Back to Connolly – Forward to Workers' Unity

 “An Irish Republic, the only purely political change in Ireland worth crossing the street for will never be realised except by a revolutionary party that proceeds upon the premise that the capitalist and the landlord classes in town and country in Ireland are criminal accomplices with the British government, in the enslavement and subjection of the nation. Such a revolutionary party must be socialist, and from socialism alone can the salvation of Ireland come.”

James Connolly, The Harp, March 1909


Next year we will celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising. Seven years after the above words were written, James Connolly, wounded in that struggle and unable to stand, was tied to a chair and shot dead by the British army. Nine decades later England’s first colony remains one of British imperialism’s last possessions. Five years after that Rising was brutally crushed, Ireland was criminally divided by British imperialism and remains so to this day. Throughout the intervening years there has always been an organisation calling itself the Irish Republican Army fighting some kind of armed struggle with the declared aim of driving out British imperialism and re-uniting Ireland. Until now.

The recent declaration by the leadership of the Provisional IRA that the armed struggle is over has been reported in the media as an historic turning point and a fundamental departure in Irish politics. In reality it is the inevitable continuation of the process that led to the ceasefire declared in 1994, and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Several statements had already been issued about arms being “put beyond use” and “the complete cessation of violence” so, in one sense, this is nothing fundamentally new. However, these earlier statements were not enough for the Unionist politicians who are preventing the devolved Stormont assembly from meeting. The Sinn Fein leadership has pinned all its hopes on the convening of that assembly, and so a further statement was needed.

The impact of the Northern Bank robbery, and even more so the murder of Robert McCartney, compelled the leadership of Sinn Fein to go further than before. The new international atmosphere – the so-called war on terror – had an effect too. They were coming under renewed pressure from several angles, not least from the Establishment (the Irish, American and British ruling classes) from whom some of them crave acceptance.

Of course, the Unionist leaders greeted this statement with suspicion and hostility. Nothing will ever be enough for Paisley and co. whose only purpose is to oppose any step towards a united Ireland, whose only policy is to instil fear into the Protestant population that they would suffer oppression and discrimination as a result.

The roots of this decision to announce the end of the armed struggle can be traced back to the mid-1980s in the change of tack by the Sinn Fein leadership with the turn to the policy of the Armalite and the ballot box. As one republican wittily commented this has now been traded in for the Armani and the ballot box.

In another sense one could say that the roots of this latest development go all the way back to the abandonment of armed struggle by the IRA in the 1960s, and then the split which led to the creation of the Provisional movement in the first place. From this point of view many will be asking now what was the point of the last 30 years? Dolours Price asks in The Blanket in an Open Letter to Gerry Adams: “So Gerry it has come to this. Not a lot when all is considered, nothing that didn’t already exist since the creation of the State. Constitutional Nationalism has been a part of Six County politics since forever… Not a lot to see so many people dead for, hardly a resounding victory, not even a resounding compromise.” (The Blanket, 31/07/05)

In this sense the end of military operations is an important turning point, particularly for the Provisional Republican movement. As Marxists we support the end of the military campaign but we have to ask what is to replace it?

Marxists are not pacifists, but do we do not glorify violence either. We base ourselves on the struggles of the working class internationally, its traditions and methods of struggle. As Marx explained the task of the emancipation of the working class is the task of the workers themselves. For that reason Marxism has always opposed the methods of individual terrorism, a campaign of bombings and assassinations, not for sentimental reasons, but above all because it could not work. Where such methods were used they could never defeat British imperialism, worse they were counter-productive, serving to drive a section of the Protestant population into the arms of reactionary loyalism, and therefore reinforcing the sectarian divide.

We base ourselves on Connolly who organised an armed force in the shape of the Irish Citizens’ Army - in the first place to defend workers from the attacks of scabs and the bosses’ hired thugs - as part of the mass movement of the working class. Connolly explained a thousand times that we must change society “peacefully if possible, by force if necessary.”

We are in favour of participating in elections, of using them as a platform to reach workers with our ideas, of using the council chamber or the floor of parliament for the same purpose. But this is not nearly enough on its own, it must be combined with organising workers and youth around a programme of socialist revolution. In the case of Sinn Fein the armed struggle and the ballot box has been replaced with nothing but more ballot boxes.

At least a section of the Provisional Republican movement will now be feeling demoralised and betrayed. They and many others, especially the young people who have just started to become involved in politics, will want to know - what next? If the goal remains a united Ireland free from the domination of British imperialism, as the Provisionals’ statement says, then how is that to be achieved? Clearly not by the kind of armed struggle we have seen over the last decades because that has failed.

According to some all we have to do is wait. The development of the market, globalisation and economic necessity will inevitably lead to a united Ireland in the end. Former Labour Party Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley, for example, argues in The Guardian: “The hopes of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera will be realised courtesy of the global market and the European Union. The inexorable pressure of economic reality is dragging the six counties closer and closer to the republic. Where economics leads, politics is bound to follow. Industry and commerce grow closer day by day and the institutions of government will soon reflect that shift from partnership to integration… If the peace holds, Stormont will be revived and progress to unity will go irresistibly on… the war is won, because time and logic are on the side of Irish unity. All they have to do is wait.”

Exactly how much longer that wait will be he does not inform us. Frankly the Irish working class has ‘waited’ long enough. Now they should wait without jobs, in poor housing, in a divided society until the rich southern bosses simply buy the north? This is no more plausible than the old idea of waiting for the size of the Catholic population to overtake the Protestant population. This ‘theory’ never took into account that the fears of that Protestant population, of becoming an oppressed minority, whipped up by the sectarian loyalist politicians, would not simply vanish the day there were more Catholics north of the border than Protestants, even if that were ever to happen. On the contrary, along the way those fears would have been whipped up into a frenzy.

The economic inevitability argument holds no water precisely because it completely ignores the sectarian divide in the population. It is an economic ‘theory’ completely divorced from politics and the real situation that exists. In the same way politicians like Hattersley think European integration is inevitable, ignoring the different interests of the different national ruling classes, which block the path to a more rational pooling of the resources of the continent. The division of the world into rival nation states, and of society into contending classes is inherent in capitalism. One of the historic tasks of capitalism was to create borders. The struggle against borders is the struggle for socialism.

What is the way forward being offered by the leadership of Sinn Fein? The leadership of the Provisionals has recognised that their military campaign failed and could not win. This was already the case before the current ‘war on terror’ and the accompanying propaganda of fear added a new dimension to the war weariness of the population. This perhaps partly explains why there have not been splits in the Provisional movement at this stage, as there have been in the past. That can change but in any case there is no basis for a return to armed struggle in the near future.

The next stage in the process will be to dump arms. The whole of the last period has been dominated by calls for Provisional IRA weapons to be decommissioned. Meanwhile the loyalist paramilitaries have no intention of giving up their guns. According to the Ulster Defence Association, “if people think loyalism is just going to follow suit, it’s a non-event. There’s an awful lot of dialogue to get through.” (The Guardian 29/07/05)

The loyalist organisations are currently engaged in a ferocious turf war where criminal gangs fight, maim and kill over drug dealing and racketeering. For this reason alone they will not hand over their weapons. They remain a serious threat to workers from all communities, as the current violence in Ardoyne demonstrates.

Now, with the cover of armed struggle removed, those elements in the Provisional Republican movement who have been engaged in criminal activities have also been exposed. The Northern Bank robbery and the brutal murder of Robert McCartney are only the most recent examples of a descent into gangsterism by a section of the Provisionals.

There is an inevitable tendency towards lumpenism and banditry in militarist and terrorist style organisations when they are isolated from the mass movement. The Mafia, for example, originated as a guerrilla struggle against the Bourbons in Sicily. The Triads were originally part of a Chinese Nationalist force. Now we have the ‘Ra-fia’.

There is a great deal of sarcasm in the British press now about Provisional IRA members becoming ‘as harmless as the British Legion’. Some of these wiseacres talk about ‘poachers turning gamekeepers’, proposing their inclusion into the police force. That piece of the jigsaw is unlikely to fit, but Sinn Fein into the PSNI can go, indeed this will probably be their next step. Those in and around the Provisional Republican movement will want to know what is the next stage of the struggle. The answer would appear to be that Sinn Fein will join the policing board, no doubt behind the cover of needing to defend communities from sectarian attack.

The leaders of Sinn Fein have pinned all their hopes on a purely parliamentary campaign. They have swapped their ideals for ministerial portfolios. They have been desperately courting the approval of George Bush. Those in Britain who oppose British and American imperialism in Iraq but say nothing about the imperialist occupation across the Irish sea are mirrored by the Sinn Fein leaders who oppose British imperialism being in Ireland but shake the hand of Bush and co as though they were brothers.

Throughout its history there have always been two trends in republicanism – socialist and capitalist wings, internationalists and nationalists. Sinn Fein is not anti-imperialist, it is nationalist. From the policies they have pursued on the few days that Stormont met, supporting privatisation for example, it is clear that their policy is capitalist and not socialist.

The peace process has meant that Sinn Fein has already made big electoral gains in the north where it has eclipsed the SDLP. This is, in part, due to the initial (perceived) success in gaining devolution, and promising peace and progress. It is also partly a response to the growth of Paisley and co. At the same time, Paisley and the DUP have gained votes and seats overtaking the UUP by whipping up fears that the British government was making too many concessions, and in response to the growth of Sinn Fein. They are two sides of the same coin. As the one has grown so too has the other. This is yet another indication of how the Good Friday Agreement has acted to entrench sectarianism.

Sinn Fein has built up its support in the south too. The latest polls put them on 11 percent. Repeated in an election this would increase their representation in the Dail, and, in the immediate future, that support will probably increase again. Adams and co. imagine they can become at least junior partners in coalitions north and south of the border simultaneously. Well, that remains to be seen, perhaps they can – but so what if they do? They can become junior partners in a capitalist government in the south that does not want to unite Ireland, and be responsible for implementing their anti-working class policies. After all, if the prospect of uniting Ireland is dependent on the growth of southern capitalism, and the wealth of the southern bosses, the national interest will be to do whatever is necessary to increase the profits of Irish companies. That of course can only be achieved by attacking the wages and conditions of Irish workers. This is what comes of putting ‘national interests’ (i.e. the interests of the Irish bourgeoisie) before class interests.

The political parties in the south are permanently searching for coalition partners in order to hold office. Some in the leadership of Labour are now using these latest developments as an excuse to enter a new coalition with Fianna Fail, under the slogan of ‘keeping Sinn Fein out.’ Interestingly a section of the trade union movement is arguing against Labour entering coalitions with these bosses’ parties and fighting independently.

Sinn Fein entering a coalition government in the south would not mean a single step in the direction of uniting Ireland. It would gain them more ministerial portfolios, get their foot further inside the door of the establishment, but achieve nothing for the Irish working class.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein is now the second biggest party in the north, but there is little likelihood of Stormont meeting any time soon. The biggest party in Stormont (and at Westminster from the six counties) is Paisley’s DUP. If Stormont does eventually meet then Paisley has made it quite clear that they will not accept a single step in the direction of unification. “there can be no place in any future government of Northern Ireland for IRA/Sinn Fein. As the representatives of the majority of the Ulster population, we will not be engaged in any negotiations with that aim… Into their counsels the unionists of Ulster will never enter nor will they gain their goal of a united Ireland.”

Ludicrously Paisley describes the current situation as a “sell out by Blair” and a “surrender to the IRA.” However, with no alternative on offer, the old threat of swapping places with an oppressed Catholic minority will continue to frighten a section of the Protestant population.

Protestant workers are hardly likely to be convinced of the benefits of becoming a minority in a united Ireland that cannot provide for the needs of everyone. The annual violence around Orange Order marches every July is a taste of what would happen if they were pushed in that direction against their will.

While this prospect - a capitalist united Ireland of poverty - is the best that is on offer, with no alternative holding any attraction for ordinary Protestant workers in sight, a significant section of the Protestant population can be stirred up by Unionist and Loyalist politicians.

Paisley and co. present the Good Friday Agreement and Stormont as steps in the direction of unification. They are not. Yet, ironically, they are aided and abetted in this misrepresentation by the leaders of Sinn Fein who also present the institutions of devolution as progress towards a united Ireland.

In short, the leadership of Sinn Fein does not just see the Good Friday Agreement as a means to achieve their objectives; they now see it as their only means. We will repeat what we said from the beginning. This agreement is a sham and a deception and a lie. There have been some concessions. Some prisoners have been released, the RUC has changed its name, some watchtowers are coming down, and there is the prospect of some troops being removed. Three battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment are to be disbanded. There is a promise of discussions about ‘on the runs.’

It must be said that in the main these concessions have been the consequences of the last thirty years. What there has not been is one single step in the direction of a united Ireland, and on the basis of this phoney agreement there will not be.

Down this road there is no path to unity and the expulsion of imperialism, only a dead end, a cul-de-sac of accepting partition and reinforcing the sectarian divide.

Even if the Assembly meets it can make no difference to the lives of working class families. Its task is to oversee the implementation of a capitalist policy in the six counties. It is possible that it can be resuscitated for a while, but as the much-vaunted solution to the problems of Ireland it is dead.

Stormont is currently suspended for the fourth time in its short history. This version of ‘democracy’ it seems can be turned on and off like a tap in London. In any case this is not even the limited parliamentary democracy on offer in Britain. Elections are a sectarian head count with 93 percent of the votes distributed amongst the bloc of four sectarian parties. This is power sharing with a unionist veto.

At present we have another period of direct rule from Westminster. This can be the source of further crises within Sinn Fein the longer it continues. The Sinn Fein leaders need Stormont to be restored; their reputations and their support are tied to the rickety chariot of devolution.

British imperialism, too, is keen to restore devolved power. The purpose of the peace process and devolution from the point of view of British imperialism is, at least in part, to be able to cut costs. They would like to create stability for the more thorough capitalist exploitation of the Irish working class. Short of that they would at least like to cut back on the £4 billion a year they are spending in Ireland.

At present there are more troops stationed in the six counties than in Iraq. Now the Secretary of State talks of ‘normalising’, of a new situation where bobbies patrol their beat on bicycles, without any military back-up. He paints a pretty picture, but this is also a lie. They intend to keep 5000 troops stationed in the six counties, this is hardly ‘normal’, it is scaled down occupation, and it tells us a lot about their perspectives.

Although there is no prospect of a return to armed struggle at present, in the long run since capitalism cannot solve one of the problems facing Irish workers, and those problems are the breeding ground of sectarianism, the ruling class evidently foresees a new descent into violence at some stage. This is a tacit admission that they are powerless to solve the mess they created. Clearly this is a class brim full of confidence in the future and in the abilities of their system!

The old Sinn Fein policy of getting rid of the border first then socialism in the sweet by and by has been replaced by winning elections in two parliaments first (in other words power, or more accurately office) then unification in the sweet by and by. Socialism does not even get a look in. To the old ‘two stages’ it seems they have now added a few more. They seem to have fallen for the Sunday Business Post line that “peace can only come when dreams of total victory are surrendered.”

The first problem with this policy is that the southern bourgeoisie do not want to unite with the north. The southern capitalist class abandoned any demands for unity some time ago. Meanwhile a big section of the population in the north fear becoming an oppressed minority in a united Ireland of poverty and unemployment. The Nationalist leadership of Sinn Fein have effectively abandoned an armed struggle and the ‘two stage theory’, in favour of a purely parliamentary road to holding office north and south (and power in neither) then, eventually, some time later, a united capitalist Ireland.

But this cannot succeed either. The Protestant population could not be bombed into a united Ireland, nor will they be voted into one that cannot offer them jobs, houses, healthcare and cannot guarantee their rights. The biggest barrier to uniting Ireland is sectarianism. The sectarian divide created and spread by British imperialism is inseparably bound up with the capitalist system. The sectarian politicians live on the inability of that system to provide for the needs of all. To overcome that divide it is necessary to overcome those conditions and that means breaking with capitalism. The struggle for a new form of society that guarantees the rights of all, that has no interest in any form of oppression or discrimination and can provide for the needs of all - in other words a socialist society - is an alternative that can be attractive to workers from all backgrounds.

Class politics is the only means by which Protestant and Catholic workers can be united. Of course, this is not a simple matter. Merely to erect a banner announcing workers’ unity will achieve precisely nothing. In the last thirty years and, even more recently since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, that sectarian divide has grown still further. Today it is a yawning chasm that will not be easily closed. According to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in 1994 3000 people moved into areas overwhelmingly made up of the other religious background – buoyed no doubt by the prospect of peace. By 1996 this trend had already reversed with 6000 moving into areas predominantly of ‘their own’ background.

The 2001 census shows 66 percent living in areas either 90 percent plus Protestant or 90 percent plus Catholic. Just 5 percent of the workforce located in Protestant areas are Catholic, and just 8 percent are Protestant in workplaces located in ‘Catholic areas’.

Despite this remarkable level of segregation the trade unions remain the only non-sectarian mass organisations. As such they have the potential to act as forums through which class unity can be built up. They are linked to the unions in the south and in Britain, and that is an important factor in overcoming the fears of workers from different backgrounds. Of course, they do not exist in a vacuum, they have been affected by the events of recent years too. However they remain the vehicles for united workers struggles over wages and jobs, and against discrimination and sectarianism. Just look at the magnificent example of the one-day General Strike in January 2002 following the murder of postal worker Daniel McColgan by loyalist paramilitaries. This demonstrates what is possible. However, none of this is automatic, it requires the conscious intervention of socialists in the trade union movement. Socialists in the British and Irish labour movements have an important contribution to make here too.

Yet, having been united in various struggles on the industrial front, these workers would still return home to find that come election time there is not a party to represent them. The working class is disenfranchised, and they are left with little alternative but to participate in the sectarian head count that passes for an election in the six counties, which itself is a further barrier to unity.

In the past there was a Northern Ireland Labour Party which succeeded in gaining a sizeable base of support. Unfortunately this degenerated, and fell into the trap of sectarianism, back in the early 1970s and eventually disappeared.

If it could be achieved the idea of creating a new broad-based, mass party, a non-sectarian party of labour based on the trade unions, would be a huge step forward in combating sectarianism and fighting for workers’ unity. However it would be naive to expect the current trade union leaders to take such a step of their own volition. This is a demand that could be raised by socialists in the trade unions as a step towards workers’ unity.

In Britain it is vital to raise the point that Afghanistan and Iraq are not the only countries in the world occupied by British imperialism and although there are many differences with the situation in Ireland, nonetheless we have a particular duty to oppose the imperialism of ‘our own’ ruling class.

In the British trade unions the call must be made to participate with workers from Ireland north and south in creating forums to promote working class unity and solidarity. The idea of building branches of the British Labour Party would obviously be anathema to one section of workers in the six counties, whilst the same would apply to the Irish Labour Party amongst another section of workers. That is without mentioning the current policies and leaders of those parties which would be enough to disillusion workers from any background.

Nevertheless raising the need for a mass working class party in the six counties inside the labour movement in Britain and in Ireland gives us the opportunity to campaign for workers’ unity and for a socialist solution. This alone would be a worthwhile effort.

If such a party could be built it would be a giant step forward, but it still would not have solved the problem. For that we need the construction of a revolutionary party that will fight for socialist policies inside the labour movement, amongst workers and youth of all backgrounds. The fundamental problem of Ireland is the rule of capital, the sectarian veil behind which it hides must be ripped asunder to expose the truth.

Many in and around the Provisional Republican movement will now be searching for some new way forward. We believe that there is no better place to look for those answers than in the life, the struggle and the writings of James Connolly.

There is only one way to achieve the republic and that is through the socialist revolution. The only 32 county republic that can be achieved is the workers’ republic, the socialist republic. To create that it is necessary to build workers’ unity, and to build a revolutionary party. Above all at this turning point in the long struggle of the Irish people for freedom, at his crossroads for republicanism, the task is Return to Connolly! Study the writings of James Connolly, the greatest Marxist to have been born in these islands. Study Marxism. We need to learn the lessons of our own experiences and the experiences of the struggles of workers and oppressed peoples for freedom internationally. Those lessons and experiences have to be married with the history, tradition and concrete reality of Ireland today.

Of course many will say the idea of workers’ unity and socialist revolution is utopian and not practical. We have heard all this before. We have seen too where their practical solutions lead – precisely to today’s impasse. That great Irish Republican, revolutionary, Marxist James Connolly answered in advance all the cynics who will claim we are utopian and impractical.

“Revolution is never practical – until the hour of Revolution strikes. Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most visionary and futile of human imaginings. For that hour let us think, work and hope. For that hour let us pawn our present ease in hopes of a glorious redemption: For that hour let us prepare the hosts of labour with intelligence sufficient to laugh at the nostrums dubbed practical by our slavelords – practical for the perpetuation of our slavery: For the supreme crisis of human history let us watch like sentinels with weapons ever at the ready.”

James Connolly, Workers’ Republic, June 1900

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