Ireland's British problem and the tasks of British communists

Theses presented by Mike Macnair

1. The British state still has a military-strategic interest in holding the Six Counties

1.1. British domination of Ireland was Britain's 'oldest colonial enterprise', with direct subordination of the Irish economy to the British through trade controls beginning in the late 17th century and ending with British and Irish accession to the European Union in 1973.

1.2. But British domination of Ireland was also - and more importantly - geopolitically motivated. The military conquests of Ireland under Cromwell and William III, together with the conquest of Scotland under Cromwell and the 1707 union, enabled the British state to emerge as a contender for world hegemony by taking control of England's 'back doors'.

1.3. This British state strategic interest in military domination of Ireland remained real in the 20th century, as is visible in the (limited) German efforts to overcome it in both 1914-18 and 1939-45.

1.4. Since 1945 Britain has played a role in the geopolitics of US world hegemony analogous to the roles of Portugal and the Netherlands in British geopolitics in the 18th to 19th century. That is, Britain is the US's sidekick and secure base in the continent of Europe. This led to de Gaulle's vetoes in 1963 and 1967 on British EU membership, arising from the fear of Britain playing a 'Trojan horse' role - which actually materialised after British entry. It has produced the intense contradiction in British politics over relations with the EU.

1.5. Britain's role in Europe as a US sidekick carries the implication that the British state as such retains at the present date a strategic interest in military domination of Ireland as insurance against the risk of encirclement in the event of a conflict between the EU on the one hand and the US and Britain on the other. Given the cost and difficulty of sea-borne invasions against defended coastlines (displayed in World War II), this implies an interest in the possession of the Six Counties or some part of them. It is important to be clear that it is a state interest which is not fully expressed by, and is often in contradiction with, the policy of elected governments.

1.6. This British state interest in the retention of the Six Counties is the underlying reason why (a) the British state core (military and security apparat) provided military and intelligence support to the loyalist paramilitaries; (b) the British state has maintained the 'loyalist veto'; and (c) elements of the mainland state core have briefed and used provocations against 'peace processes', even where these processes have been supported by British governments.

2. Loyalism is a politico-religious movement of loyalty to the results of 1688. Mass working class support for loyalism reflects social and economic phenomena

2.1. Loyalism/Orangeism is a politico-religious or religio-political entity, defined by commitment to the results of the British Revolution of 1688-89 (which was itself a politico-religious or religio-political event). It is for this reason that it exists in Scotland as well as in the Six Counties, and does not exist in Wales (where 1688-89 followed the 'English' path, in which there was only marginal Stuart resistance). For this reason when in 1798 Ireland rose under the United Irishmen's banner of Enlightenment and French revolutionary ideas - the secular successors of the revolutionary politics of 1688 - Ulster protestants were part of the movement. For the same reason, modern loyalism is not in reality simple support for the policy twists and turns of the British state, but displays considerable political autonomy from it.

2.2. In the 19th century parts of Ulster began to diverge more sharply from Ireland in general. Industrial development, particularly shipbuilding, produced a working class which was predominantly protestant but also marked by an initial correlation in the workforce, growing out of the linen industry - protestant: skilled; catholic: unskilled - which was reinforced by employment discrimination. The general dominance of laissez-faire in British policy in the later 19th century and the long depression of the 1870s-1890s produced (as neoliberalism is now producing globally) a revival of the role of the clerisy in expressing social solidarity and organising charity and education. This produced religious revivals both of protestantism and catholicism, and Irish nationalism shifted from the Enlightenment postures of the 18th century to a counter-Enlightenment posture focused on the land question and linked to catholic emancipation and language. These dynamics enabled the opponents of Irish home rule to build a mass base among Ulster protestant workers in the run-up to World War I.

2.3. This, in turn, in 1920 provided an excuse for the British to retain territory in north-eastern Ireland and a social base for British rule there. For precisely this reason, the Six Counties after 1920 were not fully integrated in Britain, which would have undermined the material basis of the loyalist mass base. Instead the settlement was carefully designed to retain this distinctive politics. (1) The loyalists were conceded a fraction of the state power under strict budgetary conditions which effectively precluded the replacement of religious education and other charities by forms of municipal provision (as occurred in England and Scotland). It was a British state choice that social solidarity in the Six Counties should remain confessional. (2) The border was so drawn as to include a substantial catholic population. Given the economic conditions of the 1920s and 30s, this more or less automatically implied the perpetuation and entrenchment of the employment discrimination which had already grown up. Under the loyalist mini-state this discrimination was extended on a broad scale into housing, education, political rights, etc.

2.4. The main aspiration of the loyalists since the imposition of 'direct rule' in 1972 has been to the restoration of the 1920-1968 Stormont regime, though this aspiration has been expressed in various and more or less indirect ways. This is a rational goal, in two ways. The first is that Stormont was the apogee of loyalist power and provided substantial concrete privileges to the protestant section of the working class. The second is that it remains in the strategic interests of the British state that Britain should retain the Six Counties; for Britain to retain the Six Counties over any prolonged period, something like the Stormont regime will be necessary; and the loyalists therefore continue to receive substantial covert support from elements of the British state core.

2.5. It is also an irrational choice, in the same way as both the aspiration to restore 'old Labour' and the illusions of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the British National Party. That is, that it aspires to restore a past whose economic substructure is gone. In the first place, Ulster loyalism is ultimately - as loyalty to 1688 - a particular variant of British empire loyalism. The collapse of the Belfast shipbuilding industry, which provided the core of skilled protestant employment, is merely an aspect of the more general decline of British industry in the aftermath of the collapse of British world hegemony, delayed by the effects of the cold war Keynesian/regulated regime. Secondly, the Six Counties was not only a geopolitical instrument, but also until 1973 part of a system of British economic rule of Ireland as a whole, in which the 26-county regime was maintained by tariff arrangements, etc, as an agricultural backwater. In this context the privileges of Six Counties protestants vis-a-vis Six Counties catholics were secondary in forming mass support for loyalism: more important was the benighted rural and priest-ridden character of the 26 Counties regime. In 1953 output in the Six Counties was 27% higher than in the 26 Counties and living standards 33% higher. The 1973 entry of the 26 Counties regime into the EU has, over time, dramatically changed that relationship. The 26 Counties tended to industrialise, while the Six Counties tended to de-industrialise, and the weight of the catholic clerisy in the 26 Counties, while still substantial, has declined. In these contexts, for the British government to restore the Stormont regime would be like unscrambling and unbreaking eggs. A 'restored Stormont', at a purely political level - ie, letting the loyalists run the place and reinstate employment discrimination, etc - would fail to deliver the goods that the original Stormont regime delivered.

3. The crisis of the loyalist statelet, the revival of physical-force nationalism from 1969 and the Provisionals' shift into constitutional nationalism from the 1990s all reflected the evolution of global politics

3.1. The Six Counties mini-state was thrown into crisis in 1968 by the effects on younger members of the subordinated catholic population of the Six Counties of global political developments - and more specifically of decolonisation, the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s-60s and the Vietnam war. These created a broad constituency, first for street-based civil rights politics, and then, as the loyalist statelet resorted to mobilising its mass base for the forcible suppression of this movement, for a revived IRA in the form of the Provisionals. The result was a prolonged struggle which was at its high points unambiguously a revolutionary challenge to the British state.

3.2. The same global political situation made it impossible for the British government simply to back the Stormont regime with troops and crush catholic nationalist resistance by force, however much this may have been preferred by the state core. Such a policy would have had explosive consequences both in mainland Britain and in British relationships with the 26 Counties and - critically - with the US. It was necessary to combine repression with the extraction from the loyalists of concessions to the catholics. This was the meaning of 'direct rule' and a series of British-imposed reforms in relation to employment, discrimination, etc; of the 1973-74 Sunningdale attempt to create a 'power-sharing' devolved government, defeated by the 1974 loyalist Ulster Workers Council strike, and ultimately of the manoeuvres which led up to the Good Friday agreement.

3.3. However, as long as the world situation continued to be dominated by the continued cold war and the post-decolonisation and post-Vietnam offensive of nationalist movements, concessions to the Six Counties catholic population would never remove the political base of the IRA. Moreover, such concessions were bound to promote loyalist political and paramilitary actors willing to act independently of official unionism, who engaged in episodic indiscriminate attacks on catholics, in turn strengthening support for the IRA's base. The British state core - and especially the military special forces and securocrats - were bound to see the loyalist paramilitaries as allies against the IRA and its political supporters. This flowed both from the state interest in retaining the Six Counties and from the general history of British deployment of native paramilitaries in colonial counter-insurgency work.

3.4. The market turn in China, the Gorbachev turn and the fall of the USSR undermined the political-ideological base of the Provisional IRA: ie, the broad sentiment that left-nationalist guerrilla movements were working with the tide of history. Under these conditions there was a movement towards the 'ballot box' side of the 'ballot box and Armalite' strategy Sinn Fein had begun to develop around the 1980-81 hunger strikes and the mass protests around them. This shift led to the Good Friday agreement and to a succession of IRA concessions on disarmament - most recently the July 2005 statement terminating the armed campaign.

3.5. Anti-discrimination measures and 'power-sharing,' within the framework of the Six Counties and within the larger framework of the decline of British manufacturing industry and of neoliberalism, inevitably mean catholics getting a larger share of what is a smaller cake than under Stormont - however much the rise in part-time service jobs, government statistical manipulations and so on disguise it.

3.6. In this situation it was inevitable that the protestant component of the Six Counties working class should seek political expression of their perception that they were losing out. This expression has taken the form both of the rise of the DUP at the expense of the UUP, and of annual confrontations over march routes. Once the point is expressed in this way, it should be clear that these phenomena are the same thing as the rise of support for the BNP and the Ukip protest vote in sections of the mainland British working class.

3.7. Until 2005, 'loyalist intransigence' served the Blair government's interest in pressing the IRA to disarm. With the IRA's July 2005 declaration that the armed struggle is definitely over, the government put the spin machine to work against the September 2005 riots.

3.8. Nonetheless, the 2005 election votes show that the loyalists have clear majority support in the Six Counties and, as long as they are not prepared to make a deal of some sort with Sinn Fein, London will have to continue with forms of 'direct rule'. What could the British government threaten the loyalists with that is worse than what they have already done? The only real threat would be to abandon the province; but this would be opposed to British state interests.

4. Communist approaches to the national questions in Britain and Ireland have to start from the struggle for workers' unity in Europe

4.1. Communists fight for the creation of a united European democratic republic. This struggle is concretely posed by the existence of the capitalists' European Union, of which both the UK and Eire are members.

4.2. In this context, we stand for the creation of European-wide trade unions and other workers' organisations and for a Communist Party of Europe. This struggle is concretely posed by the impact of the single European market on national trade union struggles, the increasing impact of the two European laws (EU law under the Luxemburg Court of Justice and European 'human rights' law under the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights) on the national laws and with them 'national sovereignty', and the impact of the euro and the 'stupidity pact' and any successor on national economic policies in the euro zone. It is strategically posed (a) on the one hand by the failure not only of 'national roads to socialism', but also of the Trotskyists' 'chain of national revolutions' concept of world revolution; and (b) on the other hand by the need to construct the continental unity of the workers' movement as a necessary constituent element of the struggle for the global unity of the workers' movement.

4.3. A European democratic republic, and European-wide trade unions and a Communist Party of Europe, would include British (or English, Scottish and Welsh, or Anglo-Welsh and Scottish) and Irish components. The struggle for European workers' unity is the primary form of our struggle for the unity of the workers' movement; the struggle within the territory ruled by the British state for unity against the British state is a secondary component of that struggle.

5. British communists fight for British withdrawal from Ireland

5.1. Since British communists fight for a European democratic republic including both Britain and Ireland, we can have no military-strategic interest in British military domination of Ireland. On the contrary, our interest is in the overthrow of the British state founded in the revolution of 1688 and the rejection of all British overseas claims, whether in the Six Counties, Gibraltar or the Malvinas/Falklands, Diego Garcia, etc. The military forms and state security apparatus required to hold overseas territories are inconsistent with the military needs of a democratic republic - ie, the replacement of the standing army with a people's militia, an end to state secrecy, etc. This inconsistency has been demonstrated concretely in the case of the Six Counties, as 'counter-terrorism' measures have first returned to the bigger island, and then become normalised elements of the 'criminal justice' system.

5.2. We therefore fight for:

5.3. British communists fight for British withdrawal from Ireland. We do not make that struggle in any way conditional on any particular solution to the problem of division of Ireland and of the Irish working class created by British policy down to and including partition - whether 'Irish unity', 'self-determination of the Irish people as a whole' or 'protestant self-determination'. It is illusory to suppose that the former colonial power can in any way 'clean up' the legacies of their past divide-and-rule tactics.

6. The struggle for a Communist Party of Europe, and for a Communist Party in Ireland, will require policy to overcome the division of Ireland and of the Irish working class

6.1. The struggle for communism at the end of the day resolves into the struggle for the united action of the working class as a whole in defence of its independent class interests. This implies a struggle to overcome the sectional and national barriers which separate workers from one another and unite sections with their employers. In the case of Ireland, this means a struggle to overcome the protestant-loyalist/catholic-nationalist division. This is a task in the first place of Irish communists and secondly of the European communist movement. As part of the European communist movement, British communists are obliged to contribute as we can - including contributing ideas - to this struggle. We are not disqualified or relieved from this task by the fact that the British capitalist state is the former colonial power in the 26 Counties and retains territory in the Six Counties. Mass working class support for loyalism grew out of past economic developments and past British policy towards Ireland, but it is currently grounded in three 'realities'. The struggle to overcome the loyalist-nationalist division implies a struggle to overcome these 'realities'.

6.2. The first ground of mass loyalism is continued British state support for loyalism. This will at the end of the day only be overcome by political struggle in Britain (or by the contingency, not presently posed, of the destruction of the British state in a major war).

6.3. The second ground of mass loyalism is the establishment of the catholic church in the 26 Counties regime. This can only be overcome by a political struggle in the 26 Counties regime for disestablishment and a democratic secular republic.

6.4. The third ground of mass loyalism is the historical privileges of the protestant workers under Stormont; the decline both of employment in manufacturing industry in the Six Counties and of the welfare state both there and in the UK more generally; and the resulting redivision of a shrinking cake at the expense of Six Counties protestants by communalist management under 'direct rule', resulting in a loyalist nostalgia politics. Tackling this third ground requires an economic programme of 'levelling up' the conditions of the working class as a whole at the expense of the capitalist class and the capitalist system. For example: l work for all at decent wages; l a large-scale programme of public works to restore public transport, education, health provision, etc and provide decent housing for all at affordable costs; and so on. Such a programme can only be effectually implemented by united struggle of the working class on a European scale. However, it is not necessary that the loyalist workers (who are in substance a small corner of the European working class as a whole) should initially participate in this struggle for the struggle to undermine their sectionalism. What is clear and has been made abundantly clear by the effects of Eire's EU membership is that any conception of autarkic economic development in a 32-county Ireland - let alone in an independent Six Counties or, even more, a smaller protestant enclave - is utterly illusory.

6.5. On this basis, communists would fight for the unity of Ireland within the struggle for European unity. Within this general framework, communists should be willing to accept a wide range of compromise measures to ease the process of weaning the protestant workers off the loyalist-British state teat, including (but without recommending it as either a natural right or as a precondition for British withdrawal) a federal arrangement in a united Ireland, giving those areas in which protestants were the majority self-government and the right if necessary to secede.