The National Question and a Border Poll
Militant Left (CWI in Ireland) has always held a position on the national question for over half a century that differs sharply from that of many other Left forces in Ireland, including People Before Profit/SWN. The CWI in Ireland always stood for Catholic and Protestant workers’ unity against sectarianism, state repression and discrimination, and for united class struggle to overthrow the bosses’ system.
During the ‘Troubles’ Militant (CWI) consistently opposed the bigots on all sides. We warned correctly that the British troops brought onto the streets in 1969 would soon be used mainly against the Catholic minority. We understood why many young working class Catholics turned to the gun in the face of massive state repression and Loyalist death squads and systemic discrimination, and due to the failure of the labour and trade union movement to provide a decisive lead to the oppressed minority, and unite the working class. But we also explained that the Provisional IRA’s individual terror campaign was counterproductive and would lead to a bloody cul-de-sac. The bombings and shootings could never win over working class Protestants and deliver a united Ireland but only helped increase sectarian divisions and strengthen the repressive capitalist state. In contrast, throughout the conflict (‘Troubles’) in the North, the SWP opportunistically acted as cheerleaders for the Provisional IRA, at different stages, reflecting the mood, at the time, in many Catholic working class areas.
The call for a border poll made today by People Before Profit is done in the same opportunistic and light-minded fashion as previous positions adopted by the SWP. They ignore the fact that a poll will risk seriously inflaming sectarian tensions, which are already rising sharply following Brexit. The crude calculus of such a poll, with a ‘50% plus one’ threshold, will only create further tensions and divisions within the working class and an ongoing and ever more intractable sectarian turmoil.
Most of the leading members of RISE, now members of People Before Profit, are former adherents to the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). Yet Paul Murphy TD has now abandoned the CWI’s class analysis and programme on the national question in Ireland, and its skillful and sensitive approach. He has joined in with PBP’s calls for a border poll, as it seeks to compete with Sinn Féin who have launched a strident campaign on the issue. Paul Murphy concedes in an article in the RISE journal, ‘Rupture’, that a border poll will be highly contentious and cause sectarian strife: “the possibility of this becoming a turning point for a descent into sectarian violence and clashes is real”. But for whatever reason, Paul Murphy has, in our view, abandoned his previous CWI approach and recklessly goes on to baldly demand a border poll and ‘Yes’ vote. He writes, “we should support the holding of a border poll… we should take a side on the concrete question of the border poll… in favour of re-unification of the island”.
Many working class Catholics in the North, of course, regard a border poll as a democratic expression of their right to determine their future as enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. They will see it as a way to end their entrapment in the Northern statelet which for decades meant severe repression, poverty, joblessness, gerrymandering and institutionalised discrimination. Even with the changes and reforms brought about after decades of upheaval and the Good Friday Agreement, working class Catholics yearn for the ending of partition and for a ‘United Ireland’ which holds the promise of an improvement in their lives.
Militant Left stands for the maximum unity of the working class and wants to see the ending of all divisions and borders and for a socialist Ireland and socialist world. Marxists are also duty bound, however, to tell the working class the truth. There are many hurdles to be overcome before a border poll is called and no guarantee a first vote would see a majority ‘yes’ to a united Ireland, even if Catholics made up a majority in the North. But if or when a poll leads to a majority vote for ‘unity’ what would that signify?
A border poll under the present circumstances would not change by one iota the economic or social structures of capitalism on this island. A united Ireland today would yield a ‘united capitalist Ireland’ politically dominated by Right wing forces. Reunification attempts would almost certainly see the revival of the century-old taunt that “Labour must wait’” while the newly unified capitalist state stabilises. It is inconceivable that the main political forces, North and South, including Sinn Féin in the North, which have for decades reduced living and working standards, cut public services, allowed finance capital to dominate provision of housing, cut taxes on the rich and wasted tens of billions bailing out banks, will dramatically change course in a united capitalist Ireland. Certainly not when PBP themselves cannot bring themselves to challenge even the corporate tax haven status of the South, as it stands!
The risk of conflict is very real if there are attempts to impose ‘Irish unity’ should a border poll result in a narrow but highly polarised headcount in favour of reunification. Such a ‘reunification’ would offer nothing to workers; only reinforcing the dominance of the capitalist class, North and South, and would occur under the watchful eye of the imperialist UK, US and EU powers.
The sharply divided community geographies in the North make it all but impossible to see how a genuinely united Ireland could even be enforced by a capitalist government. The likelihood is high of an even more polarising situation and a slide into wider conflict and towards repartition. Such an outcome would be the worst possible result for workers in Ireland, reinforcing sectarian divisions while still facing an exploitative and rapacious capitalist class.
Conflict may even emerge while constitutional conventions or other bodies sit down to try to work out the details of ‘unification’ or try to devise some sort of constitutional fudge for the medium term due to mass Protestant opposition. The recent furore and growing opposition to the ‘East-West economic border’ in the Irish Sea is a just a foretaste of what might result if a capitalist united Ireland is enforced against significant opposition from the Protestant community.
It is not a question of Marxists conceding to a “Protestant veto” but understanding that opposition to Irish unification on a capitalist basis is a material factor. Sectarian divisions are a product of capitalism, colonialism and imperialism. The only way to end them is through removing the economic and social circumstances within which they persist. That means a united struggle of workers from across the sectarian divide to fight for better living conditions and for an end to the rule of profit that causes poverty and want – replacing capitalism with socialism.
Militant Left argues for the workers’ movement to build the forces of socialism on this island; to develop the maximum possible unity of the working class; to guard against any developments that could widen sectarian divisions and assist the ‘Divide and Conquer’ tactics of British imperialism and the bosses’ EU. Crucial to this, is building new mass parties of the working class, with a socialist programme, both in the North and South. Socialists must strive for concrete working class initiatives, involving trade union militants, as well as genuine community and young campaigners and others. These actions can help bring the two working class communities together to oppose the bosses’ system, and to deal with sectarian divisions and the national question on a class basis.
The bloody partition of Ireland was a monstrous crime against the working class on this island. It was the product of a stalled national and social revolution between the years of 1916-1923 and of a cynical British imperialist ‘divide and rule’ policy. One hundred years later, reunification is posed by Sinn Féin as inevitable and within grasp. However, as history has shown many times, not least in Ireland, where the workers’ movement and socialists subordinate the demands for socialist revolution to those of bourgeois ‘national’ interests, disaster quickly follows for the working class. The task for socialists must be to build for the socialist transformation of society. Overcoming partition and ending sectarian divisions on this island requires always linking the social, class and ‘national’ issues, as part of a socialist solution, every step of the way.
As James Connolly explained over 100 years ago when the whole of Ireland was still under colonial subjugation: “An Irish Republic, the only purely political change in Ireland worth crossing the street for, will never be realised except by a revolutionary party that proceeds upon the premise that the capitalist and the landlord classes in town and country in Ireland are criminal accomplices with the British government, in the enslavement and subjection of the nation. Such a revolutionary party must be socialist, and from socialism alone can the salvation of Ireland come.” (James Connolly, The Harp, March 1909)
Unlike People Before Profit, we do not believe the struggle for socialism can be contained in the slogan for a “32 County Socialist Republic”, which, in any case, has become a slogan indistinguishable from Left republicanism and republican paramilitaries and is therefore unappealing to Protestant workers.
It is necessary to take a socialist internationalist approach. For a socialist Ireland to be realised, the workers’ movement and the forces of socialism in Ireland, Britain and Europe would need to be much further developed and strengthened than at present. Militant Left wants to see the ending of all barriers between the working class of Ireland, north and south, and across Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales and Europe. We stand for a socialist Ireland, with full rights for the Protestant minority. The future socialist society would reject all forms of discrimination and any coercion of communities and minorities or else it is not entitled to be called a socialist society. We also put forward today the goal of a socialist Ireland and for a socialist federation of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, on a free and equal basis. This would be part of a wider socialist federation of Europe and ultimately the world. This rejects the notion that there is a national road to socialism in Ireland or anywhere on these islands, particularly in the age of globalisation.
People Before Profit’s approach to the national question and a border poll acts and will continue to act as an insurmountable barrier to its ability to win broader support amongst Protestants and also amongst all workers who instinctively understand the dangers of taking a one-sided approach. What is the position of PBP regarding the “greening” of the trade unions? The attempt by Sinn Féin and others to influence the trade unions to advocate for a ‘United Ireland’ policy (i.e. for a capitalist united Ireland) is a dangerous trend that can lead to divisions in the workers’ movement. In opposition, demands for “Orange” unions can take root as they have in similar conditions previously. This poses the threat of very damaging splits in the movement, if not cut across by activists successfully arguing for workers’ unity and a socialist approach, as Militant Left comrades in NIPSA and other unions do.
A ‘Left government’
One of the stated objectives of PBP is the formation of a ‘Left Government’ in the South. Given the electoral balance of forces at present such a ‘Left Government’ of necessity must include Sinn Féin as the largest force. It must also include forces such as the Social Democrats and, potentially, the Green Party, if the latter survives its current term in government.
The term ‘Left Government’ requires scrutiny and explanation. Such a government led by Sinn Féin would most likely be Left nationalist and mildly reformist. It says something about Sinn Féin’s politics, and that of PBP, that Paul Murphy TD and other PBP TDs find themselves publicly pleading for Sinn Féin to abandon its clear desire to join with the right-wing Fianna Fail in a coalition government, and to instead to form a ‘Left government’ with PBP.
People Before Profit would be a small grouping within such a government, even if it achieves a further electoral advance at the next general election. It is questionable the degree of influence it would be able to exercise or even how many elements of a radical reformist programme could be brought to bear.
For such a Left government to become a viable proposition Sinn Féin would need to advance electorally. In 2020 most of the current People Before Profit TDs, including Paul Murphy, were elected by significant transfers from Sinn Féin candidates. It is likely that Sinn Féin will exercise much closer vote management in the next election and these transfers may not be available to People Before Profit candidates. Indeed, PBP and Solidarity may well struggle to hold onto any seats in the next election should Sinn Féin continue to rise.
Calling for a ‘Left Government’ to get rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is empty rhetoric without setting out the political basis for this government. One example of where such a government could be sundered is over the obligations of membership of the capitalist European Union. Sinn Féin’s position on the European Union has shifted enormously in recent years. They have made their peace with the EU’s austerity-era fiscal constraints. These permanently entrench austerity into government expenditure and restrict the kinds of massive infrastructure spending required to, for instance, end the current housing crisis or deal with the gathering environmental crisis.
Moreover, a Left government would be constantly battling against the European Commission, as well as a subversive domestic capitalist class allied with entities like the American Chamber of Commerce, to implement even a modest social democratic programme. While a Sinn Féin led government could be forced under intense pressure from the working class to make more reforms than it intended, there is no basis for believing that the party, as the dominant force in a hypothetical Left government, would have any appetite for sustained conflict with capitalism or imperialism or intention to engage in it.
Their record in the Northern Executive is firmly established as a party committed to the stability of capitalism which will not hesitate to attack the living and working standards of the working class. And what about Sinn Féin’s demands for a border poll, which they state they will make a central plank of policy in government in the South (even though the power to call a referendum is the exclusive privilege of the British government)? It is inevitable that Sinn Féin would pose this call in sectarian language, particularly if they need a way to distract from their failing to make real social and economic changes. How would PBP, the junior coalition partners in a possible Left government, respond to this, as sectarian tensions would rise in the North?
These questions might be posed very soon as it is possible that another general election could be called once Covid-related restrictions are ended.
A Left government, without a firm socialist and anti-imperialist programme, would be riven by internal conflict. The use of Shannon airport by the US military to transport soldiers to the Middle East and Afghanistan is one additional potential flashpoint. Sinn Féin would come under intense pressure from the Biden government to allow US forces continued access to Shannon.
There is little to be gained by participation in a ‘Left government’ on such terms, and all to lose. The sorry spectacle of the ‘radical’ left formation, PODEMOS, in power in Spain with the dominant social democratic party, PSOE, which dictates policies, including cuts and state repression, is a warning to other Left formations about going down this path.
If Sinn Féin is able to form a government without PBP, and that coalition is perceived by the broad masses as a dramatic breach with decades of Right wing coalitions and potentially as ‘radical’ or ‘anti-Establishment’, the Left in opposition in the Dail should put it to the test severely. They should demand policies that really transform the lives of working class people that would mean a break with capitalism. This is a path that Sinn Féin does not countenance.
People Before Profit and other Left deputies could come under pressure to support a Sinn Féin-led government from the opposition benches. In Portugal, the opposition ‘radical Left’ party, Left Bloc, made a deal with the Social Democratic Party that allowed it to form a government. From outside of the government, the Left Bloc also signed up to the ruling Social Democrats’ policies. This decision means that the Left Bloc is associated with unpopular policies that hit working class people.
A principled Left opposition in the Dáil can decide to support or not to support a supposedly ‘radical’ government’s policies on a concrete, case-by case-basis that would be dependent on whether they advance the interests of the working class or not.
In this way, the limitations and failures of a Sinn Féin led ‘radical’ government can be exposed in the eyes of the working class and young people. But most importantly, the tempo of class struggle in the workplaces and communities will prepare the ground for the development of a working class alternative.
It is our position that the priority in Ireland should be to build the mass party of the working class rooted in communities and the trade union movement and based on a firm socialist perspective and programme. Calls for a Left government by PBP activists are no doubt well-intentioned, and we would support one if it is based on an explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist programme, but this clashes with the political reality of the balance of political forces in Ireland at present.
Building a strong principled socialist opposition in the Dáil and on the ground is the best way to mobilise support to put demands on a supposed radical Sinn Féin-led government, and in the process exposing its pro-capitalist policies in the eyes of workers and youth.
Notwithstanding our important political differences, Militant Left (CWI Ireland) has and will work with other Left activists on the ground during campaigns and protest movements, including with PBP comrades, and in the trade unions. The CWI in Ireland and the CWI internationally has also shown that it will collaborate with others in broader political alliances, where this is practical and represents a genuine step forward. In doing so, we always maintain our Marxist banner and our right to freely put forward our ideas and programme.
The experiences of ongoing deep capitalist crisis and sharp changes in governments will prepare the way for more workers and youth to look for a Left socialist alternative and the need for a mass party of the working class will be posed. By our efforts and through workers’ harsh experience of unending capitalist crisis, Militant Left is confident that Marxist ideas will be grasped by ever wider layers of workers and youth.