Return to Peace Process menu
The left and the carnival of reaction in the North

John McAnulty

21st May 2005

“A carnival of reaction.” Irish Socialist leader James Connolly’s view of the consequences of the partition of Ireland for Irish workers is one of his most often-quoted sayings. It is also the aspect of his legacy most comprehensively ignored by a large current of Irish socialists since.

Insofar as the socialist movement has had any influence, it has generally ignored the causes of sectarianism, the state repression, the draconian laws (often the suspension of any laws) to suppress revolt, and the army of occupation still deployed on the streets. It has, time and time again, displayed a touching faith in the ability of ‘bread and butter’ politics to sweep all of this aside and deliver a united working-class movement.

The arrival of the Good Friday Agreement led to ritual denunciations by the left. The sectarian structures built into the Agreement were too obvious for any socialist to endorse (although most ignored its status as an offensive by imperialism). However, in a relatively short time the left had accommodated itself to the new regime. In fact the left’s ‘allies’ in the trade union bureaucracy were the firmest defenders of the new dispensation.

The routine claim had always been made that an end to IRA violence would enable ‘normal class politics’, yet what emerged was a tide of loyalist reaction, ongoing battles to strengthen the sectarian foundations of society supported by the British state and, eventually, the total collapse of the Agreement to the right and the rise of a triumphant, sectarian DUP fundamentalism, headed by the arch-bigot Paisley, as the main political current in the northern statelet.

What do the left make of all this? They hardly notice. Many think it makes no difference to the prospect of organising an independent working-class movement.

A good example of this sort of thinking was provided by Eamonn McCann, Socialist Workers Party leader and candidate for their front, the Socialist Environmental Alliance, in an open letter published during the election, when the coming victory of Paisley was already plain for all to see.

The letter was a polemic against Sinn Fein for their objections to tactic of non-payment as the ‘principle’ around which a mass campaign against water charges could be built. Sinn Fein had earlier pointed to the defeat of the 1970s rent and rates strike against internment as an argument against making non-payment the basis of a campaign.

The issue of water charges is not the central issue that this article addresses, but it is worth noting the empty-headed argument that dismisses lightly a campaign that involved 26,000 households in a bitter struggle where all the resources of the state were directed against working-class families in favour of an opinion poll that says that the majority of people would rather not pay a water charge.

The central argument of the SEA is much more important. They argue that a non-payment tactic around water charges has the potential to mobilise as mass movement “that will unite people on a basis that has nothing to do with the community they come from and can cut across traditional patterns of political allegiance.”

This is of course economist socialists defining for themselves the Leninist definition of economism – that immediate economic demands are of a special, central importance and that they have the potential to unite workers who will then spontaneously cast aside the hold of their traditional capitalist parties and of capitalist ideology 

They apply this philosophy to the rent and rates strike. The strike was confined to the nationalist community. “Given the circumstances, this is not surprising.”

What does this mean?

The rent and rates strike of the early ‘70s was a response to internment, torture, physical assault and state terror. The fact that the campaign was restricted to the nationalist community was because the political representatives of unionism, with the overwhelming support of the unionist working class, supported the state terror and any criticism was from the right – the British were not doing enough to repress the nationalists.

So there was a mass conflict around civil rights and the national question. A section of the working class acquiesces in the repression of another section, or supports it outright. The economists find this unsurprising, and certainly no obstacle to unifying the class when a real issue of central importance, such as water charges, comes along.

Not only does the division of workers around the national question count for nothing, and the battle of tens on thousands of nationalist workers against vicious state repression count for less than nothing, but the steps taken by the state to defeat the rent and rates strike, such as laws to sequester wages and benefits and seize property, are not even worthy of discussion. Presumably the state will be so impressed by the spontaneous unity of the class that they will surrender immediately.

In this mindset the political tsunami that swept away 100 years of the Unionist Party, installed a sectarian politician of the far right with a long history of links with violence and intimidation as the undisputed leader of unionism and confirmed the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement to the right – all this is background froth.

The advancement of the non-payment tactic, innocent even of the politics of opposition to privatisation, will be sufficient to bring about spontaneous unity. The poll showing 85% opposition to water charges tells the economist left more than the whole history of struggle in the North of Ireland. 

The mass vote for the politics of Paisley and far-right sectarianism will prove no obstacle to that fight.

The arrival of a bill for a few hundred pounds will be sufficient to unite workers who were willing to fight and die for and against the British occupation.

When the state responds with repression unionist workers will simply shrug off their history of support for the state and fight back.

When the state and the unionist leadership respond, as they have throughout the history of the state, with staged sectarian attacks and provocations, the movement will see through this right away.

The polemic against Sinn Fein ends with a call on the parties, if they are serious, to refuse to set up an executive that would implement water charges. But Sinn Fein stood on a policy of fighting for the re-establishment of a colonial, sectarian assembly that would be led by the arch-bigot Paisley, and have scarcely baulked at Paisleyite proposals for majority rule. On the scale of things they will hardly strain at water charges given that they, and the other capitalist parties, have a history of support for privatisation. Sinn Fein are perfectly serious about what they are doing. It is the left, with daft politics and daft slogans, who aren’t serious.

The elections have come and gone. What do they tell us? They tell us that the mass of the population voted on the national question. They tell us that there has been a massive swing to the right amongst the unionist parties, a rejection of any power-sharing with nationalists and a resurgence of sectarianism. They tell us that the majority of the population support those political forces that aggressively defend their communal ‘interests’. They tell us that water privatisation comes nowhere in workers’ priorities, with a 3.6% personal vote for Eamonn McCann, the rest of the SEA on relatively small votes and the Socialist Party, which stood as the ‘Don’t Pay’ party gaining derisory votes. Socialist Worker doesn’t bother to report the election beyond the SEA campaign. The Socialist Party do, but only to say that the mass of voters are too dumb to know any better and to see that the real issue was water charges. They boost their own tiny vote and argue that the 27% vote in West Tyrone for independent candidate Dr. Deeny on a single-issue ‘Save the Omagh Hospital’ ticket shows the future, ignoring the fact that the Deeny platform is bereft of any socialist demands and that, rather than challenge sectarianism the Deeny campaign tried to exploit internal tensions in their own favour.

Following the election Paisley declared the Good Friday Agreement dead. Blair and Bertie Ahern refuted Paisley, but in terms that make it clear that their next step is to conciliate him and make further concessions to unionism. At the same time a resurgence of sectarian violence and intimidation has already begun.

Fighting against water charges is an issue for the working class like many others. This particular issue has a great deal of strategic importance because it is at the forefront of a whole wave of privatisations aimed at public sector workers in the North, but it does not have an overwhelming and central importance that will sweep away any other issues. Rather the reverse. A successful campaign, as it grows, would have to develop and take positions on many other political questions.

The Good Friday Agreement and the political capitulation of republicanism was the environment in which working class struggle in the North took place. Now the plan is in wreckage, torn apart by internal contradictions without any intervention by the working class. The new political environment is the rise of the sectarian monster Paisley and his conciliation by the British. It is precisely in fighting against this reaction that an independent working-class movement has to be built.

Closing one’s eyes to this may be comforting, but it’s a pointless exercise that in the end hands over control of politics to the capitalist parties.


Return to top of page