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