[Marxism] Is there an Irish National Question?

Calvin Broadbent calvinbroadbent at hotmail.com
Tue Aug 16 06:00:47 MDT 2005

The survival of the Irish national question

Dr. O'Connor Lysaght (International Marxist Review, Summer 1990)

Is there an Irish national question any longer? Events since the Anglo-Irish 
Treaty of 1921 and, more particularly, the inconclusive struggle of the last 
20 years have caused the national question to be re-examined, in a number of 
cases by people of genuine goodwill.

Traditionally, Marxists have described the Irish situation as being one in 
which the island-nation is oppressed by its neighbour and where opposition 
to this oppression tends to be a progressive struggle preparing the way for 
– and, indeed, leading into – the struggle for socialism. How this struggle 
is envisaged has varied. At first, Marx and Engels believed that its victory 
must await that of the British workers; later they supported the nationalist 
rising of the Republican Fenians in the 1860s; and, finally, they concluded 
that the constitutional tactics of the Parnellite Home Rule movement, which 
had start ed to eliminate landlordism, could also subvert the imperialist 
state machine that held the country. In their time, Lenin and Trotsky 
continued to accept the Home Rule perspective, partly because most of the 
landlords' holdings had been or were being purchased by their tenants.

After the Easter Rising of 1916 had opened the way for a new and partially 
successful national democratic revolution, the belief that land reform had 
blunted Irish revolutionary fervour disappeared: communist leaders, 
including those such as Radek who had dismissed Irish national claims 
altogether, united to support the Irish Republic. What is more, this support 
continued after the leaders of that Republic had signed it away in the 1921 
Treaty with Britain, leaving its cause to be upheld in arms by the majority 
of its military force (the Irish Republican Army, or IRA), unsupported by 
the majority of nationalists.

Opposition to the Treaty has been continued by Lenin and Trotsky's heirs in 
the Fourth International. In particular, although it was not immediately 
clear that the partition of Ireland was to be the core of Britain's reformed 
domination of the whole country (only Ireland's James Connolly, executed 
after the Easter Rising, had foreseen this), Britain's ability to surrender 
on everything else has established this truth. So not only does the Fourth 
Inter national stand with those who fight for Irish unity and independence 
with all means possible, but it considers that their struggle must become 
one for workers' power if it is to be successful.

This position is consciously opposed by many, including some former 
anti-imperialists in the Irish labour movement. Some of these insist that 
Irish nationalism was counter-revolutionary and anti-democratic from the 
start, objectively if not subjectively. Most would accept it as generally 
progressive until the 1921 Treaty. The subsequent partition of the country 
is interpreted by them, however, as being no more than acceptance of the 
Ulster Protestant democracy's alleged right to self-determination. Its 
justification is assumed by reference to the undoubted Catholic sectarianism 
of the present Republic of the nationalist 26 counties. That state's 
constitutional bans on abortion and divorce are considered adequate 
explanations – and, for some, excuses – for the political and economic 
discrimination maintained by the Ulster regime and its proletarian 
supporters' readiness to follow some of these islands' most reactionary 
politicians in the name of religion against class. After all, it is 
accurately remarked that most of the Republic's workers are also tied to 
bourgeois parties. The weakness of their economic base com pared to the 
Northerners' is not recognized as a natural cause for this, or else it is 
used economistically to prove northern workers' superiority rather than to 
start questioning why, with their advanced base, their consciousness is 

All this is held to prove the British dimension as either non-existent or, 
at least, irrelevant. Irish capitalism is as strong as it can be; its 
weaknesses are internal (and, if explicable, due mainly to 26-County 
Catholicism). If there is an outside imperialist exploiter it is the United 
States of America, which threatens all Western Europe equally. Irish-British 
relations are like those of Belgium and the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, 
Denmark and Germany: states formerly in client-patron relationship but now 
equal partners in the (West) European Community. If the North of Ireland is 
to resolve its problems, this will be through democratic reforms enforced by 
Britain, if from outside, and, in the economic sphere, grubstaked by the EC 
and the USA. The 26-County Republic can contribute only by suppressing its 
irredentist claim for Irish unity. The fight for Irish unity will not only 
not lead to socialism, but is an undemocratic diversion from that end.

The social context for this viewpoint will be considered later. Here, it is 
enough to say that it comes out of 26-County conditions as much as those of 
the Northern Irish Protestant working class. More to the point in hand, it 
pro vides a challenge to revolutionary preconceptions that has not been 
answered by the largest Irish revolutionary nationalist party, Sinn Féin. 
Sinn Féin's failure makes it all the more necessary to answer it here.

The British connection

Ireland's relationship to Britain cannot be explained simply in the terms 
provided by Lenin in his study Imperialism – the highest stage of 
Capitalism. His central concept of twentieth century clientelism through 
colonial investment by metropolitan capital has applied to the North of 
Ireland since its foundation, but has only been a systematic policy since 
1950 when its local industrial situation became more critical. The Republic 
has only made serious efforts to import capital since 1958. It is only since 
1972 that its successive governments have allowed it to become a major 
debtor. Even now, three-fifths of its debt (£15 billion) is owed to 
Ireland's own banks.

Yet this formal metropolitan status cannot be separated from the historical 
context preceding the period when it became significant. Ireland was 
exporting capital before its economy was strong enough to benefit from such 
exports. Until the 1960s, it believed it had no easily worked raw materials 
– one of Lenin's four main reasons to invest in a country. The possibility 
of reducing the price of land sufficiently to justify its potential for 
foreign investors was thwarted in the 1880s by a combination of foreign 
competition and rural agitation. Labour, though relatively cheap compared to 
Britain, was, at least from the moment of partition, expensive compared to 
its comrades in Africa and Asia. However, even when the last two factors – 
cheap labour and land – were more encouraging to investors, Lenin's fourth 
condition – scarcity of capital – remained self-perpetuating. Capital left 
underdeveloped Ireland for the nearby London stockmarket and the more secure 
and profitable holdings of mainstream imperialism.

This direct import of Irish capital is only part (and a decreasing part) of 
Britain's interest in Ireland. Its rulers (at first, just the rulers of 
England always had two basic reasons for their occupation: to milk its 
resources and to prevent it becoming a military threat. Other reasons have 
come and gone: the lobby first of Irish Unionists, and then purely Ulster 
ones, influenced British policy over the centuries (but it must now be 
remembered bitterly that the executors of that policy know no permanent 
friends, only permanent interests). On the other hand, military strategic 
considerations today include the possibility that Ireland will not just 
handicap British defence interests, but might yet become a major social 
revolutionary threat (‘Britain's Cuba’, as feared most publicly by British 
conservatism's right-wing, and less openly by more powerful figures). This 
possibility was apparent at times during the 1919-21 Anglo-Irish War and the 
subsequent Civil War in the 26 counties, as well as during the struggle of 
the last twenty years.

Both these basic reasons for occupation can be questioned and should be 
examined further. Certainly, the economic cause has changed over the years. 
At first, in the Middle Ages, it took the form of the desire of England's 
aristocracy to obtain feudal dues from Ireland's less-developed society. 
Soon, this was reinforced by English royalty's need for finance, which 
became more important as its other supplies were controlled by its 
parliaments. Before this could be limited, feudal dues had given way to 
capitalist landlord ism for the British landed interest. The landlords 
cleared their estates, aided by the 1846 famine, to produce cattle for the 
British market. When this was undercut by competition from the ranches and 
freezing factories of the new world, the growth of British capitalism, 
industrial and financial, had provided a new conduit for Irish capital 
exports. The nationally-owned Irish banks had been founded during the 
nationalist agitation of Daniel O'Connell in the early nineteenth century 
with the aim of investing Irish savings in projected local industries, under 
an Irish parliament. In practice, not only was the said parliament 
postponed, but shortage of Irish coal and iron aborted such expansion in the 
steam age. The banks proved effective exporters of their investors and 
depositors' funds. Eventually, when part of Ireland did get independence and 
tried to build a self-sufficient capitalist economy, the banks blocked these 
plans and relied on their depositors' fear of interference with their 
economic self-interest to overcome their mere patriotism at the polls.

Today, Irish banks are ready to advance three-fifths of the state's debt, 
but not to move their investments out of foreign industry. So special 
incentives are given to encourage foreign firms to invest in Ireland, with 
diminishing success. In this process, it is certainly true that British 
interests are outnumbered by those of the United States: in 1988, new 
British investment amount ed to a quantified £30m out of a total £270.5m of 
foreign investment, of which the USA had supplied £179m. The point is that 
Britain does have an interest, second only to that of the Americans. What is 
more, it is close enough to be the obvious choice as policeman for all 
imperialist investors.

This links in with the military issue. In 1169, Henry II of England moved to 
prevent his vassal, the Earl of Pembroke, from doing as Henry's 
great-grandfather had done and establishing his own independent state (then 
in England, now in Ireland) from which to attack his liege lord. To block 
this possibility, Henry became ruler of all Ireland, as vassal of the Pope. 
Neither he nor his heirs could enforce their rule over the whole island 
until after they had renounced their own vassalage nearly four centuries 
later. Even then, they could not secure its allegiance. So, to keep down the 
Catholic Irish, the English – and later their partners, the Scots – settled 
Protestants from their own island, most effectively in the north-east. New 
insurrections of the natives led to Catholics being deprived of most civil 
and political rights during most of the eighteenth century. The repeal of 
many of these penal laws and the 1789 revolution in France raised Irish 
hopes, the disappointment of which led to a rebellion on a new, Republican 
programme. Its defeat was followed by Ireland's incorporation into a 
parliamentary union with Britain. Complete equal rights for Catholics were 
promised but postponed long enough to keep nationalist sentiment from dying. 
New uprisings once again impelled the senior partner in the union to 
jettison the Irish landlord interest and then consider a federal 
relationship (‘Home Rule’). This was blocked by the north-eastern 

A new and more than ever before sustained and broadly-based national 
democratic revolution ended in a compromise by which the garrison was given 
its own federal relationship within the union, while the nationalist 
majority obtained what its leaders claimed was a ‘stepping stone’ to full 
independence, which it proved to be if independence excluded territorial 

The garrison that forms the majority in the province of ‘Northern Ireland’ 
has kept it in being so that the 26-County Republic can enjoy its neutrality 
without worrying the British government. Many would claim that Irish 
neutrality is not such a cause of worry in the nuclear age. In fact, 
countries have been destabilized for less (notably, the Micronesian island 
of Palau). No country with pretensions to great power status is likely to 
feel happy, even now, about a neutral country the size of Ireland relative 
to Britain, that blocks its approaches, unless it is neutral itself. As it 
is, nuclear submarines belonging to Britain and other NATO powers are known 
to patrol in the Irish Sea. A united neutral Ireland would be in a position 
to block such craft passing through the North Channel between Larne in the 
North of Ireland and Portpatrick in Scotland, the narrowest and shallowest 
sea division between the two islands. To keep the Channel open, the British 
government has to control both its shores; it does so under the present 
status quo.

So British imperialism has an interest in Ireland that involves keeping it 
divided. Only complete and public acknowledgement of its authority by the 
rulers of allegedly independent Ireland, literal and open acceptance of its 
satellite status – including entry to NATO – and the maintenance of this 
position for at least a decade could justify Britain allowing Irish unity. 
Ideally, it would probably prefer such a solution to the present 
instability, or even the lesser instability that existed before 1969. The 
trouble is that, while the Republic's response to the struggle to its north 
has not been very favourable to the freedom fighters, it has tended to 
compensate for this over the years by taking a firmer stand on one issue 
open to it: neutrality. This is arguably more formal than real. NATO planes 
fly across Ireland and are even guided by a communications beacon in west 
County Cork. Nonetheless, such collaboration remains covert – more so than 
NATO desires. In the last 25 years, neutrality has been turned slowly but 
definitely from a bargaining chip in negotiations for EC membership into a 
matter of principle. Over 80% of the people of the Republic agree with this.

This makes it all the more important for Britain to maintain its alibi. It 
will not spurn the wishes of its garrison population in the Six-Counties of 
‘Northern Ireland’ on the basic issue of the province's surrender to the 
Irish majority. It might even have got away with this had it been prepared 
without mass or military duress on insisting that the partitioned state be 
administered according to full democratic norms. Instead, from within a year 
of partition, it left matters to its garrison, the Ulster Unionists. They 
had begun their fight against Irish nationalism on an openly anti-democratic 
and imperialistic plat form, denying the Irish the right to 
self-determination. As the struggle progressed, they organized around the 
Orange Order, which had been created to fight against the first Irish 
Republic rising on that very basis. Its central role as organizer of 
Unionism made it impossible for the North of Ireland to be run save on a 
sectarian basis that upheld and extended the discriminatory hiring practices 
common in the area. Today, Protestants have two-and-a-half times better job 
prospects than Catholics in all sectors. Britain allowed this to happen – it 
was interested in its security, not Six-County democracy.

However, after 1945, the British welfare state was applied to its province 
on a non-sectarian basis, without changing its sectarian politics (if 
anything, they worsened) but at the same time raising hopes that they could 
be ended peacefully. The failure to fulfil these hopes began the present 
struggle. Although, forced to make democratic reforms, Britain's good will 
remains suspect. Its attempt to end the basis of Orange power through the 
Fair Employment Bill actually bans positive discrimination in favour of 
Catholics. The only other way to end discrimination, ‘levelling up’, needs 
more more money than is forthcoming – or even more than the £500m guaranteed 
by Britain and the United States when Britain persuaded the 26-County regime 
to accept a consultative role at Hillsborough in 1985 in the Anglo-Irish 
Agreement. (Even here, only £130m has been paid out.)

Building a revolutionary opposition

The vanguard of the struggle against the occupation is – as it has been from 
the beginning, save for sympathetic upsurges on specific issues in the 
Republic – a minority cross-section of the Six-County minority. In this 
cross-section, unemployed workers and the younger children of the 
petty-bourgeoisie have a disproportionate influence since they suffer most 
from the area's sectarian hiring practices. At the same time, such is the 
institutionalised discrimination at all levels that the local national 
bourgeoisie is also reasonably represented. The result is a strong, active 
revolutionary nationalist movement representing 35%-40% of the Six-County's 
nationalist population, with a majority in areas such as West Belfast and 
the border regions of County Armagh and County Fermanagh and a significant 
influence in those counties across the border whose economies have been 
weakened by partition. In all, up to now the necessary struggle for Irish 
unity is that of the political minority of the religious minority within 
Ireland's territorial minority.

This continuing three-fold minority position of the revolutionary 
nationalist movement gives superficial justification to the arguments that 
the crisis in the North of Ireland can be ended in the North of Ireland 
itself, arguments that are not only put forward by pro-imperialists. Whether 
this was ever possible is doubtful; its current impossibility is certain, 
given the problems of levelling job opportunities between the religious 
communities. In practice, of course, this cannot be done without outside 
aid, either to hold the ring or to supply money to level up the difference. 
For most of its proponents, then, the ‘internal solution’ is an internal 
United Kingdom solution. The only support ers of an internal Six-County 
solution (called, significantly, UDI à la lan Smith's Rhodesia) are, 
spasmodically, groups and individuals adhering to extreme right-wing 
Unionism who understand it as an assurance of permanent Protestant power.

The one further point about the ‘internal solution’ that is advocated by all 
its supporters – from the Communist Party of Ireland (who hope to create the 
conditions for selling Irish unity to the Unionists) to the Loyalist terror 
group, the UDA – is the North of Irish Bill of Rights. All the drafts of 
this include provision allowing it to be suspended by the provincial regime 
‘in case of emergency’. More fundamental in the Bill's inability to heal the 
the North of Irish rift is the fact that such measures cannot impose unity 
on divided societies – indeed, such Bills of Rights can only function 
insofar as there is agreement around the nature of the rights they 
guarantee. Such agreement does not and cannot exist on a Six-County basis.

So the question confronting revolutionary socialists must be: where can Ire 
land's revolutionary minority seek allies if it is to win? Of course, there 
have been, and still are, those who would insist that it does not need to 
win allies, only benevolent neutrals. For them, the war will be won by the 
Republican movement's (the tern generally used for the major nationalist 
organization Sinn Féin and its armed wing the Irish Republican Army – IRA) 
superiority of arms – notably supplies of Libyan Semtex [plastic explosive], 
heat-seeking missiles and superior mortars. The first objection to this 
argument is that it supposes an aggressive armed struggle. Yet this is not 
the basis on which the Republican movement gains most of its support, but 
rather because its arms protect the nationalist areas in the North of 
Ireland against even worse attacks from the British and Loyalists. Already, 
it is doubtful whether the Republicans have the numbers to hold the supplies 
they need and protect their people.

The second objection is reflected in the fact that those who assert the 
possibility of their lone victory can also recognize, unlike the proponents 
of the ‘internal solution’, Britain's determination to keep its Irish base. 
Such determination will not be beaten by weapons alone. As yet, Britain has 
been able to fight a partly military and partly democratic struggle; it 
hopes to hold all the six counties and to win an internal settlement 
satisfactory to it. However, if the Republicans ever looked like forcing its 
withdrawal, Britain would be able to take the offensive, rebuild its bridges 
with the Unionists and abandon civil rights to fight an immediate and 
terrible war. This might provoke work ers in the 26-Counties, as previous 
British atrocities have done. Whether this result would tip the scales for 
Irish unity if achieved in this way is doubtful, and becomes more dubious 
the longer the current struggle is prolonged. More likely, such a war would 
let Britain lose the less-prosperous Ulster hinterland west of the River 
Bann, while it kept a more secure position in the are as of the largest 
Protestant majorities on the west shore of the North Channel, with some 
population exchanges.

So the Republican movement, being still the largest of all Irish 
revolutionary bodies, has a responsibility to maximize its support outside 
of its northern strongholds. It has three groups from which it can choose, 
beyond its chances of becoming a majority of the Six-County minority which 
cannot be an adequate substitute for any of the others. The three are:

o The northern Irish Protestant majority;

o the national bourgeoisie in the Republic;

o the working class in the Republic.

Only one of these provides the correct strategic priority. Appealing to the 
Ulster Protestants leads immediately to the ‘internal solution’. The vast 
majority of this community has no interest in Irish unity other than as part 
of a socialist workers' republic and, more to the immediate point, it cannot 
itself even make this exception when such a republic is not on the obvious 
agenda. What is more, the Protestant majority is particularly hostile to the 
Republicans’ armed struggle, whose aim they think is genocide against them. 
As long as it continues on its present offensive basis, its organizers and 
supporters are the very last people among whom the political leaders of 
Ulster Protestant ism will seek allies.

One group of former Republicans have learnt this lesson with disastrous 
results. At the end of the 1960s, influenced by the Moscow-line Stalinist 
par ties (they were then divided along the border), the then united 
Republican movement helped to initiate a campaign for limited political 
reforms that would give equal rights to both communities, mainly through the 
practices already working in Britain. Although these did not attempt to 
change the job discrimination on which the North of Ireland is founded, they 
did attack directly a number of discriminatory practices, particularly in 
housing, and started a chain reaction that exploded when the Orangemen and 
their state forces tried to impose military control on the Catholic areas of 
Derry and Belfast in August 1969. Their inability to do this immediately led 
to the reinforcement of the British Army garrison and its use as a police 
force. Indirectly, it also led to the Republican movement splitting, the 
minority reverting to the more traditional armed struggle strategy that, as 
the only movement, it continues today. The majority continued to develop the 
strategy of the ‘internal solution’, refining it so that it became centred 
around the North of Irish Bill of Rights. However, it began to go beyond its 
inspirers of the now-united Communist Party of Ireland (CPI). This group was 
content to insist on its strategy's reformist nature against the revived 
armed struggle.

The majority ‘Official’ Republicans went further. On the one hand, they 
refused to limit themselves to the CPI's wish that they should be the party 
of the national democratic stage of the struggle, and proclaimed themselves 
its socialist vanguard. On the other hand, seeing that the ‘internal 
solution’ was failing to win over Protestant workers, they have chosen to 
intensify their commitment to its principle: concentrating on appealing to 
and apologizing for Unionism (one of their most sophisticated ideologists, 
Henry Patterson, sees anti-Catholic sectarianism as a major source of 
socialism); liquidating their army; abandoning the name Sinn Féin (they are 
now the Workers' Party); and attacking Sinn Féin itself as ‘fascist’. This 
has earned them exemption from Orange strictures against Republicanism, 
without winning them more Protestant support. Subsequently, they have lost 
nearly all their former influence among the North of Irish Nationalist 
minority. Their socialist programme has, however, won them votes and seats 
in the Republic where the Labour Party is only just breaking from a period 
of 17 years of collaboration with the least nationalist of the major 
capitalist parties.

One thing should be added. The fact that the Ulster Protestant community, 
even the workers within it, are not immediate allies in struggle against 
imperialism does not mean that they will always oppose it. The Ulster 
Protestant working class has had a developed economic base for longer than 
the work ers in any other part of Ireland. It has produced labour leaders 
who compare favourably with most of those elsewhere. Its weakness is that 
the conditions that created this base also revived the sectarianism that 
negated its effects: the best leaders of Ulster Protestant workers have 
tended to be more politically isolated within their community than other 
Irish labour leaders. This can not always be. Faced with a genuine secular 
socialist revolutionary movement that hegemonizes the mass of Irish 
nationalist workers and seeks state power actively – a movement that has not 
yet been seen in Ireland, but this does not mean that it is impossible – 
then it can be expected that Ulster's workers of both traditions will unite 
in a higher cause than that of political rights within one union.

The Stalinists of the CPI do not limit their stagist perspective just to the 
North of Ireland. This is but one part of a three-stage strategy, the second 
being Irish unity and the third socialism (on a united Ireland basis, of 
course, but not beyond this). This enables the Party to see its first stage 
in separate parts, north and south. What this means is that while they seek 
Unionist allies in the north they work for an apparently contradictory 
nationalist alliance in the Republic. In their schema, full political 
democracy in the North of Ireland will be the condition in which Unionists 
will become democratic nationalists. This underestimates the base of 
Unionism. What is more, it overestimates the nationalism of the Irish 
bourgeoisie as it has developed outside the North of Ireland since 1921.

In the smaller area, conditions have maintained the revolutionary potential 
of bourgeois nationalism; in the larger area, this potential is practically 
extinguished outside the border counties. In the Republic, the capitalists 
have built a secure base, with an economy more separate from that of the 
North of lreland than it is from that of Britain. This base expanded 
industrially in the 1930s under policies of self-sufficiency initiated by 
Fianna Fáil. the constitutional heir of the militant opponents of the 1921 
Treaty. By the end of the 1950s, the policies necessary to ensure economic 
independence were too radical for Irish capital. The economy was reopened to 
multinational firms with immediate, if short-lived, success as far as 
unemployment was concerned. From the end of the 1960s unemployment has 
tended to increase, while in this decade it has engendered a rise in 
emigration for the first time since the 1950s.

Despite this, the capitalist classes enjoy a measure of stability that is 
threatened by the activities of their fellow nationalists in the North of 
Ireland. Early in this struggle, to stave off its spread, they attempted to 
reduce economic discontent with increased government expenditure, which has 
increased the national debt to a level where it has come to be perceived as 
an even greater destabilizer than the national struggle. So, since 1982, the 
debt has been attacked by a series of retrenchment policies. At the same 
time, the more consistent constitutional nationalists have been reassured by 
measures such as the 1984 nationalist forum, which formally reasserted the 
aim of Irish unity, and then by the 1985 Hillsborough Agreement, which gave 
the Republic an institutionalised although purely consultative role in the 
British-occupied area. This Agreement was signed by representatives of a 
coalition of the old pro-Treaty party, Fine Gael, and the Irish Labour 
Party. Its limitations were recognized and denounced by Fianna Fáil, then in 
opposition. But in 1987, Fianna Fáil was returned to power and has since 
operated as though it never had any doubts.

All sections of the Republic's bourgeoisie agree about seeing Ireland's 
future through the perspective of being part of the (West) European 
Community, which it values as a source of funds. In fact, such funds do not 
compensate the Republic for its outflow of public funds. The Community is 
offering the whole of Ireland a lump sum of £4 billion, slightly more than 
two years interest on the Republic's foreign debt (£1.8 billion). 
Furthermore, this money will have to be spent on reconstructing the island's 
roads to bring them up to West European standards. All that can be said for 
the EC's generosity is that it is considerably greater than that of the 
United States.

This account of the development of 26-County capitalism could be portrayed 
as the history of a developed, if inefficient, metropolitan bourgeoisie. 
This is, indeed, the interpretation made by the Socialist Workers' Movement 
(SWM), the Cliffite (‘state capitalist’) group, which is one of the largest 
non-Stalinist and non-Republican groups on the Irish revolutionary left. For 
the SWM, since 1921 the 26 counties have enjoyed as much control over their 
economy as is compatible with capitalism. From this, it follows that it is 
capitalism rather than national oppression that is, subjectively as well as 
objectively, the primary enemy of the Irish revolution. The country is too 
advanced for any strategy of permanent revolution – socialist struggle 
emerging out of the democratic one – in the sense that it may have succeed 
ed elsewhere. Irish unity and secular democracy are secondary, if 
unavoidable, demands, with the struggles to achieve them simply ‘part of the 
necessary training of the working class to fight oppression’ (Socialist 
Worker, January 1989).

The economic facts that underpin this argument are unimpressive. A large 
proportion of them depend on the strength of the native banks, still 
claiming their three-fifths of the national debt. However, in the first 
place, national oppression is not linked directly to economic factors – for 
example, Catalonia and Euzkadi have been relatively prosperous parts of 
Spain. What is more, Irish banking was even stronger and more independent of 
Britain at the time of the Anglo-Irish War. Today, all Irish banks, with one 
possible exception, are controlled by British interests. And the one 
doubtful one (but the biggest), the Bank of Ireland, has at least 40% of its 
stock in British hands. They were more independent in 1921. Even so, then as 
now, founded to fund an industrial revolution that lacked the raw materials 
to exist, the banks were as much an instrument of national oppression as of 
capitalist exploitation. They syphoned off capital resources that could have 
been used to fund jobs for those who were forced to emigrate to find work, 
whose earnings since 1921 could have provided only positive payment 
balances. The importance of the banks to their depositors in what was, until 
the 1960s, a predominantly peasant society has made it impossible for the 
constitutional heirs of the anti-Treatyites to deal with them. The most 
definite challenge to the banks, by the constitutional Republican Clann na 
Poblachta in 1948, almost certainly lost it both votes and seats.

Here again, it is clear that what Wolfe Tone, Irish Republicanism's 
ideological ancestor, called ‘breaking the connection with Britain’ must 
mean breaking Irish finance capital. And while schematically the reverse can 
be said to be true, the history of the last 20 years shows that, by 
spreading the struggle for unity against the uneasy stability that justifies 
capital's resistance and the divided state power that defends it, 
revolutionaries can overcome the opposition of the banks and their 
depositors. Without the national struggle as the booster – in effect, if 
this struggle is defeated – no anti-capitalist revolution is likely to 
succeed in Ireland for many years.

Before 1922, two out of three national general strikes were around demands 
connected to the national cause. Since then, the only general stoppage 
unconnected to the northern issue was an impressive but isolated and 
unsuccessful one for a better deal for workers contributing to the Pay As 
You Earn (PAYE) taxation scheme. The Socialist Workers' Movement warns 
against socialist revolutionaries ‘riding the nationalist tiger’. The danger 
is there, of course: the last years of national revolutionary downturn have 
seen the swallowing of socialist revolutionaries – and in many cases, their 
digestion – by the said tiger. The point is that these have been years of 
downturn. Similar phenomena occurred at similar moments during and after the 
Anglo-Irish War. When the struggle takes off again, an inevitable condition 
and result of this remobilization will be the development of the nationalist 
struggle towards a socialist perspective.

There is another reason given (although not used by the SWM) for denying the 
subjective political priority of Irish unity. This is the sectarian nature 
of the state established and ruled by the leaders of those who fought for 
Irish independence and unity. The results of the referenda on abortion and 
divorce have had a demoralizing effect on many democrats' aspirations for a 
united Ireland. In fact, the fighters in the Anglo-Irish War did not have 
strong views about keeping their state free of birth control and divorce. 
The Catholic hierarchy did not support the freedom fighters in this 
struggle, lest it open its divisions (after all, most of its members were 
constitutional ‘Home Rule’ nationalists). It could unite only to support the 
Treaty, albeit with necessary token protests against partition. In the new 
state, with more than 90% of the population Catholic, it was natural that 
the majority Church be in a strong position. Natural, too, that successive 
26-County governments keep in with it by ensuring that their decisions were 
guided by it, particularly on sexual matters. Today, Catholic dominance of 
the 26-County state is a necessary part of that state's stability within the 
partition settlement; its political base is strong because of partition.

This does not mean that clericalism can be ignored, any more than that 
opposing partition means accepting capitalist economics. Not least of the 
weaknesses of the Communist Party's appeal to the 26-County national 
bourgeoisie is that it accepts the degree to which they are tied to 
clericalism. Indeed, once partition had been imposed, it was the 
constitutional heirs of the Anti-Treaty fighters – Fianna Fáil and Seán 
MacBride's supporters of the smaller Clann na Poblachta – which tended to 
indulge in Dutch auctions of sectarianism to keep the priests quiet on their 
nationalist demands. In the last 20 years, this historic fact has provided 
the excuse, and the current national struggle the opportunity, for many 
pro-imperialists to assert themselves as leaders of the only democratic 
causes open to them: the struggles for the right to abortion and divorce. In 
the campaign for divorce, its leaders' extreme hostility to revolutionary 
nationalism was a factor in its defeat. This hostility was particularly 
shortsighted because Sinn Féin does not lean towards clericalism and has the 
firmest pro-abortion position of all the major Irish parties. (It is its 
offensive military strategy, involving attacks on Protestant non-combatants, 
particularly by the former West Fermanagh Brigade of the IRA, that gives 
Republicanism its sectarian label.) The Communist Party is trying to sell 
the national struggle not to the genuine democrats who campaign for women's 
rights, but to the bigots who oppose them. It advises Sinn Féin to ally with 
people who believe that Irish unity can be achieved under the Republic's 
clerically limited constitution, many of whom would not want it otherwise. 
The radical support for abortion and divorce rights (33% in the two 
referenda, against Sinn Féin's 2% in the Republic's general election) is to 
be ignored.

Finally, as for the Republic's national bourgeoisie, the cultural expression 
of its inadequacy both as a nationalist force and a developed imperial 
metropolis is its active role as patron to the opponents of its expansion. 
Such opponents exist in all states. In the Republic, the smallness of the 
milieu and the continuing limitation of higher education to a bourgeois 
elite comprising a smaller share of the state's population than elsewhere, 
has helped ensure that a monolithic view of the Irish situation is enforced 
in academic and media life. The bourgeoisie's single-minded intellectual 
dumping of the struggle that led to the founding of its state may seem 
strange until it is understood that the majority of this class has always 
accepted the Treaty as its title to state power. Its new enthusiasm is 
benefiting it. Over the last two decades, the power of its state against 
civil liberties has grown with little protest, since this growth has been 
directed specifically against Republicans.

The national democratic revolution cannot and should not seek to expand its 
support among the Ulster Loyalists or the 26-County bourgeoisie. There 
remains the third possibility: the working class in the south. The 
Republic's bourgeoisie – or, at least, its less anti-nationalist wing traces 
its ancestry to those who fought the Anglo-Irish War. Not all who can claim 
this inheritance were or are bourgeois. Despite the betrayals of its leaders 
and the resultant slowness of its members to go beyond trade-union 
consciousness, despite its backwardness that left many open to the 
anti-nationalism of its country's capitalists and despite the errors of the 
Republican movement itself and its inability to appeal on working class 
lines, it remains true that the 26-County workers are less hostile to the 
struggle for Irish unity than their bosses. The two major advances that the 
struggle made into their area were also its advances towards a working class 
strategy. Both the strike after the British Army's massacre of civil rights 
demonstrators on Bloody Sunday 1972 and the Hunger Strike agitations of 
1980-81 involved large-scale, partially spontaneous, mobilizations of 

The problem is how to build on this potential. On the positive side, it must 
be recognized that bringing the struggle into the 26 counties must involve 
transforming it into a class one. A programme must be prepared as the centre 
for all future struggles around the core and present active revolutionary 
demand for a united Ireland. This Freedom Charter must include transitional 
demands. These can be developed. Of the transitional demands, however, it is 
clear that repudiation of the debt must be included to release the £1.8bn 
per annum interest for reconstruction, as well as the savings on the border 
garrisons. But the most important fact about a Freedom Charter is that, once 
draft ed, it should become the central focus of anti-imperialist strategy.

And this raises the negative point. Any front to implement a Freedom Char 
ter has to include Sinn Féin, which is probably larger than all the other 
anti-imperialist bodies put together. Sinn Féin's strategy is not even 
centred on its own political programme but, rather, on its minimalist duty 
to support the aggressive armed struggle that it sees being waged by the 
Irish Republican Army. Time and again, this struggle – fought as if its 
soldiers can drive the British Army into the sea – has inevitably blundered, 
killing civilians pointlessly and increasing hostility to it from 26-County 
workers who become more open to the enemies of Irish unity arguing against 
any revolution developing beyond the Catholic parts of the North of Ireland.

The Communist Party's answer to this, true to its apocalyptic vision of a 
grand alliance combining Loyalists and Catholic bigots, is to call for a 
cease- fire. (This is the most friendly solution of all the groups that 
support an internal settlement.) There are two objections to this. Firstly, 
the IRA cannot enforce a cease-fire; there are too many armed groups already 
outside its control that dissident elements could join. More importantly, on 
the form of the two previous cease-fires in 1972 and 1975, the British and 
Loyalists will ignore such a move. For them, it will be a sign of weakness 
enabling them to smash all nationalist resistance once and for all. This 
reaction may stimulate a revival of this resistance and even (as such a move 
did with Bloody Sunday and the Hunger Strikes) stimulate the reaction in the 
Republic that is necessary for victory. The trouble is that, as on previous 
occasions, the process leading to this escalation will not have been 
prepared and is likely to collapse. It would be a gamble that should not be 

Instead, the fighters should change their strategy within the armed 
struggle. They should see themselves not as the vanguard of what is still a 
non-existent rising in arms of the Irish people, but as defenders of the 
Northern Catholics (on whom their actual existing support depends) and, 
still more accurately, guarantors that the existing state repression will 
not go beyond a certain point. This will enable them to adapt their tactics, 
like their allies, to the claims of the Freedom Charter.

The Irish national question remains acute. It can only be solved by 
transcending its existing minimum programme of Irish unity through the 
process of permanent revolution. Beyond this, it is a long speculation but 
it should be added that this process may mean that the solution of the Irish 
question in favour of the oppressed and exploited will be the greatest 
revolutionary change in Western Europe since 1945. As such, it is likely to 
be the sign that the said permanent revolution is beginning for Ireland's 

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