21 June 2021

Ireland (Part II)

Originally published as a supplement in The Leninist No.14 November 1984. Available on our archive here


1. The crisis in the Six Counties

The boom of the 1950s and the 1960s to a certain extent concealed the long term decline the Six Counties’ traditional industries. For a while industrial production increased by an average of 4% per annum in the 1960s compared with 2.6% in the rest of the United Kingdom, once the boom was replaced by stagnation the old water-based industries such as shipbuilding, textiles, and certain forms of engineering which had proliferated in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century went into a nosedive. Where, for example Harland and Wolff employed 25,000 even in the 1950s, today the figure is down to around 6,000.

The British authorities attempted in the 1970s to restructure capital in the Six Counties and attract new investments. In fact they pursued a strategy that was remarkably similar to that followed by the government in the Twenty Six Counties. Capitalists were offered an extensive range of inducements to invest: enterprise zones; a science park, a freeport within the boundary of Belfast airport; 50% research and development grants; up to 75% of factory costs covered by grant and tax relief; 80% refund on corporation tax; up to 90% of machinery and equipment costs met by grant and tax relief; and 100% industrial derating. The incentives plus enormous spending on developing the infrastructure were intended to make the area an extremely profitable base from which to export to Britain and the rest of Europe.

This helped push public spending up to 66% of GNP in 1979, a figure only equalled by the massively spending Twenty Six Counties in 1983 (see Table Four in Part 1). But despite this spend, spend, spend development strategy the results were disastrous in terms of economic return on subsidy, a Keynesian nightmare. For far from the DeLorean sports car venture collapse being an “extremely serious lapse” on the part of the Northern Ireland Development Agency, as the All-Party House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts claimed in its inquiry, it was in reality merely the most spectacular example of failure of British government attempts, both Labour and Tory, to breathe life into the decaying corpse of the Six Counties’ industrial base.

The fundamental cause of this failure is of course to be found in the changes in the world market. But this is only one dimension of the truth, for the Six Counties has failed in a remarkable fashion.

One factor determining this is straightforward – the Six Counties’ economy is chained to Britain, its products were designed to meet the needs of its market and empire. While the nature of its economy has changed to a degree the pattern of trade remains, for the British market absorbs almost 60% of its total foreign trade (which in total equals 75% of the area’s GNP). Therefore to extend a well know aphorism: when Britain catches cold the Six Counties catches pneumonia.

But this is by and large true of the Twenty Six Counties as it is of the Six Counties. So why when both parts of Ireland offer similar incentives[i] for capitalists to operate and invest has the Twenty Six Counties proved so dynamic while the Six Counties faces industrial dodoism?

Compared with the Six Counties which had a historically well established industrial base and an extremely experienced workforce, the Twenty Six Counties industrialised in the main from scratch, from green field sites; its workforce came either directly from the countryside or was drawn from the reserve army of labour (this included very large numbers of women). Everything else being equal this should have favoured the Six Counties. For although its industrial base was increasingly old fashioned, under capitalised, and unresponsive to changes in the world market, taking economic factors only, new investments generated internally or from Britain and other overseas countries should have, with extensive government help, transformed the industry in the Six Counties along the lines of the Twenty Six Counties’ new tech, ‘sunshine’, export led growth.

So why did this not happen? What is the main difference between the two parts of Ireland?

We would argue that the main difference between the Twenty Six Counties and the Six Counties in the 1970s, key to understanding their different performances, is the existence of a revolutionary situation, the fact that since 1969 the Six Counties has witnessed a sustained and seemingly intractable struggle against the form, and increasingly the fact, of the British domination of the area. This and its diametrically linked determining opposite: Britain’s insistence on staying, is the political explanation for the area’s economic failure.

It is not a simple question of bombs destroying factories, or even the ‘troubles’ causing companies to pull out, but rather the instability in the Six Counties means that investors are extremely reluctant to risk their capital. A study by the Cambridge Journal of Economics in 1978 estimated that up to 20,000 jobs had been lost because of the war. While there is naturally enough little documented proof of this, we do have the empirical evidence in the form of the area’s decline. Although in January 1984 the Financial Times did report that it had discovered that a £5 million factory planned by the Federal Germen electronics company, Grundig, was cancelled after the head of company Thomas Niedermayer was kidnapped by the IRA in 1973, (his body was not discovered until 1981 [Financial Times January 31 1984]). The Financial Times offered this as evidence in support of the contention that the war was the prime cause of the Six Counties economic performance. This was fully backed up by the MORI poll conducted amongst US executives in 1982 which revealed that perceptions about the Six Counties’ political instability had spilled over into perceptions about its productivity and industrial relations.

The spark that ignited the armed struggle against Britain was the fight against sectarianism. Ever since partition Britain’s rule in the Six Counties has relied on the maintenance of sectarianism, something it did through and in cooperation with local Orange capitalists. But far from local capital being the cause of sectarianism, as some claim, all historical Evidence suggests as does current reality that it is imperialism which uses sectarianism, fosters and maintains it, in order to secure its rule. Today not only does British imperialism rule directly, but local capital only survives as a withered appendage of imperialism, with little economic or political influence. No, far from Orange capitalists being the root cause of sectarianism it is imperialism which by bribing a section of the Protestant Working class creates the material base for sectarianism, the anchor on which the social order is secured. On the basis of the division of the working class between Catholics and Protestants (a division deepened since the imposition of direct rule) in the Six Counties, Britain dominated not only the Six Counties but indirectly though this the Twenty Six Counties themselves.

By giving Protestant as opposed to Catholics the higher paid jobs, or even jobs in the times of high unemployment, better housing, and other privileges the British authorities and their local agents were able to foster sectarianism in a section of the working class, a section that through the promotion of loyalist Orange ideology and its bigoted hatred of Catholics, which included not only those directly bribed, who we would define as an aristocracy of labour, but the mass of the Protestant working class. As a result the British authorities have been able with relative confidence to rely on the loyalty of the Protestant working class in opposing equal rights for their Catholic brothers and sisters.

Even in 1932 when because of the staggering collapse of areas of traditional Protestant employment the working class was only able to find unity. Because of the steep rise in unemployment, up to 40.7% in the engineering industry and 73.7% in shipbuilding, both Catholics and Protestants found themselves so to speak in the same boat, as many of the privileges secured by Protestants dried up and their poverty equalled that of the Catholics. Thus Protestant and Catholic workers in Belfast were roused to physically fight shoulder to shoulder under the leadership of communists against the authorities over unemployment benefit, “and many of the fiercest battles took place in the Protestant quarters of the city.” (Tom Bell The Struggle of the Unemployed in Belfast, October 1932 p2). Despite this militant unity, with the revival of industry, especially shipbuilding, in 1935 Protestant workers were easily led to participate in vicious pogroms against Catholics. With British connivance; unity proved fleeting, sectarianism stubbornly powerful.

In the late 1960s, at the tail end of the long boom, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association emerged reflecting Catholic demands for a reform of the sectarian state in the Six Counties and an end to discrimination against Catholics. Based mainly on the college educated Catholic middle class which grew rapidly during the boom, the movement’s eminently reasonable programme proved in the context of the Six Counties to be dynamite although it managed to draw in some Protestant elements as in 1932 unity proved impossible to maintain. Not only did demands for the ending of sectarian discrimination threaten the very foundations of the state but the boom was ending, stagnation rearing its head through the veneer of uninterrupted growing prosperity. As a result disorientated Protestants, determined to preserve their privileges, were easily whipped into a frenzy by the semi-fascist Rev. Paisley and they joined the notorious B Specials in attacking Catholic areas and Civil Rights marches. NICRA lost even its token support from Protestant based organisations and was soon reduced to nothing more than a shell as it insisted on keeping its struggle firmly within the limits of reformism.

The sectarian attacks which included mass intimidation and the burning out of many Catholic families led to bitter and violent resistance by the oppressed. The Unionist establishment under both Prime Ministers O’Neill and Chichester-Clark attempted to placate the Catholics with certain concessions, but these were meaningless, far too little, far too late, and led to ever more fearful Protestant flocking behind the sectarian demagogy of Paisley.

The social order wobbled: rioting, most determined in Derry, open defiance by the Catholic masses in the ghettos, and the inability of the local satraps to cope forced Britain’s Labour government to insist that British forces be asked to intervene in order to prevent total breakdown.

Portrayed as a benign act, the intervention of British troops was in reality not an attempt to mediate or keep apart two warring factions; their role was strictly partisan – to restore the status quo, to crush all resistance to British law and British order.

While Britain acted with the iron fist against the Catholics its method of domination of the Six Counties necessitated the continued use of the velvet glove for Protestant workers.

In the 1970s the role of Britain’s Orange bourgeois allies markedly declined, through the Unionist monolith shattering, the imposition of direct rule, and the near extinction of native capitalism (which, by the mid 1970s accounted for no more than 20% of total investment in the Six Counties). Despite this it was vital to keep the privileges offered to the protestant workers sufficiently substantial In relative terms to the Catholics in order to prevent the erosion of the material foundations of the Protestants’ sectarian bigotry. So, far from reversing discrimination and ending the oppression of the Catholics, intervention of British troops and later direct rule actually maintained the Protestants’ relative privileges and vastly increased the burden of oppression suffered by the Catholics.

Catholics have always suffered unemployment rates between two to three times higher than Protestants, but as unemployment has now risen to around 20% a large section of the Protestant working class finds itself facing the prospect of poverty. In the face of this the British government has deliberately pursued a strategy of creating tens of thousands of government sponsored jobs, all the while increasing the impact of bribery of those in work (mainly Protestants) through linking their wages directly to those in Britain. Thus wages for men increased from 87.5% of the British average in 1971 to 92.1% in 1979, and those of women from 92.0% to 98.1%[ii] (see Table Five). And while the rate of exploitation in the Six Counties as a percentage of the figure in Britain rose in the 1950s and 1960s, it declined dramatically in the 1970s (see Table Six)

Table Five:
Six Counties’ Average Gross Weekly Earnings as a Percentage of Britain’s (All Industries)
Year Men (aged 21 and over) Women (aged 18 and over)
1971 87.5 92.0
1972 86.4 93.4
1973 88.0 93.0
1974 88.3 89.9
1975 89.2 95.0
1976 94.4 100.1
1977 90.3 95.5
1978 88.7 93.4
1979[iii] 92.1 98.1

(Source: Boyd Black et al Low Pay in Northern Ireland p7)


Table Six:
The rate of Exploitation in the Six Counties as a Percentage of the figure for the UK as a Whole
Year % Year
1954 68 1971 85
1955 69 1972 76
1956 70 1973 88
1957 74 1974 80
1958 68 1975 83
1963 77 1976 75
1968 83 1977 61
1970 89 1978 66


The cost for Britain has been considerable. In 1981 the Six Counties received a direct subsidy of £780 million, or just over £500 per head (£10 per week for every man, woman and child). And if pensions and the cost of ‘security’ are taken into account the total rises to around £1,500 a year, about 50% of its total public spending. This represents a 100% increase in Britain’s subsidy to the Six Counties statelet in the course of the decade 1968-78 – even after the effects of inflation are taken out. So while employment in manufacturing industry has declined from 40% of all jobs in 1960 to a little more than 25% in 1979 and unemployment has soared, the total number of jobs has actually risen. The cause of this was pinpointed by comrade Bob Rowthorn in the Cambridge Journal of Economics: the total number of service jobs has grown enormously, by 80,000 in fact and in particular the number of government jobs, which increased during the 1970s in the Six Counties at a rate far higher than in Britain (Vol 5. No.1 March 1981). By 1983 46% of all employment was accounted for by the public sector on which the Six Counties’ economy is 70% dependent (Financial Times Jun 6 1984).

These measures have all been designed to perpetuate sectarianism, to maintain the loyalty of the Protestant working class to the link with Britain and their fear of equal rights for the Catholic working class. But despite British efforts to shore up the Six Counties’ economy a combination of growing world capitalist stagnation, experienced by its main trading partner in an acute form, and the growing resistance to Britain’s presence by the Catholics has meant that it “is now, perhaps for the first time, in danger of losing its entire manufacturing base.” (Financial Times, March 17 1982)

2. Why Britain Stays

Britain has fought numerous colonial wars this century in order to preserve its empire, but in the aftermath of the Second World War and the rise of Pax Americana, the world’s largest empire was consigned to the history books, over which only gin-sodden relics weep. Why then with this history, why when countries like India, Kenya, Nigeria, Yemen, Cyprus, and Malaya have gained independence, should Britain still hang on to the Six Counties?

Most parliamentarians justify Britain’s continued presence on the basis of the so-called ‘loyalist veto’ and fears of a ‘blood bath’ in the event of withdrawal. But when has British imperialism ever been concerned with protecting the ‘rights’ of majorities let alone shedding blood, especially that of Irishmen? If it had it would never have built an empire, it would never have engaged in any violent struggle with nationalist forces in order to maintain its rule. What is more, as we have already made crystal clear, Britain had been responsible for millions of Irish deaths, and it has undoubtedly carefully and deliberately constructed the Protestant ‘veto’ in the first place. All Marxists worthy of the name recognise that if Britain considered it in its interests it would not hesitate for one moment to consider the rights of the Protestants, blood bath or no blood bath, veto or no veto. So why does it stay?

Part of the answer lies in Britain’s determination to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom, the fact that the Six Counties are not just regarded as near home, but the fact that important sections of the ruling class consider them as home. Enoch Powell put his finger on this when he declared:

Ulster is Britain’s test of its own will to be a nation. A nation that will not defend its own frontiers or recognise the rights of its own people is well along the road to being no nation.” (The Guardian February 18 1981).

The Times Editorial had similar views on the matter: “The Ulster question goes to the heart of allegiance and national identity. That is the root issue of political society prior to and surpassing in importance all other issues.” (July 2 1981). In other words the ruling class fears that defeat in the Six Counties, ‘an integral part of the UK’, would lead to challenges to its rule in Britain itself.

Of course before 1921 all of Ireland ‘enjoyed’ an integrated status. Formal independence was granted to southern Ireland only because it allowed the link to be maintained with Ulster capital, whose shipyards, linen manufacture, and engineering were of great significance to Britain’s economy. As well as this, by maintaining a grip over the Six Counties, making it a component part of the United Kingdom, Britain felt confident that in the event of war it could secure all of Ireland and prevent it from becoming a springboard from which to threaten the mainland.

This strategic view of the importance of Ireland still plays an unambiguous part in the thinking of the military establishment. Vice Admiral Sir Ian McGough, former Royal Navy Commander of NATO’s North Atlantic area stated the following in the May 1982 edition of International Relations: “the strategic importance of Ireland (the island) in any scheme of protecting shipping in the approaches to the British Isles can hardly be exaggerated… if Britain should once again find herself at war – and particularly with the Soviet Union – she could not accept a militant left-wing government in Eire, with the prospect of military facilities being not only denied to Britain, but made available to her enemy” (quoted by Geoff Bell The British in Ireland pp.97-98).

While there have been barbed mutterings about ending the Twenty Six Counties’ neutrality from Whitehall, and suggestions that it should join NATO or some EEC style defence pact, the Twenty Six Counties’ government has rhetorically replied by pleading that this must go hand in hand with a united Ireland, something which Britain has of course not seriously negotiated or even considered, preferring not to put its trust in the stability of a united Ireland, but in the maintenance of the existing situation which has served it so well.

For by dissecting and maintaining its direct colonial hold over the Six Counties Britain as we have seen effectively put back the wheels of progress; it froze the reactionary position maintained by the Protestant workers of the North, bought off the weak national bourgeoisie, and politically crippled the once militant working class in the South. This of course has had its costs, the aristocratic landowners had to be compensated, the Protestant workers bribed; but this was a small price to pay for strategic security, and a usually cooperative vassal in the form of the Southern bourgeoisie. Crucially through this the economic exploitation of both parts of Ireland was facilitated. The border, far from interfering with the efficiency of exploitation, allowed Britain to continue to dominate both sides of it, withdrawal from the Six Counties would undoubtedly end this situation.

Some including CPGB General Secretary Gordon McLennan have foolishly argued that it is actually in the interests of imperialism, including British imperialism, to re-unite Ireland. This, it is claimed, would allow Ireland to join NATO, enhance economic exploitation, and relive Britain of the burden of military oppression and indeed the bribery of the Protestants. What this view conveniently forgets to consider is the consequences of a British withdrawal from Ireland, something the bourgeoisie themselves intuitively have understood. For a British withdrawal from the Six Counties would free previously pent up social forces; released they would, like Pandora’s box, plague imperialism with nightmares turned reality. The ending of the British presence would throw all of Ireland into profound crisis, the result of which could only be extremely negative for imperialism, for withdrawal would ensure instability. Ireland would become gripped by social chaos, the end result of which could be revolutionary. This scenario haunts the bourgeoisie.

TE Utley, a former leader writer for the Daily Telegraph, eloquently voiced this fear when he wrote:

“The instant withdrawal of British troops… would plunge the whole of Ireland into anarchy on a scale hitherto unimagined. Whatever side emerged victorious would almost certainly be anti-British and would tend to look for support to Britain’s enemies…

“British security is hardly compatible with the existence of a Cuba a few miles from her Western shores. Any notion that the vacuum created by the withdrawal of United Kingdom troops would be promptly and smoothly filled by a successful invasion of the North by the Irish Republic and as a result the establishment throughout Ireland of a peaceful, if rather inefficient and corrupt bourgeois state is absurd” (quoted in Revolutionary Communist, No.8, p.11)

So the choice for Britain, far from being one between today’s chronic guerrilla war and civil unrest in the Six Counties or a stable bourgeois united Thirty Two County republic, is in fact between almost certain chaos and possible social revolution in the event of withdrawal or the maintenance of the status quo, something which although increasingly costly, at least has for British imperialism the advantage of being the devil you know as opposed to the devil you don’t.

And what goes for British imperialism goes for imperialism in general, including US imperialism. For despite electioneering posturing by certain Irish American bourgeois politicians, the US has no interest in ending the British presence in Ireland. It clearly considers its interests best served by the maintenance of the border, and thus Ireland’s social forces frozen in backward limbo.

3. The National Struggle

The demand for national self-determination against imperialist oppression is in the interests of a number of classes: it is therefore a democratic demand. It is not a demand that contradicts the struggle for socialism either in the oppressed or oppressing nation; in fact it can be used as a lever to open up the road to socialism if the working class is firmly committed to a principled position.

In the oppressed country the working class, by gaining hegemony over the national liberation struggle, can, as in Vietnam after the victory of the national revolution, open up an uninterrupted path to socialism. In the oppressing country itself the uprising of an oppressed nation can be made synonymous with the overall struggle against the bourgeoisie and its state.

But against this fundamental principled position a whole spectrum of opportunists raise objections. Amongst these there are those in both Ireland and Britain who have adopted the idea that far from there being an Irish nation divided and oppressed by Britain, there are two nations in Ireland.

One is Eire, which is Catholic (whose people are Irish) and ‘Northern Ireland’, which is Protestant (whose people are British). The partition of 1921, even though around one third of the population in the carefully gerrymandered Six Counties statelet were Catholic, recognised this fact, or so the theory goes.[iv]

Since partition ‘modern Irish irredentism’ has been used by bourgeois politicians in the Twenty Six Counties in order to secure the support of the populace against the outside threat – Britain. And in our time this ideology has gained support from the Catholic minority in the Six Counties, which is often described as ‘belonging’ to the ‘Catholic nation ‘. It is this ‘backward nationalist ideology’ which blocks the development of independent working class movements in both parts of Ireland; it is the problem which leaves Ireland alone in Europe without large workers’ parties. In the hands of the Two Nationists the IRA becomes the villain of the piece and the British state a frustrated victim, which if only allowed would sell out the ‘British’ people of ‘Ulster’ as a necessary precondition for the ending of the Twenty Six Counties’ neutrality and the integration of a united Ireland into NATO – which would also open up Ireland to more ‘far reaching’ economic exploitation.

Many of the adherents of this view not only advocate that the British workers’ movement must resolutely oppose IRA terror against ‘the majority of the population’ in the Six Counties but they insist that we must also offer the ‘majority’ our solidarity and material aid in their struggle against undemocratic moves to ‘expel’ them from the UK. It is claimed that the best way to overcome sectarianism is for British political parties, that is, the Labour Party, to organise in the North so that workers can recognise their interests as workers through getting down to bread and butter questions at the root of politics.

Of course all such attempts to make the Irish, Catholic or Protestant, ‘more like us’ have floundered. Militant’s victory in getting Derry Trades Council to stand workers’ candidates in local elections ended in utter humiliation. The cretinous ‘bread and butter’ method of overcoming sectarianism says everything about those advocating it and their contempt for genuine revolutionary politics. They seem to glory in the domination of the workers in Britain by a privileged caste of philistine labour bureaucrats. They are so narrow minded, so engrossed in trade unionism and ‘normal’ politics as they have existed in Britain, so arrogant that the British way is the only way and that the Irish must overcome their nationalism, that they end up not only advocating that workers in the Six Counties are offered liberation through deadening labourism but they themselves adopt big-power chauvinism.

For ‘socialists’ of an oppressor nation who call upon an oppressed people to ‘forget’ their nationality are not internationalists as they claim, let alone Marxists, but advocates of submission, who refuse to recognise the distinction between the violence of the oppressed and the violence of the oppressor. These ‘socialists’ who disdainfully call upon the Irish to drop their nationalism, who simply equate republicanism with loyalism, who chant ‘not Green, not Orange, but Labourite Pink’ in fact objectively seek to perpetuate British domination, cloaking their treachery in parodies of working class slogans about unity and comradeship.

A Marxist analysis of Ireland must start from the concrete analysis of British conquest, how Britain’s imperialist domination has been maintained by fostering sectarianism and by dividing the country, as a fist principle recognising the fundamental difference between the nationalism and violence of an oppressed nation and that of an imperialist oppressor nation. Only though this method can we avoid falling into the trap of subjectivism which however leftist it may start out being, invariably, given the powerful magnetic forces exerted by bourgeois society, is pulled to the right and into the camp of reformist respectability and the bourgeois art of the possible and into opposition to the undeviating proletarian science of what must be.

This does not mean that Leninists, as some Two Nationists ridiculously claim, deviate towards Irish nationalism or see the workers in Ireland only playing a tailist role behind the republican movement, or even that we consider that the Protestant section of the working class has no rights, that should be bombed into a united Ireland; such suggestions can only be a result of a naïve failure to understand our proletarian internationalism.

But before we develop our ideas on these questions (see Part III) let us deal with the question of nationality in Ireland, for we by no means deny that two nations could develop in Ireland.

Nations are living, evolving communities of people which can diverge as well as converge, as communists consider they ultimately will. Nations are historically constituted communities formed on the basis of common experience, territory, and culture. The Irish nation evolved from the Celtic tribes and the English invaders as well as the Scottish and English Protestant settlers of the early 17th century[v] far from being only loosely connected these elements slowly merged. Generation after generation, differences in language, economic life and culture diminished so that by the 19th century they were of secondary importance, a fact vividly illustrated by Wolf Tone the Protestant who founded the United Irishmen and led the 1798 uprising against Britain.

Partition, rather than recognising the existence of two nations, resulted from Britain’s determination to continue to dominate all of Ireland, something it facilitated through its creation of a labour aristocracy based on Protestant descendants of Scottish and English settlers. By cementing an alliance with this section of the working class and ensuring its relative privileges, a sectarian statelet could be created which far from manifesting stability has, especially in recent times, shown all the signs of profound economic, social and political instability, something inevitable given its foundation on British imperialist gerrymandering, discrimination, and terror.

The people of the Six Counties of Ireland are not part of the British nation. They are in the UK only because of the power of imperialism. Its economy is not that of a fully integrated and equal part of Britain; it is an oppressed directly colonised area (which next to the Italian south has the most severe social and economic problems in the EEC). The inhabitants of the Six Counties have a vastly difference cultural and political life to Britain, something made plain by their insistence on not electing British type politicians but Paisleyite or Sinn Fein candidates, their refusal to ‘forget’ the Battle of the Boyne, the Famine, William of Orange, and Easter 1916. Indeed, British imperialism itself is fully aware of the difference. It does after all pass specific draconian laws for the Six Counties, discards the English jury system, interned without trial hundreds of republicans, deports UK citizens back to the Six Counties, maintains its domination by deliberately and callously fostering sectarianism, and pumps in millions of pounds in order to specifically bribe a section of the working class based on their religious affiliation.

Historically, the Irish economy North and South has looked towards Britain as the outlet for its products, rather than the stunted home market. The nature of the economies has changed – particularly the Twenty Six Counties – but the pattern remains essentially the same. The British market absorbs almost 60% of the Six Counties’ manufactured output and just under half of the Twenty Six Counties’ exports. Despite this, cross border trade has grown (albeit from a very low base figure) at a phenomenal rate: exports from the South by an average of 24% from 1952, and form the North total exports grew by an average of 30% between 1973-9. And behind these impressive figures lies the even more impressive performance of Ireland’s one nationalist smuggling industry which deals in goods as diverse as cattle, TVs, hi-fi equipment, and drinks. Lamb smuggling alone is estimated to have been worth up to £20 million in 1980.

The cultivation of loyalism and the creation of a sectarian statelet have hardly allowed the smooth continuation of the process of merger between the various components of the Irish nation, but it has not created two nations. Both parts of Ireland have their important differences, but like North and South Korea, East and West Germany, North and South Vietnam, it is one nation.

But while we consider the Six Counties to be a dissected part of Ireland and all its people to be Irish, this does not mean that the Six Counties could not become a nation in its own right. Given a couple of centuries of separation, independent economic and cultural development it would be inevitable that two nations would emerge; this could be accelerated by dramatic change, say the expulsion of the Catholic section of the populace from the north. But in the here and now, and despite the ‘troubles’ and the effects that this has on crossing the border, movements between the two areas “are probably freer than between any other two states of the EEC” (Financial Times November 18 1982). There are random road blocks by the British forces, and sometimes by those of the IRA, but citizens of both the Twenty Six Counties and the Six Counties frequently cross the border to do the weekend shopping, or go to work. Catholics of course have relations across the border and indeed they often marry residents from the other area something not exactly unknown amongst Protestants, especially before the ‘troubles’ – hardly what one would expect from two nations, one of which (or so we are told) is determined to have nothing to do with each other. The fact is that the Six Counties’ population has not even developed an economic life which has grown away from their southern neighbours, let alone evolved a different language, or a distinct culture. Yes, there are different religions, but this is true of many nations including Britain; yes there are different accents, but then this is so for people in Cornwall compared with those in Yorkshire.

Those who are determined to see a ‘Protestant’ nation in the Six Counties (and estimates derived from the last population census indicate that Catholics might make up 42% of the population today), those who are un-Marxist enough to use religion as a basis of their understanding of what constitutes a nation might like to speculate about two nations existing in Scotland or even within the confines of cities like Glasgow or Liverpool. What made northern Ireland in the nineteenth century was the residue of the ‘Ulster custom’, the fact that it was the focus for industrialisation, first around linen, and then around shipbuilding and engineering, and the fact that it was Protestants who were those to first leave the land and the fact they were allowed to monopolise the skilled jobs, something that encouraged them to turn against their Catholic fellow workers and support the sectarian politics of loyalism.

This behaviour was not determined by their being a different ‘nation’, but by the creation of a labour aristocracy based on religious discrimination, something only possible due to the domination of Ireland by British imperialism. (In a not dissimilar way divisions between black and white workers in South Africa and the US South are not based on nationality but the fostering of a labour aristocracy). This said, the partition of the country has inevitably had some effect in creating a divergence, for while British imperialism continues to dominate both parts of Ireland, the method it has been forced to employ has necessitated different forms, especially since 1972 and the imposition of direct rule. This and the ‘troubles’ has led to some specific characteristics of the north becoming more prominent, especially the xenophobic sectarian outlook of the Protestants.

In the absence of two nations the task that dominates Ireland, its politics, its economy, and its people is that of national reunification and liberation. It is the British imposed division, British cultivated sectarianism, and British domination of all Ireland that is responsible for turning back the wheels of progress and for the absence of an ideologically advanced workers’ movement in Ireland – not the nationalists.

The reverse side of the chauvinist Two Nationists’ coin is the pseudo internationalists, who for all their workerism end up with exactly the same chauvinist conclusion. In this camp we must include the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which not only calls upon workers in the Six Counties to unite on the basis of narrow trade unionism but finds itself swept along with the wave of bourgeois media hysteria every time IRA bombs have resulted in civilian casualties, this especially being so when those casualties occur in Britain rather than in Ireland.

Thus in the wake of the Birmingham bombings[vi] in 1974 the SWP launched into a backstabbing assault on the Provisional IRA, categorising it as merely one of those “small, conspiratorial groups set apart from the mass of workers” (Socialist Worker November 30 1974).

It is because we recognise the democratic content of the struggle of Sinn Fein and the IRA that we give them unconditional support, and unconditionally support their demand for Irish self-determination, and this includes supporting them whatever tactics they choose to use. Those who simply label the Provos as a terrorist group do so in order to excuse their own chauvinism. For while the republican movement has used and does use terrorism, their actions are not isolated individual acts of terror but merely a particular tactic employed in a protracted struggle against the forces of British imperialism. This struggle has of course seen many other tactics employed – not least the ballot box through which it has exposed the lie that it has no mass support – something also proved by the very survival of the IRA, depending as it does on popular sympathy to protect itself from the forces of British imperialism.

So the IRA is no Red Brigade, no Red Army Faction, no Weathermen, no “elite group” as comrade Gordon McLennan moronically claimed in his 1973 pamphlet Britain and the Irish Crisis (p10). It is a national liberation movement in essence exactly like the NLF in Vietnam, ZANU in Zimbabwe, the FDR/FMLN in El Salvador, and the ANC(SA) in South Africa.

While many find it ever so easy to support national liberation movements 1,000 or more miles away, when it comes to the other side of the St George’s Channel ‘special features’ are suddenly discovered which invalidate basic principles supporting the right to self-determination. With these ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ the call for the withdrawal of Britain and British troops can only be considered as part of a ‘package’ of progressive reforms which must be carried out by imperialism itself (i.e. progressive colonialism, à la Eduard Bernstein).

So although opportunists glorify military actions by liberation movements if they take place a long distance away, when exactly the same tactics are employed by the IRA or INLA terrorism becomes unacceptable. Blinkering themselves, ignoring their praise for the ANC etc, terrorism is branded as automatically being an isolated individual act which those in the workers’ movement should soundly condemn. Thus a car bomb detonated in Pretoria close to the Voortrekkerhoogte military headquarters which kills civilians is praised[vii] while IRA actions are condemned as divisive. Indeed, there are some who claim that terrorism is a complete anathema to communism, that terrorism must be opposed per se.

This is most certainly nonsense. Of course we do not elevate terror above other tactics but we ourselves cannot reject it under certain circumstances. This was something bluntly stated by Lenin in his 1901 pamphlet Where to Begin: “In principle we have never rejected, and cannot reject, terror. Terror is one of the forms of military action that may be perfectly suitable and even essential at a definitive juncture in the battle, given a definite state of the troops and the existence of definite conditions” (CW Vol 5 p.19).

We could produce countless other examples from the writings of Lenin about the correctness of terrorism under certain conditions, examples from the practice of the Bolsheviks from 1905 to the October Revolution and the Civil War, let alone from national liberation movements as diverse as Washington’s Minutemen, the French Resistance, and the NLF in Vietnam. But it would all be of no avail, for our opportunists’ opposition to the national liberation movement in Ireland has not only to do with the rejection of terrorism as a tactic but with their loyalty to the peaceful parliamentary road and increasingly to British imperialism itself.

It is to cover this fact that leads opportunists frantically throwing one slander after another at the liberation movement in Ireland. In their frenzy they seem to have no concern that their own position is reduced to an eclectic shamble of pro-imperialist, anti-socialist, anti-republican prejudice. They do not even seem concerned that despite mouthing the slogan for the right of Ireland to self-determination their programme specifically denies it in its preconditions that imperialism must fulfil: what they call democratic demands. Of course the major democratic demand that lies at the nub of the Irish question is none other than that self-determination.

Those who place conditions in the way of this demand, whatever their subjective intentions, side with imperialism. Writing in the aftermath of the Easter 1916 Uprising, Lenin declared that:

“If we do not want to betray socialism, we must support every rebellion against our main enemy, the bourgeoisie of the big state, provided it is not the rebellion of a reactionary class. By refusing to support rebellions of annexed territories we objectively become annexationists.” (CW Vol 22 p.333).

4. Social Forces

The national question hangs over Irish economic and political life like an ever present black storm cloud. Nothing can escape its shadow. How the national question will be resolved is inextricably linked to the class forces in Ireland and their relationship to British imperialism.

In the past, most notably in the nineteenth century, the Green bourgeoisie, despite its small size and marginal economic role, was willing to fight British imperialism, or at least to stand on the platform of Home Rule. But with partition and then the creation of the Free State those drives which propelled the Green bourgeoisie into conflict with British imperialism, most notably the desire to exploit the Irish workers and people itself, while not fully met were at least partially satisfied. Certainly after the failure of de Valera’s attempts at independent development, the Green bourgeoisie by and large accepted their role as being a collaborating bourgeoisie which with the growth of industrialisation in the Twenty-Six Counties under the impulse of imperialism, merged under imperialist domination into a single entity with imperialism. So the Green bourgeoisie as bourgeois revolutionaries proved stillborn. It is true that Fianna Fail does employ anti-British rhetoric but there can be little doubt that this is mainly for the benefit of nationalist orientated voters. Certainly when the ‘anti-British’ Charles Haughey was Prime Minister he epitomised the case of poacher turned gamekeeper. He brought in tougher border security cooperation with British forces in the Six Counties, refrained from making political capital out of the British failures at ‘devolution’, was very restrained over the H-Block hunger strike, and was in general a very good friend to Britain. The report of the New Ireland Forum with its emphasis on “cross border security” and recognition of “British sovereignty” over the Six Counties just shows how pusillanimous the Green bourgeoisie – both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail – have become. What concerns them is not Irish unity but the possible dire consequences that might flow from the continued “troubles in the North”.

In the face of a pro-British imperialist Orange bourgeoisie, bribed Protestant masses, a docile compromising lackeyish Green bourgeoisie, and certainly after Easter 1916 a disorientated working class, the centre stage of the struggle for Irish independence (the bourgeois revolution) was left to the forces of the petty bourgeoisie.

They have time and time again launched themselves against British domination of Ireland. Evolving from the Fenians of the nineteenth century, through the Irish Republican Brotherhood, to the IRA and Sinn Fein of the 1918-21 war of independence and the split in the civil war, to eventually the Provisional IRA of our own day, which was formed in 1970 out of the struggle against the sectarian state which erupted in 1969.

It is true that at the time of the split in the republican movement between the Provisionals and the Officials, the Provisionals declared in their manifesto that the MacGiolla leadership was intent on pushing onto the republican movement “an extreme form of socialism” and that the “ultimate objective of the leadership… is nothing but a totalitarian dictatorship of the left” (Michael Farrell Northern Ireland: The Orange State p270). But those who characterised the split as simply a left/right one were soon proved wrong by the Officials’ drift towards social democratic respectability as the Workers’ Party (WP) in the Twenty-Six Counties and their ignominious oblivion in the Six Counties. What is more, the Provisionals quickly moved to the left, dropping much of their early narrow Green nationalistic anti-communist rhetoric and replacing it with nationalist petty bourgeois revolutionary socialism, which identified the struggle in Ireland with not only what they saw as similar Gallic movements in the Basque country and Wales but with organisations such as the FSLN in Nicaragua and SWAPO in Namibia.

Those who insisted that the Provisionals were a ‘terrorist group’ with no mass base (most notably the Labourite proconsul, Roy Mason) were of course devastatingly exposed in August 1981 when Bobby Sands the IRA H-Block hunger striker was elected MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone. After he died his martyr’s death an estimated 100,000 attend his funeral to pay tribute to him and his cause. That this was no momentary aberration was shown in subsequent elections; indeed in the 1984 EEC elections Sinn Fein secured 13.34% of the total votes cast in the Six Counties. A MORI poll reported on BBC2’s Brass Tacks Reports in July 1984 revealed that a significant number of SDLP voters were prepared to switch to Sinn Fein. 40% viewing the IRA as basically patriots and idealists, in fact the majority of SDLP voters were strongly of the view that the national question is the real cause of the ‘troubles’ and that ‘terrorism’ is the least important cause.

That Sinn Fein is breathing down the neck of the SDLP and threatens to supplant it as the major nationalist party sends shivers of fear down the British establishment. Jim Prior, speaking as Northern Ireland Secretary, is reported in The Times to have told a private meeting of Tory MPs that if Sinn Fein overtook the SDLP the Six Counties would become “ungovernable, a Cuba off Britain’s western shore.” (July 17, 1984)

But while not dismissing Prior’s fears the fact is that the politics of petty bourgeois nationalism have proved incapable of developing or sustaining an all Ireland revolutionary movement against British imperialism which can rally to its banner both those experiencing repression most severely – today the Catholic masses in the Six Counties – and all oppressed and exploited sections of the Irish population, including the Protestant working class or at least a section of it all of which would be necessary if Britain is to be ejected from Ireland. Because of its petti bourgeois nature, Sinn Fein has oscillated between reformism and guerrillaism in its attempt to fight Britain with physical force on the one hand and gain wider support on the other. For example when guerrilla struggles were crushed in 1923, Sinn Fein spawned the reformist nationalism of de Valera ; likewise after the failure of the 1956-62 Border Campaign, Sinn Fein again slowly slipped into reformism, something only upset by the outbreak of the ‘troubles’ in 1969, which split the organisation in two.

Because of its oscillating politics and its inability to unite the broad masses, petty bourgeois nationalism is by itself unable to actually resolve the national question, simply because of the extraordinary mass of different but interlocked contradictions that exist: a collaborating Green bourgeoisie, a pro-British Loyalist bourgeoisie and working class in the North, the division of the country, etc.

For while it is true that Sinn Fein stands in opposition to British imperialism, supports the guerrilla campaign against the British state, its class basis, programme, and outlook made it impossible for it to achieve a decisive victory. This is partially due to the fact that Sinn Fein still essentially sees its struggle as being confined to the Six Counties, its activities in the South being seen as supportive. Because of this the approach in the Twenty Six Counties has tended towards moralism, to simple appeals to the anti-British imperialist tradition. But more fundamentally it is because petty bourgeois nationalism – which however revolutionary – subordinates working class interests to that of Irish unity. And because this national unity is to be on the basis of capitalist relations of production not only are the workers in the South to be kept as auxiliaries but there exists no possibility of splitting the Protestant workers from loyalism. A united capitalist Ireland dominated by Green nationalism has, to say the least, little attraction for Protestant workers in Belfast. Not a few of them look askance on the backward social laws inspired by that Catholic Church in the Twenty Six Counties; most notoriously the bans on abortion and birth control. What interests can Protestant workers have in such reaction?

Therefore even if Sinn Fein overtakes the SDLP in the Six Counties, even if it manages to enlarge its 4.88% share of the vote in the Twenty Six Counties, its Green nationalist programme offers no prospect of mobilising the workers as a class on an all Ireland basis.

Although Sinn Fein under the Adams leadership recognises the increasing importance of the working class in Ireland, and indeed is now projecting Sinn Fein as a socialist republican party, it still demands that the working class subordinate itself to the national struggle in alliance with other sections of Irish society including the capitalist class, which is decidedly anti-working class and reactionary.

In his presidential address to Sinn Fein in November 1983, Gerry Adams declared: “We must be mindful of the dangers of ultra-leftism and remember that while our struggle has a major social and economic content, the securing of Irish independence is a prerequisite for the advance to a socialist republican society.” (AP/RN November 17 1983). The implication is clear: despite its ‘left turn’, Sinn Fein today as in 1918 demands that “Labour must wait”.

Sinn Fein because of its petty bourgeois nationalism, cannot fight for the hegemony of the working class over the national question. It thus refuses to see that the struggles for national liberation and socialism, far from being separate, must be linked if British imperialism is to be defeated. Because of this there is always the danger that if petty bourgeois nationalism continues to dominate the national struggle, as in the past it will do a deal with British imperialism.

Only the working class has an undeviating interest in the total ejection of imperialist influence from Ireland which is not only military and political but also economic. For the working class is the only class which has an undeviating interest in expropriating the means of production – so much of which is in the hands of the imperialists or dependant on them. Linked to all this the working class not only has every interest in total victory but it has the potential to rally around its class programme all exploited and oppressed sections of the Irish population, this especially so today with the exceptionally rapid growth of the working class in the 1970s.

Jack Conrad


  1. While it is true that some argue that the IDA’s package offered by the Twenty Six Counties government is more attractive than that of the IDB (Industrial Development Board) in the Six Counties, this is only a very marginal question, and it can in no way account for the markedly differing performances of the two economies in the 1970s.
  2. This was not due to industrial militancy. Workers in the Six Counties have had a far lower strike record than those in Britain. The IDB Northern Ireland actually boasts that the Six Counties has “one of the best labour relations records in the world”. And 90% of all strikes are of ‘British’ origin, i.e. national disputes of those such as hospital workers, firemen, or civil servants.
  3. In 1979 average gross weekly earnings in the Six Counties for full time men aged 21 and over was £93.40 per week (92.1% of the British average). This was for an average working week of 44.5 hours (including 5.2 hours overtime). Full time male workers in Britain earned £101.40, but this was for an average working week of 43.2 hours. As a result average hourly earnings were 89% of the British average. Women full time workers earned an average of £61.80 for an average working week of 39 hours; the figure for Britain was £63 for 37.5 hours, thus the hourly average was 94% of the British average. This discrepancy between wages in the Six Counties and Britain is at least in part explained by the industrial and employment structure of the Six Counties. It has a larger agricultural sector well known for its low pay and a large proportion of its workforce is employed in declining industries such as textiles – again a low payer. Government sources estimate that between a fifth and a third of the difference in average weekly earnings between the Six Counties and Britain are accounted for by the Six Counties’ particular industrial and employment structure. But given the fact that the rate of exploitation is significantly lower in the Six Counties, the real question we must ask ourselves is not why the area’s wages are lower than in Britain but why are they so similar?
  4. The originator of this theory was the Irish Communist Organisation, a group which has its origins in a split from the CPI over Khrushchev’s criticisms of Stalin. Because of its commitment to the Six Counties “maintaining its place in the UK” it prefixed its name with ‘British’ and became the BICO. Another organisation adhering to a version of the two nations theory is the Trotskyite Militant, which advocates workers’ unity through economistic struggles.
  5. Nations are not based on race or tribe and certainly not religious prejudice. They can though be formed from diverse peoples. The Italian nation was formed from Romans, Teutons, Etruscans, Greeks, Arabs, etc; the French from Gauls, Romans, Britons, Teutons, etc; the British from Britons, Romans, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Cornish, Welsh, Picts, Scots, Irish, etc. So there is no such thing as the “Jewish nation”, let alone a “Protestant nation” in the Six Counties: to suggest such a thing is to abandon Marxism for idealism.
  6. An action which to this day the IRA denies. Despite this, the point about the SWP is completely valid as it has reacted in exactly the same way on numerous other occasions when the IRA has claimed responsibility.
  7. Though the editors of Unity, the incondite paper of the Northern Area of the CPI, in an effort to distance themselves from the stigma of ‘terrorism’ have asked whether the “action in Pretoria might have been misguided.” (May 28, 1983)

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