Class struggle and reunification

James Harvey exposes the economistic and pro-imperialist politics that lie behind the seemingly innocuous call for Labour to stand candidates in Northern Ireland

The controversy over the Johnson government’s Internal Markets Bill and the claims that it is reneging on the “highly sensitive Northern Ireland Brexit protocol” has once again placed the politics of Northern Ireland at the centre of public discussion in Britain.1

Significantly, many participants in the debate have gone beyond mere economic arguments about the impact of Brexit and instead have framed their positions around different conceptions of national sovereignty in Northern Ireland. Thus one of Boris Johnson’s key arguments in support of his potential repudiation of the withdrawal agreement is that he is defending the “integrity of the United Kingdom” against the incursions of a foreign power, the European Union, whilst in the opposite camp former prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair argue the contrary: that it is Johnson’s proposals that threaten the Northern Ireland peace process and “the very integrity of our nation”.2

Likewise in Dublin, whilst the debate has naturally focused on how a no-deal Brexit and Johnson’s threats to tear up the withdrawal agreement affect Irish economic and material interests, attention has also been increasingly drawn to both the possibilities and the problems of Irish reunification and the form that it might take.3 Thus, whether they like it or not, Brexit and the Tory government’s proposals have opened up wider questions about both the nature of the post-Good Friday agreement settlement and the future constitutional status of the Six Counties.4 In whatever way we put it and in whatever form it is defined, Irish reunification appears to be back on the political agenda.

And it is not just the ruling class which gets into difficulties when presented yet again with the politics of the ‘dreary steeples’ of Northern Ireland. These issues also pose a serious challenge to socialists, as a motion passed at the August 22-23 conference of the Labour Left Alliance illustrates. The motion, entitled ‘The Labour Party and Northern Ireland’ was moved by the Northern Ireland LLA, and, although not explicitly stated, it seemed to suggest that candidates representing the (British) Labour Party should stand under that banner for election in Northern Ireland. Thus it concluded by calling for the LLA to

urge the Labour Party to provide residents of Northern Ireland with the same democratic voting rights as all other members of the Labour Party, encouraging the international spirit of the labour movement across Ireland, basing the decision on the idea of a class struggle rather than that of the national question (my emphasis).5

This demand follows from the Northern Ireland LLA’s analysis of the nature of politics in the Six Counties. The central problem, the comrades explain, is that “much of the political debate in Northern Ireland is dominated by the question of Irish unification”.6 Although they acknowledge the historical role of British imperialism and its policy of “divide and rule in Ireland”, the way they pose this central issue and the strategies they offer seem only to dodge the problem.

Partition was a product of British imperialist policy and interests: the repressive unionist state that emerged and consolidated its rule from 1920 onwards reflected those strategic and economic interests. Given both the inherent instability of this state and the internal dynamics within the unionist bloc, inevitably the very existence of the state and conflict over its constitutional status proved to be the issues that framed the politics and society of Northern Ireland since partition. Moreover, despite all the contemporary rhetoric of reconciliation and peace-building, it is these political and communal divisions that continue to be shaped and reproduced by the power-sharing structures of the Good Friday agreement. Thus, it is this history, and the way that partition continues to define Northern Ireland, which mean that the democratic demand for Irish national self-determination and reunification cannot be ignored by socialists or the labour movement in Ireland and Britain.

However, the schema that we were offered by the Northern Ireland LLA does just that by only addressing the symptoms rather than the fundamental causes of the “divisions within the working class”. The motion accepted by the LLA conference states:

The class divisions within Northern Ireland needs [sic] to be addressed before the question of Irish unification can be properly considered without aggravating existing divisions within the working class and spiralling the current peaceful political situation into one of violence once more. None of the established political parties in Northern Ireland are willing to or capable of [sic] addressing these current divisions.7


In counterposing class struggle to democratic demands for national self-determination in this way, the motion commits the two interrelated errors of ignoring the fundamental political dynamics of conflict in Ireland and of overstating the ability of an economistic class struggle to transcend them.

In turning aside from these unpleasant realities, the comrades promise to offer us something better than the current political stalemate in the Six Counties. Instead, all we get is an alternative based on militant trade unionism (“a colourful past of direct working-class action”) and a reheated British Labourism that, it is claimed, has the potential to unite the divided working class with “progressive politics”.8

We have been here before. Since partition there have been many similar Labourist projects in Northern Ireland. The most durable was the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), which from the 1920s until the 1980s, offered the type of social democratic politics outlined in the LLA motion. Its high point was in the 1950s and 60s, when it secured significant support amongst sections of the Belfast working class: in the 1962 Stormont election it gained 25.4% of the overall poll and secured four MPs.9

That electoral base was initially bought by silence and ‘neutrality’ on the national question, but its support for the constitutional status quo meant that the NILP was essentially a unionist party. Consequently, when the civil rights movement’s challenge to the unionist state developed into a wider insurrection and armed struggle by sections of the Catholic working class, there was no place for neutrality on the national question. Despite moving towards an openly unionist position, the NILP’s decline continued and, although it lingered on into the 1980s, it had effectively collapsed in the previous decade.10

Since then there have been several attempts to revive this Labourist tradition - either by establishing small local groups or by trying to establish branches of the British Labour Party in the Six Counties. In whatever form, a common feature of these initiatives is either an avoidance of the national question or an openly unionist position of supporting ‘the will of the majority’. These attempts to establish a Labour Party in Northern Ireland have been influenced by a number of political tendencies, ranging from the various incarnations of the British and Irish Communist Organisation (Bico) through to the Militant Tendency/Socialist Party in Ireland.

Whilst Bico’s support for the full political integration of Northern Ireland into the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 80s, combined with its calls for Labour to organise in the region, was a logical extension of its pro-unionist ‘two nations’ theory, the Militant position - itself a revisionist application of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution - argued that the national question in Ireland could not be resolved until the divided working class in the Six Counties was united by class politics. Although these groups were never numerically large, the influence of their ideas in the discussions about ‘Labour politics’ in the Six Counties has been important and we can still find their echoes today in the LLA.11


This detour into history and leftwing trainspotting helps us to understand some of the political antecedents of the demand for Labour to organise and campaign in Northern Ireland. While we can agree with the comrades in the LLA that the working class needs its own independent party standing in its own interests, there are quite fundamental differences of strategy and tactics as to how we can build such a movement.

The key question is not simply independence, but programme and perspectives. All attempts to build an economistic, Labourist party - which, at best, pretends ‘neutrality’ on the key political issue of reunification and, at worst, is openly unionist and pro-imperialist - have proved a dismal failure, both in ‘uniting the working class’ and in building a real socialist movement in Ireland.

We do not need the tried, tested and failed politics of Labourism. But neither do we need the economistic and limited ‘transitional politics’ proffered by the various Trotskyist groups. The organisation we need - in Ireland as elsewhere - is a principled Marxist party committed to achieving socialism, the rule of the working class, through the conscious self-organisation and militant activity of the working class.

It also means challenging the political power and constitutional status quo of capitalism with democratic demands for self-determination and the reunification of Ireland in a federal republic. Given the instability caused by Brexit and the threat to the future of the United Kingdom posed by a rising Scottish nationalism, it is vital that Marxists in both Ireland and Britain recommit themselves to a distinctive, independent working class position and a democratic solution to the division of Ireland.

In my next article I will look at the developing debate on both sides of the Irish border about reunification, the responses of the Irish left and the position that Marxists in Ireland need to adopt in response to the possible changes that are emerging from the impact of Brexit on Ireland, north and south.

  1. Claims made in a letter by Lord Patten and Bobby McDonagh, former Irish ambassador to Britain and the EU (Financial Times September 14).↩︎

  2. B Johnson, ‘Let’s make the EU take their threats off the table and pass this bill’ The Daily Telegraph September 12; ‘PM expects bumpy ride in parliament over internal market bill’ Financial Times September 14.↩︎

  3. See, for example, www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/shared-island.↩︎

  4. newsletter.co.uk/news/politics/boris-johnsons-controversial-internal-market-bill-easily-passes-first-stage-house-commons-2971499; irishnews.com/news/brexit/2020/09/15/news/voting-through-of-brexit-bill-was-shocking-says-simon-coveney-2067486.↩︎

  5. labourleft.org/lla-conference-august-2020/motions-agreed-at-lla-conference-august-23-2020.↩︎

  6. Ibid.↩︎

  7. Ibid.↩︎

  8. Ibid.↩︎

  9. A Edwards A history of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: democratic socialism and sectarianism Manchester 2009.↩︎

  10. Ibid.↩︎

  11. Bico’s position sharply shifted from a strong pro-unionist and integrationist ‘two nations’ line in the 1970s and 1980s to a defence of ‘traditional nationalism’ and Irish reunification from the 1990s. Its earlier positions on ‘Equal citizenship’ and ‘Labour in Northern Ireland’ were influential in unionist and loyalist circles, and still find echoes in some of the ‘Labour’ groups operating in the Six Counties. For further details about their political evolution and influence see leftarchive.ie/organisation/44. Whether in the form of the Militant Tendency in the Irish and British Labour Parties, and the Labour and Trade Union Group in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, or as open political groups like Militant Left in the 1990s and the Socialist Party (and its various splits) in the 2000s-2010s, a focus on working class unity, as opposed to the resolution of the national question and the need for a Labour Party in Northern Ireland, has been a constant theme in this current’s politics. Like Bico, these politics still find echoes in some local Cross-Community Labour Alternative groups and others campaigning for a Labour Party in the Six Counties .For an example of a local and almost non-political community activist campaign along these lines see labouralternative.org/candidates/donal-ocofaigh. For other historical examples of these positions see leftarchive.ie/organisation/583; and leftarchive.ie/organisation/248.↩︎