Militant -Socialist Party on Ireland

Submitted by AWL on 12 May, 2006 - 11:45

This article deals with the views argued on Ireland in the 1970s and 80s by Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal.

The Militant tendency argues that bread-and-butter trade union unity and a drive to for a Labour Party in Northern Ireland show the way to a socialist united Ireland. Why are they wrong?

From a working class point of view the basic problem about the Six County state is that in that state framework, working class unity, developed on a trade union level, has always shattered at any political test. So long as the 'constitutional question' remains at the heart of political life there, it always will shatter on the rooted communal antagonism between Catholics and Protestants, Nationalists and Unionists.

Trade union unity is possible in struggles like the NHS dispute of 1982. But there is no way that such unity can open the way to solid political working class unity in the sectarian Six County entity. Even spectacular examples of Protestant/Catholic working class unity have proved to be mere episodes.

For example, the well known 'outdoor relief' fight in 1932, unity in working-class resistance to cuts in social security payments was possible because both Catholics and Protestants were hit impartially. Barricades went up in the Protestant Shankhill Road and in the Catholic Falls Road. Activists went from the Falls to man Shankhill barricades, and from the Shankhill to defend the Falls against the police. (Some on both sides were influenced by the Irish Stalinists).

Within weeks of this spectacular unity, no less spectacular sectarian rioting had been fomented. There are other examples, both before and after Partition.

The experience of the various incarnations of the Northern Ireland Labour Party runs in parallel to this. Today a very tiny Unionist rump, the NILP has at various times grown to a significant size.

It attempted to confine itself to bread-and-butter working class issues, that is, to generalised trade unionism, bargaining in the working class interest on the level of provincial and 'United Kingdom' society. It evaded, hedged and compromised on the issues that divide Northern Ireland's workers.

In the 1940s, for example, NILP speakers on the Falls Road campaigned under the nationalist tricolour. In the 'mixed' centre of Belfast they campaigned under the Red Flag; and party leader Harry Midgely campaigned on the Shankhill under the Union Jack (he ended up a Unionist).

Such a balancing act could not go far. Sectarian suspicions soon disrupted the party and scattered its forces.

To reject Militant's view of a Labour Party as the cure - all is not to say that socialists should not work in a Labour Party if it existed. Serious work was done, for example, in the late '60s in the Derry Labour Party, which became central to the civil rights struggle.

Even after it split, Eamonn McCann could get 8,000 votes on a revolutionary socialist platform in the mid - 1970 election.

Yet McCann's experience, too, underlines the basic point that simply trying to generalise from trade unionism within the Six County framework is no solution. The Derry Labour Party left wing tended to ignore the national question, and was bypassed by the eruption of the Republican movement. Their forces scattered, too: some went to the Officials and then to the IRSP, one or two to Militant.

Many well - intentioned tricks have been tried to unite Northern Ireland workers. In i907 Jim Larkin had united Protestant and Catholic workers on a trade union level. When it came to the marching and rioting season, on July 12, he tried to preserve the unity by organising his own united Orange/Catholic working class parade around the walls of Derry.

The Protestant workers, said Larkin, would march in honour of King William who secured their liberty in the 'Glorious Revolution'. The Catholics would march to honour the Pope who at that tune had taken the Papal States into the international alliance against France of which William was part!

They had a successful, and unique, parade around Derry. Within weeks sectarian rioting had shattered working class unity.

The inescapable conclusion from' history is that general political unity cannot be created on the basis of the trade union ('economic') unity, and that unity in trade union action is not the harbinger of a stable class unity.

Many on the left go on from this basic fact to a general dismissal of any concern for working class unity. The national question, they seem to say, supersedes everything else in Northern Ireland.

The trade union struggle is of little importance. The Protestant working class - that is, the big majority of the working class - is of no concern of ours. The struggle for socialism will develop out of the revolt of the oppressed Catholics, even though that revolt fails to mobilise, and indeed antagonises, the Protestant workers.

We concern ourselves only with the 'anti - imperialist' military campaign of organisations representing perhaps half the Catholic third of the Six County population. Only when that campaign is victorious will questions like working class unity be important.

That is the mirror - image of the Militant caricature of socialist and Marxist politics.

Militant's approach to Ireland relates only selectively and arbitrarily to the issues, processes and struggles in Ireland. It pretends that trade union battles involving workers from both communities already amount to, or by way of being generalised into a new Northern Ireland Labour Party can be made into, working class political unity.

It goes from this to general socialist propaganda about nationalising the entire economy. Its version of 'socialism' is bureaucratic, statist, and somewhat 1890s - Fabian. As James Connolly put it, "State ownership and control is not necessarily socialist - if it were, then the army and the navy, the police, the judges, the gaolers, the informers and the hangmen would all be socialist functionaries as they are all state officials...To the cry of the middle class reformers, 'Make this or that the property of the government', we reply - 'yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property'."

But even if Militant's conception of socialism were more revolutionary, there would still be a problem. In between sub - political industrial issues, and the political maximum, the socialist revolution, they leave a great void. The void is what's wrong with their politics, not that they advocate and want to build working class inter - communal unity at any level possible, and not that they make propaganda for socialism.

A working class political party that can really unite the working class in Ireland, specifically in Northern Ireland, will have to be one that can honestly answer all the problems the key sections of the working class face - and in the first place the 'constitutional question'. Militant's answer is the same as its answer to every living struggle in Britain or anywhere else - propaganda for 'socialism, the only road', combined with a routinist and politically accommodationist approach to the basic struggles of the working class and the labour movement. It is a vicious circle: there can be no socialism without the working class, but the working class is deeply divided. To offer 'socialism' as the solution to this division is simply to restate the problem, not to give an answer.

From this general approach has flowed Militant's record over the last 20 years. Initially it opposed the deployment of British troops on the streets after August 1969, and sympathised with the Catholics. It quickly veered (by 1970 or 1971) to an attitude of condemning the 'sectionalism' and then the 'terrorism' of the Catholics. It was like its attitude to the struggles of blacks, women, gays and others in Britain itself: the Catholic revolt in Northern Ireland was a complication which it wished would go away.

Ever since they have not supported the just revolt of the Catholics. Within the labour movement they are among the most vicious opponents of any attempt to get a calm discussion of the Republicans, their struggle and their objectives. Militant peddles its own cure - alls and nostrums, the famous 'trade union defence force', for example.

A good idea - for a different society. The workforce is heavily stratified as a result of sectarian job preference. This affects the unions, where unity has been possible only on minimal trade union questions and by avoiding politics. The unions reflect the society they exist in. The Protestant UDA is (or at least the mass, 50,000 strong, UDA of 1972 was) the nearest thing to a trade union militia that Northern Ireland will see this side of a revolutionary change of working class consciousness.

Essentially Militant lacks the democratic programme which has to be part of filling the void between trade union minimalism and the socialist revolution. It relates to the political world around it by pretending that the communal divide can be ignored, and that the national question can be pushed aside. It pretends that socialism can be the cure for divisions whose healing is the precondition for socialism in Ireland.

Militant's policy is a recipe for bui1ding a sect in Northern Ireland. It has as little chance of unifying the Six County working class as the previous Labour Party minimalists had. No political formation that does not have in its programme a democratic solution to the Irish national question and to the communal antagonisms in Northern Ireland will even begin to play a positive role in Irish politics.

The best democratic programme is that of a federal united Ireland with as much autonomy for the Protestant community as is compatible with the democratic rights of the majority of the Irish people. An all - Ireland revolutionary movement must be built which integrates this with the direct work of educating and organising the labour movement to fight for workers' power, and which links up with the workers' movement internationally, especially in Britain and in Europe, on the programme of the United States of Europe.

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