A discussion on Ireland with Tony Benn

Submitted by cathy n on 17 February, 2007 - 6:11

The following discussion between Tony Benn and Mark Osborn and Sean Matgamna appeared in Socialist Organiser, 10 September 1994.

Tony Benn was the most important left Labour Parliamentarian of the last three decades of the 20th century. He was a member of the Labour Cabinet which put the troops on the streets of Northern Ireland in 1969. He was also a member of the Labour Government, which, in the late 1970s, withdrew the de facto status of political prisoner from jailed Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland. That act triggered the conflict in the jails during which Republican prisoners went for years wearing only blankets, and which, under the Thatcher government, culminated in the hunger strikes of 1981. Ten men were allowed to starve to death. In opposition, Benn became a passionate advocate of British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and a repository of the conventional leftist attitudes to the Northern Ireland conflict during the 1980s and 90s.

Introductory note in Socialist Organiser:

Early this year Tony Benn tried to get the House of Commons to accept a Bill committing Britain to withdraw from Ireland. He has tried to move the same Bill — modelled, he says, on the Bill which paved the way for Britain’s relinquishment of sovereignty in Palestine in 1947-8 — a number of times in the past, with equal lack of success.

Benn sees himself as the living embodiment of a very old tradition in mainstream British politics, the Liberal Home Rule tradition on Ireland.

He is proud to recall — he did it again on the BBC’s Newsnight on 31 August, the day the Northern Ireland ceasefire was announced — that his grandfather was elected as a Home Rule Liberal in 1892. That was the year Gladstone got a majority for Home Rule in the House of Commons, only to have the House of Lords veto it. Benn’s father too was a supporter in the House of Commons of Home Rule and then of Dominion status for Ireland.

John O’Mahony [Sean Matgamna] reports on a discussion with Tony Benn

Mark Osborn and I went to talk to Tony Benn earlier this year. We found the man who has been the most important leader of the mainstream left of the labour movement in his house in Notting Hill Gate, where the basement has been transformed into paper-crammed offices. Despite his 69 years, Benn, who was first elected to the House of Commons in 1951, seems youthful and vigorous. Beginning amicably enough, the interview, which was taped, very quickly became an antagonistic debate.

As regular readers of Socialist Organiser will know, we believe that only some form of federal Ireland, with local autonomy for the Protestant-majority area and linked loosely to Britain and to Europe, can provide a basis for ending the present bloody impasse and building Irish working-class political unity.

We condemn Britain’s record in Ireland, we side with the oppressed Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, we believe that no viable or democratic settlement is possible within the botched Northern Ireland unit, and we are for British troops out. But we believe that troops withdrawal has to be linked to a political settlement. Without a political settlement, “troops out” could only trigger a drive for “Protestant self-determination” and thus bloody civil war and repartition.

We outlined to Tony Benn why we thought the left was confused and why it was important to discuss Ireland from first principles, as it were.

SO: “In one way you represent not only the Labour left, but a whole tradition from way back. How do you see the central problem in Ireland?”

Benn: It’s a complicated problem. It’s a problem of the British conquest of Ireland. It’s a problem of settlement in Ireland. It’s a problem of economic interest at one stage, which I think has disappeared, in fact I think it’s now quite the opposite.
It’s a defence problem because of the attitude of the British during World War Two. And the American attitude has been firstly one of protecting Western approaches from the U-Boats and then seeing there was not an independent Ireland between themselves and the Red Army. There’s a religious element in it. There’s a big class element in it, and trying to disentangle the ingredients of it and make sense of it all is quite complicated.

I think one of the reasons it’s difficult is because the question of Irish unity and the question of British jurisdiction are separate questions and they always try to present them as the same question. My understanding is that now the British want to get out. The Americans have got no interest apart from having an Irish-American population, which is pro-nationalist in general terms. The British have no economic interest in it.

Dublin has no interest in taking over the North. The last thing they want is to find Ian Paisley sitting in the Dail and Loyalist paramilitaries working in a United Ireland. Sinn Fein knows you can’t force the North into the South. I was trying to unpick it all and see if the bits of the jigsaw puzzle weren’t starting to become apparent.

If you are going to get a settlement, first of all you’ve got to have talks between the two communities in the North. That is absolutely essential. [Constitutional Nationalist leader, John] Hume has talked to Adams but now we’ve got to get Sinn Fein talking to everybody else. If you want the British out, you’ve got to think what the long-term relationship is going to be.

When the British government says that it has no economic or selfish interest in Northern Ireland, it must make it clear that there will be a point when British jurisdiction will end. The Bill which I’ve introduced puts this point at 31 December 1999 — simply to put a marker so that people are starting to move to a new perspective. The thing that has got to be tackled if it is an Irish question — which it is very largely — and if the British occupation is no longer an issue, then how do you get things going?

What I’ve given is a sort of tour of the ingredients. I think it’s very important to understand all these different elements if we are going to be helpful and useful.

And in the end it is of course class, however you look at it, the poor Protestants and the poor Catholics, and the opening up of the possibility of some class unity within the context of an Irish solution. Then, if the North sorts itself out, its relationship with the South is less of a problem. You can imagine all sorts of arrangements. I don’t think that is a problem. The problem is the extrication of the British and the beginning of some serious discussion in the North about its future. I’ve telescoped it all, and it’s very simplistic, maybe, but that the way my mind is working.

SO: We asked Tony Benn briefly to outline his Bill for us.

Benn: It’s the fourth bill I’ve introduced on this point of view. I introduced the first one in 1983, then another one while I was out of the Commons (somebody did it for me), then again in 1984 – basically the same Bill every time.

It’s a unilateral act of revocation of jurisdiction. It was based really on the precedent of the Palestine Act of 1947 which simply said that on a certain date, British jurisdiction ended. The latest one has had the date pushed forward to 31 December 1999. But in my opinion, in order to create a framework within which meaningful talks can go on within the North, you have to have a clear date set by the British government after which the Irish have to resolve matters.

SO: “You know what happened after the Palestine Act? War, massacres, struggles for territory?”

Benn: But you have to see the alternative. We’ve had 25 years of bloody war.

SO: “Very low-intensity war”.

That’s an argument for staying and putting it right. But if there was a date when British jurisdiction ended, one of two things would happen — either there would be a massacre or there would be a settlement.

SO: “Wouldn’t it be a massacre?”

Benn: I don’t believe it would be for one minute. It’s not in the interests of anybody to kill anybody else. What is the interest?

SO: “In Yugoslavia, before it broke up, probably the majority wanted a federation as the most rational thing. Then it fell apart – and the tough guys in the various communities set the pace. They forced people targetted by communal and national opponents to line up behind them. Why would that not happen in Ireland?”

Benn: In order to have a massacre, you have to have support for a massacre. What support would there be? There’d be the gunmen, but what interest is there? If there is a massacre you bring somebody else in, you don’t bring the British in.

SO: “The UN?”

Benn: Well, Dublin suggested that in 1969 and I picked it up and used it. But the British troops are the problem. They have no peacemaking role. They have an enforcement role.

SO: We put it to Tony Benn that there is not only the much-discussed Protestant veto, but a dual veto. The Protestants have a veto on a united Ireland; and, since the abolition of Stormont and the failure to establish a replacement in 1975-76 there has been, in effect, a Catholic/IRA veto on Protestant majority rule in Northern Ireland.

Benn: After all, the policy followed by Stormont broke down. The reason we sent in troops in 1969 – I was in the Cabinet at the time – was that the B Specials were attacking Catholics, so we were going in allegedly to assist the Catholics from the oppression that was coming from Stormont. But it didn’t take five minutes for it all to turn back into another period of repression.

If you talk to Labour ministers involved in Northern Ireland, they will say “We agree with you. We’ve got to get out of Northern Ireland. But you can’t say it”. You had a double standard. People thinking one thing privately and saying another thing publicly.

SO: “So you were saying privately in 1969 that Britain should get out?”

Benn: In effect, yes. I put it in a paper, I rebuked myself for having left it so long, and sent it to Mason and Callaghan at the end of 1978, saying isn’t it time we discussed Ireland. But we never discussed Ireland. There is no interest in Ireland in Britain, no interest in the Cabinet in Britain.

If the Protestants could be absolutely assured that they weren’t to be forced into the South, as they can’t be, then I think there’s a possibility of some discussions going on in the North...

SO: “You say that the Protestants can’t be forced into the South. So if Britain withdraws, or declares it’s going to withdraw, what then? Suppose you’re wrong? Suppose there is a sort of Bosnia. What happens then? You think the solution is the UN?”

Benn: Well, it’s a bit of divide and rule. We are there to protect a million working-class Protestants. I’ve never known the Tory Party to be interested in the working class in Britain, Northern Ireland or anywhere else, so I didn’t ever think that argument was true. But there is a great desire for peace. You may say it’s only a limited, low-level terrorism that’s going on, but it’s killed a lot of people and frightened a lot of people.

SO: “I meant they can live with it”.

Benn: Well, or die with it, of course.

SO: “I mean the British Government can live with it”.

Benn: Well, the British Government can and can’t, but it’s very expensive. I think there is another factor entering into it. The Treasury must be saying “why the hell are we spending all this money on war in Northern Ireland? We can’t win”.

Talk about a peace dividend! The biggest peace dividend pro-rata in the world is Ireland, because you’ve got two militarised states and huge poverty.

SO: “But I can’t understand what basis you have for believing there would not be a civil war and repartition”.

Benn: Well, you’ve got to tell me why there would be.

SO: “Because of what you said yourself. The Protestants can’t be forced into a united Ireland”.

Benn: This is the absolute confusion, that Irish unity and a British withdrawal are the same thing. They are totally separate issues. I’m saying, until it’s clear that the British are not going to seek to exercise jurisdiction, serious discussion will never go on.

SO: “But are you saying that the sectarian civil war which would certainly follow within Northern Ireland would not matter?”

Benn: I don’t accept that it is inevitable. It’s the argument every Unionist has always used. I’m not saying that you’re putting yourself in that position.

But if that is the argument, then frankly the conflict will just go on for another 500 years.

SO: “The problem is, the Northern Irish Protestant people say they’re British”.

Benn: Yes.

SO: “If you put it to them, they say they’re British. That being so...”

But Benn saw where that was leading and interrupted.

Benn: Well, they’re all members of the European Union, aren’t they? We’re all citizens of a single union now, so, in a sense, the question of nationality has been totally dissolved. The Queen now has to have a vote! She can vote in the European elections this summer. So even the monarchy has been removed by the European union.

SO: “Whatever the legalities”, I replied, “in real terms nationalism is very powerful, especially in Ireland, and the Northern Protestant Irish say they’re British. They are also a compact majority in north-east Ulster, though not in the whole Six Counties. They are a clear majority in about half....”

Benn: Well, that’s the doomsday scenario, repartition.

SO: “The question is, from what principled point of view should those Protestants be forced out of the UK?”

Benn: On what principle...?

SO: “They say they are British”.

Benn: But who partitioned them? We did. By the bullet. We created the Northern Ireland state. It’s very easy. I could create a little republic of 12 Holland Park Ave and say we don’t have to obey any external laws because there is a 12 Holland Park Ave veto. “I’m not paying the poll tax or the TV licence”. And you would say that’s democracy? That isn’t democracy at all.

SO: Clearly Tony Benn likes old movies. This was reducing the Northern Ireland question to the old Ealing comedy, “Passport to Pimlico.” I continued: “There is no comparison. In Northern Ireland there are one million people who say they are different from the rest of the Irish. They are Irish, but they are a different sort of Irish to my Irish”.

Benn: Well, they are Scottish settlers, actually.

SO: “Scottish and English settlers — 400 years ago”.

Benn: Well, it’s a mixture. There is a Protestant minority in the South. There’s a Catholic minority in the North. There’s a Protestant minority in the whole of Ireland. There’s an Irish minority in the whole of the UK. Once you start playing the minority game, then I think you are in a difficulty.

SO: “But you see, they are a minority. Gladstone talked about some form of....”

Benn: Home rule.

SO: “For the Protestant entity too. He didn’t do anything about it.” I put it to Benn that the radical tradition in which he stands has a bad record. “The root problem now is that, as you say, Britain’s imperialist considerations have more or less gone away, but the division between Irish people remains. It was there before British politicians started playing the Orange card, and it remains now that they have more or less stopped. If you get the British to pull out without a political settlement, there is no reason why you won’t get a Protestant/unionist drive for self-determination”.

Benn: It depends how you see it working. You could imagine circumstances where the North was self-governing without the British troops, then working out a relationship with the Republic.

SO: “The present Six Counties unit could not hold together. It would fall apart. The North would dissolve into civil war. The two communities are clearly divided, though interlaced geographically. There would be Bosnian-style ethnic cleansing”.

Benn: I understand that. I know you are approaching it from a totally different perspective. But what you are saying in effect is that the Partition was right, it has to be sustained, and the troops have to stay.

SO: “No, I’m not. Listen to what I say”.

Benn: Well, that’s how I read what you say. You say the Partition was to take account of the cultural identity of the North. It was a funny Partition because it included a lot of Catholics who couldn’t be put back into the republic.

SO: “It was an imposed partition, not a democratic, intra-Irish settlement”.

Benn: Because it was done by the Black and Tans and the British. It never was intended to have any ingredient of democracy in it. It was a gerrymandered state which hasn’t really worked, and you are saying that if we now were to try a new approach, then it would dissolve into massacre on a Bosnian scale. Now, if you’re right about that, and that is the view that some people have taken, then it’s quite clear the status quo must go on.

SO: “No, the status quo can’t go on. I didn’t say that the North represented democracy. I said that the Partition was imposed by Britain, imposed by a Cabinet containing people who had been Unionist, anti-Home-Rule rebels in 1914. It was particularly brutal, so much so as to destroy their possibilities of a viable ‘Protestant’ state. There is a democratic element, but it’s smothered by the vast size of the Catholic minority, which is now over 40%. In a sense, they were so greedy that they destroyed the possibility of a long term settlement”.

Benn: Well, you are pointing to a repartition, then.

SO: “I’m not sure I am. I’m pointing probably towards the idea that the only basis for a united Ireland is a federal Ireland”.

Benn: Well, that’s what Trotsky said about Yugoslavia in 1911. But then a federal arrangement is not so very different, not so totally incompatible with a withdrawal of British jurisdiction.

SO: “British troops out is a good idea, as one part of a solution. What concerns me is that on the left it is presented as a single demand promising, in and of itself, a solution — not only a solution, but a united Ireland. People think it means a united Ireland, and it doesn’t. It can’t”.

Benn: I’ve never said it does. I’ve said that you must differentiate between British jurisdiction and Irish unity, as totally different questions. They are absolutely different.

Sinn Fein know you can’t force the North into the South. You can’t do it, they know that. That’s the big change that’s occurred. Everybody has crossed the Rubicon.

The British don’t want to remain. Dublin doesn’t want to take it over. The Loyalists don’t want to go into the South, and Sinn Fein know they can’t force them in. You are facing a new situation here.

A federal arrangement might be the right answer, but the only reason I don’t advocate it is that then I’d be saying how the Irish should govern themselves. The two communities in the North have got to sort out their problems.

SO: “The status quo and work for a political settlement?”

Benn: he status quo plus a political settlement is just saying the IRA should give up their weapons and come and sit round the table.

SO: “Wouldn’t you say that?”

Benn: My own opinion is, with the likelihood is of loyalist violence, you have to face the reality of IRA violence, and the IRA violence is there. Major is saying “Give up your weapons, sit round the table and it will all be all right”. The problem there is that Adams could say that tomorrow, but it wouldn’t happen.

That was a quick and surprising this-is-my-side response from the ex-Cabinet minister. Now he checked himself, when I asked:

SO: “You don’t think there is any prospect of an IRA

Benn: Well, I don’t know. I am a believer in non-violence. I’m not an advocate of violence. The reality is that there is a very strongly entrenched group of people who think that Partition was wrong.

SO: “Isn’t there a big element here also of Nationalists wanting land where there has been a different community for three or four hundred years?”

Benn: I understand what you are saying, and I’ve met lots of people who have said it, in the Labour Party and the Conservative Party.

SO: “Is it true?”

Benn: Yes. Which is roughly, there will be a massacre if you get out. Stay and hope it all quietens down. It’s a perfectly permissible argument, but you have to live with the consequences of your own decision.

SO: “You say that you wouldn’t presume to tell the Irish how to govern themselves, and thus you would not advocate some federalist solution. Against that there is the fact that many Northern Ireland people say they are British; the fact that Britain is now in control; and the fact that by pulling out without a political settlement Britain would be making decisions for the Irish people.

“Isn’t it better to accept those facts and be positive, and for Britain to seek a realistic solution based on the recognition that there are one million people who would fight to control their own area of Ireland. You base your Bill on Palestine. You know what happened there. Britain abdicated, and the Jews and Arabs set to fighting for control of hills and towns and advantageous positions.”

Benn: On that basis you would have stayed in India in order to avoid partition.

SO: “Would anyone seriously dispute that Britain might have withdrawn from India in a less bloody fashion?”

Benn: The point is that, unfortunately, major transfers of territory can lead to trouble. If I were to accept your argument, which I don’t for one minute because you are putting forward John Major’s view – on that basis you would have stayed in Palestine. You’d have had a bloody great war there. You would have stayed in India and maybe partition wouldn’t have occurred and so on. I just don’t think that is a tenable position.

SO: “There is at least one difference” I pointed out. “Neither in Palestine nor in India were the people British”.

Benn wouldn’t have that. Yes they were, he said, just as British as the Northern Ireland Unionists.

Benn: Well, they were. They were in the British Empire.

SO: “They were not British”.

Benn: They were. They were British citizens. Their passport said “British Citizen”. They were exactly the same, and there were a lot of people in India who didn’t want us to go.
I remember meeting a Maharajah in 1931 when he came here. He was British. He had been given honours by Queen Victoria. The issues over the withdrawal from Empire was like the Falklands. I mean, your argument is a justification for the Falklands war.

SO: “But I put it to you again, there is a difference”.

Benn: I don’t think there is any difference at all, not the slightest bit of difference.

SO: “It doesn’t matter, then, that one million people in Ireland are British in reality and say they are?”

Benn: What you’ve got to do is find a way that safeguards their interests without 20,000 British troops being there and repressing a minority which is growing - you say it’s 60%, I don’t know - probably with birth rates and so on.

SO: “There has been quite spectacular growth recently”.

Benn: Maybe in 50 years time there will be more Catholics than Protestants.

SO: “But that doesn’t solve anything, because the Protestants would still say: we have a distinct identity and we will not surrender it”.

Benn: You say it wouldn’t. Look, I do understand what you are saying, and you are putting a perfectly fair argument to me. It is an argument that is identical to Major’s argument, though approached from quite a different perspective.

SO: “But one can’t say that because Major says it, it must be wrong...”

Benn: I’m not complaining. I fully understand it.

SO: “Even Major may sometimes be right!”

Benn: Well, fair enough.


Benn was now impatient to be done, and plainly we had taken it as far as we could go. As we left I found myself reflecting on the oddities of politics and thinking back to 1975, after the Labour Government introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act in response to the terrible Birmingham pub bombings.

With a handful of others, I organised the first public demonstration against the Prevention of Terrorism Act in London. The atmosphere was one of heavy repression — the offices of Workers’ Fight, forerunners of Socialist Organiser, had been raided by armed police at the end of 1973 — and uncertainty: we did not know how severely they would use the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Having chosen to keep an Irish passport, despite many years in England, I seriously feared deportation, and we discussed contingency plans to meet it. And here I was now being called a Unionist by a senior member of the government that brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act to enable the police to hold Irish people in jail without charge or trial and to deport them! I thought once more that Benn’s belief that he embodies the British radical tradition on Ireland is indisputably true.

He was a member of the Government that put the troops on the streets in 1969, and of the Government that surrendered to the Orange general strike in 1974 and brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act at the end of that year.

He was still a member of that Government when, from 1976, they withdrew the political-prisoner rights conceded by the Tory government after 1972. They thus sparked the struggles in the prisons and internment camps of Northern Ireland which lasted for years – with men wrapped in blankets through five-year sentences because they refused to wear prison clothing – culminating in the hunger strikes of 1981, when ten men died.
In fact Tony Benn combines the old imperialist-Liberal attitude to the Northern Ireland Protestants with a British-nationalist attitude to Ireland as a whole. Unlike many on the left, he knows that British withdrawal without a political settlement can not lead to a united Ireland. He asserts that the Northern Ireland entity could survive and find a new harmony if Britain abdicated — not come to resemble Bosnia now or Palestine in 1947-8. But there is no evidence for this, nor any rational reason for believing it: Benn’s attitude, in practice, comes down to indifference to the consequences for Ireland.

There is a very revealing vignette in Tony Benn’s diaries for 1979, at the last meeting of the Labour Cabinet which had lost the general election. The man now so impressed with Gerry Adams’s international reputation chats to a friend, and they photograph each other for posterity. The friend is Roy Mason, the Northern Ireland Secretary who brought savage repression to the ghettoes and whose abolition of political prisoners’ rights turned the jails into hell-holes.

Socialist Organiser’s difference with Tony Benn is not that we are “Unionists”, but that we are concerned fundamentally with two things: with the unity of the Irish working class, and with creating the conditions for that unity by way of a consistently democratic approach to communal and national conflict.

Our principles on questions like this were summed up long ago by Lenin’s Bolshevik party: “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 system of government... This particularly calls for wide regional autonomy and fully democratic local government... on the basis of... national make-up of the population, etc.”

We are not Unionists, and we are not Irish nationalists, but socialist republicans in James Connolly’s tradition. We rejected, as those in our tradition have rejected before us, the idea that progress can be won by making one million Protestant Unionists into the alienated minority in a 32 county Ireland that the Catholics are in the Six Counties.

We reject the old Home-Rule/Liberal approach of trying to ride roughshod over the Protestants – and we reject its present resurrection via an international “pan-nationalist” bloc of the Provisionals with Dublin and Washington. We reject the policies that came after the Liberal approach of the 1960s and 1970s Labour governments collapsed – surrender to the worst Orange elements and betrayal of the Six Counties Catholics. We defended the Six Counties Catholics against the British state long before Gerry Adams had attained the international status that so impresses Tony Benn.

We advocate a political settlement that will allow our class to unite to build an Irish workers’ republic – a federal united Ireland, with autonomy for the Protestant-majority area, and closer links between Britain and Ireland to reassure the one million people in the Six Counties who say they are British.

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