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The reality of defeat, the illusion of reform, the necessity of struggle

John McAnulty

Marxists explain history as a process of struggle. They often speak in a military metaphor, of advance and retreat, victory and defeat. What is often not remarked upon is the connexion between the internal and the external, the social and the personal. This means that when defeat comes it is internalised.  It becomes not only impossible to continue the battle but even impossible to think about continuing it. The ideology of the dominant class becomes the only ideology.  The ideas that one has fought and suffered for are swept away in a wave of forgetfulness. The ideas that were fought against are accepted and celebrated. In a mass fragmentation anger and disillusion turn inwards. All debate stops and those who try to talk about the past or the ideas of resistance are met with hatred.

Something like this has happened to the majority of the republican movement in Ireland. Ideas of imperialism, of British domination, of democracy and opposition to sectarianism have all faded into oblivion.  In their place comes the standard British explanation for 30 years of bloodshed: of sectarian division between two tribes which is to be resolved not by ending sectarianism but by codifying it and building sectarian division into all aspects of society.

All will be well. The main barrier to Irish unity turns out to be nationalists demanding this unity.  Once nationalists become confident enough to abandon any call for national independence, Irish unity will be achieved - eventually.  sectarianism is not bigotry and discrimination, but cultural diversity.  British interest in Ireland is to bring peace and prosperity, although often a small band of civil servants in Stormont manage to subvert this interest.

What is the reality?  The reality is that part of the island of Ireland is under military occupation by British troops.  In order to maintain this occupation the British have suppressed Irish democracy, by preventing Irish unity and by instituting a whole series of draconian and oppressive laws.  The division of the island ensures a division of the working people, confirmed and maintained by a system of religious discrimination and sectarian terror supported by the State forces and institutions.

Yet to speak of this reality is to invite the label of dogmatist and fanatic.  Perhaps things were like that in the past but it's different now.  History moves in unexpected directions and the task is to move the process on.  All sides have adopted new positions and the process can work in the new situation.  Even if there are problems or if the process does not work we are moving forward, in transition to a society that will unite the different sectors and eventually bring peace, prosperity and democracy.

The problem with this post-modernist world of conflict resolution is that there is no yardstick by which we can judge the truth of its claims.  Any movement - up, down, sideways, backwards, can be claimed as progress.  All that matters is perception.  If we have the courage to keep squinting through rose-coloured glasses eventually we will see black as white.

Yet even in the terms of the supporters of the Good Friday Agreement there is such a yardstick with which we can measure progress - the Agreement itself. The agreement offers a settlement of the issue of Irish self-determination.  It does not offer to resolve the issue but to square the circle for now by creating a layer of cross-border bodies and a new local administration in the North while Britain, without surrendering any sovereignty, takes a back seat.  It would be more strictly true to say that Britain becomes invisible, because one of the assertions at the base of the agreement is that the battle was between Protestant and Catholic and that Britain's intentions have always been to leave Ireland, an intention only held in abeyance by benign concern for the mad, warring Irish tribes.

In the event it turns out that the Irish dimension, Mickey Mouse at best, can be suspended at any time at the whim of the unionists.  The British remain firmly in control, intervening at any time, able to override and suspend the agreement. They even have at their disposal a sort of negative internment, able at any time to select from the mass of prisoners now on licence and return them to jail without any reference to any independent legal process.

The new assembly in the North, supposed to represent a new reconciliation, turns out to be a sectarian bear pit.  This is not an accidental feature.  The main difference between the old Stormont and the new is that what was once singular and undiluted sectarian privilege that made nationalist representatives totally irrelevant has been replaced by a series of checks that means many items can be vetoed by each camp as long as the representatives constantly identify themselves as Catholic and Protestant and as long as the votes are counted in Catholic and Protestant blocks.  It is possible for representatives to identify themselves outside this framework as socialist.  What's impossible is to make a non-sectarian vote count.

In theory this revolting arrangement should ensure "equality of the two traditions" and reconciliation in civil society.  In practice it has been necessary for the Unionists to be a little bit more equal than anyone else while the political pattern in Stormont has fed into society, increasing sectarian consciousness everywhere.

The Good Friday Agreement suggests that democratic rights will be restored with peace. It hasn't delivered.  Major elements of the Prevention of terrorism laws are here to stay, as are the no-jury Diplock courts.  The promise that the RUC would turn into a reformed and non-sectarian force has proved empty.

The Agreement never promised to de-sectarianise the North.  What it did promise was "equality of the two traditions".  Instead of the end of sectarian privilege we would get sectarian advantage shared out equally.

This rather ignoble goal has proved an illusion.  After all there would be no point to sectarian advantage if it were shared out equally.  The sectarian Statelet will reflect above all unionist privilege.

What will be new is a political space for a Catholic capitalist class, but this is set firmly within the confines of an undemocratic and sectarian colony.

The Good Friday Agreement supporters shrug their shoulders.  All that matters is that we move on.  No matter what the weakness of the deal "normal" politics will reassert themselves and we will leave the past behind us.

Again we can measure the plausibility of this claim.  The simple question is; who's in charge of the process?  A lot of fatuous claims are made.  No-one is.  We all are. The Celtic Tiger.  New thrusting Nationalism.

None of these ludicrous assertions can survive the cold light of day.  Despite the big lie at the heart of the process - the statement that Britain has no selfish economic or strategic interest - there is only one local imperialist power - Britain.

What do the British want?

Britain, like every other combatant, wants peace in Ireland.  They want a British peace that serves their interests.  The problem is that British peace in Ireland has historically meant exploitation, oppression and repression and inevitably leads to a resistance and to explosions of violence.  Even in the quiet periods between these outbursts of violence the British maintain "peace" by encouraging sectarianism as a method of preserving the divisions of the working class and reserve special legal powers and state forces to crush opposition.  The unionists represent a subordinate group, held to Britain by their rabid bigotry, a constant source of instability because of their demands for unqualified sectarian privilege yet also necessary as the only secure base for British rule.

At this point a note of triumph will enter the eye of the Good Friday supporter.  "But you're on your own!" she will say, pointing to the mass support of nationalist and republican parties for the agreement.  "All that stuff is in the past! It must have changed to win this mass support!"

Yes - things have changed.  What has changed mostly is the policy of the Dublin Government. We have to be very clear here. The policy of successive Dublin governments has been to support partition.  They have attacked democratic rights in the South and used the most extreme repression against republicans to ensure that there was no serious threat to the northern Statelet.  On the other hand this has been contradicted by their own populism, where they claimed a unity of interest with their own population in demanding an end to partition.  The mass entry of trans-national capital has forced a much harsher statement of class interest from the Irish capitalist class.  They can no longer afford cosy tales of common interest with the working class, and they have driven back working class activity and working class consciousness to the point where they can advance and win a position of support for partition within the bulk of the population.

There is a long history of offensives by Irish capital.  There is also a long history of resistance, where at any given time almost a third of the population were guaranteed to oppose the government and opposition campaigns always had a fighting chance of success.  The difference between that situation and today is very simple.  The main resistance group, the republicans, fell into the arms of the capitalists and adopted their policy.

In hindsight this is easy to understand.  The republican were always careful never to adopt a position of class opposition to Irish capital. Their complaints about nationalist sell-outs always assumed a common nationalist interest that the capitalists were not meeting.  When capital shifted ground they had to oppose capital or move with it.  They were considering this at a time when their own militarist strategy was on the rocks.  Their military campaign had degenerated into a series of isolated "spectaculars" of mainly propaganda significance.  In the meantime the British military, political and state offensive, backed by British collusion in the random sectarian terror of the loyalist paramilitaries were having a real impact on the republicans and their supporters.

Has the Good Friday Agreement brought peace in the sense of a realignment and reconciliation of politics on the Island of Ireland?  Or is it simply the peace of the graveyard, marking the end of the conflict with the absolute and total collapse of one of the combatants?  Again, if our imaginary supporter of the agreement has not long fled the scene, we have a way of measuring the answer.  That method is simply the evolution of the process since the agreement was signed.

It has become quite clear that the Agreement has not worked.  It has had to be changed and amended in practice.  The process has become wearily familiar.  The unionist right demand some aspect of their sectarian privilege or further concessions from the republicans and nationalists.  The unionist "moderate", Trimble, immediately rushes to the head of the reaction and threatens to commit political suicide if the demands of the bigots are not met. The British regretfully explain to their nationalist partners that the details of the Agreement will have to change. Sinn Fein call for defence of the agreement, even though they have never been able to publicly endorse many of the details and call for the nationalist family to unite to hold the line.  Their capitalists partners take the Sinn Fein leaders into a corner and explain that the bottom line is whatever the British will agree to.  The new line in the sand is drawn and the unionist right begin a new campaign for more concessions.

The issue today is not whether the republicans will give way on arms, but whether they will give enough quickly enough to convince the unionists that they are finished and are "house-trained" enough (to use an elegant phrase of Trimble's) to be kept in Stormont ministries.

Whatever the outcome of this process there is clearly no possibility of Sinn Fein emerging with any revolutionary critique of the role of British imperialism, let alone Irish capital.  No new movement has yet been built, and those who want to repeat the militarist conceptions of the republicans are not even in the running for building a new movement.

In the interim we can consider the agreement as massive experiment which will test one of the assertions that Marxist made about the old regime in the North of Ireland - that it couldn't be reformed.

It should be easy to see why the northern Statelet is irreformable.  The only rationale for its formation was a sectarian headcount - simply the biggest territory that could be held by a Protestant majority. Once formed the survival of the State meant that the division of the working class had to be maintained.  Marginal privileges for Protestant workers ran alongside savage discrimination against Catholics. The State and legal apparatus boast openly of their anti-Catholic bias.  State forces had virtual immunity when it came to the use of force against protesters.  In the background sinister sectarian organisations like the Orange order and loyalist paramilitaries were supported by the state in keeping the Catholics in their place while simultaneously reminding Protestant workers that their place was firmly in one sectarian camp and that "Lundys" who supported workers unity would face the most extreme oppression.  Day to day life constantly recapitulates this sectarian reality.  It is noteworthy that even today employment figures stubbornly record Catholic unemployment as running at twice the level of their Protestant counterparts.

Any attempt at genuine reform, to remove the endemic sectarianism, would also remove the rationale for the States existence.
It should not therefore come as a surprise that any serious analysis of the Good Friday Agreement shows it to be innocent of an attempt a fundamental reform.  In reality it is a thoroughly reactionary settlement, intended to secure and modernize the sectarian set-up rather than abolish it.

The gloss of reform comes from the fact that the old structures have become unstable and require modification.  A share of sectarian privilege is to be given to the Catholic middle class. A shadow of this existed in embryo under the old Stormont regime.  It was able to give very considerable power to the Catholic Church in fields like education without contradicting its own sectarianism.  This however did not extend as far as any political rights for Catholics.

Of course the share cannot be an equal share and therefore cannot extend beyond the catholic middle class and its clients.  The bulk of the Catholic working class must be excluded.  Equality of sectarian advantage would be a contradiction.

So the exclusion of large sections of the working class is a flaw in the Agreement.  In the view of many on the left this exclusion frees workers.  In this view any settlement, no matter how flawed, makes room for "bread and butter" politics to assert themselves.  In essence this is a viewpoint that patronises workers.  The issues of imperialism, democracy and national rights are only issues for the capitalists.  Workers are seen as unable to cope with anything beyond immediate issues of wages and conditions.  The fact that Catholic and Protestant workers are able to unite on issues of wages and conditions in the workplace is seen as the exemplar for a new society, rather than a perfectly natural development that is constantly blighted by the overwhelming pressure of the sectarian structures in society at large.

 "Socialism" becomes the celebration of this limited co-operation, rather than the political programme that continuously faces up to the enormous political divisions in the working class and the triumph of capitalism and imperialism in maintaining these divisions.   "Socialism" comes to mean any form of workers unity, and eventually all the relatively safe forms of unity that are allowed in the interstices of the sectarian society.  It never adopts its real meaning - workers unity around their own programme - a programme or irreconcilable opposition to capitalism, imperialism and the very existence of the sectarian state they have spawned.  In fact the implicit pro-capitalist bias of these milk and water socialism implicitly in the interest of the capitalists because it abstains on all the key issues, eventually becomes explicitly pro-capitalist, trotting in the rear of initiatives like the Good Friday agreement and insisting shrilly that any kind of principled opposition to capitalism's plans is sectarian because it divides the workers!

Marxists would insist that workers politics should be universal politics and that to form any limitation on what may be discussed is to disarm the working class.  In this view the Good Friday Agreement becomes the instrument for maintaining the division of working people.  The lesson of the overwhelming political support that it has received from all sections of Irish society is that there is no progressive and democratic political programme that can be advanced by the capitalist class.  No matter how embryonic the opposition of working people is at the moment, it falls to them to advance democracy in Ireland.  The problem for socialist activists who want to advance that struggle is that opposition to the partitionist  settlement, while a necessary condition for the development of a working-class movement, is not a sufficient one. The central element of a working class programme in Ireland is opposition to the Irish capitalist class.  Opposition to the Good Friday Agreement must go alongside opposition to Social Partnership agreements in the 26 county State and the cosy circle between Imperialism, capitalism and the trade union bureaucracy that leaves working people out in the cold.



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