Debate on "Ireland: Lies The Left Tells Itself"

Submitted by martin on 9 May, 2008 - 12:02 Author: Geoff Bell and Sean Matgamna

Geoff Bell: There is nothing wrong in reassessing Marxist interpretations, but where this has led Socialist Organiser as far as this particular exercise is concerned is to the other side of the class divide. This is illustrated in the January edition of the magazine Workers' Liberty and an article therein by Sean Matgamna.

This is entitled "Ireland: lies the left tells itself". A more fitting headline would have been "Ireland: examples of the lies the right tells itself". For what has now emerged from what at first was a sloppy and impressionistic analysis is the one which stands four square with the opinions of the British ruling class.

We are told that there would be a bloody sectarian civil war if British troops left the north of Ireland, that those troops have every right to be there anyway because "Northern Ireland has been part of the British state since the 12th century", and that Britain has no political, economic or military interest in staying in the north of Ireland.

The reason they do so apparently is because of the "power of the Orangeists on the ground", and it is this power which if British troops did leave, would result in all sorts of nasty things happening to Catholics.

Not only do we have a series of views which suggests the role of the British army is to keep two sets of mad paddies apart, we have an additional reactionary bonus. This is that Protestants in the north of Ireland are quite right to resist any attempt to submit them to the rule of the Irish majority because they are British, have always considered themselves so and because they are faced with "Sinn Fein's Catholic Irish nationalism" which is alien to them and their "traditions". These politics of Sinn Fein are also something which break from the traditional republicanism of Wolfe Tone which contrary to Sinn Fein's version, was nonsectarian.

There is, in all this, so much disinformation it is difficult to know where to gasp most. But, for example:

* "Northern Ireland" was only part of the British state in name since the 12th century. Ulster was so resistant to British occupation that it did not happen in reality until the 17th century when the native Irish were driven from their land and were replaced by English and Scottish settlers.

* The Protestant community of the northeast of Ireland have rarely considered themselves as "British" in the sense that term is understood in Britain. From the Home Rule Bills of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the Anglo-Irish accord of today they have continually resisted the "right" of the British parliament to rule them. Moreover, historically speaking, the Protestants in Ireland as a whole have generally defined themselves as "Irish" or some variant of that - "Anglo-Irish", "Scots-Irish", "Northern Irish" or "Ulstermen" (sic). Even today the majority of northern Irish Protestants reject the view that the British parliament has the right to tell them what to do. They also toy with advocating an independent Ulster (the UDA) or Ulster as a British dominion in the way Canada is (Ulster Clubs).

* The notion that contemporary Sinn Fein republicanism is different from that of Wolfe Tone is an historical illiteracy. Sad to say, but in fact the examples of anti-Protestant sectarianism in Wolfe Tone's 1798 rising were much more commonplace than in the present IRA's campaign, although in both cases such sectarianism was no part of the politics of the vast majority of those involved.

* To define Sinn Fein as "Irish Catholic nationalism" is slander. Irish nationalism has often had a rather right wing and Catholic side to it, but Sinn Fein in word and deed has resolutely opposed it. If there are present day Catholic Irish nationalists they are most likely to be found in the SDLP in the north or Fianna Fail in the south.

* The attempt to justify the presence of British troops in the north of Ireland by raising the spectre of the Protestant backlash is rather old hat these days. Let us remember that the troops went onto the streets in 1969 because the loyalist security forces had been defeated. And today the political unity which would be necessary for the Loyalists to be a real threat to Catholics in the event of British withdrawal is completely missing. The failure of the Loyalists to defeat the Anglo-Irish agreement is just one example of the limited capability of the "Protestant backlash".

In seeking to minimise British responsibility for the situation in Ireland, in suggesting that, for the good of the Irish, British troops must stay, in painting the "Loyalists" more "British" than they paint themselves, Socialist Organiser ends up calling for the extension of both Loyalist "rights" and the British presence.

The advocacy is for Protestant self-rule - in other words, a statelet drawn up purely on a sectarian headcount. This statelet would apparently be part of a federal Ireland. But then comes the biggest howler. There have to be "ties of some confederal sort between that united Ireland and Britain".

In other words, Brits into the south of Ireland. Wave the Union Jack and pass the ammunition.


Sean Matgamna: If it was worth Geoff Bell's while to respond to my article, then it was worth doing properly especially, perhaps, given that he and I are an Irish "Protestant' and an Irish "Catholic" arguing the I wrong" way round, and that can't have happened very often in the last 100 years.

It is a shame he didn't. But he scarcely bothers to argue. He hunts heresy and denounces as from a pulpit, and none too

scrupulously - as if guided by the injunction that the faithful are not obliged to keep faith with heretics.

He nit-picks and goes off at tangents. Even if he were right that "Northern Ireland" was not really in the "British" state until the 17th century - essentially he isn't - would that make a difference now to our attitude to Ireland's Protestant minority, which certainly dates only from the 17th century? You could throw the pedantry back in his face. He equates British "occupation" (of Ulster) with colonisation: so was the uncolonised (or unsuccessfully colonised) part of Ireland never "British-occupied Ireland"?

Geoff Bell further argues that the Protestants are not British because they will not obey the British Parliament. So what were the British colonists in America in 1776 when they declared independence from the British government? Or the British colonists in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1965 when they made their Unilateral Declaration of Independence? Some notion of development and dialectics would help here, Geoff.

He uses strong words without in his text justifying their use. I am on "the other side of the class divide". Yes I am, if vicarious Catholic Irish nationalism is the working-class side; but if it isn't, on what side of the class line are Geoff Bell and the others who "forget" Marxism and a large part of the Irish working class, and embrace Catholic nationalism garnished with misleading (and, in the circumstances, irrelevant and even deceptive) socialist phrases and aspirations.

Geoff Bell tries to damn what I say by association. I stand "four square", he says, with "the opinion of the British ruling class". If true, that literally means that I support the status quo. Of course, he means that I recognise that the pressing and irreducible problem is the division among the people who live in Ireland.

Is it true or isn't it? That is the question. Geoff's best approach to an argument here is a quibble about whether the Protestants think they are British or not "in the sense that term is understood in Britain". For sure they don't consider themselves Irish in the sense in which that term is understood in Dublin!

He translates what I say into the language of crude British chauvinism: Britain "keeps two sets of mad paddies apart". He then contradicts himself in the next sentence by angrily accusing me of saying that the Protestants are anything but mad to resist being reduced to a minority in a Catholic-dominated state.

Geoff Bell goes in for rewriting history, too. He writes that "the troops went onto the streets in 1969 because the loyalist security forces had been defeated". Some of the Protestant state forces were beaten back in Derry in 1969 - but the resources even of the Six County state were not exhausted; and the Orange forces had not been beaten in Belfast.

Geoff insists that "the examples of anti-protestant sectarianism in Wolfe Tone's 1798 rising were much more commonplace than in the present IRA's campaign". Which "Wolfe Tone rising" is he talking about? There were at least three disparate movements in 1798. Indeed there was sectarianism in the risings. But there was no sectarianism in the programme of Tone's United Irishmen, which counterposed to existing and old divisions the goal of replacing the denominations of "Protestant (Anglican), Catholic and Dissenter (Presbyterian)" by the common name of Irish. There is sectarianism in the programme of the Provisionals - which is a programme for the majority to incorporate the minority into a unitary state, leaving them no protection if the majority choose to override them.

If Gerry Adams had any serious aspirations towards Wolfe Tone's politics, would he go around in Northern Ireland parading his religious creed, as when he publicly explained his escape from assassination by his going to Mass regularly? Sinn Fein has "resolutely" opposed sectarianism in words, especially in words for export. Deeds are another matter.

"If there are present-day catholic Irish nationalists", writes Geoff Bell, " they are most likely to be in the SDLP". Read the papers, Geoff. In the spate of elections triggered by the Unionists in March 1986 to have, in effect, a referendum on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Sinn Fein - which opposed the Agreement - proposed a common front to the SDLP, which supported the Agreement. This common front could only be on the basis of Catholic head counting, as the gleeful John Hume pointed out.

You could - though I don't especially want to - make a case that, taken all in all, what they do as well as what they say, the SDLP, despite being a narrow communal party, is nearer to Wolfe Tone Republicanism than the Provisionals are.

Geoff Bell cites "The failure of the loyalists to defeat the Anglo-Irish Agreement" - which has little practical consequence for them so far - to argue that they would be no "real threat to catholics in the event of British withdrawal". So they would not try to hold on to what they have? They would not resist incorporation into an all-Ireland Catholic-majority state? Draw comfort from that sort of reasoning if you can, Geoff. I take it as proof that you can't face the facts.

One of the strangest reactions to the Anglo-Irish Agreement was that of People's Democracy, the Irish group linked to Socialist Outlook. Criticising even the Provisionals for softness on the Agreement, they denounced the Dublin government for betraying "the 1937 Constitution" - that same Constitution which contemporaries, including at least one writer in the leading Trotskyist magazine of that time, the New International, denounced as clerical -fascist in tendency. (To this day the Irish Senate is chosen on the basis of the Catholic corporatism dominant in the '30s).

In the same vein Geoff Bell throws back his ears and gives out an angry philistine bray at the idea of some revived - confederal - link between Britain and Ireland. What does he think of that dirty old West-British shoneen Karl Marx, who came late to support for Home Rule and then disgraced himself by arguing that "after separation may come federation"?

We have to raise the issue of confederal links between Ireland and Britain because over 100 years of political struggles have proved that Irish unity and Irish independence are incompatible. In a different historical and political world De Valera tried to come to term with the problem in 1921, when he came out for "external association" with the British Empire, primarily as a means of maintaining a common framework between the Irish majority and minority. For the same reason he was privately against Ireland's withdrawal from the Commonwealth in 1949.

You might remain on Marxist, internationalist ground, and oppose confederal links between Ireland and Britain because a process of necessary separation had not had enough time to do its healing and reconciling work. Northern Ireland cuts across all that.

Part of Ireland remains in the UK. It is torn apart between two communities, one of which is determined to remain with Britain and the other to link up with independent Ireland. These facts, which are likely to remain immutable for a whole historical period, point unmistakably towards the recreation of a broader framework within which to seek a solution to the Catholic-Protestant impasse in Northern Ireland. Even in a Socialist United States of Europe, Britain and Ireland would still stand in a specially close relationship to each other.

The ruling classes have begun to re-knit links. Under the Anglo-Irish Agreement provision is made for a British-Dublin-Belfast Interparliamentary Committee, which draws the two islands politically closer than at any time in 65 years.

Why should the Irish Marxists be like mystical Irish nationalists, and take their stand on complete Irish separation and independence as an absolute principle outside of history? That absolute independence has nothing more to give the Irish people, and the Provisionals' drive for it helps prime a sectarian civil war.

Opinion polls tell us that a big majority in Catholic Ireland does not want, or radically fears, a united Ireland. Election results tell us that in the North the Provisional Republicans have the support of little more than one Catholic in three. Their support in independent Ireland is minuscule - less than two per cent in elections.

Of course, moods can change and swing, and in Ireland they do tend to swing according to what we call "the politics of the last atrocity". Opinion swung to the Republicans after the Gibraltar killings and the Milltown massacre, against them after the two soldiers were spectacularly killed at a funeral, and so on.

But in the last 20 years those shifts have not changed the rocky underlying facts of communal antagonism, nor altered anything fundamental. 20 years of the IRA's war have resulted in stalemate and stasis.

The lesson of this last 20 years is the same as the lesson of the 100 years since Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill: the goals of Irish unity and Irish independence flatly contradict each other. They are irreconcilable. The linked aspirations of the Irish majority for independence and for unity are incompatible.

The Irish minority, define them how you like, will not have a united independent Ireland, and, if they are thrown entirely on to their own resources, they will fight to prevent it. Of course, in the past sections of the British ruling class stirred up and used that Irish minority, playing the "Orange card"; but the minority had to be there in the first place to be so used. It is still "there" now that the British ruling class is united in policy for Ireland as it never was between 1885 and 1922, and no section of that ruling class has any use at all for the Irish Protestants.

The British-designed Partition put a proportionately bigger Catholic minority in the "Protestant" state than the Protestants would have been in an all-Ireland state. The Northern Catholics were oppressed because they were seen as a threat. The consequence has been the prolonged Northern Ireland Catholic revolt and the partial destabilisation of the state system established in 1920-22 by the British and the different sections of the Irish bourgeoisie.

It is necessary to support the half-million Catholics in their opposition to the unjust settlement of 1920-22; but it would be no solution to force one million Protestants into an all-Ireland state against their will and leave them feeling - and maybe reacting as the Northern Ireland Catholics do now. The Leninist policy for situations like this is long established and very much to the point. As Trotsky summarised it: "In so far as the various nationalities, voluntarily or through force of necessity, coexist within the borders of one state, their cultural interests must find the highest possible satisfaction within the framework of the broadest regional (and, consequently, territorial) autonomy, including statutory guarantees of the rights of each minority".

Now it is absurd to say that Partition helps either capitalism or imperialist domination of southern Ireland today. But even if it did, socialists could still not dismiss the legitimate democratic claims of the Irish Protestant minority. In such conflicts between communities in Ireland, in Palestine, in Sri Lanka, or anywhere - Marxists recognise that all the antagonists have rights and seek working-class unity across the divide on the basis of justice, conciliation, and whatever state structure the peoples concerned find most acceptable and least divisive.

The idea that there are good and bad - or "imperialist" and anti-imperialist" - nations or countries comes from narrow irredentist and populist nationalism (sometimes in Maoist or other versions), not from Marxism, Leninism or Trotskyism. These are the Marxist policies for Ireland:

* Consistent democracy,

* Conciliation,

* Defence of the oppressed Catholics

* Guarantees for the Protestants who fear oppression by the Catholic Irish majority

* Working-class unity on a programme of democratic rights

* And on that basis a struggle for socialism.

In the language of the Trotskyist movement: a programme of democratic and transitional demands.

My Workers' Liberty article spelled out the false ideas and assumptions which - I believe - bewilder the far left and turn them into cheerleaders, usually ignorant cheerleaders, for Sinn Fein. Geoff Bell has written books and pamphlets which codify the dominant ideas of most of the "hard left" about Ireland. How does he respond to my systematic listing of arguments against those ideas? Take them point by point.

* Southern Ireland is not a neo-colony, and in any case, with most foreign investment in Ireland American and German, not a British neo-colony.

Geoff Bell is silent about this.

* Northern Ireland is not merely "British-occupied Ireland", unless the desires of the Six County majority count for nothing.

Geoff Bell replies with a quibble about the length of time Northern Ireland has been linked to Britain.

* Ireland is one island, but plainly not one people. To pretend it is one unit is to confuse geography with society, nationality, and politics.

Geoff Bell pretends it is, but defend the pretence he does not.

* It is not just bigotry or irrationality which motivates Protestant resistance to a united Ireland. The laws of the 26 Counties impose Catholic morals even on those who reject them, banning divorce for example.

Geoff Bell is very contemptuous about this argument. He ignores the Protestants, and implies that they should be ignored by claiming that the Provisionals are not in any way sectarian and that Protestant resistance to a united Ireland would not be substantial.

* To pretend that Protestants are only concerned to protect their job privileges is to ignore the distinct history and insistently-proclaimed distinct identity of the Six County Protestants.

Geoff Bell is positively heroic in his determination to ignore it!

* Marxists cannot see the issue just as one of Irish majority rights. No majority - neither in Northern Ireland nor in all of Ireland - has a right to oppress a minority community. We are concerned with minority rights, too - with consistent democracy.

Geoff Bell's programme here is not that of a Marxist, but of an adoptive Catholic-Irish nationalist. He is, rightly, concerned with the second, artificial, Irish minority, the Northern Ireland Catholics; but, absurdly, he is indifferent to the concerns of the much bigger basic Irish minority, the Protestants.

* The Orange veto on a united Ireland depends on the threat of Orange resistance; It is now coupled with a Catholic veto over internal political arrangements in Northern Ireland. That Catholic veto is based ultimately on the armed strength of the IRA.

My argument on the Orange veto makes Geoff Bell indignant. He does not, however, try to refute it. Why not?

* Britain does not gain economic advantage from Northern Ireland (yes or no, Geoff?) but pays out £1.5 billion a year.

* Far from giving overall military advantages to Britain, control of the Six Counties has deprived NATO of the 26 Counties for 39 years. True or not, comrade Bell?

* The existing Six County state is indeed an artificial, unviable entity; but nevertheless a viable, smaller, Orange entity is possible if Northern Ireland's borders are moved north and east, shedding the mainly Catholic areas Such a new "Northern Ireland" would be the certain result of sectarian civil war. It was recognition of this fact that led De Valera and other mainstream bourgeois Republicans to rule out violence as a means of uniting Ireland. They knew it could not work. What makes you think it could work, Geoff?

The Protestant community organised, threatened, and armed to stop a united Ireland, and settled reluctantly for Partition in 1920-22. They smashed the power-sharing Sunningdale Agreement with a general strike in 1974. The Anglo-Irish Agreement remains intact, and Protestant opposition to it ineffectual; but it has not had much real effect yet. Northern Ireland remains under the control of the British government which, despite everything, the Protestants consider their own. If the British state abdicates, leaving the Protestants the choice of incorporation in a Catholic state or resistance, they will resist. At the very least a proportion of them equal to the IRA's proportion of the Catholic community will resist.

At the Socialist Organiser summer school in 1986, Geoff Bell admitted that civil war would probably break out - but he said he thought it would be a small, controllable civil war. What if it isn't controllable? Who will control it? Southern Irish troops? UN troops? British troops? The common demand that Britain should "disarm" the Orangeists before going implies that we rely on British troops to control the civil war; it also implies not fewer, but more British troops, and for a long time to come!

Troops out without a political settlement will not lead to a united Ireland, but to sectarian civil war and bloody repartition. It can only set the Protestants in motion to secure their self-determination - against the Irish majority.

I would be happy to be convinced that this nightmare is not the certain consequence of troops out without a political settlement. Geoff Bell seems sure that it will not be, but the only reason he cites for his sureness is that the Protestant resistance to the Anglo-Irish Agreement has been limited!

The thin veneer of left activists who form one facet of Sinn Fein's public face make it a socialist organisation only for those who want to be convinced. Sinn Fein is confined to the Catholic community; its leaders, like Gerry Adams, publicly parade their Catholicism; it has no interest in the Protestant community; its policies leave it no possibility of even talking to the Protestant community; some of the IRA's killings are scarcely disguised sectarian acts, and all of them are seen by the Protestant community as sectarian acts.

Much space in the Provisionals' paper An Phoblacht is given to denouncing "sectarianism". But does it ever denounce sectarianism on its own side? Why not? No sectarianism at all exists on the Catholic side? Denouncing the sectarianism of the others can also be a means of appealing for Catholic communal solidarity and of incitement against the other community.

Unlike most of his political tribe, Geoff Bell does know something about the real Ireland, as distinct from the fantasy Ireland in the collective mind of the "anti-imperialist" British left. Is it unreasonable to conclude that his flaccid performance in this polemic says something about the nature of the position he wants to defend? Is it an accident that he ends his article with a piece of Gerry Healy-level misrepresentation of what I advocate?

Geoff Bell says I advocate "Brits into the south of Ireland. Wave the union jack and pass the ammunition". Where did I advocate that? When? Confederal links between Ireland and Britain could not mean that. Nothing I say can be loyally read as advocating or implying it. Confederal links imply voluntary association of the sovereign Irish and British states.

Bell is indulging himself in ridiculous hyperbole. But there is more here than a confession that he can't handle the facts, the issues, or the arguments.

Some readers of Socialist Outlook are bound to think - on Geoff Bell's authority, and not having read my article - that I really do advocate something like "British troops into the South". I've grown used to boneheaded and malicious sniping and misrepresentation. but this, I repeat, is Gerry Healy stuff.

The chain of publications put out by Geoff's political tendency over the years - International, Red Mole, Red Weekly, Socialist Challenge, Socialist Action - have not, in my view, contributed much to political enlightenment, least of all about Ireland, but they did not deal in shameless factual lying and outright misrepresentation like this. You should not start now, Geoff Bell.

A few words, finally, about the broader issues involved in this discussion. It links, obviously, with similar issues, like the rights of the Jewish nation in Palestine.

Our attitude to these questions is all of a piece, and so is that of Socialist Outlook and the "kitsch-Trotskyist" political culture of which it is part. Geoff Bell and his friends are comprehensively wrong. The issue goes way beyond Protestant and Catholic Ireland and Arab and Jewish Palestine.

Vast areas of the world are now covered by multi-national states - many of them old colonial units of more or less arbitrarily grouped peoples which have remained units after colonialism and become bureaucratic states. Almost everywhere in these states there is the domination, sometimes genocidal, of people over people, nation over nation or fragment of nation.

The Marxist programme for this vast area of world politics has already been outlined - consistent democracy. Depending on circumstances, that may mean the right of various peoples to full independence, to local autonomy, or to special cultural rights, etc.

The alternative to this Marxist approach is to decide that some peoples are bad and some good, to ascribe some universalist and transcendental "world-revolutionary" significance to the nationalisms of chosen nations, and to deny any collective rights to other nations.

Of course, on some issues you have to take sides, sharply and clearly, as we side now with the Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza against the Israeli occupation, and as the political tendency to which I belong has always supported the Northern Ireland Catholics in struggle against the British state and against the oppression to which Partition consigned them. But you must do that within the political framework of the Marxist and Leninist programme for resolving conflicts like those between Arabs and Jews and between Catholics and Protestants.

Where the only proper Marxist approach in national conflicts is to argue for the equality of peoples - and in the first place for equal rights and unity within the working class - the kitsch Trotskyists pick and choose, designating "good" and "bad" peoples, "pro-imperialists" and "anti-imperialists". They do not know it, but they are in the tradition not of the mature Marx or Engels, or of Lenin and Trotsky, but at best of the young Frederick Engels, who in 1848 denounced "small, pig-headed nations" in Europe. (Engels argued that such nations would inevitably serve as the tools of reactionaries wanting to obstruct the then progressive unification of the big nations of the continent).

More: Geoff Bell and his friends hold to the view that there is a "world revolution" marching inexorably ahead as if guided by some god of history. This teleological view lends itself especially to the approach that designates some nations "good" and others "bad". The nationalism of the "good" nations is in the camp of the "world revolution"; the nationalism of the "bad" nations in the other camp, that of "imperialism".

In Geoff Bell's case, this approach leads a member of the Protestant Irish minority not to rise above the tragic communalism dividing the people of our island to working-class internationalism - or even Wolfe Tone Republicanism - but simply to swap communities. Communalism is the problem. Consistent democracy, and the fight for working-class unity on that basis - that is, socialist Republicanism - is the answer.