The sects and the Anglo-Irish Agreement
Howard Clarke writing in the Bulletin of Marxist Studies, Vol. 1 No 5, Spring 1986.
This journal was produced by CWI members in Britain
The Anglo-Irish Agreement has demonstrated once again the complete confusion of the sects on the question of Northern Ireland. Their reaction has provided yet another illustration of how far it is possible to stray from a class position without the guiding compass of Marxism.
The root cause of their disarray in the face of recent events flies in their complete lack of understanding of the elementary lessons of Trotsky's theory of Permanent revolution. In the modern epoch, with the world crisis of capitalism, the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution - redistribution of the land, the uprooting of all traces of feudalism, the solution of the national question, etc- cannot be solved by the bourgeois. Even in the advanced capitalist countries, the uncompleted tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution can only be resolved by the working class moving to carry through the socialist revolution. The Permanent Revolution as it applies to Ireland means that the remnant task, or partial task, of the bourgeois democratic revolution in Ireland - reunification- can only be completed, in passing, by the working class coming to power in the whole of Ireland. There is no solution to the National Question on a capitalist basis.
The British bourgeois today would like a united Ireland. They partitioned Ireland in 1920 primarily to cut across the revolutionary movement of the workers that developed at the end of World War One, but also to preserve access to the naval bases in the North and to retain direct control of the most industrialised region of Ireland. Partition was the culmination of 300 years of 'divide and rule', of the artificial creation of sectarianism in Ireland turned to by the bourgeois to deal with the threat of social revolution.
But circumstances have changed since 1920. The naval bases have lost their significance in the era of nuclear weapons. Despite over 60 years of 'independence' Southern Ireland is as much an economic satellite of British imperialism as it was before partition. In the future when they are immediately threatened by the prospect of revolution in Ireland or Britain, the bourgeois will undoubtedly attempt to use sectarianism against the working class. As an aside, for this reason alone, the Marxists in Britain have a duty to study carefully the situation in Ireland and to raise the arguments for a socialist solution to the national question in Ireland in the British labour movement. But today the border is not only irrelevant to the interests of the bourgeois, but it is an actual hindrance to their interests, a permanent source of instability and upheaval.
Not least of their considerations is the enormous costs to the bourgeois of the British presence in Northern Ireland. The Guardian
Irish Times, 15 March 1986, showed that 200,000 were receiving pensions, 120,000 unemployment payments, 180,000 supplementary benefit and 190,000 housing benefits. In 1968 the annual subvention to the North was £72 million. Today, on the basis of the figures above, it must be at least £2,000 million aside from the £400 million costs of maintaining the troops. British imperialism would like to withdraw their troops and see a united Ireland.
SWP 'Thatcher confident of taking step forward'
But a capitalist united Ireland is absolutely excluded because of the opposition of the Protestants. They would fight to the end rather than be coerced into a united Ireland. Outside of the socialist revolution a link with Southern Ireland has no attraction whatsoever to Protestant workers. They see a poverty stricken country, dominated by the Catholic Church, with high unemployment, poor social services, etc. They fear, correctly, that if there was unification on a capitalist basis they would become a discriminated minority, as the Catholics were discriminated against in the north. A bloody and terrible Civil War and repartition would be the result of any attempt to force the Protestants into a united Ireland.
On the other hand, there can be no solution based on the continued existence of the present artificial state in the North. The Catholic minority will never be reconciled to a state that has meant 50 years if Unionist discrimination followed by 17 years of British military repression. Catholic workers will not give up their aspiration for a united Ireland which they see as a means of taking control of their own fate and improving their conditions of life. The continued partition of Ireland means permanent destabilisation and upheaval in the North. The Marxists have always warned that the Catholic youth, in particular, would over a period of time, become demoralised in a nightmare of deepening poverty and repression and, out of despair, if the Labour Movement does not give them a lead, turn again to the blind alley of sectarianism. Ultimately, in the longer tern, if the working class des not take power, partition also will mean the development of sectarian civil war. On a capitalist basis there is no way out.
This position has been consistently explained by the Marxists with all the implications concerning the necessity for class unity on the industrial and political planes, for a non-sectarian programme on the state, etc. drawn out in other material, particularly that of the Irish Marxists where it is given flesh on the basis of an active intervention in the workers movement of the North.
Superficially of all the sects the SWP appear to have stumbled closest to a Marxist position on Northern Ireland. They write in the March edition of their 'theoretical' magazine Socialist Worker Review
, that: "Socialists do not believe that the national struggle can be separated from the class struggle in Ireland, not that one struggle can come before the other. The two are inextricably linked." In a review of City in Revolt, an account of the 1907 Belfast dock strike, they argue that this example of workers' united struggle overcoming sectarianism is not "something which lies in the past…today class struggle is not dead in Belfast". Socialist Worker Review, December 1985). The SWP's 'theoretician' on Ireland, Chris Bambery, is producing a new book with the title, Ireland's Permanent Revolution
But unfortunately for the SWP, repeating the phrases of Marxism is not the same as understanding the method of Marxism, of starting from the fundamental principles, applying them to and developing them in the light of events and, on that basis, being able to reach correct perspectives and policies. Notwithstanding the formal position of the SWP for 'permanent revolution' etc. they have been thrown into utter disarray by the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the subsequent developments.
This is revealed in, amongst other things, their analysis of why the Anglo-Irish Agreement was concluded. The SWP, like all the sects, believe that the Agreement reflects the strength
of British Imperialism's position in Ireland. Socialist Worker
described the agreement as 'the most serious move in a decade' and that 'Today both Thatcher and Fitzgerald feel confident about taking a step forward.' (23 November 1985). This position is echoed by all the sects. Socialist Action
also argues that the agreement is designed to reinforce partition. 'The Accord', these alleged Marxists complain, 'defies the Irish constitution' (!) by securing 'recognition by the Dublin Government of the partition of Ireland for the first time ever.' (22 November 1985). Drawing different conclusions but starting from the same implicit premise as the SWP that imperialism is moving with authority and foresight in Ireland in accordance with a coherent and long-term strategy, Socialist Organiser
argues that the Agreement represents 'the full-scale Southern involvement as social, economic, military and police. Britain formally retinas sovereignty but is bound by a legally actionable international treaty (!) to share the overlordship of the six counties with the Dublin government' (9 January 1985). 'De jure it remains British direct rule, but from now on de facto it will be London-Dublin rule.' (5 December 1985)
In fact the Agreement is neither a move designed to 'reinforce British rule' nor, through the involvement of Dublin in the North, a step to capitalist reunification.
The British bourgeois would like to withdraw from Ireland but are unable to. The sects do not understand this. The Campaign Group MP, Jeremy Corbyn, quoted uncritically in Socialist Action
29 November 1985, explains the three reasons he believes that British imperialism does not withdraw from there North,: the usefulness of Northern Ireland as a police and army training ground in an urban environment (at the mere cost of at least £4000 million a year!); the 'international role of Ireland' with the desire of the US to place NATO or US bases in Northern Ireland (!); and …'the stubbornness of the British establishment in wanting to remain the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'!!
The real facts are that British imperialism would prefer a united Ireland, as explained earlier. The economic and military-strategic interests that were among the factors that led British imperialism to partition in 1920 have been superseded by the developments of the last 60 years. But despite the wishes of the bourgeois, there remains the 'Loyalist veto', the result of 300 years of 'divide and rule'. This is not a constitutional 'veto' but a material
one, expressed in the language of guns, mortars, ammunition and even missiles, given the Protestants position in the armaments industries of the North.
The bourgeois realize that any serious move to a capitalist united Ireland would result in civil war. For their won class reasons the bourgeois do not want a civil war
There would be a horrendous massacre of Catholics and Protestants, with Catholics from the North driven into refugee camps in the South, and very probably the establishment of military dictatorships in the North and South. This sectarian nightmare would spill over into conflict in the cities of Britain. The odious responsibility for this situation would be held internationally by the British ruling class who would face in all probability a boycott of British goods in America on the basis of the outrage of the 20 million Irish-Americans in the USA. And most importantly, far from resolving anything for the bourgeois, civil war and repartition would crate a running sore of instability, analogous to the results achieved when British imperialism withdrew from Palestine in 1948, leaving the Arabs and Jews to 'resolve' the national question arms in hand. The result was a perpetually festering conflict which has produced five major wars since 1948. For these reasons, because the bourgeois do not want to bear the consequences of a sectarian civil war, they can only dream of uniting Ireland. Of course, the British ruling class have not come to this position on moral grounds or out of tender concern for the thousands of lives that would be lost in a sectarian civil war, but from their own class standpoint. After all they were quite prepared to withdraw from Palestine in 1948 with the confident expectation that the Jews would be massacred by the six Arab armies pitted against them. However, as was shown, they had not taken into account the complete rottenness of the semi-feudal Arab regimes on the one hand, and on the other, the determination of the Israelis, fighting as they were for their very existence. Similarly, the Protestants would be fighting with their backs to the wall, they would brush aside the Irish Army and carry out a slaughter of the Catholics. It is the consequences of this in Britain and internationally for the British ruling class, who would be blamed for this situation, which have stayed the hand of the bourgeois, compelling them to retain their presence in the North.
Two stages - 'a capitalist Ireland then socialism'
Fundamentally, the bourgeois face a complete impasse in Ireland. The only consistent policy they have is repression. Outside of the military holding operation they have no long-term strategy for Northern Ireland. Instead they are obliged to respond empirically to developments, the most immediate of which was the need to bolster the SDLP in the face of the challenge from Sinn Fein. This followed the blunder of Thatcher in facing out the hunger strikers in 1981, which was largely responsible for the development of electoral support for Sinn Fein in the Catholic areas. This was compounded by Thatcher's snub to 'constitutional nationalism' when she dismissed out of hand the report of the 1983-4 New Ireland Forum discussions between the three main Southern parties and the SDLP. Consequently, to compensate for these past mistakes by imperialism, or rather, by Thatcher in particular, to retrieve the position of the SDLP, the bourgeois went into discussions with the Southern government.
The Hillsborough accord arose out of the impasse of imperialism in Ireland, not as the sects variously imagine, out of any grand design to 'reinforce partition' or 'move in the direction of a united Ireland'. But the fact that the bourgeois can face an impasse in Ireland, precisely because there is not possibility of a solution based on capitalism, is completely lost to the sects who, although they would swear by the 'permanent revolution', have jettisoned a Marxist analysis on this issue, as on all others.
The Agreement, as the Marxists have explained elsewhere, was a serious miscalculation by Thatcher. She massively underestimated the depth of Protestant opposition to the involvement of the Dublin government in the North which, regardless of its cosmetic nature, of the intentions of Thatcher or the Southern bourgeoisie, is perceived by the Protestants as joint sovereignty and the first step to a united Ireland.
But if the bourgeois blundered in miscalculating the reaction of the Protestants, the SWP were not far behind! In November Bambery could write, 'On the Unionists side…I believe Thatcher could isolate and deal with any backlash' (Socialist Worker
, 23 November 1985). Even as late as February, in an interview with Joe Austin of Sinn Fein in that month's Socialist Worker Review
, the SWP interviewer could still argue: 'It appears that Paisley is prepared to make a lot of verbal threats, but there isn't much sign that he is going to deliver anything', and that the Loyalists could be 'swept aside' by the accord! These are not quotes taken in isolation. This position could be found throughout the material of the SWP.
What does this signify? It can only mean that the SWP believe that Protestant workers could be reconciled to at least what they
see as Dublin involvement in the North. From this it is clear that, despite their professed position that the 'national struggle is tied to the class struggle' the SWP believe that Protestants would accede to a link with the South- not on the basis of the working class coming to power throughout Ireland but rather, on the basis of capitalism.
This clearly emerges from the SWP's interview with Joe Austin, vice-chairman of the NI Executive of Sinn Fein, carried in the February Socialist Worker Review
. At one point Austin argues that British imperialism would not withdraw from the North because of the threat of a 'democratic socialist republic on the doorstep of Britain' emerging as a result. 'If Britain was able to defeat the IRA and Sinn Fein and the whole resistance struggle, stabilise Britain's presence, reach a confederation of any sort that would stabilise the interests of Irish and British capitalism, the British troops would be withdrawn Monday fortnight.But we are the thorn in the side of their plans
We are able to stop that. ' (My emphasis- HC)
This is a fantasy from start to finish. That the SWP could allow this to pass without challenging the substance of these comments speaks volumes of the content of the SWP's position as opposed to its form. The fact is that the bourgeois cannot withdraw because of the opposition of the Protestants.
As explained earlier, for their own class reasons the bourgeois do not want a civil war.
In fact it is only
through a 'socialist republic', through the working class coming to power in Ireland as a whole, that the aspirations of the Catholic and Protestant workers could be met and their fears allayed. Only the working class can solve the national question in Ireland by solving the social questions. But this presupposes fighting for the unity of the Protestant and Catholic working class in the north, both industrially and through a political expression with the formation by the trade unions of a mass party of Labour, and the unity in struggle of the working class, North and South.
Austin, on the contrary, agrees in the interview that the Protestant workers 'can only become a force for social change after the border is gone.' And later he makes it clear that he envisages a united capitalist Ireland as the first 'stage; 'after withdrawal'.
: Finally, if the border were removed, if you were successful at driving the British out, is there a parliamentary road to socialism?
: It depends on post-withdrawal conditions. Almost certainly those conditions would see a coming together of class interests, primarily ruling class interests. You would have some sort of a capitalist class structure.
" (My emphasis, HC)
Aside from revealing how the SWP operate in the realm of abstractions, the fact that the SWP can even pose such a question, which effectively accepts that there are two stages, a capitalist united Ireland and then 'socialism', shows how far the SWP really are from the theory of permanent revolution, of an understanding that, outside of the socialist revolution in Ireland, the Protestant workers will never accept being linked to the state in the South.
It is not surprising then that when the SWP bumped their heads against the reality of Protestant reaction to even the cosmetic changes of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, in the form of the Loyalist one-day stoppage of 3 March, that the formal position of 'workers' unity' and ' was rapidly discarded. The lead 'What we think' article in Socialist Worker 8 March 1986 argued:
In truth there is only way to stop the violence and that is to disband the barbaric little state created with no social,, historical or geographical justification. An essential first step (the first stage! - HC) is to get the British army out and for them to take with them the guns that they gave to the RUC and UDA. This is the only solution….!
In 1969 the forerunners of the SWP, the International Socialists, demanded that British troops be sent to Northern Ireland to protect the Catholics. They then switched to a position of uncritical support for the Provisionals campaign of individual terror. Now, 17 years later, they ask their foe to oblige them , to carry out their dirty work and disarm the Protestants! To accomplish this 'trifle', the British army would have to deploy 100,000 troops in a long and bloody campaign. It would not be a Sunday afternoon drill parade where the Protestants politely hand over their weapons! It would require a full-scale war
which, aside from any other considerations, the army generals, in a new 'Curragh Mutiny', would refuse to conduct.
But if the SWP feel compelled to paint over their 'two stages' nationalist position with a thin and, unfortunately for them, all too transparent coasting of the phrases of 'permanent revolution', Socialist Action
show no such scruples! Arguing that 'the Anglo-Irish Accord is a challenge to Irish nationalism' Socialist Action's
position is clearly for a capitalist united Ireland: 'If we get to the stage where the Irish have managed to kick the British out, and remove the partition that was imposed by the British, then it is still the case that democracy
in Ireland will not be safe until the British ruling class has been fundamentally defeated in Britain as well. British imperialism will always be a thorn in the side of the development of Irish democracy.
(22 November 1985 - my emphasis, HC)
These neo-Stalinists unashamedly act as 'socialist cheerleaders' for Sinn Fein. On 15 November they reproduced Gerry Adam's presidential address to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis at the end of 1985 with the glowing introduction: 'it is a report which is thoroughly revolutionary'. In the 6 December issue they describe Sinn Fein as 'the most advanced mass political force in western Europe…British Labour's natural ally Ireland'. And in January, commenting on the by-elections, they repeated Sinn Fein's criticism of the SDLP for not coming to an electoral arrangement on the basis of 'overall nationalist interests'. (24 January 1986)
A 'Federal United Ireland'?
Generally speaking, keeping a grip on reality is the least of the concerns of the sectarian. But now and then, in its own rude and coarse manner, reality intrudes even the most sheltered worlds. And so it has been for Socialist Action
with the reaction of the Protestants to this apparent 'challenge to Irish nationalism'. How, they pondered, in a solemn editorial on 29 November, do 'republicans' win over Protestant workers from 'reactionary Loyalism': 'they hold out a hope
that the Protestants of the North might expect more in the future than the drum-beating terror of 12 July or rallies outside the Belfast City Hall'! (My emphasis, HC). What this 'hope' is that Socialist Action
'holds out' to win over the Protestant workers, they were keeping close to their chest. After all, 'we have no brief and it would not be welcomed (!) to draw up plans or blue prints for a new Ireland. Our contribution, and it is the biggest we can make, is to fight unconditionally to remove the British military and political presence as soon as possible.' And anyway, as these wise men subsequently discovered after the one-day stoppage of 3 march, 'Monday again showed that finally Loyalism is a paper tiger - one that could be easily smashed.' (Socialist Action
5 March 1986)!
The reality is, of course, that the events of 3 march, for example the attack on a factory in Lurgan as Catholic workers reported for work, the open compliance of the RUC with sectarian intimidation of workers, etc. give an ominous foretaste of how Unionist reaction could develop if the Agreement is maintained.
Trotsky once explained that 'the sectarian lives in a sphere of ready-made formulas. As life passes him by without noticing him; but now and then he receives in passing such a fillip as makes him turn 180 degrees around on his axis, and often makes him continue on his straight path only…in the opposite direction.'!
This has been the unfortunate experience of the tendency grouped around the Socialist Organiser
paper. Like the other sects this grouping has completely abandoned a class approach to the questions posed by the complex situation in Northern Ireland. Unlike the other sects they have become conscious over time of the determined opposition of the Protestants to even a hint of being linked with the state in the South. On this basis they have spun round from their former position of devoted support for the campaign of the Provisionals and have of late have taken issue with the nationalist positions of eh other sects. In Socialist Organiser
, 5 December 1985, they criticise the position of the 'International Group', which recently split from Socialist Action
allegedly in 'defence of the permanent revolution'. This did not stop the 'Internationalists' however from adopting an unashamedly and openly nationalist position on Ireland.
Replying to the 'International Group', Socialist Organiser
argues that the troops out position 'begs questions' such as that 'British withdrawal would be followed immediately by sectarian civil war. And therefore Troops Out leads not to a united Ireland but to bloody repartition and two Irish states'. This can only be answered, the article contends, by a 'programme for how Ireland should be restructured with Troops Out as part of it…our programme should be self-determination for Ireland as a whole and within that autonomy for the Protestant areas.
' (My emphasis - HC). This should be 'a federal United Ireland in which the democratic rights of both sections of the Irish people will be protected.' This, according to the author, is the only way Ireland can be united, 'I'm for a federal United Ireland (any other form
of united Ireland is simply inconceivable).' (My emphasis - HC). In a further article on this theme Socialist Organiser
argues 'for a united Ireland to be possible
- let alone democratic or socialist - a movement has to be built which can offer the Protestants guarantees of their rights in a united Ireland.' (30 January 1986 - emphasis in the original).
A federal Ireland is to be achieved, apparently, by negotiations. 'A settlement must be negotiated among the different sections of the Irish people (23 January 1986). 'What's needed is not a deal between Thatcher and Fitzgerald but a 'deal' between the different sections of the Irish people, to run their country free of the British military presence…' (30 January 1986).
Even the labour movement - notwithstanding the apparent fact that the trade unions in the North are 'poisoned by sectarianism' (Socialist Organiser
, 27 February) - can have a 'role, no less, along with the 'different sections of the Irish people', in 'shaping' this settlement: 'Any serious talk of British withdrawal is necessarily talk of Britain negotiating its way out, arranging for a replacement for the state power which Britain now sustains. It would be a negotiated pull-out…Why should the left and the labour movement confine itself to the phrase-mongering role of saying 'Troops Out and no discussion', thereby depriving itself of any possible role in shaping a political settlement? It makes no sense.' (5 December 1985)!
Never has a truer line been written in Socialist Organiser
than …it makes no sense! It is sheer delusion to imagine that there could be an amicable 'settlement' with the Protestants in a situation where they would consider themselves to be in a desperate struggle for their survival. There is not the remotest understanding that there are material
factors underlying the position of the Protestant workers, or the Catholic workers for that matter, let alone security from persecution. Discrimination, the oppression of minorities, persecution, would be inherent on a bourgeois basis under modern conditions. It is their consciousness of this fact that leads the Protestant workers, with no class alternative being offered by the organised labour movement, to support the Unionist politicians, even to the point of [a] Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
Repartition and an independent Northern Ireland is effectively what the position of Socialist Organiser
amounts to. But as explained elsewhere by the Marxists, advocating UDI is tantamount to calling for civil war. At the moment, outside of a tiny handful, amongst the mass of the Protestants, there is no support for UDI. The Protestant workers associate their living standards, particularly the social benefits, the welfare services, etc. introduced by past Labour governments, with the strength of the labour movement in Britain. They compare them to the situation in the South, with inferior social services, restrictions on abortion and contraception, high unemployment, etc. and they want to remain part of Britain. They would only accept an independent Northern Ireland if it became a choice between that or rule by Dublin.
But he development of Unionist reaction with the 'Young Turks' of the DUP at its head and the paramilitaries to the fore, moving to establish an independent state in their grip, would not be passively accepted by the Catholics. They would resist being enslaved in a Protestant statelet, arms in hand. And to see what an horrendous bloodbath would result it is only necessary to look at Belfast, which is 50 per cent Protestant and 50 per cent Catholic, but surrounded by entirely Protestant areas. Where of these tiny details fit into the 'democratic federal stage' of Socialist Organiser
A reactionary Utopia
Their position is a particularly reactionary Utopia with not a drop of class content in it. It has not even occurred to these learned 'Marxists' that British Imperialism could quite happily accommodate itself to such a schema, if it were not more than a recipe for disaster!
Fundamentally Socialist Organiser
has bowed down before the 'accomplished fact' of Unionist reaction. They gave over half a page to re-print Paisley's speech of 14 November, praising it as a more accurate 'analysis' than that of Adams, which 'even-handedly' they printed on another half-page (5 December 1985)! Here is a selection of their other comments since: '1986 may be the Protestants 1969' (9 January 1986); 'It is startling to hear people like Maginnis or Peter Robinson of the DUP… talk, in their way, like revolutionaries' (27 February 1986); 'An Orange Easter Uprising?' (A headline in Socialist Organiser
20 March 1986). They can happily equate strident reaction with the heroic, if premature, rising of Easter 1916!
The situation that is unfolding in Northern Ireland is a serious challenge to the labour movement. The morass into which the sects have fallen serves as a warning of the dangers of departing even one inch from a class analysis, developed from the fundamental ideas of Marxism, when approaching the complex questions raised by the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the subsequent events.
This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.
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are available in our sitemap