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

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

 

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

Should socialists support a border poll? 4 – working class unity

It has been noted in an academic study  of the flag dispute that “it has taken a unique political ideology to turn a clear ‘victory’ – a triple lock on the union,a change to the Republic’s constitutional claim, the signing up of Sinn Féin to ‘partitionist’ institutions – into abject insecurity.”

But insecurity in unionism is nothing new, thirty-five years ago a book on Protestant politics was entitled ‘Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders.” Uncertainty and political paranoia are inevitable when sectarian rights are based on proxies (such as bourgeois democracy) that either reject such politics implicitly or threaten to undermine it.  A demand for equality is especially pernicious since it appears reasonable but threatens loss when your claim to sectarian rights is necessarily based on inequality – every issue is zero sum game precisely because supremacy is what is being defended.

The Socialist Party defence of the rights of Protestants is a defence of their rights as Protestants and thus lapses into a defence of sectarian rights.

It leads to seeking justification for the claims of Protestants as a sectarian group, with its own anterior rights, and covering up for its sectarian and reactionary character. So, even when that Party has in the past defended civil rights (by their nature civil rights are not sectarian group rights) the Party claims that such rights were, and still are, not enough, because equality of poverty holds no attraction for Protestant workers.  What good is equality of misery it says?  What is required is a socialist programme.

But whatever justification there is for a socialist programme, which of course I support, and regardless of what this might look like, it cannot be advanced in order to obfuscate the opposition of many Protestant workers to equality per se.  It is not therefore the case that Protestant workers oppose a united Ireland because it may not be socialist. Their pro-imperialist, monarchist and reactionary politics makes the majority averse to socialism in any case.  The possibility that a united Ireland might in some way be socialist is against everything their political heritage defends, and is enough to guarantee the opposition of those who maintain allegiance to any specifically Protestant politics.

How can Protestant workers be won to socialism and the radical equality it promises if they do not accept the equality of Catholic workers in the first place?  Unless they accept the political emancipation of Catholic workers they will be unable to play any positive role in achieving the social liberation of the working class that includes themselves.  To believe that they can fight for the latter while opposing or even being passive to the former is to excuse their prejudice and undermine the possibility and meaning of socialism.  That this is also true of the perspective that Catholic workers must take is simply to state that sectarian division must be ended by mutual recognition by all workers of their equality regardless of religion or nationality.

It is still unfortunately the case that the majority of Protestant workers are attached to reactionary unionist politics, so that it is necessary for socialists to oppose both their unionism and their sectarianism.  There is an alternative political identity that must be fought for and is in their interests as workers, not as Protestant workers.

So, to employ episodes such as unionist opposition to the reduced flying of the union flag outside Belfast City Hall as justification for acceptance of limitations on one’s programme is to leave one defenceless against whatever reactionary veto unionist reaction decides to erect to any progressive change.

Loyalists now claim that it is Protestants that are discriminated against and it is they who are disadvantaged, and there is even some slight evidence of the latter.  The Northern Ireland Labour Force Survey recorded that over the period 1993 to 2017 the proportion of working age economically active Protestants with no qualifications has decreased from 30% to 12% while that of Catholics decreased from 32% to 11%, so Catholics were in a slightly better position.

It is a repeated complaint of loyalists that working-class Protestants, especially the young, are educationally disadvantaged.  In the same academic study referenced above the authors record interviews with loyalists and others that “the importance of education was stressed, but education with a very particular purpose, as a community project leader explained: We’ve got the programme there and it’s empowerment through education … once you teach them about their own identity then they understand what’s going on around them, cos I would say 100 per cent of our kids haven’t a clue about where they came from. “

“In the interviews we conducted the issue of Protestant/Catholic reconciliation did not arise unless raised by us [i.e. the academics]. It simply was not on any interviewee’s immediate agenda.”

“For those, within the PUL [Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist] community trying to re-build after the ruptures that opened up during the protest the key category is cohesion, not reconciliation. There was seen to be a strong imperative to build unionist unity, and to imbue young people with a deeper awareness of their unionist identity.”

The authors quote another academic study dealing with a small Derry town, which finds that loyalists “see no purpose in conflict transformation as their cultural identity is built on a glorification of sectarian conflict, and they reject democratic politics as ‘it did not stop the flag from being ripped down.’“

Yet another study based on North Belfast finds that even the Protestant church representatives did not talk about reaching out across the sectarian divide, but rather about: “The need to create a new confidence and a new identity around loyalism, one that was not demonised, and one that people could easily understand what it represented.”

As one flag protestor said: “They talk about a shared future. I don’t think the Protestant community is ready for a shared future.”

In other words, these loyalists want to see reinforcement of their sectarian identity. Why would socialists, as the Socialist Party does, erect such views as the limit to a democratic and socialist programme?  The Party ends up deferring to those most bitterly opposed to workers’ unity on the grounds of supporting it.

Of course, not all Protestant workers are sectarian and for such workers it is reactionary to seek to win them to socialism by offering to accommodate a sectarian identity they either don’t have or can be more easily broken from.  But many are sectarian, to varying degrees, and it is only blind political correctness that prevents acknowledging the obvious.  Socialists will get nowhere by pretending it doesn’t exist, or that it is marginal, or in some sense justified, or must be deferred to in some way.  They will get totally lost if they hand over a veto to the most sectarian voices just because they advance protests and politics with which many other Protestant workers have sympathy.

None of this means we do not advance a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian programme, and a socialist programme.  We must do so, obviously because we are socialists and socialism is our goal – a society governed by the workers themselves.  But we must be clear what it means.

Socialism is just the rule of the working class, as a whole, not a part of it.  To say that socialism is the answer to the division of the working class is just to say that working class unity is the answer to working class division.  To claim that a working class party is necessary to unite the working class is to say that the party created by the working class should unite the working class.

Escape into such truisms arises because real answers beyond such abstractions do not present themselves as obvious solutions, but as political programmes that offer particular courses of struggle.  James Connolly is famously noted for having denounced partition, but to end it means going beyond what he said –

“. . . the betrayal of the national democracy of Industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted.”

A role for those dedicated to the interests of the working class must mean that we are not paralysed.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

 

Sectarianism in the North of Ireland and Republicanism

the-triumpth-of-deathThe dysfunctional nature of the Stormont regime is widely acknowledged.  The two leading parties exclude the others in decision making while being unable to make decisions themselves; except not to expose each other’s most sectarian actions – employment discrimination by Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy and moves to sectarianise housing by the DUP’s Nelson McCausland.

Other parts of the settlement are also exposed. The PSNI have lost much credibility with their facilitation of illegal loyalist flag protests while the Parades Commission, set up to solve the parades issue, is now part of the problem.  It is ignored even by the police, as during the flags protests, or has its determinations on how parades are to behave brazenly flouted by loyalist marchers, who the Commission then allows to parade again, with the same results.

Meanwhile spokesmen for the DUP partners of Sinn Fein in government blame the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast for being physically assaulted by loyalists while visiting a park in a unionist area (DUP leaders were not attacked in the nationalist park earlier in the day) and a DUP member of the Stormont Assembly tweets her support for the killing of Sinn Fein leaders.

The DUP decision, announced by the First Minister from a holiday in Florida which appeared to last forever, that there will be no ‘peace centre’ at the site of the prison where the IRA hunger strikers died exposes the weakness of Sinn Fein.  A settlement that makes any change to the status quo dependent on the defenders of that status quo has been exposed once again.

In this situation it is not one religious group that primarily loses out, although the evidence in the first post shows that disadvantage remains unequal, but the lowest section of each working class that suffers most.  The old socialist maxim that sectarianism hits workers most, and the poorest at that, is demonstrated in the ways the new sharing of sectarianism works, or rather how it operates in its own dysfunctional manner.

The exposure that a homeless man in East Belfast on the housing waiting list with a points total of 330 (indicating level of need) was passed over in favour of a person with only 26 points caused a minor scandal (all scandals in the North are minor).  This flagrant breach of ‘rights’ was carried out by a housing association whose member includes a former Sinn Fein councillor.  Two of his nieces were allocated housing by the association, which is why, when the case appeared in court, the judge referred to nepotism.

A friend of mine has also reminded me that while he is recommended to go for a job interview with Shorts in East Belfast the social security staff tell him they won’t bother sending him for an interview in West Belfast, where he lives, because a job there is for ‘Shinners’.

In many Protestant areas the indulgence of loyalist paramilitaries by the state has made them more attractive to young Protestants who then end up with a career in violent sectarianism as opposed to a career on the dole or in part time and poorly paid employment.  These paramilitaries then feed off the local population in a wholly parasitic fashion – extorting protection money from small businesses; selling drugs and then claiming to be protectors against dealers; engaging in general criminality then ‘dealing’ with (other) criminals; and finally parading the reactionary politics of the local population while hiding their criminality behind their politics.  This reactionary politics in working class areas acts as another barrier to Protestant workers being able to escape the loyalist gangsters.

The situation is therefore complicated.  A political settlement exists that has the support of the State and Sinn Fein but which is more and more clearly just a stepping stone for unionism to return to unrestricted unionist rule.  At the moment this is simply not possible.  The reversal of the previous struggle against unionist and British misrule does not mean that history has gone backwards.

At the same time the sectarian demands of loyalism set the agenda.  Once more nationalist commentators call for loyalists to be ‘brought in from the cold’ despite their being treated as legitimate political representatives and special slush funds being created for their benefit.  It is vainly hoped that there is just one more Orange parade that is causing trouble and that if only it is sorted the other 3,000 odd will never cause a problem.

As this article is written the loyalists that everyone is invited to save from their supposed marginalisation by the peace process has, through a nomme de guerre, threatened everyone connected with three Catholic schools in North Belfast with ‘military action’.  In a throwback to sectarian assaults on Catholic primary school children in Ardoyne, primary school children are threatened because if loyalists can’t parade Catholics can’t go to school.

With such a mass of contradictions it appears that the whole edifice must crumble, and it is indeed crumbling.  But this could take some time – a decay that brings mutual ruination presided over by the British State but with no progressive force or alternative emerging.

In his eye-witness report of the republican anti-internment march Belfast Plebeian speculates on the revival of republicanism.  Not the new partitionism of Sinn Fein but a genuine movement committed to a united Ireland.  This anti-internment demonstration and relatively small electoral victories demonstrates that the movement has a small base of support.  But whether it has a progressive and realistic alternative is a different matter.

The support of a marginalised section of the Catholic population is one thing.  A programme that might promise an alternative to this population must go beyond gaining support from it to advancing solutions to wider society.  It is self-evident that there is no solution at the local level nor at the level of the Northern State and not, as recent events have so clearly shown, at the level of the island.

Republicans have to answer the question how they can unite the Irish people in order to unite the country.  Poor Catholics in Belfast would benefit from an ending of partition but workers in Dublin might want some alternative to the problems brought about by a capitalist economic crisis and political domination by a state in cahoots with imperialism – right now obviously subordinated by the Troika of European Union, International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank.

The challenges to the creation of this alternative even in the North are more complicated than those faced by the movement created in the 1960s.  While Catholic disadvantage persists the inclusion, even at a secondary level, of Catholic parties in the political administration, means, as has been argued, that it is not simply a matter of discrimination but of sectarian competition.  That Catholics lose out more than Protestants means the simple equation of their respective position and of the political expressions of the two sectarian groups is wrong.  That it is the workers and poorest of both that pay most does not mean that the sectarian division, and the political issues around it, can be ignored or treated as something without need of a particular political intervention that gives specific answers.

Despite their small base of support the republicans are not well placed to face up to and address these difficulties.

Firstly, and most obviously, but most importantly, this movement is confined to the Catholic population.  A strategy of seeking unity across the sectarian division is rendered particularly difficult.  These forces are weak among the rest of the Irish working class in the southern state so the mobilisation of the latter in a political alternative that can practically demonstrate to Protestant, and to other workers, the possibilities of their programme is itself presented with formidable obstacles.

All this assumes in the first place that these republicans, who are divided into a number of groups, regard the political contradictions of the peace process as the primary challenge and political task that they face.  Many in this movement have not broken from the militarism that so demonstratively failed in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

The re-creation of a military campaign even approaching that of the Provisionals at its height in 1972, when the Official IRA also participated (‘ceasefire’ or not), is simply not going to happen.  This campaign fed off an elemental upsurge, British repression and extreme loyalist reaction.  The British learnt lessons in their counter-insurgency, which is one reason they won, although given the relative military resources they couldn’t really lose.

Some republican attempts to recreate a crisis, including British repression and loyalist reaction, through armed action (in the hope of sparking the third element of Catholic upsurge) might produce two out of three.  It is and will therefore be a reactionary project.

Some republicans clearly recognise this but no coherent, comprehensive or convincing critique of their previous military strategy has come from this movement.  Without this the option will remain open to large sections of it and with such an option failure is guaranteed.  Marxists do not favour premature armed action by revolutionary socialist forces never mind the action of republicans with no credible socialist credentials.

The character of the armed struggle was of an armed revolt by a minority of an oppressed Catholic population that was solely Catholic because the sectarian character of the State made it so. Nevertheless this situation meat that a premature armed campaign with no prospect of military victory was wide open and susceptible to political degeneration, which is what happened.  From mass gun battles lasting hours against the British army the armed struggle moved to blowing things up, like shops, bus depots, restaurants and hotels etc. without any rationale for doing so.

It meant the pursuit of soft targets and a wider and wider definition of ‘legitimate targets’; all to avoid the hard fact that the IRA could no longer engage the British Army, the army of occupation, in a serious guerrilla struggle.  The failure of the armed struggle and the impossibility of it succeeding against the military power of Britain were denied in word while accepted in deed.

This meant that the sectarian weakness of the republican resistance, its wholly Catholic character, was impressed on it through actions that more and more conflicted with its declared non-sectarian objectives.  Bombings were targeted at groups of Protestants seemingly without any regard to their political impact as if some spurious military logic was of primary importance.

So, for example, the IRA complained that the British caused unnecessary civilian casualties by not acting on bomb warnings.  The fact that the British had devised a way of discrediting republicans through exploiting one weakness of their bombing tactic did not prevent the IRA walking into this trap again and again for which many civilians paid the price.  This blindness to the requirements of a political struggle betrayed the undeveloped nature of the movement; one that still characterises those that would continue armed action today.

So we can say that while the republican struggle involved a progressive objective, fought for by an oppressed section of the population, it involved elements of sectarian practice that conflicted with this objective.  This may be contrasted with the armed actions of loyalists whose programme and actions didn’t contradict one another. Their programme didn’t occasionally involve sectarian murder but was sectarian murder.

I have never checked, but if the argument by John Hume – that more Catholics died at the hands of the IRA than British and loyalists – was even close to being true it would demonstrate the hopelessly misguided nature of the republican armed struggle.  This lesson needs to be learnt or many Irish workers will not trust today’s republicans with political leadership.  It has been said many times by many people that it is the threat of renewed armed struggle that has been one of the strongest arguments used to support the peace process and the current political settlement.

Today’s republicans are therefore an expression of the contradictions of imperialist rule and, in so far as they understand this and oppose this rule, they understand something important.  However the fact that this movement is so old in historical terms, going back to the late 18th century shows two other things.

One, is that its historical task has not therefore been achieved and two, that history has developed more fundamental tasks than the creation of an independent nation state within which an Irish capitalist system can develop and grow.

The development of capitalism around the world and creation of a world working class means that political programmes that put forward new independent states as the fundamental and first step to wider and deeper liberation are now backward looking.

The latest expressions of republicanism are old in another sense.  It is nearly 20 years since the first IRA ceasefire and the definitive surrender of the republican programme.  It is 15 years since the leadership and majority of the membership accepted partition and the Good Friday Agreement.  Time enough for those opposed to both to develop a programme that has learnt the lessons of this defeat and begun to construct an alternative.  It is not encouraging that this has yet to be done.

Nationalism, Sectarianism and Democracy in the North of Ireland

castledergMarxists have regarded the struggle against British rule in the North of Ireland as a legitimate one in the sense that it is a fight against an imperialist state and its political rule in a country in which it has no democratic right to exercise its powers.  This is reflected in the undemocratic partition of the country and its reliance on a colonial movement which has proven incapable of providing or allowing basic democratic rights to its neighbours of a different religion. The legitimate democratic rights of this population have never been advanced but have always been subsumed under a bigoted and triumphalist programme of support for sectarian privilege and for the most reactionary characteristics of the British State.

Imperialist rule has thus always involved promotion and pandering to the worst aspects of sectarianism.  During ‘the troubles’ this involved repeated attempts to give coherence and effectiveness to loyalist gangs who were often more interested in pure criminality than their reactionary political programme.  This included planting security services agents into the loyalist paramilitaries, arming these gangs, providing them with intelligence on targeting, facilitating their actions and preventing other arms of the police from apprehending their killers.

What has often struck commentators on loyalist violence has been its sheer frenzied brutality and savagery, a feature of extreme reactionary violence everywhere.

This year the British State has once again indulged loyalist violence – during the flags protests – and the more honest local journalists have reported the patronage by the state and politicians of the loyalist paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, especially in East Belfast.

This organisation has gained confidence and power in Protestant working class areas through State acceptance of its nefarious activities.  Rather than attempt to completely destroy the most vicious supporters of British rule the British State has attempted to tame it and make it amenable to its own more measured policies.  The riot in July in the Woodvale area after a local Orange parade was prevented going past a Catholic area, and the riot in Belfast City Centre to prevent a Republican demonstration, show how limited the success of such a policy has been.

The claims of loyalism that it is simply defending its culture and traditions are without any merit.  Its culture is one of sectarian practices, made-up of borrowings from others and simple invention.

Attending a loyalist parade made up of bowler hated men declaring temperance and loyalty to the British monarchy, as long as it remains Protestant, led by aggressive flute bands sometimes named after sectarian killers and followed by drunken and hate filled followers will tell you most of what you need to know about the nature of Ulster unionism.

The Marxist opposition to British rule and loyalism and attendant defence of Irish nationalist claims is therefore mainly a negative one.  It is a positive one to the extent that this Irish nationalism puts forward and advances real democratic demands.

It is therefore possible to imagine (but only imagine!) a situation in which Protestant workers opposed a united Ireland because Irish nationalism wished to foist a catholic clerical regime on a genuine outpost of the British State, which was integrated into that State, was part of its on-going political development and in which this outpost of Irish workers were fully integrated into the British class struggle.  In such a situation it might be the case that the demand s of Irish nationalism would be reactionary – a call to disrupt a united working class which had overcome sectarian division and which was moving instead to a programme of independent working class politics.

To present such a scenario is to demonstrate how far reality is from the real situation and why Marxists adopt the programme for Ireland that they do. The scenario above is put forward purely to illustrate the approach which Marxist take and to distinguish it from all varieties of Irish nationalism.  Marxists are primarily concerned with the unity and independent struggle of the working class irrespective of nationality.  The programme of the socialist movement can only be successful if the disunity caused by nationalist division is overcome.

This means that there is no automatic support for the activities of Irish nationalists and republicans.  Marxists defend the democratic content of the struggle of those oppressed but this does not mean support for its expression in nationalist politics.  Marxists do indeed distinguish between the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor but that does not mean they support the former.

In the recent dispute over parading Sinn Fein has more and more shifted its political position to one of recognising that the Protestant population of the North of Ireland is British and can therefore claim rights that are equivalent, but not greater, than those of the Catholic Irish.  Marxists accept neither of these arguments – that the Protestant population is British or that even if it was its political claims therefore have to be supported.  For the loyalists their demands continue to mean the assertion of sectarian privilege.

The acceptance of the political legitimacy of unionism, defined by itself in sectarian terms, means that Sinn Fein’s own claims become judged by the same measure.  This is indeed why Sinn Fein has moved to this position.  It is the logic of the peace process, its ‘parity of esteem’, ‘reconciliation between the two traditions’, mutual understanding, respect and equality of rights and all the other honeyed phrases behind which lie behind poisonous sectarianism.

The logic of the political settlement in the North is sectarian competition where once it was purely sectarian domination and Sinn Fein has bought into this.  Thus it declares its interests in the concepts appropriate to this sectarian competition.

The statement by it on the recent IRA commemoration in Castlederg shows all this. The local Sinn Fein councillor said

‘This parade is organised to show respect for those who gave their lives for this community. It should never have been an issue of controversy- it has been ‘made’ controversial by unionist politicians. We have proposed this initiative to take the controversy out of it while reducing tension.

“Our initiative will consist of choosing to go along John Street which avoids passing the cenotaph and the Methodist church.

“On the back of this initiative, we wish to engage with all key stakeholders in relation to the issue of the town center being designated as a shared space for all traditions, in this mainly nationalist town.

“There has been around 20 unionist parades through the town centre in 2013 so far without objection, we understand and accept peoples Britishness- others need to understand and accept our Irishness.”

So the IRA fought for Catholic freedom not Irish freedom unless Sinn Fein now equates the latter with the former, which appears to be the case.  At the same time it now recognises the legitimacy of the claims of Irish Protestants to be British so there appears no reason why one sectarian groups’ claims should have priority over the other.

What we have is endless competition with no reason to judge any particular outcome fair or appropriate, except that it exists and it exist only as a result of struggle between the groups, presided over by the British State.

What this means is that where the civil rights struggle once demanded an end to sectarian domination, essentially discrimination against Catholics by unionism, now the necessary democratic struggle would appear to be against sectarian competition, essentially discrimination by unionists against Catholics and nationalists against Protestants.

Sectarian competition is however unstable.  Unionism wants sectarian privilege while Sinn Fein claims it wants equality but it has demonstrated that it seeks equality not through unity, which is the only way it could exist or be brought about, but through sectarian claims on behalf of Catholics, because they are Catholics and because they are claiming Catholic rights.

It is now lost on a whole generation that the demands for civil rights and equality were demands for democratic rights irrespective of religious beliefs not because of them.  It is lost on this generation that claiming Catholic rights is not the same as claiming civil rights.

The civil rights’ demand for equality required unity because civil rights were disconnected from religious belief.   Now rights are claimed by virtue of religion.  Equality now means the equality of resources to sectarian groups, which can only be achieved by ensuring the continued existence and political priority of these groups.  Demands are made that those not designating themselves in sectarian terms must do so or someone must label them on their behalf.  In other words equality now requires sectarianism.

If sectarian domination was unstable this sectarian competition is even more so.  The current political situation is unstable because not only is it impossible to have stable agreement on the equitable sharing of sectarian rights but such equality does not yet exist.

Despite decades of Sinn Fein ‘leadership’ in West Belfast the social and economic problems of the constituency are among the worst.  Unemployment among Catholics is still worse than among Protestants.  Thousands of Orange parades still proclaim their sectarian superiority except everyone is now called upon to be tolerant, seek reconciliation with the participants and show non-sectarianism by accepting the displays of bigotry.

In such an Orwellian world sectarianism is to be eradicated by support for sectarianism.  And then we are to be amazed how on earth the problem hasn’t disappeared and often appears to be getting worse.

To be continued.