Return to Peace Process menu


Report on the Liam Mellows Society Conference

The Liam Mellows society in Arklow, held a successful weekend of discussion on 20th and 21st April on the theme of republicanism in the 21st century.  The society would appear to be made up of left wing republicans and the event was supported by the magazine ‘Fourthwrite.’  Over the weekend around sixty people would have taken part in at least one of the sessions.

The first session was on socialism and was introduced by Joe Bowers from Belfast.  Unfortunately we did not arrive in time to hear his introduction but were able through the question and answer session to get a clear idea of the general argument he was putting.  Although the questions were somewhat diffuse a general theme appeared to be the problem of sectarian division in the north and how it could be overcome.  The argument of Bowers was one that we would have expected.

This argument is that the ‘war,’ which he opposed, set back the cause of workers unity and what was necessary was to build workers unity around ‘class’ issues, that is bread and butter issues.  This is a programme shared, in various ways, by a political spectrum that stretches from the bureaucrats of ICTU to the Socialist Workers Party, who were also in attendance for the first session.  It is one that Socialist Democracy opposed in an intervention into the discussion.


We argued that there was a classical Marxist position that argued for the political unity of the working class, not just within the confines of the North but within an all-Ireland context, which is the only one in which it could realistically be posed.  This meant identifying the political basis for such unity, which for us was opposition to social partnership and the Good Friday Agreement.

This is, of course, in direct opposition to the likes of Bowers who presented himself as a left wing critic of the Irish trade union leadership despite his actual record, and his introduction to the event, which noted him as a former executive committee member of ICTU and past chair of its Northern Ireland committee.  Far from being a left opposition to ICTU his political life has been an example of apologist for ICTU’s scandalous partnership with imperialism and local bosses.

To this observer there was something ironic about a new republican audience seeking political lessons from a representative of a political tradition that had poisoned the last genuine attempt of republicanism to seek left wing politics.  This refers to the movement that became the Officials, later Workers Party, which sought its politics not from Marxism but from Communist Party Stalinism in the 1960’s.


The second session was entitled ‘Democracy’ and was much better.  It was introduced by Bernadette McAliskey, who used her considerable oratorical skill to argue that movements in Ireland that claimed to support democracy do not in fact do so.  She argued that democracy is not ingrained in the mass of the population and that it is presented as being the lowest common denominator on which two sides (eg. catholic and protestant) can agree on.  ‘But whether it is better to drive on the left or the right it will definitely lead to collision if we all decide to drive in the middle.’

She argued that democracy is a process with an objective and must be based on a social group.  This she argued should be socialism and the working class.  She argued that we now needed to build an organisation that can fight the existing economic and social system.

In an intervention to the debate Socialist Democracy argued that Bernadette was exactly right.  That democracy needed an object – socialism, and a subject – the working class.  That this conception is opposed to that enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) where democracy is defined as a deal between two sectarian blocs though it in fact rests on imperialist power.

Also the objective of democratising the trade unions was not to have democratic unions in themselves but to take a step towards creation of a political movement that sought the end of the ‘wages system’ as a whole, as defined by Marx, and not simply an increase in the price of exploitation.  The importance of targeting social partnership and the terrible effects this partnership had on the working class was made clear in a second intervention.

Bernadette’s address appeared to argue that the GFA could be ‘got round’ or ‘put to one side.’  We argued that this was definitely not the case.  In her reply, however, she made absolutely clear that the GFA was not something that could be ignored but had to be opposed and destroyed.  What she did argue was that those opposed to it and British rule had to ‘get over’ the fact that ‘one of our team’ (the Provos) had left to join the opposition.

The Good Friday Agreement

The final session of the seminar entitled “Does the Good Friday Agreement complete the agenda of republicanism” was addressed by Dr. Ruan O’ Donnell from Limerick University. His examination of the GFA was academically rigorous to a forensic degree but also scrupulously fair in his assessment of the content and claims of the agreement. As he noted in his opening remarks enough time has passed make an objective analysis of the GFA in terms of its claims and real status

His analysis of the political constitutional impact was that the only tangible result was the dropping of articles 2 and 3 from the constitution and everything else is open to revision by London. The 6 co. state is accepted as a separate entity within which constitutional issues must be resolved. He also looked at the “demographic solution”, the prospect of Catholics out-breeding Protestants into a united Ireland. His conclusion was that even if we leave aside the reactionary, sectarian, anti – women nature of such politics, the British are under no obligation to play along and organise a border plebiscite. The British still have the final say.

On the local working of the GFA he was equally scathing. On the Holy Cross school the solution was worse than the original problem, the payoff to loyalism was an encouragement and alibi for what he termed loyalist fascism. An agreement which cannot deal with the issues related to these events, such as the role of the UDA in North Belfast, the under-reporting of that role, the lack of any sanctions by the Brits on the UDA and the special branch relationship with the UDA, will hardly deal with the larger questions.

There was some degree of soul searching by the republicans present as to how the Sinn Fein leadership could have pulled off the GFA considering that the population in the North was allegedly highly politicised. The conclusions drawn were that the politicisation was hugely exaggerated and the undemocratic and commandist nature of the armed campaign was at the heart of the demoralised and depoliticised response to the GFA.

The concluding remarks of Ruan O’ Donnell put some historic perspective on this aspect of militarism and the democratic deficit in the anti-imperialist struggle. He pointed out that in Wicklow during the 1798 rebellion practically the whole able bodied population was mobilised and despite fierce repression and martial law the insurgents elected their leaders, in proportion to their religious beliefs and with a right to recall and deselect them.

During this session Joe Bowers chose to come completely out of the closet so to speak, He explained his republicanism as being anti-monarchy and that the political programme he supported was one drawn up over thirty years which was premised on civil rights demands leading to the democratisation of the Stormont regime. Turning history on its head he asserted that the outbreak of armed struggle had caused sectarian polarisation of the working class, when in fact it was the demand for civil rights which had been met with sectarian pogrom. Considering that the GFA is the modern form of his programme one would have expected a more robust defense of the agreement rather than a rehash of discredited hoary old politics of stalinism,


Overall the seminar was a modest success and represented another step forward for the small numbers of people who have rejected the Good Friday Agreement.  Their opposition, and recognition that this opposition has to be organised, has hardened out.  The argument over what programme this should be based on, socialism or some sort of republicanism, was addressed.  The difficult task of agreeing this programme and the parallel process of actually constructing an opposition has still to be embarked on.  Socialist Democracy will continue to argue that the only programme offering any way forward is a socialist one and that to implement it requires constructing a revolutionary socialist party.  We will also continue to argue that this is not some magic formula promising immediate rewards and that there is no short cut, but we will argue with confidence that history has shown no other way.



 Return to top of page