Crisis takes new form

Draft theses presented by Jack Conrad

1. Northern Ireland remains a province of crisis for the British state. That crisis is structural.

2. In part the ongoing crisis reflects the undemocratic and counterrevolutionary nature of the formation of the Northern Ireland statelet in December 1920. Ireland was dissected and from the nine counties of Ulster six counties were carved out by Britain. They contained, and still contain, a large and unwilling catholic-nationalist minority. In part the ongoing crisis reflects the end of empire and the decline of industrial capitalism. Old, traditional industries, which overwhelmingly employed a British-Irish aristocracy of labour, are much diminished or have closed altogether.

3. The 1998 Good Friday agreement - as shown by the subsequent IRA call to dump arms - ended the revolutionary situation that began in 1969. Undoubtedly a victory for British imperialism.

4. The 1998 Good Friday agreement symbolised the total exhaustion of the armed strategy of the republican movement. Guerrilla actions, even when combined with successfully standing in elections, could not reunite Ireland and put an end to Northern Ireland as a United Kingdom province.

5. Sinn Fein has followed a recurring pattern in Irish history. It has gone from being petty bourgeois left nationalist revolutionaries - petty bourgeois as defined by their politics - to becoming safe constitutional nationalists.

6. The Good Friday agreement produced a new all-Ireland dimension to politics in Northern Ireland. Various cross-border sops were given. In return the Dublin government oversaw a referendum which removed the claim to the whole of the island of Ireland contained in the constitution.

7. The Good Friday agreement also produced a new British dimension by gaining a degree of legitimacy from the catholic-nationalist population. This was done through rearticulating Northern Ireland's institutionalised sectarianism. Instead of being discriminated against under a protestant ascendancy, the catholic-nationalist population were granted various concessions, including government posts in carefully balanced power-sharing arrangements. Of course, power-sharing has largely proved unworkable. Direct rule remains the norm.

8. Concessions granted to the catholic-nationalist population have caused a counter-reaction. The Orange movement - which unites under its banner official unionists, Paisleyites and loyalist paramilitaries - bitterly resents the fact that Northern Ireland is no longer a 'protestant state for a protestant people'. The marching season has therefore assumed added importance. Half present menace, half nostalgia for lost privileges.

9. The Good Friday has not brought about cooperation, a growing consensus and an end to the antagonism between the catholic-nationalist and the British-Irish populations. A pious wish peddled not only by John Major and Tony Blair. The Socialist Workers Party and other British left groups urged a 'yes' vote for the Good Friday agreement. They carry their share of responsibility for the present dire state of affairs.

10. Politics in Northern Ireland have polarised and national divisions have hardened. Sinn Fein has replaced the Social Democratic Labour Party as the leading catholic-nationalist party. By the same measure the Democratic Unionist Party has eclipsed the once dominant and monolithic Ulster Unionist Party. Those who confidently predicted the demise of the DUP have been proved completely wrong. The political programme of the DUP can be summed up in one word - saying 'no'. The Good Friday agreement and the years that followed conclusively prove that Orange politics as a whole have reached a dead end.

11. A nation that oppresses another can never be free. The truth of that famous aphorism - coined by Marx in the 19th century - was shown once again during the 1969-1998 'troubles'. In Britain the working class had no independent political approach to Ireland. It paid dearly for this. The methods of oppression used in Northern Ireland came home - not least during the 1984-85 miners' Great Strike.

12. Left social democrats, 'official communists' and Trotskyite opportunists presented criticisms of British government policy - there was a bipartisanship operating between the Tory and Labour leaderships throughout the 'troubles' - but their main target was the armed struggle being waged by the republican movement in Northern Ireland.

13. The Provisionals were dismissed as rightwing nationalists. They were haughtily told to put aside the bomb and the bullet and blamed for the sectarianism that has characterised Northern Ireland from the beginning. IRA armed actions were condemned as 'individual terrorism'. But the Provisionals were born in response to the galloping reformism of the Officials, who painted themselves as 'Marxists'. That is what the Provisional republican movement rejected. They also won themselves a substantial base, which protected and supported IRA volunteers.

14. Under the pressure of events - and through mass recruitment of young catholic-nationalists - the Provisional republican movement soon came to reject its original anti-communism. The Provisionals refashioned themselves along the lines of a 'third world' national liberation movement. They claimed to be aiming for a socialist Ireland - after unity was achieved. They were never genuine socialists, however. That would have required the adoption of Marxist theory and a commitment to build a mass Communist Party.

15. The revolutionary left in Britain devoted much time to writing dull, patronising articles advising workers in Northern Ireland to forget divisive issues such as the national question and the UK constitution. Instead they should concentrate on so-called "working class issues" such as wages, housing, health and education. In short they preached what they practise - economism. There were even attempts by various local groups or clones to stand candidates on this sort of programme - all got derisory votes.

16. The only correct approach for communists in Britain was to honestly criticise the petty bourgeois limitations and pretensions of the republican movement. Communists had to fight for independent working class politics. But against their own state the working class in Britain had a duty and a vital interest in supporting the Irish republican movement in its struggle against the British army and the British state. That implied neither illusions nor cheerleading.

17. Ireland does not need a trade union-based party. Given the sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland and the inherent limitations of trade unions, at best a reformist project. Nor would the recreation of the Northern Ireland Labour Party represent historical progress. Nor does the working class in Ireland need bureaucratic sects. What is required is the unity of all Marxists and advanced workers through communist organisation.

18. A Communist Party would not ignore or downplay economic issues: eg, the relations between workers and employers. That would be stupid. But Marxists primarily fight to equip the working class with the means to become the ruling class. It can only do that by mastering high politics. The aim must be supersede capitalism by taking a lead on every democratic issue, crucially in Ireland the national question. Socialism is the victory of democracy or it is nothing.

19. We stand for a united Ireland within which a one-county, four-half-county British-Irish province exercises self-determination. Such a programmatic clause would help reassure backward and medium-developed British-Irish workers that they have nothing to fear from the rule of the working class. We have no interest in forced or involuntary unity and reversing the poles of oppression. Our aim is achieving the maximum unity of the working class objective circumstances permit. We have no interest in the unity of the island of Ireland for its own sake.

20. Communists are internationalists, not nationalists. Our goal is world revolution because only world revolution can liberate the working class and thereby humanity. There can be no national liberation of the working class. However, while the content of our revolution is international, it necessarily takes a national form because it must begin with the overthrow of the capitalist state.

21. Therefore the general principle: one state, one party. Communists do not organise according to the principle of nationality. They organise and unite with other communists in order to overthrow the specific capitalist state they happen to live under. There are exceptions, but that is the general rule.

22. In conditions of the Good Friday agreement communists in Northern Ireland will doubtless consider this general principle with the utmost seriousness. So will communists in the south. With direct rule workers in Northern Ireland and Great Britain unmistakably face the same government, the same state and share many of the same tasks. Between 1969 and 1998 there appeared the prospect of abolishing the border through republican armed struggle. That illusion is no longer sustainable.

23. Historically we note that Lenin and the Bolsheviks stood by the right of the Russian part of Poland - kingdom Poland - to self-determination up to and including separation. But, along with their Polish comrades such as Rosa Luxemburg and Felix Dzerzhinsky, they organised in a single party - the RSDLP.