For 71 years, on the very doorstep of Britain, in the small north-eastern territory carved out of Ireland, the British bourgeoisie has consistently and systematically imposed its domination by restricting civil rights and using ruthless repression. To consolidate this domination, the British state consciously assisted in setting up one section of the population against the other, by whipping up a mixture of national and religious prejudices, in a way that can only be likened to the methods used by many reactionary politicians, as in today's Yugoslavia for instance.
This summer, it was announced that the death toll in Northern Ireland, since the beginning of what is called "the troubles", had reached 3,000. An event which was immediately seized upon by the media and the British government as yet another pretext to blame Irish nationalism.
As if the soldiers who patrol the streets of the working-class districts of Belfast, day and night, sometimes on foot brandishing their sub-machine guns in the faces of passers-by, sometimes hiding inside their "Saracens", were Irish nationalists. As if it was Irish nationalists who had made a habit of breaking into and wrecking pubs or corner-shops as if it were a game, or who manned the fortified top floors of many high-rises in West Belfast, with their hightech infra-red cameras and heavy machine-guns. No, the military who haunt the lives of Northern Ireland workers, and turn their districts into occupied military zones, are armed, trained and paid by the British state.
For us, revolutionary communists, there can be no doubt: whoever killed these 3,000 women and men, the responsibility for the death of every one of them lies with British imperialism.
Clearing the mess left by capitalism will be the historical role and responsibility of the working class. And this goes for Ireland too. But in the meantime, Ireland should rank high in the preoccupations of proletarian revolutionaries in this country. As Marx pointed out in 1870, arguing for the need for the English section of the First International to oppose the enslavement of Ireland, «Any nation that oppresses another forges its own chains ». This remains just as relevant today. Not on moral grounds, but for political reasons which are decisive for anyone aiming at the overthrow of capitalism.
A significant section of the working class in Britain, numbering hundreds of thousands, is actually Irish. If the unity of the working class here is to be achieved, British workers cannot afford not to be on the side of their fellow Irish workers against the state and the army of their common employers. Any other stand would only help the capitalists to split the ranks of the British working class in the here and now.
At some stage, when it decides to act, the British working class will need allies. And what closer allies could it find than the workers on the other side of the Irish channel? This alliance has to be prepared today. It will not happen if today the British working class fails to side with its Irish brothers when they are under attack from the British state.
In addition, the Northern Ireland military machine feeds back here a steady flow of ex-soldiers. Fortunately some of those coming back are radically cured from the militarist disease. But some are "rambos" whose only outlook and training in life is based on the systematic usage of guns, questioning, harassment, etc.. And workers here should know that at some point, they will find these rambos on the other side of the barricade ready to shoot as they were trained to in Northern Ireland.
So, yes, the emancipation of Ireland is one of the vital questions that proletarian revolutionaries have to have in mind today, not for the odd token demonstration of support, but with the understanding that it is an integral part of our overall fight to overthrow capitalism.
The build-up of a powder keg
In a sense, the roots of today's situation in Ireland have to be traced as far back in the past as the 12th century, when the first envoy of a king of England set his foot on Irish land and won his first battle against the local Gaelic people.
Ironically, in view of today's alleged religious division of Ireland, it was Pope Adrian IV who, in 1154, gave permission to the king of England Henry II to invade Ireland. The Church was unhappy with the indiscipline of its Irish branch and expected Henry II to put it into shape. But it also expected a fee in return for its benediction, an annual payment of 1d per Irish household which Henry II was entrusted to raise.
For a long time, however, the authority of the king of England remained limited to a small area around Dublin while the original Anglo-Norman invaders who had settled throughout Ireland became more and more integrated into Irish society, to the extent even of taking the lead of many local rebellions against England. Then, in the 16th century, the English monarchy sought ways of replacing the traditional Irish clan system by a feudal organisation which would make for easier control. Thus came the first waves of English settlers, or planters as they were called. They first settled around Dublin and then expanded over the whole island. Only in the North-Eastern province of Ulster did the power of the clans remain largely untouched.
The ungovernable colony
In the meantime, Henry VIII had "declared" the Reformation. In the guise of religion, the rising absolute monarchy was asserting its independence from any authority, be it religious or political. In 1550, an attempt at establishing an Anglican Church in Ireland was made to prevent England's enemies from using religion as a means to secure the support of a mostly Catholic Ireland. This resulted in fierce resistance for many decades.
Ulster, the last bastion of Irish rebellion was finally defeated in 1603. To create an irreversible situation and consolidate the authority of the English monarchy, an unprecedented programme of settlement was conceived. No less than 120,000 settlers, mostly Scottish Presbyterians, were brought in, for whom 23 towns were built in Ulster. It took however the whole century, and several Irish rebellions which were drowned in blood, before the situation of these new settlers was really stabilised.
In 1649, fearing that rural and mostly Catholic Ireland might provide a springboard for a monarchist backlash against the new-born power of the London Parliament, Cromwell stormed through Ireland, destroying every sign of resistance on his way. The 1652 Act of Settlement for Ireland provided for the distribution of the spoils by expropriating two-thirds of the land. A large part of this land ended up in the hands of the London merchants who had lent money to Parliament for the civil war and a smaller part was offered as wages to the soldiers of Cromwell's army who were still in Ireland, thereby keeping conveniently away from England large numbers of armed hot heads who might have wanted to carry the revolution just a bit too far.
By the end of the 17th century Ireland had become a full colony of England. English products were free to be imported in Ireland but Irish products were only allowed to be sold through English merchants. That is, when they were not banned outright outside Ireland, to avoid unwelcome competition for British business. Three-quarters of Irish land was owned partly by Anglo-Irish settlers but mostly by English absentee landowners who took little interest in the improvement of their estates. The mostly Catholic Irish majority was deprived of any political rights and economically strangled into poverty.
Irish unrest remained rife throughout the 18th century. A new Catholic underground organisation was set up, the Defenders, which took up the defence of Irish farmers against the landlords.
But soon another threat to England's domination emerged, from the ranks of the Protestant settlers this time, particularly among the Presbyterian settlers of Ulster. Their traditions were more liberal and egalitarian than those of the Anglican landlords and the ideas of the American and French revolutions appealed to many of them.
The English state tried to defuse this potentially dangerous threat. One by one, the laws limiting Irish trade were repealed. Catholics were granted limited rights to acquire new property. Eventually, in 1782, Ireland was declared independent and an Irish Parliament was convened in Dublin.
These reforms could satisfy the landowners but not the radical democrats who opposed the privileges of the landlords and demanded that universal suffrage should replace the existing system of electoral franchise based on land-ownership. This radical trend found its expression in the Society of United Irishmen, a mostly Protestant group, set up in 1791 by Wolfe Tone, a Dublin barrister. Wolfe Tone's aims were «To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government; to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country ». In order to achieve these aims, Tone proposed «To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter ». The new society soon gathered momentum, and, under its pressure, Irish Catholics were eventually given voting rights to the Irish Parliament in 1793, although they still could not be elected nor hold public offices.
The response of the English state and the Protestant establishment was to set up the Orange Order in 1795, a Protestant secret military organisation aiming at defending the landowners and crushing anti-English feelings. General Lake, the commander of the British army in Ulster, summed up this policy with due cynicism: «I have arranged... to increase the animosity between the Orangemen and the United Irishmen. Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North ».
When eventually, in 1798, the United Irishmen called an uprising in alliance with the Defenders, it was crushed by the army. Wolfe Tone was sentenced to death and thousands were killed without so much as a trial. It is worth noting that while many young Ulster Protestants were killed in the uprising, the involvement of the Irish Catholics in the rest of Ireland was comparatively patchy. This time, the Catholic Church and the Irish landowners had thrown their weight against the uprising, no doubt because the anti-monarchist and anti-sectarian orientation of the United Irishmen threatened to sweep aside the influence of all churches and put into question the power of the landed privileged.
On the strength of their victory, the British state took no more chances. On 1 January 1801, Anglo-Irish Union was imposed on Ireland. The autonomous Irish Parliament of Dublin ceased to exist and Westminster took over full control, with 100 seats out of 660 reserved for Irish MPs.
Home Rule - the story of a failed settlement
It took 28 more years for the Irish Catholics to be granted a right to vote, although within the limits of a franchise which was tightened at the same time for all voters. But tensions remained and escalated, particularly when the industrial revolution reached Ulster and Catholics flooded the cities in search of work in the new factories. In the atmosphere of competition for jobs, religious sectarianism played its role and there were riots in Belfast in 1835. But the 1845 famine devastated Ireland killing 1.5 million and forcing another 1.5 million to emigrate. As a result of poverty and emigration mainly, from 8.5 million in 1845 the population of Ireland was to fall to 4.5 million in 1920.
New secret organisations re-emerged - the Pheonix Society and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), whose supporters became known as "Fenians". In Ireland, the Fenians waged an on-going war against the landlords and the tenancy system which meant that, with the exception of Ulster, tenant farmers had to pay impossibly high rents to often absentee landlords without having any rights whatsoever with respect to their tenancy. The IRB took their campaign to England, in 1867, when Marx was in London. Trying to blow up the Clerkenwell Barracks, they blew up 12 people in nearby houses instead. Marx criticised this bungled operation, but unlike other activists who turned against the Fenians, he said that «The Fenian movement, in that it aimed at smashing the power of the landlords and exalted that of the common people, had a certain socialist tendency ».
Meanwhile, another movement emerged demanding Home Rule, i.e. the re-establishment of the Irish colonial parliament. There was nothing very radical in this demand which certainly did not go as far as demanding political independence. Rather it expressed the timorous aspirations of the Irish middle-class to some form of economic development which the British bourgeoisie had consciously prevented so far. But support for Home Rule was far from unanimous in the Irish bourgeoisie. While the Southern economy was struggling to survive against the limitations imposed on it by Britain, the new prosperous economy of the North, mostly based on textile and ship-building, relied entirely on its integration in the British economy. Hence the opposition to Home Rule among the Ulster upper classes, which as it happened were also mostly Protestant, who wanted Ireland to remain in the Union - and who therefore became known as "Unionists".
This political division soon emerged in Westminster when, in the 1885 election, supporters of Home Rule got 85 of the 103 seats, with nearly all the remaining 18 MPs being Unionists who represented Antrim and Down in Ulster. Home Rule became one of the factors in the delicate wheelings and dealings of British Parliamentary politics. As long as those in power could rely on a comfortable majority, Home Rule remained a non-issue - few MPs in Westminster cared about people's aspirations in distant Ireland anyway. However, by 1910, the Parliamentary support for the Asquith Liberal government had become narrow enough for him to seek the help of the Home Rule MPs. Their leader, Redmond, struck a deal with Asquith whereby the government would agree to set up in Ireland a system of government for "purely Irish affairs" while Redmond would support him in his on-going fight against the House of Lords. It was this agreement that cleared the way for the 1912 Home Rule bill.
In retaliation, the Tories resorted to the anti-Irish card against the Asquith government. They consciously played on Unionist fears, encouraging the resurrection of the Orange Order and Unionist clubs to try and mobilise the Protestants on the streets. Leading this agitation was Sir Edward Carson, Tory MP for Dublin University and a staunch Unionist. Carson's aims were summed up in a speech he made in 1911 at Craigavon: «We must be prepared, the morning Home Rule passes, ourselves to become responsible for the government of the Protestant province of Ulster ».
Under Carson's leadership, Unionism evolved into a form of Ulster Protestant nationalism in its own right. The main issue ceased to be the Anglo-Irish Union. It was replaced with the Unionist politicians' bid for power in Ulster, in the name of the Protestant population. Thier allegiance to Britain was more a matter of opportunity than one of conviction, as Carson showed himself, when he approached the German Emperor for military assistance. In any case Carson succeeded in giving credit to the idea of an independent Ulster, independant from Britain if need be, but definitely independent from the rest of Ireland.
Eventually the Liberal government got the Home Rule bill through the House of Commons but only to allow the House of Lords to block its implementation for the following two years. By that time, the First World War provided a convenient excuse for its shelving till the end of the hostilities.
The first attempt at a political settlement of the Irish question had therefore collapsed due to the ambitions of politicians of the Carson type, to the greed of the Ulster bourgeoisie and to the cowardice of the British politicians. As Lenin observed in 1914: «Of course, if the Liberals appealed to the people of Britain, to the proletariat, Carson's gangs would melt away and disappear. The peaceful and full achievement of freedom by Ireland would be guaranteed. But is it conceivable that the Liberal bourgeoisie will turn to the proletariat for aid against the landlords? Why, the Liberals in Britain are also lackeys of the money bags, capable only of cringing to the Carsons.»
The defeat of the Easter rising
The shelving of the Home Rule bill did not stop Carson and his associates from crying wolf. On the contrary, they went on crying even louder. Home Rule remained Carson's favourite scarecrow to mobilise the Ulster Protestants. He turned the fight against Home Rule into a fight against the threat of Catholicism, and for "religious freedom".
Belfast was the first target. Not least because the Unionist politicians retained a fearful memory of those three months in 1907, when Jim Larkin, an Irishman of Catholic origin born in Liverpool, had led a strike of 3,000 dockers and carters. The majority of the strikers had been Protestant. And yet, once the strike was on, all attempts at creating sectarian tensions had failed to undermine the industrial action - even the Belfast police had threatened to go on strike! With the growing weight of the working class in Belfast, it was urgent to pre-empt any future similar development.
So a series of Protestant demonstrations were carefully organised by the employers in the working-class districts of Belfast, resulting in attacks against Catholic workers. And, on 12 July 1912, 3,000 workers were forcibly thrown out of the shipyards and engineering works in the Belfast area, among whom 20% were in fact Protestants as the thugs were also after trade union activists of any religion and socialists. Overall though, these "industrial expulsions" weakened the Belfast working class, by depriving it of its best activists, and by ensuring that Catholic workers would see Protestant workers as their enemies while the average Protestant would, at least in the short term, be afraid of a United Ireland, for fear of revenge.
In the meantime, the Dublin working class was involved in a long protacted battle to impose the recognition of their unions, particularly of Larkin's and Conolly's Irish Transport and General Workers Union, against the lock-out declared by the employers. It was in the midst of this battle that the Irish Citizens Army was first set up by Connolly as a workers defence force. In the end, this battle was lost. But it left indelible marks in the small Dublin working class, a radicalisation and a political experience which was soon to be put to the test.
By the end of 1914, after WWI had broken out, it was estimated that 100,000 men were enrolled and armed in the Unionist UVF or Ulster Volunteer Force. In the South, 180,000 had joined the National Volunteers which supported Redmond's pledge to fight alongside Britain. All in all, North and South, 250,000 Irishmen enlisted in the British Army. Opposing any involvement in the war were the 18,000 members of the Irish Volunteers, a mostly Catholic armed militia which included the respectable middle-class nationalists of Sinn Fein, the radical nationalists of the IRB, and many members of the small Irish Citizen Army.
Some among the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, in particular the leaders of the IRB, saw this war as a unique opportunity to sever all links with Britain. Connolly, who was by then leader of the ITWGU and of the Citizens Army, was denouncing the imperialist slaughter in Europe. He also considered that the Irish working class could «set the torch to a European conflagration that will not burn out until the last throne and the last capitalist bond and debenture will be shrivelled in the funeral pyre of the last war lord ».
For over a year, the idea of an uprising was discussed by the leadership of the Irish Volunteers, resulting in the withdrawal of Sinn Fein who wanted nothing to do with it. When the uprising eventually took place, on Easter Monday 1916, only 1,600 Irish Volunteers responded, mostly in Dublin. The outcome was predictable. Within a week all fighting was over. 1,300 insurgents were killed or wounded. Their leaders, including Connolly, were arrested and shot by firing squad and the rest carted off to jail in England.
The partition of Ireland
If people had not risen to support the uprising, Britain's ruthless repression resulted in a wave of sympathy and anger amongst the population. It also discredited Redmond and his approach which was seen as pandering to the English.
A month after the armistice a general election was held. The results showed unequivocally what the Irish wanted. Candidates standing on the Sinn Fein platform, for an independent all-Ireland republic, won 73 seats, despite the banning of this party for opposing conscription. Of these, 36 were elected while still in jail for their nationalist activities. The Unionists got 26 seats and Redmond's supporters only six. This time, the Sinn Fein MPs refused to have anything to do with Westminster and formed their own provisional assembly in Dublin in January 1919, led by Eamon de Valera.
Britain responded by getting troops still garrisoned in Ireland ready for battle. The Royal Irish Constabulary was put on wartime footing. The fledgling nationalist government also mobilised an army. The old Irish Volunteers was renamed the Irish Republican Army under the leadership of Michael Collins. This was the beginning of a war of independence, which on the IRA's side was waged as a guerrilla war, and one which was really supported by the majority of the population in the Southern counties.
In Ulster, the Protestant bourgeoisie was becoming restless. Early in 1919 it was faced with a new wave of industrial militancy - a four-week engineering strike. This strike was in support of a 44-hour week as against the current 47 hours. It spread, in the Belfast area, to power workers and even textile workers. The strike committee was led by a Catholic, Charles McKay despite the fact that most of the workers on the 150-strong strike committe, happened to be Protestant. And although the strike was eventually broken, through military intervention, in the view of the employers, it was a dangerous display of class solidarity across the sectarian divide.
A new wave of anti-Catholic pogroms and "industrial expulsions" was therefore organised the following year against the background of the rapidly worsening postwar recession in engineering. The thugs also tried to throw out what they called "rotten prods", who made up 25% of those expelled, mainly trade union activists. Which did not prevent the nationalist Catholic MP Joseph Devlin, in a meeting in Glasgow, from describing the expelled workers as «Irish Catholics fighting for the preservation of that faith that burns as brightly and shines as brilliantly today in the hearts of Irish Ulster as it does in Cork or Tipperary ». Concealing class lines was just as important for the Southern Catholic bourgeoisie as it was for their Ulster Protestant counterparts.
Given the course of events there were many reasons for the British government to seek a quick settlement. At a time when Britain was still busy restoring order throughout its Empire and was, in addition, threatened at home with industrial unrest due to the current recession, not to mention the situation worldwide still dominated by the post-war revolutionary wave initiated by the Russian revolution, the last thing the British government wanted was an on-going nationalist armed rebellion in Ireland which could only expose the impotence of the British state. On the other hand, the British government was not prepared to risk a confrontation with the Ulster Unionists, nor was it prepared to be seen to be giving in all the way to the demands of the Southern insurgents. They needed to stitch up some sort of compromise. Luckily for them, a compromise was exactly what the Irish bourgeoisie, North and South, was after.
After many unfruitful attempts, a treaty was signed in December 1921. What eventually came out of it, was Ireland as we know it today: an independent so-called "Free State" in the South, comprising 26 counties of the old colonial Ireland, while a reduced Ulster consisting of the remaining six counties was set up in the North and remained within the United Kingdom. This suited the Northern Unionists who retained the richest areas of Ulster with a Protestant majority. It suited the Southern bourgeoisie too, whose patriotism was less concerned by the fate of their Northern compatriots than by the prospect of a prompt return of business. And as far as Britain was concerned, the "Free State" was a rather satisfactory compromise: it remained within the British Empire; its MPs had to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarchy; and the British navy was given the right to maintain a permanent presence in five of its ports.
The reactionary backlash
As early as 1912, James Connolly had warned against the dangers of a partition of Ireland, which he said would mean «the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it lasted. » This stern warning was not based on any fetish for national territorial integrity, but rather on Connolly's experience of the devious ways the bourgeoisie can use to consolidate its power over the working class, and on his conviction that only the Irish working class could really bring freedom to Ireland.
In the North, the «carnival of reaction » had already started even before Partition, with the wave of pogroms and the "industrial expulsions".
In the South, Partition split the new regime from top to bottom. It was only agreed by a narrow majority in the Dublin Parliament, with the minority immediately setting up their own party, the Republic Party. The same split occured in the IRA, where eleven of the 19 divisions decided against Partition and entered into virtual rebellion against the Dublin Parliament alongside the Citizens Army.
The fight between the two factions of the IRA soon became increasingly bitter and the repression that the Free State government meted out was hardly different to that to which they had been subjected themselves while fighting for Home Rule. The government's concern was to stop what was now developing into a civil war between the two factions. They even resorted to asking for British artillary to help repress the anti-treaty IRA. Eventually, by May 1923, the civil war ended in defeat for the anti-treaty IRA.
As to how free the "Free State" was for its population, and in particular its labouring classes, hardly indeed! The defeat of the radical elements in the IRA opened the doors to a return of the most reactionary politicians, bringing behind them the Catholic Church, which had largely remained in the background as long as guns were still on the forefront. As it consolidated its institutions the new state turned out to be even more bigoted than that of Ulster.
As to social improvements in the South, there were none. Those in power were the same Catholic capitalists who had fought the year-long lock out against the Dublin workers in 1913, or their representatives. Even those tenant-farmers who had joined the IRA and fought the British in the hope of ousting the landlords and winning the land they were toiling, were deceived. In fact, what was in store for them had been clear as early as May 1920, when the Dublin government had set up a Land Arbitration Court to receive the pleas of the landowners whose properties had been taken over by smallholders and landless peasants: in most cases, the Court's verdicts had been in favour of the landowners and the IRA had seen to it that these verdicts were respected. The majority of Sinn Fein, including its future anti-treaty radical wing, were definitely not prepared to fight for any social changes in Ireland. It is therefore hardly surprising that the regime which was eventually set up by the most conservative wing of Sinn Fein, turned out to represent the interests of the owning classes.
Connolly's ironical prophesy, written back in 1899, came true after 1921: «After Ireland is free, says the patriot who won't touch socialism, we will protect all classes, and if you don't pay your rent you will be evicted same as now. But the evicting party, under command of the sheriff, will wear green uniforms and the Harp without the Crown, and the warrant turning you out on the roadside will be stamped with the arms of the Irish Republic. Now, isn't that worth fighting for? ».
The powder keg explodes - the rebellion of the sixties
Partition did not solve the National question in Ireland, nor was it meant to. To the Southern capitalists, it provided a state machinery to protect and guarantee their profits and a population of three million to produce them. To the Northern capitalists it provided the guarantee that they would not have to share their industrial profits nor political power. As to the British politicians, Partition allowed them to get others to do their dirty work by restoring law and order in Ireland on their behalf, which was their primary concern. In addition, it kept the Ulster Unionist lobby quiet while taming Irish nationalism, all in one go. Or so they thought. The following decades were to show how mistaken they were.
In the South, the traditional rebellious nationalism faded away, except maybe to an extent along the Border. What was left was the brand of narrow-minded nationalism that Southern politicians found convenient to air now and again as a means to shift the discontent away from themselves by blaming the endemic poverty of the country on Partition.
In the North, of course, events took a different course. On the strength of what had been in actual fact a victory, both over the British state and the Irish nationalists, the Northern Protestant bourgeoisie felt no restraint whatsoever in maintaining the sectarian divide they had consciously built and so successfully used during the run-up to Partition. Protestant bigotry and Anti-Catholic feelings remained an instrument of social control over the population, particularly over the working class.
The national powderkeg that had been built in Ireland over the centuries of colonial power was therefore never really defused. Instead Partition shifted it to the North, where its explosive power was increased by the growing concentration of the poorest layers of the Catholic population in urban ghettoes.
Eventually, the explosion took place in the late 60s, 47 years after Partition. It did not go as far as being a real threat to the domination of Britain over the North. But it displayed a potential that had never been seen before in Ireland, because this time, unlike during the war of independence, the urban masses emerged on the forefront of the struggle against Britain's domination and gave it a social content which it had never had before.
The emergence of the Civil Rights Movement
In 1968, Northern Ireland was the only country in Western Europe that did not have universal suffrage. To vote in the Westminster election, the "only" qualification, so to speak, was to have three years residence. But only those with seven years residence and at least some property qualified for any other elections. One third of those allowed to elect MPs to Westminster were not allowed to elect their local councillors or their representative to the Belfast parliament,
Those most often deprived of the right to vote were obviously the poorest, and among them, a large proportion of Catholic workers. The Catholic community which made up one third of the total population tended to be under-represented at every level. Even more so as the constituency boundaries were craftily designed to favour the Protestant electorate. Thus, in 1967, in the Derry City council, 8,781 Protestants managed to elect 12 unionist councillors, while 14,429 Catholics elected only 8 non-unionists. Overall, it was estimated that the vote of one Protestant carried as much weight as the vote of 2.5 Catholics.
Living conditions reflected the derelict state of the Northern Ireland economy, where wages were on average 25% less than in Britain. Housing conditions were in the same league. But in addition, the Northern Ireland Housing Trust did not allocate houses to families who had members working outside of Northern Ireland. And the City Councils, which were very often Protestant controlled, tended to build and allocate houses so as not to disturb their electoral basis. Housing provision and allocation therefore also tended to favour protestants over catholics.
While the Catholic poor got the worst deal, the general poverty and backwardness of Northern Ireland and the high level of unemployment meant that a whole layer of the Protestant working class was hardly better off, in terms of earnings, living conditions and even electoral rights.
By 1967, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) had been founded as an ad hoc body including trade unionists, members of the Northern Ireland Labour Party, the Nationalist Party and even at least one more "moderate" Unionist. They began to campaign on civil rights and housing. Their first activity was a 4,000 strong march against the allocation of a council house in Dungannon to a single Protestant girl of 19 years in preference to dozens of Catholic families who were desperate for rehousing.
In the meanwhile, activists in Derry had formed a Housing Action Committee proposing direct action in order to house families with urgent needs. They were met with an overwhelming response from the local population. And not only from catholics. For instance, people from the Protestant working class Fountain area of Derry, approached the HAC for help. The HAC blockaded roads, occupied houses, meeting in fact with some success.
It was a demonstration in Derry on the 5th October 1968, called by the HAC and supported by NICRA which first gave the civil rights movement wider attention, including in Britain. The march had been banned, but four hundred marchers decided to go ahead anyway. The march was pinned in between two cordons of police who proceeded to move in with their batons and water canon to attack the demonstrators. Gerry Fitt MP was filmed by television cameras getting his head bashed in. Fighting broke out between the police and the youth, lasting till the next morning, police cars were stoned, petrol bombs thrown, and a hundred people were injured.
After this things were never the same again. The population of Derry's catholic ghettoes, particularly the youth, once aroused, were determined to carry on fighting. Students from Belfast, present on the Derry march went off and set up a loose organisation called "Peoples Democracy" (PD) which soon became the driving force in much of the events that were to follow.
Despite marches being banned, attacked by the RUC and B Specials, despite the burning of catholic homes and sectarian killings by thugs called in to intimidate people, the population for the next two years continued to fight, defining "no go areas" against the police.
A threat to the sectarian status quo
From the moment the movement took on mass proportions, the Catholic politicians and church leaders, who had been in the background in and around NICRA, stepped in to try to regain control. Their traditional sectarian influence was at stake. With this new mass movement, anything could happen. After all Bernadette Devlin, a leading PD figure had actually won a Westminster seat in the April 1969 Mid-Ulster by-election as an anti-unionist candidate - in a marginal seat previously held by a Unionist, where it was estimated that her majority of 4,211 votes included 1,500 votes from Protestants.
By July 1969, with the annual round of Protestant celebrations, rioting began again throughout the six counties. The culmination was the August Derry Apprentice Boys march. Catholic youth began to stone the march, and when the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, moved in they retreated to the Bogside and began to throw up barricades and organise defence against the police. This new type of rioting spread rapidly to other towns and demonstrations took place in the South, especially in Dublin. Only then did Lynch, the Southern Prime Minister, decide he had better make some response. He announced the mobilisation of the Southern Army and the setting up of field hospitals on the border. Thousands of catholics started to flee in the biggest exodus from Northern Ireland since the pogroms of the 20's. The B-Specials were mobilised and moved into Derry. The country was on the verge of civil war.
By this time, the inability of the Belfast government to handle the crisis had become obvious. Worse, its repressive measures threatened to extend the movement south of the Border. The whole political set-up built around the Partition of Ireland was being put in question by what appeared as the biggest mobilisation ever seen in Northern Ireland. Wilson's Labour government rushed in to try to preserve the status quo. On the 14th August 1969, Home Secretary, James Callaghan sent the first British troops into Derry. The RUC and B-Specials were moved out and fighting ceased. The following day troops entered Belfast.
Britain's intervention did force some reforms through, like the disbanding of the "specials", soon replaced with the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment, under British control by April 1970. The response of the more militant unionists was predictable. Mobs were organised to invade the catholic areas. This time they were surprised to be confronted by the British troops. In fact the first casualties in the British Army were soldiers wounded by Protestant gunmen and the first bombings of the period were carried out, not by the IRA but by the Ulster Volunteer Force which had been re-launched by this time, aided and abetted by many unionist politicians who saw this situation as a unique opportunity to try to shift the status quo in their own particular direction. Among these was Ian Paisley.
But as the year wore on the other reforms which had been promised did not materialise. The British Army felt confident enough to move into the Catholic "free" areas of the Falls Road in Belfast and the Bogside in Derry on the pretext of a search for guns etc. It was not long before people realised that they were taking on the role of the disbanded B-Specials.
By August 1971, in response to continuing unrest, Britain resorted to an old instrument in its repressive arsenal in Ireland - internment. It was reintroduced, along with a new "Special Powers Act". The Army moved in to arrest all suspected IRA members and civil rights activists. In fact, of the 342 people arrested, only 56 had IRA connections. Again, 8,000 catholics fled across the border. Though on the day the act was introduced Protestant paramilitaries went on the rampage, no move was made against them.
The newly founded Catholic SDLP reluctantly withdrew from Stormont and a campaign of civil disobedience - including a rent and rate strike was launched. Then on January 30th 1972, the 1st battallion of the Parachute Regiment opened fire on unarmed demonstrators in Derry, killing 13 of them. These "Bloody Sunday" murders triggered a new wave of rioting in the urban ghettoes. This time the British cabinet was left with no alternative. Stormont was suspended and direct rule re-introduced.
Once again, the powderkeg built by the British bourgeoisie in Ireland had backfired. The restoration of direct rule amounted to an unquestionable admission of the failure of the political set-up built on Partition.
The nationalists revitalised by the failure of the movement
It was in the last two years before the restoration of direct rule that the IRA made a spectacular come-back. When the civil rights movement started intervening, the IRA was nowhere to be seen. Some of its members and supporters took part in the committees which mushroomed all over Northern Ireland, but there was a distinct lack of direction in their activity.
This was largely due to a split that had been looming in the organisation for some time already, and which eventually took place in 1969. Of the two factions that came out of the split, the Official IRA included most of the leadership of the organisation which was based in the South. It was influenced by the particular brand of "socialism" represented by the Communist Party of Ireland, that is, communist in words, reformist in deeds. The Officials advocated a turn away from the armed struggle to electoral politics.
The other faction which called itself the Provisional IRA, or Provos, represented a more traditional brand of nationalism, strongly anti-communist, and determined to re-launch the armed struggle, in particular through the bombing of economic targets. They were soon faced with a situation which was particularly favourable.
By then, it had become clear that the non-violent methods advocated by NICRA would leave the Catholic ghettoes open to attacks by sectarian thugs and British units, and that armed self-defence was a necessity. The left-wing of the Civil Rights movement did recognise this need but did not go beyond statements of intent. In Belfast, People's Democracy was more concerned about running a pirate radio and producing daily newsheets than about organising the self-defence of the ghettoes. This left a gaping political vacuum in the Catholic working-class areas.
This gave the Provos a chance to step into this vacuum, all the more easily as, in the absence of any organised self-defence, the mere fact that the nationalists advertised that they had weapons and that they intended to use them, made them appear, particularly among the youth, as the only force that was determined and serious about organising the defence of the ghettoes.
From June 1970, the Provos made a policy of having an armed presence wherever a sectarian confrontation looked likely. More often than not, due to lack of support and resources, their presence was tiny and rather ineffectual. All the more so as, once the parades or rioting were over, the Provos disappeared, leaving the ghettoes open to tit-for-tat sectarian retaliation. Nevertheless the mere presence of a few guns at the right time was enough to give the nationalists a prestigous aura among those who wanted to fight back.
The nationalist blind-alley
The radical nationalist organisations, mainly the Provisional Sinn Fein and IRA, were therefore able to collect for their own benefit most of the political gains of the civil rights movement even though they had had no part in its development and were dead against its initial non-sectarian orientation. Just as, fifty years earlier, they had managed to collect the political gains of the Easter rising.
Of course the IRA in the 70s was very different from the IRA in the early 20s or even in the late 20s. If only because its social basis was no longer in the countryside but in the urban Catholic ghettoes. Not that this was the result of a conscious choice on the part of the Provisional leadership. Rather it was the inevitable consequence of the fact that the explosion of the 60s had been an urban explosion.
But politically, apart from the fact that its political references now extended to the radicalism of Third World nationalist movements such as Castro's, the IRA had kept essentially to its traditional narrow-minded middle-class nationalism. This was reflected in its language, in the perspective it offered to the Irish population, and above all in the methods it proceeded to use in organising against Britain's presence in Northern Ireland.
The nationalists take control of the ghettoes
The apparent determination of the Provos to fight was their main cause of success. But whether they were as determined to organise the defence of the ghettoes as they made out was still another question. For instance they did not boast at the time about a particular meeting that took place in January 1971 between several senior officers of the Belfast brigade and representatives of the British army. During this meeting the IRA pledged to defuse any potential rioting in the Catholic areas. In return the British agreed to keep away from the ghettoes, only to break their own pledge a few weeks later by staging a full-scale invasion of West Belfast. The Catholic population who the nationalists had committed themselves to defend were never told about this unofficial truce. Nor were they told about the fact that, on this occasion, the IRA had been conned into policing the ghettoes and dealing with "troublemakers" for the sole benefit of the British army.
While being conned by the British army, the nationalists had nevertheless reached one of their objectives - they had demonstrated their ability to control the ghettoes. And indeed this was what their policy was about.
Thus, very early on, even before they actually won any sort of sizeable support in the population, the IRA undertook the fight against criminality in the ghettoes, using their small military apparatus to chase and sentence the local petty criminals. Being the only organised armed force, outside the official repressive forces which at the time preferred to keep away from the ghettoes, the nationalists could easily impose their law on petty criminals. No-one could really disapprove of this activity if it meant fewer burglaries, car thefts, drug dealing, etc.. But by the same token, the nationalists were making themselves feared in the community, in particular by those who had nothing to do with petty crime but who were potential political opponents or simply critics of the IRA's policy.
For the IRA, there was never any question of the ghetto communities organising themselves democratically and controlling their own defence, let alone the use or distribution of weapons. The IRA Volunteers were to be the officers, the population of the ghettoes the foot soldiers, bound by blind and total discipline. The IRA had the weapons. They were determined to remain in control and to use their weapons to this end. To all intents and purposes, the nationalists asserted themselves not just as a political alternative but already as the embryo of an alternative state machinery which was running the ghettoes, with the expertise and the will to keep law and order.
The "armed struggle" - an instrument of control
The same emphasis became even more prominent with the resumption of the armed struggle. On 6 February 1971, private Curtis was the first British soldier to be shot dead by an IRA active unit for several decades. At the same time a campaign of bombings was launched throughout Northern Ireland. This was the beginning of what the IRA still calls the "war" against the British state.
The choice of words here is not innocuous. In a war, the generals are all powerful. They have a right of life or death over "their" nation. Any disagreement, criticism, let alone act of opposition, can be branded as treason and treated as such. There can be no question of accountability to the people on whose behalf the generals claim to be fighting. Such is the kind of relationship the IRA has consciously built and maintained with the Catholic minority.
Likewise with the IRA rank and file. The Volunteers involved in the active units were never very numerous, a few hundred at most. With the tightening of repression and the more and more sophisticated intelligence methods used by the British army and the RUC, most of them have to live underground. Their contacts with the population are limited to a bare minimum - such as the brief encounters with the sympathizers who provide them with safe houses, usually at most for a few nights. Underground existence also means total dependence on the IRA machinery for the funds needed to survive and, of course, for weapons. All this adds up to an almost total insulation of the Volunteers from the population, and an almost inevitable tendency to turn the military activity into an end in itself and a way of life at the expense of the cause which it is meant to promote. The latter phenomenon has been the long standing plague of Irish nationalists, resulting in factions settling their differences at gunpoint when they did not turn into robber gangs.
Meanwhile, the Catholic population in whose name the armed struggle is waged, is left in the position of passive spectators. Sometimes, like in the large processions during the nationalist hunger strike in 1981, the population is called out, but only to mourn. More often its support is demanded in various practical ways, to help out the struggle, for finance in particular. But the struggle itself, just like in any classical war, is the sole business of the military. The population at large has no part and certainly no say in it.
Which did not prevent this same population from being at the receiving end of the long series of repressive measures taken since 1971 - the various forms of internment, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the transformation of most Catholic ghettoes into military camps, not to mention the daily harassment and violence and the retaliation by Protestant paramilitaries. IRA members did suffer from the repression of course, but at least they knew what they were risking. Not so for ordinary Catholic workers who never had a say in it but were always taken hostage by the repressive forces in their fight against the IRA.
The armed struggle also has a significant isolating effect on the Catholic population itself and particularly the Catholic working class, by enlarging the gap between the communities in Northern Ireland. Of course Sinn Fein and the IRA have said time and again that they have nothing against the Protestant community as such, that their only enemy is the British state and that their aim is a non-sectarian Ireland. But given the historical sectarian backlog in Northern Ireland and the deliberate sectarian policy of the Unionist politicians, this kind of rhetoric is totally useless unless it is backed by tangible deeds.
In terms of deeds however, the nationalists have nothing to show. On the contrary, those among the Protestant community who might be opposed to the reactionary politics of Unionist politicians and to Britain's military presence, can only see some of the choices of the IRA as plainly sectarian. For instance the systematic attacks waged over the past few years against building workers doing jobs for the army - workers who are often Protestant because few Catholic employers would take such a risk.
Much the same could be said of the effect of some of the IRA's bombing campaigns in Britain. The 1974 pub bombing campaign did probably more to alienate the British working class against the cause of the Irish people, and against the Irish living in Britain, than years of government rhetoric.
The «armed propaganda»
What then, from the nationalists' point of view, is the rationale for waging this "war"? Of course, given the balance of forces, there can be no question of the British state being defeated militarily. Neither is the British army is likely, even in a thousand years, to suppress the armed struggle, at least not as long as there are individuals, even in small numbers, who are prepared to wage it. But conversely, even the most inventive home-made devices, bombs and rockets can only fail in front of Britain's full-blown armement industry, at least in military terms.
No, the whole point of the armed struggle is elsewhere. Says, Gerry Adams, today's Sinn Fein leader: «The tactics of armed struggle is of primary importance because it provides a vital cutting edge. Without it the issue of Ireland would not even be an issue. So in effect armed struggle becomes armed propaganda ». An idea which he took further in a statement following an IRA bombing in 1988, saying that the armed struggle had «the potential to concentrate everyone's mind on the urgency of the situation ».
Saying, as Adams says, that without the armed struggle, «the issue of Ireland would not even be an issue », amounts to saying either that Ireland would not be an issue for the Irish people themselves or that the Irish people are incapable of making it an issue by themselves, without the IRA's guns and bombs doing it on their behalf. But what are national aspirations worth if they need a few dead British soldiers in order to concentrate again on the urgency of the situation? This only shows the nationalists' total distrust in the national aspirations of the Irish people. Were Adams to be right in this respect, in whose name would he then be fighting?
The contempt displayed by Adams towards his own people should not come as a surprise. It is a hallmark of the nationalists' policy. The other face of this policy is that nationalist aspirations have to be whipped up, using the armed struggle in Adams' book, in order to be kept alive so as to ensure that the population remains tightly lined up behind the nationalist leaders. Fom this point of view, the fact that the armed struggle isolates the Catholic minority, by increasing the gap between them and the Protestant community, thereby creating a besieged mentality in their ranks, can only help the purpose of the nationalists.
For the nationalist leaders, the armed struggle is therefore neither a matter of principle, nor even an expression of their radicalism, but a means of controlling people. But they do not necessarily see it as the only nor the best means.
In fact, a change has been underway for some time already among the nationalists in their attitude to the armed struggle. The threat of a working-class radicalisation which had really triggered the resumption of the armed struggle in the early 70s is no longer there. Nor therefore is the need to devote as much effort to keeping the working-class ghettoes under control. This certainly explains the slow drift towards electoral policy that started at the time of the hunger strikes in 1981, when Sinn Fein made its first big electoral gains for a long time, and culminated in 1986 when Sinn Fein and the IRA decided to drop their traditional abstentionist policy towards the Southern Parliament.
Since then another shift seems to be underway, this time towards achieving a more respectable image by giving up the armed struggle, as indicated for instance by a statement made this year by Richard McAuley, Sinn Fein's press officer: «We are not going to realise our full potential as long as the war is going on in the North and as long as Sinn Fein is presented the way it is with regard to armed struggle and violence. I think that is a reality that perhaps we were not conscious or aware of back in the early 80s when we first got involved in electoral politics ».
A social choice - against the proletariat
But if the armed struggle is not really expected to deliver freedom to Ireland, what in the nationalists' view will?
Gerry Adams spells out the nationalists' line in the following way: «What is needed is for the British government to change its current policy to one of ending Partition and the Union in the context of Irish reunification. That means withdrawing from Ireland and handing over sovereignty to an all-Ireland government ». And he adds: «The British government can play an influential role in persuading members of the Unionist tradition that their best interests lie with the rest of the Irish people in building a new all-Ireland society. It can start that process by ending the Unionist veto. While it remains the Unionists have no real incentive to examine any other option ». The change in Britain's course will be brought about more speedily, concludes Adams, if Britain «can no longer count on support from Dublin and from the SDLP, and if it is faced with pressure from Dublin, supported by the international goodwill which Ireland enjoys ».
So, at the end of the day, to achieve a free Ireland, the nationalists are relying on... goodwill. Yet what can the goodwill of imperialist governments and bourgeois politicians deliver in Ireland? Maybe it could deliver a united Ireland. But if it did, it would be in the shape of a settlement that would first and foremost comply with the interests of all those whose goodwill would have to be involved. This would mean an Ireland open to direct exploitation by the world capitalist market; an Ireland that would not be too costly for Britain, in other words a phasing out of Britain's present considerable subsidy to the North; it would mean an agreement between Catholic and Protestant capitalists on a way to share a reduced economic cake, inevitably at the expense of the working masses North and South. Goodwill, in the way the nationalists rely on it, can only mean that the working masses, and only them, would have to foot the bill of the new Ireland.
Such is the bottom line of the nationalists' outlook: the prospect of an empoverished all-Irish society in which the poor would be poorer in order for the rich not to lose out - the only solution to the Irish question that could be whole-heartedly accepted by capitalism, in Ireland and abroad. And this is the inevitable price of accepting in advance, as the nationalists do, to remain within a framework acceptable by capitalism.
There may be no shortage of alleged "socialist" rhetoric in Sinn Fein's programme and conferences. A rhetoric which, by the way, does not prevent the nationalists from being more accomodating towards the Catholic Church on contraception and abortion than the right-wing Southern party Fine Gael. But this rhetoric only amounts to statements of intent similar to those made by the average right-wing Labour party candidate these days - nothing that could help the working masses to make the rich pay their share for the new Ireland.
Nationalism in and of itself only aspires to the promotion of Ireland to the status of a united independent country within the world as it is, not to overthrow the domination of capitalism over the world. In that sense, the nationalists can only choose the side of the aspiring Irish bourgeoisie, which is still dreaming of catching up with its older Western European counterparts. That, of course is an impossible dream. The world capitalist market will see to it that no new economic power is allowed to develop to the point of becoming a serious competitor to the established imperialist countries. And in the end of the day, the only limited prospect of development for the Irish bourgeoisie is through stepping up the exploitation of its proletariat. Such is the social choice made by the Irish nationalists.
Britain in search of a negotiated settlement in Ireland
Has the British bourgeoisie still any real stake in maintaining Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and keeping the two Irelands apart?
Far from being a significant source of profits for British capitalists, the economy of Northern Ireland has become a financial burden for the British state which has had to subsidise it for years. It is a parasitic economy, which depends on public expenditure to the tune of nearly 80% of its total domestic product, and in which 52% of all potential workers live off wages and benefits paid by the state. If anything, economic factors weigh heavily in favour of the British state getting rid of Northern Ireland once and for all.
But there are also very strong political reasons for the British state to withdraw militarily and politically from Ireland. If there was any doubt about it, the explosion of the civil rights movement proved that Ireland remained a powderkeg. It also showed that the rulers of Northern Ireland, the Protestant bourgeoisie, are neither strong enough to cope with such explosions nor responsible enough to try to avoid them. This means that as long as Northern Ireland remains part of Britain, the British state will be the target of further rebellions. And it will therefore have to bear the political discredit attached to resorting to repression. Instead, the British bourgeoisie would rather have an Irish state deal with all social unrest in Ireland!
The obstacles to a negotiated settlement
With all these reasons weighing in favour of a negotiated separation of Northern Ireland, the failure of the British state to achieve it in the seventy years since Partition is an indication of the strength of the obstacles still standing in the way of such a settlement.
The first obstacle has very little to do with Ireland itself. It is the traditional use that factions among British politicians have made of Ireland in their rivalries. Whipping up British nationalism by posing as champions of the Union is an old trick used by many politicians across the political spectrum, to boost electoral profiles. As a result governments in office have been wary of being seen to take steps towards altering the status quo, even towards a rapprochement with the Republic, for fear of triggering outrage from across the political spectrum and being accused of betraying British interest.
The second obstacle is the Northern Ireland politicians themselves who have managed, since the beginning of this century, to produce the most amazing series of arch-reactionary groupings. With all due differences left aside, there are striking similarities between the mushrooming of extreme sectarian Protestant groups in Northern Ireland over the past two decades and that of extreme nationalist groups in Yugoslavia over the past two years. Politicians like the Democratic Unionist leaders Paisley and Robinson may be deep reactionaries, but they are not idiots. They see the sectarian gap as their best bargaining argument with Britain, which is also why they are quite prepared to encourage, if not to organise, Protestant paramilitary groups, including gangs of overt sadistic murderers like the "Shankill butchers".
The last two obstacles are of a completely different nature, and have to do with the interests of imperialism as a whole and of British imperialism in particular.
The one thing that imperialism cannot tolerate is to be seen backing down in front of a rebellion. Therefore, leaving aside all other reasons, there is not the slightest chance for the nationalists' armed struggle to push Britain out of Northern Ireland. Likewise, there was no chance for the civil rights movement to push Britain out, except by developing into a revolutionary mobilisation of the proletariat, strong enough to threaten the British bourgeoisie not just in Ireland but in Britain too. Before the British state takes any decisive step towards a settlement, it will try to suppress any sign of rebellion in Northern Ireland. In particular, when it comes to real negotiations towards a settlement, the British state will only accept to deal with an IRA which has dropped its guns either by choice or by force. Something which is well understood by the nationalists judging by the fact that the idea of a unilateral cease-fire is increasingly floated around today by some of its leading figures, with the obvious aim of being eventually invited to the negotiating table.
For the same reason British imperialism will only accept a settlement that has built-in guarantees of future political stability. In view of the drop in living standards that would result inevitably from its withdrawal, both North and South, the British state will not take the risk of major social unrest taking place a few miles off the British coast, not to mention the radicalisation that could result among the Irish in Britain. Therefore, Britain's problem is to hand over power to reliable political forces with enough support, strength and determination to screw the Irish working class into shape. And with the endemic divisions and demagogical in-fighting prevailing among Southern politicians, with the lack of a partner having enough authority over the Northern Catholics, with the constant sectarian overbidding used by Unionist politicians, such reliable forces are not yet available.
From the Anglo-Irish agreement to a future settlement?
The process leading to the Anglo-Irish agreement and the current talks involving the North and the Republic started in 1980 with the setting up of the Inter-Governmental Council by Thatcher and the leader of Fine Gael, Fitzgerald. But, in many ways, this process was nothing but the resumption of another process which had been interrrupted by the explosion of the Civil Rights Movement in the North.
Back in 1965, under Britain's benevolent patronage, a meeting took place in Belfast, between O'Neill the then Northern Ireland prime minister and Seam Lemass, the Fianna Fail leader and Southern prime minister. O'Neill was quoted saying: «Co-operation between North and South is now publicly endorsed, and today when a militant Protestant housewife fries an egg she may well be doing it on Catholic power generated in the South and distributed in the North as a result of that first O'Neill-Lemass meeting ». Apart from a series of trade agreements meant to facilitate the circulation of goods between the North and the South, this meeting resulted in a statement of intent on both sides underlining the need to "harmonise" the Northern and Southern societies.
The first large Civil Rights march in 1968 signalled the temporary end of this process. But once, by 1980, the urban rebellion had clearly collapsed, the agreement signed by Thatcher and Fitzgerald signalled the relaunch of a campaign in the Republic along similar lines, against the "unacceptable" aspects of Irish society, as Fitzgerald said: «We have created here something which the Northern Protestants find unacceptable... What I want to do is to lead a crusade - a Republican crusade - to make this a genuine Republic on the principles of Tone... I believe we could have the basis then on which many Protestants in Northern Ireland would be willing to consider a relationship with us, who at present have no reason to do so... Our laws, constitution and our pratices are not acceptable to the Protestants of Northern Ireland ».
This orientation was the prelude of the Anglo-Irish agreement signed by Thatcher and Fitzgerald in November 1985, at Hillsborough. Ostentatiously, the main purpose of this agreement, as described by Thatcher, was to step up the collaboration between Britain and the Republic in the fight against terrorism, in other words against the IRA.
Yet the need for such a drawn out ceremony just to achieve a long-term cooperation between the British and Irish police was rather doubtful. For one thing because collaboration between both police forces had been effective at least since the early 60s. Besides if the IRA managed to find funds and logistic help in the Republic, it was certainly not thanks to any leniency on the part of the authorities. If anything, the authorities had proved even more ruthless about IRA membership in the Republic than in the North. For instance the Offences Against the State Act, passed in the 70s, enabled a person to be convicted of membership of the IRA on the word of a senior police officer. Since 1976, the penalty for membership of the IRA had been increased from 2 to 7 years in jail while section 31 of the Broadcasting Act passed the same year, banned any alleged terrorist organisations from the airwaves, including Sinn Fein - something that British authorities never dared to do in Northern Ireland.
While the agreement certainly included a security element, its main purpose was obviously elsewhere, despite Thatcher's claims. But then her reasons for making these claims, were obvious: she was covering her back against possible attacks from Northern politicians or even from members of her own party.
Indeed there were other things in the agreement, which received much less publicity at the time. The Inter-Governmental council was turned into a constitutional body in which British and Irish ministers would regularly consult about various issues, in particular the handling of some aspects of Northern Ireland politics. For instance, the Irish government was given a limited say in the running of some Northern quangos such as the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, the Fair Employment Agency, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Police Authority Commission and the Police Complaints Board. None of this amounted to a significant change. But what it did do was to create a number of regular official channels through which Southern and Northern officials and politicians would be in regular contact.
It took five more years before a new significant step was taken, the launching of the All-Ireland talks in 1990. This time again, the aim was clearly the same - getting some form of institutionalised relations going between Northern and Southern politicians, although still under British guidance. After showing some reluctance the Official Unionists got involved, soon followed by Paisley's Democratic Unionists who did not want to be left on the sidelines. And the September 1992 talks in Dublin have been another step in the process, although this time Paisley made a point of not attending the talks in person, while making sure though that his party had observers along.
The process is still going on, cautiously. British officials are obviously unwilling to take the risk of a setback by hurrying things too much. They want to use all the time needed to ensure the completion of the process and they have taken all the necessary measures to avoid being pressurised by events. The tightening of urban policing in Northern Ireland over the past three years, for instance, is certainly not just aimed at the IRA but also, if not mainly, at sustaining a sense of impotence in the urban Catholic ghettoes and preventing any movement of rebellion however limited.
The issue of the Unionists' cooperation in the process is not yet settled, even if the process seems to have succeeded in splitting their ranks, including those of Paisley's followers. But there is another issue which has still to be settled - the involvement of a political force with enough authority in the Northern Catholic ghettoes. The SDLP is clearly inadequate in this respect, despite its recent electoral gains. The IRA would be the only alternative. In any case, the banning of the UDA in Northern Ireland, in August this year, is probably as much a gesture towards the nationalists, aimed at providing ammunition to those leaders of the IRA who are in favour of a cease-fire, as a warning towards the most stubborn Democratic Unionists.
How is the process going to unfold? Only the future will tell. But it will probably take time as the present delicate wheelings and dealings are only the preliminary part of the process, before the hard bargaining - in particular over the advantages that each of the parties involved will want to claim for those it represents, and over Britain's financial help in the future.
For a proletarian policy in Ireland
Is the emancipation of Ireland from British domination doomed to end up in an empoverished united Ireland in which exploitation would be stepped up to pay for the privileges of a narrow-minded and bigotted nationalist middle-class and for the profits drawn from Ireland by Britain and other imperialist powers? Is this the only future for the working class in Ireland? Yes, inevitably if Ireland's emancipation takes place within the rules set by capitalism and agreed in advance by the nationalists.
Unless, of course, the Irish population won its emancipation not just from Britain but also from capitalism. Unless it got rid at the same time of all its exploiters, including its Irish exploiters. Then, and only then, would the Irish people be really free.
And for the vast majority of the Irish population, North and South, such an emancipation would indeed be the only one worth fighting for, because it is the only one in which they would not stand to lose out. And in this fight, the working class of Northern Ireland would have a decisive role to play, just as twenty years ago, when the Catholic urban workers spearheaded the explosion of the civil rights movement. Only this time it would have to be stronger and to go much further.
To win this battle, the Irish working class will need to fight behind its own flag rather than behind that of the nationalists; it will need to fight for its own interests and those of all the poor in Ireland, rather than for those of an aspiring middle-class. Above all, it will need to rally behind its banner all its potential allies, in Ireland as well as in Britain - because all of them will be needed to force the British bourgeoisie and its Irish counterparts to loosen their grip on Ireland and to take the political power from their hands.
Today, in Ireland, those who are determined to fight against Britain's hold over the country, not for the benefit of those petty-bourgeois nationalists who aspire to increase their share of the cake, but in the name and for the benefit of those in the Catholic working-class ghettoes who are at the receiving end of Britain's oppression; those who are determined to wage this fight and to win it, could start preparing for it by setting out to build the revolutionary party that the proletariat will be need.
Such a party would aim at reviving the expectancies generated by the explosion of the 60s. It would set itself the task to break the sectarian barrier that has weakened the Irish working class for so long, by trying to express the common interests of Catholic and Protestant workers against the bosses, against the direct attacks of the British state on the workers' standards of living and benefits, against the general dereliction of public services and against the most intolerable aspects of the military occupation of working class areas.
Such a party would not be stopped by the artificial border left by Partition. It would aim at organising the working class in the South and would work at uniting the working class across the border in a determined fight against the churches and all the capitalist bigots who are so keen on playing with religion and borders in order to tighten the screw on working people.
Such a party would aim at organising the Irish workers living in Britain, not for the sake of fund-raising as the nationalists do, but to turn them into a living and active link between the working classes of Ireland and Britain. And it would aim at building lasting ties between the two working classes, by taking an active part in the day-to-day struggle against exploitation in Britain.
This may seem a tall order and it is. But there is no way around it, no more today than there was in Connolly's days, when the small contingents of the Southern Irish working class who had initiated the fight against Britain were eventually deprived of their victory by the nationalists, who soon forgot their former radicalism and turned their guns against those who were demanding social justice. However difficult it may be, it is the only perspective which can preserve the interests of the proletariat, not just in Ireland but in Britain as well.