Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 3

In a 1 June article Socialist Democracy (SD) wrote that “a popular slogan by People before Profit (PbP) candidates – “we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!” – is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism.”

In another post SD say that “This neutrality ignores socialist support for democratic rights and the frequent alliances between republicanism and socialism that are part of our history. It can blind workers to the very real mechanisms employed by loyalism and the state to combat radicalism amongst Protestant workers and prevent working class unity.”

First some basic points.  Saying you are neither Orange or Green, unionist or nationalist, is not to equate the two, no matter how SD convinces itself it does.  It is a matter of fact, and a matter of principle that socialists are not unionists or nationalists.

It is similarly the case that socialists do not believe that workers should be led by either unionists or nationalists.  We do not believe nationalism can deliver the equality that socialists support never mind the fundamental reorganisation of society we seek, and which makes us socialists.

It is therefore not only permitted, but absolutely required, that socialists state that they are socialist!  At a very basic level it is as simple as that.  It is also the case that they need to do so to distinguish themselves from Irish unionism and Irish nationalism.  In the SD version of democratic alliances with republicanism it would seem that we cannot say that we are not unionist or nationalist, which amounts to politically surrendering your flag.

Does SD believe that Irish nationalism, in whatever form, can unite the Irish working class?  If so, it should reconsider its independent existence.  If not, it should drop this ridiculous line of criticism, and in doing so the comrades should consider how they ended up defending such a position.

I will venture that they did so because of their understanding of nationalism. As quoted above, SD states that “Irish republicanism . . (has a) revolutionary and what Lenin called “generally democratic” content”, forgetting the fact that Sinn Fein is no longer standing by the traditional republican programme. The Provisional republicans, as SD say (in their article of 10 March) have moved from “armed struggle to constitutional nationalism.”

Their failure to register this when condemning PbP must have something to do with their declared opposition to the slogan of the PbP and their claim that this disregards “the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism.” (1 June 2017)

SD state in their response to my original posts that “all theories have to deal with real life”.  So how does the theory that the programme of Irish nationalism is “generally democratic” stand up to real life?

Let’s examine the concrete, real life expressions of Irish nationalism, and not the theoretical one clearly envisaged by SD.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, the ‘United Ireland Party’ and ‘Soldiers of Destiny’, are both reactionary Irish nationalist parties of the capitalist class.  Sinn Fein, by SD’s own admission, is a “constitutional nationalist” party and cannot be considered as either a party of working class interests or even of revolutionary nationalism.  The role of the real republicans is actually obstructive of working class unity, since they convince everyone including themselves that the only alternative to the peace process and the current sectarian arrangements is militarist violence.  In doing so they don’t threaten British rule but bolster it.

So, in the real world, just what nationalist movement does SD defend and support, so much so that it wishes not to declare socialist independence from it?

Socialist Democracy do advance correct criticisms of PbP, but they are lost in an avalanche of the good and the simply atrocious, which will convince no one who is not already convinced.  Its articles are written in such a way that it is not clear that they are designed to convince anyone not already on-side, but simply to declare a position.

This reaches the point that even when PbP make clear that it is not neutral on the question of democratic rights and the issue of the border this isn’t welcomed, but dismissed – “ A key slogan of the new [People before Profit] election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism? (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In summary, my original posts were designed to raise the problem of strategy that socialists face in the North of Ireland.  The response from Socialist Democracy does not take us any step forward.  My initial overall impression when coming to draft this reply to their criticism was that the comrades are wrong in several serious respects in relation to socialist strategy.  In drafting the response my final overall impression is now one of their more or less complete confusion arising from misunderstanding the reactionary role of Irish nationalism.

On this there is obviously much more to say (see this post and ensuing discussion for example). The demand for an end to partition and national self-determination has historically been reflected through Irish nationalism (and still is today by the real republicans), but the utter inadequacy of nationalist politics in maintaining any democratic content in these demands in its real world political manifestations, in its political parties and programmes, is something that must be understood.  Otherwise the essential role of socialist organisation and a socialist programme, based on the self-activity of the working class itself, and not on organisation and a political programme divorced from it, is not understood.

Irish nationalism must be combatted North and South because (among other important reasons) it cannot uphold the democratic impulses that are contained, and have erupted periodically, within the Irish working class.  This much should be obvious in the South of the country.  It should certainly not be defended because at some times and in some places it has taken leadership of struggles that have had such a democratic content.  Not least because it will fail and end up strangling such democratic dynamics while sidelining and opposing socialism.

This is what happened over the period following the rise of the civil rights movement, where Irish nationalism, in the shape of republicanism, substituted itself, its methods and its programme for this mass democratic struggle, and then helped bury it in the sectarian deal brokered by imperialism.

This is the underlying political analysis that answers a question that might be posed by my posts – does any of this matter?  The SD response states that “perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply commonplace”, but the author will know that it is, in fact, much more commonly ignored.

Socialist Democracy wants to resist the rightward drift of the socialist movement in Ireland, and its arguments would ideally be as powerful as pure argumentation can be in countering this drift. Unfortunately, its arguments cannot play such a role, and if the comrades seek that they should they will have to be seriously revised.

concluded

Back to part 2

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

The second point I want to respond to in the response to my initial posts is what Socialist Democracy have to say about the nature of Sinn Fein (SF), which in my view is once again confused.

SD state that it is a serious weakness of mine that I see Sinn Fein in the North as a Catholic Party and equivalent to the DUP.

I do indeed assert that it is a party that defends Catholic rights but that does not mean I assert equivalence between it and the DUP.  I don’t assert this, and in fact my analysis has been that Sinn Fein’s project of seeking equality of sectarian rights is not only not the same as the DUP’s but has been rejected by the DUP, which wants superiority of sectarian rights for unionism and rejects such equality.

What this means is that Sinn Fein fights for Catholic rights, for communal sectarian rights, but is not equivalent to the DUP, which continues to seek Catholic subordination.  How could the Socialist Democracy author have missed this?

It is nevertheless the case that Sinn Fein has asserted and defended sectarian rights and does so straight from entering Stormont, when declaring itself as part of one of the sectarian blocs for voting purposes.  Even the SD author acknowledges that in relation to defense of Catholic rights that “it is true that this is their mode of operation in the various carve-ups in Stormont.”

It is at this point that the SD author attempts something extraordinary.  First by saying that this “does not sum up the party itself or the dynamic of their supporters.”

We have already quoted from SD itself on the dynamic of its supporters – “popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist.”  As SD have also said: “the majority of the population accept the framework of the Assembly and the idea of a balancing of sectarian rights.”  It has also pointed to Sinn Fein conciliation of unionism in its response, which, let’s be clear, means conciliation of sectarianism.

As for the party itself, interested readers are free to read article after article on the Socialist Democracy web site slating the political practices of Sinn Fein and its support, and its collaboration with imperialist rule and the most outrageous facilitation of loyalist corruption, including its own description of Sinn Fein’s politics as “Catholic populism.” (article 1 June 2017)

In an article published on 10 March this year we read this:

“the central tenets of the peace process, equality of the two traditions and the Government of Ireland Act, remains a barrier to anything other than the institutionalisation of sectarian division.”

“they (SF) were facilitating, and participating in, the corruption and sectarian carve-up of resources that is the everyday activity of Stormont.”

“the St Andrews Agreement and the settlement around it is based on communal rather than civil rights.”

Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein “went from opposition to Britain rule to administration for British state and comfortable membership of a nationalist family of church and state.”

“McGuinness and Sinn Fein surrendered to the Catholic Church and the Catholic bourgeoisie represented by the Derry Traders Association.”

In another article from 5 January this year we read that “structural sectarianism extends into the internal life of the parties. . . The main business of the assembly is to share-out resources on the basis of sectarian privilege.  Its output is a routine of scandals based on sectarian corruption. . . But to really get to the heart of Arlene’s impunity we must take into account the role of Sinn Fein. . . In this environment, they must desperately wave their presence in government and the share of sectarian patronage they control as proof of the success of their strategy of working within the colonial system.”

If one wants to read a textbook case of the sectarianism that Sinn Fein defends then one could do no better than read the Socialist Democracy article published on 8 December 2016.  It sums up the political practice of Sinn Fein in Stormont by stating that “the consequence is that sectarianism – rather than being allowed to wither away – is being artificially kept alive.”

Yet, in his reply to my critique, the SD author finds that “Sinn Fein presents itself as a part of the left.  Their main demands at the moment – an Irish language act, LGBT marriage rights, investigation of state killings, are essentially democratic demands. . . . It is not long ago that the SM (Sráid Marx) blog itself proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state!”

It’s not clear at all what we are supposed to make of all this. Previous SD commentary on Sinn Fein speaks repeatedly of Sinn Fein “lies” and states that “Sinn Fein have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth since the beginning of the peace process.”

So, what point is the SD author now making?  Is SF still up to its neck in sectarian patronage, or is it in some way a party of the left, putting forward democratic demands?

Did SD not write on 10 March that “Sinn Fein itself was unconcerned about state murder, about corruption or about the Irish language until their own members revolted.”  Is it now implied that this revolt has changed the nature of the party?

Just as on the question of reforms, which are supported in general in order to be dismissed in particular, Sinn Fein is sectarian in particular but dare not be compared to the unionists in general because it puts forward democratic demands.

Oh, and isn’t it noticeable that while PbP gets slated for putting forward demands for reform, Sinn Fein’s claims to do so are presented as some sort of defense or exculpation for its less appealing practices?

But perhaps it really is that Sinn Fein have changed. So, for example, in its article on the elections on 1 June, Socialist Democracy say that “The political campaign that Sinn Fein ran in the March elections was much sharper than the vague populism of the SWP.”  After another paragraph, we learn in the same article that “The Sinn Fein slogans were insincere.  They allowed all these issues to fall in order to keep Stormont running, but now they put forwards substantive policies that reflected the anger of their supporters.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

This indeed would now appear to be the SD argument, for it says in its response that “It is true that Sinn Fein voters, along with the majority of the nationalist population, hold the illusion that reform will come through Stormont, but it is not the case that they seek only rights for Catholics. There is all the difference in the world in looking to Stormont for reform and supporting Stormont as the bulwark of reaction.” (Of the last sentence, we can only agree!  It is SD that, in its criticism of PbP, appears not to see any difference, as I pointed out in the first of these posts.)

But of course, it must be noted that now SD is speaking not of Sinn Fein itself but of its supporters.  Yet this doesn’t quite tally with what it has previously said: of the working class, SD has said that “many oppose open sectarianism, but feel that there is some benign form that could share resources peacefully. They despise politicians, but feel that a team of better politicians could manage better. Politics are avoided as many have been convinced that the only alternative is armed conflict.”

Most importantly, this move to discuss aspects of the Sinn Fein support appears here to be employed with the effect of providing cover for the Sinn Fein party, for nowhere is it admitted that Sinn Fein is a bulwark of support for sectarian discrimination, something that was previously an SD commonplace.  This is a remarkable retreat on its part.

This shift in the assessment of the Party has been presaged with earlier SD condemnation of PbP while simultaneously at least partially exonerating Sinn Fein:

“Nowhere in the PBP narrative is there any recognition of the imperialist dominion of Ireland or an acknowledgement of the material base of partition in armed bodies of the state. The Sinn Fein narrative, while mistaken, is at least coherent. A presence in government in the North and South would so impress the British that they would immediately withdraw from Ireland, they believe. Exactly how having PBP candidates in Stormont would lead to a united Ireland is far from clear, given their frantic support for the institution.”

So, read that again.  As against the PbP narrative, the Sinn Fein one is at least coherent – get into government North and South and the British will withdraw, but the PbP strategy of getting into parliament is “far from clear.”  So, although both strategies are described as more or less the same – achieving power through parliament – the SF one is ‘coherent’ but the PbP one is not.

More importantly, the role of Sinn Fein itself in mobilising Catholic workers in support of sectarian arrangements, which in turn support loyalist intimidation of Protestant working class communities, one that “keeps sectarianism alive” (according to earlier SD analysis quoted above), is nowhere admitted in the response to my critique.  It all falls to the wayside in defense of what SD thinks is an anti-imperialist and revolutionary approach to politics in contrast to perceived reformist heresies.

However, SD notwithstanding, as long as Catholic workers support Sinn Fein they will be vicariously supporting sectarianism and this has and will continue to block development of a socialist alternative among these workers.  This is what is key, but is what is completely absent in the SD response, which consists of savagely criticising the failings of PbP, while now putting forward some meagre cover for Sinn Fein.

This bias for Sinn Fein and against PbP, even in particular cases where it appears that there is no essential difference in approach between them (and we leave aside whether this is in fact true) arises from a further aspect of SD’s politics, illustrated in a recent theme of their criticism of PbP – opposition to the slogan “Neither Orange or Green, but Socialist.”

However, before dealing with this and leaving this section of my reply, I want to address the SD point that while I criticize Sinn Fein for defending sectarian rights I also “proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state.”  This is correct, so I need to explain why I did so.

The posts in which I put this forward explained that the programmes put forward by the left groups in the South were reformist and different only in degree from that of Sinn Fein.  In order to put their strategy forward as a credible alternative, these groups would have to seek unity with Sinn Fein and seek to stiffen the latter’s reformist promises or expose them as fraudulent.

If this led to a larger reformist alliance there might be some greater hope that a break by Irish workers from the capitalist parties they have supported (in particular Fianna Fail) might be made on a larger scale, providing the grounds upon which Irish workers could learn and advance to more adequate socialist politics.

I understand that for SD this is to be regarded as a betrayal, involving the creation of a reformist movement, in which case I also await their opposition to Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain.  For my part, it is a judgement that at that time such an alliance would have been an advance for Irish workers upon which further advances could hopefully be made.

However, despite SD protestations to the contrary, it is clear that it envisages a purely revolutionary democratic road forward (and they criticise stagism!) when the comrades state that:

“As in the years following 1916, we should not wait for the British and for Irish capital to grant us independence. We must take it for ourselves. Given the number of parties who claim that they stand for a united Ireland and the widespread support for unity even while it is downplayed everywhere, is there any reason why a 32 county constituent assembly cannot be called to assert our democratic rights?”

So, SD believe the bourgeois democratic institutions of the Southern state can be overturned and replaced by a Constituent Assembly!  To answer their question – the reason why such an assembly cannot be called is that all the parties claiming to support a united Ireland don’t really mean it, and the mass of the population regard their bourgeois democratic institutions as legitimate and support them.  If the tiny number who support a constituent assembly attempted to turn their slogans into reality this vast majority would join in crushing them.

I have no idea how such a perspective could be defended from the charge of being ultra-left.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Socialist strategy – reply to a critic 1

In two recent posts I posed some questions about socialist strategy in the North of Ireland:

“What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

The answer provided in a response is summed up as follows:

“If the working class mobilises we will build a socialist alternative. If they do not we will have barbarism.  There is no third way.”

It must be obvious that such a reply is at a level of generality that simply doesn’t engage with the question.  For the question posed is how do socialists intervene to advance their politics; what strategy do they adopt to further working class consciousness and organisation?  Not wait until the working class catches up with the demands of certain socialists.  Either it does or it doesn’t isn’t an answer.

The view of my critic is that he is putting forward a revolutionary programme and I am not; so he says just before the quote above that:

“To search for the possibility of revolution we must widen our focus. Stormont is a rampart against the working class, so we must look to an all-Ireland perspective and to the actually existing struggles in Britain and Europe to build an alternative.”

The implication of this is to look away from the barrenness of the North of Ireland, and rather confirms the point of my question – that socialists must seek what purchase their politics have on reality within the North.  The reply says that we must look for revolution elsewhere, in the rest of Ireland, Britain and Europe.  In this respect, placing the problem within an all-Ireland perspective is a start and the comrades of Socialist Democracy (SD) might find it productive to consider and contribute to the debate carried out in the comments to another of my posts here.

In replying to this response, I want to cover three questions: the role of reforms in the SD programme, their characterisation of Sinn Fein, and an example of the damage done to their socialist politics through seeing everything through the prism of ‘anti-imperialism’.

Reforms

It is not clear to me that the comrades fully understand my argument, because some of what they say is a caricature, which conveniently allows deployment of seemingly convincing arguments that are beside the point.  This starts from the very first sentence, where I am accused arguing for a reformist movement.  The comrades are surely aware that a movement struggling for reforms can be led by revolutionaries; that revolutionaries are in favour of reforms, and of building movements that fight for them, and even if these movements are reformist.  This is the argument that I have put forward and at this general level I cannot see that they should disagree, although there is no sign that such an approach has informed their perspectives.

The author appeals to history in his denial of my argument that SD sees no room for reforms and is ultra-left, but it would have been more convincing if he had been able to appeal to what he had actually written.

In my post, I noted that Socialist Democracy’s programme for the NI Assembly election was a call “for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.”  I wrote that “obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any other objective than ending Stormont.”

This judgement by me of the SD position is supported by reading an earlier SD article, which finishes by declaring the following:

“The call “Smash Stormont” and the struggle for a 32 county workers’ republic is the only legitimate response that socialists can make. Without this call we have not taken the first step to proposing an alternative society based on the Irish working class.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx)

The response to my posts by SD doesn’t challenge the logic of my argument but claims that “Of course socialists should support movements for reform. But we should also be honest and address the weakness of stageism, of the left populist, “people power” approach and its companion in narrow trade union economism. Capitalism is coming to the end of days.”

The author appears to conflate reforms and the struggle for them with the Stalinist programme of stages, so perhaps it is no wonder he finds no role for reforms in the SD programme for the North of Ireland.  But then he states, in old-style biblical eschatological form, that “capitalism is coming to the end of days’, which calls into question the struggle for reforms anywhere on the planet!

When it comes to concrete examples of fighting for reforms Socialist Democracy’s response has been utterly dismissive.  Of the People before Profit (PbP) initiative to pass legislation in the Northern Assembly to remove anti-trade union legislation SD has previously written the following:

“The main example of a parliamentary and reformist approach to the local assembly was when Gerry Carroll and Eamon McCann drafted a bill to abolish anti-union laws in the North of Ireland. McCann went on to explain the rationale in some detail at a May Day demonstration. Union laws, he explained triumphantly, were a devolved matter. A local campaign could force the Assembly to abolish them and free the workers.”

“This is stupidity on a grand scale. Echoing the line of trade union propaganda, the unionists are seen as part of an undifferentiated elite who can be pressured by “people power” and Stormont as a neutral local assembly rather than as a sectarian and colonial chamber of imperialist puppets.”

“The nature of the DUP and the unionists as parties of the far right is ignored. As long as there is a unionist majority (essential for the institutions to survive) there is no parliamentary road to abolition of trade union legislation, which is in any case completely unused.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

In other words, or rather to extend its own words, there is no possibility of reforms while there is a unionist majority in Stormont.  While claiming that “all sorts of individual reforms may be possible under Stormont” Socialist Democracy sets out the argument above and also states that “it remains totally unclear what mechanism would bring about local reform.”

The author knows it is ultra-left to deny the fight for reforms but can’t help dismissing the possibility of it succeeding.  Even in relation to a fight against austerity, SD puts forward the “first task” as building “a movement to tear down the Stormont administration”. (article 30 May 2016)

But let’s take the anti-union law example quoted above – “the main example of a . . reformist approach”; even as described by Socialist Democracy, the initiative to remove anti-union laws was one that should have been supported, not summarily dismissed as “stupidity”.

People before Profit (PbP) were arguing for a campaign, not simply reliance on an Assembly vote.  Might not a campaign for a vote mobilise trade unionists?  Might it not put pressure on the trade union leaders to give it more support than they might wish?  And had it been successful, would it not have removed an excuse for trade union bureaucracy inaction?  There may have been all sorts of problems with the PbP proposals, including its campaign, but these are really irrelevant to the argument here because SD opposed it in principle.

Seeking to use the local Assembly to change the law does not automatically entail acceptance of it as anything other than a sectarian institution, as SD allege.  It simply means socialists don’t abstain just because the conditions in which they are compelled to fight are not ones that they would choose.

However, in formulation after formulation this is not the approach the SD comrades take and often their demands appear unpolluted by the reality of politics in the North of Ireland, which is dominated by sectarianism.

It is not dominated by any anti-imperialist struggle, however understood, but the SD perspective is that this must be the case, and reality must be made to conform to theory.  In my view, SD hasn’t adjusted to the defeat of this struggle, a defeat that happened many years ago and which it recognised, but which it has not digested and adapted to. In this respect, it displays similarities to the real republicans.

So, perhaps the demand for the removal of Stormont could be supported if it tallied with a popular movement, one that saw through its sectarian structures (as in the early 1970s); but there isn’t such a movement and SD knows there isn’t.  Yet it doesn’t appear to draw lessons from this for its strategic or tactical interventions.  As even they state themselves – “popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist.”

SD can see no role for workers in winning reforms.  Its response says that “we already know how individual reforms might come about”, but then allows the working class no role whatsoever, either in winning them or building a movement that could perhaps learn from any defeat.  Yet it still demands that workers smash the Northern State!

SD implies that fighting for reforms must involve a “reformist dilemma”, which means those seeking reform must support Stormont, but this is not necessarily the case.  As I noted in my original posts, fighting for reforms can expose the limits of potential reforms and the electoral forums within which they are fought for.  Socialist Democracy is aware of this, but at such an abstract level that it draws the wrong lesson that there is no point.

The intervention of SD in the elections was to put out a petition calling for the permanent closure of Stormont.  Who has the power to do this?  The British.  Is that who SD were appealing to?  If not, to whom?  If PbP put out a petition calling for an end to anti-trade union laws would SD support it, even though only the local Assembly could enact this?  Apparently not, but what’s the difference?  There is of course one obvious one, but it’s not one SD would want to draw attention to.

Perhaps the petition appeal was to Sinn Fein, or to its supporters, but if this was so it badly judged the mood of the latter and got the first totally wrong.  In fact, it’s hard to see the case for either of these explanations, given what SD has previously written about both, including in its reply that Sinn Fein is conciliatory towards unionism and argues that Stormont can reduce sectarianism.

PbP get it in the neck for placing no conditions on returning to Stormont but they would have looked pretty stupid if they had.  Putting forward permanent closure of Stormont as the key task for workers looks less and less persuasive the longer the temporary suspension lasts.

Imperialism and Ireland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last post Boffy alerted me to a debate he has had on imperialism, the last few comments of which brought up the question of Ireland and its relationship to imperialism, and it is on this I want to make a few remarks.

He asks – “Does Ireland today conform to the ideas portrayed in Lenin’s “Imperialism, of a colony? Has development in Ireland been held back, by foreign investment or has it been advanced?”

On the first question the answer is partly yes – at least the North-East of the country, Northern Ireland – is a colony.  It is a part of one country ruled by a larger foreign neighbour that has not been integrated into the larger conquering territory, witness the howls of rage at the DUP supporting a Tory Government when not the slightest notice is taken when this Party is lauded for peacemaking in Ireland by being in government.

A settler-colonial population has historically claimed superior social and political rights over the native population, including most importantly, the claim that it needs a separate state because the native Catholic Irish cannot be trusted not to discriminate against Protestants the way Unionist Protestants have discriminated against them.

Sectarian social and political practices have been carried out that have been variously allowed, sanctioned and enforced by the British rulers.  When resistance to this erupted, the British State employed its superior force, armed the local settler colonial population and facilitated some of the worst sectarian atrocities by paramilitary thugs based in this population.  In the worst period thousands of Catholics moved in order to escape potential pogroms.

Even today the marking of territorial conquest is expressed through segregated residential areas with flags flown and footpaths painted to denote sectarian control.

A lot of this is widely recognised but the label colony is avoided in order to legitimise the role of the British, the role of the colonialists and the role of the erstwhile resistance to this British rule which has now accepted the partitionist framework.  It is also less easily appreciated because the native population are white West Europeans and could not have been, and generally have not been, subject to the barbarity of darker skinned native populations in other parts of the world.  The Great Famine, an Gorta Mór, is a major exception.

An English leftist, working for a while in Belfast in the 1980s and attending a meeting, noted that the ‘war’ that was taking place was indeed ‘low intensity’ and comparatively few people had or were being killed.  It was noted by a comrade of mine that while this was true the conflict was remarkably prolonged and protracted.  The two are undoubtedly related, but it is also the case that the North of Ireland is a small place and scaled up the scope of the violence looks less meagre.

But for all the reasons that the North is a colony the Southern Irish state is not.  It is as independent a state as any small Irish state could be.  As I have noted before, the last trappings of foreign British rule, including the oath of allegiance to the British monarchy and ownership by Britain of certain Irish “treaty’ ports, is history.

Some ‘anti-imperialists’ reject this level of independence and want a ‘real’ independent Irish State, one that can only come from being what is called a Workers’ Republic.  In fact, behind this ideal of ‘real’ independence lies Stalinist notions of state socialism, which involves nationalist politics and nationalisation, in other words it is much more likely to involve state capitalism.

What it isn’t is socialism and a Workers’ Republic.  It’s also utopian because there can be no independence, in the sense of a self-determining autonomy, for an Irish State within globalised capitalism.  It also has no support, as the tiny level of support for the Irish State leaving the EU demonstrates.  As for a real Workers’ Republic, it will enjoy much greater integration and unity with its neighbours than the current Irish State, so if you’re supporting socialism in order to be a ‘real anti-imperialist’ and have ‘real independence’ you’re backing the wrong horse.

These considerations matter for the approach of Irish socialists to the fight for socialism.  Whoever thinks that anti-imperialism is the banner under which to organise the whole Irish working class has to explain what national liberation content there is for Southern workers who face their own state and not a British one.  On this score, the answer to Boffy’s second question – “Has development in Ireland been held back, by foreign investment or has it been advanced?” – is that it has been advanced.

In the debate, Phil remarks that “In Ireland the pro-Moscow Sticks (Workers Party) supported imperialist investment for precisely the reasons you give. But the choice was not imperialist investment or no investment. Completely missing from that approach is the overthrow of capitalism. Not waiting until some magical figure of output has been reached and the industrial working class has grown to be a certain percentage of the population. All thanks to imperialism.”

Ignoring the irrelevant flourish of the last two sentences, and the fact that we are nowhere near approaching socialist revolution in Ireland, as a real, concrete and practical proposal in the here and now, in the sentence before these, Phil will know that it’s not just the Workers’ Party that supports multinational investment in Ireland – everybody does!

As the political joke goes, the difference between the Official Republicans and the Provisionals is merely a matter of timing; Sinn Fein do not now oppose this investment.  And neither does the social-democratic left, in the guise of the small self-proclaimed Marxist organisations, who signal their acceptance of this investment by proposing only that the low corporate taxation especially set to attract this investment actually is 12.5%; that the tax rate does what it says on the tin and is not lower than this headline rate.

The real question at issue is whether the struggle for socialism must be prosecuted under the banner of national liberation.  Those who say yes have taken last years’ centenary anniversary of the founding blow for national liberation as the guide for future action.  As I pointed out in a series of posts beginning with this one, the 1916 Rising did not itself pose a solution to the division of Ireland and neither has any nationalist or republican struggle since.

A purely democratic struggle or revolution could on paper offer a solution to the undemocratic abomination that is partition and the sectarianism that passes both for the problem and the solution in the North.  A truly democratic platform would be enough to indict the colonial Northern state but what would it offer to Southern workers.  Even a classic capitalist democracy in Ireland would destroy sectarianism and destroy the power of reactionary unionism but it would offer little to Southern workers.

What is required in Ireland therefore is the strengthening of the working class, and the prominence today of foreign capital, and the country’s history and current reality of foreign state intervention, should make it blindingly obvious that the alternative is not any sort of nationalism, under the banner of ‘anti-imperialism’ or not, but the international unity of Irish workers with their class brothers and sisters across Europe.  The idea that Irish workers will overthrow Irish capitalism because they want to get rid of foreign imperialism is utter nonsense.  Southern workers won’t go to war to fight British imperialism in the North and they won’t go to war to drive out multinational companies.

The stages involved in increasing the strength of the Irish working class include building stronger and more active trade unions; cooperative production that visibly heralds the alternative to capitalism, and a working-class party that expresses the best impulses to political independence among Irish workers, no matter how under-developed that may currently be.  It also means clarity on the nature of Irish reality and the lessons to be learnt from the history of the Irish and international socialist movement.

The DUP-Tory marriage – can it be that bad?

Those of us on this side of the Irish Sea have looked on with a wry smile at the sudden discovery by many in Britain that the Democratic Unionist Party is ant-women and anti-gay.

Well no shit Sherlock!

It has also been pointed out that it is many other things as well.  So let’s hear it all from the horse’s mouth:

Edwin Poots MLA on creationism –

“My view on the earth is that it’s a young earth. My view is [it was created in] 4000 BC.”

Edwin Poots MLA on the occasion of Arlene Foster becoming leader of the DUP –

“Her most important job is wife, mother and daughter.”

Ian Paisley Jr MP On LGBT people –

“I am pretty repulsed  by gay and lesbianism. I think it is wrong. I think that those people harm themselves and – without caring about it – harm society. That doesn’t mean to say that I hate them – I mean, I hate what they do.”

Peter Robinson MP, ex-leader of the DUP and First Minister of N. Ireland –

“It wasn’t Iris Robinson [his wife] who determined that homosexuality was an abomination, it was the Almighty.”

Iris Robinson former DUP MP –

“There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children.  I cannot think of anything more sickening than a child being abused. It is comparable to the act of homosexuality. I think they are all comparable. I feel totally repulsed by both.”

Peter Robinson MP, ex-leader of the DUP and First Minister of N. Ireland on Muslims –

“I’ll be quite honest, I wouldn’t trust them in terms of those who have been involved in terrorist activities. I wouldn’t trust them if they are devoted to Sharia Law. I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance. Would I trust them to go down to the shops for me, yes I would, would I trust them to do day-to-day activities… there is no reason why you wouldn’t….Why are you so concerned about Muslims and not poor people like me.”

And let us not forget, this Party doesn’t primarily exist to bash gays or women or Muslims, its prime raison d’être is to secure and promote sectarian rights against Catholics, but how often is that getting a mention?

What matters here is not just the justified opposition of many in Britain that they will be governed at the whim of the DUP but that the participation of the DUP in government in the North of Ireland is otherwise upheld as a heroic success, to be celebrated, re-packaged and sold around the world wherever there is unfortunate conflict.  One only has to recall the eulogies to the sectarian monster Ian Paisley, who created this band of bigots, to marvel at British liberal opinion that now recoils at their contamination by political Neanderthals who don’t believe in the existence of the real ones.  The DUP don’t suddenly become arch-bigots when they get off the plane at Heathrow.

Does it not therefore cause some to stop and consider just what type of political slum it is that has been created by partition that sees the DUP in Government in Belfast as the solution?  Just what on earth is the question that makes this shower the answer?  And is it not therefore the case that, just as blame for the tragedy at Grenfell Tower must be laid at the door of the landlord and all those who allowed it happen and who created the conditions for it to happen, so must the blame for the rotten state of the North of Ireland also lie at the door of the landlord?

I’ll give just three examples of how rotten this state is, all taken from one single issue of the local ‘Irish News’ published on Saturday:

  1. The loyalist paramilitary group the UDA has been blamed for stealing thousands of wooden pallets that were being stored by Belfast City Council, fearing that it might not get access to their use for the annual bonfires, after the council came under pressure to explain why it was storing them for the annual bigot-fest. Among the pallets were those stolen from a logistics firm, meaning the Council could be accused of handling stolen goods.  How handy then that they have been stolen again!
  2. Loyalist paramilitary flags have been placed in a mixed religion housing development, specially created to be free of all sectarianism. Some people have complained about this but recently elected local DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly, who had received the public endorsement during the election of loyalist paramilitary groups the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando, has said that she has spoken to 100 households in the development and most don’t want to create “a fuss”.  Good of her to check up on them.  I’m sure her paramilitary backers will be pleased that their decorations should not cause a fuss.
  3. Loyalist paramilitary Gary Haggarty, who worked as a police informer, pleaded guilty to 200 terrorist charges including 5 counts of murder, 5 of attempted murder, four counts of kidnap, six counts of false imprisonment, six of hijacking etc. etc. but is expected to be released from custody in September.  Although Haggarty has pointed to two police special branch officers who worked with him, no one expects any case against them to go anywhere, mainly because no one expects a case.

So why should the DUP supporting the Tories in London be worse than their being in office in Belfast?

The deal to get their support for Theresa May’s battered caravan sets out their support for Brexit and for all major Tory legislation.  It promises £1 billion of extra money for the North of Ireland, sparking outrage from other parts of the UK, although this will hardly solve the pressing problems that this part of Ireland suffers from.  Half of it will cover the cost of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, in which the DUP created a scheme to allow participants, disproportionately it would appear rural supporters of the DUP, to burn wooden pellets and get £1.60 for every £1 spent!

The health service in the North of Ireland has a deficit of perhaps £400 million so the £350m in the deal for health, £50m of which is also to cover education, £10m of which is spread over 5 years, while the balance is spread over 2 years, will hardly be a solution.  The deal talks of hastening devolution of corporation tax, so it can be cut, and of ‘Enterprise Zones’ that promise (threaten?) even further corporate largesse.  VAT and Air Passenger Duty is also mentioned but it is likely they will await the first crisis and any updating of the deal before they are implemented.

Much has been made of the deal threatening the peace process and Good Friday Agreement, but only the nodding heads of the chattering classes believes the British Government is neutral between those supporting its rule in Ireland and those claiming to oppose it.  However, this doesn’t mean that the deal has no potential political repercussions.

Much trumpeted is the extension of the Armed Forces Covenant. This will involve priority in housing allocation and health provision to previous members of the British Armed Forces, which presumably includes the now disbanded Ulster Defence Regiment, sometimes referred to as Ulster’s Disreputable Rogues, and a glaring example of putting guns into the hands of loyalists legally.

It illustrates the criminal stupidity and mendacity of the Tory Party that allocation of public services could be carried out on grounds other than need, in a way that will disproportionately benefit one religious section of the population, those having once served in the UDR for example being only 3% Catholic.  Even those with a cursory familiarity with Irish history will know that the outbreak of civil disobedience in the 1960s was sparked by opposition to sectarian allocation of housing

In 1968 a Nationalist MP at Stormont, and two local men occupied a house in Caledon, County Tyrone, in protest over the allocation of the house by the local council to a nineteen-year-old unmarried Protestant, who was the secretary of a local unionist politician, while a Catholic family with three young children had recently been evicted from the house next door.

Some innocents have asked why Sinn Fein is not being asked to take its seats in Westminster to reduce this DUP leverage.  Jeremy Corbyn smiled purposely to Andrew Marr when he was asked about this question on Marr’s TV show, referring knowingly to “Irish history.”  On ‘The Guardian’ web site there is a video of Owen Jones and Frankie Boyle laughing at the very idea that Sinn Fein would break its abstentionism at Westminster in order to do some good.

No, Sinn Fein and its shibboleths, venerated by Irish history, itself a history of righteousness, cannot be called to account for its primitive and reactionary policy because a certain respect must be given to obscurantist nationalist positions, rather like exaggerated respect must be given to nonsense if it is spouted as part of a religion.

Sinn Fein would rather break its abstentionism in relation to the Dail, “the worst parliament in the developed world”, as one commentator recently put it, whose practices were almost considered similar to “anthropological studies” involving “quaint tribal practices” to which OECD observers were “unable entirely to conceal their bafflement and revulsion . . . a scarcely contained incredulity.”

Sinn Fein is also gagging to re-take its place at Stormont, that parliament on the hill, symbolic of decades of sectarian gerrymandering and discrimination, which these days now requires participants’ designation as Orange or Green in order to have the fullest powers to pass or stymie legislation.  What sort of principle lies behind abstentionism, that allows one to enter coalition with the DUP in a sectarian Assembly but forbids putting in peril the rotten lash-up of the DUP with the Tories?  It’s hardly a hypocrisy too far.

How ironic that Sinn Fein lambasted non-attendance at Westminster in its election propaganda.

 

Rather than laugh knowingly Sinn Fein should be excoriated for its reactionary stance.

 

Nothing in this rotten marriage of convenience bodes well for the future.  It is therefore fervently to be hoped that the divorce comes very, very soon.

Socialists and the elections in the North of Ireland – part 2

History has decisively proved that simple removal of Stormont did not entail a move to a united Ireland and that no such move was possible within the North itself.  The downfall of Stormont left a strategic gap that was filled by IRA claims that it could drive the British out of Ireland by sheer will and its armed struggle.

From then on, the struggle could go nowhere with such a view and nowhere is where it went.  While civil rights protest, and wider Catholic grievance and mobilization could bring Stormont down it could not implement its own solution while a struggle was waged solely in the North, even if it enjoyed Southern sympathy.  Only within a wider social movement for change could a progressive solution be imposed against unionist and British state opposition but this is still not even yet a practical proposition.

In terms of the reformability of the North it must also be obvious that the Stormont of today is not the Stormont of 1972.  The idea that Catholics and nationalists could be in office was incredible in 1972 yet today Sinn Fein is in office.  It is therefore equally obvious that you cannot re-run the story line again and expect the downfall of Stormont to be the same step forward that it was in 1972, even if the first time this step forward made evident the crisis in perspective for the next step.

Today Catholics and nationalists are not demanding the downfall of Stormont but that Sinn Fein stick it up to the unionists and demand equality within it.  Unfortunately, the equality demanded is not that of civil rights, which started the whole struggle off, but of communal sectarian rights which socialists must oppose.

The nature of the counter-revolution in Northern Ireland (if it can be put that way) is that the struggle for unity around civil rights has been corrupted to one of sectarian rights with most people oblivious to the difference.  Calls for a Workers’ Republic in such a situation takes us no step forward in the real world unless it signals not an end-point but a process to get us there – just as for Marx communism was not a state of things but a movement that abolished the present state of things.*  So what then is this movement given today’s conditions and circumstances and how will it abolish the present state of things from the premises currently given?

Despite the experience of incompetence, corruption and general venality there is little demand for the downfall of Stormont except from those who say they prefer Direct rule from a British state with a reputation for some minimal probity and competence (that will suffer greatly from Brexit).  The only other constituency is that which has been dismissed as dissident republicanism, which despite decades of Provisional betrayal of the traditional republican programme cannot convince anyone, including itself, that it can do anything other than repeat the failure of the Provos.

The task of socialists in elections therefore is to begin, and we really are only at the beginning, to break down the sectarian solidarity, not by thinking we could simply remove the mock-Parliament that oversees it but by building a movement that goes through Stormont in order to destroy it.  If this much experience of sectarian corruption and its baleful effects that we have endured is not enough to expose it and the uselessness to workers of sectarianism then it is unfortunately the case that we need to experience more of it, and we will, and crucially to have a socialist presence that can expose it and present a concrete alternative.  And by concrete I obviously mean more than slogans – slogans are easy and if sectarian division was amenable to easy slogans we wouldn’t still be faced by its dominance.

So pretending that workers are already virtually united is as barren as the view that, even though they aren’t, a direct struggle for state power and creation of their own Republic is a concrete alternative.  If it is not, then socialists are clearly fighting to build a working class movement not win this movement to revolutionary politics as if this were Russia 1917 or Germany 1918 or Spain in the 1930s.  If we are faced with the task of building this labour movement then we can only be in the position of seeking reforms since only the working class through its mass movement can achieve a social revolution.

There are two questions to consider at this point as a possible objection to what I have just said.  First, while social revolution can only be carried out by the working class acting as a class, political revolutions that do not require the overthrow of capitalism obviously can be carried out by movements that aren’t socialist. Most political revolutions of the last couple of hundred years have not been working class or socialist.  Such non-socialist revolutions can be progressive if they place the working class in a better position to fight for its own interests, if for example they increase the scope and capacity for workers to organise.

For a number of reasons a political revolution that creates an independent Irish democratic Republic (that is still capitalist) is unlikely to happen.  First, no significant class or political force is interested in carrying it out and the same applies to the international configuration of classes and forces that will be decisive for political and social change in Ireland.  Those who think that struggle for such a democratic revolution will travel towards a socialist one in some version of revolution that keeps going are wrong.  The social revolution is not something the working class will stumble upon in the course of seeking something much more limited.

The second point is that fighting to create an independent working class movement that fights for reforms that are designed primarily to strengthen itself is itself a revolutionary approach.  What is reformist is not seeking to strengthen the working class movement through smaller or greater steps or leaps but rather to seek to advance its cause through reliance on the capitalist state through nationalisation or other state intervention, or confusing socialism with left-wing MPs and TDs in or out of governmental office.

All this is very general and presents the socialist alternative at a very high level of principles which should guide more concrete and specific proposals.  However, even at this high level it is already clear that this approach differs from that practiced by the Irish left.

To make this alternative more specific is not a question of a set of proposals that guarantee growth of the left.  Ultimately a party of the working class cannot rise any higher than the working class itself.  The working class party is only such if it is part of the working class, yet both preponderant left approaches are not about how this working class can be made stronger but assume that it just has to be led differently.

But the fact that working people in the North of Ireland vote massively for sectarian based parties is not simply a question of leadership but reflects the divisions in society which mean that class cleavage is not decisive to the everyday experience that shapes their political consciousness. How this is changed is the problem and only the self-activity of working people themselves is capable of accomplishing this task – the emancipation of the working class is a task for the working class itself and socialists can only help to lead such a process by being leaders in rebuilding the labour movement to become the political representative of the class as a whole.

Since elections in themselves are a small part of working class experience, though play a rather larger role in their experience of politics, it is outside elections that the working class alternative will be built.  In elections, you only reap what you have sown.  As Engels put it “universal suffrage is the gauge of the maturity of the working class.   It cannot and never will be anything more in the present-day state.”  In other words, it will not be the road to socialism, and the generally pitiful votes for self-declared socialist candidates shows how far to maturity it has to go.  Facing this reality is the first step to changing it.  Pretending that either it is anything other than badly divided or that it can be presented with the task of overthrowing the state is to fail to take that step.

 

*“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

Back to part 1

Socialist and the elections in the North of Ireland part 1

It is often argued  in parts of the Irish and British left that the Northern Ireland state is irreformable.  Not in the sense that all capitalist states cannot be reformed to become instruments of working class rule, but in the sense that it is irredeemably sectarian and can never become a ‘normal’ capitalist democracy in which religious division is not primary.

One demonstration of the validity of such a view is the recent scandal over the Renewable Heat Incentive, which saw such levels of incompetence, waste and strong indicators of corruption that resignation by the responsible minister would have been inevitable in normal circumstances.  The attempts at denial of responsibility, to blame others and to prevent exposure of the facts would on their own have sunk any minister in Britain and even in the Southern Irish State, which has a higher bar when it comes to imposing some accountability on politicians for scandalous behaviour.

Instead the relevant minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster, sailed on with impunity, and with such bad grace and arrogance that even this by itself would have sunk a political career in Britain.  However, by playing the sectarian card, the Democratic Unionist Party remained the largest party (just) in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly election, saw its vote actually increase and its share of the vote decline by only just over 1%.

Sinn Fein, which had shown itself perfectly content with what the DUP had been getting up to, had opposed early closure of the scheme and opposed a public inquiry, yet saw its vote increase significantly.  It did this by playing the victim and claiming that it was standing up to unionist arrogance and lack of respect.

Despite their role in facilitating the scandal and accepting their second-class role for many years this tactic proved successful, even though it now leaves them with the knowledge that their past ten years of playing second fiddle to unionism is vehemently opposed by much of their support.  This leaves them exposed in returning to their preference for continuing the power-sharing arrangements, with only some minimal unionist commitment to implement the deals already agreed years ago as their cover for doing so.

So, what we have is perhaps the ultimate demonstration of the validity of the claim that the Northern state is sectarian to the core – the most obvious incompetence, arrogance and corruption is validated by the electorate, motivated not by ignorance of the issues surrounding the scandal, but by the desire not to be outdone by the other side of the sectarian divide.

So, the most vocal and determined defenders of sectarian rights are rewarded because the existing arrangements appear only to allow the allocation of resources according to sectarian criteria. This sectarian distribution of resources, in so far as it is under the control of the local administration, is applied with euphemisms such as equality, respect for tradition and for local community wishes.

What this means in reality is that equality is equality of sectarian division and respect is demanded for sectarian traditions, which is labelled ‘culture’ in order to legitimise division.  The involvement of local sectarian gangsters in “community work” is promoted and defended, even when genuine community representatives oppose paramilitary involvement.  While millions of pounds are handed out to associates in ‘green’ schemes that incentivise burning wood 24/7 and millions are spent on Orange halls and other organisations devoted to sectarianism, millions set aside for non-sectarian education are unspent precisely because it is non-sectarian. Such is the record of the Stormont parties after what they called a “Fresh Start”.

What approach socialists should take in a society in which the working class is so divided and dominated by reactionary ideas is obviously a source of division within the socialist movement itself and could hardly be otherwise.  What sort of purchase on reality can socialists have if their politics is based on the self-emancipation of the working class when this working class is largely in hoc to thoroughly reactionary ideas?

One approach is to deny this reality of sectarian division and pretend it either doesn’t exist or is not nearly as bad as it obviously is.  This leads to glossing over the majority of Protestant workers’ allegiance to reactionary royalist parties which have a history of sectarianism that would be anathema if it existed in Britain.  These unionist parties are to the right of UKIP, and then some.

In order to substantiate claims that workers’ unity is possible today this approach looks back and offers episodes of workers unity around economic issues in the past, such as the 1907 Belfast strike and the outdoor relief strike in 1932, that are, well, not exactly recent.

More recently we have had claims that large pro-peace demonstrations and rallies were also expressions of the working class, ignoring their largely anti-republican character or determination to show balance even when it was loyalists carrying out the preponderance of violent attacks.  What these demonstrations never, ever did was challenge state collusion with loyalists or point the finger at the state itself.  These rallies thereby became not an expression of any specifically working class view but of a general weariness with violence that was non-class and anti-political, except in endorsing the existing state order by default, when it was not doing so explicitly.

A second approach is to substitute a different goal than socialism, that can be considered a stepping stone to it, but which allows socialists to ally with republicans in the objective of destroying the sectarian state.  The demand for a united Ireland is therefore seen as a legitimate goal, in that it would allow much more favourable grounds to establish the workers’ unity across the island and further afield that is necessary for socialism.

The obvious problem with this is that the majority of Protestant workers in the North are opposed to this and would fight it.  The first tendency that glosses over division legitimates this fight by claiming it is simply opposition to a capitalist united Ireland, implying strongly that it is something progressive and as if another type of united Ireland is preferred, when it is in fact motivated mainly be sectarianism.

For the second socialist tendency, when the republican movement opposed British rule it was possible to justify some sort of defence of it, while making many criticisms of its politics and methods. However, when Sinn Fein abandoned opposition to the British state, endorsed partition and established itself as the main party for Catholic rights, it was no longer possible to give any support to it and it became necessary to see its defeat.

Its support for the rule of a State that had violently suppressed democratic rights and its espousal of communal sectarian rights as if they were democratic rights meant that socialists could no longer regard it as having a progressive content to its politics, a view confirmed by its sectarian practices while in office and its implementation of austerity.

The first socialist tendency sees the possibility of reforms that favour workers within the Northern State while the second sees no possibility for meaningful reforms.  In the recent election, the former was represented by two front organisations People before Profit controlled by the Socialist Workers Party and the Cross-Community Labour Alternative controlled by the Socialist Party.   I voted for the former in the recent Assembly election.

An example of the latter is Socialist Democracy, which called in the assembly election for no return to Stormont and its permanent closure, and also for a 32 county Workers’ Republic.  Obviously, the latter implies no room for reform in the North, with the immediate task being to destroy the Northern representative institution as a prelude to ending partition.  If this is the immediate objective then it can only mean any less radical reforms are pointless or just not possible and no social or political movement should be built for any different objective than ending Stormont.

I should say right away that I don’t think this view correct.  Reforms to the capitalist state are possible in Northern Ireland even if these can often be the subject of sectarian opposition or raise sectarian dispute in their implementation.  This is obviously true because such reforms are perfectly compatible with capitalism and its state, indeed the state is required to implement them.

The first socialist tendency equates this with steps towards socialism, if not the very growing embodiment of socialism itself, whereas my own view is that they simply create better grounds for workers to challenge capitalism while providing some minimum protection to them in the meantime.  Social democratic reforms are possible without social revolution because they do not threaten capitalism.  The first socialist tendency is essentially a social-democratic one, regardless of claims to Marxism.

The view that reforms in the Northern Irish state are impossible is obviously untrue because the welfare state was implemented in the North of Ireland despite unionist rule and despite its sectarian disfigurement, most evident in the provision of housing.  It is obvious that water charges were prevented because of their widespread unpopularity and just as obvious that abortion rights in Northern Ireland should be fought for now, with the added twist that this unites women and progressive workers against the most egregious bigots on both sides.  Religious conservatism and its relationship to sectarian bigotry is a weakness of the Northern State and not a strength.  The previous demand for civil rights demonstrated in spades the fragility for the state when faced with the demand for reforms that were unobjectionable elsewhere.

It is equally obvious that we should oppose sectarianism in all its forms, including opposition to state funding of sectarian organisations like the Orange Order and opposition to church involvement in the provision of state services, including schools and hospitals.

To fail to fight for reform is the worst sort of ultra-leftism that is every bit as divorced from reality as the belief that workers in the North are more or less ready to drop sectarianism and rally to socialism.  Indeed, if it was really believed that no reforms were possible then fighting for them would equally be a frontal assault on the state, or at least lead to one in rapid order.

The demand for the permanent closure of Stormont is no doubt partially based on a reading of past history in which the demand for the destruction of Stormont was a demand for the closure of an exclusively unionist instrument of oppression and repression, an oppression that would be likely to continue if Stormont continued.  There was zero possibility of using it in any way to soften this repression or mobilise against it and it was argued that its downfall would open up the question of alternative political arrangements that many republicans and socialists hoped would include a united Ireland.

Forward to part 2