Provos, Protestants, and working-class politics - an imaginary dialogue: session five, part 2

Submitted by martin on 8 April, 2007 - 8:02

Discussion with Donal R: Part 2

Donal:
Let's take the question of Protestant/Catholic unity. That's where you really show yourselves up. You accuse me of tail-ending the Republicans.
Patrick: The neo-Republicans!

Donal:
Whatever. Yet you are the ones who are hag-ridden with right-wing Republican myths about the unity of the Irish people. Your talk about working-class unity is part of that
Mick: Why right wing?

Donal:
Well, that's the stuff the old Republican leaders tried to base themselves on, the ones who wanted federalism so that they could continue to have their Catholic, backward, southern statelet - to protect them from the spectre of Permanent Revolution.

Those people live on myths about 1798 and so on, when Protestants and Catholics were united. But it's just not true. John O'Mahony makes the same error in his stuff in SO about the Protestants once being in the Republican vanguard. No, they were always what they are now - colons!
Though the Presbyterian left led the Irish National Revolution for a couple of months in '98, most of its members did so looking over their shoulders. Did you know that the famous battle of Ballinahinch was lost because Henry Monroe, the hero of a well known Republican song, was afraid to use Catholic troops?

They knew they were colons even then. And they know it now. Yet you people want unity with a pro-imperialist section of the working class, a section that opposes imperialism if at all from the right.

Jimmy:
So you think the United Irishmen was a hopeless enterprise? Wolfe Tone's programme of substituting the common name of Irishman for that of Protestant, Dissenter and Catholic - that was all hopeless, was it? At last you are consistent.

Donal:
Myths never did anybody any good. They have always felt themselves to be colons. They have always been terrified of a repetition of the Catholic rising of 1641 or of the Catholic Parliament of 1689. That's the truth, and it's the truth about the said rebellion of 1798. Fear of displacement was the material interest at the back of their fear of being absorbed into a "priest-ridden Catholic state".

Mick:
So what do you think are the lessons of 1690 and 1641 for the Catholics today? Is it still the same 'counter-attack' - with the same objectives? We touched on this before you arrived because it seems to some of us that the logic of what the Provos are now saying amounts to the slogan 'Back to the Jacobite Parliament of 1689'. To us the Provos seem to be trying to take Irish politics back to before Wolfe Tone's attempt to supersede the old divisions and replace them with the common name of Irish. In your own strange way. Donal, you seem to be agreeing with us.

Donal:
No I'm not. There is now no displaced Catholic peasantry wanting to return to their lands. l don't want to drive the Protestants out. All the contradictions will be resolved in the unfolding of the Permanent Revolution.

Mick:
And what do you think are the lessons of 1689 90 and 1641 for the Protestants? They, of course, as they say and daub on walls around here, still 'Remember 1690'. And they remember 1641 too.

Jimmy:
And they remember the "Republic's" Mother and Child Act of 1951!

Mick:
Don't you think they need to be told in the most unequivocal way by the majority Irish community, of which the Six Counties Catholics are part, that it is not and never will be "1641" or "1690" again? Yet you say that any proposal now to reassure them, with federalism for example, is positively harmful.

Donal:
It's against the Permanent Revolution perspective, I've told you already. You rely on reform proposals to solve the contradictions. We rely on the unfolding of Permanent Revolution and on the power of the said process to mobilise the Irish people, and at the tail end the Protestants.

The Provos ' military campaign is the great locomotive here, not stupid and reformist proposals like yours to unite the Irish people, backward and progressive sections alike. As I said, that's what screwed up the Workers' Party, Conor Cruise O'Brien, the British and Irish Communist Organisation etc - accommodating to the backward national minority and to its privileged working class.
But you agree with federalism!

Donal:
As a possible tactic at the end of the process, not as a principle.

Mick:
Not as a right of the minority, but as something the tacticians of the majority - the self-appointed tacticians, as it happens, but let that pass - may find useful to manipulate the minority with?

Donal:
Exactly!

Jackie:
I've got some sympathy with what you said about 1798,
Donal, oddly enough. You are right that myths are mainly harmful, or at any rate they should have no part in the politics or historiography of Marxists. And historiography in Ireland is still a long way from having emerged from the realm of myth.

Robert:
Yes. Let's not make myths about '98. For example, the great Wexford Catholic rising included sectarian outrages committed against Protestants, of whom there were sizeable numbers in parts of Wexford.

Jackie:
But I think, Donal, that you are too dismissive of the Protestant radicals. They were Jacobin Republicans, fighting for Catholic/Protestant equality. They could have roused the people of Ireland, and the religious questions could have been sunk in a common war against the landlords, and made to stay "sunk" by the installation of a revolutionary-democratic constitutional arrangement afterwards.

Patrick:
The truth is that '98 was not one movement, but a number of different and separate movements - a Catholic jacquerie in Wexford, a revolutionary war waged by French troops and local people in the West, and a movement mainly of Presbyterian plebeians in the North. Ireland was still a complex of regions, as Wolfe Tone, for example, understood very well. He had no illusions that a single nation was ready-forged. The job of the United Irishmen was to forge it.

But your explanation, Donal, in terms of the ab ovo nature of the Protestants as colonists, is a very strange one. I don't know much about the battle of Ballinahinch, but these were the Republican revolutionaries, those who - unlike, for example, most of the Catholic peasants who rose in the South East - consciously held to the programme of the United Irishmen.

But you seem to argue that it was all hopeless. It was preordained that those whom you dismiss as colonists could not have been the leaven in a great nation-creating movement. Republicanism only became real Republicanism and developed real permanent revolution prospects, so to speak, when it crossed over from one Irish community to the other and equipped itself to understand that it had to confront the old Republican vanguard, the 'colons', as an imperious force telling them roughly to come into a Catholic nation and its unitary state, or get out of Ireland.

Donal:
You are the ones who talk of a Catholic nation, not me.

Jackie:
Yes, Donal, you do, and I'll prove it in a minute.

Patrick:
But let me continue. By explaining the failure of 1798 in terms of. 'the colons ' you let the Irish middle class radicals off the hook, which is pretty much what you do today with your use of 'permanent revolution' to dress up what the Provos do .

1798 failed, centrally, because the United Irish organisation fell apart, and because it was unable to bring any sort of integration and coherence to the disparate parts of the rebellion.

Jimmy:
They tried, but the British oligarchy was strong enough to smash them.

Patrick:
Yes, but why was that? Fear of the peasants was not just a sectarian colonist reflex. Donal. It was a deep class reflex on the part of large sections of the middle class radicals. Only a thorough-going agrarian revolution, the victory of the jacquerie and its unity with the radical bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie of the towns, could have fused the disparate people of Ireland into a coherent unified Irish nation such as Tone talked of when he proposed to substitute the name Irish for the religious denominations which reflected ethnic and national origins.
It was not just that the British terror was so ruthless and effective, and there is no denying it was. It didn't stop the various risings from happening, though maybe it stopped others. And it wasn't just that many in the middle class felt themselves divided by race and creed from the Catholic peasantry, though they did, and were inhibited by it.

It was also the whole nature of the middle class as revolutionaries. We have seen the same phenomenon all through subsequent Irish history, down to 1916, when the Home Rule bourgeoisie screamed for the British to shoot more of the captured insurgent leaders and, in the first place, James Connolly.

Mick:
I'm not sure you aren't being a-historical. What are you saying? That the United Irishmen weren't the Bolshevik Party? Not a tightly-knit group of professional revolutionaries?

Patrick:
Obviously there is a danger of being a-historical and anachronistic. Nobody can detract from the honour and glory of the United Irishmen in founding modern secular Irish politics. I think I'm defending their heritage against the Provo neo-Republicans and their Catholic nationalism, and against the romantic kitsch Trotskyist muddleheads.

Tony:
Oi!

Patrick:
But still, the United Irishmen were a movement of a given class locked ion their own time. Different editions of Republicanism over two centuries have been made by different classes. Looking back, you can see what a gap there was in the United Irish movement, and I think you should lay it at the door of the middle-class radicals, of whom the United Irishmen were the vanguard.

Donal:
If I agree with this, it just reinforces what I've said: the colony, and it wasn't just the Ulster colony, produced most of the middle class. They looked over their shoulders at the Catholics. That, at least, was part of it.

Jackie:
Part of it, maybe. But you explain it in national and racial terms (in the sense that James Connolly and others used the word "race”)- not in class terms. Which is what you do in modern politics!

Donal:
No, we are all Irish. I say that the Protestants of Northern Ireland are a national minority.

Jackie:
You say more than that, whether you know it or not. Follow through the logic of what you say about 1798. Draw a line connecting what you say about now and what you say about1798 - and you are saying quite plainly that there was always a fundamental flaw. Even at the best juncture in Irish history for nation-creating, it was that flaw which made the nation-creating revolution impossible.
YOU are saying that the Irish Republican programme for a 32 County all- Ireland Republic was always a myth and a fantasy.

Donal:
I know what my words mean.

Mick:
Like in Alice in Wonderland the words mean exactly what I say they mean!

Jackie:
If it was always a myth, then that surely has some bearing on what is going on today The 32 County Irish Republic never existed even as a serious possibility: - it was just a delusion. That may be a reasonable view of history, though I've told you why I think it is not the entire picture. But if you are right, then your hopes for the future are utterly Fantastic and your comments about now are the vilest Catholic-chauvinist drivel dressed up in fine phrases about permanent revolution and socialism!

Donal:
Better that than subscribe to rightwing and 'classless' Republican mythology, with its corollary that right now we must choose to work for working class unity instead of Permanent Revolution.

Jackie:
Tone was a 'right wing Republican'! But let me finish the point. You say that for all time past and even now the 32 County Republic is a myth. The possibility of Irish unity has been a delusion. You believe it was a delusion even when it was objectively possible, in the 1790s, to fuse the Irish plebeian masses together - feudal relations on most of Ireland's land, a movement into which the Protestant farmers would surely have been drawn.

But, miraculously, you believe that Irish unity will cease to be a delusion in the near future.

Why? How? What an agrarian revolution in '98 could not have done, the magic of "armed struggle ", of physical-force-on-principle (though that isn't your way of putting it) will surely do - and soon .

There is no reason to believe any of this. The quasi-rational version of it - that the Protestants can be bludgeoned by the far from magical Provo war - is less up in the clouds, I suppose. But it also is fantastic. It can't and won't happen. And it shouldn't.

What your view of the past says about now is that the Northern Ireland Protestant community is a quite distinct people who have never been close to the Irish majority. They have never even paralleled them, not even as a potential ally to make a bourgeois-democratic revolution. The idea that some process of "permanent revolution " will magically change this is witch doctor stuff!

You destroy any justification for the war you support other than the coercing of the Protestants into a united Ireland - which you describe as the work of forwarding the permanent revolution.

Your picture is one of two distinct peoples, one of which you consign to the role of a bad people, a bad nation or a bad national minority.. And to this you give the name "permanent revolution" and say it holds out the prospect of a revolutionary unity of the Irish working class!

Donal:
This way of arguing is almost Healyite.! You extrapolate wildly from what I say and then attribute the extrapolation to me, saying, 'There, that's your real opinion'. Apart from being Healyite, it isn't serious. I know my own opinion better than you do!

Jackie:
I don't say this is your real, hidden, secret opinion. I say this is the logic of what you say. It is what it amounts to if you think it through logically. You confine yourself to hints and half-thoughts. That's what's unserious.

The logic of what you say isn't your property - it exists whether you recognise it or not. As the saying goes: who says A, must say B. And if you don't say B having said A, then I have a right to say it is nevertheless what follows on logically from what you do say.

Donal:
It's your general approach to Irish history which is unserious. I refuted O'Mahony's historiography in SO and no one replied. I showed that O'Mahony's account of how the Protestant colony came to Antrim and Down was Unionist propaganda. He didn't reply. I argue that working class Orangeism arose because of the defeat of trade unionism in the North and the pauperisation of the Orange working class. Nobody replied !

Mick:
Most of these points were taken up in SO, Donal. However, I have a problem. Undoubtedly these are very important questions. But to have a right to express an opinion on these, so to speak, technical questions of history, you have to do a very great deal of work, probably original research. That isn't an option for most of us. We have to rely on the published sources.

To take sides on these questions of historical detail for political reasons, because of the political implications of one or another idea, would be shameful, unserious and un-Marxist. It would be the Stalinist 'useful lie' applied to distant history.
But how do you use these questions of history, Donal? You use them to pettifog and procrastinate and nibble at the edges of the gigantic contemporary fact of a distinct 'Protestant' identity. You use abstruse, and, it seems to me, rather esoteric historical details to deny the self- evident facts of today, or to avoid facing them head-on.

Jackie:
I too think these historical questions are very important. Like

Mick:
I haven't got time to do the work necessary to take them up as they deserve to be taken up, or the money to do original research. I have to rely on the work of others. But to speak candidly, Donal R, I don't trust your accounts of any of these questions.

I remember reading articles of yours at the beginning of the 1970s (in the Dublin magazine, Workers' Republic, I think, which argued that the Ulster Volunteer Force of 1912-14 was just an army of scabs - 100,000 or more of them. It was gibberish!

Patrick:
That does sound a bit more like wartime propaganda than serious social history, Donal.

Donal:
Those were serious articles. I did a lot of research for them. Besides, those opinions were pretty much in line with what Lenin wrote at the time. Refute them, don't abuse them!

You don't use the Marxist method the method of historical materialism. That's why you go wrong in the present. You can only understand the present in terms of the past .

You can't take a snap-shot of the present and say, "There, that's it". That's not adequate. You need to construct a historical motion picture, so to speak, in which the situation now is only the latest still life...

Jackie:
And you need to construct a motion picture of the future too, so that you know what the proper meaning of the events around you is, eh, Donal R?

Donal:
Exactly.

Jackie:
Yes, exactly, in general. You do need a historical motion picture. But someone who refuses to face the facts rationally now and says that understanding things 300 years ago is more important, that the colon origin of the Protestants has any bearing on our attitude to them now, is a pettifogger and a muddier who uses historical, or perhaps pseudo-historical, pedantry to obscure present-day reality. That's not Marxism.

Patrick:
No matter how the Protestants got to be in Antrim and Down and the rest of Ireland, there is no gainsaying that they are there now. They do have the right to be there and should from the point of view of democracy have a high degree of control over how they live and govern themselves there.

Even if they established themselves initially in Antrim and Down and other parts of the Six Counties by roasting and eating the entire previous Catholic-Gaelic population in the area, the moral taint of those actions would not in any degree detract from their right to be there now, or their right to stay there without having to submit to oppression of any kind.

Tony:
They are the oppressors, not the oppressed.

Donal:
Don't exaggerate, Tony! I don't say that the colon origin of the Protestants affects their right to be in Ireland now. I say don't glorify the Protestants, don't pretend that they were not always (all of them, including the 1798 Republicans) an official colony of the British Crown. They are colons, and that is no small matter.

Patrick:
You are unjust to Donal, I think, Mick, and Jackie is too. He does try to face the facts about the Protestants - far more than most of those on the same political wavelength do. The problem is that he finds a moralistic way to discount and devalue the facts. That's why he insists so
Tagging them as 'colons' serves you, Donal, as a moral justification for denying what you call a national minority the democratic rights that Marxists generally champion for such groups. It is used to justify your rampant Catholic nationalism - sorry, your belief in Permanent Revolution!

Donal:
I'm not a Catholic nationalist, Sir! I'm a Trotskyist and a Republican! I believe in the process and strategy of permanent revolution!

Mick:
'Process' I think I understand, but whose strategy is it? It's not the Provos' "strategy", for sure, and for a tiny group like People's Democracy it is a fantasy: it can not be a strategy. You use 'strategy' here in the sense that Hegel talked of the 'cunning of history' - teleologically. That's religion, Donal, expressed in dead "Marxist" jargon.

Donal:
You should learn from your own history, Mick. The group around Socialist Organiser now use their denial of permanent revolution to justify proposing the federal reform, but the said reformism had a predecessor way back in 1969. Your rejection of permanent revolution led you to propose the repartition of Ireland.

Mick:
You said that in Socialist Organiser, and it's one of the most self-revealing things in your articles. In the first place it isn't true, and in the second place it was the untruth used by the leadership of IS (now the SWP ) in mid-1969 to cover their tracks when they ostentatiously dropped the slogan 'British Troops Out!'
They had, quite inappropriately, made that slogan the centre of their campaigning on Ireland during the first half of 1969, but as soon as the troops went on to the streets they started arguing that the Catholics could arm behind the line of troops and 'when they are armed they can tell the troops to go'.

We were part of IS at the time. We'd opposed their nationalist focus before August 1969, and we opposed their shamefaced propaganda for the troops after August. Their response was an unscrupulous campaign against our alleged proposal to repartition Ireland. The issue, they insisted, was not their support for the British state in Ireland, but our proposal to repartition it.

We never made any such proposal! We proposed action to smash the Six Counties state, as the means to a united Ireland in which the Protestant heartland areas would have autonomy. You can argue about the details of what we proposed then - but you have to tell lies or redefine the meaning of words to say that we advocated the repartition of Ireland.

You pick up and use the slander circulated in 1969 and since by the IS leaders against people who were then your political co-thinkers.! That is blind factional malice, Donal, and there is quite a lot of it in your Socialist Organiser pieces.

What the IS leaders were trying to do in 1969 with their slander is understandable enough. It even worked for a while. They had us pretty well isolated at the September 1969 IS conference. But at the next biannual conference, six months later, in Easter 1970, after we had been campaigning, they only won by the skin of their teeth. Two months later the IS National Committee accepted a motion from John O'Mahony (Sean Matgamna) committing the organisation to agitate for British withdrawal from Ireland.

Donal:
Nonsense. I remember O'Mahony's friends and co-thinkers in Dublin arguing for repartition in 1970 and 1971.

Mick:
You mean the group that evolved into the little Lambertist sect, the League for a Workers' Republic? Maybe they did. But we didn't. O'Mahony didn't. Check the documents.

Donal:
I will. But at the risk of repeating myself, I insist that the central core of your errors - prepared by your refusal to recognise the Permanent Revolution now striding ahead in Ireland - is that you believe in uniting a backward pro-imperialist section of the working class with the workers who are the anti-imperialist vanguard. From that everything else flows.
You are unenthusiastic about the armed struggle, and some of you, like O'Mahony, believe it should be ended. But that armed struggle is the detonator which will ignite the South - which in turn, once mobilised, will win over enough of the Protestants to secure the victory of the said process and strategy.
The proof that I'm right is that no other way forward has been found, and if I were wrong about Permanent Revolution another way forward would have been found or would at least be visible.

Mick:
Visible from your teleological throne up there in the sky?

Jackie:
You are repeating yourself, Donal. So is Mick. I guess we all are by now. In any case we've run out of time, so we'll have to leave it there.
I suppose it could have been a more fruitful exchange, with perhaps more of a meeting of minds at the end. But still there haven't been many discussions like it that I know of. Perhaps we should organise another one with more people and perhaps a broader spectrum of views represented.

I said at the beginning that we probably have more in common than you'd think, and I haven't changed my mind even during our long and sometimes heated discussion. It seems to me that one reason why so large a part of the British left shares the attitudes and prejudices of Tony and Anne-Marie is because the situation here is so complex and seemingly so intractable and hopeless.

The two communities in the Six Counties bearpit are in a terrible impasse - and it seems to me that it can only be broken from outside, from Britain or the 26 Counties or both.
This impasse pushes people into what - if you'll allow me to abuse the chair, Tony - seem to me to be fantasies. The fantasies allow you to avoid facing up to the problem, but at the cost of cutting you off from any possibility of relating as a revolutionary Marxist to the real world.
That's my objection to Donal's scenario politics.
Fantasy politics - no matter how energetically expressed - is passive politics. You don't change the world, you manipulate images of it in your head.

James Connolly had a better idea when said of the scenario-mongers and vapid optimists: "the only true prophets are those who carve out the future they announce".
To carve out the future, Donal, you must have the nerve to tell yourself the truth about the present. But you wrap uncomfortable facts up in consoling scenarios.

Things stand a bit differently with the British left - which is amazingly ignorant of Irish realities. Serious socialists - which is without a doubt what Tony and his co-thinkers are - indulge in fantasies, but because they are not very familiar with the facts and the realities of Northern Ireland.
The British Left should acquaint itself with the facts. That's why I think the discussion was worthwhile.