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Can we reform the North?

Revisiting the theoretical base of socialist strategy around partition

6 September 2017

In June, following the Stormont elections, the Irish blogger "Sráid Marx" wrote about socialists and elections, arguing for a reformist movement that would open a space for working class politics to advance.

The article contained many assertions that were not strongly based on evidence. Apparently by issuing a call to"Smash Stormont" we in Socialist Democracy had proved ourselves the worst kind of ultra leftists, opposed to any reform, even though our entire history refutes that claim. SM cast a vote for People Before Profit on the grounds that this was the way to build a movement that would go through Stormont in order to destroy it (PBP have expressed no such ambition, rather calling for a left wing Stormont).

A serious weakness is the dismissal of Sinn Fein as a “Catholic party,” the green equivalent of the DUP. It is true that this is their mode of operation in the various carve-ups in Stormont, but it does not sum up the party itself or the dynamic of their supporters. Sinn Fein presents itself as a party of the left. Their main demands at the moment - an Irish Language Act, LGBT marriage rights, investigation of state killings, are essentially democratic demands. Their attitude to supporters of unionism is essentially conciliatory, arguing that the political structures can act to reduce sectarianism. When Stormont was operating they were the main conduit of trade union lobbying campaigns. It is not so long ago that the SM blog itself proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state!

To assert that Sinn Fein are two-faced and will not deliver or that they do not represent the interests of workers is one thing. To assert equivalence between them and the full-throated sectarian triumphalism of the Democratic Unionist Party is quite another.

It is true that Sinn Fein voters, along with the majority of the nationalist population, hold the illusion that reform will come through Stormont, but it is not the case that they seek only rights for Catholics. There is all the difference in the world in looking to Stormont for reform and supporting Stormont as the bulwark of reaction.

Perhaps criticism of Socialist Democracy and its politics is simply a commonplace that should not automatically generate a response. What was important about the SM blog however, was the referencing of the theory of the "irreformability of the northern state," first developed by our progenitor organization, People's Democracy, in the early days of the civil rights movement.

The theory argues that, although all sorts of individual reforms may be possible under Stormont, they will never add up to a universal reform that transforms the sectarian state into a standard capitalist democracy.

SM either refutes that theory or argues that it no longer applies. Yet there is a fudging of the context of the irreformability theory. The debate was not, as SM says, within the left in general, but between revolutionary socialists and the Communist Party. It was, in fact, a local version of the division between Trotskyism and Stalinism, between the theory of permanent revolution and the stages theory.

The Communist Party fought desperately to restrain the civil rights movement. The task was, through persuasion, to "desectarianise" the North. Those who wanted to advance beyond these modest calls were ultra-leftists who should be suppressed.

The revolutionary upsurge escaped the control of the Stalinists but after rivers of blood and the unity of British and Irish capital against Republicanism, combined with the political weakness of the Republicans themselves, it was defeated.

Not unsurprisingly the defeat was followed by a collapse in political consciousness. The theory of stages became the dominant consciousness, renamed "how far we've come" (and how slowly, gradually, we must move forward in the hope that loyalism will fall asleep).

But all theories have to deal with real life.

In the real world, the local statelet proved over and over again that a transition to democracy was impossible. The civil rights movement was suppressed by force and replaced by a revolutionary nationalist uprising. When it in its turn was suppressed it was replaced by the Good Friday Agreement and endless revisions tending always to the right.

Many believe that the GFA led to democratic structures being established. In fact, as a local academic recently explained, what exists is merely "some of the scaffolding" of a democracy. In addition to the background reality of British control, at each stage institutions, and frequently the rule of law, play second fiddle to sectarianism.

What now that the executive, which we have to go through to win reforms, collapses through its own contradictions? PBP have no problem. They are to the fore in demanding its return, in the process dismissing the perfectly reasonable demands of Sinn Fein that previous agreements be honoured and ignoring the fact that a new administration would sanctify the crimes and corruption of the old administration.

This frantic support is known as the reformist dilemma. In order to get an institution to deliver reforms you have to support it. Right now it's difficult to see what the DUP and British would have to do to force calls for the closure of Stormont from the reformist left.

It remains totally unclear what mechanism would bring about local reform. Lobbying campaigns directly led by the unions have essentially come to a stop. The unions do provide support for Feminist and LGBT campaigns but they also face political and strategic dilemmas. The leaders of these campaigns clearly base activities on the idea that the democratic superstructure of the assembly is a reality, despite the fact that a majority of MLAs have voted in support of gay marriage only to have the sectarian veto block it. On abortion Westminster has provided an escape route to the British NHS but will not overrule devolved powers, which include criminal persecution of women who buy "morning after" pills on the internet.  Attempts to win gay marriage have met the same response from the courts – they will not overrule devolution. Will the DUP be won around? Could there be a majority Sinn Fein executive without collapsing the whole assembly? Will the voters show a revulsion against corruption and sectarianism that the political settlement has been set up to reinforce?  The advent of hard Brexit would leave power in the hands of an ultra-right Westminster government and reform – and even the basic rights of subsistence – in a more precarious state than ever.

We already know how individual reforms might come about. A new deal might have an Irish language act and some moves on gay rights. These would either have to be counterbalanced by further institutionalism of sectarianism or be imposed by the British to prevent the DUP having to have ownership of them. Some DUP figures are already arguing that it is better to have direct rule than to make any concessions. In any case this mechanism would illustrate, not the inevitability of reform, but the limits of reform in the North.

The reformist dilemma is seen across Europe. We see leftists struggling desperately to bring about a reformed capitalism when capitalism itself decays and new reactionary populist movements grow. There are however the early signs of a renewed interest in socialism and revolution.

Of course socialists should support movements for reform. But we should also be honest and address the weakness of stageism, of the left populist, “people power” approach and its companion in narrow trade union economism. Capitalism is coming to the end of days. Reforms, for example a supply of public housing in Dublin or the continuation of public health services here, will require the most intense struggles and a sharp challenge to existing leaderships.  The recent water charges campaign in the South, which involved tens of thousands of protestors, was able to force a temporary halt to charging for the majority. However the charging and privatization structure remains in place and public services and public sector pay rates remain trapped in the “fiscal space” set by the Troika. The reformist leadership of the movement avoided a broader programme or any democratic structures that would allow a long-term movement for resistance to be built.

To search for the possibility of revolution we must widen our focus. Stormont is a rampart against the working class, so we must look to an all-Ireland perspective and to the actually existing struggles in Britain and Europe to build an alternative.

 If the working class mobilises we will build a socialist alternative. If they do not we will have barbarism.

There is no third way.

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