Session One: The issues stated and explained. The participants introduced
The scene is Belfast in July 1983, on a Saturday, about 1O am. A 'Troops Out' delegation has been in Belfast, where it has talked to Republicans on the Falls Road, been to look close up at soldiers on patrol, examined plastic bullets and photos of their victims, and talked to Catholics in Andersonstown.
Two men and a woman have detached themselves from the delegation and crossed the short distance from the Catholic Falls Road through part of the city centre to where the Shankhill begins. Nervously, they make their way up the Protestant Shankhill Road, which is festooned with red, white and blue bunting, where even some of the coping stones on the pavement are painted red, white and blue.
Following a hand-drawn map, the three eventually make their way to a house in a side-street. After double checking the address and the house number with the map, one of them knocks at the door, which opens almost immediately.
The man who opens the door recognises one of the visitors and greets him warmly.
The three enter, and are led into a back room where two men are waiting, both still wearing their jackets. Introductions all round, and everybody shakes hands, and then they sit down. Beer and whisky are distributed according to choice.
The man of the house, who had opened the door, then assumes the role of chair and begins to speak.
We've set up this discussion because some of us think there should be more dialogue between the British labour movement and the Northern Ireland Protestant people. To be more precise, I set it up.
When Tony here wrote to me and said he was coming on the delegation, it seemed too good a chance to miss, so I wrote back proposing that at least some of the "troops out" delegation should try to meet representatives of the Protestant working class and hear their point of view.
Tony was very reluctant, concerned I think about what the rest of the delegation would think, but he finally agreed. I'm glad he did. He's an old friend of mine.
So, I suggest we get started. I'm taping the discussion, if no-one objects. No-one does? Right then.
I suggest we should introduce ourselves more fully. I'll introduce the Belfast people, and I suggest that Tony does the same for our visitors'.
Robert used to be an engineering shop steward, but he's now unemployed, like so many others in Northern Ireland whose jobs have disappeared in the last few years. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Labour Party until the mid-'70s.
Jimmy is a steward at Harland and Wolffs shipyard. He was in the Northern Ireland Communist Party for a while, until the late '60s. He was a supporter of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association until 1969.
In 1974 he helped organise the Loyalist workers' strike, the political strike that brought down the power-sharing Executive in May of that year. Say what you like about its political objectives, that strike was one of the most successful political general strikes in history.
I'm not sure what Jimmy thinks about it all now, though.
Unlike the rest of us, Patrick comes from the Catholic community. He started out supporting the old Nationalist Party and then supported the SDLP, which effectively superseded it as the constitutional nationalist party. After internment in mid-71 he joined the Provisional IRA. He was himself interned for three years, beginning in 1972.
My name is Jackie. I'm a school teacher now, working in one of the few mixed Catholic-Protestant schools here. I do a wee bit of trade union work. I suppose I'm still a Trotskyist. I used to be a Trotskyist, at any rate.
I keep in touch. I subscribe to the British Marxist papers. I was on the National Committee of the Young Socialists, the youth wing of Gerry Healy's organisation, which had a sizeable section in Northern Ireland until 1966 or 67, and a hit even after then.
Robert, Jimmy, Patrick and myself together with two or three others who can't make it today, have been having what we refer to as the "Discussion Group" for the last 18 months or so, since soon after the hunger strikes ended. We are of course very loose, not a "Group".
We’ve been discussing socialism and Marxism and our varying experiences over the last dozen years. That may seem rather tame to you, Tony, but the scope for working class politics that try to bridge the two communities is very limited here. We spurn the childish politics of Militant, with their silly pretence that all the main questions of politics, in the first place the 'constitutional question' can be just ignored as you preach the jargon of a socialist solution that cannot happen unless the working class can be shown a way forward out of the communal impasse that has dominated and shaped Northern Ireland political life for the last dozen years.
Anyway, that's what we are. We do have contact with various people who say they are socialist or for the working-class interest.
Perhaps I'd better introduce Tony. before he introduces his friends.
Tony works in the motor car industry. He has been a Trotskyist since the early '60s. He now supports Socialist Organiser, I believe. Tony, I suggest you introduce the others.
This is Anne-Marie. She's a public sector worker and a shop steward in Oxford.
And this is Mick. he's a building worker. I should add before we begin that though Anne-Marie, Mick and myself all support SO, there are a number of different strands of opinion in and around SO. Anne-Marie and I represent one strand, Mick here supports another.
You may have seen, Jackie, that we have sharp divisions on Ireland, and we've been discussing the question in the paper for some time now.
Yes, I subscribe to the paper, so I've been following it. That was one reason why I thought this discussion would be worth while.
Tony, perhaps you could give Jimmy, Robert and Patrick some idea of what your divisions of opinion are.
Well, as I see it, it's a division between a revolutionary and a reformist perspective on the national question in Ireland...
What national question?
Well, the struggle against imperialism for a united Ireland, of course.
Hold on! You can't assume we're all in favour of a united Ireland. I find it difficult to see anything socialist or democratic about going in with the South.
Right you are! A united Ireland would mean Rome Rule. That's a big part of the problem. The Northern Catholics do have reason to complain. I know that, and I too marched for civil rights in 1967-8. They are an artificial minority in the Six Counties. They have been repressed. I am in favour of removing all their social grievances. I want to end sectarian discrimination in employment. I'm a long-time trade unionist. I want to root out from the unions their tacit acceptance of job discrimination against Catholics. I want class unity in Northern Ireland between Protestant and Catholic, and with British and 26 County workers too. I'm very much in favour of working-class unity across the Border. I supported the recreation of an all-Ireland trade union movement over 20 years ago, when links were re-established across the Border after a split lasting almost two decades.
Yes, but why should I come into a united Ireland where the Protestant community will be a permanent minority?
Where the state may very well be dominated by the Catholic Church, as the 26 County state has been? Where the Catholic Church will insist on sectarian education - it is the Catholic Church that particularly insists on it in Northern Ireland?
Robert: Exactly. How will the basic law of the 32 County Ireland be established? Do we non-Catholic Northerners accept those democratically decided laws of the 26 Counties which reflect Catholic teaching, on divorce and abortion for example? After all, it's to be a unitary state, and we are plainly a minority. Or is there to be negotiation, and agreement on new laws excluding the influence of the Catholic Church? But the Protestants can't initiate that.
Why haven't the Southern bosses already reformed the laws to prepare to receive us? They were against partition 60 years ago: why did they go ahead and create a sectarian Catholic state from the first years of independence?
A decade ago the special place of the Catholic Church in the South was abolished, but that's just cosmetics. Look at the movement now in the South to add to the law against abortion by writing it into the constitution. The Southern Protestant churches have denounced this as sectarian, yet both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, led by the 'liberal' Garret FitzGerald, are committed to introducing it.
You talk about the Six Counties as a sectarian state. The 26 Counties is far more a real sectarian state in the usual meaning of the term, with laws derived from religion. In the North, it's a matter of social oppression rather than any formal anti-Catholic sectarian laws.
And if the Catholic Church won't abandon its insistence on religious segregation in Northern Ireland schools - and it has always refused to - why should I think that it will abandon its position of power and influence in the South? Or suppose a miracle happens and the Catholic Church in the South is prepared to see all the legislation based on its doctrine replaced by secular legislation acceptable to Northern Protestants - where is the guarantee that there will not be a relapse once we are 'in' and a safe minority?
Guarantee? You could have constitutional guarantees. A Bill of Rights, even. But in fact you are talking about a bourgeois united Ireland. That's defeatist. None of you believe in the permanent revolution. The answer is to start to fight for a socialist united Ireland.
I think Jimmy has got a point, Tony. Of course if Ireland had had Home Rule back in 1886 when the Liberal government first proposed it, then maybe the coexistence of Protestants and Catholics in a united Ireland would have led to a pluralist society. (Even then, you can see in retrospect, it would have had to be some sort of federal Ireland: Gladstone didn't propose that publicly, but he talked about it privately).
Maybe. But other things were possible too. Look at the example of Ceylon - Sri Lanka. They had independence in 1948 as a secular state, and inside of a decade the Tamil minority was subject to a vicious Sinhalese chauvinist drive for dominance. Why should we trust the Southern politicians? As early as 1925 they got rid of divorce, for god's sake! And it was far from a liberal divorce law even before 1925.
But the Provos are socialists!
We're not talking about a united Ireland which would look like the 26 Counties, but a revolution changing both North and South!
I'd like a socialist revolution in Northern Ireland, and in Southern Ireland, and in every other country too. But what has that got to do with uniting Ireland now?
I'm for a united Ireland, l think, under certain conditions. But Jimmy has a point, Anne-Marie: you seem to be saying that you're not for a united Ireland now, but only after a socialist revolution. But after a socialist revolution why should uniting Ireland be of any importance? I'd see it in terms of a united socialist Europe, not just Ireland.
Anyway, there's no socialist revolution going on now!
As for Provos: they say they offer the Protestants equality before the law within Ireland. Equality before sectarian Catholic laws! The Provos have little scruple about killing Protestants in the UDR, etc - and that to my mind is sectarian killing, or most of it anyway. They have let off bombs which massacred the innocent - Bloody Friday, Le Mon restaurant, etc. The left Republicans are sectarian towards Protestants.
In the words of David O'Connell, they have withdrawn the hand of friendship they offered to the Protestants in 1972 with the proposals about a federal Ireland. And if what we had between 1972 and 1981 was the hand of friendship, God help us in future!
I wouldn't disparage the sincerity of those in the Provos who say they are socialists. Their tragedy is that they are limited to one community. And you won't get socialism in one community, Tony! As a movement the Provisionals are Catholic. Whatever the socialist noises a few sophisticated representatives make, the ranks are Catholic through and through. What they offer us is forcible incorporation into a unitary Catholic state.
What can we hope for if we let ourselves be forced into such an arrangement?
I agree, Jimmy. And I respect your efforts to fight sectarianism. But you have to look at the record: however hard we fight, sectarianism is built into this Six County state. It offers no basis for any conciliation between Catholics and Protestants, and we've had a simmering civil war for 14 years to prove it.
I think, therefore, that we've got to seek a solution in a wider framework.
That has to be some sort of united Ireland - a united Ireland with Protestant autonomy. Perhaps that means a federal Ireland, and maybe it would have some federal or confederal link to Britain.
Yes, I know about the sectarianism in this state. But you'd get the same thing in a united Ireland - with one million Protestants oppressed instead of half a million Catholics!
That's why a federal Ireland is the answer. The debate in SO is about how to get a united Ireland, it's true. The problem with your view, I think, Tony, is that you just pose a united Ireland as a moral ultimatum, a test of anti-imperialist virtue, to Protestant workers.
Socialist and democratic propaganda may convince Protestant workers to oppose sectarianism, to desire class unity, to be internationalists. No force on earth can convince them that they have a moral obligation to be green nationalists.
I think the core issue is not 'federalism' but the attitude socialists should take to the Protestant community. Does it have rights as a community, or, if you prefer that definition, as a national minority? That's the basic issue for working-class socialists. It's also the basic issue for Wolfe Tone Republicans. Jimmy will have some sympathy for that Republicanism. I don't know about you, Robert, with your NILP background, but bear with me.
The Irish Catholic majority, of which the Six County Catholics are part, have got to answer a fundamental question about the Protestants. Either the Protestants are to be treated as aliens and foreigners, to be subjugated and driven out if the majority is strong enough to do it. Or they are accepted as an integral part of the population of Ireland, recognised to have the right to be here.
Thus the question is this: what is to be the relationship of the minority to the majority? What rights can they legitimately claim as a community? What rights can the majority claim over the minority?
Gerry Adams, for example, says that the minority must submit completely to the all-Ireland majority - that the minority ''cannot have any say on the wishes of the majority of the Irish people".
That takes us back to the scenario of 'drive them out or conquer them'. The Republicans now have no alternative, even in theory, but to try to conquer the Protestants. They leave themselves no alternative but the hopeless job of trying to 'reverse the conquest'. I think that's been said in SO.
Of course it's nonsense - and reactionary nonsense at that. It's also anti-Republican, in Wolfe Tone's sense of Republican.
As long as 200 years ago, secular and democratic Irish Republicanism adopted the policy of conciliating and accommodating the descendants of English and Scottish settlers in Ireland. Wolfe Tone expressed it in its most basic terms: 'for the former denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, to substitute the common name of Irishman'.
It is sometimes forgotten what a major break with the past such ideas were. Ireland's history in the 1 7th century was a series of land confiscations by the dominant political or religious faction. For example, the Dublin Jacobite parliament of 1689.
Tone's is the irreducible basic principle of secular Irish nationalism and Republicanism, and of course of Irish socialism. It is the foundation on which democratic Irish politics has been built for two centuries. Anything less than that is inevitably a lapse from Irish nationalism into sectionalism, communalism, Catholic 'nationalism', and Catholic-lrish revanchism.
Without Tone's basic attitude Irish nationalism does not exist. It gives way to 'two-nations'-ism: for there is no middle ground. Either the Protestants are an equal part of the Irish nation, or they are not, they are excluded from it, and 'the nation' is defined as the same thing as the Catholic communities, North and South.
Today the Provos, having abandoned federalism, have lapsed back into history to before Wolfe Tone - back towards the politics of the Catholic Parliament of 1689. 'Remember 1690' is a popular Protestant slogan: it means, remember the Protestant victory over King James and the Catholics. Now 'Remember 1689' could well be the Catholic slogan!
Accepting the right to existence of a distinct community, and rejecting the alternative of conquering, subjugating or driving them out, implies a search to find ways to coexist with them and to take account of their concerns and fears in so far as that is possible. Even where a community like the Protestants is 100% identified with a colonial imperialism with which the majority community is at war for its liberation (and it isn't) consistent democrats will search for formulas for coexistence that will have at least the possibility of breaking the minority community from imperialism.
A'1689' policy towards the minority of 'undoing the conquest', 'driving them out of the land', imposing alien rule on them - that of course would rule out any such approach.
Leaving aside the zig-zags of history, for the last 60 years the Protestants have seen in Southern Ireland the operation of a sectarian Catholic state, where laws have narrowly reflected Catholic doctrine and the priests have had tremendous power. They have seen their nightmare of Rome Rule in operation.
Incorporation into this state as a permanent minority is what's on offer for them right now. That is what the Provos offer them in fact, whatever about the socialist and Republican rhetoric. The Provos are a Catholic movement, not only in the background of their members and supporters but also in their ideas. The eradication of Catholic sectarianism is our programme: it requires a tremendous revolution in attitudes in Ireland which hasn't happened yet.
So the only conceivable bourgeois united Ireland is one in which the special concerns of the Protestant community are taken full account of. A socialist united Ireland can only be created by the working class - including the Protestant workers. It therefore presupposes a programme to reconcile the Protestant and the Catholic workers.
The old Bolshevik policy is therefore acutely relevant to Ireland. I'll read out a quotation that appeared in SO, which I think expresses that policy.
''Insofar as national peace is in any way possible in a capitalist society based on exploitation, profit-making and strife. it is attainable only under a consistently and thoroughly democratic republican system of government which guarantees full equality of all nations and languages, which recognises no compulsory official language, which provides the people with schools where instruction is given in all the native languages, and the constitution of which contains a fundamental law that prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority. This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local self-government, with the boundaries of the self-governing and autonomous regions determined by the local population".
This does not mean us accepting Catholic sectarianism or Protestant sectarianism within Catholic or Protestant areas. It means trying to find an answer to the immediate acute crisis on the basis of present-day realities. It would undermine sectarianism, because it would take the hardening antagonism out of Catholic-Protestant relations.
Of course the Northern Ireland Catholics suffered injustice. Of course the result of partition has been to create an artificial Catholic minority in an artificial Six County state in place of the natural Protestant minority in all Ireland. As I say, I want to do everything I can to undo that - short of committing hara-kiri, short of telling the Protestant community to commit political suicide.
The problem, Tony, is that what you are proposing in fact, whatever you think you are proposing, is to make the Northern Ireland non-Catholics, Scots-lrish, 'British-lrish', or whatever name you choose, into an oppressed minority in 32-counties Ireland: to replace the oppression of half a million Catholics in the Six Counties with the oppression of one million Protestants in the 32 Counties.
Part of the problem, Tony, is that you people in the British left think of the entire Protestant community as if they are all big and small Ian Paisleys. But lots of the most bitter opponents of a united Ireland are trade unionists who voted N I LP or even CP at one time. The CP was proportionately a big party here during the war and after.
But you refuse to believe that there can be a rational basis for Protestants who are not bigots to oppose a united Ireland - and if necessary to fight against it.
There is a rational basis for it. That's the tragedy - and we may still be a long way from having experienced it in full. It is on one level a question of two rights in conflict, right against right. It's the right of the Protestants not to be - as they see it - engulfed in a Catholic state, versus the right of the Six County Catholics not to be an artificial minority in an artificial state.
There are probably a lot of Northern Ireland Protestants who would go along with much of what Robert, Jimmy and I are saying - the sort of people who have in the past voted NILP or who took part in the mass, mainly Protestant, unemployment demonstrations of 20 years ago. Or who gave Muriel Tang 684 votes in East Belfast last June.
Socialists who support the Provisionals and their operational goal of coercing the Six County Protestants into a Catholic-dominated united Ireland (or coercing Britain into coercing them) need to give us some answers. What do you say to us, Tony?
It's nonsense that what the Provisionals want is a united Catholic Ireland. They are socialists.
Tony: I criticise the Provisionals' policy of consciously antagonising the Protestant workers. But the answer is to build an alternative revolutionary leadership to wage the national struggle on a socialist basis.
Yes, you can deny that what is actually on offer is a Catholic Ireland. You can do that on one of two possible bases. You can knowingly tell lies, beginning with telling lies to yourself. If you'll forgive me for saying so, Tony and Anne-Marie, that's what you do: you couldn't hold your position otherwise, not without telling yourselves ideological lies. Or you can fantasise that it will be a transformed and different Ireland as a result of the struggle. Well, I'm pretty sure it would be different - but not like you think it would! The average Protestant worker will not believe you. The present struggle is a Catholic struggle. That's a shame, but you must face facts. The Southern state is still Catholic Church-dominated.
What I'd like to know is, on what principle would we advocate self-abnegating 'descent' by the Protestants into a Catholic Ireland?
Democracy? Such suppression of minorities is not our version of democracy. Anti-imperialism? What anti-imperialism? The subjugation of the Protestant working class would mean the destruction of the real - working class - anti-imperialist potential in Ireland.
If we said, make it a socialist Ireland, Protestant workers might be won over.
But that means winning Northern and Southern workers to it. I think Jimmy and Robert are representative of Protestant workers when they say that they don't see why a united Ireland has much to do with socialism.
Well, they should see why! The Catholics are oppressed and in revolt; the only sure way they can escape from oppression by the Protestants and their British masters is in a united Ireland. We should support their historically justified demand for a united Ireland.
Why? There is at least a good chance - and I believe it's a high probability - that immediately or quickly a united Ireland would lead to the replacement of the oppression of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland with an oppressed Protestant minority in the South. You'd exchange an oppressed, frustrated, and alienated minority of half a million for a similarly alienated Protestant minority of one million in a united Ireland.
It seems to me that you have no appreciation of the fundamental problem, which (leaving the relationship with Britain aside) is of a Protestant minority. You want to fight imperialism. You go along behind events impressionistically. But your politics are either short-sighted or a hypocritical form of Catholic nationalism. The Provisionals are pretty blatant Catholic nationalists -and only those who want to be taken in will believe otherwise. A United Ireland is not a solution to anything. It's Irish bourgeois nationalism.
I'm not sure about that. Because the Catholic and Protestant communities are so intermeshed, the best solution is a united Ireland with autonomy for the Protestants, and probably also with some renewed links between Britain and Ireland - links that would not block the desire of the Irish majority for independence.
Given the realities of modern Irish history, I think it is, as far as it goes, perfectly reasonable for the Protestants not to want to go into the South, where they risk being the equivalent there of what the Catholics have been in the Six Counties. The Protestant workers are socially vulnerable, unlike a lot of the 26 Counties Protestants after 1921, who were upper class.
But we want a socialist Ireland! Ireland will be reshaped and changed beyond recognition in the struggle, transmuted into something else by the heat of the revolutionary upheaval.
The option of going into a secular Ireland is not in existence. Face facts, man, for god's sake! There is no feasible action in unity with the Catholics on offer to the Protestants to change that.
Of course there was no possibility, either, of Catholic activity together with the majority of Northern Irish Protestants to change their condition. There was some chance of unity with a section of Protestants for civil rights in the late '60s - but the Paisleyites and the Provos put paid to that, too.
What choice did the Catholics have but to revolt? That's the tragedy - right against right, community against community, irreconcilability and incompatibility.
You are incredibly defeatist! The Provos have got the British on the run, they call for a united socialist Ireland. And all you can see is looming tragedy. You need revolutionary optimism, not petty bourgeois pessimism!
Trotsky used to say that people who could only remain revolutionaries by keeping their eyes shut from reality weren't much good, and he was right. In fact Trotsky said they were harmful because they substituted fantasies for appreciation of reality. Instead of facing the real problems and defining revolutionary socialist tasks from the real situation, they fantasised themselves into a different, imaginary, situation. At best that renders you irrelevant.
Look, for one example of this, at the history of the political current now calling itself the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (and its splinters like the Lambertists, Healyites etc.) Always 'revolutionary perspectives', always optimism, every conference recording a 'new rise in the world revolution'...
I do think that everything Jimmy and Robert have said is logical from their point of view, and that you have no answer for them - unless you can convince them to plug into your technicolour fantasy world.
You know my answer to the basic problem they pose: why should the Northern Ireland workers consent to submit themselves to green nationalism, and green Tory nationalism at that, which is what's on offer. They shouldn't - and anyway they won't.
The solution is in the formula: self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, with as much autonomy for the Protestant minority as is compatible with the rights of the majority.
That answers my objection about Catholic domination. That form of united Ireland would logically be acceptable. But it's a bit abstract. How is it to be brought about? And isn't it a bit late - 12 years into the war? It doesn't fill me with much enthusiasm, I'm afraid.
I didn't expect it to. It isn't a new idea. De Valera started talking about it in the early '20s. And it's no panacea. In and of itself it won't create a mass following or be a miracle cure for Northern Ireland. But it is the only conceivable form of united Ireland - certainly of a bourgeois united Ireland, and very probably the only form too even of a socialist united Ireland. In any case, if the distinct Protestant community want autonomy, even under socialism, they should have the right to it. Therefore it must remain a basic part of our programme.
Look, the people here are obviously more likely to agree with John O'Mahony's pro-imperialist and defeatist position than with our anti-imperialist position on Ireland. But I don't understand you, Jackie: you've been an anti-imperialist for a long time.
Well, I'm an "anti-imperialist", of course, Tony. But, if I've understood it properly, the discussion in SO hasn't been an argument between pro-imperialists and anti-imperialists, or between reformists and revolutionaries - though I know people get carried away in the heat of polemic. As I've read it, anyway, it's been an argument about how sensible it is to see the situation in Northern Ireland in terms of a classic anti-imperialist or anti-colonial struggle.
What? This is outrageous! I thought you were a Trotskyist!
Well, I think I am a Trotskyist. But let me finish, Tony.
The discussion in SO has been concretised as a discussion on 'federalism' rather than on the less specific formula I would favour - recognition of the general right of autonomy for the Protestant minority, leaving the details to be filled in later. The focus in the SO discussion, I suppose, is what it is because the Provos have discarded the 'federal solution', and some of you see Catholic sectarian implications in them dropping it.
In fact the Provos' version of 'federalism' was always a peculiar one: they proposed a Northern sub-state consisting of the nine counties of old Ulster. I did not and would not support this form of "federalism" Nevertheless it did contain the core idea of Protestant autonomy which could have been refined and rendered more rational in negotiation and discussion. It was therefore basically on the right lines, broadly progressive. At least it held the door open. That was what I supported and continue to support in the Provos' now-discarded "federal" policy.
But I think that to focus on "federalism" is to crudify and distort
the argument. The general formula SO has used for many years is much better. The rest is concrete detail which would have to be worked out by discussion and by a vast range of local consultations.
Consultation with whom? With the pro-imperialist Protestants? With Paisley, perhaps?
Yes, Tony, with the Protestants, who else? It might not be just 'federalism' in the sense of a Protestant block and a Catholic one. There might have to be all sorts of degrees of autonomy for 'alien' pockets within the predominantly Catholic and Protestant areas.
Christ, you're worse than O'Mahony!
Well, I do my best, Tony!