A debate from Socialist Organiser, 1983
"A way to workers’ unity?" by John O’Mahony.
(Socialist Organiser 113)
In Socialist Organiser no.109 we carried an interview with a Belfast NHS shop steward, Micky Duffy. Duffy, a 'Militant' supporter, argued that the workers' unity in the NHS pay struggle opened the way to political class unity in Northern Ireland, which could be achieved by setting up a Northern Ireland Labour Party. In the letters page (SO 112) the Nottingham SO group argued that this interview was an 'unacceptable propaganda piece for the national chauvinist politics of the Militant'. In this article John O'Mahony looked at Militant's politics and how they should be answered.
From a working class point of view, the basic problem about the Six County state is that in that state framework, working class unity developed on a trade union level has always shattered at any political test. So long as the 'constitutional question’ remains at the heart of political life there, it always will shatter on the rooted communal antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists.
There was no chance that the NHS dispute could open the way to [political] unity in the sectarian Six County entity. Even spectacular examples of Protestant/ Catholic working class unity have proved to be mere episodes.
For example, in the well known 'outdoor relief' fight in 1932, unity in working-class resistance to cuts in social security payments was possible because both Catholics and Protestants were hit impartially. Barricades went up in the Protestant Shankhill Road and in the Catholic Falls Road. Activists went from the Falls to man Shankhill barricades, and from the Shankhill to defend the Falls against the police. (Some on both sides were influenced by the Irish Stalinists).
Within weeks of this spectacular unity, no less spectacular sectarian rioting had been fomented. There are other examples both before and after Partition.
The experience of the various incarnations of the Northern Ireland Labour Party runs in parallel to this. Today a very tiny Unionist rump, the NILP has at various times grown to a significant size.
It attempted to confine itself to bread and butter working class issues, that is, to generalised trade unionism, bargaining in the working class interest on the level of provincial and United Kingdom society. It evaded, hedged and compromised on the issues that divide Northern Ireland's workers.
John De Courcy Ireland, an unsuccessful candidate in the last 26 County elections, wrote recently of his experience in the NILP: in the 1940s.
Their speakers on the Falls Road, he recalled, campaigned under the nationalist Tricolour. In the 'mixed' centre of Belfast they campaigned under the Red Flag; and party leader Harry Midgley campaigned on the Shankhill under the Union Jack.
Such a balancing act could not get far. Sectarian suspicions soon disrupted the party and scattered its forces.
To reject Militant's view of a Labour Party as the cure-al1 is not to say that socialists should not work in a Labour Party if it existed. Serious work was done for example, in the late '60s in the Derry Labour Party, which became central to the civil rights struggle.
Even after it split, Eamonn McCann could get 9,000 votes on a revolutionary socialist platform as the Derry Young Socialists candidate in the mid-1970 election.
Yet McCann's experience, too, underlines the basic point that simply trying to generalise from trade unionism within the Six County framework is no solution. The Derry Labour Party left wing tended to ignore the national question, and was by-passed by the eruption of the Republican movement. Their forces scattered, too: some went to the Officials and then to the IRSP, one or two to Militant.
Many well-intentioned tricks have been tried to unite Northern Ireland workers. In 1907 Jim Larkin had united Protestant and Catholic workers on a trade union level. When it came to the marching and rioting season on July ]2, he tried to preserve the unity by organising his own united Orange/Catholic working class parade around the walls of Derry.
The Protestant workers, said Larkin, would march in honour of King William, who secured their liberty in the 'Glorious Revolution'. The Catholics would march to honour the Pope, who at that time had taken the Papal State into the international alliance against France of which William was part!
They had a successful, and unique, parade round Derry. Within weeks sectarian rioting had shattered the working class unity...
In 1969, again, Cyril Toman a member of the socialist People's Democracy (different from the present, Mandelite, PD) tried preaching socialism to Protestant workers by erecting the Union jack above his platform. In the years since, Protestant sectarianism has hardened, and Toman was one of Sinn Fein's 12 candidates in the recent Six Counties election.
The inescapable conclusion is that general political unity cannot be developed on the basis of trade union ('economic'} unity; and that unity in trade union action is not the harbinger of a stable class unity.
But many on the left, it seems to me, go on from this basic fact to a general dismissal of any concern for working class unity. The national question, they seem to say, supersedes everything else in Northern Ireland.
The trade-union class struggle is of little importance. The Protestant working class - that is, the big majority of the working class - is no concern of ours. The struggle for socialism will develop out of the revolt of the oppressed Catholics, even though that revolt fails to mobilise, and indeed antagonises, the Protestant workers.
We concern ourselves only with the 'anti-imperialist' military campaign of organisations representing perhaps half the Catholic third of the Six County population. Only when that campaign is victorious will questions like working class unity be important.
This, I believe, is the mirror image of the Militant caricature of socialist and Marxist politics.
What in fact is wrong with Militant's approach to Ireland?
It relates only selectively and arbitrarily to the issues, processes, and struggles in Ireland. It pretends that struggles like the NHS pay battle, involving workers from both communities, already amount to, or by way of being generalised into a new Northern Ireland Labour Party, can be made into, working class political unity.
It goes from this to general socialist propaganda about nationalising the entire economy, which is essentially what they understand the socialist revolution to be: there is no space here to criticise their bureaucratic, statist, and somewhat 1890s-Fabian conception of socialism.
In between sub-political industrial issues, and the political maximum, the socialist revolution, there is a great void. The void is what's wrong with their politics, not that they advocate and want to build working class inter-communal unity at any level possible, and not that they make propaganda for socialism.
A working class political party that can really unite the working class in Ireland, specifically in Northern Ireland, will have to be one that can honestly answer all the problems which the key sections of the working class face - and in the first place the 'constitutional question'.
Militant's answer is the same as its answer to every living struggle in Britain or anywhere else - propaganda for 'socialism, the only road', combined with a routinist and politically accommodationist approach to the basic struggles of the working class and the labour movement.
From this general approach has flowed its record over the last 13 years. Initially it opposed the deployment of British troops on the streets after August 1969, and sympathised with the Catholics. It quickly veered (by l970 or '71) to an attitude of condemning the 'sectionalism' and then the 'terrorism' of the Catholics. It was like its attitude to the struggles of blacks, women, gays and others in Britain itself: the Catholic revolt in Northern Ireland was a complication it wished would go away.
Ever since they have not supported the just revolt of the Catholics. Within the labour movement they are among the most vicious opponents of any attempt to get a calm discussion of the Republicans, their struggle and their objectives. Militant peddles its own cure-alls and nostrums, the famous 'trade union defence force', for example.
A good idea - for a different society. The workforce is heavily stratified as a result of sectarian job preferment. This affects the unions, where unity has been possible only on minimal trade union questions and by avoiding politics. The unions reflect the society they exist in. The Protestant UDA [Ulster Defence Association] is the nearest thing to a trade union militia that Northern Ireland will see this side of a revolutionary change of working consciousness
Essentially, Militant lacks the democratic programme which has to be part of filling the void between trade union minimalism and the socialist revolution. It relates to the political world around it by pretending that the communal divide can be ignored, and that the national question can be pushed aside.
This is a recipe for building a sect in Northern Ireland: it has as little chance of uniting the Six County working class as the previous Labour Party minimalists had.
No political formation that does not have in its programme a democratic solution to the Irish national question and to the communal antagonisms in Northern Ireland will even begin to play a positive role in Irish politics.
The best democratic programme, I believe, is that of a federal united Ireland with as much autonomy for the Protestant community as is compatible with the democratic rights of the majority of the Irish people. An all-Ireland revolutionary movement must be built which integrates this with the direct work of educating and organising the labour movement to fight for workers' power, and which links up with the workers' movement internationally, especially in Britain and in Europe, on the programme of the United Socialist States of Europe
From this viewpoint the polar opposite to Militant is the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP). Instead of pretending that the national question will fade away if socialists concentrate on working class unity, they pretend that the problem of working class unity will fade away if socialists concentrate on the national question. In effect, they pretend that the Protestant working class does not exist - and talk and act accordingly. We get the obscenity of radical - if somewhat eclectic - socialists who function as Catholic sectarians.
It is very easy for British Marxists who reject Militant's approach with contempt to lapse into an attitude not too different from the IRSP's. We sympathise with the Catholic revolt. We recognise, like the Republicans, that Partition helped intensify and now perpetuates the communal divide.
We know that the overall responsibility is Britain's. We defend the right of the Republican movement to opt for armed struggle. We find ourselves, living in Britain, obliged to combat the pressures around us and to champion and defend the Republicans.
That explains, but does not justify, the fact that in the last decade a simpleminded petty bourgeois nationalist version of Irish history has become dominant on the left - some of it ideas that James Connolly himself was polemicising against three quarters of a century ago.
We have a duty to support the Republican movement against the British state. That does not mean a duty to side ideologically with the Republicans against Irish anti-Republican or sectarian socialists, or to consider the latter as beyond legitimate discussion. Such a conclusion would amount to denying to British, and even Irish, socialists, the right to any independent judgement on the issues.
"No autonomy for pro-imperialists" by Tony Richardson
(Socialist Organiser 115)
I am writing to take up and disagree with John O'Mahony's article on Ireland in SO 113.
The article is supposed to be dealing with Militant's politics but in reality, presents O'Mahony's own views on Ireland.
In this I think he shares an erroneous view with the Editorial in issue 112, which talks about the solution in Ireland being ''some form of federal, united Ireland (since when was this SO policy?) with as much autonomy for the Protestant minority as is compatible with the rights of the Irish people as a whole."
First of all, quite obviously, the only solution is a socialist, united Ireland.
But as O'Mahony correctly says, on the road to that are other demands: I don't think any form of autonomy for the Protestants should be one of those demands.
Of course they should have freedom of religion etc. But insofar as they are a 'community’ they identify themselves through their pro-imperialism.
As long as this distinct, pro-imperialist base, organised as such, exists, with full or limited autonomy, then it will be impossible for the Irish people to begin to solve their problems.
The fact is that the Republican movement is anti-imperialist, as is most of the Catholic population.
Comrade O'Mahony tries to minimise their strength, but this is not the really important point.
Northern Ireland is dominated economically and militarily by imperialism. The starting point for us must be the struggle to end that.
Of course, within that struggle we attempt to give it a class content by fighting for the Permanent Revolution. In this we oppose the solely nationalist illusions of the Provisionals and their conscious [deliberate] antagonising of the Protestant working class.
This means connecting the anti-imperialist struggle with the need for the working class to take power through a socialist programme.
This means that within united class struggles, like that in the NHS, we raise the connection of anti-capitalism with anti-imperialism.
Trade union struggles are not "sub-political"; they are spontaneous, but contain within them the possibilities for developing the consciousness of the more reactionary elements in the working class.
But the starting point of this is to break down the pro-imperialism of the Protestant workers.
Britain is an imperialist country, specifically the country oppressing Ireland. It is the duty of socialists in Britain to prove their anti-imperialism. The stress on ''democratic" solutions, in an imperialist "democracy ", the dissolving of defence of the Republican movement in a mass of words defending the Protestant community, I think only softens the principled approach to the liberation struggle. Comrade O'Mahony may say that the Provisionals are for a federal solution. But the PLO also want a state in the West Bank. We do not tail-end these movements. The only solution is a united Ireland which we fight to be socialist, as we fight for the smashing of the state of Israel.