1980s >> 1987 >> no-996-august-1987

The obsession about Ireland

– “Socialists stand for a united world society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the resources by all the people.”

– “Very nice, but what are you going to do about Ireland?”

– “Ireland is part of world capitalism. Once the workers have the world we’ll have Ireland.”

– “But our first aim must be to create a united Ireland.”

– “Our first aim is to create a united world, free from all national division.”

– “You mean you don’t want Ireland to be a united nation?”

– “We want to end nations, not establish new ones.”

– “If you oppose Irish nationalism you must support British imperialism.”

– “Socialists oppose all imperial aims by all capitalists.”

– “Then you should campaign to defeat the British troops in Ireland. ”

– “We want to get rid of troops in all countries.”

– “That will never happen. As a socialist you should support the armed struggle by the nationalists in Ireland.”

– “As socialists, we oppose all armies, including the IRA; the only differences between the British army and the IRA is that the former are given medals for murdering workers and the latter are given prison sentences; the soldiers are paid for their thuggery and the IRA are conned into volunteering for potential martyrdom. Workers have no country – no country to defend, no country to gain, but a world to win. Think about that before you wave your flag of confusion.”

The obsession about Ireland is one which socialists confront all the time. We confront it from leftists who divide their time between paying lip service to the idea of workers of the world uniting and supporting the nationalism of Sinn Fein. We confront it from many Irish workers in Britain whose sense of frustration about the poverty and indignity of working- class life often leads them to a sense of misplaced patriotism about a cause which would do them no more good than it did earlier Irish workers who won the battle and gained the right to be exploited by local capitalists instead of alien ones. We confront it in the republican areas of the North of Ireland where workers are constantly abused and threatened by the armed presence and regard counter-violence as the only alternative to the violence of the British state. In short, socialists can understand why workers become obsessed with the Irish question: now we are asking them to understand why socialists take a world, and never a national, view of society.

The socialist attitude to Ireland is to see it as a part of world capitalism. The poverty of Irish workers, the unemployment and the suffering caused by squalid living conditions which many face, the threat which they share with all workers on the planet of being blown to pieces in a third world war, the oppression which they suffer from the bosses and the state these are all effects of capitalism. If there was no profit system there would be no working class whose social function it is to be repeatedly robbed for profit. The problems of workers in Ireland are the problems of wage slaves everywhere and they will not be solved separately from the rest of the working class.

Irish Nationalism

Irish nationalists have always argued that Irish workers would be better off in their own country, free from British rule. Socialists regard it as an irrelevance whether Irish capitalism is ruled by an Irish capitalist state – as it is in the twenty-six counties of the Republic — or by a British capitalist state —as in the six counties of the North. When Sinn Fein was established, as a party campaigning for Irish national independence, its leaders made no claim to be socialists. Indeed, the early Sinn Fein leaders (and the only ones to obtain widespread support throughout Ireland) were vicious opponents of trade unions, strikes and ‘atheistic’ socialism. All that they claimed was that Ireland should be an independent capitalist state. As early as September 1907 McManus, writing on The Sinn Fein Policy in The Socialist Standard, stated that

    . . .  it is our duty to warn our fellow-workers in Ireland of the futility of the Sinn Fein policy as far as they are concerned There can be no relief for the oppressed Irishman in changing an English robber for an Irish one. The person of the robber does not matter — it is the fact of the robbery that spells misery. National divisions are a hindrance to working-class unity, and national jealousies and differences are fostered by the capitalists for their own ends.
The crowd of hungry “intellectuals” clamouring for jobs both within and without the Irish parliamentary group do not represent the interests of the working class in Ireland. . . .  The national sentiment and perennial enthusiasm of the Irishmen are being exploited by the so-called leaders in the interests of Irish capitalism, and the workers are being used to fight the battles of their oppressors. . . . Let the thieves fight their own battles! For the worker in Ireland there is but one hope. It is to join the Irish wing of the international Socialist working class and to make common cause with the Socialist workers of all countries for the end of all forms of exploitation: saying to both English and Irish capitalists: “A plague on both your houses.” For the true battle-cry of the working class is broader, more significant and more inspiring than mere nationalism, and that rallying cry is:

That brilliant piece of socialist analysis appeared in this journal eighty years ago and history has provided us with the opportunity to test its validity. If the creation of an Irish state had led to a vast improvement in the condition of the workers living under that state, or if it had led to increased class-consciousness on the part of those workers, then socialists might have to concede that we were shortsighted back in 1907 and that nationalism had been in the interest of the working-class. But this is not the case. Workers in the Irish Republic are no less robbed than workers in the North. Nor are they any less bullied by the state police, whose thuggish defence of property is notorious. They are no less the victims of religious indoctrination and oppression — indeed, an Irish worker seeking a divorce or an abortion would have reason to wonder how much national independence has chained them to a new dependence upon the medieval bigotry of the Fool of Rome. The reality is that life for the wage slaves in the twenty-six counties is no more free than for those in the occupied six.

In opposing Irish nationalism, socialists make it absolutely clear that we stand in bitter hostility to the arrogant nationalism of the so-called Loyalists, whose pathetic submission to a Queen who would not let her horses live in some of the conditions enjoyed by the loyal wage slaves of the Shankhill Road shows that they are enemies of socialism. We oppose the explicit racism of those like Paisley who expound the cause of white, protestant, unionist Ulster — as if the workers who elect them own any more of Britain or Ulster than the republicans would own of a united Ireland. Above all, we stand in complete opposition to the presence of troops (wage slaves in uniform) and we emphatically oppose the British army just as much as we oppose all armies, including the IRA, INLA, UVF and UDR.

Barricade Romanticism

But still the obsession about Ireland goes on. For many British leftists the war situation in Ireland provides a pleasing scenario, showing that workers are willing to go out on to the streets to fight the state. Avery heroic picture for barricade romanticists to observe from afar, but there is no glory in the sight of teenaged kids risking and losing their precious lives in a war which will never solve their poverty. There is nothing romantic about workers being blown up. And it is a point which cannot be emphasised enough that those who sit in the comfort of British meeting halls passing resolutions in support of armed struggle are conspicuous by their absence when it comes to being at the scene of the action. That the violence on the streets of Belfast or Derry is a picture of the Left’s idea of workers in revolution is a condemnation of their conception of revolution.

Other leftists, such as the Revolutionary Communist Party, tell us that we must support any opponent of British imperialism. The logic of that position would have had the British workers supporting Hitler’s Nazis in 1939. Others say that Marx supported the unification of Ireland, so socialists should too. Marx also supported war against Russia: should socialists support that too? We are not dogmatists who take a position because Marx instructed that we must. Others tell us that Sinn Fein is a socialist party. This is pure self-delusion. Anyone who read Sinn Fein’s official policy would see that it stands for a ‘mixed’ capitalist economy, i.e. partly private capitalist and partly state capitalist.

The only genuine socialist party in Ireland today — and more and more workers are coming to recognise the fact — is The World Socialist Party (Ireland) whose journal, Socialist View, has vigorously criticised the anti-socialist policies of Sinn Fein — as well as the other capitalist parties of both sides of the sectarian divide. A final reason which is advanced as to why socialists should support nationalism is that imperialism is different from capitalism and that, whereas it is true that an Irish nation will not lead to socialism, it will at least be a defeat for British imperialism. By the term imperialism’ such people are referring to Lenin’s notion of a plundering economic power (Britain) exploiting the resources of a weaker, colonial area (the North of Ireland). That, however, is not what is happening in Ireland where, as is well known, the British occupation is costing the British capitalists literally billions of pounds in order to subsidise the industry of the province and pay for security. In fact, the irony of the situation is that the British nationalists who proclaim their firm intention of remaining rulers of’Northern Ireland’ would like few things more than to extricate themselves from the liability of paying for the Irish problem and would do so were it not for purely political, not economic, considerations. On the other hand, the Irish state, which is formally committed to the long-term aim of a united Irish nation, would like nothing less than for their aim to be realised and for them to inherit the costs and the sectarian politics of the North. Hypocrisy is a notable characteristic of the politics of Ireland.

The World for the Workers

In fact, it is for none of the reasons mentioned above that the obsession about Ireland is as great as it is in Britain. The above- mentioned rationales for nationalism are mere theoretical constructs which are of little concern to the average worker who will insist that getting the Brits out of Ireland is more important than anything else. Irish nationalism — like all nationalist movements adopted by oppressed people — arises from a confused desire to see a united community. The aspiration to have a nation which belongs to you is in reality a desire to have a society which is yours — which you can feel a part of because it belongs to you. The same is true of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: these are not really movements by workers wanting Scottish and Welsh capitalists to dominate them — although that would be the effect of their unlikely success — but of alienated workers who want a society which they can call their own. Workers are right to want a society which we can call our own: a planet which belongs to humanity and local areas which we can take pride in as people who are no longer the tenants in a capitalist-owned world. To workers who are obsessed by nationalism The Socialist Party appeals with all of the passion which the nationalists use in their address to the working class: Come, let us unite as a class which has everything in common, everything to gain, a variety of cultures to develop — let us, indeed, have the world for the workers.

Steve Coleman