Our position on Ireland

Originally published in October 1974.

Bulletin, Nov-Dec. 1979

[As this article dates from the period when the Socialist Party in Britain, then known as the Militant Tendency, were working inside the British Labour Party, there were some slight efforts made to disguise the origins of the material. References to the Editorial board mean the Executive Committee, supporters or readers refer to the Militant members, etc.

We have identified where possible the authors and others mentioned in the article.]

1974 article and 1979 introduction written by Peter Taaffe.


We are re-publishing below an article first carried in the Bulletin in October 1974, firstly because the article is of historical interest and newer supporters should be familiarised with our position on this issue.

Secondly, the issues dealt with have re-surfaced because of the way we voted at the last [Labour] Party conference on a resolution from the sects calling for withdrawal of the troops.

After some discussion we abstained on the resolution. This needs to be explained particularly as the article below suggests that in such cases we should support them. The first thing to note is that the attitude towards Ireland has changed considerably in the British labour movement in the past four years.

There is complete revulsion by workers towards the Provisional IRA and its methods. There is also disquiet to say the least at the methods employed by the army and police. But there is almost total hostility now to anyone who appears to give the slightest support to the Provos.

The sects when they call for withdrawal are correctly seen as attorneys of the Provos. This was the case with the mover of the sects' resolution who succeeded in alienating almost completely the whole conference. We could not afford to be associated with a resolution which not only did not condemn the terroristic methods of the IRA but whose mover appeared to exonerate the Provos from any responsibility for the situation.

We also had an alternative resolution which at least put part of our position. In this situation it was entirely correct to abstain on the sects' resolution.

Peter Taaffe.

Our position on Ireland

The discussion on Ireland at our conference showed that some confusion exists in the tendency on how we pose the demands for a trade union defence force and withdrawal of British troops, and whether or not we can support the demand for the 'withdrawal of British troops' by itself.

This confusion can only arise if our transitional demands are unrelated to the actual concrete situation in Northern Ireland. This in turn is only possible if we fail to take AN ALL SIDED VIEW of the situation.

Our analysis of the Northern Ireland situation begins from the standpoint that British imperialism bears the main responsibility for the violence and bloodshed. They sowed the seeds for the present situation by their policies of divide and rule, the partitioning of the country in 1922 and the establishment of a semi-police state in the North. There is no solution to the problems of Northern Ireland on a bourgeois basis. The British army and the police have proved that they are incapable of stemming the bloodletting - over 1,000 people have been killed and thousands wounded since British troops were openly deployed on the streets in August 1969.

Nor is it possible for the Provisional IRA to solve the problems. The petit bourgeois leadership of the Provisionals claim that their campaign is aimed against imperialism and by evicting British troops they will bring about unification of the country. The rank and file of the Provisionals are undoubtedly anti-Imperialist. But the bombing campaign of the last three years is anything but 'anti-Imperialist' in its effects.

Firstly, British imperialism because of the changed circumstances now favours a capitalist united Ireland. The social revolution which formed the background of the 'war of independence' and the fear that this could spill over into Britain, together with the vital strategic importance of Ireland as a military outpost - particularly its naval facilities - were the main factors which influenced the British ruling class to partition the country in 1922. Today the British ruling class is not immediately challenged by a social revolution. (In the future when they are faced with social revolution they will seek to use sectarianism.) In the epoch of nuclear weapons the sea bases have lost their importance.

At the same time Southern Ireland, 50 years after 'independence', is even more of an economic satellite than it was at the time of the division of the country. The British ruling class would now like a bourgeois united Ireland. They would like to withdraw their troops. It is the sectarian monster that they created and nourished over centuries which now stands in their way. The Provisionals' campaign has allowed the British ruling class to perfect its military machine for use against the Irish and British working class. Its campaign has creamed off a section of the Catholic youth into the blind alley of individual terror and has led to a lowering of the consciousness of the Catholic population substituting the actions of a 'small band of armed men' for the mass organisation and participation of the working class to change society. Not the least of the negative features of the campaign - to say the least - is the effect on the Protestant population.

The splits amongst the Protestants - roughly along class lines - is an indication of the favourable opportunities for class unity. The defection of Murray and Co from the Ulster Workers Council, the radical noises emanating from Glenn Barr and from within the Protestant working class as a whole, shows the potential for class unity. But these can come to nothing so long as the Provos campaign of itself leading to a defeat of British imperialism and its withdrawal from the country. Its campaign is doomed to failure.

It is from these two fundamental facts - the incapacity of the British ruling class and the Provos or any similar organisation to solve the problems - that our transitional demands - for a trade union defence force and withdraw the troops - flows. Only the labour and trade union movement organised on a Marxist programme can provide a solution.

This analysis, this approach, would in all probability be accepted by all comrades. Where some have difficulties is in explaining these demands and particularly the role of the British army. There is an anxiety to give no credence to the idea that the British army is in any way a 'progressive' force in the situation. That is very good. We should give not an iota of support to the idea that the British army can play a 'progressive' role. At the same time the purpose of a transitional demand is to raise the level of understanding of those workers we can reach. In the course of arguing for the demand we have to meet and answer doubts and objections by workers to our programme. Unless we are able to do this then the demand does not fulfil the task of raising the consciousness of workers. One of these objections will be that the 'British army is a guarantee against civil war between Catholics and Protestants'. How do we meet this argument? If we retreat into empty abstractions like the sects, we fail to answer these objections. If we turn our backs on incontrovertible facts relating t the role of the British army, then we will only re-confirm any faith which the British and Irish workers have in the alleged progressive mission of the British army. We do not ignore facts but explain them in class terms.

An example from the history of the Tendency will clearly show the difference between a genuine Marxist approach and ossified sectarianism. The standpoint of the Workers International League at the outbreak of the Second World War was a model of how to proceed. Then, as now, the sects in their anxiety to give no support to bourgeois militarism repeated Lenin's First World War slogan of 'revolutionary defeatism' and the 'defeat of our own bourgeoisie is the lesser evil', etc. Trotsky pointed out that Lenin was forced to draw a clear demarcation between Marxism and all shades of opportunism, that the formula 'revolutionary defeatism' was for the education of the cadres but in no sense was a programme for winning the masses. Our material has pointed out that Lenin was forced to exaggerate the position and in fact was 'ultra-left'. Trotsky also demonstrated that the 'defeatist' slogan was utterly meaningless for revolutionaries approaching the Second World War. It was of course the bounden duty of the revolutionary forces to oppose the war, to explain its imperialist nature, etc. At the same time in formulating transitional demands - which form the basis for agitation - the sentiments of the masses had to be taken into account. It was not sufficient to merely denounce the war - which the WIL also did - as a struggle between two gangs of brigands. The workers opposed and feared the victory of Hitler and fascism for confused class reasons. They were prepared to take up arms. To have gone completely against this attitude of the working class would have condemned the Trotskyists to complete isolation. This was in fact the fate of those 'Trotskyists' who remained on the position of 'defeatism'. The WIL skilfully contrasted the interests of the workers and capitalists in the war. They demonstrated that only the working class could fight fascism. The ruling class was only interested in defending a rival imperialism. The ruling class was more afraid of the workers than they were of Hitler. This was shown by the preceding events in France when the ruling class preferred to capitulate to the Nazis than arm the workers.

The WIL therefore raised the slogan of 'Arm the workers'. This was coupled with the call "For the setting up of schools under the control of the trade unions, to train workers to become military experts, officers, etc.' These and other demands of a transitional nature enabled the WIL to counterpose the interests of the working class to those of the capitalists. With demands which met the immediate and burning needs of the working class the WIL was more able to then explain the imperialist nature of the war (we will carry the documents of the WIL on this important issue in a future issue of the Bulletin.) The equivalent of the sects at the time of course denounced the WIL for 'fostering illusions' in the bourgeois army, of giving credence to the idea that the bourgeois army was able to 'defend' the country, etc. The difference between them and the WIL is that while they remained during the war on the sidelines mouthing empty abstractions the WIL was enabled in a principled but skilled manner to approach the advanced workers and through them to begin the job of reaching the masses.

The sectarians in their anxiety to avoid giving the impression that they gave any support to the bourgeois army retreated behind abstractions. So too in relation to Northern Ireland the sects before 1969 had a completely abstract approach to the Northern Ireland situation. Trotsky often warned…'He who operates in the domain of theory with the abstract categories is condemned to capitulate blindly to facts'. The SWP is a perfect example of this. Before 1969 they reduced the problem to the fact of the military domination of British imperialism. It therefore followed that the withdrawal of the troops would automatically solve the problem posed by the Northern State and lead to the re-unification of the country. Yet after the pogrom of the Belfast Catholics in August 1969 and siege of the Bogside - which would have resulted in an even worse pogrom but for the entry of British troops into the area - they supported the presence of the army. AS soon as their abstract analysis and programme came into contact with 'gross reality' it proved to be false and was jettisoned. These 'worshippers of accomplished facts' as Trotsky would have called them, accepted the British troops as defenders of the Catholic population. We, on the other hand, opposed in principle the call for the entry of the troops into Catholic areas. However, in arguing our case we did not ignore the 'fact' that the Army had prevented a pogrom in the short term. To have refused to admit this would have made us appear ridiculous in the eyes of the workers we were trying to reach. An indication of the role of the army at that time is shown by the fat that we were the only tendency which clearly opposed the entry of the troops. The forerunners of the Provisionals, despite their protests to the contrary later, in no way opposed the troops entering the Catholic areas of Belfast and Derry.

But we explained the class reasons for the entry of the army. Moreover we gave not a semblance of support to the army by explaining that in the long term the violence and bloodletting would not be stemmed but on the contrary would be worsened. This is what we wrote at the time…"A slaughter would have followed (in Derry) in comparison with which the bloodletting in Belfast would have paled into insignificance, if the Labour government had not intervened with British troops. But it would be fatal to think that the troops were used solely to defend the Catholic population….The troops have been sent in to impose a solution in the interests of British and Ulster big business….The Northern Irish, both Catholic and Protestant, must rely on their own forces. Only common action through a joint defence committee can begin to defeat the grip of Tory Unionism ([Militant] September 1969). We then went onto show that there was no long-term solution on a bourgeois basis.

We gave not a shadow of support to British imperialism nor to the British army. Although we conceded that British troops HAD provided some kind of 'defence' of the Catholic areas in the short term. We gave a class explanation of the reasons for this and at the same time predicted that this was no long term solution. In approaching workers in Northern Ireland and Britain if we would have categorically denied the short term role of the army in defending the Catholic areas we would have appeared as figures of fun rather than serious people with a viable programme.

The considerations which guided our approach in 1969 remain fundamentally the same today. It would be entirely wrong to appear as apologists for the British ruling class by conceding any 'progressive' function to the army in Northern Ireland. On the contrary we have always started with apportioning the main responsibility for the violence to the British ruling class. This has been the main slant of our material. We have pointed to the incapacity of the army and police to defend the working class against sectarian attacks, assassinations, etc. The repressive role of the army in Catholic areas - as a means of weakening the Provisionals - has been a feature of our material in the paper and journal. We have also pointed to the fact that the British army is being drilled for use against the British working class in the next decade. From all this flows our transitional demands 'for a trade union defence force - and withdraw the British army'. The biggest part of our propaganda has concentrated on the repressive role of British imperialism in Ireland.

At the same time we have to ask ourselves - it will certainly be asked of us by advanced workers who accept the above analysis - if British imperialism would LIKE to withdraw its troops why doesn't it do so? The British army is a guarantee against civil war. It is in their class interests to prevent civil war. A withdrawal now would precipitate a religious civil war. Moreover the Provisionals and their apologists in the sects who bleat about our 'capitulation' to Northern Ireland, have also recognised that this would be the consequences of a 'precipitate' withdrawal. Why else did O'Braidgh, the Provos' political spokesman,, in the wake of the Ulster Workers council strike, call for a 'phased withdrawal' of British troops over years? A dim understanding of the consequences of immediate withdrawal did get through even to them. It seems that O'Braidgh later retracted his statement having belatedly realised what conclusion could be drawn from his admission - but it remains nevertheless as a valuable admission of the consequences of an immediate withdrawal of the British army without the organisation of a trade union defence force. (Since this article was prepared O'Braidgh has had a further change of heart! At the Provos' conference - September 28-29 1974 - he again called for a 'phased withdrawal of troops to avoid a 'Congo situation.') It also completely undermines the basis of their bombing campaign. The expectation that they can come to an amicable 'agreement' with the Protestant population in the event of a withdrawal is an empty and futile one. The Protestant population would consider that they would be faced with an all-out struggle for their very existence. The consequences of a withdrawal of British troops would be incalculable. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims on either side, would be the result. The British ruling class are not prepared at this stage to risk the odium which which would be attached to them and their system - in Britain and Europe I particular - by a religious civil war. To say that the British army prevents in the short term, a civil war for their own class reasons gives not an iota of confidence to the British ruling class. Nor does it prevent us from stressing the incapacity of the army in the long run to prevent the violence or even a civil war. They also have to calculate on the destruction to their investments throughout the whole of Ireland which a civil war would mean. The army is not a lasting deterrent against civil war. If the conditions for all-out civil war exist - and this possibility cannot be theoretically ruled out - then the army would be powerless to prevent it. However, in the short run the army does act as a deterrent against civil war, or more accurately as a deterrent against massive and wholesale attacks by the Protestant ultras on Catholic areas. This stance of the British ruling class is of course determined by their class interests. This we explain on all occasions.

When approached in this way it becomes obvious that we cannot separate the call forwithdrawal of British troops from the demand for a trade union defence force. The only conditions under which the British army will be withdrawn will be in the aftermath of a civil war. If that catastrophe was to come to pass then we would be implicated in the eyes of the workers. The Provisional leadership - and the sects like the International Marxist Group - probably imagine that the results of a civil war would be some kind of united Ireland. Nothing is more removed from reality. The consequences of a sectarian civil war would be the re-partition of Ireland - the Catholics driven out of the Belfast area and the Protestants driven out of the border areas. The labour movement in both parts of Ireland would be enormously thrown back. An exclusively Protestant statelet in the North could only exist as a virtual police state. It would be faced with constant attacks from the Catholic refugees in the South. The situation would be analogous to Israel and the Arab states. The labour movement in the South as well as the North would be paralysed to a much greater extent than in the period after partition. Connolly predicted that partition would usher in a 'carnival of reaction'. A new partition would mean reaction with a vengeance. In explaining our programme we have to bring this out.

The first principle of Marxism is to tell the workers the truth. The sects indulge in fairy tales and wishful thinking. The consequences of sectarian civil war would be disastrous for the working class. Our demands are based on the fact that neither the British ruling class nor the Provisionals nor any other force except the labour movement is a guarantee against the possibility of such a catastrophe. We in no way weaken the demand nor foster any illusions about the British army if we concede that in the short term they are a deterrent against civil war. We are against the British army being in Ireland. We call for its immediate withdrawal. On the other hand we wish to avert the catastrophe which a civil war would mean so we also call for the immediate setting up of a Trade Union Defence Force.

This is the only way in which we can approach the situation in Northern Ireland. Our demands are the only ones which offer a class solution. They are anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and at the same time capable of answering any serious 'practical' objections which a worker will raise.

The demand for 'unconditional withdrawal' of British troops is as meaningless as the slogan of 'defeatism' during the Second World War. As explained above because of the political, historical, social and military situation in Northern Ireland our demands fora Trade Union Defence Force and the immediate withdrawal of the troops are indissolubly linked. They are in turn linked to our transitional demands on jobs, housing, social services, nationalisation, etc. We do not put forward either demand in isolation.

Most of the confusion at conference was generated over whether or not we should vote for a resolution which calls for the withdrawal of British troops where we have no alternative resolution and no chance to move an amendment. Also whether we are only in favour of withdrawal of British troops if a Trade Union Defence Force is already in existence. This latter point is the 'key weapon,' it seems, in the struggle of he IMG, in particular, against ourselves. To pose the issue in the way the sects' do is completely false. First of all our transitional demands have the purpose of raising the level of the working class. Our main task is to convince the labour movement to take them up. As explained above, if we are to raise the level of understanding of those workers closest to us we cannot separate the call for the withdrawal of the army from the demand for a Trade Union Defence Force. Secondly we do not decide at this stage with our small forces whether or not the army is withdrawn. Our main task is one of propaganda, of explaining the issues and convincing the workers of our programme. If we were a mass force in Britain and Ireland we would already be setting up a Trade Union Defence Force and agitating for the withdrawal of the army. It is scholasticism to engage in speculation as to whether the withdrawal of the army will come before the formation of a Trade Union Defence Force.

Our vote on a resolution calling merely for the withdrawal of the army is a tactical issue but one some importance in relation to Ireland. We have in the past voted for resolutions with which we did not entirely agree but which represented a groping towards a class position on the part of the advanced workers. Thus at the party conference some years ago we voted in favour of a resolution which called for opposition to the Common Market on nationalistic 'left' lines. To have done otherwise would have been interpreted by leftward moving workers as a vote for the right wing. So long as we qualify our vote in speeches or writing it is entirely legitimate to vote in this way. In the same way we can vote in favour of a resolution calling for the withdrawal of troops without a clause calling on the TU defence force. It is true that some British workers - and advanced workers at that - may react against a vote favouring the withdrawal of British troops because they see the possibility of civil war. On balance however it would be better to risk alienating some of these workers in the short term - which would not necessarily be the case if we qualify the vote - than to vote in favour of a resolution which could be interpreted, particularly by our opponents in Ireland as lining up with our own ruling class and its army. They would use this to sling mud at our comrades and although in the long run this would not present an insuperable problem, in the short run it could complicate the work of the Irish comrades. The national EB therefore considers that if our comrades are faced with this situation they should vote in favour of, give critical support to, a resolution calling for the withdrawal of British troops.

The discussion on Ireland at our conference on the above issues showed the need for an intensive discussion and educational programme within the tendency. This is the precondition for a successful intervention on the Irish issue in the broad labour movement. To this end the Tendency is planning a national school devoted to Ireland in November (the precise date will be announced later). The school together with material for discussion in the areas on the issues raised here will serve to deepen the understanding of the whole organisation of the vital issues related to our Irish work.


This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.

The full range of articles from the Socialist Party
are available in our sitemap