The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Republicans and the Protestant Working Class:
A discussion document

Gerry Ruddy May 2, 2003

Recently a former combatant from within the ranks of loyalism wrote:

Clearly our first and primary concern is for the those unfortunate people from both traditional communities who have suffered injury, trauma and loss of property as a result of interface violence. It is unacceptable that eight years into a so-called peace process and four years into devolved government people are still suffering as a result of violence within and across interface communities.

It has been said by a number of political activists that the Belfast Agreement is panning out as a middle class agreement which has nothing to offer the working and workless classes in both traditional communities. That is only partially true. If the unionist and nationalist middle classes can unite to carve up the social and economic benefits of devolved government for their own people, surely those of us from both traditions who feel marginalised and excluded from those benefits ought to be coming together in a bond of working class solidarity. But we don't. We put tribal prejudices above our common social and economic interests and continue to beat the crap out of each other. That is our fault, not the fault of the middle classes who are manipulating the implementation of the Agreement for their own ends.

Alienation within marginalised communities is being cynically manipulated and exploited by those who play the "Orange" and "Green" cards as a means of maintaining the divisions that are necessary for a continuation of tribal voting patterns and party political domination. Party domination requires maximising votes, which in turn requires developing and expanding the electoral base, which in turn requires either expanding or holding on to territory. Is it any wonder then that territory lies at the heart of most interface violence?

Whatever potential the Belfast Agreement might have had to facilitate political accommodation and conflict transformation has been undermined by an implementation process that is becoming more and more corrupt as the weeks go by. It is a process that is rooted in manipulation, half-truths and outright lies. Meanwhile at grass roots level inter-community relations have gone into a downward spiral with more and more ordinary people drawing back into their respective tribal camps.

The constitutional struggle (that lay at the heart of the armed conflict) has been replaced by a struggle for political dominance at both Assembly and local government level, and that this foments as much hatred, prejudice and hurt as the armed conflict did. There will be no recognition of the fact that this struggle for political dominance requires territorial gains and creates interface tension and conflict. There will be no acknowledgement that community relations and conflict transformation initiatives have been deliberately starved of adequate resources.

We make no apology for the lengthy quotes. They come from a loyalist who originally supported the Good Friday Agreement. He now shares a view of the GFA that echoes what the IRSP/INLA said when the Agreement was first made. This movement said among other things that the GFA institutionalised sectarianism and would only benefit the middle classes.

Such a convergence of views is not coincidental. The IRSP always said that that the class issues could not be divorced from the national issues. Class struggle has a way of breaking through even in the most unlikely places. There is a ferment of ideas and debates taking place among some elements of loyalism that raises serious questions for socialists within the Republican tradition. Just what is our position on the protestant working class?

Are they planters or 'colons'? Are they really deluded Irishmen and women who one day will recognise their inherent Irish-ness? Are they irreformable sectarian and incapable of accepting equality? Are they a different race, a different nation, a different breed?

To ask such questions is to fall into a trap of restricted thinking - restricted because it accept the limits that Imperialism set out originally. By searching for the differences we confirm the differences between Catholics and Protestants, between unionists and nationalists. And we forget from whence Republicanism first came from.

When Wolfe Tone and his comrades in the United Irishmen developed the ideology of Irish Republicanism it was an internationalist political ideology. Inspired by both the Revolt of the American Colonies from British rule and the French Revolution the early founders of Irish Republicanism were internationalist in outlook. They saw themselves as citizens of the world and wished to see liberty, equality and fraternity established on a world-wide basis. In wanting to see Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter unite under the common name of Irishmen Tone did not elevate being Irish over any other nationality.

Unfortunately the defeat of the United Irishmen created a vacuum and in stepped a new vision of Irish nationalism inspired by middle class conservatives like Daniel O'Connell and Thomas Davis who recreated the image of Irish-ness a million miles away from the Republicanism of Tone. Later generations merged a narrow nationalism into a republicanism which today is best espoused by Provisional Sinn Fein. Undoubtedly that nationalism had an impact on some republicans. The founder of Sinn Fein Arthur Griffith and Patrick Pearse were just two people more in tune with the vision of Thomas Davis rather than Wolfe Tone.

Tensions have always existed within Republicans between those on the right more influenced by nationalism and those on the left more influenced by internationalism and socialism. Left Republicans in struggling for a Republic are affirming the right of self-determination for the Irish people without making any concessions to a narrow inward looking nationalism. It is those on the left of republicanism who have anything relevant to say to the protestant working class in the North.

The consequence of the fusion of nationalism into republicanism was that Protestants who considered themselves British had no affinity or feel for Irish nationalism. They saw no benefit for themselves in associating with a narrow nationalism that at times had elements of racism in it. This in turn, in the eyes of some Unionists justified their own racism, and confirmed their faith in all the worst traits of the British Empire.

Republicans need to break with nationalism. The claim by PSF spokespersons that they are the largest nationalist party is an indication how that Party has moved away from Republicanism. The IRSP are proud of our republicanism, our socialism and our internationalism. We believe that there will inevitably be a break from the sectarianism that Imperialism has fostered in Ireland and that workers will unite on class issues. Those class issues are already breaking through as evidenced by the quotes that began this article.

The assembly established as part of the Œpeace process¹, represents not an attempt to solve the problems facing working class people of all backgrounds, but a scheme to share power between representatives of the main sectarian parties. It can never seriously address the problems of working class people, not the day-to-day vital problems of health, housing and education, nor the wider questions of the border and the national question

The IRSP have consistently explained from the beginning of the "peace process", the Good Friday Agreement, and the institutions of devolution associated with it, could never begin to solve the problems facing working class people no matter what their background. It promised peace to the communities of Catholic and Protestant workers, but was unable to deliver. It was a lie. There has been no peace. Sectarian attacks, beatings and killings have continued. The divide between Catholics and Protestants has never been wider. This gap was created and nurtured by British imperialism in order to divide and rule, to protect their system in Ireland from the threat of united working class action. It is an unnatural growth. In carving Ireland through partition British imperialism unleashed a carnival of reaction just as James Connolly had predicted.

Those who created this mess are utterly incapable of solving it. Instead of peace what they have built are lots of "peace-lines" - brick walls, iron fences and barbed wire to divide communities still further. The British and Irish governments and the sectarian parties all represent the past, they have nothing progressive to say about the future.

Temporary agreements between sectarian politicians to share ministerial responsibilities at Stormont cannot begin to solve the underlying cause of this crisis. In reality whilst remaining within the straitjacket of the capitalist system, sectarian politicians and government officials from Ireland and Britain have been trying to create a better environment for big business to make money in, a better environment in which to exploit Catholic and Protestant workers alike. Because of the limits imposed by the profit system, the Assembly cannot build houses, hospitals and schools, create jobs or eradicate poverty pay. These social conditions, which are an inevitable fact of life in capitalist society, serve to fuel sectarian division, fear and hate. Economic recession fuelled by the Iraqi war will only serve to magnify these problems.

No agreement can ever meet the aspirations of the nationalist community for a united Ireland, nor assuage the fears of Protestants, stirred up by the sectarian parties. Such agreements assume the continuation of a sectarian divide; in fact they rest upon that division. Yet in reality the national and social questions are inextricably bound together. Capitalism can no more offer decent housing or healthcare to the people of Ireland than it can in Britain or anywhere else. None of these problems can be resolved on the basis of capitalism.

Stormont never had the potential within it to solve anything fundamental. Many people's hopes have been dashed by the failures of the Assembly, and by its suspension. Such a body could never begin to solve their problems. New elections and a new period of ³power sharing² at Stormont will inevitably raise these illusions once more.

How is a genuine and lasting peace to be achieved? The only way to get peace is by dealing with the real problems facing the people in their everyday lives. This is the only way to tackle the social roots of sectarianism. There was nothing in the Good Friday Agreement that could achieve that, in fact there was nothing progressive in it at all, and the IRSP did not support it, although it got a majority in the referendum. We were in a minority, but we were right.

For most ordinary workers however the burning questions have not been about decommissioning or policing boards but the continuation of sectarian violence, the state of housing, the war in Iraq and the continued destruction of jobs. The industry of the north, which played a key role (along with major political considerations) in British imperialism's decision to carve up Ireland in the past, has been decimated. Harland and Wolff, the Belfast Company synonymous with shipbuilding has officially become a small business.

Neither the British government, nor the Irish government and certainly not any of the sectarian politicians have any solution to this crisis. All they can offer is occasional false dawns followed by impasse and new crises. The Irish bourgeois have no interest in uniting with the North, which they see as poverty stricken and politically explosive.

The Unionists meanwhile will never accept any real step towards uniting with the South on the basis of the current system, as their opposition to the current agreement demonstrates. So British imperialism is stuck with the North, whether it likes it or not.

The irony is that Britain would now like to withdraw. They would like to get rid of the £4 billion a year subsidy. Their problem is that the result would be a bloodbath, the Catholics of West Belfast and Derry would face a massacre and the violence would not be confined to Ireland.

Sectarianism, fostered by British imperialism as part of its divide and rule tactic, has become an uncontrollable monster. The failure of Stormont is proof once again that they cannot solve the crisis they have created. They will now try to put this ramshackle agreement back together again. Even if they do cobble together new temporary agreements between sectarian parties, this will offer no solution to the problems of the working class.

Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the UUP and the rest may disagree about the future of Ireland, but they do not disagree over the continuation of capitalism, their economic programmes have little between them. All for example support privatisation in the guise of the PFI. Yet trade unionists in threatened workplaces, in the fire service, teachers, nurses, public and private sector workers in general, are not represented at Stormont. Class-consciousness has been thrown back and the majority of working class people do not yet clearly see the need to break from sectarian parties.

The re-unification of Ireland is the unsolved task of the national democratic revolution, which ought to have been solved eighty years ago. But the bourgeoisie can never solve it. They were the ones who created the division. Only the coming to power of the working class, as James Connolly explained a century ago, can solve this problem. The IRSP are for the unification of Ireland but Ireland will never be united until the working class takes power north and south of the border.

The united struggle of the Irish working class alone can offer a future to Ireland. United in struggle the working class of Ireland can sweep away the filth and poison of sectarianism once and for all. All the problems facing Irish workers are interconnected. None of them, social or political, can be solved by the market. Only an Ireland united by the struggle for socialism alongside their British and European brothers and sisters can begin to tackle all these questions. None can be solved in isolation. The current peace process created illusions for many that finally the problems of Ireland could be solved. Those hopes have been dashed time and again, and the same will be the case in the event of a new period of Stormont 'rule'. The consequence will be new splits and divisions amongst Republican and Unionist groups. Without the intervention of the working class there will be a new descent into chaos and violence. That can be stopped by the spread of socialist ideas within both Catholic and Protestant working class and will speed the day of working class unity. The IRSP will play its part. Will others?


Author's note: This is a not very original article printed in the Starry Plough. It is of interest only if it starts a debate that includes the republican left among others.




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Index: Current Articles

8 May 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Volunteer Patricia McKay
Brendan Hughes


Death of Barbara Reilly

The Clinton Family


Republicans and the Protestant Working Class
Gerry Ruddy


Suicide is Painless?
Sean Smyth


The Politics of the Undecidable
Liam O Ruairc


Patriotism Polluting Journalism
Anthony McIntyre


At the Theatre

Annie Higgins


4 May 2003


Official Secrets and Official Lies
Carrie Twomey


Iran's Weblog Quandry

Pedram Moallemian


For A Free Press


Tutored, Managed and Castrated
Anthony McIntyre


Forgetting Eric Honniker
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain


Lukacs After Communism
Liam O Ruairc


How's It Goin'?
Brian Mór


Swept Clean

Annie Higgins




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