Ireland: Optimism of the Intellect

In this article, originally published in The Red Plough, Gerry Ruddy looks at the role of the working class in Irish politics: “Despite the influences of social democracy and reformism, despite the dominance of nationalist and unionist ideology, the working classes in Ireland still have tremendous revolutionary potential. That potential can be unleashed but only when both objective and subjective factors combine.”

In the Red Plough Vol. 1-6 we carried an important article “The Forward March Of Republicanism Halted?” By Liam O’Ruaric. These are a few thoughts on that thoughtful article.

Comrade Liam correctly points out how that by entering the institutions of the Free State and obtaining necessary changes over the years Fianna Fail far from subverting that Free State gave it legitimacy. Nowadays the vast majority of its citizens regard the 26-county state as their Republic.

Fianna Fail’s success was also republicanism’s failure. By the end of the 1930s Irish republicanism was almost irrelevant. Sinn Fein was almost defunct; the IRA was declaring war with “England” and a bombing campaign in England simply saw republicans jailed without any popular support. De Valera’s policy of benign neutrality successfully bound the vast majority of Irish citizens behind the state. That support also gave De Valera the strength to crack down viciously on his former comrades in the IRA. The left, like the IRA, was also marginalised. Many of its best had gone to fight to, unsuccessfully, defend the Spanish Republic. Those who joined the Irish Labour Party and helped convert it to demand a “Workers’ Republic” were soon belted by the crozier from Maynooth and once again bended the knee to the power of the Catholic Church.

Comrade Liam argues that a similar process is today at work in the North. Provisional Sinn Fein’s journey has in the process legitimised the Northern state for many previously alienated nationalists by politically advocating and achieving “parity of esteem” and “equality” and by winning the right for nationalists to share power with unionism.

Essentially, the period from 1970 until 1998 was when the alienated northern nationalists made clear that the Orange state could no longer function. The period since then has been to make clear to unionism that they had no option but to share power with nationalists – a message that the DUP only absorbed in the last three years. That period coincided with the break up of the unionist monolith; its fracturing into various sections representing differing class interests. It is no accident that the Unionist Party has only recently renewed its links with the Conservative Party. For fifty years while they ruled unchallenged the Northern state the unionist party was the preserve of the landed gentry and the industrialist captains of industry in a natural alliance with the Tories.

Since the declaration of the IRA ceasefire in 1994 Northern nationalists have prospered, relative to what had gone before. A ten-year period of relative prosperity under the British Labour Party government saw an unparallel growth in the self-confidence of northern nationalists. Former symbols of British/Unionist control such as the Queen’s University and Belfast City Hall became instead symbols of the growth of northern nationalists. Sinn Fein saw the rising Catholic middle class and rode to power by representing their interests while not neglecting their original working class roots. Even previously prosperous middle class areas, once the preserve of the protestant middle classes, like the Malone Road area of Belfast, have become predominantly middle class Catholic. Now, more and more of the middle classes are identifying themselves as “Northern Irish”.

This identification with the state is conditional on that state delivering in terms of economic prosperity, equality of treatment and a respect for differing traditions. But the reality is that in current economic conditions and with all so called mainstream parties in favour of slashing public services and increasing private investment, it means that the working classes will bear a disproportionate share of the pain as the public sector cuts take effect.

Already there is a strong sense of “protestant alienation” that expresses itself in random attacks in at the moment mainly rural areas on isolated Catholic homes or housing estates. The fears of these loyalists are exacerbated by the political right-wing rhetoric of the Traditional Voice of Unionism (TUV) looking for a return to the old type of Stormont regime when the “taigs” [a derogatory term for Irish Catholics] knew their place.

Now those same “taigs” are on the policing boards, running administration departments, condemning “dissident” republican terrorism and political positions. They are even calling for further repressive measures against these “traitors”. (The Belfast Telegraph, 10 March 2010). Those so-called “traitors” threaten to destabilise the pacification programme and hence endanger the rising economic prosperity of the Catholic middle classes. Thus the bile splurged out against them. It is therefore no wonder that Adams proposed a nationalist pact in Fermanagh/South Tyrone and South Belfast. Denying it was a sectarian pact, the Provisionals advocated it as pragmatic politics. Indeed given the logic of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrew’s Agreement, which placed identity politics as the main political discourse for the Northern state there was a certain amount of logic from a nationalist perspective for the Adams pact.

Of course from a republican perspective there was none. It totally goes against basic republican beliefs, sectarianises all political activity and reinforces unionist fears and prejudices. When so-called republicans want to paint post-boxes green, erect statues to republican icons and put up a few pictures to represent so-called nationalist traditions during the worst economic crisis for eighty years, then one realises that they have abandoned all semblances of republican belief, of socialist belief and have settled for a mess of porridge. Their political nakedness is to be covered up by demands for an Irish language Act and a Bill of Rights while their own police force represses political dissent in the same old ways that the current power sharers once so denounced. Now they condone repression.

So it can be argued that the armed struggles in the North were in fact not for a Republic but to maintain equality within the Northern state and allow nationalists to fully participate in the running of that state. There is little or no doubt that the vast majority of nationalists have settled for that and their interests are well represented by both the SDLP and Sinn Fein (provisional). Furthermore there is little or no desire within the 26 Counties for unity. Even during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger the South could not have afforded the costs of running the North. To maintain current levels they would need an extra £12 Billions. Economically under the current economic system unity is a non-starter.

The working classes North and South still retain beliefs in nationalism, unionism and social democracy. Indeed throughout West Europe as Comrade Liam points out, “Reformism has been sufficiently successful to close that political space and legitimise bourgeois democracy and the capitalist state in the eyes of the vast majority of workers in general and those on the left in particular.”

But it is now worse than that in one sense. Now there is a consensus amongst the political elites of Europe that the historic gains made by the working classes over generations must be weakened. Hence the consensus about cuts in public expenditure. All the main political parties in Britain were adamant about the cuts during the elections. And they left no doubt that the working classes would bear the brunt of the cuts. Within the media left-wing views that would have been commonplace 40 years ago are now denounced as extremist and the real left is marginalised and derided. The coalition administration at Stormont has already begun the process of cuts and we can look forward to years of cuts in public service provision. These cuts are not academic exercises in book keeping. They directly affect the lives of nearly every person in the state: workers, civil servants, mothers, students, pupils, unemployed, all will suffer over the next few years.

Yes in one sense Cde Liam is correct, “In terms of consciousness and organisation the left today is very weak... The forward march of labour is halted.”

And there is not necessarily a connection between the downturn of the economy and a rise in the political consciousness of the working class. But it is a mistake to think, that because some political commentators decry the chances of the left, and because the left itself is so fragmented and split and in some cases so politically sectarianised that it has negative impacts, that the task in Ireland is to make the Republican movement the catalyst for the progressive forces of this country and abroad. In Liam’s words, “That is the main challenge we face today.”

I disagree. Despite the influences of social democracy and reformism, despite the dominance of nationalist and unionist ideology, the working classes in Ireland still have tremendous revolutionary potential. That potential can be unleashed but only when both objective and subjective factors combine. Political activity can help create the subjective factors.

Currently it is almost impossible to define what constitutes “The Republican Movement”. Irish Republicanism certainly has a progressive role to play but only if it ditches elitism, militarism, and sheds its obsession with the republican dead, and the “Republic”. There are a number of republican organisations, some socialist, some not. The majority seem to ignore actual existing realities such as the living and working conditions of the working classes.

Of course, it is right to campaign on behalf of the political prisoners, they are anti–imperialist fighters and while we may disagree with their tactics at this historical juncture, nevertheless they are political prisoners entitled to be treated accordingly and not brutalised by sadistic warders as the following account describes:

“Last Thursday, Harry was dragged from his cell, battered, bruised, kicked, and stamped on his chest by several screws. They danced on his chest. He was able to ring home right afterward to our 16-year old daughter. He was breathless and could barely talk or breathe. He had no doctor, and no water. Harry was dragged into SSU (isolation) where he had his clothes cut off his body. He was handcuffed and chained to a bed. We've had no word from him since.” (Entombing Harry Fitzsimmons, The Pensive Quill, May 23)

It is also shameful that others on the left pay only lip service to the issue and refuse to actively campaign. But if republicanism is to be relevant it must engage in the day to day struggles of the working class. So far few apart from the IRSP seem willing to engage in these day to day struggles.

But at the end of the day the liberation of the working class is the task of the class itself. There are no instant solutions, no short cuts, no adventurist stunts, and no big bombs that will liberate the class. Only class struggle! To lead that struggle the working class needs an organisation steeped in Marxism and the progressive traditions of Republicanism. That requires both optimism of the will and optimism of the intellect.

[Originally published in The Red Plough, Vol. 1-No 9, 28th May 2010]