It was in discussing the attitude of the English to that Irish struggle that Marx coined his famous phrase: "No nation that oppresses another can itself be free".
The Marxists supported the Irish national struggle. They could have coupled that support with a programme of consistent democracy for dealing with the Protestant-Irish minority within Ireland. In fact they largely failed to do so. The issue was made more complicated by the fact that the Protestant Irish minority comprised not only a distinct community of all social classes from worker and farmer to capitalist in the northeast, but also a privileged landlord caste spread across the whole island.
Nevertheless, I think, hindsight makes it clear that the failure of Irish Marxists like James Connolly (and of their teachers and comrades in the international movement) to address the issue of Protestant-Irish minority rights more explicitly and steadily was a grievous one. The Irish national movement, having gained enough strength to push the majority of the British ruling class into agreeing to let Ireland go, stumbled and faltered on the rock of the Irish minority. The war of Independence ended in partition, that partition which Connolly had predicted "would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labor movement and paralyze all advanced movements whilst it endured"
After over 70 years of partition, Southern Ireland is an independent state and Northern Ireland is in chronic communal conflict, kept down to a simmering level of violence only by a heavy British military presence which bears down especially harshly on the Catholic (Gaelic-Irish) community. The conflict is not (as some of the left present it) just a national struggle between "the Irish people" and Britain. The Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, about 10 per cent of the Irish people, are battling against a political set-up which traps them, against their will, in a state which they find alien and oppressive (Northern Ireland). The Protestants, nearly 20 per cent of the Irish people, are the main supporters of that Northern Ireland state. They have made it clear that they will fight, arms in hand - and they are heavily armed - against inclusion in any Catholic-dominated Irish state. They will also fight the British state if and when it tries to push them toward inclusion in a Catholic-dominated Irish state. The great majority in Southern Ireland are opposed to the militant Catholic struggle in Northern Ireland (Provisional Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, gets less than two per cent of the vote in the south). Even if they favor a united Ireland as an ideal - and most do - they do not wish to have the warring communities of Northern Ireland immediately included in their state.
Is it then a question of two nations? Should the Northern Ireland state be defended as an expression of the self-determination of the Protestant-Irish nation? Unquestionably, the Protestant-Irish people of Northern Ireland have acquired many of the features of a nation. They are no longer an appendage to an all-Ireland Protestant-Irish landlord caste, as they used to be to some extent; that caste no longer exists. They are based in a definite territory which is also an economic unit, namely Northern Ireland. C
Considered statically, the Protestant-Irish are as near to being a nation as the Irish people as a whole were before the War of Independence. But the question must be considered dynamically. What would be required for the Protestant-Irish to complete their move toward becoming a nation? That they should make Northern Ireland plainly and unambiguously their territory. But the Catholics are a 40 per cent minority in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland could become the territory of a fully-fledged Protestant-Irish nation only by the Catholics submitting and becoming over time, assimilated or marginalized or by the Catholics being driven out. The Catholics, conscious of being part of a big majority across the whole island and conscious also that the border defining Northern Ireland is artificial (there is a Catholic majority on about half the land area of Northern Ireland), will not submit. The only road toward full Protestant-Irish nationhood is, therefore, communal civil war to drive out the Catholics, which would result in mass slaughter, big population movements, and repartition. It would poison relations between Catholic and Protestant workers for decades to come, and wreck the limited unity which exists today on the trade union level. Socialists or democrats cannot advocate "self-determination for the Protestants" - in short because they are not a nation, in greater detail because their becoming a nation would mean the sharpening of division and privileges rather than their abolition.
A wider framework than Northern Ireland is needed for a democratic solution. The only democratic programme which accommodates the rights of both communities without infringing on the rights of either is that of a federal united Ireland with regional autonomy for the mainly Protestant area, linked in a voluntary confederation with Britain.
Lenin's formula - "A struggle against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nations, and no toleration of the striving for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation" - remains the basis on which support for nationalist struggles can aid workers' unity rather than blocking it.