Ireland: Two policies, two perspectives

Submitted by Anon on 30 March, 1998 - 3:35

Fight against semi-colonialism
By the Fourth International (United Secretariat)

Ireland suffers not only from semi-colonialism but also from an unresolved national question... The northern state will not and cannot be a normal bourgeois democracy, even within the very elastic definition of this concept, with any sort of general and broad legitimacy. This is why socialists characterise the northern state as irreformable.

In the 26 counties the capitalist state enjoys an authority and acceptance which rivals that of many west European capitalist states. The ‘normal’ mechanisms of legitimising capitalism and the capitalist state are much more important in ensuring the stable functioning of the southern state and its semi-colonial economy. Even in the south however the legitimacy conferred on the state is incomplete. Unity of the nation remains the aspiration of the vast majority of the working class and the Irish people. It is the British state and its occupation of part of the country which is the fundamental obstacle to this unity and independence.

In summation Ireland is an oppressed nation and this oppression is of cardinal importance to socialists and the development of a socialist programme for the Irish working class.

For socialists there can only be one programmatic response to national oppression and that is self- determination for the oppressed nation, immediate withdrawal of the British Army and disbandment of the repressive forces of the Northern state...

Without this approach to national movements, which judges them according to their democratic content and not on their own terms, it is impossible to correctly orient to the Protestant population.

Originating as a colonial settlement whose purpose was to secure foreign rule, their separate existence as a political community distinct from the rest of the Irish people has been assured by continuing religious discrimination. Their function in justifying and enforcing partition shows that this role as a support for imperialism has not changed. Despite the creation of a separate Northern Ireland state with wide local powers and 70 years to create a national identity no such Protestant nationality has been created. The Protestants of Ireland are not a separate nation. Unable to unambiguously define themselves as British, Irish, Northern Irish or as an ‘Ulster’ nationality they are certain of their identity as Protestants. Defining themselves in negative terms to differentiate themselves from the rest of the Irish people they can identify themselves only in a sectarian manner because only sectarianism has given them a separate and superior economic and political power in relation to the rest of the Irish nation.

This explains why there is no democratic content to the demand for Protestant self-determination. In fact the Protestant population has never demanded self-determination, just the means and the support of imperialism to maintain their sectarian position. The argument for self-determination raised now on their behalf is an attempt to claim some democratic credentials for their reactionary and pro-imperialist historical role.

What does self-determination for the Protestants mean? It at once defines nationality in sectarian terms and condemns Catholics within the Protestant ‘nation’ to second class citizenship. It would confirm a ‘catholic Irish nation’ to an analogous, though less brutal, sectarian existence. It means rejection of the non-sectarian principle enshrined in the demand for self-determination which declares the possibility of both religious groups living together and jointly determining their own national state. In practice it is only a device for imperialist control and a means to thwart the self-determination of an oppressed nation.

There are no arguments which can give it democratic validity. ‘Self-determination for Northern Ireland’ is in effect the same thing since the northern state is simply the largest area which could command a secure Protestant majority. No minority problem is solved since the purpose of the northern state is to defend minority privilege and in turn oppress a larger proportion of Catholics inside the north than the Protestants would be in a united Ireland.

For all these reasons socialists are opposed to the northern state, to all notions of Protestant self- determination and to the unionist and loyalist ideologies which have led the Protestant working class. The poverty and violence which has characterised the history of the northern state has scarred Protestant workers as well as Catholic, their marginal privileges notwithstanding. Unionism and loyalism which defend this history offer nothing but the same in the future. Protestant workers must reject this legacy and embrace a democratic and socialist vision of the future.

This is what the socialist programme offers. For most Protestant workers acceptance of this programme poses an enormous challenge because it rejects almost everything which makes the Protestant population a separate political community. But by this very fact it offers a complete liberation from the politics of fear, bigotry and imperialist triumphalism.

Rejection of Protestant self-determination does not mean rejection of the need for minority rights in a separate Irish state. Socialists do recognise the legitimate concerns of Protestant workers given the role of the catholic church in the 26 county state. Unfortunately the sometimes sincere demand to respond to these fears leads many socialists to, in effect, support Protestant sectarianism. Thus the demand for ‘unity by consent’ is simply a restatement of the unionist veto, itself a form of sectarian privilege, and no more than an attempt to paint a democratic gloss on a thoroughly reactionary position...

The role of the national struggle in the Irish revolution is clear in the north. Political struggle revolves around the fight against imperialism. Victory for the struggle would bring tangible benefits to the working class — an end to the occupation of the British army, disbandment of the sectarian repressive forces and the dismantling of the sectarian state. The struggle precisely grew out of a fight over the ‘bread and butter’ issues which affect workers — housing and jobs etc. In no sense can the struggle for self-determination be seen as a diversion, or irrelevant to workers’ real concerns... The national struggle is central to the revolutionary process in the north because self-determination is the only democratic resolution to the political issue which divides the working class. Unity on any other basis can only be temporary, ignoring the national question or accepting imperialist conquest and the northern state...

Socialists offer an alternative road [to the Provisionals] in the fight for self-determination. This fight starts from the need of the most oppressed in the northern state to defend themselves by mass action and to reach out for support to the rest of the Irish working class. To do this they need not only a programme which is democratic but a programme which addresses the needs of southern workers. It is here that we really meet the limits of a purely democratic programme.

Despite some impressive upsurges against specific British outrages, the last 25 years have shown that southern workers will not organise and mobilise in a fashion that can destroy the northern state while the struggle in the north relates only to the north. Only a struggle of revolutionary proportions by the southern working class can destroy the northern state and southern workers will not mobilise for revolution around the demand for self-determination, which as we have explained, relates to the right to have one’s own state: a right that southern workers have and which, as we have said, in their eyes has not a little legitimacy...This is related to the fact that most other tasks associated with the democratic revolution have been won in the south — equality under the law, right to vote and organise etc. — although incompletely, as in all capitalist countries. The incompleteness of the democratic revolution, primarily partition, drives the continuing aspiration for a united Ireland among the vast majority of southern workers but it would be a radical mistake to believe that this aspiration alone will promote southern workers to revolution.

It is not conditions in the north that will radicalise the mass of southern workers but conditions they face themselves. The socialist programme in the south must first and foremost address these conditions while explaining the need for southern workers to join the struggle against British rule in the north which is a vital support to the present economic and political system in both Irish states.

The role of the national question in the revolutionary process in the south is therefore different to that in the north. There is no foreign army of occupation and no sectarian state apparatus or religious discrimination to drive the demand for self-determination. It is therefore inconceivable that southern workers will develop a revolutionary leadership or generalised class consciousness out of the struggle in the north and not out of the struggle against their own conditions. These conditions of widespread insecurity and poverty, unemployment, exploitation and emigration have and will force southern workers into struggle out of which can be built a revolutionary leadership. Through these a realisation of the connection between their own conditions and struggles and the struggle in the north can be forged. Here the two separate ideas of imperialist exploitation and national oppression combine.

Only in this process of combining the struggle for democracy with that for socialism, and not limiting it solely to the north, is there any hope of defeating imperialism and of winning Protestant workers.

[From Ireland: The Promise of Socialism: £5 from Socialist Democracy, P O Box 40, Belfast BT11 9DL].

A federal Ireland
By Workers’ Liberty

The Protestant community in Northern Ireland is a distinct community with its own history, culture, and psychology. There can be no socialist revolution Ireland without the unity of large sections of the Catholic and Protestant workers. There can be no democratic solution in Ireland — that is, no solution offering the best, clearest conditions for the free development of the class struggle — without democratic relations between the majority (Catholic) and minority (Protestant) community. Socialists should therefore support the maximum democratic rights for the Protestant minority compatible with the rights of the majority.

As a general principle Marxists favour regional or provincial autonomy for markedly distinct areas within a state, together with the most decentralised possible local government. The Bolsheviks put it like this:

“In so far 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 form of government... 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 government, with the boundaries of the self- governing and autonomous regions determined by the local inhabitants themselves on the basis of their economic and social conditions, national make-up of the population, etc.” (1913 Resolution of the Bolshevik Party Central Committee).

This principle applies to the mainly-Protestant areas within a united Ireland. Within Ireland our slogan for the Protestant community must be: autonomy and local self-government of that community’s own affairs to the furthest extent compatible with the democratic rights of the majority of the Irish people.

Such a proposal for a united, independent Ireland, and within it a measure of self-government for regions, and within those regions maximum local autonomy for towns, districts, etc., can offer both majority and minority the maximum of democratic guarantees possible without infringing the rights of the other community. The Catholic majority of Ireland would have the rights of a majority within all-Ireland politics. Catholic minorities in mainly Protestant regions would have the protection of local government (town/district) autonomy, plus the constitutional guarantees (courts, bill of rights, appeal procedures, inspectorates, penalties against sectarian practices) of the federal government. Likewise Protestant minorities in mainly- Catholic regions. The concentrated Protestant minority in the North East would have the safeguard of regional institutions. So far as formal democratic constitutional provisions can ever guarantee anything, this proposal would protect the rights of both Catholic majority and Protestant minority, while allowing neither to oppress the other.

Short of military conquest or driving out the Protestants, there is no other conceivable form of bourgeois united Ireland than one that allows such autonomy. Bourgeois green nationalism and its petty-bourgeois spin-offs can never unite the Irish people. The sectarian Catholic nature of the Southern state has reinforced Partition and the communal divisions. Indeed: it is by no means certain that a socialist Ireland could dispense with such federal arrangements. The divisions are profound — cultural, psychological, historical. Even an agreement between Catholic and Protestant workers to cooperate in fighting for socialism would not mean that these differences between the sections of the Irish people were immediately eliminated.

The proposal for local autonomy is a democratic proposal — it is part of a transitional programme for Ireland. “The Fourth International”, wrote Trotsky, “does not discard the programme of the old ‘minimal’ demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective...” (The Transitional Programme). The sectarian fear of advocating reforms and democratic demands lest they undermine the prospect of revolution should be rejected. To advocate democratic demands in no way confines us to a perspective of reform. Reform demands within the revolutionary programme are weapons for the mobilisation of the masses, including (as in this case) the reconciliation of divisions within the working class.

The socialist programme for Ireland is workers’ revolution. That requires the unity of the working class North and South, Protestant and Catholic, and building of an all-Ireland revolutionary party that can combine the struggle against British imperialism and for the unity of Ireland with an all-Ireland working-class struggle for socialism. Reforms and democratic demands are not counterposed to the workers’ revolution: on the contrary, they are an irreplaceable part of the work of leading the working class towards it.

From the point of view of both Irish Republicanism and working-class politics the choice to be made about the Northern Ireland Protestant population is either to accept its existence and its right to existence or else to try to drive it out or suppress it by force — to ‘undo the conquest’. As long as 200 years ago, secular and democratic Irish Republicanism adopted the former policy, and Wolfe Tone expressed it thus:

“To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in place of the denominations Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter. .”

This is the irreducible basic principle of secular Irish nationalism and Republicanism, and also, of course, a basic principle of Irish socialism. Anything less is inevitably a lapse into sectionalism, communalism, ‘Catholic nationalism’ and revanchism. To try to define away the Protestant community with a political tag which dismisses them as ‘pro-imperialist’ is to abandon Republicanism. It stands nearer to the programme of King James’s Dublin Parliament of 1689, which made wholesale confiscations of Protestant property, than to Wolfe Tone, whose oft-quoted words (above) marked the decisive break with that mainly Catholic tradition.

Green nationalism can only propose to replace the present oppressed half-a-million Catholic minority in the North with an oppressed one-million Protestant minority in a united Ireland. If a united Ireland bore any resemblance to the existing 26 County state, then the Protestants would be an oppressed minority from the beginning. Lenin’s principle: “A struggle against the privileges and violence of the oppressing nation and no toleration of the striving for privilege on the part of the oppressed nation”, should guide us also on the relation between communities and groups within a nation.

In the event of a working-class upsurge in the South which could appeal to the Northern Ireland Protestant workers on a class basis, the consistently democratic element in our programme would in no way limit us or hold us back. On the contrary, its advocacy by revolutionary socialists and Republicans would help prepare the way for a socialist solution, in so far as it was successful in placating Protestant fears of being incorporated as a minority into a state like the existing green-nationalist, Catholic- sectarian 26 Counties.

Federalism could not mean letting the Protestants in the North- East go on as in the first fifty years of Northern Ireland, discriminating against Catholics. In so far as such discrimination is a matter of local (or in a federal Ireland, regional) government patronage, etc., it would be outlawed. Formal democratic constitutional guarantees can never, of course, guarantee anything if the conflicts of real social forces dictate otherwise. The essential purpose of the proposals above is not as advice to the powers-that-be, but as part of a socialist programme around which Irish socialists and Republicans could assemble a real united working class force, capable of being a real material guarantee against all sectarian discrimination.

[From a conference resolution of the Workers’ Socialist League — a forerunner of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty — August 1983].

Note: the arguments here are also relevant to the line of the Socialist Party (formerly Militant), who over the last few years have advocated a federal Ireland — but only for after the socialist revolution. For Marxists such a policy has an important function now in building workers’ unity across the communal divide, without which there will be no socialist revolution. The Socialist Party (Militant) have put it back to front.

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