The second discussion on Ireland, 1958

Submitted by AWL on 25 October, 2014 - 4:19

In the first, October 1958, issue of the now fortnightly Socialist Review, a new round of discussion is launched:

“From Northern Ireland, George Adair writes on the need for a United Irish Republic.” This is an attempt to defend Socialist Review’s point of view, and George Adair is most likely a pen name.

A nervous introduction by the editor (Michael Kidron) explains what SR think they are doing:

“SR stands for the unification of an independent Ireland. The following article from a correspondent in Northern Ireland shows something of the history of this demand in the socialist movement, the tragedy that has befallen it and how the future of the demand is tied up with the growth of a healthy, non-sectarian Labour movement in that country — Editor”.

The first wave of intense IRA activity on the border has now thinned-out to an occasional raid. The Connolly Association and the Communist Party network in the Labour movement are starting a vigorous campaign on the “Mallon and Talbot case.” These two Republicans are charged with murdering a policeman, Sergeant Owens, by booby-trap bomb. The Communist Party has sent one of its lawyer members, John Hostetler, to observe the trial and write a pamphlet arguing that the two Republicans, who might have faced the death penalty, are victims of a police frame up.

It was an early example of propaganda against the Six County state focusing up front on the real ill-treatment of the Catholic minority and their lack of certain civil rights, and used as an argument for the abolition of the Six County entity. This approach will in a decade mobilise a mass Catholic revolt, bring great international odium on the Six County sub-state, then lead to the IRA war and the abolition of the Belfast Protestant-Unionist government early in 1972.

Adair: “As bombs explode along the border the chance of Ireland ever reaching peace and unity appear to become more remote...” The IRA and the splinter group, Saor Uladh [Free Ulster] are trying “to cause such civil havoc and commotion as to bring the Irish problem to the forefront of world politics”.

(This is a serious inflation of the impact of the IRA military campaign, which by now is in decline).

Adair: “The Irish republicans of today are fighting a rearguard action... [They have] been deserted by [their] former leaders. [Taoiseach] Mr De Valera has given up the struggle against Partition.”

This is wildly untrue from any viewpoint other than that of the IRA, for whom “the struggle against Partition” is war on the North and anyone who does not support war is abandoning the struggle. De Valera had never supported that viewpoint. Far from “giving up the struggle against Partition”, the propaganda of De Valera and others, intensified and “internationalised” in the late forties, has helped the IRA rebuild its forces by restoring some credibility to the idea of “trying force” when the political, propagandist route, though it stirs up nationalist opinion, is seen to fail. The IRA border campaign is a child of the official 26 county state propaganda against partition.

A cross-head is inserted by the editors of Socialist Review, “Role of welfare state”:

“The border which they are struggling to abolish is upheld by the Northern Ireland Government which, within the past 37 years, has consolidated itself into a permanent and practically unchallengeable regime”.

The Welfare State has helped entrench the Stormont Government. And the 1949 Government of Ireland “Act has strongly reinforced Partition and as a loathsome by-product brought disunity, bitterness and chaos to Irish working class politics”. (Patricia Rushton had said 18 months earlier that it was Partition which had brought the disunity and bitterness. As history, or current politics, the attribution is no less idiotic the second time round, especially when it seems to root the problem in the 1949 Act, which only formalised existing British policy.)

Under a crosshead, (Labour Party leader, Clement) “Attlee versus Connolly”:

“Socialists had always believed that the working class movements of England and Ireland had so much in common that they would eventually end the partition that had been created by the Tories, and so open the way to unity, peace and socialism in Ireland. Those socialists who understood the teachings (!) of James Connolly believed and still believe that the first step towards socialism in Ireland was to unite the working class. They abhorred the way the Tories had stirred up hatred and disunity by playing upon the religious differences and fears of the people”.

Making “the Tories” responsible for all evil here serves to hide the fact of mass Protestant-Unionist militant support for partition.

W.P. Lavin

W.P. Lavin comes back on stage in SR’s first issue for November 1958 to nail Adair on his inner contradictions and inconsistencies and for his “sectarian socialist” attitude to the struggle for the goal which both Adair and Lavin say they share, a united Ireland:

If Adair believes in a united Ireland, why does he say that the Stormont regime has become permanent and is practically unchallengeable? No democrat can acquiesce in the continued existence “of this religiously bigoted and politically intolerant junta”. This “fascist statelet” is “a Protestant state for a protestant people”, excluding Catholics.

He rejects “the English Prime Minister’s absurd contention that there was in the North of Ireland a ‘homogeneous population alien in race, alien in sympathy, alien in tradition, alien in outlook’.”

Both the “English Prime Minister” and Lavin are right: there is an “alien tradition; but its demarcation does not coincide with the Border.

Adair: “the Ireland Act [Britain’s response to the Irish Free State’s change of name and withdrawal from the Commonwealth, in 1949] strongly reinforced Partition, and as a loathsome by-product brought disunity, bitterness and chaos to Irish working class politics. Surely this should make every sincere democrat strive for a United Ireland?” Indeed, if Partition caused, or is the prime cause, of these things, this is true.

“Socialists have a clear duty to support the men who are fighting for the freedom of Ireland.”

But some socialists hide from this duty because “the anti-Partitionists are not fighting on a socialist programme, and are therefore not entitled to socialist support...”

Lavin neatly nails their “sectarian socialist” politics in the name of a Leninist approach to national questions. The only thing wrong is that neither his picture of the society, nor theirs, corresponds to reality.


We come now to the final chapter in this story, Socialist Review’s dropping of its slogan on Ireland. This is a good place to take stock so far, and to pose some questions.

From late 1955 Socialist Review has had close working relations with the publishers of Labor Action, the Independent Socialist League. Why is the knowledgeable and distinctive coverage written by Matt Merrigan in Labor Action ignored in the Socialist Review discussion?

Why does nobody pick up Skeffington’s very important point about what was and was not reasonably definable as “Occupied Ireland’? The issues are misdefined because the nature of Partition is misdefined. The basic question of democratic relations between the different identities in Ireland is lost. The Irish Trotskyists’ 1948 breakthrough, the idea of a united Ireland as a federal Ireland, is forgotten. Almost all participants in this discussion are trapped in a miasma of telling themselves, and repeating, ideological lies. They flounder about.

Advocacy of “the reunification of an independent Ireland” appears for the last time in the issue of SR for mid-February 1959. In the next issue, an editorial block accompanying a new “discussion” article explains why the call for a united Ireland has been dropped:

“Readers will notice that we have dropped the point relating to Ireland from ‘What We Stand For’. We have found that Irish socialists themselves are unclear on the issue and feel it would be impudence on our part to define the right road for them. The discussion now opening in our columns will, we hope, serve to stimulate thought on the road to socialism in that country — Ed”.

This may be unique in the history of the SR-IS-SWP tendency for the attempt to explain what they are doing. But it is also typical: they “open” a “discussion” by first changing the line, that is, adopting a new line, albeit a negative one! It is also simply fatuous: they hadn’t known that there were disagreements amongst Irish socialists?

Why are they changing again? They must be uneasy about the position they have taken up to satisfy the new people in Nottingham. The IRA campaign, though it still twitches now and then in the form of isolated incidents, and will briefly flare up again in 1961, is by now a spent force. The Communist Party and the Connolly Association continue the war by political means, in the form of a political campaign in the British labour movement against “the Northern Ireland police state”. With their wide range of “contacts” in the unions and in the Labour Party, they have made much political mileage with their campaign on behalf of the two IRA prisoners allegedly tortured into confessing to the killing of a policeman, Mallon and Talbot.

Something else is moving on the left too. The main Trotskyist organisation, the Healy group, has begun to break new ground on the Irish question. In the early 50s their paper Socialist Outlook has carried routine middle-class nationalist accounts of Ireland.

But now, since 1957, they have recruited a number of Irish militants from the Communist Party. The most important of them is Brian Behan, a member of the Communist Party Executive Committee

Behan has long objected to the non-socialist character of the Communist Party’s Irish work, and to the pseudo-nationalism purveyed by the Connolly Association. So have a number of other Irish members or supporters of the Communist Party.

Under their influence the Healy group’s paper Newsletter reports Ireland in terms of the class struggle. They report on the doings of socialists such as the one-time Health Minister Noel Browne. Then reported on the 26 Counties in terms of class and working-class experience.

They have a solid influence for a while among militant Irish building workers in London.

As a rule the Socialist Review Group tends to follow the lead of the Healyites. Against nuclear weapons, for example, they copy the Healyite slogan “Black the Bomb and the Bases”. (“Black” means boycott, ban, “hot-cargo”).

The Healyites’ new approach will have exerted some pressure on the Socialist Review Group.


The new discussion article accompanying SR’s editorial explanation of a change of line is too quirky to be anything other than the work of a real person, as distinct from a name of convenience assumed by one of SR’s inner core. Yet it is Harris who presents their alternative to the slogan they have dropped. customers

Harris explains what SR’s change of line is designed to combat: “The passing of resolutions calling for the ‘withdrawal of British troops from Ireland’, ‘Self-Determination for Ireland’, or some similar objective has become common practice among British trade union and Labour Party branches and other socialist organisations and groups”.

Those who vote for such things are “on the whole” “well-meaning socialists” but their attention is “usually drawn to the position of the six north-eastern counties of Ireland by Irish exiles who have been, unfortunately, blinded to facts by virtue of having been engendered with a fierce nationalism which has been deliberately confused with religious bigotry by years of clerical indoctrination”.

We have seen that Socialist Review has so far seemed to accept the fundamental case from this point of view.

On behalf of SR, Harris now appeals to “all Irishmen” to face the “bitter” facts.

He agrees that: “The ‘state’ of Northern Ireland was founded undemocratically and by a Tory confidence trick” after “the overwhelming majority of the Irish people had demonstrated their wish for political independence”. This way of formulating the issue shows that Harris hasn’t faced the fact that within this figure is hidden a compact minority in, roughly, the four counties around Belfast, who do not want independence under a Dublin – and as they believe, Catholic – government.

By “confidence trick” Harris seems to mean the fomenting of religious divisions. But, he says, astonishingly, there is no denying that “the confidence trick was highly effective and that Northern Ireland was established as ‘an integral part of the United Kingdom’ with the almost complete support of the people living within its boundaries.” They “still support the continuance of the state of Northern Ireland”. To ignore this “would be comparable with the US’s policy with the[Stalinist] People’sRepublic of China” (refusal to recognise it).

The level of ignorance or clumsy mendacity involved in the claim that the Six County state has had and has the support of almost all its people, though it is breathtaking, is only in extreme expression on the general ignorance of this spokesman for Socialist Review. Skeffington has already discussed the religious-political composition of the peoples of the six counties. Hasn’t Harris read Skeffington’s article? Haven’t the editors of Socialist review? And where was Cliff, one-time resident in Ireland?

Under the cross-head, “Divide and rule”, Harris writes that the “confidence trick” has been to divide and rule on the basis of religious differences, like India, Palestine and Cyprus.

“ Suspicion and antagonism are engendered by granting small favours and rights to the minority group — in the Irish case the Protestants — at the expense of the majority, the Roman Catholics.

“In this way the heroic struggle of the Irish peasants for basic human rights and dignities degenerated into a struggle between the lackeys of British Imperialism and the agents of the Irish bourgeoisie and aristocracy, [and] rival churches.

“In this gradual change of direction of the Irish struggle, great socialists like Fintan Lalor and James Connolly were used and cruelly betrayed. The very mention of their names has become almost heresy in the South and the people in the North are almost totally ignorant of them”.

Harris has a vague notion of history as a conspiracy produced through manipulation by an all-powerful ruling class. His ignorance of what he writes about is, I repeat, astonishing. So is that of the editors of Socialist Review.

For instance, Fintan Lalor was not a socialist. Harris is all handed-down, garbled, pseudo-understanding. Essentially he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Not even when what he’s saying has some sense to it, as with the following:

“Many believe that socialism can never be achieved in a divided country... This... is true up to a point, but it is sheer fantasy, indeed folly, to contend, as they do that territorial unity must be the first goal of irish socialists”. That much at least is true.

Ireland is “governed by two basically similar bourgeois social classes who are ever jousting for power... And what good can be obtained by supporting one against the other?… Establishing the absolute authority of one of the rival factions... [is] to strengthen this faction, which is a retrograde step for socialists”.

So national conflicts and struggles for national liberation concern only the bourgeoisie? If this were teased out coherently, it would amount to ultra-leftism – dismissing national questions in general and in all circumstances where the bourgeoisie is at the head of a nation or a fragment of a nation struggling for independence.

To “the division of the Irish people”, writes Harris, “a catalyst, socialism, must be applied... The job of establishing socialism amongst the Irish people must be tackled within the existing framework. The old maxim. ‘divide and conquer’, must be turned on the ruling classes after the goal of a United Irish Socialist Party has been achieved, and this only after socialism has been separately established North and South of the border.”

This is “an enormous task”.

The bourgeoisie in the South has convinced the people that “the existence of the state of Northern Ireland is the sole cause of the social injustice, poverty and deprivation”. The Northern “Tories” have “managed to convince their people that the existence of slightly higher standards of living in the North is entirely due to the separate status of the Six Counties.”

The “people” of Northern Ireland fear that a “merger with the Catholic South” would bring depression of living standards to “the low level of the latter area” (which in Harris’s previous paragraph was only “slightly” different... ).

Both “bourgeois governments... realise that their main enemy is not one another but socialism”. To prevent this, the Southern government “adopts tactics which are not far behind those of Franco’s fascist Spain”, banning books and proscribing political parties and promoting “relentless attacks” from the pulpit.

The Northern Ireland governments are “slightly more subtle”. They cite “the aforementioned resolutions” in British labour movement bodies to imply that the British trade union and socialist movement supports “the petty-bourgeois terrorist organisation, the Irish Republican Army”, to inoculate them against socialism.

Therefore, British socialists should not pass “these resolutions” but instead establish links with socialists, North and South, “and possibly act as a kind of mediator between them”. Papers like Socialist Review should publicise “the gross betrayal of the Irish working class revolutionary movement by the petty-bourgeois middle class leadership right through history”.

Harris concludes: “Only by a policy of separately establishing socialism, North and South, and exposing both ‘Orange’ and ‘green’ Tories will Ireland ever be ‘a nation once again’.”

Here Harris, and SR, whose spokesperson on this issue he evidently is, neatly invert the Stalinist scheme of “first national liberation and unity, then socialism”. Now it is first socialism, in fact two socialisms, and then Irish unity. Their version is upside down, like a tree with its roots in the air.

This article is a strange hodge-podge of middle-class nationalist history, half-formulated important truths — the split Irish bourgeoisie — and would-be cunning schemes. History is a plaything of bourgeois manipulators. He has no idea of such things as the autonomy of culture, including religion, as factors in history. He more or less fades out of his picture the aspect of Partition which will dominate Irish politics for the next half-century, the Northern Ireland Catholic people.

He makes little reference to Northern Ireland realities — other than to assume that the welfare state has united the population of Northern Ireland in support of Partition.

Harris, like Skeffington, has provided soft targets for the redoubtable militant representative of Irish Catholic nationalism in these discussions, Lavin.


SR’s paper is running out of steam and, having become a fortnightly at the start of 1958, is about to revert to monthly publication. There is no new issue of SR until Easter 1959, when SR publishes a rebuttal of Noel Harris by Dominic Behan.

Dominic Behan is a brother of Brian, the ex-CP building trade militant who is chairman of the Healyite Socialist Labour League, and of the playwright Brendan Behan. The brothers come from a Stalinist-Republican family in Dublin.

Dominic is becoming well known as a folk singer. He is the author of two ballads about two IRA martyrs in the Border Campaign, killed on a border raid on New Year’s Day, 1957, both of which had gained tremendous popularity in Ireland.

One is a rollicking, mindless piece of militaristic vain-glory, celebrating one of the IRA’s clerical fascists, Sean Sabht [John South] of Garryowen. The other, The Patriot Game, is a thoughtful and truthful examination of the IRA outlook, put in the mouth of the 17-year old, Fergal O’Hanlon.

Behan’s arguments provide a valuable snapshot of the mind of an Irish Socialist Republican of that time.

Behan, quoting Sam Goldwyn, finds Noel Harris’ piece “filled with clichés, and not one of them new”. No one except the IRA is “carrying on any struggle against the forces of occupation, North or South of the Border; political or purely physical force.”

He admits he is what Harris “and the Daily Mail would dub a petty-bourgeois terrorist; and for all that I’m a socialist!”

Before “criticising the young men who had taken up arms against John Bull”, we should examine the conditions that gave rise to the IRA. For nearly 800 years, “not a single decade went by but Irishmen asserted in blood their unquenchable right to independence and self-determination.”

The Fenians (of the 1860s) “played more than a small part in founding the great British Chartist movement” (of the 1840s). James Connolly and Liam Mellowes were socialists and Republicans. In 1936 Frank Ryan — “did you ever hear of him?” — led en to fight Franco who came from the organisation of “petty-bourgeois terrorists”.

The Irish Republican Army policy is (he emphasises, in capitals) “for national independence and an end to occupation, either British or American”.

Behan denounces Andy Boyd (of the Communist Party in Northern Ireland, who will in 1969 be the correspondent there of the influential left-Labour weekly Tribune). Boyd has not mentioned Partition in his recent election address.

“Without British military occupation” of Ireland… the socialist movement “would have developed as it would in lands where no national problem exists...”

Behan asks: how can the “ground be made ready for a really progressive struggle?” The workers of Ireland “should be asked” to support the self-determination demand of the Republicans”. Causes of poverty “directly attributable to the economic partition of the country should be correctly attributed...”

“The labour movement in Britain must be made to demand that not one penny of the British taxpayers’ money must now be spent on bolstering a tottering Empire’s lackeys’ institutions in Ireland against the expressed wishes of the vast majority of the Irish people”.

He finishes: “The Partition of Ireland is wrong! The occupation of any part of Ireland by a foreign army is wrong! Two ‘separate’ socialisms is a false, dangerous argument… designed by jingoists to betray the Irish Workers’ Republic. The only truly progressive slogan for us can be Unity and Socialism. Get to hell out of here, John Bull and let us clear up the mess ourselves.”

Behan’s article is a valuable picture of the Irish Stalinist-socialist republican mindset at that time. His account of Irish — and English – labour movement history is pure moonshine. So is his stuff about the Irish separatists rising in every decade of 800 years of history.

He is critical of the Irish Stalinists in the North for not campaigning against Partition, as the separately organised Stalinists do in the South and in Britain. But he is saturated with the CP-honed view of the “Irish problem” and of Irish history.

Of course he is right about the idea of two Irish socialisms being absurd – yet this will be IS’s starting point when Ireland comes to the top of the agenda at the end of 1968.

Behan’s third slogan-demand, “withdraw subsidies”, also comes from the Stalinists (1955).

What does it mean? What is “demanded” of the British government here in relation to “British Occupied Ireland”? That it stop subsidising the social services, the dole in the mainly Catholic areas of high unemployment, the NHS, and an education system vastly superior to that of the South.

That is, act to savagely reduce the living standards of the people of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant. That is, to expel the whole of the Six Counties working class from the benefits won by the British labour movement in the post-World-War-Two Welfare State.

It is a demand to do to Northern Ireland what Thatcher will do to Britain 20 years later, only vastly more so.

Did anything so bizarre ever appear in the pages of an honest socialist newspaper — even as discussion? It rivals the German Stalinists’ “After Hitler, our turn next”.

Where does the demand originate? It might possibly come from some Southern bourgeois whose brain had been pickled in Catholic chauvinism for too long, or who had been in a lunatic asylum since 1921, if you could find one! Its honest meaning would be the cry: “Stop corrupting our workers” — a sort of addle-pated nationalist “ultra-leftism”.

In fact it comes 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, people concerned almost entirely with something other than Ireland, her peoples or her working class. That is where Dominic Behan has picked it up.

It originated with the British Communist Party’s Irish front group, the Connolly Association (in 1955). Note it well, reader. You will encounter it again in an unexpected place, in the form of the demand to “End British Subsidies”.

In Socialist Review of 1 March 1959, Patrick Lavin has the last word.

“I note that you have dropped from your programme the idea of an independent and unified Ireland. I had thought that your attitude on this question was the outcome of an impartial consideration of the facts of the case. However, it now appears that I was mistaken. It would seem that you have altered your programme because some pseudo-socialists in Ireland are “unclear” on the issue. This seems to me to be a perilously near approach to the attitude of the legendary Yankee politician who assured his hearers that ‘Them’s my sentiments, and if you don’t like them they can be scrapped’.”

Lavin hits at Noel Harris’s inconsistency in not drawing nationalist conclusions from the nationalist tale he tells of Irish history. Harris has said that “the overwhelming majority of the Irish people had demonstrated their wish for political independence (which is true)”. He has also said that Northern Ireland was established with the “almost complete support of the people within its boundaries”. That is untrue.

Harris himself has said that Northern ireland was set up by a Tory “confidence trick”. The nationalists at that time were the majority in Armagh, Fermanagh,Tyrone, south County Down, and Derry [City]. Only in Antrim and North County Down were the “Tories” in a majority. There were 93,000 Catholics n Belfast

Lavin’s wrap-around talk of “the majority” obscures the existence of a compact minority in north-east Ulster.

And he avoids the question of the overall population ratio in the 6 Counties. In fact he falsifies it and spins a fairytale. The ratio is two to one in favour of the Protestant-Unionists.

Lavin: “Because the fraud by which Northern Ireland was established was successful, Mr. Harris thinks that the bastard legislature of Stormont has a right to exist. Is not this the old abominable doctrine that the end justifies the means, which, universally acted upon, would drive the very idea of decency from the minds of men?”

The Stormont gang “and their pitiable dupes” are obsessed by an ignorant hatred of the Catholic Church, a hatred “hard to distinguish from insanity.” Lavin ends by asking: “why only the Irish, of all the peoples struggling to be free, should be told to postpone their national liberation till a socialist society has been established?”

Lavin, who is, it seems, both a Catholic and a long-time revolutionary socialist, is a pure voice of the strange fusion of “Communism” and Catholic Irish nationalism that still, even now, more than half a century later, dominates on the Irish, British and international left.

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