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Bread and Butter once again: the British left and the Stormont Agreement

David Coen

Most of the left in Britain welcomed the Stormont Agreement and specifically Sinn Fein's endorsement of it because peace apparently creates the possibility of "normal" politics in the North of Ireland.  Divisions between unionist and nationalist workers will accordingly dissolve with Sinn Fein provisionally (?!) accepting the Six County statelet and the distraction of the national question being put to one side.  Since this has been more or less the line for years, there is a certain weariness of tone in the description of the Republicans finally seeing sense and a mild optimism that their prescriptions for socialism will in the future not be ruined by the interventions of the same Republicans.

The largest group on the left, the Socialist Workers Party, while having a formally correct position of opposing the Agreement, at the same time see the peace as creating the space for class politics to come into play and constantly seek to highlight instances of workers unity across the sectarian divide.  Nothing wrong with this of course, except that it could be the speck on the lens that blots out the whole sky. In other words, the examples of workers unity are often magnified into something that they are not and the working class in the North of Ireland remains as divided as ever.
The "normal" politics, which almost all envisage following the Agreement, is really a follow-on from the "peace, jobs and progress" line of the Communist Party in the 1970's and 1980's, though with much less clout inside the trade union bureaucracy. It also has a long pedigree in Labourist attitudes to Ireland.  While this line in the earlier period involved the CP in a "progressive" alliance with the Labour bureaucracy in the context of a Labour Party committed to welfare state reformism, Blair's New Labour neo-liberal programme offers a far less fertile basis for this. If politics is largely a question of state power and policy, then calling on workers to ignore the question of the state and to focus on bread and butter issues will be equally ineffective

It will be interesting to see if the "Organise in the North" current in the Labour Party will get any encouragement from the leadership. In the past there was a tacit understanding that the SDLP held the franchise for the Six Counties.  Probably the Blairites will neither wish to antagonise the SDLP or alienate Sinn Fein by standing official Labour candidates.  On the other hand, some sections of the left, including the Socialist Party have hopes of resurrecting some homegrown Labour candidates as a way of overcoming sectarianism.  They find it difficult to understand that either direct or indirect organisation replicates the very relations of domination/subordination, which characterise all relations between Britain and Ireland.

The critical error made and still repeated by almost all of the Left (and especially the Militant/Socialist Party) is not so much their refusal to support the democratic demand for Irish unity and self-determination (in the name of working class unity and anti sectarianism) but their naivety regarding the British State.  Socialism poses the question of political power at the level of the state.  In Northern Ireland a focus on "bread and butter" issues that ignores the question of state power will not make a single step towards socialism: the only thing such moralistic propagandising will produce is, at best, limited mobilisation around issues in a way which cannot get beyond sectional demands even if it appears initially to have broken through sectarian barriers.

In Britain the consequences of such economism are at least as serious and play into the hands of the vulgar economists on the right. It is one thing to believe that organising workers at the point of production gives the working class the leverage to bring about socialism. It is entirely another to believe that socialists should concentrate on exclusively on these issues and ignore all others.  It would be a serious mistake to see the debates, for example, over Scottish devolution as a distraction from the "real" issues facing the working class within the British State. In that sense, the participation by the Socialist Party in the formation of the Scottish Socialist Party is a welcome break with their past.  However, if the SSP merely becomes a Scottish replacement for the reformist British Party in its 1945 -1980 phase, then it really will be open to the criticism that it divides the working class in the British State and sows illusions in Scottish capitalism being kinder/more progressive than its British variant.

In the ongoing debates on the future of Britain, the nature of Englishness, the relationship to the Euro, on crime, illegal drugs and so on, socialists will be marginalized if we intervene only in debates about job losses, hours of work or the minimum wage and believe that all the rest is merely a debate in the press of interest to none but the "middle class".  Such a step would simply mimic the attempt by Blair and Co. to "depoliticise" politics - "it's the economy, stupid" and to move Labour away from reformism towards mangerialism. Even Blair's precursor Thatcher, saw her economic policy primarily as a way of changing the soul of Britain.

Left naivety over the role of the British State can be seen most clearly in relation to Ireland.  Its understanding of Britain as the junior partner to US imperialism leads it quite rightly to oppose to the imposition of the pax Americana in Eastern Europe or in the Middle East. However, this clarity of understanding gets blurred as the conflict nears home.  A large part of the left either believes British propaganda about "peace-keeping" in Ireland, or tolerates it as a necessary evil in preventing civil war. (Does it need pointing out that similar "lesser-of- two-evils" rationalisation allowed a raft of "post imperialist" intellectuals and politicians to condone US action against the Serbs or earlier, Saddam Hussein in the name of humanitarianism). In Ireland such thinking allows the British to present a united front since there is almost no opposition to their "peace-keeping" role. For this reason there is virtually no criticism of the Stormont agreement and there is tacit acceptance of the gerrymandered referendums from which it derives its legitimacy.
Whatever the future for the latest attempt at a British sponsored solution in Ireland (and the chances are that it will go from crisis to crisis) the future for socialism in Britain must be equally uncertain as long as a substantial number of "revolutionary" socialists have apparently come to believe that the British State is mainly composed of confused but well meaning old buffers who will in the end do the right thing.

The Troops Out Movement split, though not publicly, along the longstanding fault lines within it; between the more pro-Sinn Fein elements and those who argued over many years that support for "troops out" in England, Scotland and Wales could not be built simply on the basis of support for Sinn Fein.  It was the Sinn Fein supporters who argued for the effective dropping of the demand for "troops out and self determination", a bit ironic, given the denunciation heaped on those who always wanted the TOM to have a more arms-length relationship with the Provo's but who for that reason were often viewed with suspicion because of a (usually wrong) perception that this meant dilution of the TOM's demands.  While it was the latter group that won out, they have found it very difficult to organise because of the close links with Sinn Fein (for example, around the annual delegation to Belfast) but mainly because they continue to operate within the same political framework as them. While they continue to campaign around single issues like the RUC, Drumcree and the killing of Robert Hamill it is hard to see how these campaigns will not eventually adapt to the compromised stance of the Sinn Fein leadership.

What both factions of the TOM agree on is that, given the military stalemate, Sinn Fein had no choice but negotiate and ultimately to participate in what is clearly a partitionist assembly.  If this can be taken as a criticism of the limitation of militarism it is fine: what it ignores is that Sinn Fein had the option not to take executive seats and thereby participate in running the "failed political entity" which they had spent nearly 30 years trying to destroy.  Both sides are unsympathetic to the view that participation in the Executive will both implicate the Republicans in running the undemocratic partitionist state and force political developments down a sectarian, communalist channel as both Unionists and Nationalists compete for what in reality are pacification funds from the European Union and the US.   Instead of offering Loyalist workers an incentive to break with the Unionist ruling class, this pork barrel politics will tie them further into the Union and wall them off from any chance of unity with Nationalist workers or indeed from radical politics.

On a more positive note, a significant part of the left in Britain has learned from its own experience, for example, the Miner's strike, of the ways in which the State acts on behalf of the capitalist class.  The release of dozens of prisoners following that of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, the clearing of Winston Silcott of the murder of a policeman and latterly the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Ricky Reel show the true nature of the British State.  Among these lies the best hope of the understanding and and solidarity needed to end its rule in Ireland.



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