Ireland - the national question

Reprinted from the International Information Bulletin, No. 17, 28th Sept. 1993

The oppression of nations and national minorities, sectarianism, bigotry and ethnic conflict are a product of capitalism and imperialism. Of the 94-recorded wars between 1945 and 1988, 69 were intra-state conflicts. These conflicts left 30 million dead and created an estimated 29 million refugees.

The collapse of Stalinism has led to the inflaming of the national question, especially in former Yugoslavia. The three-way civil war in Bosnia is a stark warning to the working class, not least in Northern Ireland, of the consequences of ethnic and sectarian conflict. In the last two years 150,000 people have been killed, millions have been made refugees and tens of thousands of women have been raped. The conflict could spread to Kosovo and Macedonia, provoking a war involving Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. The ethnic barbarism already visited upon Bosnia could be repeated on a much vaster scale in the former Soviet Union. There, up to 100 ethnic bombs are ticking away, potentially creating many Bosnia's.

The economic impasse, the increased impoverishment of large section's of the world's population, and the feelings of despair and hopelessness, coupled with the weakness of the forces of genuine Marxism, point to an increase of national and ethnic antagonisms internationally.

Africa is being ravaged by ethnic, racial and tribal conflict - from Sudan to South Africa, from Liberia to Rwanda. The potential for further conflict in other states is immense. In South Africa, over 10,000 have died due to political violence in the past three years. Unless the working class can show a way out on the basis of the socialist revolution, a racial civil war will be inevitable. In the ten months since October 1992, 100,000 have perished in the renewed civil war in Angola. The conflict is based on ideology, but it also has tribal roots.

The Middle East remains a cocktail of national unrest. The Palestinian Intifada has now continued for four and a half years. The demands of the Kurdish people for a separate state has been stepped up. The national question is now a key issue in whole regions of India. Punjab has been in a state of incipient civil war for years. The Kashmiri people have organised their own Intifada. Guerrilla war afflicts several states and Hindu-Muslim communalism stalks the sub-continent. The break up of India is inevitable on the basis of the continuation of capitalism. Tens of thousands have died during a decade of racial conflict in Sri Lanka. National and ethnic conflict has afflicted many other areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

However, this phenomenon is not confined to the underdeveloped world or the former Stalinist states. The national question has also re-emerged in the advanced capitalist countries. In Spain demands by the Basque nation for independence has dominated the political situation in the Basqueland for over two decades. National division between the Walloon (French speaking) population and the Flemish population of Belgium raises the prospect of the break up of eh country on the long-term basis of capitalism.

The re-emergence of the national question in Britain, especially in Scotland, shows how this issue, which has lain dormant for centuries, re-emerges under the crisis of capitalism. National, ethnic and racial conflicts have also re-developed in other advanced capitalist countries, especially in North America Canada and Germany.

The main purpose of this article is to deal with the national question in Ireland. The present 'Troubles' have now continued for a quarter of a century and left over 3,000 dead and twelve times that number injured. In the past twenty-five years changes have taken place in Northern Ireland which have to be taken account of. We are currently re-discussing all aspects of the national question in Ireland. This article is a contribution to that discussion. It is not intended as an exhaustive or definite statement of views, but as an aid top the discussion.

Marxism is not a dry formula nor a blueprint set in stone for eternity. It is a living theory which acts as a guide to our day-to-day work. What is necessary in the course of this discussion is a complete re-examination of our approach to the national question. Such a re-examination would be impossible without a correct analysis and perspectives.

Our organisation has put forward a correct explanation to the national question in India, Sri Lanka, former Yugoslavia, Scotland, and not least in Ireland. We base ourselves on the valuable contribution made in this field by Lenin and Trotsky. However, it would be wrong to apply the rich understanding they developed and the lessons they drew in a mechanical way. Since the days of Lenin and Trotsky, the Marxists internationally, and in Ireland, have developed upon these ideas. In Ireland our approach to the question has been developed over the past 25 years. It is essential that our approach to the national question, as on all others, is constantly re-examined on the basis of our own experience and on the basis of events.

The rise of the nation state

The overthrow of feudalism and the rise of capitalism brought in its wake the emergence of the nation state. Marx explained that the rise of the nation state played an enormously progressive role. The nation state overcame feudal parochialism. German national unification, for example, took place in 1871. However, before that there were 38 German states, some tiny, with their own laws, taxes, customs, and armies. Unification laid the foundations of a national infrastructure and of economic integration, a prerequisite for the creation of a modern capitalist society. Nations developed with a common territory, a common language, a common culture and a common national identity.

The creation of nation states was a great step forward and led to the rapid growth of industry and commerce. However, this period also witnessed the creation of multi-national states - Britain, Russia, Austria-Hungry, Spain, etc. - where smaller weaker national groups were subjected within the borders of the larger states. In some cases, on the basis of the development of capitalism, friction between the various national groupings were reduced or even eradicated. In others it was not. The oppression of national minorities led to centuries of national revolts in Ireland and Europe.

Today, unlike at the dawn of capitalism, the nation state, and private property, stands as a barrier, a fetter, to the further development of society, of industry and of the economy. Even some of the representatives of capitalism partially recognise this fact. They realise that 12 relatively small European states cannot effectively compete with the economic powerhouses of the world economy - Japan and he USA. This has led to the creation of the European Community. In turn, US and Japanese capitalism are attempting to create their own trading blocs, the North American Free Trade Association, by the US and a trading bloc involving Japan and the so-called Asian Tigers.

Today a world plan of production could supply the entire needs of humankind in the space of a generation. The US could supply the world's steel needs, Germany the world's chemical needs, Japan, the world's computers, Korea could supply world shipping needs. Latin America could feed the planet. Starvation and poverty could be eliminated. Trillions squandered on the arms of mass destruction could be diverted to develop a global health service wiping out disease.

A world plan of production to wipe out poverty, disease and want is urgently required. But capitalism, landlordism and imperialism stand in the way of this. A world plan of production would only be possible on the basis of world socialism and a world federation of workers' states.

National oppression

There are three factors, at least, which have led to the re-emergence of the national question today:
1. The failure of the working class to carry through the task of the socialist revolution on a worldwide basis.

2 The inability of capitalism to take society forward, raising the living standards of the population and thus eliminating the very roots of national conflict - the poverty, the alienation, the social deprivation and the lack of hope of whole sections of the population and

3 The failure of the leadership of the workers' organisations to unite all workers on a socialist programme and tackle the problems of the working class and society as a whole.

While Lenin and Trotsky recognised that nationalism was a poison within the workers' movement, they also recognised that there were two types of nationalism: the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor. The nationalism of the oppressor was the nationalism of the Tzars and the reactionary Black Hundreds who organised the campaign of pogroms against eh Jews of Russia. It is the nationalism of US imperialism and British Imperialism. It is the nationalism of the neo-fascist National Front in France, the right-wing racists in Germany and the British National Party. This nationalism is absolutely reactionary to the core. On the other hand, there is the nationalism of the oppressed, of those opposed to national oppression. The Marxists have always stood implacably opposed to all forms of national oppression. Trotsky explained, in the latter case, that such 'nationalism was only the outer shell of an immature Bolshevism.'

The Bolsheviks and the national question

Lenin explained that without a correct programme on the national question, it would not have been possible for the Bolsheviks to have defeated capitalism, landlordism and imperialism in the former Tzarist empire. Russians only accounted for 43% of the population. The rest of the population was made up of Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Armenians, Tartars, etc. The Bolsheviks had to win the confidence of these nationalities.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks advocated autonomy for national and ethnic minorities and inscribed the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination on their banner. The Bolsheviks programme on the national question was intended to display to the nationally oppressed that the working class of the oppressor nation - Russia - had nothing to gain from their enslavement. This meant that the Bolsheviks would defend the right of oppressed nations to independence. Under no circumstances would the Bolsheviks condone the coercing of nationalities into one nation state. When the working class seized power in Russia in 1917, one of its first decrees was the right of nations to self-determination. Finland and Poland immediately declared their independence and this was recognised by the new Bolshevik government.

However, the programme of the Bolsheviks did not end there. While proclaiming the right to cede, Lenin also appealed to the nationally oppressed to join in an alliance with the working class of Russia in the struggle to overthrow capitalism, landlordism and imperialism, including their own national variant. Another decree of the Bolshevik government, shortly after assuming power declared: "Muslims of Russia, Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Chechens and Mountaineers of the Caucasus, and all you whose mosques and customs have been trampled underfoot by the Tzars and the oppressors of Russia. Your beliefs and usages, your national and cultural institutions are henceforth free and inviolable. Organise your national life in complete freedom. You have that right. Know that your rights, like those of all the peoples of Russia, are under the powerful safeguard of the revolution and its organs, the Soviets of workers, soldiers, and peasants. Lend your support to this revolution and to its government."

The Bolsheviks were never advocates of separatism. While standing against national oppression and the coercion of nations, and supporting the right of nations to self-determination, the Bolsheviks explained that the creation of new nation states would not be a solution to the problems of the working class and the peasantry of the oppressed nations. The creation of small independent states on a capitalist basis would inevitably be dominated by the larger imperialist states. Instead the Bolsheviks stood for the unity of the toilers of all countries.

A debate developed inside the Bolsheviks on the relationship between the various new workers states, especially after the overthrow of capitalism and landlordism in the Ukraine, Georgia, Byelorussia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Lenin and Trotsky both stood for the closest alliance, that is a federation, between the various workers states, but on a voluntary, free and equal basis. Within this, Lenin would not tolerate any nation, such as Russia, having any privileges. Lenin's federation was a real one, not like the so-called 'federations' of Germany and the United States. These are unitary states. The powers held at federal level could only be decided on the basis of agreement with the constituent parts. At eh height of the civil war, on 1 June 1919, an agreement was concluded between Russia and the Ukraine which united the armies of the two workers' states within a unified military command. In his Military Writings Trotsky commented: "This arrangement will remain in full force until the Ukrainian Soviet authorities tell us that the bond is severed."

Lenin's position on this question on the relations between Russia and the Ukraine was summed in the Letter to Workers and Peasants of Ukraine on 28 December 1918:

"The independence of the Ukraine has been recognised by the…..RSFSR. It is therefore self-evident that only the Ukrainian workers and peasants themselves can and will decide at their All-Ukraine Congress of Soviets whether the Ukraine shall amalgamate with Russia, or whether she shall remain a separate and independent republic, and, in the latter case, what federal ties shall be established between that republic and Russia."

He continued: "We want a voluntary (Lenin's emphasis) union of nations - a union which precludes coercion of one nation by another - a union founded on complete confidence, on a clear recognition of brotherly love, on absolutely brotherly consent."

He concluded: "The question of the demarcation of frontiers now, for the time being - for we are striving towards the complete abolition of frontiers - is a minor one, it is not fundamental or important. In this matter we can afford to wait, and must wait, because the national distrust among the broad mass of peasants and small owners is often extremely tenacious, and haste might only intensify it, in other words, jeopardise the cause of the complete and ultimate unity.

"Whatever the boundaries of the Ukraine and Russia maybe, whatever may be the forms of their mutual state relationships, that is not so important; that is a matter I which concessions can and should be made, in which one thing, or another, or a third may be tried - the cause of the workers and peasants, of the victory over capitalism, will not perish because of that."

However, Lenin's was only one of three positions inside the Bolshevik Party on this question. Stalin advocated direct rule from Moscow and the integration of all the workers states into one unitary state. Another tendency advocated the complete independence of the Ukraine, with no links whatsoever with Russia. Eventually, the position of Lenin prevailed.

The Bolsheviks not only granted state independence to the various nations of the former Tzarist Empire, but also granted autonomy to the national, ethnic and religious groups. This took the form of autonomous republics for national groupings, such as the Volga Germans and the Tatars, and autonomous regions for ethnic and religious groups such as the Jews and Muslims.

Ireland - roots of the problem

The national question in Ireland traces its roots back to centuries of national oppression at the hands of English colonialism and later British Imperialism. The British ruling class was recognised as one of the most foresighted representatives of their class internationally. But every century, and nearly every generation, saw national revolts against the oppressor. Settlers were brought to Ireland from Britain in the hope of creating a social basis for colonial rule. However, the settlers were assimilated into Irish society and became Irish themselves. They adopted the customs and the language of the Irish.

At eh beginning of the seventeenth century imperialism decided on a new plantation. In this case they hoped to exploit the religious differences of the settlers, who were predominantly Scottish Presbyterian. Divide and rule was utilised in an attempt to disorientate the movement of revolt and hold the population in check.

However, even in Ulster, where the new plantation was most extensive, the only thing which divided the population was religion. The population was generally bi-lingual, speaking both English and Gaelic. In the course of the 18th century the Presbyterian and Catholic population of Ireland faced severe persecution, at the hands of the Protestant, or more accurately Church of Ireland, ascendancy. The persecution of the Catholic population under the Penal Laws is well known. What is not so well known is the persecution of the Presbyterian population. Only one year after the Battle of the Boyne, a Presbyterian minister was liable to three months imprisonment for delivering a sermon and a fine of £100 for celebrating the Last Supper. In 1704 Derry was awarded for its defence against James II at the 'Siege of Derry' by being compelled to submit to the Test Act. All non-Church of Ireland Protestants - the dissenters- were barred from holding high office in law, the army, navy, customs and local government. 24 local government councillors in Derry were disenfranchised. Presbyterians were forbidden to be married by their own clergy. In 1713 Presbyterians who acted as teachers were liable to three months imprisonment. A Presbyterian couldn't marry a member of the Church of Ireland faith. Like Catholics, they were forced to pay taxes to finance the upkeep of Church of Ireland clergy.

By the end of the 18th century the common misery and oppression of Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter led to the national revolt and insurrection of 1798. This revolt was led by the United Irishmen, established in Belfast in 1791. In the north the backbone of the movement was provided overwhelmingly by the Presbyterians.

In order to divide this movement, the Protestant ascendance set up the Orange Order in 1795. Its intention was to provoke sectarian warfare between Catholic and Protestant tenants and inject the poison of sectarianism into the movement. During this period its efforts failed. The defeat of the insurrection was due to other factors, the decisive being the betrayal of the uprising by the Irish capitalist class.

Indeed, membership of the Orange Order was, at first, open only to those of the Church of Ireland faith. Realising that this was too narrow a social basis for their continued rule, the leadership were forced to extend the membership to include other Protestant religions.

The rapid industrialisation of Ulster, and particularly the four northeast counties took place particularly in the 19th century. This marked the area out in sharp contrast to the predominantly agricultural-based economy in the rest of Ireland. Linen, engineering and shipbuilding were developed on a large scale, especially in Belfast. Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool became a key industrial triangle. The working class of Belfast and the northeast looked to the industrial link with Britain. This relationship was also reflected in the great industrial disputes - in 1919, for example, the struggle for a shorter working week was led by the engineering workers of Belfast, Glasgow and Liverpool.

Nevertheless, the Protestants of Ulster regarded themselves as Irish. As late as 1912 Gaelic was commonly used by Protestants. During the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant two large slogans were displayed outside the Ulster Hall in Belfast - 'Erin Go Bragh' and 'God Save the King'. Partition played an important role in cutting across this. However, even in the late 1960s the majority of Protestants still regarded themselves as Irish.

The beginnings of the Troubles

We began to build our organisation in Ireland at the beginning of the present Troubles. The Catholic population of Northern Ireland lived for 50 years under Unionist misrule, suffering widespread discrimination, poverty and repression. However, the Protestant population also lived 50 years of Unionist misrule - they also suffered poverty and unemployment.

We stood for working class unity, and end to discrimination and repression, and an end to Stormont. We explained that the conflict could not be solved on a capitalist basis. Of an attempt was made to coerce the Protestants into a united Ireland they would resist. This would lead to civil war and re-partition, setting back the working class movement North and South.

The only solution was based on the struggle of the working class, North and South, and in Britain. On the basis of the socialist revolution the border would disappear. Thus the country could only be united on a socialist basis. We stood for a socialist United Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

In the late 1960s, and even during the 1970s, the power of the Labour and trade union movement was regularly displayed for all to see - in mass strikes and demonstrations. Throughout the 1970s the number of days lost in strike action rose. In 1979 730,100 days were lost in strike action in the north, and 133.400 workers were involved. This movement was part of the so-called 'winter of discontent'. In Britain 1,288 days in 1979 were lost in strike action per 1,000 workers. The figure, however, in Northern Ireland was 1,421 per 1,000. We have pointed in the past to the tendency for the movement, when on the offensive, to surpass in combativity and solidarity the movement in Britain. These figures confirm this. However, the opposite is also true. That is, when the movement goes in to retreat, there is a tendency for the movement in the north to recede further than the movement in Britain. The last period was a period of setback and retreat, and this has been more severe in the north. The tremendous movement of the working class, up to 1979 and in the early years of the Thatcher government, had a profound effect on the consciousness of the working class. The Catholic and Protestant workers stood united on the picket line. A strong shop stewards body existed which ensured rank and file control over the movement. Workers, particularly the more active workers, began to draw the conclusion that political action by the labour movement was needed.

In 1970 the Northern Ireland Labour Party received 100,000 votes. In the same year, due to the pressure from the rank and file of the Irish Labour Party and the NILP, a Council of Labour was set up representing the two Labour Parties. We explained that this represented a tendency for the movement to come together North and South - and in this case the move in the direction of an all-Ireland Labour Party.

In the course of the 1980s the labour and trade union movement internationally has suffered a number of severe setbacks. This has been especially the case in Britain and this has had a knock on effect on the movement in Northern Ireland. Gone are the days when tens of thousands of workers stood united on picket lines. This unity in action developed a sense of common purpose, a sense of class. This enormously strengthened the idea of the need for a strong independent labour movement. The offensive movement of the working class in the late 1970s and during the early 1980s had an important impact on the political consciousness, especially of the most advanced sections of the working class, who saw the need for political action and the need for a Labour Party. However, the betrayal and open sabotage on the part of the Labour and trade union leaders over the past decade has set this process into reverse.

Our perspectives emphasised the tendency of the movement of the working class to come together North and South. The ICTU was and is an all-Ireland trade union body and ultimately a united movement of the working class would develop. This perspective was one of the keys of our understanding and approach.

While still generally correct, this perspective has been cut across by 25 years of the Troubles. It would be a mistake now not to recognise this change in the situation. The absence of a strong socialist Labour Party and a fighting trade union movement has had a negative effect on the consciousness of the working class. No mass workers' political party has existed now for 20 years. The parties which dominate the political arena are completely sectarian.

The last major generalised struggle of the working class in the North was the 1982 health dispute. There was no miner's strike here, although workers displayed a great degree of solidarity, and the poll tax struggle was confined to Britain.

There has been, however, signs of a beginning of a change in this situation at rank and file level. The marvellous demonstrations, organised from below, especially in south Down, on the issue of the health service, shows the real mood of the working class, and that is towards united action and a willingness to fight. However, the struggle against Tory cuts, privatisation and the implementation of trusts marks only the beginning of the processes which have developed in the opposition direction - towards further polarisation and division.

Northern Ireland today

The mood of the working class remains anti-sectarian and anti-Tory, but this is contradictory and uneven., It would not be possible for 25 years of political upheaval, sectarian violence and bloody repression not to have a dramatic effect on the consciousness of the working class. Repression by the state, the campaign of sectarian assassination against Catholics by the loyalist paramilitaries, the military campaign of the Provisionals, and the policies of the British government have had a deep-rooted effect on both communities.

The two communities have a conflicting view of each other. Catholics still see Protestants in a commanding position and themselves as the underdog. On the other hand, Protestants now consider that Catholics have made gains, at their expense, and are on the winning side.

The changed outlook of Protestants is due to a number of factors. Stormont has now been abolished for 21 years - one third of the lifetime of the Northern Ireland state. The beginning of the Troubles came after half a century of Stormont rule. Loyalists argued that Northern Ireland was a Protestant state for a Protestant people, that Protestants belonged to a privileged group, and even if they didn't share in the privileges they were still something better than Catholics.

In the 1970s loyalist paramilitaries saw themselves as the defenders of this 'Ulster'. This, off course, was not the attitude of all Protestant workers. The more class-consciousness workers rejected these ideas, looked to the labour movement and instinctively saw the need for working class unity.

Today, the outlook of Protestants has changed. They, particularly those living in the staunch working class estates, see themselves as being worse off and on the losing side. There is a perception in Protestant areas that concession made to Catholics have been a result of IRA violence. Catholics have a say in the running of Northern Ireland, in the form of the SDLP via the Dublin government and the Anglo-Irish Agreement. On the other hand the majority, the Unionists, only have control of local government, which has no real powers. There is a popular conception that money is being pumped into Catholic areas, while Protestants areas are being disadvantaged. Fair employment legislation is resented by a section of the Protestant population, who see Catholics getting good jobs. This is seen against the backdrop of the decline, especially in heavy engineering industries, with the shipyard, for example, now been reduced to a few thousand workers. Unemployment in Protestant areas is now at an all time high. There is also heavy army/police patrols saturating Protestant working class areas.

On top of this there is the strong feeling that the British government intends to sell-out Protestants. This flows from the Anglo-Irish Agreement, but confirmed, by the recent 'slip' in the German weekly magazine Blid, by Sir Patrick Mayhew, the NI Secretary of State, that they would get rid of Northern Ireland 'with pleasure'.

Protestants equate Catholics winning with the depopulation of Protestant areas such as Shankill, Ballysillen, Tigers Bay, etc. and the bulging Catholic populations of Ardoyne, the New Lodge area, West Belfast, etc. There is also the loss of territory to what they see as an advancing Catholic population. In the last ten years the Protestant population of North Belfast has fallen from 112,000 to 56,000 today. Twenty years ago the population of the Shankill was 76,000; today it stands at 27,000. The Catholic populations of Belfast is now 50% and in Derry, the Protestant population has shrunk on the West Bank, where the unionists now don't have a single councillor.

There is also the perception in the Protestant community that Catholic grievances have been addressed and IRA violence has paid off. These opinions are particularly strong in the hard-line areas and amongst the youth. 'Young people believe no one listens to talk (i.e. the politicians) and the only thing is to imitate the IRA', said Glenn Barr, a former UDA leader from Derry.

There has been a marked escalation of loyalist paramilitary violence in the 1990s. Loyalist killings in 1991 were double the rate for 1990, and in 1992 they doubled again. Between 1969 and 1982 loyalist paramilitaries were responsible for 25% of all killings. In 1991-92 they were responsible for nearly 45% and for the first four months of 1993 they were responsible for 53%. Loyalists in this period have killed more people than the Provisionals.

The effects of 22 years of the IRA campaign has also reinforced all the prejudices propagated by loyalist bigots and exacerbated the sectarian divide. The campaign of the Provos is absolutely abhorred in the Protestant areas.

Protestant alienation has developed to an alarming degree. In a Newsletter survey 40% of respondents stated that they supported loyalist paramilitary activity. This survey was carried out by telephone and is therefore not accurate, but it does five a glimpse of the rise of support for the loyalist paramilitaries.

The position of the Catholic population has not changed fundamentally. While the alienation of a growing section of the Protestant population is a new feature of the situation today, alienation amongst the Catholic working class remains.

But gone is the period of Stormont rule - a Protestant state for a Protestant people. This was seen as a clearly sectarian regime. The open discrimination which the Unionists blatantly practised, and to which successive Tory and Labour Westminster administrations turned a blind eye, is no more. No longer do Catholics have to endure the 'No Catholic need apply' tag. Discrimination still exists but in a different fashion. The period of mailed fist repression - when the state carried out mass raids, mass arrests and mass murder of Catholics - has changed. Open internment has gone. In 1973 74,556 homes were raided by the British army, this was overwhelmingly in Catholic areas. Ten years later the figure was 1,494. The massacre by British paratroopers of 14 Catholics in Derry in 1972 still has a profound effect on the consciousness of the people of Derry. The treatment meted out to the 1981 hunger strikers caused revulsion in Catholic areas. But today, while there is no let up in repression, it has become much more sophisticated. Shoot-to-kill, internment by remand, censorship, Strip-searching, exclusion orders, harassment and RUC and army frame-ups still continue. It is primarily those living in the more hard-line working class areas which feel the brunt of repression.

Unemployment, poverty and social deprivation remains widespread. Indeed, unemployment is now running at probably three times the rate of the early 1970s. However, unemployment amongst Catholics is running at about two and a half times the Protestant rate.

While the lot of the Catholic working class has not changed fundamentally, and while they still, generally, feel the same degree of alienation they felt at the beginning of the Troubles, this is not true, to the same extent, for the Catholic middle class.

The Catholic middle class have benefited greatly from the 'reforms' introduced by Britain. The Catholic middle class now occupy important positions in public sector employment. In the 1960s they felt they had benefited from the education reforms of the welfare state, but were still deprived of the benefits normally accrued to a middle class, and were shut out of 'official' society. Sections of the middle class became disenchanted and were involved in the civil rights movement. They had no wish to mobilise the Catholic working class, whom they feared. Today they are relatively content with their lot.

Unlike the 1960s, when the population was increasingly becoming integrated, today a majority of the population live in areas where an overwhelming majority of the population are of the same religion. Today, nearly half of the North's population live in areas which are either 90% Protestant or 95% Catholic.

However, while there has been a tendency towards increased division and polarisation, it is uneven and contradictory. Protestants in the Shankill, for example, are three times more likely to be unemployed as Protestants in east Belfast. The moods in the areas of high unemployment and high social deprivation are more hard-line than elsewhere.

But, 66% of Catholics and 60% of Protestants are in favour of integrated education and believe that the government should do more to encourage it. Three quarters of Catholics and two-thirds of Protestants say they'd like more cross-community contact. While there has been greater division, there is also a mood against these developments.

The demographic changes, which have taken place over the past 20 years, have thrown in an added complication to the situation in the North. Traditionally the Protestant-Catholic population has stood on a ratio of 2:1. Recent consensus figures (1991) reveal that the catholic population in the North now stands at 42%, and that the population of Belfast city now stands at 50:50.

These demographic changes effect peoples' perceptions in the North, The Protestant population feel that they could soon be a minority in the North, adding further to their sense of alienation and isolation. On the other hand, Catholics feel that they only need to sit it out for a period. When they become a majority in the North, the British will have no choice to leave, and the Protestants will have no choice but to work out some sort of accommodation with them.

These demographic changes are a warning to the working class. It raises the urgency of the need to build our own organisation. On a capitalist basis there is no solution. On a capitalist basis a Catholic majority would most likely lead to civil war. That is what happened in the Lebanon when the Muslim population became a majority in 1975. This also shows the futility of the power-sharing argument. Lebanon's voting population was traditionally 55% Christian and 45% Muslim. The President was Christian (Maronite) and the Prime Minister was a Sunni Muslim. However, in 1975 this was reversed to 62% Muslims and 37% Christians.

In the event of the Catholics becoming a majority in Northern Ireland the demand would arise for a referendum to decide the issue. The Unionist parties would probably call for a boycott of such a referendum, as the nationalist parties did when the last such referendum was held in 1973. A vote for a united Ireland would be rejected, just as the vote for an independent Bosnia was rejected by the Bosnian Serbs. On a capitalist basis, civil war and re-partition would be the most likely outcome.

The South

It is also necessary to take into account the changes which have taken place in Southern Ireland over the past 25 years. Two extremely contrasting events give one indication of the change. The response by workers in the South to Bloody Sunday in January 1972 was an almost spontaneous general strike. The people of the South easily identified with the plight of the Catholics in what they saw as the 'occupied six' living under the tyranny of the Stormont regime. Mass demonstrations shook Dublin. The British embassy in Dublin was gutted by the hostile crows which gathered outside. During this period, thousands flocked to either wing of the IRA in Southern Ireland and many youth travelled North to show their support.

Twenty-one years later, in the aftermath of the Warrington bomb, 20,000 gathered outside Dublin's General Post Office, in protest. The demonstration reflected the genuine disgust of Dublin workers to this IRA atrocity. But Northerners, who had travelled down, with placards asking for those killed in the North by the police and the army to be remembered, were physically and verbally abused by demonstrators.

The Irish capitalist class are weak and dependent on British and European capitalism. The conflict in the North is an embarrassment to them, in their wheelings and dealings with the European capitalist powers. They have revised the history of the foundations of the state, for fear of giving encouragement to the Provisionals. There is now a concept, even among ordinary people, that the North is something different and something separate from themselves. It is not, however, ruled out that at some stage depending upon events, this situation could change and there could be a revival of nationalist sentiment in southern Ireland.

A Marxist programme

Flowing from these changes in the objective situation it is necessary to review the conclusions which we drew in the past.

In the period after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement there was a dramatic upsurge in sectarianism. We then dropped usage of the slogan - for a Socialist United Ireland and socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. Instead we called for a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland. We realised that with the changes which had already taken place in the objective situation, to cling to such a slogan would cut us off from the Protestant working class. In our slogan all they would see would be the united Ireland.

The general programme of Marxism on the national question advances the slogan of the right of nations to self-determination and autonomy for national and ethnic groupings. But Lenin explained that a programme cannot be put above place and time. Lenin stated that: "There can be no question of the Marxists of any country drawing up their national programme without taking account of al the historical and concrete state conditions". The slogan of the right of nations to self-determination is not an abstract principle. In Ireland the Marxists have never put forward this demand. Concretely, in the conditions of Ireland, to launch this slogan would mean a support for a capitalist united Ireland. We have explained that any move to travel in this direction would lead towards its opposite - repartition, civil war and a defeat for the labour movement and the struggle for socialism.

During the period of the long economic upswing in the 1950s and 1960s when the national question had receded, it would have been incorrect for the British Marxists to have argued for Scotland's right to self-determination. Nationalism was not an issue. To have raised it would have created divisions between the working class of England and Scotland.

In the 1840s, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California and parts of Colorado, were seized militarily by the United States from Mexico and annexed. Today, to call for their return to Mexico would be a completely mechanical interpretation of Lenin's ideas.

Religion and Nationality

One issue which requires analysis is the question of whether the Protestants are a nation. Marxists firmly believe that the Protestants are a religious grouping - like the Jews, the Sikhs and Hindus, etc. - and not a nationality. However, under certain circumstances it is not entirely excluded that a national identity could develop.

The Jews were no more than a religious grouping even when they immigrated in large numbers to Palestine. However, under the conditions of the partition of Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel, and successive wars with the Arab states an Israeli national consciousness developed. In 1948 when the state of Israel was established the Marxists opposed it and argued that it was an artificial state. This is no longer the case. A similar situation developed in the Indian sub-continent, where Pakistan was partitioned from India. Several million perished in the brutal communal civil war as Muslim slaughtered Hindu, and vice versa. An artificial state was created. The states of Punjab and Bengal were portioned. On both sides of the Punjabi and Bengali borders lived the same people, who spoke the same language. The only thing which divided the people was their religion. But today a Pakistani national consciousness has developed - although within Pakistan there are Punjabis, Sindi, Panthans and Buluchis. East Bengal split from Pakistan in 1971 in a war which saw the establishment of Bangladesh.

The Indian Marxists have explained that a Sikh national consciousness could develop out of the present conflict in the Indian Punjab. This conflict began with the followers of the Sikh extremist Bhindrawale's demand for Kalistan - a separate Sikh state. Initially Bhindrawale was encouraged by Ghandi's Congress Party in order to undermine the influence of the major Sikh party, Akali Dal. Eventually, in June 1984 Bhindrawale's forces were massacred by Indian troops in the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. Then five months later two Sikh bodyguards assassinated the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Ghandi. This led to widespread anti-Sikh pogroms throughout India. Thousands of Sikhs were massacred at the hands of Hindu chauvinists and fascists. 100,000 were made refugees and fled to Punjab seeking refuge. Since these events in 1984 the state of Punjab has been in a state of incipient civil war.

But Sikhism was note even a separate religion from Hinduism - it was a Hindu sect. Traditionally the eldest son of a Hindu became a Sikh. During the period of civil war, at the foundation of the Indian state, and since then there had not been one sign of discord between Hindus and Sikhs.

Indian Marxists raised not only the possibility that a Sikh national consciousness could develop, but that at some stage, Marxists would have to put forward the right of the Sikhs to self-determination.

Flowing from this, it cannot be excluded, under certain circumstances that a national identity could develop amongst the Protestants in Northern Ireland. In Israel and Pakistan a national consciousness only developed in the course and aftermath of a bloody civil war. The Jews in Israel were fighting for their very survival. These circumstances drew the population together and in the heat of war forged a national identity. In Bosnia, the Muslim population were not a nation, separate from the Serbs. They are not, as is sometimes believed, descended for the Turks whose Ottoman Empire spread beyond the borders of Bosnia. The Muslims of Bosnia are Islamised Slavs - Serbs. In 1974 Yugoslavia's new constitution recognised the Serbs as a nation, in order to counter the power of the Serbs in the Yugoslav federal state. This effectively turned the Serbs into a minority in Bosnia. At the same time two provinces of Serbia, Kosovo and Vovjovinda- with an Albanian and Hungarian majority respectively - were granted autonomous status for the same reason.

However, the Muslims did not formally constitute a nation. On the basis of the policies of the Serb dominated Yugoslav federal state, a certain national identity did develop. But now, in the aftermath of the bloody civil war, who could doubt that the Muslim people of Bosnia do not consider themselves a separate nation. Therefore, Marxists must be open to the possibility that the Protestants of Northern Ireland could develop a separate national consciousness. On the basis of civil war and re-partition this could develop.

In Israel/Palestine two nations do exist. Two languages are spoken. Nonetheless we approach the Palestinian and Israeli workers from the standpoint of the working class unity, opposition to the repression of the Palestinian people, no solution on the basis of capitalism, the right of the Palestinians to their own state and recognition of the right of the Israelis to their own state and of the need for a socialist federation of the Middle East. In Northern Ireland the situation is much more fluid.

It is not possible 'to give a finished definition to an unfinished process' to quote Trotsky, 'but to follow all its stages, separate its progressive from its reactionary tendencies, expose their mutual relations, foresee possible variants of development, and find in this foresight a basis for action.'

Perspectives for the North

It would be impossible to fully deal with the national question in Ireland without some discussion on future perspectives, both long term and short term. There is not the space here to go into this in details. We shall return to this in a later document on perspectives.

Recent developments underline the complexity and fluidity of the situation in the North, In late June and early July the media was full of statements on plans for 'joint authority'. Then, in the course of the vote on Maastricht, the Ulster Unionist Party voted with the Tories and agreed further to vote with them for the rest of their parliamentary term.

'Joint authority' hit the headlines when a document from the British Labour Party proposing joint authority was 'leaked'. A few weeks later, the South's Labour Party leader and Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, made a similar call for joint authority. This was supported by John Hume and it was one of the SDLP's proposals in last year's inter-party talks. When the Tories and the Unionists rounded on Spring, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein jumped to Spring's defence.

Joint authority would never be accepted by the Protestant population of the North. It would solve nothing and create more instability, and, most likely, as with the Anglo-Irish Agreement, lead to a rise in violence and killings. It's unlikely that the Tories would move towards this option, but a future Labour government could go along this road.

The outcome of the Maastricht vote is an 'alliance; between the battered government of John Major and the Ulster Unionists. The Unionists have given the Tories a 36-seat majority. They have argued that their pact with the Tories will lead to the creation of a NI Select Committee, where legislation for the north can be scrutinised, more powers for local government, and NI legislation to be enacted through parliament, instead of by-passing parliament by the present Orders-in-Council. James Molyneaux has also claimed that the Tories intend introducing devolution by 1995.

Any attempt to find a solution on the basis of capitalism will at best come to nothing but could worsen the situation. Any attempt to lean on the Catholics at the expense of the Protestants, or, to lean on the Protestants at the expense of the Catholics, will lead to increased instability and an upsurge of violence.

The conflict in the North has now continued for a quarter of a century. Young people are now being brought up knowing nothing else but violence, sectarianism and despair. At some stage the situation could spiral out of control. The introduction of joint authority or more power to the Unionists could act as a spark to an accelerating conflict. This would not necessarily mean a full scale civil war, but an incipient civil war, with the scale of the violence on the level of the early 1970s and causalities running close to 1,000 a year.


In the longer term, it is inconceivable on the basis of the socialist revolution sweeping these islands, that in Ireland, there would not be two centres of power. This would inevitably give rise to two administrations North and South. It is inconceivable that the movement in the north would be lead from the South However, on the other hand, there would be a tendency for the border to disappear. The overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the present Irish border are catholic with an aspiration for unity. Today, with the disappearance of the customs border, the only existing physical border is that of steel and mortar built by British Imperialism. On the basis of the socialist revolution this would be dismantled. It would serve no function for the workers' state.

The role of a Marxist organisation in its day to day propaganda is to emphasis what the working class Catholic and Protestant have in common, as opposed to what divides them, fight for the unity of the working class in action and in the course of struggle, fight to rid the working class movement of all those tendencies which tend to highlight the divisions within the working class, fight all sectarianism and prejudices, and fight for a socialist solution to the conflict. The role of a Marxist organisation is to combat all forms of sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

The Bolsheviks argued for the right of nations to self-determination. They also advocated autonomy for national minorities, and ethnic and religious groupings. In order to placate the genuine fears of the Protestant population, a workers state in Ireland would be prepared, and would even advocate autonomy for the Protestants in the north, within a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

However, autonomy would need to be granted to a geographical area, not simply a people. This could autonomy for the North, or a sizable portion of the North, a socialist Ireland and a socialist federation of Britain and Ireland.

While the right of self-determination and the right of autonomy forms part of the general programme of Marxism, they are not formal or abstract principles. At this stage, it would be premature to put forward the question of autonomy for the Protestants, or the North.

First of all, it is necessary to begin with a correct theory and a correct analysis. Flowing from this analysis we can work out our programme. A Marxist programme is a dialogue, not a monologue, with the working class. It must take into consideration the present day consciousness of the working class.

We have always explained that it is fatal to mistake the consciousness of the Marxists for that of the working class as a whole. On the national question this is even more the case.

The question of autonomy for the Protestants, or even for the North, would not necessarily be understood by the Catholic working class. It would be viewed from today's consciousness and not of what it would mean within a workers' state.

Also, protestants would not accept autonomy within a united Ireland. Based on today's consciousness, they would view this as giving up what they have now, for what its worth, for the uncertainty of autonomy in an all-Ireland state.

The key question is that the Marxists are fundamentally opposed to coercing the Protestant working class and are opposed to forcing them inside the borders of a socialist Ireland.

As Lenin explained: "The question of the demarcation of frontiers now, for the time being - for we are striving towards the complete abolition of frontiers - is a minor one, it is not fundamental or important. In this matter we can afford to wait and must wait, because the national distrust among the broad mass of peasants and small owners is often extremely tenacious, and haste might only intensify it, in other words, jeopardise the cause of the complete and ultimate unity".

MM, August 1993

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