Ireland: Nationalist "Socialism" or Marxism. Debate between Sean Matgamna (AWL) and John McAnulty (Fourth International) (1997)

Submitted by Anon on 30 March, 1998 - 3:37 Author: Sean Matgamna [AWL] and John McAnulty [Fourth International]

What is the socialist programme for resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland? Sean Matgamna, editor of Workers’ Liberty, debated at the Workers’ Liberty 1997 summer school with John McAnulty of Socialist Democracy, formerly People’s Democracy, the Irish group of one of the main international strands of Marxist politics, the Fourth International (United Secretariat) associated with the late Ernest Mandel.

Sean Matgamna

When peoples are conquered, the conquerors try to take away the language and suppress the history of the conquered. Now the great, real, fundamental conquered people in our world are the proletarians. The Irish proletariat has had its sense of itself, its conceptions of itself, at least partly taken away from it and amalgamated into the views of the dominant class and the petty bourgeoisie. The history of the proletariat, my class, the propertiless people of the towns and the agricultural labourers who had nothing but their labour power to sell, has been absorbed, amalgamated, suppressed, taken from us and merged in a populist, middle-class, nationalist pseudo-history of Ireland.

The Irish people were oppressed, and they fought against their oppression. But the Irish people — like the English people or the French people — are and were divided into classes. The struggle of Ireland was led by the middle class — and in that process my class, the proletariat, lost its identity. Socialist politics has been absorbed into populism.

For example, is Ireland’s separation from Britain the prime concern of the proletariat? Should the political unification of geographical Ireland be the prime concern of my class? I would answer that it shouldn’t be. However, the dominant forces on the left in Ireland say that the prime concern, the prerequisite for progress, is the unification of Ireland on a geographical basis.

That way of looking at things arises from the fact that to a considerable extent Marxism has failed in Ireland; or rather, Marxism has been suppressed.

For 30 years before the First World War, the British Marxists championed Irish independence. They were for Ireland’s rights. They defended Ireland. When the first Marxist group in this country was founded in the 1880s, a sizeable part of the early leading cadre had been first drawn into political activity against the coercion of the Irish people. However, they took account of the fact that there isn’t just one Irish people. There are at least two distinct Irish peoples, the Protestant-Unionists and the Catholic-Nationalists. They put forward a democratic programme — for Ireland’s right to secede from Britain, but equally for the right of the Irish minority to be separate from the Irish majority if they so desired. They had an approach that was rational, democratic, Marxist, and working-class-oriented.

That approach has been lost. It was lost because in the First World War the Marxist movement fell apart. Those who had developed a rational view of Ireland — and a respectworthy record of defending Ireland’s rights — supported Britain in the war. Those who opposed them went on to found the early Communist Party, and buried the previous tradition on Ireland. What is now the dominant Marxist position on Ireland emerged — and it submerged proletarian politics into nationalist politics.

At the beginning there was some sense in this. After 1918-19 the majority of the Irish people set up their own parliament and struggled against Britain for independence. It was right and proper for the British, Irish and international communists to support Ireland against Britain. But then the communists remained fixated on nationalism long after.

After 1918-22 the 26 Counties were kept against their will in the British Empire and forced to recognise the British king as king of Ireland. But then the Dublin government gradually became so independent that in World War Two it was able to remain neutral when Britain desperately needed the Irish naval ports that had been surrendered to the South as late as 1938.

Ireland, the 26 counties, was independent. Of course it did not suddenly attain the economic weight and status of Britain. It was a poor, weak, puny, backward country. Nevertheless, in so far as political independence was possible, it was won. There is no communist, Leninist, or Trotskyist tradition of arguing that unless a country is fully independent economically it is not really independent. We don’t believe in economic independence. The world is and should be interdependent. Our programme for a country like Ireland is to be economically merged on a democratic, equal basis into a broader entity, retaining as much political separation as the people want. Ireland was and is politically independent.

Northern Ireland was different. Ireland was partitioned against the will of the majority of the Irish people. But the fact that the majority of Irish people were against any right for the minority to secede didn’t automatically invalidate secession, any more than the fact that the majority of the UK population were against any part of Ireland being given independence invalidated the right of the Irish/Catholic/Gaelic people to secede.

A sizeable Irish minority, a million strong at the time of partition, the compact majority in north-east Ulster — which is not the same as the Six Counties — said they were not like the rest of the Irish. They said they were British and they did not want to be part of an independent Ireland. From a Marxist, democratic, communist point of view, any Irish person with John’s or my background who would deny them that right would be a chauvinist. We are not chauvinists, we are democrats, consistent democrats; or we should be.

I would argue for example, for the right of the Tamils in Sri Lanka to secede from the state dominated by the Sinhalese. From the same point of view, the right of the Protestants to secede should be taken for granted.

The problem is that they didn’t secede on the basis of any democratic modus vivendi with the rest of the Irish people. An imperialist partition was carved out by British Tories who had initially opposed any part of Ireland having home rule. They brutally partitioned Ireland, creating a Northern Ireland state — the so-called “Protestant state for a Protestant people” — with a Catholic minority which was a majority in about half the land area, and was a bigger proportion of the Six County population than Irish Protestants were to the whole population of Ireland. They partitioned Ireland in a fashion that depended on brutal imperialist force. The partition was imposed on the leaders of the Irish Catholics by the threat of immediate and terrible war.

Within that brutal imperialist partition — which created, for the long run, an untenable situation — there was a kernel of rationality from a democratic, Marxist, socialist, working-class point of view. Our concern in Ireland, as elsewhere, is to unite our class. And any republican in the spirit of Wolfe Tone would believe that too. Wolfe Tone didn’t want to unite a bit of geography, an island. He — and after him, all consistent republicans, that is, secular republicans — wanted to unite the people of Ireland. Uniting the people of Ireland in Tone’s sense might, logically, have to take account of the fact that some Irish people said they were so different that they wanted a certain amount of autonomy, or independence, or continued affiliation with the United Kingdom.

So some special position for the Protestants was reasonable and democratic. The tragedy is that the imperialist partition created a massive Catholic minority, so massive it created a threat to the autonomy of the Protestant people. It was a real threat, and was treated as such. On present trends, within a decade or so, the Catholics will be a majority within the Six Counties — but nothing is going to be solved by a head count. There will still be a Protestant minority who want to be independent or autonomous. We will still have the basic problem.

But there is a viable Marxist tradition about such problems. We are consistent democrats. Where a people say they are distinct, are different, that they want national or communal rights, then we say, yes have your rights. What concerns us is the unity of our class across the divides of nationality and state borders.

If Protestants — or Northern Ireland Catholics — say they want to be autonomous, or join another state, or to remain British, and if to do that they must oppress a lot of other people then, quite plainly, we have to qualify their right. In Northern Ireland now we have a lot more than the original half-million Catholics oppressed, denied self-determination, and rightly resisting it. On the other hand, if you force about one million Protestants into a united Ireland against their will, you will have exactly the same situation that you have now in the Six Counties, only reversed and with more people oppressed.

The Marxist plan is plain and simple and rational. We are for a democratic solution. We are for recognising that there are a variety of Irish peoples. We are, like Wolfe Tone, for the uniting of the peoples of Ireland.

Rationally, when you can unite by agreeing to disagree there is no problem. But we have the inertia of the existing partition. We have the entrenched conflict. We have the Protestants who appear and often are ridiculously unreasonable. We all have a gut disdain for the Union Jack and all the paraphernalia of Unionism, and the the old discredited and disgusting imperialist ideas which the Unionists often use. Yet behind all that is the fact that the Protestants feel and are under threat. They are the minority on the island, and may soon be a minority in Northern Ireland.

Unlike before World War 1, no section of the British ruling class now supports the Protestants. They don’t want the British/Northern Ireland state to break up, or civil war to spread from Belfast to Glasgow, but no section of the British ruling class believes that any of its interests are now served by Partition. In the 1960s there were serious moves by the British state towards creating a united Ireland, as Britain and Ireland moved toward joining the European Community. Those moves helped to destabilise Northern Ireland and set in motion the Catholic civil rights movement, out of which grew the Protestant backlash and the Provisional IRA.

On the abstract level, the Marxist programme is that we are for the right of the Protestants to be autonomous if they want to be. We are not for their right to oppress anybody. We are not for their right to be a master race. But we are for their right, where they are a majority, to be autonomous from the rest of Ireland if they want to be. Together with that, obviously, we would want a fundamental law for the whole of Ireland guaranteeing rights for minorities North and South.

The problem is that the real Marxist tradition is buried very deep. Populism, and even sectarian communalism disguised in “Marxist” phrases, stands in its place. That comes to us courtesy of Stalinism. In the period of the Irish war for independence the Comintern supported the Catholics. They were right to do so. On the other hand, the Comintern never developed an independent analysis of the new Ireland.

If you look for old Comintern documents you’ll find only a couple of long, not very profound, historical summaries written by James Connolly’s son, Roddy Connolly, when he was 20 and 21 years old, and published in the Comintern’s magazine. The Comintern and communist theory never caught up with the evolution of the 26 counties into a politically independent state.

In the mid 1920s the degenerating Communist International went for blocs with petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalist forces, for example with the KMT in China. This came out of the Comintern’s 5th Congress, which divides Bukharin’s and Stalin’s Comintern from ours. In Ireland the equivalent bloc was with bourgeois and petty bourgeois republicanism. In the early 1920s the republicans were the revolutionaries. After the 5th Congress the Stalinists destroyed communist theory and communist politics — for Ireland, as for so many other countries — and helped create a hybrid populist republicanism.

They began to argue that Ireland had to be liberated from British rule first, before any direct fight for socialism. That made some sense, though not Marxist sense, up to the early ‘30s, when Ireland was still formally controlled by the British Empire. It had become an irrational position by the middle ‘30s, when Ireland had gained the status of an independent state. By then the Comintern had ceased to be concerned with any sort of real working-class politics, and primarily served Russian foreign policy.

In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s Ireland maintained a neutralist foreign policy — staying outside NATO. For the so-called International Communist Movement, this was central. The British Communist Party and its Irish front, the Connolly Association, made propaganda in the British labour movement and among Irish immigrants describing the miserable bourgeois-ruled 26 Counties, from which a thousand a week were forced to emigrate in the 1950s and early ‘60s, as the “most progressive” state in western Europe. They argued that the first task was to “finish the bourgeois revolution” in Ireland, and defined that as uniting the country. When republicanism was falling apart in the 1960s they sustained it ideologically, and then helped revive it.

The Trotskyists took over the Comintern’s policies, but with a twist. When the Stalinists and Stalino-republicans talked about finishing the bourgeois revolution they said “yes, but it must be Permanent Revolution; finishing the bourgeois revolution and making the socialist revolution are one and the same process”. In substance, this policy confined most Trotskyists — like John McAnulty’s organisation for the last 25 years — to being apologists, critical apologists, of course, for the republicans. On Ireland, John, you are “5th Comintern Congress” Trotskyists!

John McAnulty and his comrades are in the grip of a pseudo-Marxist policy, which originated in Stalinism and is in fact a populist counterfeit of Marxism. They do not have a Marxist programme which is consistently democratic and takes account of Irish reality and of the legitimate rights of the Protestants. Therefore, they have no viable programme for the Catholics either — not to speak of the working class, Protestant and Catholic. They rightly champion the oppressed Catholics but their solution would be to force a larger number of Protestants into a united Ireland and thus to recreate the same problem as there is now in the North, only bigger.

We need to get away from the situation where Catholics and Protestant workers in the North follow their own bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, on a communalist programme. Despite the name they take, the Provisionals are communalists, not republicans — and the “left republicans”, like INLA and the IRSP, are often shameless sectarians, people who have had the residual decencies of traditional republicanism stripped away by corrupted Marxism. We need to argue for working-class unity across the communal divide, and for a federal Ireland in which the Protestants, where they are the majority, have autonomy.

There should be a law covering the whole of Ireland which guarantees Protestants and Catholics, where they are minorities, against any oppression. On this basis the possibility exists of uniting our class. That is our fundamental concern. In this context we have to condemn outright the IRA’s military activities. The IRA is a communalist movement which has more in common with the Ancient Order of Hibernians (the Catholic Orange Order) than with the republicanism of Wolfe Tone, of James Connolly, or of Patrick Pearse.

They don’t know it, but John McAnulty and his comrades are fundamentally buried under the legacy of Stalinism. They are not Stalinists, but neither have they freed themselves from the malign heritage of Stalinism. Why? Because they do not understand the history of Marxism and socialism on Ireland and in Ireland. Without clarity, you wind up being an appendage of the Provos and their communalist programme. That is a great tragedy for these comrades, who are honourable people and want to be Trotskyists. It is part of the tragedy of the Irish working class.

John McAnulty

We are strongly in favour of debate on the left, as nobody has all the answers. The left has to go through a process of reconstruction, and we want to be part of that. But I’m not at all convinced that a debate with Workers’ Liberty will deliver any answers. In order to debate you need common ground, which must be the method of Marxism. I refute the claim of Workers’ Liberty to be a Marxist organisation.

Marxism is materialist. Although we do not discount completely “identity” and “culture”, we refute the idea that these things drive history. History is driven by the material conditions of oppression.

If there’s a struggle in Ireland today, it is not because of what happened in the past — although that influences it. But if, for example, a Loyalist paramilitary goes out to kill a Catholic, he or she doesn’t do that because they are “feeling very British today”. They see some material advantage in carrying out that action. In the same way the Republicans see some material advantage in carrying on the armed struggle.

An analysis that does not have this material base is not Marxism. It is a form of idealism — a parody of Marxism.

Marxism is universal. We have a policy on democracy, but it extends across the world. One aspect of democracy is support for the self-determination of nations. If it changes in relation to Ireland, we have to refer to the universal policy. Workers’ Liberty could reformulate their policy for democracy by pointing to a Protestant nation. There is a very long history of people who said they were Marxists claiming there were two nations in Ireland, but they have utterly failed to prove it. Sean does not make the claim of two nations. He says there is a sub-group called the Protestants. But if they are not a nation, then there is nothing in Marxist theory which says they have a right to self-determination. They may have all sorts of rights, but not the right to self-determination.

If you speak to Protestants, most will say they are British. But the Loyalists can’t say “we’re British and Irish” in the same way that Scots can say “We’re British and Scottish”. British means not Irish. That is a classic identity for a colonial elite. You cannot get them to claim either that they are a nation or that they demand the right to self-determination. They do not ask for the British to go away. They ask for the right for a British occupation in Ireland. I don’t think this is one of the things Marxism stands for.

What the representatives of Unionism say — and have said for the last 20 years — is “we want sectarian privilege”. And so I cannot see a situation in which Ireland will be united. It will not be united under this present process. It will not be united in the life of the youngest person in this room.

We have a state which is run on sectarian privilege. It divides the working-class by asserting at every level that it is a Protestant state for a Protestant people. All the mechanisms that run that are still in place. The material base for the disputes about marches and so on is that the future settlement must include this privilege. The Orangemen are not demanding the right to march per se, but for themselves to have the right while the Nationalists are denied the right to march.

I agree when Sean said that proletarian understanding of Ireland has been suppressed. He said this at the start, but for the rest of his speech the proletariat disappears. I assert that there is an Irish working class, but it exists all over the island of Ireland. The identity of the Protestants in the north of Ireland is based on an alliance between the bourgeoisie and a section of the working class. This oppresses the majority of the Irish working class, and deprives and strangles the Protestant working class itself.

In the 50 years that Stormont ran, 40 out of 72 seats were never contested. A section of the Protestant workers made an alliance with the bourgeoisie to guarantee them sectarian privilege. They were left with nobody to vote for but the Protestant bourgeoisie. The foundation of the partitioned state was not fundamentally about a suppression of Catholics. There was however a very systematic suppression of socialists.

Sean says we have to have working-class unity. Yes, but not any kind of working-class unity. We have to have the self-organisation of the working class. This happens by the working-class having their own programme. We argue that the programme that will self-organise the Irish working class is the programme for a workers’ republic.

Within the struggle for a workers’ republic, we support the demand for a united Ireland. Sean says that means supporting the suppression of Protestants. I say I don’t know if that is what is meant. This is the problem with an idealist approach, you start to foretell the future. You say “following that policy will mean civil war repressing Protestants, and that will be terrible.” I don’t know the future. I do know what things exist today which have to be smashed by the working-class. One of these things is the British imperialist hold in Ireland. And another thing is Orangeism. That is part of the programme of the working class.

There have been periods of mass unity of the working class — the Outdoor Relief strike for instance. The Northern state was able to break such unity by raising the constitutional issue, or by launching some police attacks on the Catholic community. Unity has always been defeated.

We thought that a mass uprising in the North had the potential to move southwards and mobilise the Irish working-class as a whole to resolve this question. We were wrong about that, because we got confused about the nature of the national question. It is a purely democratic question. It does not have the potential on its own to mobilise the class. The big mistake was not to focus more sharply on the South.

To summarise, we say: the identity is that of the Irish working class; that can be achieved in action, when the Irish working-class self-organises. One of the tasks of the Irish working class is that of completing the democratic revolution. It is possible for that class to do that. An assault by the Irish working class will in the first place offer a weapon that is large enough for the task. The movement will be big enough to force Britain out of Ireland. It would in the process split the Orange hegemony and offer an alternative to the Protestant workers. It could say it was fighting in their interests, and demonstrate that in an everyday way by having a class programme against capitalism and imperialism, by fighting the confessionalism in the South.

This is not an abstract argument. It arises whenever there are strikes. It is ABC that Irish Marxists want to unite Irish workers and on a programme for the working class. But the Irish workers face one enormous obstacle and that is the British occupation.

To say if the British should go it would mean oppression is crazy. It is an idealist position to say Marxists are absolutely for autonomy. To say if I want to be the nation of John McAnulty I can be. Or if the area of West Belfast wants to be a nation, it should be able to do so. That is taking a classical piece of Marxism — the right of nations to self-determination — and replacing it with its absolute negation. How can any nation form without somebody being against it, without having a minority? If you raise the right of a minority to the level of the right of nations, nations cannot form.

What we are anxious about is democracy. In Ireland and elsewhere the formation of nations is also the formation of the democratic structure.

We are for the democratic structure first for its own sake. It is better than getting hit over the head without recourse. But also because makes it better for the working class to organise.

Sean says the Provos aren’t real Republicans. They are not the Republicans because they have committed atrocities against Protestants. That is totally unjust. There is not an ounce of Marxism in this. To find out whether the Provos are Republicans we ask what their programme is. This is for unity of Ireland, for the democratic revolution in Ireland. If they were to attack Protestant civilians in a sectarian way as a consistent policy, that would negate the first part of their programme. But they don’t do this.

They have a sectarian tinge so there are incidents when IRA members have killed Protestant civilians and where they have carried out operations in Protestant areas and not been worried if civilians would be killed. Sectarianism has increased because of the British policy of Ulsterisation, putting the local forces — 95% Protestant — in the foreground. But all that does not amount to a policy of what the British press has called bombing the Protestants into a united Ireland.

By and large the Republican movement has a policy of a democratic Ireland, and for a long time this has been by confrontation with the British state forces. The Republican movement has always been the same, it has had the same policies and it has committed the same atrocities.

John McAnulty

I said at the beginning that I wasn’t sure if this discussion was worth it. Now I am sure it is not. I have never denied the importance of bread-and-butter struggles and economic issues. But the big political ideas around which workers move from strikes to creating their own party and seizing power is the conception about the north of Ireland being a colony and the south of Ireland being a semi-colony.

You should get on a plane, go across the water, land in Belfast and look around you. You will see a city occupied by British troops. In the South you will see the Celtic tiger, the new bourgeoisie. But every time there is an economic crisis that brings up the connection between the punt and the pound, the South gets into trouble. Two-thirds of the economy is based on multi-nationals. The third that is owned by native capital is linked to British capital. Also this state does not have a fully-developed manufacturing structure: it does not make things to make things. It does not, therefore, have the structure of a full-blown capitalist economy.

If you pursue your idealist crap, you get so lost you are unable to perceive reality. Let me give you an example. You debated Billy Hutchinson. The same Billy was carrying a coffin down the Shankill Road last week — of one of the Shankill butchers. This man would have a few drinks with his mates, go out, cruise the city, find some Catholic civilian, pull them into a car, take them to a club, beat them to a pulp, slash them up with razors, kill them by cutting their throats and then cut off their genitalia and stick them in their mouth. Not because they were Republicans but because they were Catholics. That is the programme of Loyalists — to suppress Catholics. They don’t have a programme beyond that.

The man in the coffin had reformed. He’d found the Bible. He turned from a right-wing killer to a right-wing Bible-thumper. He did that within the milieu in which he lived. He did not leave the sectarian killers behind. He became Bible-thumper to the sectarian killers.

Just so, Billy Hutchinson with his new party constitution still represents the death squads. The British aren’t confused on this point. They see Billy Hutchinson not because he has converted to socialism, but because he represents the death squads and he has to be kept on board.

You reinvent the history of what happened in the North of Ireland. The only reason you are able to do that is because the Irish struggle is in decline. Many of the things you point to are symptoms of that decline, for instance the inability of the Republicans to resolve the question. But if they can’t resolve the question, that doesn’t mean that any old crap will do.

It is a matter of historical fact that there is a well organised Protestant working class which led a successful general strike in 1974. But any attempt to investigate the Ulster Workers’ Council strike will find that it was a minority strike with very little support for the first couple of days. It took off and got maximum support because the British made it clear that they would not intervene. That is a matter of historical fact.

Whenever the British have proposed something in the North of Ireland, they have told the Protestants: “your British identity is safe”. But the Loyalists have always said “we don’t care, we want our privilege”. Who makes up the base of the Orange Order? It’s the raggedy-arsed Prods who have almost nothing but their sectarian privilege and who’ll fight to the death for that as long as the conditions in which they live exist.

As a member of the organised Irish working class, I can go to a congress in the North of Ireland and now and again I get to go to one in the South. In the South I can’t discuss anything that happens in the North. That is a characteristic of the Irish working-class organisations. They are heavily bureaucratised, very largely controlled by the state. The democratic structures that exist are almost completely in deficit. And that is because they are based on a compromise with Loyalism.

What the Irish trade union movement means by workers’ unity, and what you mean, is Protestants and Catholics together, and no matter what they are united around. What I mean is Protestants and Catholics together to win workers’ power in Ireland.

What is the duty of socialists? What should I have done when British troops came onto the streets to support the civil power? Should I have thought maybe that it was all right for British troops to do that because a section of Protestant people wanted them?

We have never supported the IRA military campaign as a method of winning anything in Ireland. We have consistently said it was a totally mistaken strategy. But we have also done our duty as Marxists and said that the IRA has the right to carry out armed actions against the British state. They haven’t the right to attack Protestants, but they have the right to that armed response. If we do not give them that right, we cross the barricade. On the other side of the barricade is the attitude of support for the police and the army. If we do not refuse to condemn the military campaign we cannot point to the cause of the violence in Ireland — the British troops. You need a special kind of blindness not to see that.

Sean Matgamna

John doesn’t seem to notice, when he says that the 1974 General Strike happened the way it did because there wasn’t enough force used against it, that he reproduces the typical right-wing response to mass working-class activities. It is a ridiculous assessment when you consider that once it had taken hold, the Prods really found they had an effective weapon and the whole community piled in behind the strike.

John doesn’t seem to notice the spirit in which he talks about people like Billy Hutchinson — or if he notices, he doesn’t see anything wrong with it. These people are no longer practitioners or advocates of sectarian violence. In John McAnulty’s view, they — unlike their neo-republican equivalents, towards whom his organisation is always supportive and understanding — are unforgivable. They can’t break with their past and say they are socialists, or born-again love-your-neighbour Christians, or whatever, unless they first break with their own community and its concerns, fears and aspirations — and identify with the other community!

One comrade asked, what is progressive about people with bowler hats marching for imperialism? Well, first of all they are not marching for imperialism! As a matter of historic fact it is the Protestants who have disrupted British imperialism’s plans for Ireland. Britain doesn’t want what is going on. Britain wanted to restructure the northern state and integrate into its structures Catholic middle-class politicians. In 1974 they set up a power-sharing executive to achieve that — the one the Orange general strike destroyed.

Northern Ireland started to disintegrate in the 1960s because the British government put pressure on the Orange establishment to ease their sectarian dominance and incorporate the Catholic middle class. The Protestants are not just pro-imperialists. They are a distinct entity in Ireland, with distinct interests.

By nationality, root culture, and gut empathy, I have an identity that is pretty similar to John McAnulty’s. I bristle against such things as Rule Britannia. But as Marxists we try to understand history. Rule Britannia means imperialist crap now, but historically it is a song written in the 1730s when Britain stood out as a country without absolute monarchy — a place seen by European liberals as a haven of freedom. The people who wrote that song had in mind not just a Britain that ruled the world, but the idea that Britain represented liberty, as, for that time, it did.

The Northern Ireland Protestants are tied in history to what was once — in European and world terms — a progressive movement. In the battle of the Boyne in 1690 the Protestants were allied with the progressive forces in Europe, representing some modicum of liberty against the monarchical absolutism of France. My people, like the native American “Indians” in the great American Revolution of the 1770s, got from it not freedom but helotry and a hundred years of anti-Catholic apartheid. Yet our modern socialist ideas of freedom — and Wolfe Tone’s and James Connolly’s republicanism — have important roots in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, of which the Williamite reconquest of Ireland was part, and in its Cromwellian predecessor of the 1640s. The history of class society is contradictory and perverse. Marxists nonetheless have a duty to try to understand it.

The Protestants in Ireland were a minority. They could only thrive by suppressing the majority, and they did that, in alliance with Britain. As James Connolly put it , the Catholics developed a democratic spirit in Ireland because for centuries they found none lower in the social scale than themselves, and the Protestants have an aristocratic (if you like, a settler) spirit because they lorded it over the Catholics. Nevertheless, after three or four hundred years they have as much right as any others to be in Ireland and to be Irish, or British, in their own way, insofar as that can be achieved without oppressing others.

As Marxists we do not react with our guts and with ancestral memories against the Protestants because they’ve got Union Jacks and bowler hats, and say things which repel us. We see that they are formed by history. They are a community with a distinct identity which they have a right to, and we cannot deny them that without ourselves being chauvinist — that is, anti-socialist, and in Wolfe Tone’s and James Connolly’s terms, anti-republican. John’s attitude to these people is chauvinist. To say to Billy Hutchinson and others that they cannot reform no matter what they say, unless they abandon their national identity — that is pure self-righteous Catholic chauvinism.

No “Catholic” who is not a communalist has any interest in putting a Protestant-Unionist worker in a situation where he or she feels they will or might be oppressed. We have our own answer, and it can only be a federal Ireland with a common basic law outlawing any oppression or communal or religious privileges.

Unless we have a democratic programme, then bourgeois and petty bourgeois, Ulster Unionists and SDLP, Paisleyite and Adamsite, answers will be taken by the different sections of our class as their solution to Northern Ireland’s British-Irish identity conflict. Without that democratic programme, workers’ unity and socialism in Ireland are only talk and fantasy. They will ever be for the future.

It is a lie that the Six Counties is a viable democratic expression of Protestant rights. It is no less a lie to say that because the Six Counties is an artificial entity that cannot and should not survive, therefore no entity where there is a clear-cut Protestant majority expressive of their desire for autonomy is possible.

It is possible, and we can have it without suppressing the rights of Catholics — in Belfast or anywhere else.

To deny it, to say that though relations between Britain and Ireland are not at all what they were in 1920-1, nonetheless if the Protestants are allowed any leeway they are certain again to oppress the Catholics, is Catholic-nationalist sectarian propaganda. But a lot of good-willed left-wing people accept it as communist commentary on these questions. We must teach them to know better.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.