Workers Socialist Review
No. 4, Autumn 1984
For a democratic solution to the communal conflict in Ireland
1. The Protestant community in Northern Ireland is a distinct community with its own history, culture and psychology. If it existed in its own distinct territory, it would have all the features Marxists recognise as making up a nation.
It does not have a distinct territory – there is a major Catholic community even within the Protestant heartlands. Therefore it is not a nation.
In any case, because the Protestant and Catholic communities in the North of Ireland are so intertwined, there can be no question of full ‘Protestant self-determination’.
Our slogan for Ireland is: self determination for the people of Ireland as a whole. But within that we need a democratic policy for the minority question.
2. There can be no socialist revolution in 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.
3. We therefore support the maximum democratic rights for the Protestant minority within a united Ireland compatible with the rights of the majority.
4. 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.
“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 . . . 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).
3. This principle applies to the mainly Protestant areas within a united Ireland.
Within Ireland our slogan for the Protestant community is maximum autonomy and local self-government of that community’s own affairs compatible with the democratic rights of the majority of the Irish people.
A united Ireland
6. Such a proposal for a united, independent Ireland, with 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 on 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, bills 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.
7. The precise details of such an arrangement will be worked out by those who will live within such structures.
A federation of two regions – the four heavily Protestant counties, and the other 28 – with local autonomy within each region, e.g. for the Belfast Catholics, is one possibility. The parts of the federation would have roughly the same relation to each other and to the federal (all-Ireland) government as the states in the USA have to each other and to the US federal government.
8. 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.
9. The proposal for local autonomy is a democratic proposal – it is part of our transitional programme for Ireland.
“The Fourth International does not discard the programme of the old ‘minimal’ demands to the degree in 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).
We reject the sectarian fear of advocating reforms and democratic demands lest they undermine the prospect of revolution. Our method is that of the Transitional Programme, as above.
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.
Our programme for Ireland is workers’ revolution. That requires the unity of the working class North and South, Protestant and Catholic, and the building of an all-Ireland revolutionary party than 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.
10. 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 dissension, and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in place of the denominations Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter . . . ”
This is the irreducible bask principle of secular Irish nationalism and Republicanism, and also, of course, a basic principle of Irish socialism. Anything less is inevitably a lapse into Irish nationalism, into sectionalism, communalism, ‘Catholic nationalism’, and revanchism.
11. The WSL rejects the politics of Green nationalism, which proposes 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 privileges on the part of the oppressed nation” should guide us also on the relation between communities and groups within a nation.
‘Militant’ and the I.R.S.P.
12. We reject the combination of trade-unionist minimalist and maximalist socialist propaganda purveyed by the Militant tendency. Revolutionaries need a programme adequate to answer all the political questions posed to the working class, and in the first place the question of national liberation and unification.
We reject the mirror-image variant of the same approach purveyed most clearly by the IRSP, who also make maximalist socialist propaganda but place the armed struggle where Militant places the trade union struggle. While Militant fails to relate to the political questions central to Northern Ireland political life, the IRSP does not – and by its very nature cannot•- relate to the working class as it actually is.
The WSL supports the struggle of the oppressed Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, and their right to wage armed struggle. At the same time we advocate workers’ unity on the basis of class interests and as the prerequisite for a new Ireland: a thoroughly democratic Ireland with maximum autonomy for the minority, not the green-nationalist Ireland now on offer.
In the event of a working class upsurge in the South which could appeal to the Northern Ireland Protestant workers on a class socialist 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 at 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.
13. There is a radical difference between our proposal for regional and local autonomy, within a united Ireland, and the proposal for a separate, Partitionist, Northern Ireland state, whether independent or ruled by Westminister.
The ‘right to self-determination’ of the Protestant community would not make sense. There is no territory naturally suited to the exercise of such ‘self-determination’. Any ‘Protestant state’ would entrap and oppress a large Catholic minority, as the Six Counties has done for 60 years. Concretely, now, ‘Protestant self-determination’ would mean restoration of Stormont (the Northern Ireland parliament abolished in 1972) and / or repartition. It would not be a democratic solution, clearing the path for class struggle, but a sectarian solution, bitterly divisive for the working class.
14. Federalism cannot mean letting the Protestants go on as usual, discriminating socially 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.
15. Formal democratic constitutional provisions can never in fact guarantee anything of 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.