Ireland: Imperialism not neutral

As Gerry Ruddy explains, “The issue of the national question in Ireland is at heart a class question. The division of the country into two separate states has encouraged sectarianism, seriously dividing the working class and allowing the continued exploitation of all workers.” This while in the recent period the IRSP in the South of Ireland has come under attack from political policing.

With the end of the Blair era in Britain there has been much praise heaped on the former prime minister for the work he did in bringing "peace" to the North of Ireland. Much of the newspaper comments have been based on a false premise that Britain played a role in bringing two warring factions to the peace table.

The British state has not been and will not be neutral in this. It has always sided with the Unionists when they try to force more concessions from Sinn Fein. It used the RUC/PSNI in this process. And it has always employed dirty tricks. After all it is an imperialist power.

It should be remembered that it was the police that raided Sinn Fein's offices in 2002 and triggered the suspension of Stormont. Three years later, the British state offered no evidence whatsoever to back up their charges, and Dennis Donaldson, one of the accused, admitted to being a British spy all along. Spies, double agents, lies and murders: British rule, i.e. the mailed fist, has always been present, just below the surface, during the peace process.

Nor has The Good Friday Agreement led to the community drawing closer together. All the elected MLA's have to register as Protestant, Catholic or Other, and important legislation, including the status of the union with Britain, has to command support from each community. In other words, it entrenches the Orange veto against a united Ireland.

All of the above is well recognised by republicans. Even some socialists recognise it, though there are many in organisations that proclaim themselves the vanguard of the working class who in practice deny the reality of Imperialism. They never take up issues that could in any way be seen as republican even when these issues involve democratic rights such as the right to organise politically.

Recently the IRSP in the South of Ireland has come under attack from political policing. False charges of INLA membership have been laid against two IRSP members in an effort to crush the growth of our party. False stories have been printed in the media about non-existing INLA activity in an attempt to get the INLA ceasefire de-recognised by the Free State Government. The IRSP wait patiently for the so called far left to jump in defence of our right to organise. It will be a long wait.

What many on the left fail to recognize is that the major contradiction in Ireland is the continued existence of the national question. The denial of full self-determination by Britain using the fears of the mainly unionist people in the north as a bulwark against the completion of the national struggle is the fundamental main contradiction.

The ruling class in the South while aware of this have no desire to see the issue of the national question raise its head because what it needs most of all is stability. Stability means profits for the capitalist class. That is why Bertie Ahearn worked so hard with Blair to forge a settlement that would effectively emasculate the main body fighting for the completion of the national question, the provisional IRA. At the same time he made sure that the so called "republican" credentials of Fianna Fail were to the fore so that they could not be outflanked by Sinn Fein (provisional). Both Ahearn and his designated successor as leader of Fianna Fail, Brian Cowen, are perceived to be "strong" on the republican issue.

But saying that does not change anything. We now have a settlement of sorts in the North that has taken the pressure from the British. The power-sharing regime of Sinn Fein and the DUP is inherently unstable. Of course it will not collapse tomorrow for they both need each other if they are to retain power. The vast majority of people on the island probably think that the "settlement" in the North will work and that things can only get better. There is little chance of that.

British interest rates have just gone up to 5.75% adding more to the mortgages many have to pay out monthly. This at a time when first time buyers have been priced out of the housing market by property speculators buying all round them with a view to buy to let. Traditional housing has been replace by apartment blocks discouraging family or community life. The Northern Ireland executive will have to make a decision in autumn on water charges and many householders have now difficulty making ends meet to pay the rates which are due to continuously rise over the next six years.

In the south of Ireland house prices fell for the third month in a row in May. The average house price is now €304,166, 2.1% below where it was at the start of this year. There have been eight rate rises already since the end of 2005. The ECB base rate now stands at 4%, with most analysts predicting 4.5% at least by the end of the year.

A recent report by University College Dublin economist Morgan Kelly looked at house prices across the OECD since 1970 and found that the higher house prices rise, the harder the fall. He believes that real house prices give up 70% of what they gained in a boom during the bust that follows. That would devastate many families. Figures from the Irish Exchequer showed that revenues from property-related taxes such as capital gains tax and stamp duty, were €215m below target.

More than 1,000 foreign companies since the mid 1990s have come to Ireland and unemployment had fallen from 15% to 4.4%.. But Unions are demanding even higher wages, as inflation rises above 5%. In the face of higher wages and lower wage economies in Eastern Europe, those foreign companies could soon leave.

According to data released by the Central Statistics Office (CSO), the number of people signing on the Live Register (The Live Register does not measure unemployment as it includes people on benefits who work part-time, seasonally or are casually employed.) in June rose to its highest level in almost three years.

The CSO report also found that the standard rate of unemployment is now at its highest point since September 2003. Employers' representative body IBEC, said that the data showed the Irish labour market is beginning to weaken for the first time in a number of years. The construction sector is likely to feel the brunt of any slowdown.

IBEC economist Fergal O'Brien said: " the scale of the June increase confirms that the Irish labour market is experiencing some deterioration."

For Ireland to continue to prosper under capitalism, it has to become less reliant on consumer spending, and house price growth. But if people have their backs to the wall, with their house prices falling and their home loan payments rising, it's going to be difficult to convince them not to keep demanding higher wages.

Now there are some republicans who see the raising of class issues such as these as a distraction, somehow taking away from the purity of the national struggle. And on the other hand there are some who allegedly on the left, who see the mere mention of the class struggle as some kind of retreat into economism or the type of labourist politics epitomised by William Walker that James Connolly argued so strongly against.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, the issue of the national question in Ireland is at heart a class question. The division of the country into two separate states has encouraged sectarianism, seriously dividing the working class and allowing the continued exploitation of all workers. When working class people get more upset about the flying of flags, and the marching of bands and banners past their estates than they do about the scandalous abuse of cheap labour, the daily exploitation of both migrant and young workers and the spread of landlordism and the selling off of state owned resources then the reasons for partition are evident.

Since the foundation of the Northern state the republican strategy to end partition has abysmally failed. Despite the existence of the most effective guerrilla army in Western Europe the provisional movement failed in their objective and had to make peace with the enemy whilst selling that peace as a victory. The armed campaign of the INLA hampered by internal divisions, spiked by British agents and without a coherent clear political direction drifted into failure despite the heroic efforts of its genuinely revolutionary members.

Many republicans are now beginning to come to terms with the scale of the defeat suffered by anti-imperialists. Over the past years there has been an increase in the number of organisations that call themselves republican. Some dialogue and debate has taken place within and between these organisations. The IRSP has always been willing to talk to anyone. But talking is not the same thing as working with others in some new kind of talking shop. Too often in the past, so-called revolutionary organisations have spent more time examining their entrails than actually doing things to persuade the people that their politics are right.

The way ahead lies in analysing the mistakes of the past, actively engaging in all manifestations of discontent in society and above all fighting to achieve leadership in the developing class conflicts that undoubtedly lie ahead. Part of that will involve republican socialism reaching out to progressive elements in both the catholic and protestant working classes. If dialogue with other republicans is along these lines then well and good. If on the other hand it is merely an attempt to recreate the old republican model that served the Irish working class so badly in the past then it is doomed to failure and the IRSP should be very clear that that is a road we have no intention of going down. Our task is to link the fight against the sectarian Northern statelet and the subservient Free state to the struggle for a fundamental transformation in pay, jobs, housing, social services, and control in the workplace, opening the way to working class control and power. Let us build a revolutionary party that fights for a workers' republic in the many struggles against capitalism and British imperialism that will emerge in the future.

[Originally published in E-mail newsletter of the  Irish Republican Socialist Party, The Plough (Web site http://www.theplough.netfirms.com/) Vol. 4, No 16, Saturday 7th July, 2007]