IS AND IRELAND
Continuing the series about the events in Northern Ireland in 1968-9 — the start of the long-running turmoil there, still not resolved today — and the debates and disputes as the left tried to orient itself.
The first article described the situation in Northern Ireland on the eve of the crisis, and outlined the main events there in 1968-72. The second article set out the political currents involved in the turning-point discussion on Ireland at the National Committee of IS (forerunner of the SWP) in January 1969, their previous interactions and disputes, and their connections with left-wing activists in Ireland.
AS the IS National Committee at the beginning of January 1969 was discussing Northern Ireland, dramatic events of great consequence were erupting in Ireland as a direct result of the activities of IS's co-thinkers there, the leaders of People’s Democracy (a loose mainly student-based group formed in late 1968).
After the outcry that followed the police assault on the 5 October 1968 civil rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland’s prime minister Terence O’Neill appealed for the public confidence that would allow him to press ahead with reforms. The leaders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association were inclined to give O’Neill “time”.
These were men like John Hume — future SDLP leader, future godfather of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and in 1969 generally believed to be a member of Opus Dei, the quasi-secret elite Catholic lay association — and women like Betty Sinclair, long-time Stalinist, early-1930s student at the Moscow “Lenin school”, and secretary of the Belfast Trades Council.
Whatever may have been the inclinations of people like Hume and Sinclair, however lacking in gut militancy they may have been, there was very good reason for taking a “moderate” approach. There was a real danger of an Orange backlash that might be strong enough to paralyse moves for reform centred, as in the circumstances they had to be, on the Unionist party.
O’Neill was a weak and unskilled bourgeois politician, bred in a political system in which the ruling Unionist bloc had been kept together by fear of the Six Counties minority and of the 26 Counties state. The Unionist party, for half a century, had a built-in Unionist majority that needed only a few judicious thumps on the Orange drum to keep it loyal and mobilised.
O’Neill’s efforts to bring in the reforms London was demanding were fumbling and ambivalent. But more than that: the whole system, as events were about to show, had become volatile and unstable, and, except on a new basis, unviable.
The “ultras”, the Paisleyites, were still a fringe minority — outsiders. Ian Paisley was a Protestant Savonarola scourging the Orange and Unionist Six Counties Establishment in the name of "the Pottestant People", accusing them of lack of zeal and vigilance in the Protestant and Unionist cause, and, some of them, of being sell-out merchants -in Protestant parlance, “Lundys”, traitors.
An Orange equivalent of the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) now existed. Recently organised and named after the successful armed mass movement against Home Rule of the years before World War One, the UVF had already “made its bones” in the killing of a Catholic barman, Peter Ward, in 1966. Whipped into a hysterical alarm by the big celebrations in the South, and the stirrings amongst the Northern Cayholics, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, they had sought targets for their zeal and mistakenly identified Ward as an IRA member.
O’Neill had banned the UVF. However, the entire situation favoured the "ultras".
In any national-communal conflict, the reckless chauvinists can by their actions evoke responses on the “other side” that will strengthen them on theirs. As though acting in tacit alliance, they “spark off” each other to create conditions in which large numbers of “their own” are pulled behind them by fear of the "other side
The “moderate” leaders of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association knew how dangerous the situation was, and they responded favourably to O’Neill’s implicit appeal — back me, or you may have to face far worse. The militants, PD would have none of it. They acted as if they wanted to sharpen the communal polarisation: in any case that was what their actions produced.
The problem for the "moderates" was that O’Neill, while willing to reform, to 'moderate' the sectarianism of the Northern Ireland state, was not committed to root-and-branch equality for Catholics; and increasingly, as the anti-O’Neill Orange backlash it became doubtful that he could deliver any major reforms at all.
Northern Ireland was a minefield. Any sharp movement could trigger explosions, and explosions that, like 5 October in Derry, would bring on others. It may well be that — even leaving aside the fact that the basic civil right the Six Counties Catholics lacked was national self-determination — reform that would satisfy the Catholics was simply impossible in the Northern Ireland sub-state.
The system had been created to be the self-rule of Ireland’s Protestant-Unionist minority. It had an assured Protestant majority. Its territory had been engineered to ensure that it had. The large size of its artificially created Catholic minority, and the fact that the Catholics were the majority in large swathes of the state bordering on the 26 Counties, deprived the Six Counties “Protestant state for a Protestant people” of the claim to democratic validity it would otherwise have had, at the same time as rendering the Unionists insecure and fearful for the future.
Once Britain had abolished the majority rule system, in March 1972, it would prove impossible for decades to replace it with any system with built-in Catholic-Protestant power-sharing. The most important such effort before the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and what has followed was from January to May 1974. It was destroyed by a Six Counties general strike.
But that would be in the wake of the first stage of the Provisional IRA war, which led to a mass mobilisation of Protestant Unionist forces in a (legal) mass movement, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). In 1969 development along another road may, may, still have been possible.
Sections of the Six Counties labour movement had backed civil rights and reform. But events from 5 October 1968 on alarmed increasingly wide layers of the Protestant-Unionist working class. Events widened and deepened the split in the working class, thus paralysing any possibility of progressive political action by the labour movement.
A far better course within the Six Counties state — if the continued existence of that Six Counties state is taken as given, and it is still “given” four turbulent decades later — would surely have been a succession of reforms that allowed decisive shifts towards full Catholic equality without the convulsions of the decades after 1968. For that, the Unionist “centre” would have to control events, and it didn’t happen that way.
Though the Civil Rights “moderates” were willing to have a “truce” with O’Neill, they nonetheless had a "militant" alternative policy of their own to fall back on if O’Neill did not produce results: the demand for the abolition of Belfast Home Rule and “direct rule” from London.
Things being as they were in Britain and Ireland, direct rule was the only alternative to reform forced through by the Northern Ireland Unionist Government. Those, in the first place PD, who pushed things to a breakdown and low-level civil war were, all things considered, and whatever they intended, working for direct rule from London. That was their role in Northern Ireland in the first eight months of 1969.
People’s Democracy rejected the “truce” with O’Neill. On 1 January they set off, perhaps 40 of them and sometimes more, extremely brave young women and men led by Michael Farrell and Eamonn McCann on what they called the “Long March”. In four days they marched for civil rights from Belfast to Derry, much of it through very hostile Unionist territory.
They suffered attacks and harassment in which the police, the RUC, instead of protecting them and their right of peaceful political demonstration, was sometimes obviously in collusion with those who threw deadly missiles at the marches and assaulted them with nail-studded clubs and iron bars. Members of the “B Specials” — the RUC “Reserve”, the Orange-sectarian anti-Catholic militia — took a direct part in some of the assaults. A number of marchers were seriously injured by clubs and missiles; at a number of points marchers feared for their lives.
At Burntollet Bridge, a few miles from Derry City, they experienced the worst assault, again with the RUC playing at best an ambivalent role. James Chichester-Clark, a Unionist MP and first cousin of O’Neill, who would within a few months be his successor as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, was photographed standing with one lot of anti-civil-rights demonstrators.
The analogy between Northern Ireland and the Southern States of the USA, and between Northern Ireland’s Catholics and black people in the US South, was greatly strengthened in the minds of many Northern Ireland Catholics and in the eyes of the now vigilant international media observers, by the events of the Long March.
The ambushes, the hostile demonstrations, the blatant bigotry and murderous thuggery of sections of Unionism, and the unabashed, US racist "red neck"-style outrage of Unionists along the route from Belfast to Derry at the sight of their “taigs” being uppity, were recorded by press reports and cameras. Protestant-Catholic relations at the grass roots in the Six Counties were “exposed” to a British and international mass media that was almost uniformly friendly to civil rights and the Catholics and dismissive and contemptuous of the Protestants. The analogies with the battle for civil rights in the US South were not lost in the reporting.
Northern Ireland was depicted as a political land that time forgot, a world ruled by archaic strutting creatures out of the 17th century that had long been extinct in Britain and Western Europe. A pamphlet entitled Burntollet by Bowes Egan and Vincent McCormack, which detailed the events of the march, had a very wide circulation.
On that "exposure" level, the Long March was an outstanding success; but the propaganda victory carried a very high price in terms of communal polarisation.
Inside Northern Ireland, the intense light beamed on Orange militancy acted not to repel and inhibit but to alarm and stimulate the Protestants, at the same time as it stirred up Northern Ireland Catholics.
When the march got to Derry, fighting erupted between local Catholics and the police. A mere two months after the fighting that followed the events of 5 October 1968, the police invaded the Bogside, the Catholic slum built outside the still perfectly-preserved 17th century walls of the City. The Bogsiders threw up barricades to keep the police out and declared that their area was now “Free Derry”.
It was the first attempt at “internal secession” from the Six Counties state by a Catholic-majority area. There would be others before 1969 was out.
The Catholics were Northern Ireland’s underdogs, the oppressed, the main victims of Partition. It did not follow that they were free from sectarian bigotry of their own.It would be a miracle if they were. In such a situation, one side’s bigotry and sectarianism can be expressed in the guise of a denunciation of “the other side’s” bigotry, sectarianism, or "racism". Some of the worst sectarianism-breeding features of Northern Ireland society — sectarian “faith schools”, for example — were mainly the work of the Catholic hierarchy.
The events of early January 1969 undermined O'Neill. Alarm in Unionist Northern Ireland grew that his “soft” approach, his reformism, was encouraging the “Taigs”, that "civil Rights" was turning into a Catholic-IRA uprising. Though premature, this was not inaccurate: the unprecedented Catholic civil rights mobilisations, shaped in part by the Orange-Unionist backlash, would in history prove to be the build-up to an IRA war on Northern Ireland’s Protestant-Unionists that would last for 23 years. PD’s Long March was, in the history of Northern Ireland, an important prelude to the IRA’s long war.
The young leaders of the most militant section of the movement for Catholic civil rights — Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann, Cyril Toman, and soon Bernadette Devlin — were by now well-known media figures in Ireland, Britain, and beyond. They had a wide audience for their politics. The question was, what were their politics? What were they trying to do?
What did they think they were doing? What did they think would come from the communal polarisation they had helped create and which their militancy was sharpening, and could only sharpen?
The pace-makers. the leaders of PD, were young people educated under the British welfare state far beyond what had been available to their parents. They held a broader overview than that of the older generation of Catholics, they had socialist aspirations for Catholic and Protestant alike. They knew, in a way that no outside observer could know, what N I Civil Rights was about. Throughout their own lives, back to infancy, they had experienced what its opposite meant, in a thousand daily slights, insults, discriminations, suspicions, and threats. They had been abused, talked down to or patronised as an unredeemed part of an “inferior” and still “backward” Irish aboriginal people.
They knew the system they revolted against in their bones, and they bore its psychological consequences for Northern Ireland Catholics deep within themselves. The lines of the mid-19th century nationalist poet Thomas Davis about the “Penal Days” of the 18th century, when Irish Catholics lived under a system remarkably like South Africa’s apartheid, had for them been not only about a distant past: “What wonder if our step betrays/ The freedman born in penal days?”.
All proportions guarded, their lives really did have a lot in common with the experience of the black people in the USA with whom many of them openly identified. The discrimination was not as intense and all-pervasive as in the USA, and Catholics were not subject to casual lynching, their bodies hung from trees or set fire to; but there was occasional lethal B-Special violence. Despite important differences, it was in the same order of things as what US black people experienced, and the PD leaders themselves felt that they had a lot in common with the US black civil rights leaders.
But the differences were no less important; and from people who were Marxists, as some PD leaders were, more was required than gut militancy and indignation, however justified. The November 1969 Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet IS and Ireland commented on this.
"It should also be admitted that the whole Northern Ireland set-up probably ruled out any attempt to do what the PD tried to do, and certainly in the way they tried to do it. It precluded unity; it precluded a simple attempt to change the relative situation of Catholics and Protestants in a united struggle... Sectarian division had been programmed into the state at birth.
Thus even the social slogans — one man one job, one house, etc. — appeared, against the background of extreme [economic] stagnation, to the Protestants as demands to share the little there was. The attempt to use social slogans and demand to rally a united mass movement of Catholic and Protestant workers called forth only a Catholic civil rights movement — and a violent Protestant backlash.
“Man makes his own history”, teaches Marxism — but according to conditions he does not control, and which ultimately determine whether or not the result of his actions will be as he desires. Man can, of course, heighten remarkably the chances of achieving a desired result by understanding the laws that operate in the particular field.
That is why Marxism is so useful for those who want to change society. That is why a comprehensive Marxist programme, based on a serious analysis, is a useful weapon in any situation. And particularly useful where the situation is very complex and where struggles at different levels (nationalist and socialist) are superimposed and criss-crossed on top of each other.
PD started out without a serious analysis, and without clearly defining their aims and the appropriate tactics and strategy needed to achieve those aims. Going along empirically, ignoring the national question, they evoked a movement of protest from a section of the population whose whole reason for protest, whose whole social condition, was determined by the point at which the national struggle of 50 years ago stopped.
They did evoke a class struggle, but a muffled one; a class energy from the oppressed Catholic masses, which in turn brought forth only a violent hostility from the majority of the Northern Ireland working class.
Transitional demands which might have drawn the Protestant workers into the struggle by showing up the real enemy and indicating a path of struggle which did not appear to threaten them were hardly used at all. Instead they talked of the Workers’ Republic, as if in some mystical way it was immediately connected with the present struggle, as if the far-distant prospect were enough to unite the [working] class now. In the event they were using it like a deodorant or a shroud.
Instead of prising apart the horizontal division which exists between the classes in Northern Ireland, their blows produced a crack vertically down the middle of Northern Ireland’s flawed society; it split along the lines of religion and nationality." [IS and Ireland, Nov. 1969.]
The agitators for black civil rights in America demonstrated, marched, and organised within a political framework in which they looked to the Federal Government to protect their rights — and to intervene physically against the racist State authorities in the Southern States. In Northern Ireland? The equivalent policy was direct rule. That was the policy of the British Labour Party Left. Though it was what flowed from the polarisation and breakdown which was the certain consequence of their militancy, it was not the policy of PD,.
Noe was it the policy of IS. Essentially IS had no policy, only an implicit one. IS’s "policy was incoherent hand-to-mouth agitation, with no thought beyond the immediate impact. For practical purposes, they recognised no values beyond “militancy”. Until events hit them shartly on the head in August 1969, they indulged in a politically senseless determination to ignore the complexities and, in practice, to pretend that the communal differences counted for nothing.
Events would soon impose a political “logic”, and, I suspect, for IS's leaders a very surprising logic, on IS’s “demands”.
The Trotskyist Tendency inside IS (forerunner of AWL) was highly critical of PD’s tactics and called IS’s policy “Catholic economism” — by analogy with IS’s (straightforward) “Economist” delusion that militant trade unionism in Britain was socialist politics.
The January 1969 IS National Committee had added to the slogans put forward by the Executive Committee — troops out, no British military equipment for the B-Specials, end subsidies — a call for “the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination”. That was carried by the National Committee with a comfortable majority but against the votes of all the Executive members (other than Constance Lever) and it gave the slogans a certain coherence.
But here, though the National Committee could “propose”, even “impose”,the Executive Committee “disposed”. Te EC decided on a day-to-day basis what the slogans meant, how they were construed, what Socialist Worker would say.
In any case, the formula we put forward — “the right of the people of Ireland to self-determination” — was itself inadequate and misleading. Ireland was a unity only geographically. Politically, the major problem, and it could not be evaded, was that the compact Protestant-Unionist majority of north-east Ulster (not of the whole Six Counties, but of the north and east of that area) was British and thought of itself as British, not Irish, or anyway not Irish in the Dublin or Northern Ireland Catholic sense. That compact majority did not encompass the Six Counties state — that is why it broke down — but it dominated a distinct corner of Ireland, and that (then) the most economically and industrially developed part of the island.
They would not agree to be in a united Ireland, and it was neither desirable nor possible to coerce them into a united Ireland.
In part, the formula of self-determination for the whole of Ireland, as a unit, was for the Trotskyist Tendency (for me, anyway) a way of challenging, rejecting, and denying the validity of the division into Six and 26 Counties. “Self-determination... must mean to regard the existing Irish state structure as fluid... [to deny it means] declaring... that the existing border is sacrosanct this side of workers’ power” (IS and Ireland).
But without some notion of how the two peoples on the island — and within Northern Ireland — could relate to each other, of a democratic settlement that would allow for coexistence, “self-determination” had a built-in Catholic-majoritarian meaning. In fact I did not believe in such an approach, and had in the Irish Workers’ Group magazine Workers’ Republic explicitly condemned the notion of any attempt, or even the implicit notion of an attempt, at “conquering the Protestant workers”. I will come back to this question.
Out of that contradiction would come the idea that a united Ireland could not but be a federal Ireland, though not a federation of six and 26 counties. This idea had already been raised in 1948 by the tiny Irish Trotskyist (Shachtmanite) organisation, but nobody knew that in 1969. There was no continuity. We had to grope our way.
The worst inadequacy of the Trotskyist Tendency in early 1969, however, lay in our response to “withdraw subsidies”. The Trotskyist Tendency pamphlet of November 1969 carried the criticism we had of that demand — “this slogan, acceptable to no workers in Northern Ireland, Catholic or Protestant, disguised the real nature of the relationship [between Britain and Northern Ireland], and could legitimately be accused of miseducating British workers”. But at the National Committee we did not oppose it, choosing instead to argue positively for self-determination and a call for an Irish workers’ republic. And the criticism in our pamphlet was shallow and routine.
Yet analysis of that “withdraw subsidies” slogan opens up the whole question. What did the slogan mean? And what, for Northern Ireland, did “British imperialism” mean? Northern Ireland was an artificially carved-out sub-state. Senselessly, it incorporated large areas whose Catholic majority wanted to be part of the other Irish state; but its majority was, they insisted, British; and it was a compact majority in a sizeable chunk of the north-east corner.
Where did the idea of withdrawing British subsidies come from? What did it mean? Another of the three demands concerned the supply of guns to Stormont, so “subsidies” did not refer to that aspect of things. If it was more than a pseudo-militant noise, it was a call for the British to expel the Northern Ireland working class, Protestant and Catholic, from the post-1945 welfare state!
It was a demand on Westminster that it stop subsidising the social services — dole in the (mainly Catholic) areas of high unemployment; the NHS; education (the education system, vastly superior to that of the South, that would produce the generation of young Catholics who spearheaded the civil rights movement).
That it act to savagely reduce the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant. That it impose cuts and counter-reforms that would do to Northern Ireland what Thatcher would do in Britain 20 years later! It was a call for a drastic hammering down of the Northern Ireland working class!
I repeat: the expulsion of the Six Counties working class from the modern British welfare state!
Where might this call for the driving down of the working class of Northern Ireland originate? `from some Southern bourgeois whose brain had been pickled in Catholic chauvinism for too long? Its motivation would be the cry: “Stop corrupting our workers”, a sort of addle-pated nationalist “ultra-leftism”.
Or it could come, as indeed it did, from pseudo-Irish nationalists, eager to display their ardour for a cause they don’t really care about, which they embrace to serve some other goal, from people really concerned in the main with something other than Ireland, her peoples or her working class.
People who had never encountered or rejected James Connolly’s dictum: “Ireland apart from her people means nothing to me”.
That is where it did come from. As far as I know, the idea originated in a 1955 pamphlet of the Communist Party’s Irish front organisation, the Connolly Association. It had appeared briefly in a discussion piece in Socialist Worker’s predecessor Socialist Review, a pro-IRA article by the Republican-Stalinist folk-singer Dominic Behan (Easter 1959), but he will have picked it up from the Connolly Association.
The Trotskyist Tendency’s criticism of the demand was grossly inadequate.
In Socialist Worker of 11 January 1969, an editorial reporting the "line" of the National Committee was flagged up across the top of page one under the masthead: “Northern Ireland and the British left: the enemy is at home”.
The main story on page one was Michael Farrell's report of the Long March from Belfast to Derry, under the headline: “Ulster Cops Versus Marchers”. That was true — but radically, and for Socialist Worker typically, misleading. it cosigned the grass roots Orange response to the march to the status of marginal detail, focusing on liberal exposure of the cops. The sectarianism of the RUC was very important, but it was itself a product of something far more basic, and far more important — the communal antagonism and the growing Orange grass-roots mobilisation.
The editorial underlined the same emphasis as the lead-story headline.
“Some readers may have thought Socialist Worker’s definition of Northern Ireland as a police state was ‘rather extreme’.” Those readers would surely change their mind after Burntollet. And? “The demonstrations must go on. The demands of one man one vote, and an end to religious discrimination in housing and unemployment [sic] must be won.
British socialists and trade unionists must realise that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and is financed and supported by British capitalism. The British left must act in solidarity with their Irish comrades by fighting to end British capitalism’s role in Ulster.
Our job is to fight the enemy at home, not to tell Irish socialists what to do. The geographical nearness of Ireland tends to confuse British socialists about their role.
The attitude of most British socialists to the struggles for national liberation in Africa and Asia follows the basic Marxist approach of fighting to expose the complicity of British Imperialism in those parts of the world.
But where Ireland is concerned too many British socialists unconsciously accept its colonial status by ignoring the grip of British capital over the country and instead insist on instructing the Irish left to call for a ‘Workers’ Republic North and South’".
The only crosshead in the editorial followed: “Repudiated”. The Editorial went on:
"The National Committee of the International Socialists, meeting in London last weekend discussed the Irish situation at great length and repudiated any suggestion that in expressing our solidarity with the Irish comrades we should include demands concerning the socialist reorganisation of the 32 Counties.
That is for the Irish working class to decide. Our duty in Britain is to fight British capitalism and its hold over Ireland.
The National Committee called for a campaign on Ireland based on public meetings throughout the country to explain the situation, backed by pamphlets, leaflets and articles in Socialist Worker and International Socialism.
The Campaign will be based on the following demands..."
The editorial repeated the three demands that had appeared in Socialist Worker before the National Committee discussion, and added a fourth on self determination of Ireland:
1) Withdrawal of all British troops from Ireland
2) An end to the supply of all British miliitary equipment to the NI Tory Unionist Party and its B-Specials
3) Stop the British subsidies to the Tory police state in NI
4) The right of self-determination for the people of Ireland."
The A W editorial was a crude and true report of the National Committee decisions. The word “repudiate” conveyed a notion of a decisive rejection. That was, perhaps, too strong for a decision carried only by the chair’s casting vote, but, nonetheless, repudiated it had been.
This editorial was very much at variance with the much self-praised “IS style” of that time, which decreed that they could only boast about their “modesty”. It was also at odds with one of the organisation's defining ideas of the last decade, that we had moved beyond the era of Imperialism. It had been summed up in the title of an article by Michael Kidron. Referring to Lenin’s idea that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism, Kidron had entitled his article “Imperialism: Highest Stage But One”.
At the December IS Executive discussion on Ireland, Socialist Worker editor Roger Protz was one of those who had called for a Marxist analysis of Ireland. Perhaps he was making the same point in the editorial, obliquely, by showing what the lack of a Marxist analysis could lead to!
The editorial led to something of an outcry, and that in turn to an Executive Committee decision that from then on Richard Kuper, a member of the “subtle faction”, would write the editorials in Socialist Worker. (On this, I am forced to rely on memory).
I immediately wrote a reply to the editorial. It did not appear in the following paper. It was kept back for two weeks, while the Executive Committee was sorting out what it would do. What did it do?
At the bottom of page 1, SW of Jan 18th carries a short unsigned article: "Ireland — A Correction."
The editorial the previous week "has given rise to some misunderstanding. International Socialists give unconditional though not uncritical support to the Civil Rights Movement and to the Irish national movement generally."
The writer did not say which Irish national movemnet, or where it was to be found.
"At the same time we are fully convinced of the need for a socialist workers' republic of Irteland. Far from repudiating this slogan, we believe that it offers the only perspective for uniting Irish workers North and South. We believe that British socialists must emphasise as the editorial correctly stated, the need to free Ireland from British Imperialism, specifically the demands advanced last week are the correct ones to emphasise in Britain.
SW's editor had come out of the National Committee meeting with the same picture of what had happened as the mover of the motion which had been "repudiated" by Chairman Jim Higgin's second, tie-breaking, vote. But no. The "line" was whatever the EC said it was... The EC had a, so to speak, second, "second" vote.
Despite the squirming afterwards, the Protz editorial on Jan 11th had summed up what might be called “IS position no.1”. My letter summed up what might be called “Trotskyist Tendency position no.1”. Both sides would shift ground.
"A strange editorial! You entirely ignored the case (supported by fifty per cent of the National Committee and only “repudiated” by the Chairman’s second vote!) in favour of propaganda in Britain for an Irish Workers’ Republic — the fact of one million Irish workers living in Britain. A very high proportion of those interested in our campaign will be Irish.
IS’s slogans have some educational value for British workers: but their effect on nationalist Irish workers will be to hinder them in grasping the real problems of Ireland and the real — working-class — solutions. To play a positive role with this large group we need more than the simplistic “Bring the Troops and Subsidies home” approach.
The idea that if Britain vanished everything would be fine in Ireland is the basic political miseducation of those Irish workers we will reach with our demands. Without a class, socialist approach, we can’t even talk to Protestant Irish workers in Britain. You reinforce this camouflage which protects the Green Tories North and South from class politics — the politics that will finally unify the workers of all Ireland against their Green and Orange exploiters.
The confused thinking behind your approach is well expressed in your editorial: “The British left must act in solidarity with their Irish comrades by fighting to end British capitalism’s role in Ulster”. How?
Its role depends in no way on the direct control of Northern or Southern Ireland; even less on the anti-Catholic laws. Nor will it end if Ireland becomes a united bourgeois republic. It will end only when the market ceases to rule the relations of small nations and large ones.
Again: “Too many socialists unconsciously accept its [Ireland’s] colonial status by ignoring the grip of British capital over the country”. And “neo-colonialism”.
Like the majority of Irish workers, the editorial clearly thinks that the slogans raised are a solution to the basic problem of Ireland — the grip of British and Irish capital. They are not a solution. For a country like Ireland, overshadowed by Britain, only the workers’ revolution can change the basic situation.
We must fight for limited gains (i.e. British withdrawal) — but we must not sow, or endorse, illusions. The beneficial effect of complete British withdrawal would only be to clear the Nationalist roadblock that has stopped Irish labour in its tracks for 50 years. No more than that.
It is a crass oversimplification to call Northern Ireland a “colony” — it is semi-autonomous, ruled by a sub-section of the British capitalists. Direct British control is increasingly unimportant; there is evidence of British desire for Northern and Southern Irish bourgeois rapprochement (in preparation for entry to the Common Market [European Union]). Orange bigotry today benefits the Northern Ireland employers, who are not all English.
We need a class explanation as well as a nationalist explanation. Yet you stick to demands appropriate to Vietnam [now], or to Ireland in 1920, ignoring the effects of these demands on Irish readers and others.
To take this into account, the proposal for a Workers’ Republic slogan was raised at the National Committee: it could have taken the form of an IS expression of support for the left in Ireland, and in no way would it have qualified the demand of “Britain out”.
We don’t tell Irish socialists what to do. But should we, out of contrition for Britain’s role in Ireland, past and present, trail after people who see Ireland in national terms, or liberal terms, to the exclusion of class terms
IS needs a line, an independent judgement. Lenin, while arguing with Luxemburg, was by no means a supporter of Pilsudski.
For instance, do we not have a duty to criticise the apparent lack of concrete unifying working-class demands in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement? No Irish socialists (except a few reactionary expatriate chauvinists) would object to this, nor to socialist propaganda amongst Irish workers in Britain.
[We must stand with revolutionary socialists in Ireland who combine Luxemburg’s determination not to be deflected from socialism by nationalism (a big danger in Ireland as in Poland) with Lenin’s sensitivity to the feelings of a people on whom oppression has stamped a sharp national consciousness.]
At the moment IS is reproducing the line of Irish socialists who on this question are habitually to the right not only of Luxemburg but also of Pilsudski!" (Socialist Worker, 25 January 1969).
[The paragraph in brackets was cut in S W.]