O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!

Image result for corbyn at tuc conference 2019

Yesterday I came across a discussion on Radio 4 between a former advisor to Jeremy Corbyn and a Liberal Democrat MP, centred mainly on their Parties’ prospects in a general election.  The advisor seemed shocked at the radical nature of the suggestion that Article 50 be revoked, although many of then millions against Brexit might approve.  He argued that putting the two options in a referendum of a credible Brexit deal (negotiated by Labour) and Remain would appeal to both Leavers and Remainers.

If they could bottle such stupidity Hollywood would make a film starring Bruce Willis or Tom Cruise ,whose mission – should they choose to accept it – would be to prevent the bottle being broken by terrorists, so releasing the deadly stupidity virus among the whole population.

A majority of leavers want to leave with no deal, so either have no idea or don’t care about the damage that Brexit will do.  Most Leavers just want it over with and certainly don’t want any further delay.  They aren’t going to vote for Labour and another referendum, as far as they’re concerned they’ve already voted and they don’t see the need to do it again.

On the other side of the fence there aren’t millions of Remainers hoping that Corbyn will negotiate his own Brexit deal.  They don’t want any sort of Brexit deal, ‘credible’ or not.   Many Labour voters who support Remain, who are the vast majority of Labour voters, have tried repeatedly to tell Corbyn that the Party should oppose Brexit, not come up with its own version.  Many of them voted Liberal Democrat and Green in the European elections in May, and in a recent opinion poll in early September almost one in five who voted Labour in the 2017 general election said they will still vote Liberal Democrat in the next one.

They no longer trust Corbyn, who spent weeks trying to see if Theresa May’s deal could be supported, and it doesn’t matter from the point of view of honesty if this was sincere or not. The party bureaucracy prevented debate on Brexit by the members at one party conference and at the next disingenuously had a motion put together that appeared to move to an anti-Brexit stance but allowed him to continue to propose a Labour Brexit, while the sound of silence hung over whether the Party would then support it.

Even after the drubbings in the European and local elections and the shift he seemed to make in an anti-Brexit direction, the speech by Corbyn to the TUC conference this week makes plain that a Labour negotiated Brexit deal is still central.  And no one can be sure he wouldn’t do the entirely logical thing and support any Brexit deal he had just negotiated.  He still thinks that there is a good ‘jobs’ Brexit out there so why wouldn’t he?  And why then would Remainers see this as a possible way forward except out of sheer desperation?

The proposal to put a ‘credible’ Brexit and Remain option to a referendum will not attract Leavers and Remainers but will raise the hackles of both and particularly of many previous loyal Labour voters. There isn’t a shortage of reasons to oppose this Corbyn policy even without its awful electoral implications.

There is no such thing as a good Brexit, either left or right.  The thinking behind a left one is that the British  state, unencumbered by EU rules, will build a strong and prosperous social democratic society.  But this forgets that the foundation of any society is a strong productive base and this base will be dramatically weakened by Brexit, as trade is disrupted and reduced, and investment flows out of Britain and away from it as a possible destination.

The Stalinist inspiration for this in the form of ‘socialism in one country’ is obvious, personified by some of Corbyn’s advisors, but the inspiration from some so-called Trotskyists arises from their belief that advances by the working class, telescoped into the idea of near term political revolution, will arise from capitalist crisis, which shall compel workers to adopt their crisis programme.  It’s the advanced country version of ‘year zero’ in which it doesn’t really matter the state of society the revolutionary party on top of the new state takes over, all the ideas of Marx about the primacy of the productive forces and relations is just so much theory, to be discussed academically by the academics who lead some of these organisations.  Internationalism is a word, a long word that appears to hover a long way from practical politics and is simply a moral value free from the capitalist society from which it must spring.

What this means for Corbyn’s credible Brexit alternative is that it isn’t at all credible.  His previous idea of all the benefits of membership of the Single Market and customs union, while having a say in these without EU membership; plus making independent trade deals and exclusion from free movement are delusional.  The EU could not possibly agree to these proposals, which means his ‘credible’ alternative is completely uncredible.

The idea that he would negotiate a Brexit that could only be worse for workers and a Remain option as two valid choices has invited justified incredulity.  Why would the Labour Party invite workers to choose between their Brexit deal and Remain if it didn’t think its Brexit was any good?  In such circumstances it could only mean Labour support for Brexit.

The idea that you could get this policy adopted could only be entertained when you rely on the membership not being able to stop you, and this means betraying the promise of democratising the Party.  For Corbyn and his advisors, it appears that the Party will shift left through left control of the apparatus and decision making from above, as the Stalinist school of socialism inspires wider application.

This plus all the strangulation about Labour’s Brexit policy means that Corbyn himself more and more lacks credibility, itself a consequence of setting himself up as a politician particularly defined by his honesty, demonstrated by his history of principled stands for ‘unpopular’ causes. He is now rated less trustworthy than the well-known liar Johnson, blowing up the idea that Brexit policy could be quarantined from other economic policy.

In the words of the Scots poet Rabbie Burns –

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

In the Radio 4 interview the recent Labour advisor stated that Labour would not be looking for EU membership should Britain leave, with no qualification that I could hear.  Why would Remain Labour supporters sign up to that?

Now it is argued that Corbyn is right to allow the party to take a ‘neutral’ position, just as Harold Wilson did during the 1975 referendum.

Apart from Wilson hardly being a left-wing hero of the Labour Party, this ignores the fact that we have already had the referendum and the time for any sort of neutrality is long gone. Just like Wilson’s ‘renegotiation’ of the terms of membership, Corbyn’s proposed renegotiation of Brexit is a cover for support for whatever come out of the negotiation – there is no point otherwise.

Expecting Corbyn to see the light is therefore a forlorn hope.  If getting less than 15% in a national vote doesn’t get the message through it’s difficult to see what would.  Only the membership in the Party conference can change policy for the next election and that is what it must do.

From Civil rights to ‘the Troubles’ – part 4 Labour’s failure

Political developments inside the Catholic population set out in the previous post were reflections of changes within a seemingly stagnant Northern society, most notably the growing strength and confidence of its middle class and greater educational opportunities for working class Catholics.

For the former, if they shifted away from simple rejection of the Northern State it was not because they had strong material interests in that state but because they had the possibility for this to be the case.  For the latter, the increasing economic and social role of the state, including welfarism, made equality and the state’s opposition to it a much more immediate issue and one for which the State could not avoid taking clear responsibility.

Gerrymandered local government boundaries meant that discrimination became an acute issue as more and more Catholics who had received higher levels of education felt aggrieved that their efforts might be wasted, while their integrity and identity was being insulted, never mind the material loss of income to go with demeaned status.

Since an increased role for the State in housing provision through local government also made the state more directly responsible for Catholic disadvantage through discrimination in housing allocation, this too became a more blatant injustice. All the more insufferable in those areas where Catholics were a majority – west of the Bann and especially in Derry.  Belfast Catholics were almost always more aware of their vulnerability as a minority and the threat to their security – it wasn’t possible to be anything more than a minority, at least locally.

It could be no surprise therefore that the civil rights movement began in a real way outside Belfast and never became a mass movement inside it, certainly not in the way it was to become in the rest of the Northern State.  This heavily influenced the political development of the fight for reforms and the evolution of the socialist alternative to the varieties of nationalism that later triumphed in the struggle to lead the struggles of the Catholic working class.

So, in histories of the civil rights campaign it is the students at Queens University that appear prominently, and the Peoples Democracy organisation that they created that plays a key role. Later events confirmed that while students are an important segment of society they cannot substitute for the working class, which of course some of them were, and increasingly would, become.

The welfare state not only gave Stormont a more obvious role in the distribution of public resources but was a component of greater capitalist state intervention into the economy and society more generally. Greater state planning involved projects for new hospitals, roads, towns and a new university.  All gave opportunities for religious disadvantage given the geographical difference in the settlement of the two religious populations.  Promotion of new industry also had differential impacts on the two religious groups, with declining traditional industry mainly in Belfast and East of the Bann being replaced by outside investment in these areas.

This welfare state didn’t reflect the strength and struggle of the working class, and was primarily, as elsewhere, a means of socialising costs for capital by the state, but it did give some benefits by reducing inequalities between workers and encouraging their demands, in this case that distribution should be fair and equitable.

Accompanying the modernisation of state intervention was a modernisation of rhetoric from the Unionist regime in the person of the new Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill. O’Neill sought to modernise economic policy with a number of reports and a strategy of attracting outside investment. A new town, new university and new roads, and in 1964 recognition of the autonomous Northern Ireland Committee of the all-island Irish Congress of Trade Unions all reflected this new agenda.  New industry was attracted – Michelin, Du Pont, Enkalon as the old declined – and new economic and political links established with the South as O’Neill met Taoiseach Sean Lemass at the beginning of 1965.  All this persuaded the Nationalist Party to become the official opposition in Stormont for the first time in its history.

O’Neill’s policy was a result of the decline of traditional industry and therefore the erosion of the economic and social basis of the devolved regime, which would become more and more dependent on London and the political vagaries of politics at Westminster, especially if decline were to continue.  The election of a Labour Government in 1964 encouraged some nationalists to believe that the new Labour Government would be more sympathetic to Catholic expressions of grievance than the previous.  In this context, the existence of a small group of Labour MPs sympathetic to the nationalist case was seen as an important route to push for Westminster intervention and effect a break from the existing convention that London would not intervene in Stormont’s devolved responsibilities.

O’Neill’s policy was also a response to political pressure on Protestant working class support for the Unionist Party, which was suffering from the erosion of support consequent on the decline of traditional industry and growing unemployment.  Protestant workers were increasingly deserting the Unionist Party, threatening the all-class nature of the Stormont regime’s support.

Just as today predictions of unionist decline and defeat are partly based on increasing numbers who do not define themselves as unionist (or nationalist), so the increase in votes for the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) in the 1950s and 1960s was seen as the growth of class-based politics.  While perhaps easily dismissed now in hindsight, were a similar growth to develop today it is likely that some left enthusiasm for such a development would actually be greater.  It is therefore important to consider the question whether Unionist rule could have been overturned by the Protestant working class?

The 1958 Stormont election saw the NILP do well with unemployment growing in Protestant working class areas, winning four seats against unionists in these areas, although the nature of the Party and its leaders at this point needs to be taken into account.  For example, in his maiden speech one newly elected NILP MP attacked nationalists as sectarian for complaining about discrimination. Just as today when loyalists present themselves as defenders of the interests of the Protestant working class, the emphasis of the NILP at this point is on the limiting attribute of ‘Protestant’.

In the following 1962 election the NILP retained their four seats, and with the IRA campaign over, achieved its highest ever vote of 76, 842, although the Party didn’t win any more seats.  In Belfast the NILP vote was 60,170 while the Unionist vote was 67,450.  The latter however included 5,049 business votes, few of which would have gone to Labour.  Some foresaw the NILP as a ‘formidable contender’ for control of Belfast in five years’ time.  In 1964 the NILP increased its vote again to 103,000 in the Westminster election, although winning no seats.

Later in the year O’Neill called a Stormont election and despite fielding more candidates the NILP vote fell to 66,323, losing two of their four working class seats. O’Neill’s modernisation agenda had stolen much of the platform of the NILP’s social democracy, and his image was less overtly sectarian than previous Unionist Party leaders.

This arose from O’Neill visiting Catholic schools and meeting members of the church, which gained some Catholic goodwill while generating loyalist anger.  He was still however a member of the Orange Order and joined two other loyal orders after becoming Prime Minister.   None of the minority’s grievances regarding gerrymandering of local government, discrimination and the Special Powers Act or B Specials were touched.  Even the Unionist newspaper, the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ later noted that appointments to public bodies made a mockery of O’Neill’s professions of goodwill.

The sectarian character of the Unionist regime remained intact and the most prominent members of the NILP in the early 1960s were opposed to challenging its discrimination. These leaders faithfully reflected some of the most backward ideas within the Protestant working class rather than attempting to lead them somewhere more progressive.

Their commitment to the constitutional status of the state was absolute, and their reactionary character was exemplified by a relatively minor event that has since become notorious for demonstrating the NILP’s reactionary cowardice.  In November 1964 a motion in Belfast Corporation to open public play centres on a Sunday was defeated by one vote with two Labour members of the corporation voting against it – the swings in the parks were to be locked and closed.

By 1966 it was clear that the NILP could not oust the Unionist Party but there was nevertheless a small constituency which was sympathetic to Catholic grievance.  Throughout the 1960s the NILP took up issues later prominent in the civil rights campaign, including opposition to repressive legislation and an enquiry into discrimination and gerrymandering.  What the Party could not do was either mount a credible challenge as an alternative majority in Stormont to the electoral hegemony of the Unionist Party, or lead an alternative movement outside of the electoral arena – a Labour-led civil rights movement.

This meant that the defeat of the Unionist regime and its sectarianism would not come from within the Protestant working class or, it would appear, from the ranks of social democracy reaching across the sectarian divide to Catholic workers.  This would have required a larger and stronger Party more committed to ending the sectarian division through popular campaigning. The organisation of even a small number of individuals from the Protestant working class with such a perspective would have been exemplary but would have found it extremely hard to change the dynamic of later events that led to the troubles, and would even have found it hard to maintain organisation as sectarian mobilisation increased within Protestant working class areas.

Instead there were a number of ominous developments in the mid-sixties that would later become typical of what has been called a loyalist ‘backlash’, although as examination of the period shows this was a backlash that came first by creating the circumstances employed to justify itself.

Violent loyalist activity preceded the troubles, with notable riots in 1966 in protest at commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.  Attacks on Catholics and their property led to two Catholic men being shot dead and one Protestant woman killed in a petrol bob attack on a Catholic pub next door to her home  The Orange Order denounced the Rome-ward trend of Protestant churches and there was a push against O’Neill in the Unionist parliamentary party that included four out of nine cabinet members.

Even by 1966, before the civil rights campaign had really started, or the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association had been created, a ‘backlash’ had erupted against purely symbolic diluting of sectarian supremacy.

On the Catholic side disillusionment had set in by 1965, with the hopes raised by O’Neill generating disappointment and some bitterness. Nationalist Party participation as an official opposition in Stormont was gaining them nothing.   By 1964 the first organisation with a recognisable political agenda based on civil rights had been set up.

Back to part 3

Fighting Fire with Fire

According to one piece of commentary in ‘The Guardian’, the utterly brilliant Svengali behind Boris Johnson knows that people are fed up with Brexit and confused by all the shenanigans at Westminster.  They just want it done and will lap up the grand promises of an end to austerity announced by Johnson’s new Government – new police, new teachers and more money for the NHS.  The opposition will bang on about Brexit, but Johnson knows that people are fed up with Brexit and confused by all the opposition intrigues at Westminster.

Since there is going to be a general election soon, whatever uncertainty exists about its timing, the Johnson plan is clear in this respect, and according to the psephologist John Curtice, with an average nine point lead in the polls, he has a 50/50 chance of winning. Perhaps only if he was forced by the opposition to request an extension to Article 50 from the European Union would he lose so much credibility that he would be sunk.

The concern of the opposition has been that if Labour supported an election now Johnson would ensure it was held after 31 October, allowing the UK to fall out of the EU without a deal.  This means postponing an election until either the requirement for Johnson to ask for an extension has passed into law or has come into effect.

It appears fairly clear to more and more observers however that Johnson intends to keep to his pledge not to request such an extension by simply refusing to ask for one and/or resigning as prime minister and asking the fractured opposition to form an alternative Government. At this point we would get into everyone telling Jeremy Corbyn that he couldn’t possibly head-up any even temporary administration and a list of right wing figures would be put up as the ‘unifying’ leader. If such a proposal was accepted Corbyn would be finished and the Labour right would be as quick as Johnson to get rid of its opposition inside the Party.

In this case only the EU could do anything about the UK leaving and without domestic cover this would be difficult to justify, and for whom and to what end would it do it?

Seemingly trapped by Parliamentary arithmetic and arcane procedure, Johnson has a way out by ignoring both.  Trapped by Parliamentary arithmetic and arcane procedure the radical Jeremy Corbyn has become a prisoner of it.  Any route to a general election appears to allow Johnson to remain as the leader of the no-deal cause, unsullied by compromise, and achieve a no-deal exit. Were Corbyn to win leadership of a caretaker Government the issue is simply postponed but with Johnson still running with the same narrative and an election not very far off.

So the argument has been when Labour should agree to an election.  Should it do so as soon as possible so that it would have the chance to put an alternative to no-deal to the people and win a majority to reject it, or afterwards when it will be too late, and Johnson had resigned and Corbyn perhaps left with insufficient votes to form a Government and/or been displaced as a result? All other things being equal the principled and correct thing to do would be to agree an election as soon as possible.

Of course it is still argued that Johnson will ensure that an election called now takes place after the default no-deal exit kicks in, so the call for it has to be postponed.  But if it is postponed and Johnson later resigns, successfully exposing the divided nature of the opposition then Johnson will have successfully guided a no deal Brexit anyway.  If unsuccessful an election can’t be far away as the opposition is deeply divide and is really mostly in competition with each other.

The answer to his sharp practice is not to rely on cute Parliamentary stratagems (that can foreseeably be nullified) but rely on our own strength as an organised movement with the clear sympathy of the majority of the population.  How we get this majority to be part of the struggle is therefore the question that needs answers.

In the longer term of course Brexit will be shown to be disastrous and undiluted Tory responsibility for it is a very good thing.  The danger involved in this is the success that a no-deal might achieve in destroying workers’ rights and living standards while it lasts.  But again this argues for the mobilisation and organisation of the British labour movement and working class more generally, not parliamentary manoeuvring.  It also requires commitment by Labour to reverse Article 50 as quickly as possible, and there is no reason why this should not be argued for now, showing that there is a way out of this mess no matter what Johnson does.

So if Johnson can steer a no deal, or have a very good chance of doing so, no matter what parliamentary options are taken, and the only way to ensure he is stopped is through an alternative Government saying he will be stopped no matter when he calls it, the only option that appears to make sense is to allow an election as soon as possible and make Johnson (instead of Corbyn) the target of the charge of being slippery, duplicitous and cowardly if he tries to shift its date until after October 31. ‘We will reverse the decision to leave the EU as soon as we can’ should be the Labour response, otherwise any Labour Government after a no-deal Brexit will have to preside over the disaster and take responsibility for the inadequate steps to mitigate the mess.

Had Labour strongly opposed Brexit for the last three years by pointing out that the demands of the Tories were impossible to achieve, it would have been proved correct over and over again.  Instead the argument that there was a ‘good’ Brexit allowed chancer after chancer from Farage to May to Johnson to claim that they could do it.  On the other side the Liberals and others could quite rightly say that there is no good Brexit and Labour is putting itself in the way of stopping it.  The most useless Tory Prime Ministers and most incompetent Governments have failed even on their own terms, yet have their Party ahead of Labour in the polls, and that despite the Brexit party!

From being ridiculed as an ineffective, if sincere, leader and a straight talking ‘un-politician like’ politician, Corbyn’s disingenuous contortions on Brexit mean he is now more plausibly ridiculed as an ineffective,if sincere,leader and a mealy-mouthed triangulating ‘typical’ politician.  The new and fresh approach that blazed a trail in the 2017 election and up-ended the opinion polls isn’t possible now, or at least not in the way it was achieved last time.

This is true mainly because of Corbyn’s current hopeless position on Brexit, which promises an extension to the exit deadline and a second referendum with a Remain option on the ballot but also leaves open the possibility of him trying to get a new Brexit deal.  In other words, repeating Theresa May’s attempt to negotiate a deal with red lines that can’t be negotiated and objectives which no Brexit can deliver e.g. a ‘jobs’ Brexit.

Johnson’s promises of an end to austerity also mean it’s not possible to place Labour anti-austerity against years of Tory cuts in the same way.  Of course the Tories may be lying but the Brexit supporters that are his base are happy to sign up to these lies because they sustain the illusion that Brexit is a good thing.  They do indeed want to forget about Brexit and just get it done because thinking about it is not conducive to sustaining their prejudices and illusions.  Voting for more money for public services promised by a Johnson Government is just the sort of message that is consistent with their prejudices and illusions.

Labour may offer greater public spending increases and question the sincerity of Johnson’s promises but if he looks like he’s delivering on a no-deal – out by the 31 October no matter what – then he might have enough credibility with enough people.  The most obvious problem with the Tory U-turn on austerity is that Brexit will so damage the source of funding for increased state expenditure that you can’t do both.  But this brings us back to Brexit as the key issue and the necessity for a clear message.

Labour has a lot going for it, including the incompetence and lack of credibility of the opposition among a majority of the electorate.  A very large majority is also against no deal so why not have an election before it has happened to capture this constituency? This, however, requires a clear and consistent message of unqualified opposition to Brexit, and consistency is also a function of time, time more than wasted by Corbyn’s support for a ‘jobs’ Brexit.

As in all elections the Tories have and will mobilise its own support – especially in the press – and will be unified around the Johnson project.  Corbyn, on the other hand is surrounded by enemies and leads a divided party.  He has had four years to democratise the Party and get rid of the treacherous right wing MPs and failed to do so.

The biggest advantage the Party has is that it is the political arm of a movement with millions of members including 500,000 members of the Party, but they have been given no role to change the Party into an activist movement. The millions who have marched against Brexit could have had Corbyn leading them but he chose to offer something else that satisfied neither Leavers nor Remainers.  Even the anti-coup protests take place without clear leadership from the top.

That Corbyn has had potentially so much going for him but has spurned it means that much hope of preventing Johnson relies in the latter’s incompetence and the hope that the now Remain majority, and bigger majority against no-deal, will unify around Labour despite its Brexit stance, which may harden, although in what direction? Elections can polarise opinions and the political messages from the parties in response, and it is to be hoped that the mobilisation against the Johnson coup and against Brexit will swing those against Brexit behind Labour, but Corbyn has to look like he is ready to lead them where they want to go.

From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 3 – nationalist failures

As we argued in the previous post, the civil rights movement grew out of the failure of the traditional alternatives which Catholics in the North of Ireland looked to in order to address their grievances.  These had sought to address the problem at source – through removing partition and ending the Northern State itself.

The first of these was through the Nationalist Party, whose various participation and absence from Stormont were equally ineffective.  Belfast Catholics also voted for various Labour parties and individuals and some radicals joined the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1960s, especially in Derry where they later played an important part in the civil rights movement. The Nationalist Party however was hardly a party at all, with no party structure, only holding its first annual conference in 1966, and was dominated by small businessmen, farmers, professionals and the clergy.

As the Anti-Partition League (APL) the Party had sought in 1945 to unite all those in the North opposed to partition and, like a couple of decades later, hoped that the new Labour government in London would be more sympathetic to its cause. The Party also appeared attuned to the times when Fianna Fail in the South ramped up its nationalist rhetoric when faced with a greener competitor on its flanks: Clann na Poblachta as part of a coalition Government in the South declared the Irish state a Republic in 1949.

The League tried to build a real organisation with offices and branches and to create a campaign with meetings and rallies across the North, also looking to the Irish in Britain and US, as well as in the Irish state.  Hopes of progress faced an intransigent Unionist government that banned nationalist demonstrations, while the Unionist Party increased its grip on Protestant workers assisted by Labour politics in the North splitting over partition.

The inevitable failure of the APL and lack of organisation of its successor signaled that Catholic disadvantage would not be reduced through constitutional campaigning. Relying significantly on local Catholic notables and the Church, the latter was more interested in its own temporal power than that of its flock, and this entailed funding from the Stormont regime and an amicable relationship with it.

The strongest Irish nationalist movements were the political parties in the South, but they too were more interested in the security and strength of their own partitioned state, which also came to be seen as linked to an amicable relationship with the Unionist State.

The second force within the Catholic population was nationalism in its more militant guise of republicanism. After the defeat of the Anti-Treaty forces in the civil war the defeated IRA sought a ‘second round’ of struggle against the Free State, the traitors who had split the movement and betrayed the true Republic.

Despite strenuous claims by republicans as to the continuity of their movement it is the discontinuities which are most remarkable, and the greatest break in the continuity of the movement in the 20th century was its attitude to the Irish State.  Today the idea that the main goal of the IRA should be to overthrow the Irish State would seem incredible, but this only illustrates how much the movement has changed.

A further split in the Anti-Treaty movement and the creation of Fianna Fail in 1926 exposed the weakness of militant republicanism and its nationalist politics. With Fianna Fail in government the lack of any principles based on class left it with no political rationale for prioritising overthrow of the new Irish State.  Popular opposition to any such project made ditching this objective easier, while also simpler to pass over the change in programme without anything being learned.  It was however now saddled with a policy that sought to abolish partition but without fundamental opposition to one of the partitioned states, the one previously considered to be the immediate and principal enemy.

Robbed of the perspective of a ‘second round’ against the Free Staters, the IRA embarked on a bombing campaign directly against Britain in 1939, which exposed the strategic weakness of the movement.  It was however saved from even greater humiliation by bigger concerns created by the much larger conflict.

The remaining target was the Northern State itself, which had witnessed isolated IRA action in the 1930s and 1940s, but which became the central target of a border campaign launched in 1956.  This however spluttered out long before it was brought to a formal close in 1962, when the IRA was forced to dump arms while blaming the people for lack of support.

In fact, elections in 1955 had shown that there was significant support in the areas where the campaign was expected to operate, so it appeared again that no real lessons were learnt, although it should have been clear what these were.   The restriction of IRA activity in Belfast already indicated some appreciation of weakness, but without any apparent consideration about what this might have meant for the effectiveness of its strategy as a whole and republican politics more generally.

There were now no more strategic targets left, with all three states in opposition to it having easily crushed attempts at armed rebellion.

At this point some in the republican movement did begin to learn lessons, which if fully comprehended and absorbed would have radically transformed the movement.  Unfortunately, the new emphasis in the 1960s on economic and social agitation was not in itself an alternative to belief in the power of armed struggle, and when this radical reconsideration was later completed by the Official republican movement it was not to lead to the embrace of socialism, but to the stultifying and corrupting grip of Stalinism.

Since Irish Republicanism had long become a militant form of nationalism, and Stalinism had long become a nationalist form of socialism, the difference between militant nationalism and nationalist socialism was both easy to cross over and easy to erase. Nationalism was common to both, as was the understanding of socialism as primarily amounting to state intervention by the existing state, with the cherry of a left governing party at the top of a capitalist cake.  Today some left-wing republicans have attempted to come to terms with the defeat of Provisional republicanism through embracing the current incarnation of Stalinism, although in doing so they have simply repeated the experience of the 1960s.

Nevertheless, the identification by some republicans of the need for attention to be given to economic and social agitation did provide an important thread that led to the creation of the civil rights movement. In this they were joined by concerned members of the Catholic middle class and radicals and leftists in the Northern Ireland Labour Party. In doing so these various currents would come together to identify a radical approach to the growing concern of many, a concern with what might seem to be a programme of limited reform, but which contained within it much more explosive potential.

That diverse movements came separately to this point indicates that forces more fundamental than themselves were working, and we will look at these in the next post.

Of course, in the end, the nationalist consciousness of the vast majority of Catholics in Northern Ireland was not broken by the civil rights movement despite the earlier failures of such politics.  As a result of this, more radical socialist and even left republican politics were not so much defeated as marginalised by the dynamics of developments as these ran into the ‘troubles’.  But before we get to that we will look at the progenitors of the civil rights movement.

Back to part 2

Forward to part 4

 

Resist this Very British Coup!

The decision by the British Conservative Government to prorogue parliament for five weeks is a dictatorial action openly contemptuous of democratic rights.  Its purpose is to impose an exit from the EU that has no mandate and has been enacted precisely because of this lack of support. This in turn has the purpose of imposing a hard-right assault on the social and political rights of the working class.

The declared justifications for this action by Tory MPs have demonstrated contempt for the very idea of democratic debate.  They have torn away the pompous cant about parliamentary democracy through which the British ruling class and its establishment has imposed its rule.  As one previous Tory leader said – ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities.’

However, while it is one thing to govern and dictate with rules, it is quite another to assert this dominance by brazenly breaking them.  That the British constitution is famously an unwritten one does not change this aspect – not for nothing has this action been called a ‘constitutional outrage’.

Of course, those making this claim are concerned that the essential sham that is parliamentary democracy might be exposed as dispensable when it suits any particular governing clique, which is why they also show more concern for the position of the Queen than for the vast majority of the people who will suffer the consequences.  Far from excusing her role in sanctioning this dictatorial manoeuvre as the ‘only thing she could do’, – simply following established precedent – it exposes her as an integral part of this dictatorial measure.

The suspension of parliamentary accountability raises questions for the legitimacy of this action in a particular way for those living in the North of Ireland and Scotland, who voted by a significant majority against Brexit and who would undoubtedly have voted even more heavily against it had it been presented as leaving with no deal.

While Scotland has its own parliament, the willing or unwilling subjects of British rule in Ireland have more reason to fear the dictatorial intentions of British governments than anyone.  After all, it was in relation to Ireland that Tory leader Bonar Law made the statement quoted above, threatening force against the democratic decisions of the Irish people.

A Tory government inclined to such measures and allied to the reactionary bigots of the DUP might be emboldened to further measures.  Despite the growing awareness of just how damaging Brexit will be, and a no deal Brexit even more so, both the Tory Brexiteers and DUP have doubled down on their support for it.  Having done so, and if they do go ahead with it, they can only be tempted to indulge in further measures to defend their decision and repress opposition.

No deal means a hard border, which will impose severe economic damage especially in the North, but also damage and disruption in the South.  The undemocratic imposition of Brexit is therefore an issue facing all of Ireland and all Irish workers.

There have been calls on the left in Britain for demonstrations and strike action to push back on this ‘very British coup’ and workers in and outside trade unions in the North should join in these actions.

Those socialists opposed to Brexit should seek to unite and create an internationalist and socialist campaign that can explain why Brexit should be opposed and this latest move resisted.  Such a campaign would seek to support the action of workers and socialists in Britain. The impact on the rest of Ireland provides the grounds for further solidarity action by workers in the rest of the island who oppose a hard border and the damage Brexit will do to their own position.  Irish workers North and South should stand together to oppose this attack on democracy that will directly impact on all of them.

On a minor note – it might not even be too late for those left supporters of Brexit to wake up and accept that their support for this radically reactionary project should be dumped and Brexit and all it contains opposed.

From Civil Right to ‘the Troubles’ part 2 – from reform to revolution?

A common left-wing view of the move from a struggle for civil rights to a struggle against the existence of the Northern State itself is that it was an inevitable shift from an attempt to reform an unreformable state to a necessary struggle to destroy it; a move from reform to revolution.

In terms of the subjective intentions of many participants this is largely true, although latterly Sinn Fein has been claiming that actually, it was all about civil rights and equality right the way through.

This, of course, is nonsense, and a complete re-writing of history, but no one but the young or ignorant takes such claims seriously.  Ironically however, such claims are correct in one important and unintended respect, arising from the fact that the political significance of events does not simply depend on what people think they are doing but the objective significance of their actions.

As Marx once said – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Given the material constraints on people’s actions; the impact on them of the actions of opposing forces, in addition to their own imperfect understanding of what is happening and will happen, it is inevitable that the results of what they are doing are often not consistent with what they intended, or hoped and expected would be achieved.

Certainly, many later recollections by leading participants in the civil rights campaign expressed their shock at the viciousness and scale of the reaction against their modest demands, indicating that they did not fully understand what the results of their actions would be. In the first post I pointed to their statements, even at the time, where this confusion was honestly expressed.

So if we look at what the objective significance was of the struggle for civil rights and the republican armed struggle against the state it is clear that it was the former that destroyed the coherence of the Unionist regime in the North and it was the latter, and its leadership, which led to incorporation of the opposition to the state into participation and support for it, after a long time it must be admitted.

This is where we are today, with republican in-out participation in Stormont and acceptance of partition and British rule.  Since it was never possible for the IRA campaign to defeat the British State their struggle was eventually forced to seek a different goal; the objective significance of their struggle, its woeful inadequacy to its declared task, imposed itself on their subjective intentions to the extent republicans ended up lying, claiming that really it was never about ‘Brits Out’ and always about ‘equality’.

So if we want to look at why events took the course that they did, and what the consequences would most likely be of the various political strategies put forward at the time, we need to understand firstly the circumstances of the struggle.

Partition created a sectarian state in the North of Ireland in which those loyal to the foreign power were a majority.  Their colonial privileges were thus both more secure but also less significant, especially as the state was deemed to be an integral part of the imperial polity and there were therefore limits to how much these could diverge from the democratic norms of the rest of the UK State. There was not therefore the enormous differences in living standards and democratic rights that existed in most colonies where white men ruled native populations. In this particular colony the differences in rights and resources that existed in imperialist occupation of African and Asian societies could not exist.

Features of colonialism existed but were less pronounced. Many Protestants and Catholics lived in different areas – and the Troubles saw this separation increase – and land ownership demonstrated the privileged position of Protestant landowners and farmers. Traditional industries with good jobs were dominated by Protestants while Catholic unemployment was significantly higher.  The repressive forces of the State were staffed almost wholly by Protestants who had more or less exclusive access to arms.

The disintegration of the Unionist regime was heralded by the decline of these industries and the necessity to modernise the economic base of the state through foreign investment, which had no necessary requirement for discrimination. The growth of the Catholic population and employment; the change in economic structure, and the reduction in relative Catholic unemployment has since reduced these colonial features.

There exits therefore a politically divided working class, but it is a single class and not a settler colonial population sitting on top of super-exploited natives.  Neither simple anti-colonialism/anti-imperialism or unproblematic class unity are adequate ways of understanding the tasks of socialists.

Inequality between Catholics and Protestants was thus necessary because of history and to maintain support for, and justify the existence of, the state to the majority who supported it.  On the other hand, such sectarianism was inconsistent with any claim to the bourgeois democratic norms which the British State claimed for itself.  The state ‘solved’ this contradiction through majority support for its rule within the state and ignoring the sectarianism, discrimination and repression that this involved.

The civil rights movement accordingly developed as a claim for rights that were supposed to already exist, and be guaranteed by Britain, but which clearly did not.  The purpose often expressed by the civil rights campaign was therefore to get British intervention to remove the discrimination and sectarianism that was ingrained in the local regime by forcing that regime to reform, or for Britain to take over from it if it did not.  In effect, imperialism was being asked to intervene more directly, clearly not what normally might be considered an anti-imperialist demand or requirement of an anti-imperialist struggle.

The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was therefore inspired by the black civil rights movement in the United States, which didn’t have the option of seeking black rights through separation and creation of a black state, but which did have the possibility of forcing intervention by the Federal Government, especially its judiciary, against individual States.  Ireland was clearly different because the majority of the Irish people did have their own state and unity with it was always viewed as the ultimate solution by the majority of the Irish people and by democrats everywhere

The development of the civil rights movement however showed that this was not a realistic option, the Irish state could neither enforce unity nor ensure equality for Catholics in the North.  In fact, it wasn’t particularly interested in either.  When it too began to seek outside capital, it joined with the Unionist regime in the North in seeking to make the island attractive to foreign investment, which meant a new Free Trade Agreement with Britain in 1965 and falling in behind Britain in seeking membership of the European Economic Community.

This is yet another example of the world not being as people think it is.  The majority of Catholics in the North see themselves politically as nationalists and view politics in nationalist terms.  They have therefore repeatedly displayed illusions in the willingness of the Irish State to come to their aid and protect their interests. Its repeated failure to do either shows that whatever weaknesses there have been in socialists’ understanding of political dynamics, they have understood that it is the class interests of the Southern bourgeoisie and its State which have dictated its determination to ally with Britain.  Reclaiming the fourth green field doesn’t come into it.

The Catholic minority in the North appeared to have a number of options to address its grievances and it was the failure of the solutions its nationalist political identity naturally pointed it to that laid the basis for the development of the civil rights movement, and which saw Irish Catholics demand British rights.

These potential solutions included the Irish State, Southern political establishment and public opinion around the world addressing the wrong of partition. A second solution involved the armed overthrow of the Northern State by militant Irish republicanism, building on its earlier achievements.

The decline of traditional industries owned by the Unionist capitalist class and of industries such as shipbuilding dominated by Protestant employment lay behind hopes that the Unionist regime itself would have to reform its most repellent sectarian practices. The advent of the apparently moderate Terence O’Neill as the fourth Prime Minister of Northern Ireland gave rise to such hopes, if not expectations.

Finally, there was some hope that Protestants themselves might seek to end sectarian discrimination, a move that could really only arise and be effective if coming from the Protestant working class.  Such hopes have always been a significant component of socialist strategy, and in fact such a strategy requires it to some degree.

The failure of each led to the development of the civil rights movement, and the next post will set out the story of this failure.

The reality of Northern Ireland in this period dashed one other illusion.  The belief that the struggle had moved from one of reform to a question of revolution led some socialists to argue that since the Northern State could not be reformed it had to be smashed.  Since this required a united Ireland and such a struggle would, and was, opposed by the Southern State and capitalist class, the struggle for an Irish democracy could only be led by the working class and achieved through the struggle for socialism – a Workers’ Republic.  And of course this requires a revolution.

The logic may be impeccable, but it is still a formula, and one that does not start from the material forces that would take the formula from the realm of ideas into the reality of political practice – the final confirmation required by Marxism.

The working class in the North was bitterly divided, with the majority refusing to accept, never mind support, the equality of Catholic workers.  Irish workers in the Southern State were sympathetic with opposition to Catholic oppression in the North but the nationalist grounds for this sympathy excluded any identification of a common material and class interest with the Northern Struggle that would have produced a common struggle.

The struggle in the North did not, and could not, engulf the South of the country because there was no common force propelling a shared struggle by the whole Irish working class. The effectiveness of partition in dividing the working class is the major reason it has been so bitterly opposed in the first place.  The struggle in the North spilled over episodically, after Bloody Sunday and during the hunger strikes for example, and the sympathy in the South that existed did limit British state repression, but it could not summon up a common struggle, never mind a common movement for socialism.

In other words socialism, a Workers’ Republic, was not on the cards.  This does not mean that there were no grounds for socialists to intervene, or that they should not have fought for socialist objectives or under a socialist banner.  Socialism involves an immense transformation of existing society and the struggle for it will take many years and go through many stages.  Marx said it, and history has conclusively demonstrated it.

That stages exist in the struggle to advance working class interests, that take forward the unity and organisation of the working class and increase its political consciousness, is inevitable and obvious, but does not mean that these stages are predefined in duration or limited in advance.

Mass demonstrations, riots, the downfall of Governments and political crises can all give the illusion that more fundamental social transformation is happening and is possible than the purely political and relatively minor changes that are actually occurring, or are achievable at that time.  Gun battles, bombs and the rhetoric of armed struggle can make this seem even more the case.

Marxists however are interested not simply in political changes in which the basis of capitalist society remains intact, even if reformed and modified in some way. Socialist revolution requires more than political change, but necessitates the working class becoming the rulers of society through control and ownership of the means of production, which determines so much of everything else important in society.  A revolution is therefore primarily about the revolutionising of the working class so that it not only has the potential power to take over society but actively desires and has the capacity developed through struggle to do so.  The working class in Ireland was far from this point.

The period of struggle from civil rights to a challenge to the existence of the Northern State must therefore be viewed from a socialist perspective with an understanding that socialist revolution was not possible, and this should not be controversial.  What we need to learn is what socialists could have done to advance the interests of the working class in conditions which were not at all propitious for socialism but from which lessons can be learned.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

From Civil Rights to ‘the Troubles’ part 1

Last year marked fifty years since the civil rights movement hit the headlines.  This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the troubles in 1969.  If the first was remembered as the harbinger of hope the second will be recalled for dashing these hopes.

It is important to recall these events in order to inform those too young to have been there of just exactly what happened and what the political significance of the events was; and to remind everyone of events that occurred that have not only been forgotten but deliberately no longer recounted because they do not fit the now standard narrative of how the troubles started.  This is true also for socialists because there are lessons that can be learned, or at least discussed, which challenge many elements of today’s received wisdom.

Reading about the period again puts into place certain personal episodes which I have remembered imperfectly as isolated events but which can be located within the broader narrative.

Since I was only a child when these events happened impressions are all that I have.  The most dramatic is of hunkering under the table with the lights out and internal doors placed over the front windows of the house to protect us from stray bullets that were exchanged up and down the street in a gun battle between the British Army at one end and the IRA at the other.

Earlier in the year I recall wondering where my two friends in the street had gone when I returned from my annual summer holiday spent with my granny in Glasgow. It turns out that the two girls had, with their family, been forced to leave their house because they were Catholics in a predominantly Protestant area, one that pretty soon was to become a centre of loyalist paramilitary organisation.

That year my sister can remember being caught up with my mother in a riot at the bottom of the Shankill Road as loyalists attacked the predominantly Catholic Unity Flats at the bottom of the road. Only the kindness of an unknown man meant that they were shepherded away through the backstreets of the Shankill Road up to our home in Woodvale.

It was not until a couple of years later that I became aware that I was not really in sympathy with the wider unionist ‘culture’, as it is now called.  My parents were socialists, and whatever limits there were to their politics, it didn’t include belief in the compatibility of socialism with monarchy and anti-Catholic sectarianism.  They had attended meetings in support of civil rights and voted for the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

I later learned that at a house party in our street at around this time, when everyone had been asked to sing a favourite song, my mother sang ‘We shall Overcome’, the anthem of the civil rights campaign.  God knows how that went down.  I also later learned that my Father would get drunk and sing the ‘Red Flag’ in pubs on the Road, which would normally lead to getting a severe hiding were it not for his friends and his lifelong residence confirming his provenance as really ‘one of ours’ – a Prod from the Road.

None of this makes for an understanding of the political dynamics of the period and how they should be judged by socialists, which is what I want to write about.  It does however allow me to make two important points.

First, that the civil rights movement had some, if limited, sympathy within the Protestant working class. And two, that this sympathy expresses progressive impulses which should not be besmirched by later attempts to pretend that working class loyalism is in any way progressive, when it is this loyalism that is an immediate obstacle and threat to the development of socialism in the Protestant working class.

One of the worst experiences of the last 40 years of my political activity in Ireland was sitting at a Socialist Party meeting in a Dublin trade union hall listening to an SP leader praise the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force – the Progressive Unionist Party – for introducing socialism into Protestant working class areas. This included parading Billy Hutchinson as the embodiment of this, despite him being a sectarian killer who declared in an interview that he had no regrets, since his actions had prevented a united Ireland.  According to his Wikipedia page he also participated in the riots at Unity Flats.

This does not mean that I subscribe to the view that there is a relatively straight-forward political programme that answers the problems posed by partition and sectarian division. In fact I have written a number of posts beginning here that point to the problems posed today in elaborating a socialist perspective.

This series of posts is an exercise in being, what I hope is, wiser after the event, which is infinitely better than not being wiser.  If you can’t do this after the event there is really no hope of you learning anything.  As the very un-Marxist philosopher Kierkegaard said – “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”  We will learn from history in order to make whatever attempt we can to change it better next time – “fail better” perhaps, in the words of Samuel Beckett.

What must strike anyone reading of the period, and current reflections on it, is the ready acknowledgement by many of the participants that they didn’t fully understand what was going on at the time. So one examination of the lessons of the civil rights campaign accepts that –

“We were blind to the complexities. We believed in our new enthusiasm that we could appropriate ready-made tactics of moral persuasion and mass nonviolence resistance. We were unaware of the complexities of the American black and radical movements and of the sharp debate around very real differences. We did not realise that the tactics and strategy of the civil rights movement in America were contested there and that that strategy would be contested in Ireland also.”

Another prominent participant, Eamonn McCann, admits that:

“Anybody who looks back on 50 years and says, ‘I never made a mistake’, is a liar or a fool. We all make mistakes. Huge mistakes were made in the 1960s in the course of the broad civil rights movement. But I think the civil rights movement achieved an awful lot.”

And it is not that this confusion and lack of clarity, leading to disagreement and mistakes, was not obvious at the time.  One only has to read the New Left Review interview with the leaders of Peoples Democracy in 1969 to see the obvious lack of coherence.

So, Eamonn McCann says in the interview that “the consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” while the next answer from Michael Farrell states that “we have radicalised the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent and to some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow workers are almost as much exploited as they are”

To which McCann replies – “I think this assessment is very wrong . . . I believe we have failed to get our position across in the last six months”.  Bernadette Devlin (as then was) then says that “People outside Northern Ireland fail to appreciate the confusion that exists here; nobody knows what they want or how to achieve it . . .”  And then she goes on “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves.  I’d say there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .”

Today this lack of agreement continues, with the first writer linked above stating that “the CRM [Civil Rights Movement] was defeated”, while Eamonn McCann makes a less clear-cut judgement – “It was by no means perfect, but I do think it emerges with great credit from the history of the last 50 years and it is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North, certainly since the coming of the women’s movement . . . I think it was a very significant success which didn’t last. That’s the way I look at it. It absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland.”

I think a movement that “is arguably the most successful movement that there has been in the North” but which absolutely failed to create a new politics in Northern Ireland” might be close to the truth.

In any case, this series of posts is premised on the view that the issues and arguments that arose during the period from civil rights to ‘the troubles’ is still relevant not only to understanding what happened then but to socialist strategy today, not only in the North of Ireland but more generally.

So traduced has this history become that we have seen Sinn Fein claim ownership of the civil rights campaign when the creation of the Provisional Republican Movement was based on the militants who rejected the political course of the existing Republican Movement which supported that campaign, and rejected political struggle in general as a way forward.  The civil rights movement issued at least partly out of the Republican Movement that the Provisionals rejected and preceded their birth.

This series of posts will not present a comprehensive narrative of the history of the civil rights campaign and start of the troubles but will look at the most important themes and developments that should be re-examined today.  The next post will look at the creation of the civil rights movement.

Forward to part 2