Ireland and the Crisis of the British State
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, in January 1972, the British Army murdered 13 unarmed civil rights demonstrators on the streets of Derry. After hearing some highly selective evidence, the Widgery Tribunal exonerated the British Army, claiming soldiers had fired in self-defence. Many of the victims were teenagers, many were shot in the back and several marchers, already wounded, were finished off at close range by the Parachute Regiment. None had been armed.
Bloody Sunday marked a defining moment in the history of the Northern State. The massacre showed clearly that the Orange State, imposed by the British 51 years earlier against the wishes of the majority of the people of Ireland, could not be reformed, and further, that any threat to the sectarian state would be met by the armed force of the British State. It marked the re-birth of modern republicanism.
Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the demonstrators were demanding an end to discrimination in jobs and housing as well as "one person, one vote". They were also demanding the release of those interned without trial in August 1971. Internment had been the last gasp of the Unionist regime in Stormont, which had interpreted the demand for and end to discrimination as an IRA plot to win a united Ireland. In the furore after Bloody Sunday, the Tory Government led by Edward Heath abolished it and introduced direct rule from Westminster, a situation which has continued ever since.
The 1996 Orange march at Drumcree was undoubtedly one of the most significant events in the history of Northern Ireland since at least 1974. At first, the Orangemen were prevented by the RUC from marching along the Nationalist Garvaghy Road on their way back from Drumcree Church. The resultant threat of revolt within the RUC, the blocking of roads across the Six Counties by the Loyalists and, most importantly, the open alliance between Unionist leader David Trimble and Billy Wright of the UVF, forced an about-turn by Chief Constable Annesley. The march was forced through with extreme violence, as was another through the Ormeau Road in Belfast. So upset was opinion in the South that the normally pro-Unionist John Bruton was forced to denounce John Major on the BBC. What upset Bruton most was what Drumcree revealed about British and Unionist attitudes.
For Drumcree made plain what a minority of the far left in Britain have always argued to be the case: that the Unionists will not make even the most minor reforms necessary to re-structure partition; and the British lack the will and, more likely, the capacity to make them do so. The Orange State cannot be reformed. It is against this background that we must view the prospects for the new Labour Government. But this must in turn be viewed against the continuing crisis of the British State.
The crisis in Britain
The Thatcher Government attempted (with some success) to dismantle the post-war settlement while keeping the appearance (via the Malvinas War) of Britain as a great power. While Thatcher had promised to "put the ’great’ back into Britain", her project basically involved slimming down the British State in line with its reduced circumstances.
Thatcher had some success in weakening the working class. She and Major had less in reducing state spending as a proportion of GDP, which for them is a key indicator of success, and very little in terms of reversing Britain’s century-long economic decline. There remains an overhang of military spending by the British State in order to maintain its reduced world role which is beyond the ability of the economy to sustain.4
It is this and the consequent battle over the relationship with the West European and US ruling classes which have split both parties. A significant section of the ruling class, represented partly by the Thatcherites in the Tory Party, is against European Union (EU) integration and looks to the US as its model, while big capital would prefer closer links with the EU.
None of the Thatcherites’ economic gains were able to be carried forward into the political restructuring of the British State except at the level of local government. Even there, the hated Poll Tax led to a mass revolt which threatened to bring down the government. The two key questions with which they were faced were Northern Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland it was clear both that the statelet set up in 1921 had failed, and also, as Margaret Thatcher had reluctantly come to recognise in the 1985 Anglo-lrish Agreement, no new devolved government was possible without the active assistance of Dublin. Her imperial nostalgia was affronted by the idea of "foreign" interference in the affairs of the UK, all the more so as the various "talks" attempted by Brooke and Mayhew over the years came to nothing.
In Scotland the problem was how to head off the growing demand for independence without increasing the power of the "state" in doing so. The contradiction, never resolved, and exploited by the Scottish nationalists, was why, if devolution was the solution in Northern Ireland, it was not possible in Scotland.
However, the main political fault line in the ruling class and, despite the Poll Tax Revolt, for Thatcher’s own demise, is on the question of European union. The split reflects fundamental divisions in the British ruling class about the long-term strategic interests of British capital. Put crudely, the question is this: Does it lie with closer integration into the European Union or with continuation of trans-Atlantic links with the US? In general, big capital favours EU integration, while smaller domestic capital is against. The Thatcherites believe that the best strategic option for British capital is a more independent role, aligned with the US and seeking to avoid integration into a German-dominated EU.
The problem is that the Thatcherites who have led the Tory Party for 20 years and who now dominate it are virulently anti-EU. Its election defeat is likely to lead to an outbreak of bloodletting and internal feuding in the Conservative and Unionist Party not seen since the 19th or early 20th centuries. Although the fault lines are more likely to be along questions such as the relationship to the EU and to the US than over Ireland (although there are historical precedents for that) the two questions are interconnected, not least because of the fact that the most "Eurosceptic" of the Tories are also the most Unionist. In the last parliament, there were reckoned to be about 20 Tory MPs who were die-hard unionists and who took their political lead on Northern Ireland as much from Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble as from the leadership of their own party. In seeking to understand that, it is necessary to look at Major’s Irish policy since 1993.
Major’s Irish offensive
The British knew at the time the cease-fire was announced that the Republicans had drawn well back from their historic demands of a negotiated British withdrawal and Irish unity. The Republican leadership had not gone so far as to endorse the Downing Street Declaration or the later Framework Document, agreed between London and Dublin, which made explicit Britain’s guarantee to the Unionist minority on the island that there would be no united Ireland without their consent. But it was quite clear that if Sinn Féin were allowed into negotiations they would have to work within the framework of the Unionist veto. A document put to the 1995 Ard Fheis (Annual Conference) of Sinn Féin spoke of the likely internal settlement which would emerge from talks as a "transitional" arrangement on the road to eventual unity.
As the cease-fire progressed and the British put up a series of barriers to Republican participation in talks it became clear this was no mere softening-up exercise in advance of negotiations. Of course, the more the Sinn Féin leadership could be forced to concede in advance, the easier would it be for the British to broker a solution favourable to themselves when the talks did happen. And there is also a significant section of the British security and military apparatus which wants a rematch with the IRA. For them the purpose of the "peace process" was to divide, isolate and then inflict a military defeat on the Republicans. This view has an echo in Dublin where one source spoke recently of the need to "eradicate the cancer of republicanism from the island of Ireland".
A whole series of British initiatives were carefully calculated to provoke Republicans. Private Lee Clegg a British soldier imprisoned for the murder of a Belfast teenager was released and later promoted. There was no release of prisoners even though many have served more than 20 years in British prisons. In fact, conditions for prisoners got worse, as reported by a delegation of Dublin TDs (Members of Parliament). More recently there has been the detention and refusal of bail to Róisín McAliskey.
In February 1996, John Major side-stepped the US Senator Mitchell’s Report on the decommissioning of arms in favour of elections to a new Northern Ireland "Assembly" favoured by the Unionists. More importantly, he went back on an agreement, with Dublin that there would be all party talks by the end of February. It was clear he was going for a break.
There is no doubt that in the talks secret and open, direct and indirect since 1989, the British and the Unionists could have had a very favourable deal. Sinn Féin had accepted the notion of Unionist "consent" and it is clear from at least the 1995 Ard Fheis, that they were coming round to the idea of an internal settlement, which would of course be presented as a "stepping stone" to eventual unity.
There are lots of areas where treating the whole island as a single entity makes sense, not least in relation to European Union Structural Funds. Business leaders have already made big strides towards "unifying" the country. A few committees looking at agriculture, tourism and economic development North and South, together with a built-in role for Dublin in guaranteeing the position of the Nationalists, would probably have been enough. "Self-determination" would be exercised by simultaneous referenda North and South to produce the necessary "consent". No British withdrawal, no ending of partition and the copper-fastening of the border. A Major success.
If the IRA had signed up, as seemed likely, to the "Six Principles" of the Mitchell Report they would have had not alone to renounce violence and give up their arms over a period: they would also have to commit themselves, in advance, to going along with whatever agreement came out of the all party negotiations. In effect, Mitchell demanded a higher price for entry to negotiations than in previous British documents. Yet Major side-stepped that in favour of Unionist leader David Trimble’s "elections" stunt and attempted to stuff it down the throats of Dublin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as well as Sinn Féin.
The conclusion is stark: Major was looking for a break and decided that breaking on elections would be preferable to breaking over the report of an international commission, led by an American. There are two possible explanations: either he was so scared of losing his Westminster majority that he would do anything suggested by David Trimble – or, maintaining a presence in Ireland is so important, that to make even the most meagre concession would risk splitting the ruling class even more. They had accepted the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document, but when it came to the crunch they would not break from the Unionists.
Why do the British remain in Ireland?
Of course, terror on the scale required to obliterate Republicanism is not politically possible so close to home, though the policy was implemented in more distant colonial struggles such as Aden and Kenya and by the French in Algeria. That is not to say that a low-level variant was not used in Ireland with "shoot to kill" and the use of Loyalist terror gangs. It may or may not be surprising that the last die-hard exponent of this policy in Ireland was Labour Northern Ireland Secretary Roy Mason in the late 1970s.
In a post Cold War world they have less of a strategic interest in Ireland. In the Die Zeit interview already mentioned, Mayhew bemoaned the economic cost of continuing the occupation: "£3bn. for 1.5 million people." Nobody believes for a minute that the British are willing to spend such sums year after year to protect the "democratic" rights of the Unionists – not even the Unionists – whatever they say about the close historic ties between themselves and the Conservatives.
Military defeat would be unthinkable: British overseas interests rely for their security on the perceived military might of the British State. Anything which weakens that, even in a minor colony such as the North of Ireland, would be extremely dangerous. The stakes are higher than might at first appear. Then there are the internal political consequences of defeat – for example, the revolution in Portugal following the retreat from Mozambique and Angola, or the destabilisation in France caused by the withdrawal from Algeria.
In previous crises of de-colonisation the British ruling class were able to impose a solution even if that meant sacrificing a section of their own class in the interests of the class as a whole. In the past, the Labour Party, with the help of the US, was willing to step in and do what the Tories were incapable of doing, pulling out. "New" Labour under Blair seems totally incapable of providing options for the ruling class. The best he and "Mo" Mowlem can manage is to try to be more Unionist than the Tories. So there is very little possibility that the British can stabilise the situation in the Six Counties. Indeed, the chances are that Labour in power will go for repression, because the alternative is to go for a negotiated settlement which the Tories out of government and led from the far right will strongly oppose.
Ireland and the political crisis
This is not simply because of the historic links between the Tories and the Unionists – the Tories were officially the Conservative and Unionist Party until Edward Heath abolished Stormont in 1972. Nor is it because of successive Tory (and Labour) governments depending on the Unionists to sustain them in power, though it is interesting to note that both Major and Callaghan relied on the Unionists at the fag ends of their periods in office. The Unionists gave Major a narrow majority when the so-called Eurosceptic Tories threatened to vote his government down in July 1993.5 It is also apparent that from this time the British began to take a different attitude in the (then) secret talks with the Republicans and shortly afterwards the talks stalled. It is also probable that the fact of the talks was leaked by the Tory Right to embarrass Major, who had declared (after they had stopped) that the idea of talking to Gerry Adams and the IRA "would turn my stomach".
But there is a much more important sense in which the divisions in the Tory Party over European Union impact on the ability of the British ruling class to "solve" the problem of Ireland. The impasse of nationalist politics in Ireland North and South has meant that the nationalist ruling class has come to the view that the European Union is not just the way to end their historic, dependence on Britain and solve their economic problems but also offers a means of dealing with the problem in the North. This was expressed by John Hume, a few years ago, as a "Europe of the Regions", in other words, defusing the issue of British or Irish sovereignty over the Six Counties by creating some kind of looser federation within the EU which would allow the Nationalists to share power with the Unionists. The reason it has been virtually forgotten is that the neither faction of the Tory Party would have allowed it. So the one "solution" which might have been acceptable to both the nationalist and unionist bourgeois’s on the island has been ruled out of court.6
One of the odder sights in the recent history of Ireland has seen the British build massive military fortresses along the border between North and South of Ireland at the same time as the Single Market, and the consequent dismantling of trade barriers, came into existence. At the very time when the border opened economically the British determined to close it militarily.
The Tory Eurosceptics – right wing Populists, English nationalists and xenophobics – are strongly pro-Unionist. They and the Unionists successfully exploited Major’s weakness to roll back even the few gains which the nationalists and the Dublin Government felt had been wrung out of Thatcher, for example, consultation on Orange parades. It was this feeling (that the British were seeking to repudiate the 1985 Angio Irish Agreement in which Dublin, posing as the protector of Northern nationalists, was given the right, to be consulted over such matters as parades in return for conceding the principle of Unionist consent to unification) that so angered Dublin at the time of the Drumcree climbdown to the Orange Order in 1996.
This political paralysis extends not just to Ireland but also to other national questions within the British state. If the principle of local government is conceded in Northern Ireland it can hardly be refused in Scotland.
New Labour and the British State
But up until now "New" Labour has been content to follow Tory thinking and try to keep the Unionists on side. Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Kevin MacNamara was removed from office to placate the Unionists who believed he was pro-Nationalist. MacNamara’s successor Mo Mowlem carefully cultivated the Unionists and rarely criticised the Tories. The never very pro-active "unity by consent" policy of the mid-1980s has been all but abandoned in favour of bland statements of neutrality as between Unionist and Nationalist.
Labour Unionism, represented by MPs Kate Hoey, Harry Barnes (Democracy Now) and Andrew MacKinlay (Unionist Labour Group) have gained in influence, aided by well-placed Unionists such as David Montgomery, editor of the Daily Mirror (who funds Democracy Now and a researcher in Mowlem’s office), Alexander Walker in the Evening Standard, and David Burnside, former British Airways Executive and now an adviser to David Trimble. Hoey demands the dropping of "unity by consent" and calls on Labour to build a new union.
However, the Blairites face the same problems as the Tories with respect to Ireland. Like the Tories, they seek a revamped internal settlement more acceptable to the Nationalists and so shorn of the worst aspects of the Orange State between 1921 and 1972. The problem is that all previous attempts at such as settlement have failed, including the 1974 Power Sharing Executive brought down by a Loyalist strike.
The military stalemate means that they are incapable of imposing a solution against the will of the Nationalists. With the Tories in opposition, there is even less chance of Labour forcing the Unionists into making the most meagre concessions to reform. Neither is there anything in the cupboard with which "New" Labour can sustain any viable social democratic programme. Indeed, as Blair’s party is now the favourite to press on with EU integration, it is likely that "New" Labour will have to implement austerity measures to bring Britain into line with the Maastricht criteria for a single currency.
There is a slim possibility that the Blair-led government will adopt European union as its political project, if only because it doesn’t appear to have any other one. The trade union bureaucracy would welcome this, in the same way they welcomed Jacques Delors to the TUC conference in 1991. The other significant supporters of this project would be big capital, which favours a single European market without national barriers as part of its regionalist strategy for competing with the blocs around Japan and the US.
In the mid 1980s a significant section of the soft left in the Labour Party, notably Clare Short, saw economic harmonisation between the North and South of Ireland as a way of reducing the importance of the border and progressing towards unity by consent. This dovetails with the view of even some of the Unionist bourgeoisie which favours closer co-operation between North and South and fits with the Europe of the Regions strategy originally put forward by John Hume. It would open up not just questions of sovereignty but also of the constitution of the British State itself. However, for Blair to attempt to pursue this in Ireland or Britain would unleash a tide of resistance, not just from the Unionists but from the majority of the Tory Party and from within the Labour Party. It should and would be opposed by the left, but there would be serious opposition also from the "patriotic" elements within the Party.
Some of these constitutional questions are not new. The Labour Party favours a Scottish Parliament because they believe it will save the union by heading off the pro-independence Scottish National Party. It is quite likely that the opposite will be the case, as the Scottish bourgeoisie decide to throw in their lot with a dynamic west European capitalism rather than remain tied to a declining British one. Whatever the outcome, the chances are that the British ruling class will be divided in a way not seen for decades if not centuries.
A more likely scenario is that the Blair Government will be caught in a pincer movement between the expectations of the British working class and the demands of the capitalists. Judging by the situation in France following mass disillusion in social democracy, a rapid fragmentation in the working class political support for the Labour Party seems likely. The political vacuum is equally likely to be rapidly filled either by the fascists or a right wing Tory Party. This will cruelly expose the social patriotism of the Labour Party and Biair’s project. Blair will be unable todeliver what big capital requires, namely closer integration into the EU both because the economic price will be too high and the ideological legacy of the empire will in all likelihood prove too much.
Either way the test for Blair will not be long in coming. The Orange Order will soon try to assert their traditional "right" to annually beat their sectarian drums through Nationalist areas. Within a couple of months of coming to power Blair will be forced into deciding whether to force Orange marches down the Garvaghy Road from Drumcree Church and along the Ormeau Road in Belfast. Biair’s instinct is probably Unionist, but backing the Orange Order will cost him the few illusions left among Northern Nationalists. More importantly, it will limit his room for manoeuvre in the negotiations which Mo Mowlem has promised Sinn Féin in return for an IRA cease-fire.
The left in Britain
The SWP, while formally demanding British withdrawal, in practice reverts to an economistic, and in the end moralistic, "unity of the working class" line, hoping that the Loyalist workers who join in the campaigns against cuts or unemployment will somehow forget the issue of partition. There are serious questions about how to win Loyalist workers away from Unionism: welcoming the "peace process" as the opportunity for class politics while ignoring its real purpose – the restructuring of the sectarian state – will simply alienate both Nationalist and Loyalist workers.
Militant Labour acted out in practice the real meaning of the "peace process" by formally breaking into two separate sections, one for the North and one for the South of Ireland. This manoeuvre was designed to strengthen relations with sometime UVF man Billy Hutchinson and the Progressive Unionist Party. Predictably it all ended in tears when, after the end of the cease-fire, a section of the UVF around "King Rat" Billy Wright began shooting Catholics again, most notably during the Drumcree incident.
Perhaps a more reliable guide to the trajectory of the Militant is their attitude to the Forum. This body, formed at the suggestion of Unionist leader David Trimble, was elected from a list of parties selected by the British Government. Though Sinn Féin could not be admitted until the IRA in effect disarmed, the Loyalists had no such difficulty. Militant got in as part of an outfit called the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, but then ousted its leaders, apparently with the blessing of Minister of State Michael Ancram and in breach of the Act which set up the Forum. There they remain, in an office (very significantly) at Stormont, drawing £500 per day attendance allowance plus expenses, plus £6,000 per quarter for research. Even the middle-class Nationalists of the SDLP pulled out of this Unionist-dominated sectarian assembly after Drumcree.
The Socialist Labour Party has clothed its refusal to call for British withdrawal by recourse to ultra-left sabre rattling. But then, as the last refuge of the left bureaucracy, it cannot afford to isolate itself further from its erstwhile brothers by taking positions on the key question of Ireland.
Failure to confront the question of Partition, however, in the name of unifying the working class, remains a big problem for most of the left in Britain and Ireland. The struggle for national self-determination is not a diversion from what some call the "bread and butter" issues in the North of Ireland. On the contrary, the fight to dismantle the sectarian state grew out of such "bread and butter" issues as discrimination in jobs and housing.
Demanding unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, while ignoring the fact that the majority of the workforce refuses even to accept that discrimination exists, is a false and fragile unity. Sooner rather than later it will fall apart under the pressure of the Unionist ruling class which bases itself on sectarianism, and is a conscious effort, with the assistance of the British, to divide the working class and prevent revolutionary change.
The "peace process", widely welcomed as creating space for "real" class politics, is shown to lead neither to peace nor to class politics. The question of Partition is not a diversion from class politics – it is used by the Unionists to divide the working class in the Six Counties and throughout Ireland. "Normal" politics cannot get over this fact.
Ireland has always been the acid test for revolutionaries in Britain. In the highly polarised situation of Blair’s project running into the sand, the attitude of British socialists to the British State will become critical. There will be no hiding from taking position on these difficult questions. Getting the mass of the British working class to take sides against the State will not be easy given Britain’s imperial past. But the stakes are high. It may now be almost a cliché, but Marx’s declaration that "a nation which oppresses another will never itself be free" is likely to be tested out once again in the near future.
1. See A. Gamble, Britain in Decline, Macmillan 1981; J. Michie, ed, The Economic Legacy of Thatcherism, Academic, 1992; also N. Costello, J. Michie and S. Milne, Beyond the Casino Economy, Verso, 1989, and W. Hutton, The State We’re ln, Cape, 1995.
2. C. Harman, "Globalisation: A Critique", International Socialism, No.73, Winter 1996.
3. P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Random House, 1988, pp.548-9.
4. Ibid, p.624.
5. E. Mallie and D. McKittrick, The Fight for Peace, Heinemann, 1996, p.186.
6. A clear statement of the "Euro" Unionism is set out by Robin Wilson (former editor) in Fortnight, No.359. March 1997.