas contained in Troubled Times are more relevant than ever.

3rd May 2021 marks the centenary of the formal establishment of the Northern Ireland state, part of the process of partition of the island flowing from the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This landmark will see significant debate on the events of a century ago, which remain hotly contested. These debates, however, will not simply be about the past, but also about the present and the future. It’s in this context that the Socialist Party has republished ​Troubled Times b​y Peter Hadden, which – alongside other works, such as ​Divide & Rule​ and ​Common History, Common Struggle​ – represents an important contribution to a Marxist understanding of the national question in Ireland. 

Unionist commentators will frame partition and the creation of the Northern state as the natural outworking of the separate identity and aspirations of the Protestant majority in the north-east of Ireland, with the British establishment essentially balancing between this and the demand from nationalists for independence. Conversely, nationalists will say that partition was a completely artificial arrangement, through which the British rulers aimed to maintain dominance over their oldest colony while making limited concessions, forced upon them primarily by the IRA’s guerrilla campaign. 

Both narratives contain grains of truth ​- partition was an artificial arrangement arrived at by British imperialism in its own interests, but there was also genuine opposition to separation from Britain within the Ulster Protestant population, who feared Catholic domination and an adverse economic impact. ​Both narratives, however, are also simplistic and one-sided, reflecting the interests and outlooks of their respective sources. 

Ireland’s third tradition – the labour movement 

Crucially, both narratives ignore the question of class struggle or see it as little more than background noise. One of the defining features of the period pre-partition was the dramatic explosion of the labour movement, which had the potential to unite the working class – north and south, Catholic and Protestant – in a revolutionary struggle against capitalism and imperialism. The working-class movement – independent of Unionism and nationalism – remains the only force which can bring about a genuine and democratic resolution to the national question in Ireland today. 

In the first section of ​Troubled Times -​ and more comprehensively in ​Divide and Rule​, also recently republished by the Socialist Party – Peter Hadden argues that partition was a conscious tactic adopted by British imperialism, aimed primarily at breaking the developing unity of the working class, which had revolutionary potential. It did so by dividing the country and overseeing the creation of two backward, repressive and sectarian states, ​while securing its own economic and strategic interests in both. 

It was the organised working class, armed with socialist ideas, which posed the greatest threat to the interests of British capitalism in this period, not just in Ireland but at home as well. Learning the lessons of the revolutionary period in Ireland from 1916 to 1923 – drawing inspiration from the heroic struggles of the working class, but also understanding the catastrophic failures of the labour leadership – is crucial for those seeking to fight for socialist change today.

Capitalist crisis sharpens national conflict 

The debate around the centenary of partition takes place in the context of a new economic slump, likely to be the sharpest since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although not its underlying cause, this crisis has been triggered and deepened by the Covid pandemic which has swept the globe and disrupted normal life in a way not experienced in living memory. ​The crisis has forced even right-wing capitalist governments and commentators to question and break from the norms of neoliberal economics – free markets with little state intervention, privatisation, austerity, ever-advancing globalisation – which have dominated for decades, in order to shore up the system itself. This does not at all mean, however, that the capitalist system can overcome its inherent contradictions or that attacks on the working class will cease.

The impact of this crisis has, of course, been profoundly unequal. While hundreds of millions internationally have lost jobs and been plunged (further) into poverty, the billionaires increased their wealth by 27% in a matter of months. The working class and poor have also disproportionately suffered infection and deaths from the virus. Women and young workers have been doubly impacted. There is much confusion – including the rise of anti-scientific conspiracy theories – but the crisis has laid bare for many the sharp class divide in capitalist society, the inefficiency of the profit-driven system, and the reality of whose interests capitalist governments serve. It has also highlighted the essential role which workers play in allowing society to function. 

Crises of this character will create united struggles of the working class against poverty, inequality and exploitation, but they can also sharpen the national question – ie, struggles around national rights, including the right to statehood. This can reflect increased competition between capitalist powers for markets and influence – a growth of pro-capitalist, bourgeois nationalism – but can also be an expression of ordinary people searching for solutions to the day-to-day problems they face. National questions which had lain dormant for a whole period are again exploding into conflict – between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and in Ethiopia, for example. 

Concrete approach needed

As Peter Hadden explains in section three of ​Troubled Times,​ Marxists cannot simply ignore these questions or wish them away by reference to the class struggle. The role of Marxists, instead, is to put forward a programme which can separate out the desire of the working class and poor for an end to oppression from the ‘national’ capitalists’ desire to become the prime exploiters of ‘their’ working class. Marxists link the struggle for national and democratic rights with the question of socialist change at home and globally, with the maximum unity of the working class within and across borders.

Similarly, Peter Hadden explains that the Marxist approach to the national question must be concretely applied to each situation and must take account of changes over time. It cannot be static. For example, when ​Troubled Times​ was first published in 1995, the Socialist Party’s forerunners supported the right to Scottish self-determination, but did not advocate separation. Instead, they argued for maximum devolution of powers to an autonomous Scottish authority. However, Peter Hadden pointed to the potential need to revise this position at a later point, if support for independence became deeply ingrained and connected to broader issues in the working class.

Recent polls show majority support for independence in Scotland, which is highest among the working class and the youth. The rise in support for independence among the working class is a product of the Labour Party’s dramatic shift to the right since the 1980s – a shift partially and temporarily checked under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – and the experience of the last decade of Tory rule from Westminster, as well as Brexit, which has seen Scotland taken out of the EU against the will of the majority of its population. 

This desire for independence among Scottish workers and young people primarily reflects an aspiration for an end to austerity, to poverty, and the hope for a better future generally. In this context, Marxists should support independence – as we did in the 2014 referendum on the issue – but also explain that it will not deliver fundamental change for the working class unless it is linked to a socialist transformation of society, both in Scotland and further afield, and therefore the need for unity in struggle with the working class internationally. Today, the Socialist Party’s co-thinkers in Scotland, Socialist Alternative, call for an independent socialist Scotland, as part of a voluntary and equal socialist federation with England, Wales and Ireland, and a wider socialist confederation of Europe. 

In Wales, polls indicate that support for independence is growing, and is perhaps highest among the youth and some sections of the working class, although it remains a minority view. Socialists should study and analyse this process, and develop a corresponding programme which connects with the aspirations of workers and youth and raises their political understanding. That does not mean simply applying the same slogans and demands as in Scotland, for example. There is no one-size-fits-all approach which can be automatically transposed from one situation to another. Instead, it is necessary to look at the concrete conditions which lie behind the rising support for independence, as well as its depth and character. 

A new turning point? 

Troubled Times​ was first published in 1995, following the paramilitary ceasefires. The period of sharp conflict known as the Troubles was drawing to a close and the so-called ‘peace process’ was beginning. This was a historic turning point in Northern Ireland. The centenary of partition takes place against the backdrop of what may prove to be a new historic turning point, with increased discussion on the future of the Northern Ireland state itself and, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the peace process as it has existed. This new phase will pose complex problems for socialists and the workers’ movement, as well as opportunities. The Socialist Party is optimistic about the future and believes that a united movement of the working class and youth can be built to challenge sectarian division and capitalism itself, and to find a socialist solution to the national question in Ireland. However, we also must warn of the dangers which face the working class if such a movement is not built. The ideas contained in ​Troubled Times​ can serve as a vital tool in successfully grappling with the challenges ahead.

When the Northern Ireland state was formed, Catholics made up roughly a third of the population. The imprisonment of this minority within the borders of the new state assisted the Unionist establishment in cementing their rule on the basis of sectarianism, and smoothing over class division by reference to the ‘threat’ posed by nationalism. Today, however, the picture is very different. The Catholic community has been growing relative to the Protestant community for decades, due to higher birth rates and lower rates of emigration. The 2011 census found for the first time that those who identified as being from a Protestant background no longer made up an overall majority. The 2021 census may find that the Catholic community has become the larger of the two.

This demographic shift, combined with other important political developments, ​is bringing the question of a ‘border poll’ increasingly to the fore. ​Contained within the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement), which created the power-sharing institutions at Stormont, is the provision that the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland shall call a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him ​(sic)​ that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.” This would most likely take the form of a simple binary choice, with a similar referendum being held in the South. The increased focus on such a poll can polarise society along sectarian lines, with destabilising and explosive potential, while ultimately offering no solution. 

Sinn Féin embraces the establishment 

The ‘peace process’ was born out of a war-weariness in both communities, which developed into angry opposition to an intractable conflict which, after decades, continued to take a heavy toll. It also reflected a change of thinking which had been developing within the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin – a gradual and reluctant acceptance that the ‘long war’ would not force British withdrawal from the North. Alongside this came a realisation that the real opposition to Irish reunification was no longer from the British establishment, but from the Protestant community in the North. Unable to achieve their goals through military struggle, the leadership under Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness decided to continue their battle through other means, still sectarian in their basis – “coercion by ballot rather than coercion by bullet”, as Peter Hadden notes. This change in outlook led Sinn Féin to gradually abandon many republican principles previously considered sacrosanct. The IRA decommissioned many of its weapons. Sinn Féin has given its support to the RUC’s successor, the PSNI, despite limited reform. The British government is now no longer seen as the mortal enemy but a potential “persuader for Irish unity” – ie, persuader of the Protestants – alongside US imperialism.

As part of the Northern Ireland Executive, Sinn Féin has embraced and implemented a neoliberal agenda of cuts and privatisation, even giving the Tories the power to implement their draconian welfare ‘reform’ package in exchange for the power to cut corporation tax! In the South, however, it has posed as a left, anti-austerity force since the Great Recession. This strategy saw it win the most votes of any party in the 2020 general election and become the largest opposition bloc, in the context of a popular sentiment of rejection of the main establishment parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This is pragmatic and superficial posturing, however,​ reflected in the party’s acceptance of the EU’s neoliberal fiscal rules and its defence of the South’s low corporation tax regime. 

The party’s aim is to get into government on both sides of the border, in order to push its agenda of unity within the framework of capitalism, and it is open to coalition with the right-wing establishment parties in the South. In attempting to prove itself a safe pair of hands for Irish capitalism, Sinn Féin has occasionally exposed itself – for example, refusing to fully support the boycott campaign which defeated the water charges in the South, a campaign in which the Socialist Party was to the fore, which was registered by many activists.

Peace process’ fails to overcome division 

Decades on from the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires, the two communities in Northern Ireland remain deeply divided – in terms of where people live, the schools they attend, their national identity and aspirations. That is, of course, not to say that society is unchanged. Bombings and shootings, atrocities carried out by paramilitaries and state forces are no longer a daily occurrence. Those who do thirst for a return for conflict – ‘dissident’ republicans and hardline loyalists – have little support and are, for now, isolated on the margins, although they do continue to exercise control through threat of violence in some of the most deprived working-class communities. Thus, for most, daily life is more relaxed and there is a sense that Northern Ireland today more closely approximates a ‘normal’ society, at least on the surface, although the past conflict continues to scar working-class communities in the form of a pronounced mental health crisis and some of the worst levels of poverty in the UK.

The ‘peace process’ – with all its twists and turns, crises and ‘new dawns’ over the last quarter of a century – has brought together sectarian forces at the top in an uneasy and unstable agreement to disagree. The implementation of pro-capitalist neoliberal policies is one of the few areas upon which there has been genuine consensus. 

On many levels, rather than breaking down sectarian division, the ‘peace process’ has actually tended to institutionalise and deepen it, the tug-of-war between the Unionist and nationalist politicians in Stormont shaping and, in turn, being shaped by polarisation in society more broadly. One reflection of this process has been the eclipsing of the UUP and SDLP by their more hardline counterparts, the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively, as voters opt for the ‘strongest’ representatives of ‘their’ community. The number of so-called ‘peace walls’ – physical barriers between working-class communities – has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement. 

Nationalist forces sold the Good Friday Agreement as a staging post on the way to a united Ireland, while Unionists argued that it secured the connection with Britain through recognition that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status could not be changed without the consent of the majority of its population. For a long time, the issue of the border itself was pushed into the background, with other proxy issues emerging as the focal points of sectarian division – at different times, Orange parades, language rights, flags and emblems, truth and justice for victims of the Troubles, and so on. None of these questions have been resolved and nor can they be resolved while politics remains dominated by forces which base themselves upon sectarian division. Instead, when these issues assert themselves, they are eventually side-stepped through new ‘agreements’ which are creatively ambiguous.

If the question of the border itself becomes the central and immediate focus of sectarian wrangling, however, there will be no room for creative ambiguity, for ‘kicking the can down the road’ or agreement to disagree between the Unionist and nationalist forces. This gets to the heart of their political outlooks, their ​raisons d’être. I​t can destabilise the institutions created by the Good Friday Agreement as never before, and ramp up sectarian tensions in society. 

Conflicting aspirations 

The vast majority of Catholics in the Northern state have always aspired towards the reunification of Ireland, at least in the long term. This reflects a deeply held sense of identity, as well as the experience of decades of sectarian discrimination in terms of jobs, housing and rights under the old Unionist administration, and often brutal repression from the British state during the Troubles. The institutional discrimination of the past is now largely abolished, although its legacy remains; state repression is no longer a daily reality for most; nationalists now exercise significant political influence in the Northern state; but none of this has fundamentally changed the outlook of the Catholic community. The desire for reunification remains, and it is a legitimate desire. The demographic shift previously described means that unity seems to many no longer a distant dream, but a real possibility in the short to medium term. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said that a united Ireland will be achieved in this decade. Pronouncements of this kind from Sinn Féin are nothing new but, in the current context, this will be seen as more than empty rhetoric. 

The desire for a united Ireland among Catholics has been given a greater sense of urgency by events originating elsewhere. The European Union is a capitalist institution with a history of human rights abuses – most notably, its complicity in the drowning of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean through its Fortress Europe policies. However, it has been regarded by many Catholics as a guarantor of the peace process and their rights. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, Catholics voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, as did an overall majority in Northern Ireland, although it is important to note that a majority of Protestants voted to leave the EU. Although the nightmare scenario of the reimposition of a ‘hard border’ in Ireland has been avoided for now, being dragged out of the EU against their will has angered many Catholics, and heightened anxiety about their future within the UK, particularly given the Tories’ dominance at Westminster over the last decade. The rise in support for Scottish independence and growing demands for a second referendum there have added to confidence that it is possible to break free from Westminster. 

While there is a growing confidence in the Catholic community that their national aspirations can be met in the medium term, this is mirrored by a growing sense of isolation and insecurity in the Protestant community, and a feeling that they are being inched ever closer to the precipice of a united Ireland. This is deepened by the potential for Scotland to leave the Union, as well as the Tory Brexit deal which has created a regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Protestant opposition to reunification is today primarily rooted in the fear of losing their identity and becoming a new and discriminated against minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic state. These fears were only compounded by the experience of the Provisional IRA campaign, which for Protestants was an attempt to bomb and shoot them into a united Ireland against their will, and created a perception of how they might be treated in that state. These feelings are as legitimate as those of the Catholic community. Those on the left who dismiss the potential for Protestants to become an oppressed minority in a capitalist united Ireland display an unwarranted faith in the Southern ruling class who – like any capitalist establishment – will exploit divisions in society to distract from the failings of their system, particularly in periods of crisis. 

It is undoubtedly the case that the Southern state is not the same as that of the 1930s, for example. The Celtic Tiger boom begun in the 1990s has led to a generalised rise in living standards, which are now broadly higher than in the North – although the lack of a National Health Service or equivalent is something to which Unionist politicians will often point, and is essentially the only ‘plus’ of the Union which gains an echo among some Catholics. Catholic Church dominance over Southern society has been ​drastically undermined​ by pressure from below, most recently in the repeal of the anti-choice Eighth Amendment, although the Church remains influential in the provision of health and education. None of these changes, however, have made a marked impact on Protestant opposition to a united Ireland. Indeed, the electoral rise of Sinn Féin – the party associated with the IRA campaign – in the South and the potential for a united Ireland to be dominated by the ‘old enemy’ only deepens the opposition of many. 

Border poll offers no solution 

In this context of divided and antagonistic national aspirations, a border poll would polarise society and be little more than a sectarian headcount, with people overwhelmingly lining up into two camps based primarily on their community background. For example, on either side of Alliance Avenue in north Belfast, people who are geographically neighbours and who share the same class interests would certainly vote overwhelmingly in different directions – Ardoyne voting in favour of a united Ireland while Glenbryn votes to remain in the Union. The same would be seen at every sectarian interface. 

A border poll does not point towards a simple and ‘democratic’ solution to the national question, but towards increased sectarian division and the real prospect of a return to conflict. This is not to say that the moment a border poll is called the North will immediately be plunged back into the Troubles of the past. But it will make the question of the border a key focal point in society and can create a dynamic which – if not countered over a period of time – can have catastrophic conclusions. 

If a border poll was to see a majority vote to remain in the UK, it would solve nothing. A large majority of Catholics – particularly young Catholics – would not abandon their aspirations for reunification. Instead, eyes would be immediately set on a future border poll, which could be called after no less than seven years under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The question of the border would become a permanent and polarising feature of political life, with Unionist and nationalist politicians beating their sectarian drums all the louder. The power-sharing institutions at Stormont – already wracked by division – may not long survive in these conditions, and a return to ​de facto​ direct rule from Westminster would only make matters worse.

Up until recently, Unionist politicians – at least while in office – have largely sought to ignore the elephant in the room, the shifting demographics within the Northern state, and have generally simply dismissed the potential for a border poll to deliver a vote for reunification, expressing false confidence in the security of the Union. If, however, it seemed likely that this may actually come to pass, Unionists may call for the boycott of such a poll. This would be a break from the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, which the DUP – now the dominant Unionist party – opposed at its inception. However, it would echo the position of nationalists in boycotting the 1973 border poll, who recognised they were a minority but rejected the right of the Protestant majority to lock them into the Northern state against their will.

Threat of conflict 

Any attempt to reunify Ireland against the overwhelming will of Northern Protestants would be resisted tooth-and-nail by a majority of that community. Those who dismiss this idea need only be reminded of the response to Belfast City Council’s decision to stop permanently flying the Union flag from City Hall in 2012, which led to months of protests and riots across the North. True, only a small minority from the most deprived and alienated working-class communities took part in these events, but they continued to have the sympathies of a majority of Protestants after months of disruption. ​At the time of writing, the dawning impact of the regulatory border between Britain and the North has provoked an angry reaction from Unionism and is opposed by a majority of Protestants, who fear they are being pushed into an ‘economic united Ireland’. There have been threats of violence against port workers. Loyalist representatives have stated that they would be prepared to “fight physically to maintain their freedoms within the United Kingdom”, and have publicly withdrawn their support from the Good Friday Agreement. Based on these experiences, it is possible to imagine how the threat of the end of the Union would be greeted. 

Security forces estimate that the UDA and UVF today have a combined membership of around 12,500. More than ever, they are little more than criminal gangs and are held in disdain by the vast majority of Protestants. However, they continue to recruit alienated young people from working-class communities and could mushroom in the context of a threatened united Ireland. Mass protests could develop, similar to those against the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which proposed a consultative role for the Dublin government in the running of Northern Ireland. New organisations could also emerge to engage in civil disobedience and physical resistance, along the lines of the Ulster Vanguard movement of the 1970s. Splits in the state forces on this question also could not be ruled out. 

This would inevitably be mirrored by developments in the Catholic community and threaten a conflict which could see the repartition of the North on the basis of a bitter and bloody conflict. The ruling class – in Britain, the South and internationally – would seek to intervene politically and probably militarily to stabilise the situation. They could attempt to formulate new ‘transitional’ structures to hold things in check, but these would not represent a lasting solution. As long as the choice remains one between different crisis-ridden, repressive and capitalist states, the national question will be intractable and conflict will be inherent in the situation.

The above is the worst case scenario and is not inevitable. To many readers, it may even seem far-fetched from today’s vantage point of relative stability and peace. It should be remembered, however, that the 1960s in Northern Ireland – as Peter Hadden illustrates – saw a tendency towards integration, class struggle and class unity, and a shift to the left in both communities with a rise in support for socialist ideas. The IRA and loyalist gangs were largely seen as things of the past. The raw material existed to build a movement which could have swept away sectarian division and the capitalist system in which it is rooted. Yet, due to the failures of the labour and trade union leaderships to seize this opportunity, the decade ended with the advent of the Troubles, which would see over 3,500 lives lost during 25 years of bloody conflict.

Left forces adopt one-sided approach

Unfortunately, many on the left either refuse to recognise these dangers or fail to draw the necessary conclusions. For example, the position taken by Paul Murphy TD – former member of the Socialist Party, now a leading member of RISE, which has become part of People Before Profit – is disappointing. In an article for RISE’s journal, ​Rupture,​ he recognises that a border poll could be a “turning point for a descent into sectarian violence and clashes”, and even acknowledges “t​he potential for a violent backlash in opposition to the reunification of Ireland by a section of the Protestant population … possibly spilling over into civil war​”. He also recognises that unity achieved on the basis of such a poll “may simply change the dynamic of oppression, with Protestants feeling coerced into a state they do not identify with”. Nevertheless, he argues that socialists “should support the holding of a border poll both as a democratic right and a mechanism for Catholics to end their national oppression” and call for a vote “in favour of re-unification of the island.” 

The rationale for this position is that a border poll is coming “whether we like it or not” and that those who do not champion such a poll are merely “blowing back into a hurricane”. He argues that socialists should “seek to intervene to shape the terms of the debate and outcome”, rather than “creating a barrier between them and the majority of working class people on this island.” Paul Murphy also castigates socialists who would refuse to take a side in a border poll as “commenting from the sidelines” and “leaving the field clear for nationalists on both sides to take the lead.”

A border poll, as Paul Murphy acknowledges, would be a binary choice between the maintenance of the ​status quo​ or a capitalist united Ireland. Any socialists who put themselves in either of these camps will cut themselves off entirely from one section of the working class or the other, weakening rather than strengthening their ability to assist in building a movement capable of challenging the sectarian forces. Yes, Marxists must intervene into the debate which will be taking place in the context of a border poll – but to articulate a socialist alternative to both these capitalist dead-ends, not to sow illusions in either.

Paul Murphy’s willingness to support such a poll and to call for a vote for a capitalist united Ireland – despite recognising its dangers and its logic of imposing a new form of national oppression upon the Protestant community in the North – reflects a lack of faith in the ability of the working class to find a genuine solution to the national question. It also reflects opportunism, a bending to the prevailing views of one section of the working class – in this case, those in the South and Northern Catholics – in the hope of short-term gain, despite the long-term consequences. 

Marxists, however, have a duty to resist these pressures, to “swim against the stream” and to tell the working class the truth, as unpalatable as it may be. For example, in 1914, it was the duty of genuine socialists to stand against the wave of nationalist fervour which saw many workers line up behind ‘their’ ruling class in support of the First World War. In 1969, most Catholics welcomed British troops being sent onto the streets of Northern Ireland, believing they would hold the violence of the Unionist state’s forces and loyalist gangs in check – but the forerunners of the Socialist Party correctly opposed the deployment of the army and warned the troops would become a weapon of repression, particularly against the Catholic community. Taking these positions meant temporary isolation, but those socialists who stood firm were ultimately vindicated.

If a border poll is called, we will neither support the ​status quo​ nor sow illusions in the possibility or desirability of a capitalist united Ireland, which would be the coming together of two states riven with poverty and inequality.​ However, we will not be passive observers. We will reject both capitalist non-solutions on the ballot paper, and call for others to do the same. More importantly, however, we will fight within the workers’ movement and broader society to build opposition to any slide towards conflict, and fight to build support for a real solution based on the common interests and solidarity of the working class, through a struggle for socialist change.

It is not a new development that the Socialist Party stands out in contrast to the rest of the Irish left in terms of its approach to the national question. During the Troubles, most of the left in Ireland – including those who initially welcomed the deployment of British troops – acted as cheerleaders for the Provisional IRA in the hope of picking up some recruits on their periphery, ignoring or dismissing their campaign’s sectarian impact and the fact that it strengthened support for the state among Protestant workers. Others took an essentially pro-state and Unionist position, or refused to engage with the question at all. We took a principled stand against state and paramilitary violence and fought to build class unity through the trade union movement, not just on economic issues but on the ‘difficult’ questions too, mobilising workers in opposition to sectarianism and state repression – and we had an impact.

For example, when an IRA bomb killed eight Protestant workers at Teebane, County Tyrone, in 1992, members of Militant (the Socialist Party’s forerunner) led the organisation by Mid-Ulster Trades Council of a local general strike and mass demonstrations in opposition to this atrocity and all sectarian violence. This was a powerful expression of class unity against the paramilitaries of all hues, and isolated those who would seek to ‘hit back’ in the name of ‘their community’. This excellent example of how the workers’ movement should respond to sectarian attacks was emulated in the wake of further incidents, and even created a pressure on the trade union leaders to half-heartedly take the lead on occasion.

Attitude of the British ruling class 

The question of whether or not a poll should be called will likely be a contentious issue itself. As explained previously, the decision to call such a poll lies with the British Secretary of State, and the conditions upon which it should be called are intentionally vague, as with so much else in the Good Friday Agreement. 

In ​Troubled Times,​ Peter Hadden argues that the British ruling class no longer has a vested interest in maintaining direct control over Northern Ireland and, indeed, would generally favour reunification if it could be done in a way which didn’t threaten conflict and instability which would damage its broader class interests. This remains generally the case today, although Peter Hadden does point to the potential for Northern Ireland to become a proxy battle for the British ruling class to check the threat of Scotland leaving the Union, which would be an historic blow to their interests. That is perhaps more likely with the right-wing populist and British nationalist wing of the Tories currently dominant.

If the British government were to hold out against a clear demand for a border poll from the Catholic community – either as an attempt to hold back the disintegration of the Union or simply because of fear of greater instability – in a way which was seen to break with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, this itself could provoke an upheaval in the Catholic community, and a reaction from the Protestant community, and thus polarise society along sectarian lines. 

Critics may suggest that there is a contradiction between our attitude towards a border poll in Northern Ireland and, for example, our support for referendums on independence in Scotland. This, however, is superficial and reflects a failure to engage with the concrete differences which exist between the two. In Scotland, sectarianism still exists – reflected in the Old Firm football rivalry, for example – but it is not a dominant feature in day-to-day life for most, nor is religious community background a key determinant in attitudes towards independence. Rather, class and age are the key predictors of how people would vote in an independence referendum. This is a marked and fundamental difference with Northern Ireland, where the division in a border poll would be along community lines, with the working class perhaps more sharply divided than any other.

The potential for an alternative

There is much which indicates the possibility of building a movement to challenge the sectarian forces and push back the prospect of conflict. The vast majority in both communities remain implacably opposed to a return to the sectarian violence of the past. In recent years, many from both communities have rejected the traditional Unionist and nationalist labels, although this has been somewhat reversed in the context of the Brexit vote, giving a glimpse of what is to be expected if a border poll is called. Although they remain electorally dominant, there is a deep cynicism towards the DUP, Sinn Féin and the other sectarian parties, a cynicism rooted in exasperation at their sectarian bickering, as well as anger at the austerity which they have implemented at the behest of the Tories, and their perceived incompetence and corruption. 

There have been important movements of young people from across the sectarian divide in the recent past, particularly in support of marriage equality – which saw tens of thousands take to the streets – but also in support of abortion rights, and in opposition to institutional sexism, racism and the threat of climate change. Often, the DUP has been the focus of these campaigns because of their particularly reactionary positions on these questions, shaped by the remaining influence of Christian fundamentalism within the party. These are not representative of the views of the majority of Protestants – including those who currently hold their nose and vote for the DUP come election time – with young Protestants being particularly repulsed, but that should not be confused with a wholesale rejection of Unionism. Neither are socially conservative positions confined to Unionism – on abortion, for example, the SDLP is also anti-choice, while Sinn Féin and Alliance were forced to alter their positions on this question under pressure from below. 

These movements are not isolated to Northern Ireland, but reflect broader upheavals which have swept the globe and engaged unprecedented numbers of young people, such as the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter and the climate strikes led by school students. In the 1960s, international events – such as the civil rights movement in the US, the revolutionary upheaval in France, and so on – played a key role in radicalising young people here and building support for socialist ideas. That is even more the case in today’s globalised and digital world. These movements are not narrow or inward-looking, but reflect a broader rejection of capitalism in its decay and all the ills it brings with it. Support for socialism – albeit in a confused and inchoate form – is on the rise internationally, reflected in the enthusiasm among young people for figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. In Northern Ireland, this found a brief and partial expression through the surge of membership of the British Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership, which reached around 3,000 and made it temporarily the second largest party in the North in terms of membership – only behind Sinn Féin – despite the fact it does not contest elections here. 

Recent elections have seen an upward trend in support for ‘alternative’ or ‘non-sectarian’ forces, such as the Alliance Party, the Greens and People Before Profit. This represents a positive sentiment, although none of these groups offer real solutions, either in terms of the national question or the other problems facing workers and young people. Alliance is an openly pro-capitalist and neo-liberal party, supporting policies that cement the conditions of alienation and hopelessness in working-class communities, conditions which fan the flames of sectarianism. The Greens are perceived as being on the left, although their counterparts in the South are and have been involved in right-wing governments which have implemented attacks on the working class, reflecting their lack of an alternative to capitalism. People Before Profit put forward a left position, but also put themselves definitely in the nationalist camp on all contentious issues – from a border poll to housing in north Belfast – limiting their ability to win support in Protestant working-class areas.

The role of the workers’ movement 

Any slide towards conflict will be met with opposition. In 2019, the killing of young journalist Lyra McKee at the hands of ‘dissident’ republicans in Derry led to a series of protests and demonstrations involving thousands across the North, some organised and led by trade union activists. 

The trade union movement has huge potential power, uniting well over 200,000 workers from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland around their common interests as workers. The movement numerically dwarfs all sectarian organisations. The workplace is a key arena of life where people come together across the sectarian divide. Throughout the history of the Northern state, the trade union movement has been a crucial vehicle through which the working class has acted to challenge sectarian forces at key junctures, with the initiative almost universally coming from rank-and-file activists. In the early 1990s, for example, strikes and mass demonstrations called by the trade unions in response to a series of sectarian atrocities – both loyalist and republican – powerfully expressed the desire for an end to fruitless conflict and bloodshed in both communities, and played a key role in pushing the paramilitaries towards ceasefires and a political ‘settlement’. Further detail on these events can be found in Beyond the Troubles? and Towards Division, Not Peace by Peter Hadden. We have seen similar examples since. 

In recent years, union membership has again begun to grow after a long period of decline, and there have been important class battles, which demonstrate the potential to build working-class unity in opposition to the sectarian and pro-capitalist parties. Among the most inspiring were the health workers’ strikes for pay parity and safe staffing in late 2019. This struggle drew the support of the overwhelming majority in society and pressured the DUP and Sinn Féin to re-establish the Stormont Executive after a three-year hiatus. The result was a partial victory, although more could have been achieved had the union leaderships been willing to see the fight through. There have also been successful battles of workers at Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus to save their jobs. During the course of the Covid pandemic, we have seen staff at a number of meat processing plants and at Royal Mail in Derry walk out over health and safety concerns, winning concessions from bosses, while young workers on precarious contracts at Queen’s University Students’ Union successfully campaigned to secure furlough pay and trade union representation. Socialist Party members played central roles in many of these struggles. 

In ​Troubled Times,​ however, Peter Hadden frankly addresses the weaknesses of the trade union movement as it stood in 1995, after a long period of retreat. These weaknesses have largely not been overcome in the intervening period. The leadership of the movement remains dominated by a conservative bureaucracy, largely removed from the conditions of ordinary workers, and the level of activism among the ranks of the unions remains low by historical standards, ​these factors tending to reinforce each other. The movement’s authority in society is weak compared to the past. Young workers – who are mostly in unorganised and precarious sectors, such as services and hospitality – generally don’t see the relevance of the unions for them, although there are important signs that this is beginning to change, which could have a transformative effect.

The conservative bureaucracy in the unions remains enmeshed with the state. Simultaneously lacking confidence in the working class to fight but also hostile to struggle which they cannot fully control, they have instead opted for a one-sided and unofficial form of social partnership with the Stormont parties. That does not mean that they cannot be pushed to call industrial action, but their aim is always to ‘put the lid back on’ as quickly as possible. ​

Some union leaderships have become dominated by forces which, in reality, lean towards either nationalism or Unionism, and reflect this in the positions they take on the complex issues which arise. For example, some prominent union leaders have spoken on platforms of Trade Unionists for a New & United Ireland, linked to Sinn Féin. If not challenged, this could see division expressing itself more sharply within the unions themselves, even leading to sectarian splits, as we have seen in the past. This would be a huge blow to the interests of the working class.

The new period of economic crisis, radicalisation and upheaval which we are entering can create the basis for a new generation of workplace activists to depose or bypass the conservative bureaucracy, reclaiming the existing trade unions as fighting and democratic organisations, or creating new structures through which the working class can firmly put its stamp on events, including in challenging sectarianism. Socialists can play a crucial role in this process. In Troubled Times,​ Peter Hadden outlines the programme around which Marxists fight in the trade unions and workplaces.

How will opposition to sectarianism be expressed? 

If the trade union movement doesn’t take the lead because of the weaknesses outlined above, opposition to a potential slide towards sectarian conflict may initially find its expression in other ways. Movements may emerge which are of a less explicitly working-class character, or which are led by figures with a liberal, middle-class outlook, although these can also find broad support among the working class. An example of what this might look like was seen during the #WeDeserveBetter protests in 2018, which called for the re-establishment of the devolved power-sharing institutions, in the context of a prolonged deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Young people may – as we have often seen – play the leading role, and link opposition to sectarianism to a broader vision of a different future, with an instinctive rejection of capitalism and the various elites. Movements such as these can play a vital role in checking a slide towards sectarian conflict, and Marxists should intervene energetically to inject socialist analysis and ideas. 

Movements of opposition to sectarianism – even if based on the working class – will inevitably be politically confused and contain a wide range of opinions, of course, including on the question of the border. For a period, they can ‘hold the line’ regardless of these differences. Ultimately, however, they must offer a concrete programme for the future around which the working class can unite, including on the national question, or they will eventually be swept aside by the tendency towards polarisation and division. 

Fight for a socialist solution

While the question is reduced to a choice between one of two capitalist states, there is no solution. Only a struggle for socialism – for the bringing of society’s wealth and resources into public ownership under democratic workers’ control, so they can be used in a planned way to meet the needs of people and planet – can fundamentally challenge the sectarian division which has been fostered by and which is rooted in capitalism. On the basis of such a struggle, working-class people can – in a spirit of solidarity and mutual respect – find genuine and democratic solutions to the questions which currently divide our communities, including the question of the border itself. 

In section three of Troubled Times, Peter Hadden outlines the evolution of the programme of the Socialist Party and its forerunners on the national question. Fundamentally, this remains the same today as in 1995 – for a socialist Ireland, as part of a voluntary, equal and socialist federation with Scotland, England and Wales, and a socialist confederation of Europe. However, given the increased polarisation which has taken place and in the context of heightened discussion around a border poll, it is necessary for us to stress further that a socialist Ireland would not see today’s imprisonment of the Catholic community in the Northern state replaced with the coercion of the Protestant community into a unitary state against their will. While not advocating it, socialists should defend the right of predominantly Protestant communities in the North to opt out of a unitary socialist state, with the right to autonomy or even separation on a socialist basis.

It can seem that these issues will always be highly contentious and impossible to overcome. However, united struggle has time and again diminished and removed divisions among the working class, and the same can happen here in the future. A united struggle for a socialist future would have a transformative effect and demonstrate in practice the common interests of working-class people from all backgrounds. In this context, any sense of a need for separation may be overcome. However, it cannot be ruled out that – for a period, at least – there would still be a demand for autonomy or even separation in the Protestant community. The solution would not be the maintenance of the current border, but a new arrangement which – while not straightforward – could be peacefully and democratically negotiated, while guaranteeing the rights of all minorities and striving for the maximum level of cooperation. Over time, any lingering distrust between the communities would erode, and so too would any borders.

To put this programme into action requires the building of a mass working-class party with socialist policies. Despite the threat of sectarian polarisation, the coming period will create opportunities for the building of such a party. Already, there is a growing openness to socialist ideas among young people. The economic crisis and the decay of capitalism will only deepen this, and create the basis for united struggles of the working class and the oppressed, as they fight to defend their livelihoods, their rights, and fight for a better future. However, these opportunities must be seized, and not allowed to slip by, as was tragically the case in the period leading up to partition, and again in the 1960s. To ensure that history does not repeat itself in this way, it is necessary for Marxists to forge a strong revolutionary force, one which can bring the lessons of the past into the struggles of today and point the way forward.

A new mass party must grapple with the national question, taking an approach to every divisive issue which is independent of Unionism and nationalism and sensitive to the feelings and aspirations of workers across the sectarian divide. That means formulating positions which aim to minimise and overcome division, while emphasising the united interests of the working class as a whole.The building of a mass force which is equal to this challenge is an urgent task to which the Socialist Party is committed. We call on everyone who agrees with our analysis to join us in this struggle.

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