Theses on Ireland
Spartacist no 24, Autumn 1977

The theses on Ireland reprinted here were adopted by the International Executive Committee of the international Spartacist tendency on 5 August 1977.

1. The current situation and social configuration in Ireland is the result of centuries of brutal British imperialist domination. It contains features characteristically associated with the former multi-national states of Eastern Europe, as well as with both the colonial settler states which established their own political economy by excluding or destroying native populations, and colonies in which the native population is exploited and oppressed by a relatively thin colonial hierarchy.

In the absence of any significant section of the Irish working class historically freed from national/communal insecurity, the result is a seemingly intractable situation in which prospects for the development of a genuine class-struggle axis and for an end to the interminable cycle of imperialist exploitation/repression and inter-communal violence appear remote. The strong possibility remains that a just, democratic, socialist solution to the situation in Ireland will only come under the impact of proletarian revolution elsewhere and concretely may be carried on the bayonets of a Red Army against opposition of a significant section of either or both of the island's communities.

Nevertheless, no matter to what extent a bleak immediate prognosis is justified, the conflict in Ireland presents a crucial test of the capacity of a revolutionary internationalist tendency to provide a clear analysis and programme and to confront the national question in the imperialist epoch. For revolutionists, who refuse to deal in the simplicities (ultimately genocidal) of the nationalists, the situation in Ireland can appear to be exceedingly complex and intractable. The ‘Irish question’ provides a strong confirmation of the unique revolutionary potency and relevance of the international Spartacist tendency's understanding of Leninism, particularly in relation to geographically inter-penetrated peoples.

2. An essential element of our programme is the demand for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of the British army. British imperialism has brought centuries of exploitation, oppression and bloodshed to the island. No good can come of the British presence; the existing tie between Northern Ireland and the British state can only be oppressive to the Irish Catholic population, an obstacle to a proletarian class mobilisation and solution. We place no preconditions on this demand for the immediate withdrawal of all British military forces or lessen its categorical quality by suggesting ‘steps’ toward its fulfilment (such as simply demanding that the army should withdraw to its barracks or from working-class districts).

At the same time we do not regard the demand as synonymous with or as a concrete application of either the call for Irish self-determination (that is, a unitary state of the whole island) or for an independent Ulster – two solutions which within the framework of capitalism would be anti-democratic, in the first case toward the Protestants and in the second toward the Irish Catholics. Nor is the demand for the withdrawal of British troops sufficient in, itself, as though it has some automatic, inherent revol-utionary content or outcome. As the eminent British bourgeois historian AJP Taylor observed in an interview:

‘ I don't know what the term bloodbath means. If it means people will be killed, they are being killed all the time. The alternative is not between an entirely peaceful Northern Ireland in which nobody's being killed and a Northern Ireland in which a lot of people will be killed. If the British withdraw some sort of settlement would be arrived at. You can't tell what it is because the forces in play can't be judged until they can operate....

‘ ... the presence of the British Army in Ireland prolongs the period of conflict and uncertainty...

‘ This [possibility of a united Ireland] is a matter of relative strength. Owing to the history of the last thirty years or perhaps longer, owing to history since 1885, when Randolph Churchill – Winston's father – first raised the cry of 'Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right' – in the past ninety years the Protestants of Northern Ireland have been taught to think of themselves as a separate body, almost separate nationality within Ireland, and have established now a longterm domination of Northern Ireland, partly, because of their superior economic strength, partly because of the backing they have received from the British Government, and partly because they are, or up to now have been, the more determined. For them, Protestant domination is the answer to the situation in Northern Ireland.’

Troops Out, No. 2

As historically demonstrated by examples such as India, Libya, Cyprus and Palestine, the withdrawal of British imperialism, while a necessary objective of the communist vanguard, in itself does not automatically ensure an advance in a revolutionary direction. Thus, the demand for the immediate withdrawal of the British army from Northern Ireland must be linked to and constitute a part of a whole revolutionary programme.

3. As Leninists we are opposed to all forms of national oppression and privilege and stand for the equality of nations. Writing in 1913 Lenin succinctly set forth as follows the fundamental principles underlying the revolutionary social-democratic position on the national question:

‘As democrats, we are irreconcilably hostile to any, however slight, oppression of any nationality and to any privileges for any nationality. As democrats, we demand the right of nations to self-determination in the political sense of that term ... i.e., the right to secede. We demand unconditional protection of the rights of every national minority. We demand broad, self-government and autonomy for regions, which must be demarcated, among other terms of reference, in respect of nationality too.’

‘Draft Programme of the 4th Congress of Social Democrats of the Latvian Area,’
Collected Works, Vol. 19

Thus, the right to self-determination means simply the right to establish a separate state, the right to secede. We reject the notion that it means ‘freedom from all outside interference and control' or entails economic indepen-dence. In the general sense the right to self-determination is unconditional, independent of the state that emerges or its leadership.

However, for Leninists this right is not an absolute demand, a categorical imperative, to be implemented at all times and everywhere there is a nation. It is only one of a range of bourgeois-democratic demands; it is a part, sub-ordinate to the whole, of the overall programmatic system. When the particular demand for national self-determination contradicts more crucial demands or the general needs of the class struggle, we oppose its exercise. As Lenin notes:

‘The several demands of democracy, including self-determination, are not an absolute, but only a small part of the general-democratic (now, general socialist) world movement. In individual concrete cases, the part may contradict the whole; if so, it must be rejected.’ [emphasis in original]

‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,’ Collected Works, Vol. 22

In particular, in the case of interpenetrated peoples sharing a common territory, we oppose the exercise of self-determination by one nation where this flatly conflicts with the same right for another nation. In this situation the same general considerations apply, namely our opposition to all forms of national oppression and privilege, but in such circumstances the exercise of self-determination by one or the other people in the form of the establishment of their own bourgeois state can only be brought about by the denial of that right to the other. Under capitalism this would simply be a formula for reversing the terms of oppression, for forcible population transfers and expulsions and ultimately genocide. It is a ‘solution’ repeatedly demonstrated in history, for example in the cases of India/Pakistan, Israel/Palestine and Cyprus.

In general our support for the right to self-determination is negative: intransigent opposition to every manifesta-tion of national oppression as a means toward the unity of the working class, not as the fulfilment of the ‘manifest destiny’ or ‘heritage’ of a nation, nor as support for ’progressive’ nations or nationalism. We support the right of self-determination and national liberation struggles in order to remove the national question from the historic agenda, not to create another such question. Within the framework of capitalism there can be no purely democratic solution (for example through universal suffrage) to the national question in cases of interpenetrated peoples.

The same general considerations apply not only to ‘fully formed’ nations, but also to nationalities and peoples which may still be something less than fully consolidated nations, for example the Eritreans in their struggle against Amharic domination or the Biafrans at the time of the Nigerian civil war. Indeed, not infrequently the historical formation of nations is tested and completed in the process of struggles for self-determination. Our opposition to the exercise of self-determination by an interpenetrated people would also apply where one or more of the groupings, though not a historically compacted nation, has sufficient relative size and cultural level that the exercise of self-determination could only mean a new form or reversal of the terms of oppression.

4. Concretely, in Ireland the question of Irish national self-determination was not fully resolved by the establish-ment of the Republic of Éire. But to demand ‘Irish self-determination’ today represents a denial of the Leninist position on the national question. It is incumbent on revolutionists to face up to exactly what the call for ‘self-determination of the Irish people as a whole’ means.

Obviously the call is not one for the simultaneous self-determination of both communities, an impossibility for interpenetrated peoples under capitalism. In another sense the demand is about as meaningful as calling for ‘self-determination for the Lebanese people as a whole’ in the middle of last year's communal bloodletting. In the case of Ireland such a demand utterly fails to come to terms with the question of the Protestant community of Ulster, comprising 60 percent of the statelet's and 25 percent of the whole island's population. Such a demand is a call for the formation of a unitary state of the whole island, including the forcible unification of the whole island by the Irish bourgeois state irrespective of the wishes of the Protestant community. It is a call for the Irish Catholics to self-determine at the expense of the Protestants. It is a call for the simple reversal of the terms of oppression, an implicit call for inter-communal slaughter, forced population transfers and ultimately genocide as the way forward to the Irish revolution.

5. The present six-county enclave in Northern Ireland is a ‘sectarian, Orange statelet,’ the product of an imperial-ist partition. Prior to the partition revolutionaries would have opposed partition, striving to cement revolutionary unity in the struggle for independence from British imperialism. However, with the partition, the accompanying communal violence and demographic shifts, and the establishment of a bourgeois republic in the south it was necessary to oppose the forcible reunification of the six counties with the rest of Ireland. At the same time the present statelet guarantees the political and economic privileges of the Protestants. We oppose the Orange state and the demand for an independent Ulster as forms of determination for the Protestants which necessarily maintain the oppression of the Irish Catholic population of Ulster, an extension of the Irish Catholic nation. Since they are the local bodies of the British repressive state apparatus and the training ground for the present Protestant paramilitary groups and a future reactionary Protestant army, we demand: Smash the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).

6. There is a series of urgent democratic demands that apply to the situation of the oppressed Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. We demand full democratic rights for the Catholic minority and an end to discrimination in housing and hiring. But such demands must be linked to class demands which transcend the bounds of bourgeois democracy. Without the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours, for example, the call to end discrimination will simply imply leveling in an already economically depressed situation. The relevant partial, negative, democratic and economic demands must be integrated into the revolutionary transitional programme which transcends the capitalist framework of economism and democratic reformism.

7. Historically the Protestants of Ulster were an extension of the Scottish and English nations. The 1798 United Irishmen uprising was led by the Protestant middle class and reflected the impact of the French and American bourgeois revolutions on the nascent capitalist class (overwhelmingly Protestant) in Ireland. This insurrection against British imperialism, which was defeated in part by development of the reactionary sectarian Orange Order and the mobilisation of the peasantry by Catholic priests, was the opportunity for the establishment of a modern nation of the whole island. Since that time, though the most modern capitalist sectors remained Protestant for a long period, the Protestants have acted for the most part as loyal and fervent defenders of the union with British imperialism. The bigotry and discrimination among the Protestants toward the Irish Catholic nation necessarily exceeds the worst excesses of Irish Green nationalism, and most of the sectarian murders in the current period have been carried out by Protestant paramilitary groups.

Though not yet a nation, the Protestants are certainly not a part of the Irish nation and are distinct from the Scottish and English nations. Presently their separate existence is defined in large part as against the Irish Catholic nation and at the ideological level is expressed in religious terms. With their own social and cultural fabric (epitomised in the Orange Order) and history of opposition to the Irish nationalist cause, they have therefore acted as the ‘loyalist’ allies of British imperialism. At the same time, in this century the allegiance has been more a means than an end, demonstrated, for example, by the willingness of Sir Edward Carson to seek German aid if British imperialism would not fulfil the Ulster Protestants' demands and by the 1974 Ulster Workers Strike.

In all likelihood, a definite resolution of the exact character of the Ulster Protestant community will be reached with the withdrawal of the British army and will depend on the circumstances surrounding this. The particular conditions will pose point-blank their future and the ‘solution’ to the Irish question. The solution posed by AJP Taylor is but one possibility.

‘The question is whether the Irish nationalist majority is strong enough to expel the Protestants. If they are, that is the best way out’

quoted in the Guardian [London], 13 April 1976

At the same time the social organisation, weaponry, military expertise and alliances of the Protestants, make a ‘Zionist’ solution entirely conceivable. On the other hand, if the withdrawal of the British army was in the context of massive class mobilisations, opportunities would undoubt-edly arise for a class determination of the question.

8. Attempts to ignore or deny the separate identity and interests of the Ulster Protestants through the familiar liberal plea that British or other socialists cannot ‘tell the Irish how to wage their struggle’ or the argument that only oppressed nations have a right to self-determination can be rejected easily on general theoretical grounds. The Protestants are neither a colonial administration (as were the British in India) nor a closed colour caste (as are the whites in South Africa). Arguments that the Protestants have no legitimate claim because they were originally settlers and the present statelet is an artificial imperialist creation are based ultimately on notions of nationalist irredentism and ‘historical justice.’ Although sometimes expressed as the demand that the Protestants go ‘home,’ such arguments are in the last analysis genocidal. Also inadequate is the explanation of the Protestants as simply a backward sector of the Irish nation, whose loyalism/Orangeism is purely an imperialist ideology given a certain nationalist tinge in order to attract a mass base.

9. Protestant communalism does have a material basis in the marginal privileges enjoyed by the Protestant workers. The most explicit attempt to confront and discount the Protestant community's separate identity in ‘Marxist’ terms is the description of the Protestant work-ing class as a ‘labor aristocracy.’ This explanation is similar to the New Left theories about the American white working class and involves an attempt to broaden the term so as to destroy its original meaning, while failing to recognise that the Protestant community extends through all classes and strata of society. Even to claim that the entire Protestant working class of Northern Ireland is a labour aristocracy is a gross distortion of the term. The Northern Ireland working class as a whole has some of the worst wages, unemployment and housing in the British Isles. Moreover, wage differentials between Protestant and Catholic workers are not so marked that the two communities have significantly different living standards.

10. From the point of view of the general interests of British imperialism the border between Ulster and the Republic is now anachronistic:

‘United Kingdom soldiers and officials and money are heavily deployed in Northern Ireland because Westminster has clear obligations there. English Governments of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries planted the garrison-colonists whose descendents' presence has been the principal source of Ireland's twentieth century distress; and London is the seat of such authority as the Province knows To withdraw that authority now would intensify the problem of public order without in the least advancing a settlement of the central political question. The search for an acceptable local administration would simply continue in worsened circumstances. Britain's strategic interest in Northern Ireland is dead, and its economic interest is all on the side of withdrawal; but moral as well as practical considerations demand that British resources should remain engaged until both the political and the public order problems are at least within sight of resolution.’

Observer [London], 1 February 1976

While historically British imperialism has used the sectarian divisions, played the ‘Ulster card' to its own advantage, it is not now committed to the preservation of the Orange statelet and would prefer a settlement which would remove its direct political responsibility on the island. With the decline of Ulster industry and the growth of investment opportunities in the south, the border is an obstacle to its overall intentions. But at the same time as it adopts various schemes to this end British imperialism is constrained to maintain capitalist law and order and prevent a complete breakdown in the social order. The increase in independence talk by Ulster Protestants, the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974 and the significant number of Protestants imprisoned for political offences do not reflect mere ‘tactical' differences between the imperialists and their subordinates, but rather a divergence of interests between genuinely distinct forces.

11. We reject the argument that Protestant workers are so reactionary that only force will convince them and that the precondition for winning them is the destruction of the Orange statelet. The understanding that the current partition is inherently oppressive is perverted into a conception of a ‘two-stage’ revolution in which the socialist tasks can only follow the completion of Irish national unity on the whole island. Sometimes linked to this is the claim that it is ‘naïve’ to expect the Protestant and Catholic workers to unite on ‘economic’ issues, since it is these that divide them. By analogy, no working class could ever transcend its sectional interests. Economism is the political expression of the failure of the working class in the absence of a revolutionary leadership to reject bourgeois ideology and place its revolutionary class interests above particular, sectional or apparent needs or desires. The above argument is based on the central premise of economism – that the working class cannot transcend its immediate sectional interests and identify with all oppressed and the future of humanity. Such ‘anti-economism’ is in fact a denial of the pertinence of the Transitional Programme in the service of the nationalism of the oppressed.

12. The Protestants feel legitimately threatened by the proposal for a united (bourgeois) Ireland, that is, their forcible absorption into an enlarged version of the reactionary clericalist state of Éire. The communalism/nationalism of the Protestants has a defensive character and is not the chauvinism of a great power. A united bourgeois Ireland would not provide a democratic solution for their claims and we must therefore reject such a solution. Such a state would necessarily be sectarian, and the Protestants will not voluntarily enter such a union.

The difficulties of such a solution are indicated in the earlier experience of the Bolsheviks. At the Second Congress of the Communist International in 1920 the Ukrainian delegate Merejin observed in an amendment to the ‘Theses on the National and Colonial Questions’:

‘The attempt made to settle the relationship between the nations of the majority and the minority nationalities in territories of mixed population (Ukraine, Poland, White Russia), has shown that the transfer of the power of govern-ment from the hands of the big capitalists to the groups of petty bourgeoisie constituting the democratic republics not only does not diminish but, on the contrary, aggravates the friction among the nationalities. The democratic republics oppose themselves to the proletariat and attempt to convert the class war into a national one. They become rapidly impregnated with nationalistic exclusiveness, and easily adapt themselves to the practices of the previous dominating nations, which fermented discord among the nationalities, and organised pogroms, with the assistance of the government apparatus, to combat the dictatorship of the proletariat.…’

The present Irish bourgeois republic is a clerical reactionary state in which the Roman Catholic Church enjoys considerable real and latent powers. An essential aspect of this is not the current level of religious persecution or discrimination (though the current repressive measures directed mostly against the IRA are an indication of the Irish bourgeoisie's intentions), but the relationship of Roman Catholicism to Irish nationalism, especially as it helps to define the divisions between the two communities.

Leninism and nationalism are fundamentally counterposed political viewpoints. Thus, while revolutionists struggle against all forms of national oppression, they are also opposed to all forms of nationalist ideology. It is a revision of Leninism to claim that the ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ is progressive and can be supported by communist internationalists. In one of his major works on the national question Lenin stressed:

‘Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the "most just," "purest," most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism….’

‘Critical Remarks on the National Question,’ Collected Works, Vol. 20

To attempt to dismiss the above-mentioned features of Irish nationalism and the Irish Republic, to suggest that somehow these matters are not important, is to imply that Irish nationalism and capitalism are in some way ‘progressive’ and (unlike all other nationalists and capitalists) will not promote racial, sexual and communal divisions in the working class, in particular will not discriminate and persecute non-members of their national grouping.

13. Ireland, like other situations of interpenetrated peoples as in the Middle East and Cyprus, is a striking confirmation of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution. The inevitable conclusion is that while revolutionists must oppose all aspects of national oppression, they must also recognise that the conflicting claims of interpenetrated peoples can only be equitably resolved in the framework of a workers state. We struggle for an Irish workers republic as part of a socialist federation of the British Isles. while the establishment of a united workers state of the whole island may be preferable, the above demand is algebraic, leaving open the question of where the Protestants fall. This recognises that the nature of the Protestant community has not yet been determined in history. As such, it is counterposed to calls for a ‘united workers republic' or for a ‘united socialist Ireland’ (where this demand is not simply an expression for left/nationalist or Stalinist two-stage theories). Placing the demand in the context of a socialist federation has the additional advantage of highlighting the essential relationship of the proletarian revolution in the whole area and the virtual impossibility of the resolution of the Irish question on a working-class basis outside this framework. This, and the strong representation of Irish workers in the working class in Britain, points to the demand for a British Isles-wide trade-union federation as a method of promot-ing joint struggle and cutting across the divisions in the working class in Ireland.

14. Particular emphasis must be placed on the demand for programmatically based anti-sectarian workers militias to combat Orange and Green terror and imperialist rampage. The British bourgeois press and the local imperialists' bloodstained henchmen in the British Labour Party responded hysterically to a composite motion at the 1976 BLP Conference demanding the withdrawal of British troops and the formation of a trade-union based militia, despite the fact that the motion was the inadvertent result of right-wing culling of motions expressing ersatz Irish nationalist positions and a mealy-mouthed resolution from the Militant grouping. Our demand is not the same as that of the deeply opportunist and BLP-entrist Militant group, which links its call for trade-union militias to the call for troop withdrawal in a way that makes the existence of trade-union militias a precondition for troop withdrawal and which sees the militias as growing organically out of economist struggles. In Ulster the problem is not that the workers are not armed. Such militias will need a broad and strong programmatic basis if they are not to be derailed or co-opted. They cannot develop just out of trade unionism but fundamentally require the existence of a strong and authoritative revolutionary cadre. Each militia unit would need at least one member of each community and the presence and strong influence of trained revol-utionary cadre. Consequently, the demand for an anti--sectarian workers militia is closely linked to the growth of a Leninist party based on a developed revolutionary programme. Without being based on the demand for the immediate withdrawal of the British army and without our analysis of terrorism, for example, such workers militias would simply be the armed adjunct of the women's peace movement.

15. In military conflicts between Irish nationalist organisations and the British army/state authorities we defend the actions of the former since this is still a struggle of an oppressed nationality against imperialism, even though their struggle may be associated with a programme which, if accomplished, would violate the democratic rights of the Protestants. This stance implies nothing about the programme of these groups, which can range from those similar to the Zionist Stern Gang and Grivas' EOKA to more radical ‘socialist’ nationalists.

Outside this military struggle with British imperialism and its direct agents, in the conflict between the Irish Catholic and Protestant communities and their respective organisations, the national/communal aspect transcends any formal left/right differences. Such violence is frequently directed against symbols of non-sectarianism (for example, pubs where both Catholic and Protestant workers socialise) and is an obstacle to any form of integrated class struggle. Terrorist acts directed against the Protestant community by organisations of the oppressed Irish Catholic community are in no way a blow against imperialism, not justifiable as the 'violence of the oppressed’ and are no more ‘progressive’ or defensible than similar acts by Protestant paramilitary groups. Thus, while attacks on British army posts or the bombing of Aldershot military barracks are politically defensible acts, the pub bombings (both in Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods), the London underground bombings, the South Armagh shootings and other such acts of indiscriminate terrorism are completely indefensible, in no way representing a blow against imperialism. Such acts, based as they are on nationalist and genocidal premises, can only deepen com-munal divisions and erect barriers to working-class unity.

In such circumstances we recognise the right of both communities to self-defence. Simply because an org-anisation claims to be fighting on behalf of the oppressed and against imperialism does not make all its acts defens-ible. If this were so, then revolutionists would be com-pelled to defend the actions of both the EOKA in Cyprus and the Zionist Stern Gang in Palestine (organisations to whom the Provisional IRA are akin), not only when they attacked British imperialism but respectively in their attacks on the Turkish community and the Palestinians (at Deir Yassin, for example). Only with this understanding of terrorism can the workers militias in Northern Ireland be armed against capitulating to a blanket approval of the terrorism of the oppressed or becoming a mask for the machinations of imperialism.

16. In the history of the Irish labour movement there have been examples of significant workers' solidarity which have temporarily cut across the sectarian divisions. Invariably, as in the case of the 1919 Belfast engineers' strike and the mass unemployment marches in the 1930s, they have been countered with massive sectarian mobilisations intended to wipe out the fragile proletarian unity. In the absence of a revolutionary party, there can arise examples of transitory unity, albeit on pacifist or reformist grounds. A sequel to the South Armagh shootings was joint marches of Protestant and Catholic workers; but they marched to demand the strengthening of the RUC, which must be smashed.

Even such examples indicate the potentiality for workers unity. The instances of class solidarity are not proof of a deep-seated strain of class unity or that the situation is not poisoned by sectarian hatreds, but indicate that the opportunity can arise for a revolutionary organisation, though perhaps hitherto isolated, weak and small to intervene, altering the course of the conflict toward a class determination and proletarian revolution.

For the Immediate and Unconditional Withdrawal of the British Army!

Smash the RUC and the UDR!

Down with the Prevention of Terrorism Act and all Other Special Powers Acts in Britain and Ireland!

Full Democratic Rights for the Catholic Minority in Northern Ireland!

No Discrimination in Hiring and Housing! For a Sliding Scale of Wages and Hours!

For a Programatically Based Anti-Sectarian Workers Militia To Combat Orange and Green Terror and Imperialist Rampage!

For a British Isles-Wide Trade-Union Federation!

Forward to the Irish Section of the Reborn Fourth International!

No Forcible Reunification! For An Irish Workers Republic Within A Socialist Federation of the British Isles!

Back to Irish Trotskyism


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