Tony Benn and the lies the left tells itself about Ireland (1988)

Submitted by dalcassian on 24 March, 2014 - 8:54

From Workers' Liberty 9, 1988: an analysis of left "conventional wisdoms" on Ireland, in response to a speech by Tony Benn.

Elsewhere in Workers Liberty we print a recent speech by Tony Benn on Ireland. (Click here to read Benn's speech). Benn is deservedly one of the most respected voices on the left. Apart, perhaps, from his proposal that UN troops should replace the British in Northern Ireland, his views on Ireland are typical of the left — typically wrong-headed. Tony Benn rightly says that the media burkes discussion of the issue. But so does the left — we stifle ourselves with ideological lies. The politics of the conventional left on Ireland can only be sustained if it tells itself ideological lies, if it refrains from looking reality squarely in the face, if it refuses to think things through. The main ideological lies the left tells itself are worth enumerating.

Lie no. 1: Ireland is a single unit.

Ireland is one island, but plainly not one people. A minority of one million define themselves as different from the rest of the Irish, and as British. They form the compact majority in north-east Ulster - that is, the north-east of the present artificial Six Counties unit. They have been manipulated by British ruling-class politicians playing 'the Orange card', but they have their own identity or sub-identity and their own concerns.

The existing six-county entity is not, and never could be, a reasonable expression of the democratic rights of the Irish Protestant minority because it imprisons a large, artificially carved-out Catholic minority. Nevertheless, the root problem in Ireland is that there is a big Protestant minority which has yet to work out a mutually acceptable way of living on the island with the majority.

Lie no. 2: Southern Ireland is a neo-colony

The 26 Counties is fully independent politically. You cannot be more independent than southern Ireland was during World War 2, when it remained neutral despite Britain's desperate need of Irish ports. (Britain had given up its military bases in the South as late as 1938). And Ireland's refusal to join NATO also shows that it is politically independent. Southern Ireland has one of Western Europe's weaker capitalist economies. But it is not a colony. It is ruled by the Irish capitalists. And of some 900 foreign-owned companies in southern Ireland, over 300 are US-owned, 130 West German; only 200 or so are British-owned.

Lie no. 3: Northern Ireland is "British-occupied Ireland"

Northern Ireland is an artificial unit. But the majority of the people in it want Britain there. Opinion polls show that the big majority of the people of the whole island want Britain there.
Northern Ireland has been part of the English or British state since the 12th century - earlier than the union of the Scottish and English crowns, and five and a half centuries before the Act of Union between England and Scotland. The majority of the people there consider themselves British, though their ancestors have been in Ireland for centuries.
Partition brought many injustices for the Catholic minority, but even so, the relationship of Northern Ireland to Britain is not one of a colony seized by an alien power against the wishes of the majority of the people concerned.

Lie no. 4. Britain needs to rule Northern Ireland for economic reasons

Economically, Northern Ireland is a drain on British capitalism, to the tune of about £l.5 billion a year. British capitalists have more profitable relations with the independent South than with Northern Ireland. And in no way does Britain's military presence in Northern Ireland help British capitalists' profit making in the South.

Lie no. 5: Britain needs to hold on to Northern Ireland for military reasons

Militarily, control of Ireland has been irreplaceable for Britain in the past. Northern Ireland bases were very important in World War 2. The British government considered invading southern Ireland to gain port facilities, and so did the US in 1943-4. But all that has changed in the era of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Militarily Irish facilities may be useful and desirable, but they are not essential.
Of course, NATO would like to have Ireland in. But why did right-wing Catholic, pro-US Ireland say out of NATO when it was founded in 1949? Because of partition! Irish Foreign Minister Sean MacBride offered - so says his then party and Cabinet colleague, the socialist Dr Noel Browne - to bring southern Ireland into NATO in return for the creation of a federal link between the Six and Twenty-Six Counties.
Partition, or British control of the North, has cost NATO the participation of southern Ireland. Partition frustrates the overall military considerations of the Western Alliance here, it does not help them. That is one reason why the US wants to end it.

Lie no. 6: It is just bigotry and irrationality and the desire to lord it over the Catholics which motivate the Protestants in refusing to go into a united Ireland

Many Protestants are guilty of bigotry and irrationality, and they have lorded it over the Catholics. But it is perfectly reasonable for a minority not to want to submerge itself. The 26 County state is a heavily Catholic-confessional state. In the last six years, majorities there have voted to write a ban on abortion into the constitution, and not to allow divorce. This means banning those whose religion allows divorce (Protestants, Jews) from having it because the religion of the majority does not allow it.

Lie no. 7: The matter is a straight one of majority rights. The
majority wants independence and unity, and that's it

Apply that argument to the old United Kingdom when Ireland was still part of it! The majority was heavily against Home Rule for Ireland. For democrats and socialists that did not exhaust the question - because the Irish claimed, and therefore had, a distinct identity, separate from the majority. They rebelled in the name of an identity which they considered higher than the UK majority. Self-determination meant that the Irish minority in the UK had the right to secede.
The minority within Ireland has rights too. Consistent democrats concern themselves with minorities and minority rights as well as majorities. Ireland is a single entity only in a geographical sense. Geography is not politics. James Connolly said it very well: "Ireland without her people means nothing to me".
It is no sort of progress to free half a million Northern Catholics from oppression by making one million Protestants into a minority which is, or feels, oppressed. The Northern Catholics are right to fight against oppression. But doubling the numbers of those who feel oppressed is no answer.

Lie no.8:- The Protestants reject Irish unity because they want to preserve economic privilege over the Catholics in Northern Ireland

In decades of mass poverty and unemployment an informal system grew up in the Six County state of reserving certain jobs for Protestants and discriminating against Catholics. Fear that in a united Ireland they would lose the protection such discrimination gives them is a consideration with Protestant workers.
Of course socialists oppose such discrimination. We advocate a trade union campaign against it. But many Protestant workers can and do oppose discrimination while still feeling different from the rest of the Irish and fearing a united Ireland. Defence of privileges is not the only consideration for Protestant workers in opposing a united Ireland, or even the main one. Preservation of their own felt identity and tradition, and refusal to submit to an alien majority, are central.
Socialists should reject the approach embodied in the so-called MacBride Principles, of campaigning to get US States and companies to disinvest from Northern Ireland unless there is full and immediate equality. Disinvestment will not help Northern Ireland workers, Catholic or Protestant. This is nothing less than the demand for an immediate expulsion of large numbers of Protestants from their jobs and their replacement by Catholics. That is what it comes down to. It would further deepen divisions and further poison relations between sections of the working class. The resulting antagonism within the factories could paralyse the working class there for a generation.
Instead of this economic warfare against the Protestant working-class victims of Northern Ireland's wretchedly inadequate economy, socialists should instead demand that the root of job discrimination be cut by a campaign for shorter work hours and public works to create more jobs. If a campaign to re-divide the existing jobs can only be poisonously divisive, a campaign to create jobs might help unite the Six Counties' working class.

Lie no.9: Troops out without a political settlement will lead to a United Ireland

No, it won't! It will inevitably lead to sectarian civil war and bloody re-partition. On a number of occasions the Northern Protestants have shown themselves willing to fight rather than let themselves become a minority in a Catholic Ireland.

Lie no. 10: If British troops withdraw without a political settlement, then the Protestants won't fight. If there is a civil war, it will be a small, controllable one. The Catholics will win

Irish Protestants fought all-Ireland Home Rule, and the densely concentrated Northern Protestants finally settled for a fall-back position: Partition. They allowed the disbanding of the 'B-Specials' - to be replaced by the UDR. They allowed the abolition of Belfast Home Rule (in 1972) - to see it replaced by the direct rule of the British state, which they regard as theirs. They fought the 1973 power-sharing agreement, which included tentative links with Dublin through a Council of Ireland, and in May 1974 they organised a powerful general strike which defeated the government.
Even today, despite the Anglo-Irish Agreement [of 1985] which they detest, the Protestants still think that the British state is their state. Threaten to put them as a permanent minority in an all Ireland Catholic-controlled state, and they will certainly resist, guns in hand. Northern Ireland has the most heavily-armed civilian population in Britain, and probably in Europe.

Lie no. 11: Any Protestant state in Ireland would be artificial and unstable

The present Six Counties is an artificially carved-out entity. Its borders were drawn to engineer a Protestant majority in an artificially large area. It has a Catholic majority in large areas outside the Protestant heartlands of Antrim and Down.
British governments have implicitly recognised that Northern Ireland is not a tenable or viable political unity by imposing direct rule almost continuously since 1972; local self-government would be likely to break down in a civil war.
But the existence of the compact Protestant community in the north-east of the island is no artificial contrivance or figment of British policy. When the partition of Ireland was being discussed, one option was an area of four countries. The proportion of Protestants would have been much bigger, and the Catholic minority much smaller.
Today such a smaller Protestant state is still possible. It is what would emerge from a civil war between the Catholic and Protestant Irish. After a sectarian civil war the Protestant area would be smaller, but it would exist. Eamonn De Valera and other Republicans long ago abjured the idea of trying to unite Ireland by force, because they recognised that it could not work. It would result not in the removal of the Border, but in shifting it a bit north and east - and making it permanent.

Lie no. 12: If there is a civil war, it will be a small, controllable one

And what if it is not small and not controllable? Who would control it - British troops, UN troops, 26 County troops - or a combination of all three? In fact it would be small and controllable only if there were no serious threat to subjugate the Northern Irish majority.

Lie no. 13: The Catholics would win a civil war

Would they? And is it desirable from either a Wolfe Tone Republican or a socialist point of view that the Catholic-Protestant conflict should be "resolved" in this way? What would the resultant Ireland look like after the conquest of Ireland's Protestant-Unionists by the Catholic majority? Why should anybody think that afterwards there would not be something like a Protestant Provisional IRA movement?
In any case, the Catholics could only win a civil war - if they could win it at all - if the resources of Catholic Ireland were mobilised and concentrated on the task. That would be no small, quick civil war! The idea that the Catholics would win is the idea that all-Catholic Ireland would mobilise to subjugate the Protestants. The idea is absurd. In fact, Catholic Ireland would not mobilise - it has given scant support to the revolt of the Catholics in the Six Counties over the last 20 years.

Lie no. 14: Civil war can be avoided or minimised by the British
troops disarming the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Ulster Defence Association before they leave.

Such disarming would pitch the British Army into full-scale war with the Protestants. It would mean vastly more British troops, and for an indefinite period ahead. It would be 1798 again! The British withdrawal would be very slow and bloody, if it ever came at all.

Lie no. 15: What matters most of all is to see the British government defeated. Defeat in Ireland will shatter, or very seriously weaken and destabilise, the British government

Britain has liquidated the greatest empire in history with few domestic convulsions. It withdrew precipitately from India, Palestine, and Aden without domestic crisis. But it can't survive defeat in Ireland? Ireland will be the last straw that breaks the camel's back?
The idea is stupid beyond belief! Britain would gain from a withdrawal from Ireland as long as that withdrawal led smoothly to a united Ireland and not to an Irish civil war which could well spread to parts of Scotland.
The idea that the defeat of the British government matters more than anything that happens in Ireland is also British parochial nationalism of the most shameful and irresponsible sort. The nationalism is back to front, inside-out, negative, but the indifference to Ireland brands it plainly for what it is.

Lie no. 16: Britain has no rights in Ireland, therefore the British left has no right even to discuss Ireland

A million Irish people insist that they are British. Therefore, the "principle" does not hold. In any case, Britain is in Ireland. For the left to deny itself the right to freely discuss the possibilities will not change that. And the argument is a fake, because it is used to favour Sinn Fein's Catholic Irish nationalism against other equally Irish - and even equally Republican - alternatives representing the very big majority of the Irish people. Standing open-mouthed, lighted candle in hand, before the altars of Catholic Irish nationalism, the left simply excludes itself from rational discussion.

Lie no.17: Sinn Fein is not only a Republican, but also a socialist organisation

There is a current of political activists in Sinn Fein who would be at home in, say, Socialist Action or Briefing in Britain. They sometimes talk to the British left. But they are not the bedrock Sinn Fein. Look at how quickly Sinn Fein dropped its commitment to a woman's right to choose on abortion (adopted against the will of the leadership at the Ard Fheis in 1985 when many delegates had left; thrown out at the Ard Fheis in 1986).
Sinn Fein's "socialism" is for export now and for the future, maybe, where Ireland itself is concerned. Right now it is concerned with "the national struggle". Because Sinn Fein is drawn exclusively from the Catholic community, and does not even try to reach out to Protestants, it is not a Republican organisation in Wolfe Tone's sense. Tone aspired to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter under the common name of Irish. Any lesser objective is not Republicanism but communalism of one camp or the other.

Lie no. 18: Socialism is the answer

The answer to what? Yes, socialism is the only answer to the chaos and cruelty of capitalism, which underlie the tensions in Ireland but only the working class can make socialism, and the Irish working class cannot make socialism while it remains grievously divided by the national/communal conflict. Socialists need answers to that conflict, and collective ownership of the means of production is not in itself an answer.
Even if the working class could take power despite its crippling divisions, once in power it would still need a policy for dealing with the divisions in the Irish people. Such a policy could only be that of the Bolsheviks for dealing with national and communal divisions: consistent democracy, the fullest possible freedoms, limited only by conflicting claims, for peoples and fragments of people to join or leave existing states, or to set up states of their own. In Ireland now that could only be some form of autonomy for the mainly Protestant area in a federal united Ireland, which would probably have to establish closer links with the British state which the Protestants still identify with.
There are many other ideological lies the left tells itself, but these are the main ones. The result is that the left's policy on Ireland has no grip on reality.
The first thing British socialists must do is understand the Irish-British question. We must stop telling ourselves ideological lies, and look at reality squarely. Otherwise we will never change it.
The Bill for withdrawal which Tony Benn is putting to Parliament is modelled on the Bill for withdrawal from Palestine. It would be worth the British left's while to reflect on what that Bill led to "on the ground" in Palestine. When the British state abdicated in Palestine, Jews and Arabs set about making war on each other, vying to control roads, hills, and towns. A similar thing would happen in Ireland. Nothing is more certain.
We must stop making a fetish out of the single slogan "Troops Out". "Troops Out" is only one part of a settlement. On its own, without the rest of the settlement, it would bring disaster. It would achieve none of the desirable things its socialist advocates want, and it would inevitably lead to something worse than exists in Ireland now. After sectarian civil war would come repartition and great bitterness between the two resulting Irish states, within which the forces of reaction and religious bigotry would surely have been much strengthened.
The only way out is through the creation of a free united Ireland, within which the Protestant-majority areas would have regional autonomy. Ties of some confederal sort between that united Ireland and Britain would give further guarantees to the Protestants that this solution aimed to do away with the oppression of the Northern Catholics, but not to replace it by making the Protestants a new oppressed minority.
The programme of a federal united Ireland is not a magic solution to be presented to Westminster and Dublin; but it is the only solid basis on which a united Catholic-Protestant workers' movement can be built and can give answers to the national and communal conflicts which are torturing Ireland.

This article was republished (slightly revised) in the pamphlet "Ireland: The Socialist Answer".

Click here to download the Workers' Liberty 9 version of the article as pdf.

Ireland After Enniskillen

By Tony Benn MP

Many people were shocked by what happened at Eniskillen; but also by
the response to it. For a while we were told it was not possible to discuss the question of Ireland. Ken Livingstone was given the full media treatment. I know what it's like. The media used this treatment to avoid discussing the issues. They didn't want to discuss Ireland — they wanted to discuss Ken Livingstone.

Another purpose of this treatment is to distract people's attention from the long historical background, without which it is quite impossible to understand what has happened. If we're going to make progress — and I think we are — we must excavate some of the background to the struggle.

One of the things missing in modern British politics is the radical tradition that goes back to before the birth of socialism; the opposition to militarism, the opposition to imperialism, the opposition to the dictatorship of the mind. This is readily
apparent when discussing the 'Irish Question' , as it is called.

In 1892 my grandfather stood as a Liberal and a Home Ruler against the Tory President of the Local Government Board, as it was then called — the Nicholas Ridley of the day. In response the Tory, Ritchie, said:

"To vote against the government of the day would be a vote for civil war, for anarchy". That was in 1892. And when the London County Council was set up the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt refused it control of the police on the grounds of "Irish terrorism".

This argument has gone on and on. At the time of the Black and Tans in the '20s, my father moved an amendment to the King's Speech condemning the coalition government for having handed over to the military authorities an unrestricted discretion in the definition of punishment of offences and frustrating The prospects of an
agreed settlement to the problem of Irish self-government.

I think that it's important to root this in history. Those who forget history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of history.

The continued British occupation of Ireland takes away the liberties of the British people as well as those of the Irish people — their rights to live a full life in independence and unity. We therefore have a common interest in finding a way to end this mutual tragedy as soon as possible.

Public opinion in Britain is well ahead of the political leadership on this matter as on so many others. Millions of people realise that if there is ever to be peace there must be a negotiated settlement to the war — after the decision to withdraw has been taken. The violence in Northern Ireland indicates the urgency for a negotiated settlement.

The partition of Ireland was itself the product of a British Government policy of the ballot and the bullet under which the Black and Tans were sent in to undermine the clear majority vote for Irish in- dependence after the First World War — a policy opposed by Labour then as it should be now.

Since then there has been a succession of failures- The dispatch of British troops in 1969 failed, so did detention without trial, power-sharing, Dlplock Courts, strip-searching, direct rule, use of CS gas and plastic bullets and the Anglo-Irish deal — these have all failed in their purpose as recent events have shown.

Meanwhile Northern Ireland has been used as a testing ground for methods of control which have been used on the mainland at the expense of our civil liberties.

The question we have to face is not whether, but when, how soon and under what conditions British withdrawal takes place. The starting point must therefore be the setting of a fixed date for that withdrawal to which we would adhere and for discussions to begin with everyone in the North to work out what will happen once Britain has withdrawn.

That is why the Campaign Group of Labour MPs has decided to present a Bill in the House of Commons to terminate British jurisdiction in Northern Ireland, to campaign around that Bill with working people in both our countries so we can all liberate ourselves to build a decent and fair society in Britain and Ireland.

That's a summary of our position. Now let's look at some of the objections we will face when advocating this view. The first problem is that there is a basic contradiction in the position of those who say we were there because we are involved and it is part of the UK. There's an awful lot of ignorance in Britain about Ireland, encouraged by themedia. And it's an awful thing to say but when there's no violence, there is no discussion — when there is violence, you
can't discuss it. If anyone tries, they're greeted with a yawn or a bored sigh.

Another argument used by Labour people is the argument about democracy. That the republican movement in the North is a denial of democracy. Of course, the reality is that Lloyd George denied the democratic vote by the use of enforced partition.

There has been no vote and none is contemplated, in which the Irish people as a whole would be involved — or the British people for that matter.

We are told that there should be no talks with republican Leaders, but
everyone knows that even the Conservatives have had talks with republican leaders.

A recent PLP meeting was designed to be a drum head court martial
to deal with Mr Ken Livingstone. Yet Clive Soley, our former front bench spokesperson met Sinn Fein, Merlyn Rees met Sinn Fein. We are misled into assuming that there have never been talks — it's an important point to make.

Then there is the argument that you cannot talk to terrorists. The word terrorists is a term of abuse to describe those with whom you disagree. According to Mrs Thatcher the ANC are terrorists. According to President Reagan the Contras are freedom fighters. According to the British Establishment the people in Afghanistan are freedom fighters. Our history has it that the Free French in World War II who blew up restaurants with German soldiers were freedom fighters. The term doesn't stand up as an argument.

If you want to get rid of violence you have to deal with the political problem that underpins it. To argue that anyone who wants to hold talks with republicans is stimulating violence is to speak an absolute untruth. That is doing the opposite of what has to be done — to seek a political solution.

They've even come up with a new Oath of Loyalty. This sort of thing goes back to 1681 — there's a long, long history which we have to expose and understand.

When they say it's impossible to dispose of the Protestants who don't want unity they forget that in World War II Winston Churchill offered Dublin unity without consulting Stormont. A Tory PM went much further than Ken Livingstone in saying to Dublin, "You can have the North, provided you enter the war."

Without the presence of British troops everyone in the North would be able to face the problems more easily in the light of their own situations.

The other argument is that Dublin doesn't want unity. But, of course, partition creates two states whose structures depend on the border. The politics based on the border He at the root of many of the problems which face Ireland.

Then there's the argument that there would be bloodshed if Britain withdrew. The fact is that there has been bloodshed for many centuries. When the troops went in in 1969 there was a proposal from Dublin that a UN peace-keeping force be sent in.

I've believed for a long time that Mrs Thatcher's interests are the same as those of the British Establishment when Carson could threaten a revolt. She wouldn't spend £1 billion a year on that basis. The reason is that with the present Irish constitution you'd have a non-aligned Irish state. But if the Republic joined NATO
tomorrow the British would be out much sooner, because thai would be an adequate substitute for the British army there now.

Then we come to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which I voted against. It was a fraudulent agreement which pretended to be ail things to all people. It hinted that it recognised an all-Irish dimension and at the same time recognised the veto. My opinion is that although I opposed it and think it won't work it confirms the recognition by this government of a special position there.

But also, it was done to win the support of the US and the EEC to the partition of Ireland and the fact that this was thought to be necessary is an indication of the weakness of Britain's international position. I think the deal will soon be shunted into the long list of failures on Ireland.

Now I come to the position of the Labour Party itself on Ireland and right back at the beginning we had a position of outright opposition. After the war we got dragged into a bipartisan position on Ireland. Many efforts were made to drag us out of that position and we did make a move towards a break with bipartisanship and now with support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement we're back in a bipartisan posture.

Then there's the argument that there would be bloodshed if Britain withdrew. The fact is chat there has been bloodshed for many centuries.

It is time for us to renew the campaign for British withdrawal. We've always been told you can't raise the Irish question because it is difficult and divisive, but if we had adopted a clear position a Long time ago we would have made some real progress.

We must remember that Northern Ireland has been a testing ground for
weapons and methods of repression that we've seen employed in the UK. About ten years ago Time magazine had an interview with a British officer who said that all British soldiers must be brought here to prepare them for what must be done on the mainland.

The military's minds are now on the instruments of domestic control. We saw that in the miners' strike. It is only when this is made clear to people that we will make progress.

What we need now is a clear decision to withdraw. Some want this done immediately. Personally I think we need to set a date and adhere to it. The Bill we are going to propose is based on the Palestine Act of 1947. That is the only precedent, where a British government unilaterally decided to terminate its interest in
Palestine. There was a date fixed and it was adhered to. The terms of the Bill are based on those of 1947, designed by the best parliamentary draughtsmen of the time to be most appropriate for the protection of British servicemen during withdrawal.

I don't doubt for a moment that there would be problems in pursuing such a course. But 1 think that is what we should go for. I think the reaction would in general be a positive one, but if there were peace-keeping problems the one army in the world least equipped to deal with them would be the British Army whose withdrawal we would be announcing.

In campaigning lor this wc should see it as a joint enterprise. We are campaigning for the liberation of Ireland/Britain and of Britain/Ireland. We should get away from the bloodshed which has characterised our relationship and move to one of
cooperation for the development of a decent society there and here.
I'm absolutely certain that whatever the reaction of the media and the Establishment that before the end of this century we shall see that withdrawal take place.

[Tony Benn was giving the Labour Committee on Ireland Miriam James Memorial Lecture.]

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