A Race Against Time: Agreeing an Independent Programme for the Workers Movement on the Partition of Ireland

Ciaran Muholland
Internationalist Standpoint have re-published several articles which address the question of a “border poll” in Ireland, either directly or indirectly [read the collection of articles here]. This is to be welcomed. Debate and discussion for the purpose of clarification and agreement around programme are essential in the development of the workers movement.  A full debate requires careful analysis, in-depth thinking, a willingness to examine the most difficult issues, and an application of the method of Marxism. A superficial approach will be of no assistance to the workers movement over the next difficult years. The articles re-published here are of uneven quality: not all the authors engage with the realities of the situation, and as result draw incorrect conclusions and put forward programmatic demands that are problematic, even dangerous. It is not possible in one short article to fully critique the ideas expressed to date, or to explore all the relevant issues: this article is an introduction to a series of articles which will be published on this site in the coming weeks.

The Good Friday Agreement: Setting the Clock Ticking 

The 1998 Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement, which effectively brought an end to the intense period of violence which began in 1968, contains a clause which allows for a poll on the continuing existence of the border in Ireland. The circumstances under which such a poll will be held are not clearly defined. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State (SOS-the UK government Cabinet member responsible for Northern Ireland) is tasked with judging when the time is right. The Agreement states that the SOS “shall” (sometimes interpreted as “must” and sometimes as “may”) call a poll when in “his” view, it appears likely that there will be a majority for a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Ultimate power over the question is thus in the hands of the SOS, and ultimately the UK Prime Minister.  

The ill-defined nature of the trigger-point for a border poll motivates agitation on the issue: it is in the interests of those who want to see a poll to organise and polemise. The result is increasing political instability as the demographic clock ticks towards midnight. The Catholic population is growing, and the Protestant population shrinking, and over the last several elections the Unionist parties, which represent the British identity of most Protestants, have lost their overall majority in the Assembly (the local structure of devolved government established under Good Friday Agreement). The next Assembly election is due on May 5th and is being watched keenly, by political parties, commentators, and by workers and young people, because there is now a real possibility that Sinn Fein (the largest Nationalist Party) will take the position of First Minister. In turn the largest union Unionist Party (the Democratic Unionist Party or DUP) will take the Deputy First Minister position. In law these two positions are of equal status but in political reality precedence is given to the First Minister. If Sinn Fein is successful and take this position it will be an historic moment in the history of Northern Ireland: for many Catholics the tables will truly have turned, and for many Protestants it will be a major psychological blow signalling an even more uncertain future.

Over the last number of years there has been increasing clamour for a border poll. In part this is genuine and bottom up as the support lent to the continuation of partition by working-class Catholics in 1998 was only ever temporary and has been decreasing. More than 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement the hopes of the promised “economic dividend” have been dashed. Sinn Fein are masters at exploiting instability and elements of the noisy debate about the desirability of a border poll is orchestrated-Sinn Fein have attempted to mobilise a groundswell of support for a united Ireland through a myriad of front campaigns and organisations. It is striving to bring middle class Catholics behind their initiatives through open letters and rallies of so-called “civic society”. Within the trade union movement, it has launched Trade Unionists for a United Ireland, which has managed to garner some support, but mostly from those that would be expected to come behind such an initiative. 

Sinn Fein is facing two ways simultaneously. Most of its efforts involve demonstrating to the British and Irish bourgeoisie, and to the US and EU, that it represents a safe pair of hands with regards to the economy, North and South. They have worked might and main to convince the business class of their bona fides. 

The Unionist political parties as ever are caught flat-footed and have not responded in kind. There have been some individual initiatives, for example, from Peter Shirlow, Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, who has organised to mobilize pro-Unionist “civic society”, but Unionist initiatives to date are a pale shadow of nationalist efforts. 

A Race Against Time 

It appears to all that we are moving slowly but inexorably towards a border poll and all that this might bring. Clearly the workers movement cannot ignore these developments-to do so will mean that any possibility of an independent voice for the working-class will be drowned out. We are in a race against time, a race against divisive sectarian forces which will drag us back to conflict unless the workers movement can provide a credible, class-based alternative to nationalism and unionism. For this reason, the publication of this series of articles is to be welcomed. It brings together helpful contributions, but some of the material is only helpful in the negative sense. Just as it would be a profound error for the workers movement to ignore the debate, to adopt the ideas and demands expressed by People Before Profit and RISE would be an error with potentially fatal historic consequences. 

Debates on the revolutionary left are necessary and given the public positions of comrades in the Dail (parliament of the South or Republic of Ireland) and on local councils, and in the trade unions, will be visible to the working-class and young people. A wider debate is also opening. The recent Biennial Congress of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) passed a motion committing the movement to internal debate and discussion, and, if possible, to reaching an agreed position on the question of a border poll. 

There are two main trends represented in this series of articles. These two trends are echoed in other left forces and across the wider movement.  The Committee for a Workers International (CWI) tradition in Ireland was represented historically by Militant, and then from the mid-1990s by the Socialist Party. The CWI has had a clear, independent class-based position on the national question in Ireland and elsewhere stretching back to the late 1960s. After a damaging split the current CWI group in Ireland (Militant Left), the Socialist Party (now affiliated to the International Socialist Alternative (ISA), and independent comrades (including the author), continue to stand in this tradition, albeit with some differences of emphasis. It is possible that these differences will become emphasized and accentuated over time but equally if fruitful communication can be maintained this need not be the case. Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that the groups from the CWI tradition who agree on these key issues should seek maximum cooperation, especially when working together in the wider workers movement. They owe this duty to the working-class.

The second trend is represented by three of the articles-two from RISE members, and one from John Molyneux of People Before Profit (and the Socialist Workers Network). These articles take a very different position, articulated in a strident pro-border poll stance. They argue that the left should positively advocate for a border poll today. John Molyneaux’s article is most explicit on this point. What is striking about his article however is not what it says, but what it ignores: the Protestants. This is also a stark feature of his co-thinker Kieran Allen’s recent book “32 counties. The failure of partition and the case for a United Ireland”, published by Pluto Press in 2021. Neither Molyneaux nor Allen adequately address any of the key issues. Molyneaux has the partial excuse of limited space, Allen has no such get-out clause. 

When Allen does engage-for example in his analysis of the aims and motivations of the British ruling class, his arguments are weak and not substantiated by the evidence. But more importantly he simply side-steps any analysis of the Protestant community, of its fears and aspirations, and does not explore questions of identity and class-consciousness. When Protestants do appear, it is either to simply assert that there are no real differences between Protestant and Catholics, or in fleeting and disparaging references to high-profile Unionist politicians from the DUP. This includes individuals such as Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson, who take a right-wing position on economic and social issues and sectarian positions on the divisive issues. To only mention these individuals, and not to comment any further on the aspirations of ordinary Protestants, or the role of the Protestant working-class in the trade union movement, illustrates the thinking of People Before Profit. There is a clear need to analyse why the majority of Protestants who vote do so for parties with reactionary politics, but this does not mean that they are a reactionary community, and thus of no consequence, and without rights. John Molyneux awards rights to the “Irish people” but does not explain who the Irish people are, or how these rights are to be exercised when a significant minority of those who live on the island of Ireland claim a different identity to the majority. 

These deficits represent major lacunae in the thinking of People Before Profit and RISE. If these issues are not addressed, it means that PBP and RISE have no positive contribution to make to the wider debates necessary in the workers movement. They will continue to act as left nationalists in practice, and ultimately provide left cover for reactionary nationalism. If they develop a wider base of support this will not be of any assistance to the wider workers movement as it seeks to maintain class unity and put its stamp on history, but rather will be a hindrance at best, a threat at worst.

A Serious Debate is Necessary 

A serious and concrete discussion is now necessary. This will involve groups and individuals on the wider left beyond the ranks of those who were recently united in the Committee for a Workers International before its split(s). Other trends exist in the workers movement, sometimes with limited influence, but with ideas that are embedded in layers of the working-class. 

It is of note that over the last two years there have been significant splits in the Workers Party of Ireland and the Communist Party of Ireland. The Workers Party (WP) originated in the Official wing of republicanism, which split from the Provisional wing in late 1969/early 1970. The Official IRA called a ceasefire in their armed struggle in 1972 and since then, whilst the WP has stood on the right of the movement, it has consistently put forward a program which seeks to focus on the need for workers unity in the North if any solution is to be found to the problems of division of conflict. The split within the Workers Party is confusing to follow from the outside but it appears to be at least in part between those (mostly based in the North) who have a basic understanding of the need to maintain and develop working-class unity, and those (mostly based in the South) who diminish or ignore this need and emphasise the question of a border poll as the means to remove the border.

The divisions within the Communist Party are even more difficult to fathom from afar. The Communist Party has followed a hard Stalinist line throughout its existence, is on the right of the trade union movement, and has adopted a stages approach to the national question in Ireland. The split within its ranks also appears to involve a bitter division between two wings, one of which is more Northern and trade union-based and insists on paying attention to the divisions within the working class, and a Southern-based wing which is more focused on a drive to a united Ireland. Fifteen years ago, there was a split in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Ireland which cleaved along similar lines. Understanding that the national question in Ireland must be addressed through the building of working-class unity most of the Northern membership quit the SWP (now the SWN) at that point. The fact that these splits, confused as they are, have emerged in the recent period is of some significance. It reflects wider debates in the trade union movement with regards to what position activists ought to take on the question of a border poll, and the day-to-day reality of political work on the ground in the North, for those who are prepared to open their eyes and see. 

It is of note that opinion poll after opinion poll demonstrates the caution and concern of large numbers of both Protestants and Catholics with regards to these developments. Whatever the leadership of nationalism (or John Molyneaux) may say, many Catholics, including many working-class Catholics, understand that a border poll is not a simple equation. They know that deciding the future on a 50% plus one vote would be a recipe for disaster and are hesitant when asked about this eventuality. 

Within the workers movement, there are many activists who understand the need to maintain working class unity and the threat posed by one-sided polemics and initiatives. Activists in the Northern Ireland trade unions are involved in structures which are already designed to foster solidarity across borders. The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, with its separate structures and conference, sits within the umbrella structures of the all-Ireland movement (ICTU) and allows for creative solutions to difficult problems. Workers who simultaneously belong to all-Ireland trade union structures and a union which is headquartered in London instinctively know it is not simply a question of “lets hold a border poll and then we will all move on and fight for socialism”. They understand the risks, how in the run up to a border poll tension will increase with a risk of violence spilling out of control, and they understand the role the unions pay as bulwark against sectarianism, division and conflict. 

It is this layer of thinking activists, and a much broader layer of organised and unorganised workers and young people, who are not currently actively involved in the workers movement but who are thinking about the way forward, that the left must address. The left can make a real contribution if we approach these debates in the correct manner. The distinctive CWI approach has a major contribution to make. It is important that we take what is best from our tradition, re-examine it at all its aspects and reorientate for the future. This is not a matter of academic debate, or of historical interest only, but is vital to politically arm working-class activists. 

The debate on the question of a border poll in Ireland holds rich lessons for active Marxists everywhere, and not just in those places where the national question is clearly to the fore, for example, Scotland and Catalonia. The national question today is of more importance politically, economically, and socially than it has been for some decades. Indeed, the ability to put forward a thorough and sound analysis of the national question, and to formulate a realistic programme on the way forward, is absolutely central to any serious revolutionary project. 

For Workers’ Unity and Socialism

A serious debate must take place around key principles, and with a resolute focus on the unity and independence if the working-class. We can map out the way to a better future using the method of Marxism, which allows us to see clearly when others cannot.

  • If we do not understand our past, we will not fully grasp the meaning of the present and will not be able to point the way to the future. We need to engage in a thorough and deep analysis of the history of Ireland, including the role of the British ruling class historically. We must especially examine the events of the last fifty years, and the marks the “Troubles” have left on the consciousness of workers and young people. 
  • It is only through such understanding that we will arrive at a full understanding of the current position(s) of the British ruling class, and the balance of forces between sectarian reaction and the workers movement. 
  • The aspirations of both communities, and those who do not identify with either community, must be taken into consideration. Every step of the workers movement must be designed to take workers in both communities with it and to avoid a position which favours one community over another. Above all else the workers movement must stand in defence of the rights of minorities and against the coercion of any community.  
  • We must never lose sight of the necessity to maintain and build upon the unity of workers and no steps should be taken which risk this unity. The workers movement must seek not just to maintain but to bolster class unity in the North, class unity between working-class people in Northern Ireland and the South, and between working-class people in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales.
  • The workers movement must adopt a program which independent of the sectarian parties, of the ruling class (of Ireland, Britain, Europe and the United States). 
  • The workers’ movement has often argued for compromise on the divisive issues. This was the case in the 1990s when there was intense conflict around the question of parades. Reaching an independent class-based position on the challenges we face today will mean seeking dialogue and compromise on some of the more divisive issues in society.
  • There is a third tradition in Ireland, North and South. This is the tradition of solidarity and socialism. Today it is expressed primarily through the trade unions. Until the working-class has its own mass party it will have one hand tied behind its back. The development of a programme which offers a way forward for working class people and young people requires a mass party to take that programme to the class, and to build the third tradition to the point when it becomes politically dominant, challenges and defeats both unionism and nationalism, and brings forward socialist solutions to all of the problem facing working people, including the divisions within the working class and the division of the island.  
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