This Issue
Current Issue
Next Issue
Back Issues
Marxist Theory
Socialist History
Left Politics
Left Groups
New Interventions
Islamophobia Watch

Why Socialists Don’t Welcome the "Peace" Agreement

David Coen

GANDHI, ONCE asked what he thought of British civilisation, replied that it would be good idea. The questioner could barely conceal his contempt for the Indians nor how they could possibly want freedom from the home of "democracy and civilised values".

"Why Socialists Should Welcome the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement", Tony Dale’s paean to the "peace" process in What Next? No.8, shoulders once again the labourist burden of uniting the Irish working class on terms set by the British State. Implicit in his piece is the belief that the British ruling class has a positive role to play in Ireland, that the divisions which exist in the North are simply an ideological hangover from the past and that what is now required is a Labour Party. He doesn’t make it clear whether this civilising mission requires a resurrection of the old, unionist, Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP) or the extension of the British version to Ireland. One thing is clear however: whichever version it is, it will be unionist.

In Dale’s view the task for socialists is to accept the undemocratic northern statelet and build a Labour Party on the basis of demands for "workers’ unity, jobs, peace and reconciliation". He goes on: "Socialists would obviously advocate more developed policies on the national question" (my emphasis) – presumably, very quietly so as not to scare away the Loyalists. Yet, two paragraphs earlier, he correctly points out that the very reason for the failure of the Northern Ireland Labour Party (which had been active on housing discrimination and gerrymandering in the late 1960s) was precisely because it was unable to advocate a democratic solution to the national question. Can Tony Dale really believe that the Stormont Agreement is just such a democratic solution, or is he just confused? And, incidentally, we did know about the two "Labour" representatives elected to the Forum in 1996: they were specially created by Patrick Mayhew for this purpose.

Totally absent from Dale’s analysis, and the reason why he fails to see the true character of the Stormont deal, is the role of the British State in all of this. He makes the claim that "the British capitalist class want any solution which allows for peaceful capitalist exploitation" (my emphasis). The use of the word "peaceful" here is interesting because it makes it appear as if the British capitalist class are almost desperate for peace. If this is the case then Tony’s is a very recent discovery which has not been much noticed elsewhere in the world.

He goes on to claim that "Britain and British capitalist interests are now effectively neutral on the question of whether the Six Counties remain in the UK or become a part of a united Ireland" (my emphasis). But what is the difference between "Britain" and the "British capitalist class"? Does "Britain", by which he presumably means the British State, have any other interest than that of the British capitalist class? This smacks of the old labourist distinction between economics and politics. The capitalists know no such distinction and when this stance is adopted by the labour movement it sidelines the class struggle by reducing it to a fight with the capitalists simply over wages and working conditions.

The argument about British "neutrality" is even more important because it attempts to conceal Britain’s actual interest in the Six Counties. Whatever the British may claim about having "no selfish strategic or economic interest" in Ireland, they still have a political interest in Ireland: that is, they have a strong continuing interest in stable bourgeois rule on the island of Ireland. The British capitalist class organised through the British State shares with the Dublin ruling class the desire, as one Dublin commentator puts it, "to eradicate the cancer of Republicanism from the island of Ireland" because of the threat it poses to political stability in Ireland.

The British ruling class are certainly keen to portray themselves as neutral between Unionists and Nationalists for propaganda purposes. However, the mask slips at times, as when Blair declared himself a Unionist. If Tony Dale thinks this was just rhetoric to soften up the Unionists for the Stormont deal he should account for Blair’s statements on Scotland. The truth is that Blair is a Unionist, though a farsighted one, and he is trying to restructure the British State following the footsteps of his mentor, Margaret Thatcher, in order to cope with Britain’s lower post-imperial status in the world. The Stormont deal is part of the same process as Scottish devolution: the intention is to modernise and therefore preserve the British State. Which is not to deny that there are some differences within the British ruling class on Irish policy nor that control over policy swings between them. Nevertheless, the fact is that Labour and the Tories have had (even when as, during the early 1980s, official Labour Policy was unity by consent), and continue to have, a bipartisan approach to the question of Ireland. At the moment the liberals are in control and the petit-bourgeois radicals (and most virulently pro-Unionist elements) such as Norman Tebbit, are mostly marginalised within the Tory Party. As the British State continues towards disintegration it is quite possible they will regain the initiative and the emphasis of policy will shift again. But these shifts are within an accepted framework and do not threaten the fundamental agreement on the need to preserve the union.

To misquote Von Clausewitz, politics is war by other means. One of the most depressing aspects of Tony Dale’s piece is the implicit belief that the British, having fought the IRA into military stalemate over 29 years, have just given up. The British have a continuing interest in the defeat of Republicanism, and the Agreement is just the latest strategy for doing so. Further, misunderstanding Britain’s role in Ireland will lead to disastrous errors if pursued in relation to other questions in the break-up of the British State and is particularly acute for revolutionaries because it is confused about the main obstacle to socialism on these islands, namely the British State.

Tony Dale’s benign view of the role of the British State in Ireland, and its apparent desire for peace, means that the most part of his article is taken up with explaining how a socialist version of the Unionist veto will somehow lead to a united Ireland in which "the distinct identity of the Northern Ireland Protestants" will need to be acknowledged. No one would have any problem with the last part of this; what is not clear is how, if the Unionists are the main obstacle to the Republicans achieving a united Ireland, the Stormont Agreement, which writes the Unionist veto into British and Irish law, will bring this about.

Dale quite rightly points out that Ulster Protestants are not a nation and that "any permanent democratic resolution to the conflict must be based on ending partition". Partition (and Unionism) apparently has its origins not just in "the uneven development of capitalism; it was also a reflection of the deep communal divisions in Irish society" (my emphasis). Most Marxists would agree that it is not possible simply to reduce political or ideological ideas to their material basis. What Tony Dale does is to give them equal weight, so that the uneven development of capitalism has apparently the same importance in his explanation of partition and Unionism as the "deep communal divisions in Irish society". Indeed in Dale’s analysis the changes brought about by the decline of the Empire seem to have resolved the problem of the uneven development, leaving only the "deep communal divisions" as the real explanation for what has been happening over the past century.

The "mad-paddies’-obscure-quarrel-over-religion" is, by no coincidence at all, exactly how the conflict is portrayed by the British ruling class, apart from the "Friends of the Union" group mobilised by the Telegraph and led by Lord Cranbourne who seem to have a better grasp of history than Tony Dale.

This is truly the stuff of "Britain’s civilising mission", because such communal divisions exist to the same or even a greater extent within the British State, but here diversity is warmly regarded, even encouraged, and has no political implications. Even Scottish devolution is regarded (at least by the English) not as a national question but primarily as an issue of decentralisation and local democracy.

So what are the Unionists if they’re not Irish, British or a separate nation? Dale ends up with a definition based on religion – they’re Protestants, all one million of them (ignoring the small but significant number of Protestant Republicans), totally distinct from their Catholic neighbours. Once you accept this division based on religion you are then trapped in the logic of the sectarian state itself, the British as peacekeepers between the two factions and ultimately into the logic of the Stormont Agreement itself which institutionalises sectarian divisions.

One of the linchpins of the Agreement is the new Assembly which will sit at Stormont. Each new member will be asked to register as "Unionist", "Nationalist" or "Other". The "Other" category will not really count because every contested decision will have to have a portion of support from the other side. Tony Dale believes this kind of sectarian headcount (his phrase) is a "necessary evil to ensure decisions will only be taken with the consent of both communities". He goes on to argue that this will prevent a return to Stormont (the Unionist-dominated Government abolished by the British in 1972) and the "Protestant State for a Protestant People" demanded by Tory and Unionist, Edward Carson.

What is much more likely to happen is the further bedding in of sectarianism, with Unionists and Nationalists representing respectively "their own people". From a capitalist point of view this is perfect, even better that the institutionalised sectarianism which was the very basis of the Six County State and which remains almost intact despite 26 years of supposedly neutral direct rule from Westminster – better, because the "Catholics" now apparently accept it, as does a majority in the South.

This unpromising situation can only be remedied, according to Tony Dale, if "the labour movement re-enters Northern Irish politics by creating a labour party". But the previous Labour Party – the unionist Northern Ireland Labour Party was "melted in the heat of the Troubles". Allowing Tony Dale the benefit of the doubt here and putting aside words like "wishful" and "thinking", it is worth looking at why the NILP melted in the Troubles. In fact they melted before the Troubles. They blew away when their members and supporters realised that the Six County State could not be reformed. The Stormont Government could not yield an inch because to do so would totally undermine the statelet. Any even notional equality between Catholics and Protestants would take away the whole basis of its existence. Non-sectarian government in the North was (and is) simply not possible because the State itself was (and is) defined by sectarianism.

What the Civil Rights protesters (including the left of the NILP, such as Eamonn McCann) realised was that behind the Stormont regime stood the British State. That was the reason for the arrival of more British troops in 1969 and was inscribed in blood on the streets of Derry in 1972 – which is why the truth about what happened is unlikely to emerge for a long time if the British have any say in it.

The Republican struggle is often dismissed by revisionist historians as the actions of reactionary dreamers who wish to return to some mythical Irish past. The truth is that the mass base of the Republican Movement was won on the clear understanding that the Six County State could not be reformed and had therefore to be smashed in order to deliver civil rights, and on the need for defence against Loyalist pogroms.

The Stormont Agreement is in no serious sense a break with the sectarian state: it’s a late attempt to draw in a section of the Nationalists, mainly the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and to isolate and defeat the left minority within the Republican Movement. It reinforces the grip of bigots and reactionaries on both sides. The clearest example of this is the attitudes of the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP) and the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), seen by some as the beginnings of a break from Unionism and towards class politics by elements of the Loyalist working class. Unfortunately the UDP sees its role as to heal the divisions in Unionism, i.e. to rebuild the cross-class alliance which Unionism is. The PUP, while having Clause IV of the pre-Blair Labour Party in its constitution, still sees its alliance with the Unionist bourgeoisie as more important than unity with its Nationalist fellow workers.

Dale’s article is very weak in its political analysis of Unionism. There is a general tendency to lump all Unionists together as "Protestants", to accept, with the founders of the statelet and their successors, that religious affiliation is more important than class affiliation and to assume (like the Republican leadership) that working class Unionists cannot be won to more progressive politics. According to this view, the best that can be achieved is "parity of esteem’ and the way to win Unionists to a united Ireland is to ignore the national question. The fact that, as socialists have long pointed out, the programme of the Republicans (and indeed some of their actions) will not win Unionist workers to Irish unity, does not mean the left should capitulate to Loyalism.

Dale’s article ends with a call to the aforementioned "socialists" to be "flexible and open to whatever democratic arrangements are necessary to break down the divisions between the two communities". Accepting the Unionist veto is rationalised by the call not to "make a principle of one democratic form over another when our fundamental concern is with how we can make socialism a possibility" (my emphases). Leaving aside the questions of whether democracy can exist as an abstract form, of how many forms of democracy there are, and of whether we favour workers’ democracy over bourgeois democracy, what Tony Dale is asking boils down to is this: that Nationalists, Republicans and socialists should accept the Unionist veto and give up their demand for Irish unity and independence.

This surrender to Unionism and acceptance of the undemocratic settlement forced on the Irish under the threat of "immediate and terrible war" in 1921 is a breathtaking capitulation for a socialist let alone a democrat. One thing is certain – neither democracy nor socialism will be the outcome of this vain nostalgic attempt to resurrect the good old NILP or export New Labour "reformism" to the North of Ireland.

A key determinant of British policy in Ireland and especially in the North, is its geographical closeness to the imperial power – the close dependence of the Unionist bourgeoisie on the Empire, for example in shipbuilding and armaments, and the close political links represented in the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This geographical and political closeness later became an obstacle to the kind of state terrorism required to militarily defeat the IRA. The "low intensity operations" in Ireland were on a much lesser scale than those developed by the British in Aden, Kenya and Malaya, by the French in Algeria and the US in Vietnam. This closeness meant also that the British were always alert to the possibility of the war reaching the "mainland" and took active steps to avoid this, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act and its "internal exile" provisions, which allowed people to be deported to another part of the United Kingdom, namely to Northern Ireland. In this sense also the British have a political interest in Northern Ireland.

But the key political relationship in the North of Ireland is that between the Unionist ruling class and the Protestant working class (and by extension to the British ruling class), cemented by the Orange Order. Sectarianism is the glue which holds this alliance together. Sectarianism has its basis in the relative privileges of Loyalist workers and the desperate need to the Unionists to keep control of the Six Counties especially in the period following partition in 1921. Overcoming sectarianism will not be achieved by ignoring it or by abstract calls for workers’ unity. It can only be defeated by a direct attack on its source.

Some working class people are fascists. Would Tony Dale recognise the "democratic" mandate of the FN in France or would he fight them? The harsh, dangerous fact for socialists is that in order for the struggle for socialism in Ireland to succeed, the Loyalist working class must be won away from their loyalty to the British State. Which is not to say that we prefer the corrupt, bigoted Dublin ruling class or wish Northern workers simply to have the same opportunities for super-exploitation as their co-workers over the border.

Dale is far too uncritical of the Republicans. Having taken a generation to discover that militarism alone would not succeed in driving the British out of Ireland, they’ve dropped it in favour of the pan-Nationalist alliance. The price of being part of the "Nationalist Family" is dropping the demand for British withdrawal. Where once they were critically supported by socialists on the grounds that they were revolutionary nationalists, by taking their seats in a partitionist assembly they have effectively abandoned their former anti-imperialist stance.

Their main weakness is political rather than military. They have nothing to offer Loyalist workers. The limit of their horizons is to supplant the SDLP, to represent their bit of the "Nationalist Family" in the revamped Stormont and to become good constituency workers dispensing the largesse from the US and the EU following "peace". Some among them explicitly put forward the racist "unity by demographics" position, that is, that the Nationalists because of their assumed higher birth rate will simply outnumber the Unionists in 20 or 30 years. Some, on the left, console themselves by believing that the shredding of the Unionist base, opens the possibility of progress towards a new Ireland. What is far more likely is that they will be forced to join the SDLP in the attempt to save David Trimble’s Unionists from the antis on his right – another version of the Unionist veto.

Working class unity is necessary in Northern Ireland, but unity on what basis? On the basis of an alliance with the Unionist bourgeoisie and ultimately the British ruling class? Hardly. This approach has already failed in all its variants – Officials/Workers Party/Democratic Left and, on the other hand, the Militant/Socialist Party. Reformist parties in an unreformable entity seeking to build workers’ unity by pretending that differences didn’t exist. It’s not a glorious record.

Socialist have tasks in the current situation. Opposing all Orange marches, demanding the disbandment of the RUC – the armed wing of Unionism – and attempting to win the best elements away from Sinn Féin and from the Loyalist parties would be a good start towards building the kind of party which is needed. Facilitating Tony Blair’s efforts to remake the British State by resurrecting a Unionist labourism is definitely the wrong direction for anyone who calls themselves socialist.