Self-determination and the British-Irish

Jack Conrad argues in defence of thesis 19

At the next Communist Party membership aggregate I very much hope that we can finally vote on the set of 23 theses on Ireland which were submitted back in the autumn of last year (see Weekly Worker September 29 2005). Essentially they are intended to equip communists in Britain - but also in Ireland - with the programme needed to deal with the new phase of Irish history ushered in by the Good Friday agreement and then the IRA's momentous decision to put its arms beyond use.

Mike Macnair and myself jointly moved three amendments to the original theses - "representing a convergence" of our two positions, according to the report we carried of the December 2005 aggregate (Weekly Worker December 15 2005). I readily agreed with comrade Macnair's point that in the late 1960s and well into the 1970s various small left groups in Britain upheld an essentially principled position. Bravely they stood against their 'own' imperialism.

I more than agreed with him that it is necessary to put the Irish national question into the wider context of the European Union. Though the Republic of Ireland is part of the EU, and is in relative terms prospering, Ireland as a whole still suffers under British oppression. However, the solution lies not in trying to achieve 'genuine' independence. A nationalist chimera. Rather it lies in energetically taking up the struggle to democratise the EU and the revolutionary perspective of putting it under the domination of the working class - a strategy which, of course, I mapped out in my book Remaking Europe. We also arrived at an agreement on the thorny British-Irish question - though perhaps comrade Macnair still does not completely agree with me on this matter.

The only outstanding objection to the theses at the December 2005 aggregate came from Anne Mc Shane. Contributing to the debate, the comrade was at pains to emphasise that she was more convinced than ever that the British-Irish are a separate people compared with the rest of the Irish population. Despite that, she disagreed with my thesis 19 as being too specific.

Thesis 19 reads as follows: "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."

Comrade Mc Shane proposed a last-minute amendment. She wants to replace the first sentence of thesis 19 with the following formulation: "We stand for a united Ireland, within which the British-Irish can exercise self-determination in a separate area where they form a clear majority." She said the insertion of the word "can" would make it clearer that there is no obligation to take up the option of forming a separate province (Weekly Worker December 15 2005).

Why does comrade Mc Shane shy away from giving a definite territorial dimension to this "separate" province? Is she scared? As I will show below, the British-Irish form a historically established majority in a contiguous area in the north-east of Northern Ireland. And what does the comrade mean by a "clear" majority? A 60% majority. A 70% majority? An 80% majority?

The call for a British-Irish province falls squarely within our minimum or immediate programme. Mine is therefore an attempt to deal with the present situation. Not some imagined future. It is a positive demand for the here and now. Our demand for a British-Irish province is not something we keep hidden, in reserve, in case a united Ireland somehow comes about, as if by accident, in the next decade or two and a communist bloc, finding itself in a constituent assembly of some kind, is faced with the dilemma of what to do about the stubborn British-Irish minority.

We should neither compromise nor retreat from our programme. On the contrary we should highlight the demand for a one-county, four-half-county British-Irish province that does exercise self-determination in favour of Irish unity under the domination of the working class. There should be no "can" about it. Of course, there is no obligation upon anyone to follow the course we advocate - to suggest otherwise is disingenuous nonsense.

Bluntly, the sad but inescapable fact of the matter is that at present the British-Irish recoil in horror at the merest hint or suggestion of unity with the 26 counties. Moreover, in recent years they have dramatically swung electorally away from the rightwing Ulster Unionist Party and to the ultra-rightwing Democratic Unionist Party. Our demand is no sop, either to official or to Paisleyite unionism. It is the exact reverse. We wield it in order to cleave the British-Irish population away from the whole spectrum of orangeism.

An established thesis

My thesis 19 is hardly new. CPGB members extensively debated the British-Irish question over six months back in 1999-2000. I launched the formal discussion with the theses 'Ireland and the British-Irish' (Weekly Worker August 26 1999).

A wide variety of comrades - both within and without our ranks - took the opportunity to present their views and opinions. From the start two distinct camps were clearly visible. On the one side that of the consistent revolutionary democrats, the side which went on to win a big majority of CPGB members. On the other side there was a veritable melange, which I was obliged to categorise as either inconsistent democrats or revolutionary non-democrats.

The Ireland we aim for has nothing to do with realising the dreams of misty-eyed green nationalists. Irish unity is for us entirely subordinate to the struggle for a red Europe and worldwide communism. That aim dictates our means: ie, extreme democracy and the voluntary, not the forced, union of peoples. Opt for different means and the danger is that the ends become the opposite of what was originally claimed or intended.

What of our critics? Overwhelmingly these comrades said that they were for a united Ireland too. Whether their Ireland can temporarily remain dominated by the capitalist mode of production, or whether unity can only be countenanced if it carries a 'socialist' or 'workers' state' guarantee was a moot point. Either way, British-Irish self-determination could not be sanctioned.

Hence in the name of the territorial unity of Ireland, or an abstract socialism, or both, the British-Irish would be frog-marched into a unitary state - perversely excused in the name of championing the rights of the oppressed.

The British-Irish were said to be inherently sectarian and pro-imperialist. According to this almost racist designation, it followed for our critics that the British-Irish cannot be trusted with even the possibility of establishing their own independent state. To leave no chance whatsoever of any renewed oppression of the catholic-Irish, the British-Irish are either to be totally denied any rights as a distinct people or at most they are to be granted local autonomy along the lines of a German Land or a US state. Naturally the proponents of involuntary union claimed that this approach is the one that furthers the cause of socialism.

It was agreed by both sides that the British-Irish are neither a full nor an oppressed nation. A clincher as far as the inconsistent democrats were concerned. The comrades liked to believe they had the weight of Marxist orthodoxy behind them when they solemnly pronounced that self-determination only applies to full nations which are also oppressed by imperialism.

Our critics fielded a whole army of misconceived, half-baked and, frankly, reactionary arguments in order to excuse their programme for the forcible incorporation of the British-Irish into a united Ireland. Some even tried to conjure the British-Irish out of existence by a linguistic sleight of hand. Eg, Steve Riley laughably insisted that the British-Irish are "not a distinct community", but a "religious faction" (Weekly Worker September 2 1999).

The long and short of it is that the British-Irish should humbly submit to the will of the majority in Ireland. If the British-Irish refuse to accept minority status, in the event of resistance, these "scabs" (Dave Craig's unfortunate phrase) are not only to be forced into a united Ireland, but if necessary kept there by the same means. Such is what passed for democracy in the camp of our critics.

Within the bosom of a united Ireland the British-Irish will supposedly discover themselves as true sons and daughters of Erin. In the meantime their elected representatives can sit in an enlarged Dail. Of course, this line of reasoning echoes exactly what Ulster Unionist prime ministers and British proconsuls have told the catholic-Irish population in the Six Counties. Within Northern Ireland the minority ought to respect the will of the majority, as expressed through its parliament or assembly. But history shows that David Lloyd George did not make a stand on British-Irish self-determination back in 1920, when he carved out the boundaries of the Northern Ireland statelet. An orange myth. Northern Ireland was given the largest possible territory a British-Irish electorate could impose. That is why the nine counties of Ulster had to be cut back to six. By definition that kind of Northern Ireland constitutionally imprisoned a substantial catholic-Irish minority and that necessarily meant sectarianism, gerrymandering, internment, Diplock courts, shoot to kill, etc. We have no wish to repeat such crimes in the name of socialism, but this time against the British-Irish.

Our critics desperately tried to evade the principle at issue. Indeed many still do. Drawing state boundaries must take full account of the sympathies of all those concerned. If we stand for the equality of nations and nationalities which have a clear geographical dimension, then, where antagonisms exist, everything tells us that the constitution should enshrine the right of minorities to self-determination up to and including secession. In such benign conditions a rapprochement can take place and divisions and mistrust be overcome.

Five characteristics

I make no apologies for continuing to use Joseph Stalin's famous pamphlet Marxism and the national question as a useful starting point for discussing the subject of nations and nationalities - yes, despite his later betrayal of Marxism and leadership of the counterrevolution within the revolution. Stalin's 1913 pamphlet straightforwardly outlines the Bolshevik approach and succinctly demolishes the opportunist arguments of the day. And, of course, the pamphlet comes highly recommended by none other than Vladimir Lenin. I certainly think that it would be foolish in the extreme to contemptuously dismiss the thing out of hand.

Stalin, the reader may recall, insisted that nations have five "characteristic features". What are these five "characteristic features"? Firstly, and "primarily" a nation is a definite, stable community of people; secondly, nations must share a "common language"; thirdly, they possess a "common territory"; fourthly, they have an internal economic bond to "weld the various parts into a single whole"; fifthly, they have a collective "character" which manifests itself in a "common culture" (JV Stalin Works Vol 2, Moscow 1953, pp303-307).

Stalin's five-fold definition can be rewardingly used to cast a light onto the British-Irish question. So let us once more proceed to discuss Stalin's five characteristics and see what conclusions about the British-Irish follow.

It is surely correct to say that the majority of protestants in Northern Ireland throughout the 20th century constituted what Marxists call a labour aristocracy (not a religious, but a politico-economic category). They desperately, fanatically, sought to preserve their meagre privileges at the expense of catholics by initiating and buttressing sectarian discrimination through appeals to the Northern Ireland and British states. However, the British-Irish are not simply a labour aristocracy.

They are a stable community of people - ie, they consist of all classes - who have continuously inhabited parts of what is now Northern Ireland since the early 17th century. Settled in Antrim and Down as a mass of 'strong farmers', they came from England, but, by a ratio of five to one, mainly from Scotland. Hence one of their other designations - Scots-Irish. The plantations were designed to pacify the most rebellious part of Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Ireland and hence assure Ulster for the absolutist British crown that had only recently redefined itself according to its nationalised version of catholicism: ie, Anglicanism. As was bound to be the case, the settlers quickly diverged from their specific origins and formed a - hybrid - Irish national identity.

The Tudor, Stewart and Cromwellian drive for conquest negatively defined the Irish as Irish (both the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish) - not in terms of language, but church. The Irish became a people-religion. The catholic majority were victims of national oppression as catholics and denied basic rights. The old English in Ireland were thereby excluded from the emerging British nation. By remaining catholic the Anglo-Irish became simply Irish. As a consequence the Irish national question and British domination both took the outer form of religion.

Taking into account the last 400 years, it is therefore ridiculous to describe the British-Irish exclusively or mainly in denominational terms. Leave aside that they are divided into presbyterians, Church of Ireland and methodists - one might just as well do the same with the catholic-Irish in Northern Ireland, and for that matter the catholic-Irish population of Eire.

Nations and national questions have to be grasped in their movement. They are not static, purely qualitative phenomena. The world is not neatly divided into nations and non-nations. While there is undoubtedly a qualitative side, there is a constant socio-political, quantitative dynamic of being and becoming, which produces countless black to white gradations of grey. In other words, nations are complex phenomena which defy the common-sense approach of turning to an atlas or official history text and equating every country, state or kingdom with a nation.

Nations, once they can be said to exist in history, are without exception always undergoing a process of convergence with or divergence from other nations. Dialects can be submerged into a common, print-based language - Scots-English into English-English. Or dialectics can be used politically as the basis of a separate nation-state identity - as was the case with Sweden and Norway (conservative Norwegian nationalists chose as their 'official national language' Nymosk - ie, an archaic dialect which was most distant from standard Swedish - after the political separation from Sweden in 1905).

Religion too can lose its power as a social agent and become mainly a private matter - as, for example, in most of England and Wales - or it can be reinvented as a virulent national-ethnic medium for dividing people and simultaneously propagating new nation-states (eg, ex-Yugoslavia).

Anyway, as argued above, the British-Irish have constituted a stable community for some 400 years. Due to their similar conditions of existence in north-eastern Ulster the British-Irish have from generation to generation developed customs, an outlook and character peculiar to themselves (Stalin's points one and five). Studying the bible and the work ethic, an invented memory of King Billy and the battle of the Boyne, the union jack and marching against republicanism, popery and the catholic-Irish - all mark out the British-Irish in terms of self-image.

When asked who or what they are in national terms, 82% of protestants described themselves first and foremost as Ulster-British, 15% as Northern Irish and only 3% as Irish. In contrast the figures for catholic-Irish are almost the same ... but reversed. Strangely, at least to my mind, 10% called themselves Ulster-British, 28% Northern Irish, while a majority, 62%, viewed themselves as Irish (Northern Ireland social attitudes 1995-6, p37).

That subjective British-Irish "common psychological make-up" has been a material force that has helped to shape Ireland for the last 400 years. Because it is distinct from, and counterposed to, the identity hardened under the weight of national oppression, mainstream Irish nationalism has experienced the greatest difficulty in coming to terms with the British-Irish.

Completely opposite but equally dangerous assessments are held. On the one hand there are those who would exclude the British-Irish as an alien element. The Spanish expulsion of the Moors is cited as an example to emulate. On the other hand, no matter how they think of themselves, the British-Irish are claimed, in the immortal words of the founding father of the Free State, Arthur Griffiths, as "perverted" Irish. But in or out, according to him the British-Irish have no right to call "into question" the "integrity and authority of the nation" (quoted in C O'Halloran Partition and the limits of Irish nationalism Dublin, pp36-37). Suffice to say, communists reject both assessments. They both amount to a promise to reverse the poles of oppression.

Then there is point two: language. Obviously the British-Irish speak a common language. Of course, this is shared by the catholic-Irish (Gaelic is a secondary question which we can safely put aside here). Does a common language mean we therefore have a single and unproblematic nation? The south Slavs can be usefully cited. The Croats share a common Serbo-Croat language with the Bosniacs and Serbs. Yet even under Tito with his drive for Yugloslavisation from above they were organised into distinct republics (formally with the right to self-determination). Now, after a series of brutal civil wars, they are divided into hostile and often ethnically 'pure' states.


What of a common territory (Stalin's point three)? Clearly this is a crucial question. Orthodox Marxists such as the Bolsheviks always attached the call for self-determination to a specific piece of territory. At the same time in general they argued for the continued unity of peoples, above all the unity of the advanced section of the working class in a single revolutionary party. A paradox only for bone-headed nationalists.

That was not, though, the position of the Austro-Marxists. They championed national autonomy - ie, the right of each nationality to separately decide on matters such as schools and local government. Actually this was both a cop-out and an own goal. Because the territorial question was downplayed or ignored altogether there could no self-determination up to and including the right to form an independent state. Before World War I that might have helped keep the Austro-Hungarian empire intact, but ironically it did not save the social democracy of Austro-Hungary. It broke up into various bickering national fragments and thus divided the working class.

The following maps and statistics help explain why we in the CPGB arrived at our conclusions on the British-Irish (source: www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ireland/past/protestants_1861_1991.html). Figures 1 and 2 show the changed distribution of protestants in Ireland, contrasting 1861 with 1991.

Apart from in Dublin, Monaghan and Donegal, they were always small in number in the so-called south (Malin Head in the Republic of Ireland is in fact the most northerly part of the island or Ireland). Nowadays - not least because of discrimination, migration and intermarriage - they make up no more than 4% of the population in the 26 counties. We can get another view of the same process from table 1.

As can be seen from the maps, the British-Irish have proportionately declined in the Six Counties too. The catholic-Irish now constitute something like 46% of the population there. Nevertheless, it is clear that the British-Irish do constitute a majority in a wide belt of territory in the north-east of Northern Ireland. We can perhaps get a better grasp of the situation by turning to figure 3. Whereas figs one and two work from Ireland's 32 county units, this one is based on Northern Ireland's local government districts (there are 26 of them). As a result we get a rather more detailed picture. I know things have changed slightly since 1991 (the last census was in 2001). Nevertheless the general pattern remains the same.

You might have noticed a slight discrepancy between figures 2 and 3 in the shading of county Fermanagh in the far east around loughs Erne and Efne (the maps are much clearer when presented in colour). Because of a split in the Sinn Fein-SDLP catholic-Irish vote Fermanagh had a reputation of being something of a British-Irish political stronghold. Yet, with the decline of the SDLP, today Michelle Gildernew of Sinn Fein represents Fermanagh and South Tyrone as its MP (the district has nine Sinn Fein, five UUP, five SDLP and four DUP councillors).

At first sight it might appear that most of the Six Counties is catholic-Irish. But the population is not evenly distributed. Most of the 'catholic-Irish districts' are very rural - ie, they have a low population density - the exception being Derry city in the north-west. Northern Ireland's population is concentrated in south Antrim, Belfast, the Lagan valley and northern Down. The bulk of the British-Irish are to be found in these areas and this explains why around 54% of Northern Ireland's 1.5 million people are officially classified protestant.

As shown by table 2, today only two counties, Antrim and Down, have a British-Irish majority.

Table 2

Percentage of protestants in each of the six counties of Northern Ireland

Antrim 71.4%  
Armagh 44.4% 
Down 67.3%
Fermanagh 43.3%
Derry 43.4%
Tyrone 38.7%

Once again, however, it is important to understand that these two counties are the home of around two-thirds of Northern Ireland's entire population. As also can be seen, county Tyrone is the least British-Irish and therefore the most catholic-Irish in percentage terms.

One can get a feel of the range of population mixes from table 3. The catholic-Irish are a majority in 11 of Northern Ireland's 26 local government districts. However, they account for more than three quarters of the local population in only two of them. The British-Irish form the majority in 13 of the local government districts; in six of them they make up more than three quarters of the population.     

Table 3

Percentage of protestants in selected local government districts

Council Area Protestants
Derry 27.4%
Omagh 33.2%  
Fermanagh 43.3%
Limavady 44.9%
Belfast 58.0%
Lisburn 71.4%
Ballymena 80.9%
North Down 90.3%
Carrickfergus 92.4%

Anyway it is clear that in the north-east there is a contiguous British-Irish territory. Its heart is county Antrim and it extends into counties Down, Derry and Armagh, where it runs into a solid catholic Irish majority. Eg, look at the MPs. Gregory Campbell (DUP) represents East Londonderry and Ian Paisley (DUP) North Antrim, while Seamus Mallon (SDLP) represents Newry and Armagh, and Eddie McGrady (SDLP) South Down. There is also, as indicated above, a relatively large, but isolated, British-Irish outpost in county Fermanagh. Belfast has a very big catholic-Irish enclave in the west that is now roughly equal to the British-Irish population in the city (it has four MPs - one SF, one SDLP and two DUP).

Demographic trends are a hot potato in Northern Ireland, not least because Gerry Adams seems to bank on them. He hopes that the catholic-Irish will outbreed the British-Irish and that this will in turn enable Sinn Fein to eventually achieve peaceful reunification through a referendum in Northern Ireland, overseen and enforced by the British state machine. The increasing numbers of catholic-Irish has often been attributed to papal opposition to abortion and contraception. Nonetheless, recent studies suggest that the present ratio might stay the same for some considerable time to come. Anyway our task is not to second-guess population trends. Political solutions are needed to political problems.


Lastly in terms of Stalin we come to the economy (point four). There are two factors that need highlighting. Firstly, and most importantly, north-eastern Ulster had an advanced capitalist economy throughout the 20th century. This fixed its proletarianised people into a single metabolism which was far removed from the isolation, parochialism and self-sufficiency that characterises traditional rural societies. Secondly, while there is no British-Irish economy as such, Northern Ireland has evolved along its own economic pathway, making it distinct from the rest of Ireland.

Till the mid-17th century Ulster was generally regarded as the poorest of the Irish provinces. The industrial revolution changed that. North-eastern Ulster developed in a way that had far more in common with Liverpool and Glasgow than the rest of Ireland. Belfast in particular was an industrial city that served not Ireland, but the worldwide British empire. Furthermore capital in Belfast was mainly personified by protestants. Protestant control and industrialisation "gave the political economy of north-east Ulster its unique character" (L Kennedy and P Ollerenshaw An economic history of Ulster Manchester 1985, p65). Today the north-south axis remains weak; the east-west axis with Britain strong.

It is in the light of history, territory, language, culture and economy I concluded that the British-Irish have enough commonality, objective and subjective, for me to characterise them as a nationality that shows features of what can only be regarded as something like a semi or proto-nation. And yet, of course, as practice the national question belongs not to economics, linguistics or history, but, as Lenin rightly puts it, "wholly and exclusively" to the sphere of political democracy (VI Lenin CW Vol 22, Moscow 1977, p145). In order to achieve socialism the working class must bring about the revolutionary unity of all nations and peoples - such unity can only but be voluntary. According to this aim and these means, Marxists derive and take their stand on self-determination.

We do not invent national or ethnic questions. We have no time for those who play with demands for Cornish, Manx or East German self-determination, or those who advocate not the overthrow of the UK state, but its weakening and the break-up of existing working class unity in the name of Scottish or Welsh national socialism. Our aim is to positively overcome actual national-ethnic conflicts and antagonisms according to the principles of consistent democracy. We want peace between nations so as to bring forward and heighten the class struggle.

So for us the key practical task is not concocting an a priori checklist of who has and who has not the right to self-determination. Where national antagonisms and national movements concretely exist, we bring forth definite political solutions. That is why the CPGB is for a federal republic of England, Scotland and Wales. The existence of real popular resentments in Scotland and Wales decides our programme, not a checklist, no matter how scientific, as to whether or not Scotland or Wales are full nations.


The same spirit moved the Bolsheviks. They fought for, and after the October Revolution granted, self-determination to all manner of peoples, some of whom might at a stretch score as full nations: eg, Poland and Finland. Yet there were others who, by whatever serious objective criteria one chooses, fell well short of full nationhood: eg, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan. Their economies were mediaeval, there was mass illiteracy and in general mainly localised clan and family identities.

Needless to say, despite that, they all became constituent parts of the Soviet republic with the right to self-determination. After the experience of tsarism there existed a deep-seated mistrust of the Russian state and Great Russians. Self-determination was part of the Bolshevik solution to bring about trust, reconciliation and eventual merger.

The Bolsheviks took a consistently democratic approach even when it came to the Cossacks - a people which formed the military backbone of tsarism and white counterrevolution. Yet their soviet republic on the Don voluntarily joined the federal republic centred on the revolutionary cities of Petrograd and Moscow. The Cossacks represent for me the Bolshevik programme tested to its limits. Here we have Bolshevik use of the right of national self-determination in extremis.

Cossacks were privileged Russian settlers. A military caste of oppressed-oppressors with an vile tradition of anti-semitic pogroms and general mayhem and slaughter.

The Bolsheviks did not begin by asking themselves whether or not the Cossacks constituted a full nation or for that matter whether or not they were an oppressed nation. They certainly did not try to 'disappear' the Cossack question through the idiotic device of pretending that they did not exist as a distinct people; or, what amount to the same thing, that they were an integral part of the Great Russian nation.

The newly established Soviet government did everything within its power to reassure the Cossacks that it would not threaten their "land" or their "liberty". They were called upon to join the new order and urged to create "your own" soviets ('From the Council of People's Commissars to the toiling Cossacks', cited in J Reed Ten days that shook the world Harmondsworth 1970, p346). The strategy was to divide the ordinary Cossacks from their atamans, generals and landlords. It is then of more than just historic interest that the highest constitutional body in the country actually retitled itself: ie, it became the Soviets of Cossacks', Soldiers', Workers' and Peasant's Deputies.

Such an approach to the Cossacks somewhat contradicts those who claim that for Lenin and the Bolsheviks the right of self-determination was all about supporting only the struggle of oppressed nations. Here we have a bad misreading of Marxism as a whole and Lenin in particular. Such a contention leads inconsistent democrats to completely undemocratic conclusions.

Oppressor nations are by inference deemed to be without rights and are therefore legitimately to be subject to the most draconian measures. A case in point being the British-Irish. True, in the writings of Lenin (and his commissar for nationalities, Stalin) there are countless references to the necessity of advocating the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. In the age of the great European empires the majority of people on the face of the planet were nationally oppressed. They did not have politically independent states. The Bolsheviks, along with the 2nd and then the 3rd International, advocated self-determination as a general principle (not as a panacea).

But that did not mean that they sought the national oppression of the Russian, French, British and German nations. It should hardly need saying, but these oppressor nations, as nations, had in general no problem with national self-determination.

For the benefit of our inconsistent democrats let me explain in one brief final sentence the the actual content of the slogan of self-determination for oppressed nations. It is a demand for the formal equality of all nations.