How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 2

Roy-Keane-as-Braveheart-Paddy-Power-3When Irish unionists claim rights to self-determination history has shown that this is not a claim for equality but a claim on behalf of sectarian supremacy – a claim to the right to inequality.

But, the question can be put, if socialists regard self-determination as a means to facilitate the voluntary unity of nationalities surely a united Ireland will itself involve the forcible suppression of Protestants and of Protestant workers?  This would mean that while Irish unionism has no legitimacy the alternative of a united Ireland is also not one that socialists can support?

Some on the Left have stopped there, accepted this, and said that the only solution to the question of democratic national rights in Ireland is therefore socialism.  This tends to come from those for whom every thorny problem is solved by the invocation of socialism.

Workers’ opposition to mass immigration? A socialist society with full employment, great public services and housing would deal with objections.  Economic crises, with periodic mass unemployment and cuts in living standards? A socialist society!  Women’s oppression and racism? Socialism is the answer.  Workers’ passivity in the face of their right wing leaders’ betrayals?  A revolutionary party with a socialist alternative.  Sectarian division?  Workers unity around a socialist programme!

Such solutions are not so much an answer to a specific problem as an invocation that the problem would simply go away if it were made not to exist. It invokes an alternative reality and not an alternative set of policies to get there.  It says that the problems and challenges faced by workers are solved by socialism when in fact the reality is the reverse – socialism is created by workers.

This means working people being persuaded and organised to present answers to all these different questions, not invoking an idealist formula disembodied from those whose conscious actions alone can bring them about.  And the only people who can do this are working people themselves, with those who are socialists attempting to advance this process.

In the case of Ireland, the point of opposing self-determination for the Protestant Irish in the North is that such a claim is not compatible with workers’ interests.  It is not an invitation to violently impose a united Ireland.  Its purpose is to explain that the claiming of such rights is reactionary.  It is meant to identify unionist and loyalist ideas and movements as right wing by virtue of the demands they hold most dear.  In this sense the demand for a united Ireland is not one taken up despite the Protestant population but because of it, because it is they who are most saturated with reactionary sectarian and imperialistic ideology.

Treating it as a sanction to pursue an armed struggle against the wishes of the artificial majority in the Northern State is part of the Irish republican liberal understanding that there are rights which, if they exist, should be exercised regardless of any considerations of the reality in which they are supposed to be grounded.

This means for example that armed struggle by republicans is justified by the principle of the right of the oppressed to fight their oppressors by any means necessary, without stopping to ask ‘by any means necessary to achieve what?’  It means rights asserted as abstract principles without regard to efficacy or morality.

Socialism on the other hand is based on workers’ interests and needs grounded in the world they live in and not of abstractions that efface these needs and interests.

Opposition to Scottish independence by socialists can therefore only respond with bemusement to nationalist claims that every other country to achieve ‘independence’ has not wanted to go back, so that it can’t therefore be such a bad idea.

Well how many of these countries are really independent, of the requirements and pressures of capitalist globalisation for example?  How many of the workers in these countries have had their basic needs and interests resolved by the ‘independence’ of the countries they live in?  In what way does the principle of separation of itself address these problems; meaning have these nationalists really considered the alternatives; meaning also that if they have, this particular argument is not really one of principle at all.

The nationalists who claim that there are 200 or so nation states in the world – why has Scotland to be different – might want to ask how this world of nation states has fared in the twentieth century and whether it has been such a good way to order the world’s affairs.  Or have two world wars taught nothing?  Perhaps a look at the character of many of these states might make one think twice that this model is one to emulate.

When it comes to the demand for a united Ireland such a demand is both abstract and unrealistic outside of its insertion into a social and political struggle that understands it, not as the demand for a new Irish capitalist state, but as a means of reducing division; including by rejecting sectarian claims to state legitimacy and power by the Protestant population and rejecting the intervention of the British state to uphold such claims.

But it also means rejection of all the other ways in which division is imposed, including sectarian organisation of education and other state services both North and South, religious imposition of restrictions on women’s rights, sectarian employment practices, sectarian political arrangements such as Stormont and state sponsorship of armed sectarian paramilitary outfits.

It means building alternative centres of working class identification and power including a non-sectarian and anti-sectarian labour movement, trade unions and political parties, democratic campaigns, and workers cooperatives where workers livelihoods directly depend on their working together.

This socialist agenda is light years from nationalist answers. By understanding this workers might be able to see that the arguments of nationalists, their claims for rights that do nothing for workers, and their claims to address grievances which are either spurious or actually derive from class oppression are false.

concluded

How can you support a united Ireland and not support Scottish independence? Part 1

Celtic snp2_310902033This week I had a conversation arising out of Jeremy Corbyn’s interview in the Andrew Marr show on the BBC.  Like others I have spoken to who saw it I can’t remember ever making a point of watching until I knew it featured this interview.

The basic issue that arose was how Corbyn could claim to support a united Ireland but oppose Scottish independence.  Surely if you support the independence of one you should support it for the other?

Given that I agree with Corbyn I answered this question by pointing out that in both cases we were talking about removing borders (or stopping them being erected) and thereby preventing barriers to unity.

Through a united Ireland the unity of Irish people would be advanced, and by opposing the separation of Scotland from England and Wales you would support the unity of British people.  Since unity of the working class irrespective of nationality is a basic socialist principle it would require some argument to trump it.  None has been advanced for Scottish separation that isn’t either factually incorrect (like Scotland is an oppressed nation) or exceedingly weak (it would also be good for the English!).

An obvious response would be – does that mean you are also in favour of unity of Britain and Ireland?   And the answer is yes.  Provided the unity was one of equals, then there could be no objection to political arrangements that would further the erosion of national division and increase the grounds for united action by the working classes of the nationalities involved – English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish.  Previous unity of the islands involved British imperialist domination that was rejected by the majority of the Irish people and history demonstrated that no unity of the peoples was possible under these conditions, at that time at least. As I pointed out in this discussion – I am in favour of a united Europe.

The independence of Ireland has not been an over-riding principle for socialists and this is something that divides us from republicans, including those describing themselves as socialist republicans, or more bizarrely, republican socialists, whose socialism is in reality a variety of republicanism.  So much so that their socialism is not a means to overcome national division but a means of emphasising their nationalism: ensuring what they believe will be effective independence as opposed to nominal independence under a neo-colonial yoke.

What matters to socialists therefore is the unity of people, particularly of the working class, which is the bearer of a new socialist society, and not particularly the unity of state formations.  This is why socialists support self-determination so that unity is the voluntary unity required to overcome national divisions and not the forced unity of foreign rule and occupation.

As I have said before the absence of violent repression by English armed forces in Scotland stands in stark contrast to British repression in Ireland.  So while socialists support self-determination for Scotland we believe it should be exercised by continuing voluntary unity with the rest of Britain.  That the majority of Scottish people decided this in the referendum is therefore to be welcomed.

But if this is the case why do I support the unity of the Northern and Southern Irish states when quite clearly the majority in the north do not favour unity with the south?  Surely that would involve the coerced unity that you have just said you oppose?

Let’s leave aside for the purposes of this argument that unlike the Scots the population of Northern Ireland is not a nation and therefore not subject to the right of self-determination.  Leave aside also the argument that even if we restrict ourselves to the Protestant population it too, while being an identifiable people, are also not a nation and any purported right to self-determination on their behalf is transparently a means of frustrating the right to self-determination of the Irish people as a whole.

We’ll also ignore the historical fact that any declared separateness of the Ulster Protestants is inaccurate because it does not refer to Ulster but a truncated part of it and did not seem to arise when the whole of the island was ruled by Britain, when the Protestant population in the North was quite happy to consider itself Irish, the specifically ‘loyal’ part of the nation.

It’s much harder to put aside the coerced separation of partition and the continual violence needed to maintain it even if this is usually, but not always, ‘merely’ in the form of a threat to the majority of the Irish people residing south of the border.

We will however also ignore the visceral opposition to considering themselves Irish that some Northern Protestants express when the idea of a united Ireland is proposed.  Down this road leads capitulation to the most deranged bigotry – I recall being told by my father that my uncle refused to eat off a white plate with a green trim in a bed and breakfast in Blackpool, such was his sectarian impulses.  He even apparently showed some ambivalence about supporting the Northern Ireland football team because they played in green – much better the red, white and blue of Linfield and Rangers.

While it is of no interest of socialists to impose national identities on peoples against their will it is necessary for such identities to have some grounding in reality to be considered seriously by everyone else.

On this basis however it might seem that Irish Protestants in the northern state have some grounds to claim separate political rights since they obviously are in some senses a separate people.  It might appear that it doesn’t matter whether this is a nationality, defined as ‘Northern Irish’ or as simply British inhabitants of part of Ireland, or both.

What matters however again is the objective basis for claiming rights to self-determination because some of the argumentation above is really beside the point.

And the point is that (some) Irish Protestants have been provided with what they can consider self-determination, exercised as unity under the British state, which they chose to participate in through rampant and systematic sectarian discrimination; itself reflecting the objective fact that their claims for national status were based primarily on sectarian self-identification as a colonial population in what they considered, when it suited them, was (26/32 of) a foreign country.

Since for socialists national rights are democratic rights, which are reactionary if without democratic content, it would appear that the right to self-determination of the Irish/Ulster Protestants or Northern Ireland, however one wants to put it, is a reactionary demand that cannot be supported.  And it cannot be supported because not only does it not facilitate the unity of peoples but it furthers their disunity along sectarian grounds, plus the division that arises from living in two separate Irish states.  The violent and sectarian history of this self-determination is cast iron proof of the thoroughly reactionary nature of Irish unionism.

The UK general election part 3: sectarianism and democracy

SF 1 downloadIn the final post on the UK general election I want to look at the results from my own little polity and the political slum that is Northern Ireland.  Like all slums the blame for its condition lies with the landlord, the British state.  As usual all the tenants hope and expect that the landlord will clean it up. But it never does.

There the analogy should rest.  The most recent election was notable for what the front page of the Northern nationalist paper, ‘The Irish News’, described as ‘Nationalists turn away from the polls’.  Their parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, collected 38.4% of the vote while the DUP and Ulster Unionists captured 41.7%.  The latter figure does not include the various other unionist parties such as Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP which brings the unionist total to 46.6%. If we include the Alliance Party, which is a unionist party in all but name, the unionist vote was 55.2%.

The message?  There isn’t going to be a United Ireland any time soon.  The Sinn Fein vote went down slightly by 1% even while the SDLP vote declined by 2.6% and it lost the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, not the way they wanted to enter into the historic hundredth anniversary of the 1916 rising.  ‘The Irish News’ explained that the nationalist vote had declined to its lowest level since the 1992 Westminster vote, which is before the ceasefires. That is, before the current peace process ‘strategy’ of republicans was/is supposed to deliver a united Ireland.

None of this fits with the accepted story of a rising Catholic population and a more and more demoralised Protestant one.  Sooner or later, the story goes, there will be a Catholic majority that will vote in a united Ireland. The truth of this is accepted by many and, I would hazard a guess, by many who would deny it vehemently in public.  I remember my aunt, a Shankill Road Protestant, remark about 25 years ago that there would eventually be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  And she was at least half right in that.

Socialists have always supported self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, as the only democratic response to the Irish national question.  Not of course universally.  The Militant Tendency/Socialist Party tradition with its notoriously statist view of socialism, which incidentally has nothing to do with Marxism, has always managed to get it wrong.  Its statist view has seen it join left nationalist formations in Britain such as NO2EU, and it led the rightward collapse of the left in Scotland into Scottish nationalism.  In the North of Ireland on the other hand, entirely consistent with its accommodation to whatever nationalism is strongest, it has capitulated time and time again to loyalism and the British State.

This general response of socialist to the national question remains correct but the growth of nationalism in the North of Ireland, which now appears halted, has demonstrated that democracy is not a classless construct.  Bourgeois democracy in a society which has always been characterised by sectarianism has definite limits.

These limits are demonstrated in the more and more sectarian expression of northern nationalism.  This means that the expression of democracy by the working class can only be of a non-sectarian character, or it would fail to be a particular expression of the working class.  In other words the expression of a democratic alternative to partition must come from the working class and not from any nationalist formation.  It must therefore be non-sectarian, not in an unconscious sense, in which to be anti-imperialist is somehow also to be ‘objectively’ anti-sectarian, but in a conscious sense that this is the key objective – of uniting the working class.  Just like Scotland so must this be the case in Ireland, that socialism cannot be derived from what happens to be bad for the UK state but from the political unity of workers.

The degeneration of Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism demonstrates that fidelity to the belief in a united Ireland is no guarantee of progressive politics.  It used to be said that Irish republicanism was largely confined to Catholics because of sectarianism and this also remains true but it is also now the case that the Irish republicanism of Sinn Fein is confined to Catholics because it is sectarian.

Once the Provisionals stopped fighting the British and decided to join in the governance of its system, and started asking the landlord to sort out the slum – the landlord responsible for its creation – it stopped having any claim to progressive status.  It then became the most militant and vocal champion of Catholic rights, not civil rights, but sectarian rights.  This has been exposed in the case of a prominent Sinn Fein Minister and also in the recent election.

In North Belfast Sinn Fein put out an election leaflet that included a graphic showing the Catholic and Protestant proportions of the constituency, the none too subtle message being that the majority Catholic constituency should be electing a Sinn Fein MP.  But of course that also means that Protestants must vote for the sitting Unionist MP.

The Sinn Fein excuses for it only bury it deeper in the sectarian mire.  First the excuses arrived only after it spent weeks defending the leaflet.  Then it wanted, it said, to use the terms nationalist and unionist but the Post Office said census figures had to be couched in terms of Catholic and Protestant.  So what it is saying, after trying to blame the Post Office, is that  instead of rejecting the graphic it decided that yes indeed substitution of Nationalist and Unionist by Catholic and Protestant was fine.  Now we know what it means when it uses the former terms in future.

Oh, and one more thing.  It regretted its decision to include the graphic – as Mr Gerry Kelly said “I think, in retrospect, the decision then should probably have been to withdraw the graph, because it did give an argument to our opponents, whether that was the SDLP or unionists.”  Yes Gerry, you’re right about that.

SF2images (10)

The reactionary position of Sinn Fein was also demonstrated in another graphic used on its leaflet for their candidate in South Belfast.  Having misleadingly described the candidate as ‘the poll topper’ – in fact the sitting MP was from the SDLP – it then said he was the ‘only Progressive Candidate who can win’ – clearly not the case since the SDLP were not listed by the leaflet as one of the five parties ‘united for austerity.’

These five parties were the Conservatives, DUP, UUP, UKIP and Alliance Parties. One of these parties stood out from the others – the DUP.  Why? – because Sinn Fein is in permanent coalition with this party.  And at the time the leaflet was put through the doors the Tories looked like they might be relying on the DUP to get them into power.

Wouldn’t that have looked lovely – the so-called anti-austerity Sinn Fein in Government with the DUP who were keeping the austerity-inflicting Tories in Government.  Don’t bother to try to work out how Sinn Fein would have justified it, they have been justifying inflicting one of the most right wing parties in Europe on this part of the continent for years.

‘The Irish News’ front page has reflected the disorientation of Northern nationalism following the election.  It produced some commentator to explain what had gone wrong.

Apparently  there is a ‘growing number of nationalists who appear switched off from the electoral process (reflecting) a community more at ease with Northern Ireland.’

The commentator said that “I think unionism is more highly strung about identity issues.  Nationalism is more happy in general with the status quo and there is a lack of competition between the parties.  Nationalism is suffering a retreat.”

Almost all of this is rubbish.

Yes, nationalism is suffering a retreat, it’s been retreating for years, and now endorses the legitimacy of partition and its institutions, the British nationality of Irish Protestants and the unionist veto on a united Ireland.

Contrary to its assertion, there is no lack of competition among nationalist parties and unlike unionism there was no electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Fein during the election.

Relatively high unionist participation in the election is not because they are more highly strung about identity; in fact the lack of unionist voter participation has been remarked upon for years.  Did they suddenly get a fit of the nerves just recently?  Newspapers have recently reported increasing numbers of parents from what is called ‘a Protestant background’ refusing to designate their children as Protestant at school.

The fall in the nationalist vote is not because nationalists are happy with the status quo but exactly the opposite.  The stench of nepotism, cronyism and corruption from Stormont is all the more repelling on the nationalist side given the claims to radical politics and progressive change from the nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Fein.

Instead the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition Government has been beset by crisis, incapacity, incompetence, secrecy, arrogance, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and financial scandal.  The simplest of questions don’t get answered for years (perhaps never) by Government departments with dozens of communications staff.

The latest such offerings are the revelation of the extent of the employment of Special Advisors (SPADS) employed by all the parties in office without any public recruitment process.  These SPADS are supposed to bring special skills to their political masters, the most prominent of which appears to be their close connection to the parties and their ability to hide any special skills.

freedom of information request revealed that in one financial year the Stormont Executive spent almost £2m on these SPADS, more than the Scottish and Welsh governments combined.  In 2013/2014, the pay bands and grades for these special advisers varied across the UK, going from £36,000 up to £91,000.  In Scotland, three of them were in the top pay band while at Stormont all 21 posts were.

The second is the scandal around a contractor to the Housing Executive which we reported on before here and here.  The SPAD at the centre of the controversy, far from being dumped has been promoted while it is reported that the DUP member who took a more principled stand is being subject to disciplinary action by the party.  At the end of an editorial dripping with scorn ‘The Irish News’ declared of the Stormont regime that “it is increasingly doubtful if the institutions are worth preserving in the first place.”

When the main voice of constitutional nationalism expresses exasperation with the peace process institutions it really does mean a lot of nationalists are thoroughly disillusioned.  This is one of the main results of the election.  In itself it is not a positive but it is certainly a prerequisite for one to develop.

 

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.

How deep is the division created by partition?

In an article in the ‘Irish Times’ a couple of weeks ago Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and a former Irish Times journalist, takes up the observation that “interest among people in the Republic these days in Northern Ireland is minimal.”  “As somebody who lives in the South and works in the North, my experience in recent years, as the economic and financial crisis has come to dominate public discourse, is that southerners largely don’t want to know any more.”  Since previous interest was taken mainly to be revulsion at the violence and gratitude that it was “up there” and not “down here” this might not seem a new issue.  In fact both reflect how deep is the division that partition has created after nearly a century of existence.

Pollak quotes the young woman in the audience of the RTÉ Frontline programme during last October’s presidential campaign who attacked Martin McGuinness: “As a young Irish person, I am curious as to why you have come down here to this country, with all your baggage, your history, your controversy? And how do you feel you can represent me, as a young Irish person, who knows nothing of the Troubles and who doesn’t want to know anything about it?”

First we must say that this is indeed a strong illustration of the division that exists between North and South of the border; all the stronger because of the happy ignorance that is displayed.  On the other hand this happy ignorance demonstrates that the division which she articulates is really an expression of the unity that she is so ignorant of.

Happy ignorance?  Well yes.  The young woman speaks of coming “down here to this country” which is actually the same country, while being a different state.  She mentions “all your baggage, your history, your controversy” without appearing to be aware that the State she lives in shares much of this baggage, history and controversy.  After all, is she not aware of the history that includes the War of Independence, the Civil War (mainly in the South) and baggage that includes Catholic Church domination of society that involved systematic and widespread abuse of thousands of women and children that still resonates today?  Is she not aware that ‘the troubles’ had its worst single episode of violence in the Southern State carried out partly by agents of the British State?  Happy in her ignorance because she herself declares she “knows nothing of the Troubles and . . . doesn’t want to know anything about it.”

The disconnect between this young woman’s understanding and real history is perhaps an example of the invention of nations that don’t exist, or sometimes later do come into existence.

Pollak says that “opinion polls over the past decade or so show that a bare majority of people in the Republic now say they want a united Ireland: for example, in the 1999-2000 European Values Survey, just 54 per cent of people favoured unity.”  He quotes one University College Dublin student as saying: “Neither of us want Northern Ireland: neither us nor the UK government. I’d say if you asked the majority of Irish people – yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.  I mean, to integrate Northern Ireland into this State – why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”

Let’s take this statement bit by bit as well. The UK state doesn’t want Northern Ireland?  A very common opinion but one that is impossible to square with the experience of the British State spending billions of pounds and engaging in a long counter-insurgency campaign in order precisely to keep hold of the Northern State.  We will not go into the reason why here but let us recall that Britain left previous parts of empire extremely reluctantly.  Why hasn’t it left this bit if it actually wants to in this case?

So “yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.”  What trouble might this be?  Well we know that just as partition was imposed on the Irish side of the Treaty negotiations on the basis of the threat of immediate and terrible war so we know that partition today must be unquestioned because of the perceived threat of loyalist violence.  A loyalist violence that the last thirty years have shown the British State is quite happy to support and sponsor.

Uniting Ireland? “Why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”  This is the decisive question.  Let’s start from the end and go to the start – “the status quo satisfies everyone.”  This is the status quo that includes the literal bankruptcy of the Irish State and its admitted loss of sovereignty over its economic affairs.  The more or less complete loss of respect and legitimacy of fundamental pillars of the Southern State – politicians, Catholic Church and crucial State institutions.  Yet  “the status quo satisfies everyone!!?”

I would bet that many UCD students are very far from satisfied with the status quo but that they don’t see their dissatisfaction with the Southern State as having anything to do with partition.  If it’s not part of the problem then why would opposition to partition be seen as part of the solution?  What we have is graphic demonstration of the division of the Irish people that partition has caused that satisfaction is expressed in a State which many are in despair of because its problems are not seen as having anything to do with the other bit of the country divided.

That the domination of the Southern State by outside powers, who have dictated that their banks must be protected by the Irish people bailing them out, is not connected at all with the political rule in the North of the foremost political power in Europe most enmeshed with banking is the result of a number of factors.

The first is that such is the seeming power of these outside forces they seem almost like a force of nature, or if not, then an unalterable fact of life.  The second is that when there has been opposition either to the Northern State or to how the Southern State exploits its citizens this opposition has made no attempt to link the two questions.  The third is the more or less complete absence of any force that wants to do this.

Instead workers have been able to react only to the more immediate appearances of their oppression. This appearance is framed as a political question by the State, which is often the mechanism for enforcing it and sometimes by the putative opposition putting forward the state under different governance as the solution to oppression.

This importance of the state in distorting socialist politics has been a theme of the blog so far.  For most people, including what passes for militant opposition, the necessity of fighting two States is one too many.  In fact consistently fighting one is one too many.  That is how deep the division created by partition is.

Scottish Independence and a United Ireland

Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of the Northern Ireland administration made a speech last week about the attitude of unionists to a possible vote in Scotland for independence.  He didn’t think it would succeed and argued that there was no conflict between “one’s regional and national identity”.  Because the North of Ireland is just a region, and unionists believe themselves to be British, Robinson made the basic mistake of describing Scotland as a region when it is of course a nation.  The issues his speech touches on are interesting in a number of ways, especially the question of a United Ireland.

Firstly he states that even if Scotland voted for independence, he was confident “it would not alter Northern Ireland’s desire to maintain the link with England and Wales.”  But why England and Wales?  Why not Scotland?  We have all had to suffer the manifest nonsense of the existence of an ‘Ulster-Scots’ people with an Ulster-Scots’ language and an ‘Ulster-Scots’ culture yet nary a thought appears when it might seem there is a choice to be made between Scotland and the rest of Britain as our wider home.

This is of course because the ‘Ulster-Scots’ movement is a sectarian invention designed to prove the absolute and complete difference between the Irish, who have a real ancestral language, and can be taken as Catholic, and those who are not Catholic and support partition.  This is necessary to provide some legitimacy for this partition and the existence of the Northern State.   Marxists understand that all nations are inventions, it is just that one invented almost overnight on the basis of a non-language and another nation’s cultural heritage, whose purpose seems to fill in successful grant applications, is not very convincing.

The reason that an independent Scotland is not considered as the unit to which the Northern State must be subordinated is that it is too small and would not have the resource and power to enforce any challenge to the Northern State’s existence.  If that means sacrificing the blarney about kinship with Scotland, who cares?  After all didn’t unionists dump the identity of ‘loyal Irish’ when the majority of the Irish people decided they weren’t loyal?  And wouldn’t many also dump the loyalty to the Queen part of ‘loyal to Queen and country’ professions of faith should, heaven forbid, the British change their law, allow a Catholic to be head of State and the next King or Queen start believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation?

What matters is the existence of an outside power with the means to defend their claim to a privileged position within the population they have lived with for around four centuries.  Behind all the various labels they and others have attached – loyal Irish, Ulstermen, Ulster-Scots, British, British-Irish, Northern Irish – what is really sought is a designation that doesn’t make it quite so obvious that what is being claimed are sectarian rights.

The project tentatively raised in recent speeches by Peter Robinson about reaching out to Catholic unionists died a death when he recently supported sectarian loyalist parades past a Catholic Church in Belfast.  The attempts to dress unionism up in non-sectarian colours always fail.

A corollary of this is that those supporting Scottish independence because it will undermine Irish unionism are wrong because this unionism relies on State power directed from London, not any purported emotional or familial attachment to Scotland.  Equally the idea that because independence is sought on the grounds of democracy in Ireland, in the form of a United Ireland it should be supported for Scotland is also wrong.

For Marxists the objective is the unity of the working class across nations.  If it is not united, by definition it cannot act on behalf of its interests as a whole.  National divisions often prevent this unity.  To remove the salience of such divisions it is necessary that nations reflect no decisive material divisions beyond cultural ones that can be accommodated, involving difference without division.  For this to be the case there must be equality between nations.

Self-determination of nations is a means of ensuring that any nation suffering national oppression is able to escape this oppression and stand in a position of equality.  For small nations this is impossible in an imperialist dominated world so questions of nationality often frustrate international workers unity.  Nevertheless the removal of national divisions is also a process intrinsic to capitalist development and socialists must support the erosion and removal of divisions among workers due to nationality.

In Ireland partition has divided workers North and South and within the North on the grounds of religion. The removal of partition may be seen as part of a democratic process to remove the foundations of this division.  In principle partition and its associated divisions could just as well be undermined by a united polity across Britain and Ireland.  History has demonstrated that it is just this ‘unity’ that created and fostered this division in the first place.  A united and separate Irish State is therefore a legitimate project which could further the removal of divisions within Ireland and which socialists should recognise as progressive on this basis.

In Britain there is no real or substantive division among workers based on being English, Scottish or Welsh.  Creation of separate states, such as would  happen with Scottish independence, would however go a long way to creating the material foundation for such divisions. This would set back considerably the struggle for workers unity.

Scottish independence and a United Ireland do not have political dynamics that are at all similar and to believe so is in my view a mistake.  How do we know this?  Well this is one experience of Irish history that does have direct relevance to Scotland.  The creation of a separate state has deepened the divisions that existed in Ireland before partition because it created a new one.  This new one is also now strong and it is not one that is conducive to workers unity.  I’ll look at this in the next post.