This week my reading neatly dovetailed with a short lecture on the ‘Tan War – a Just War’ for the Peadar O’Donnell Republican Socialist Forum, which will be broadcast in November. At the end of the panel discussion, the chair asked me to make some concluding remarks. A contributor had expressed uncertainty regarding Sinn Féin’s future left-wing never mind socialist orientation if it carried its current opinion poll ratings into the next general election and became the main party of government in Dublin. This had followed on from a wider question as to whether the decade of commemorations had generated renewed enthusiasm for republican and socialist ideas. I responded by paraphrasing Marx in the Holy Family that
History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.
My point was that, despite many questionable theses by liberal historians, commemoration does not provoke radical calls for change, it rather provides the environment or ideological terrain on which opposition to current material conditions are articulated. The 1966 commemoration may have stimulated a re-examination of Connolly and Mellows, but without poverty north and south, a generation of northern Catholics weaned on post-war welfare measures and the continuation of a gerrymandered discriminatory one-party regime in the six-counties unconditionally backed by London, the dust from the brief flurry of state pageantry would have safely settled to the status quo ante. I continued that I had no illusions as to Sinn Féin’s socialism, since the Provisionals were long-ago content to ring the New York Stock Exchange bell in the company of Ian Paisley and oversaw the implementation of a decade of vicious austerity.
While I failed to acknowledge my inspiration at the time, I can now admit that the image of Martin McGuinness gleefully chuckling in the citadel of capitalism sprang from Liam Ó Ruairc’s recent book Peace or Pacification? which I had read that very week. The author admits early on that his ‘central argument is that the “process” represents a major defeat for national liberation as it reinforces the partition of Ireland and that following the 1998 Agreement, Sinn Féin has become a junior partner of the British state.’ He later concludes that, within a mendacious ‘peace’ process, ‘truth’ has been supplanted by ‘constructive ambiguity’. Furthermore the failure to recognize the genuine right of Irish self-determination leaves the process devoid of justice. This reality is camouflaged by the general acceptance of the British state’s analysis that the Irish problem concerns competing ethno-national identities rather than unfinished decolonisation. This is nowhere more apparent than in the championing of neo-liberalism that withheld any peace ‘dividends’ from working-class people most affected by the conflict.
In line with arguments in this blog, Ó Ruairc rightly identifies the origin of the Irish conflict ‘in the British state’s refusal to recognise the right of the people of Ireland as a whole to self- determination.’ Partition did not achieve self-determination for an illusory British Ulster nation, rather it sought to subvert self-determination. Lloyd George, who wrote to Carson in 1916, that ‘we must make it clear that Ulster does not, whether she wills it or not, merge with the rest of Ireland’, admitted that in 1921: ‘If you asked the people of Ireland what plan they would accept, by an emphatic majority they would say: “We want independence and an Irish Republic”.’ The imperial establishment were not prepared to recognise this democratic mandate. As Henry Wilson opined in March 1921: ‘If we lose Ireland we have lost the Empire’. I unsurprisingly agree with Ó Ruairc’s assessment that ‘the republican case against partition and the existence of Northern Ireland is not a matter of “irredentism”, it is fundamentally an issue of democracy.’ As The Sunday Times Insight Team noted: ‘The border was itself the first and biggest gerrymander:.. Protestant supremacy was the only reason why the State existed. As such, the State was an immoral concept. It therefore had to be maintained from the first by immoral means’.
Similarly, readers of this blog will recognise Ó Ruairc’s emphasis on the distinction between republicanism as a radical humanist articulation of universalist and emancipatory principles, as opposed to ‘nationalism which is based on the particular’. To all intents and purposes, Ó Ruairc identifies Sinn Féin as a constitutional nationalist party, who abandoned its principles to participate in a Peace Process: ‘the strategic objective’ of which, in the words of the oft-quoted Anthony McIntyre ‘was to include republicans while excluding republicanism’. This was achieved by ‘the Irish version of the social democratic maxim “the movement is everything and the principles nothing”. Once the movement is more important than principles, republicanism becomes whatever the leadership of the movement said it is.’ While Ó Ruairc does not express it in these terms, the implication is that the Adams’ leadership exercised its authority to present republicans with a false dichotomy in the nineties between electoralism and militarism. While one Irish government source ridiculed the Sinn Féin leadership as negotiating dunces, in fact this Machiavellian vanguard skilfully triangulated its way to becoming the main representatives of northern nationalism, attracting ‘new Catholic money… largely apolitical but nationalistic in its aspirations’[quote attributed to Tony Catney] and operating as an ‘ethnic tribune’, while it soft soaped its working-class grassroots. In this reading, the Adams’ leadership emerge as the latest in a succession of nationalist populists [the heirs of Joe Devlin’s Hibernianism] who cynically employ republican rhetoric to gain a seat at the master’s table. Ó Ruairc bluntly states that
The Provisional movement had gone from being the vanguard of the historic struggle for an independent, 32- county republic to a counter-revolutionary barrier protecting the British presence in Ireland. Sinn Féin has been de-republicanised and the entire liberation project has been weakened as it now accepts the political terms of its opponent.
This process may have pre-dated the fall of the Berlin Wall, but Ó Ruairc draws a telling comparison between the Provisionals’ capitulation and Fukyama’s end of history, when a series of leftist liberation struggles yielded to apparent historical logic. As Danny Morrison wrote admiringly in 1990: ‘The Sandinistas had to come to terms with reality. The pragmatism of the head had to take precedence over the principle of the heart.’ While Ó Ruairc frequently cites Edward W. Said, his most telling reference locates Sinn Féin within a nexus of defeatism from Latin America through South Africa to Palestine: ‘It is simply not enough to say that we live in the New World Order which requires “pragmatism” and “realism” and that we must shed the old ideas of nationalism and liberation. That is pure nonsense. No outside power like Israel or the United States can unilaterally decree what reality is’. The Provisional leadership adopted a pragmatic [in reality an opportunistic] position that required the abandonment of republican principle to enter a process or strategy whereby the ends would ultimately justify the means. Anyone who disagreed could be labelled anti-peace. From the socialist perspective Eamonn McCann pointed out that those republicans who rejected Sinn Féin’s position ‘do not dissent from the Republican tradition. What they dissent from is departure from the tradition’. Similarly, Bernadette McAliskey identified the aim of the peace process was ‘to eradicate republicanism, not violence’.
I often employ Rousseau’s admonishment that ‘falsehood has an infinity of combinations, but truth has only one mode of being’ in this blog. Yet, Provisional Sinn Féin has largely abandoned republican civic virtue in order to play the game. As Jim Gibney remarked: ‘If there is one big lesson coming out of the peace process… it is words like “certainty” and “clarity” are not part of the creative lexicon that conflict resolution requires if it is to be successful… Give me the language of ambiguity… It has oiled the engine of the peace process. Long may it continue to do so.’ This position constitutes the very antithesis of republicanism, but it is also self-defeating. From Collins to Dev to MacBride through Goulding and so on, no Irish republican organisation that went through the process of what Gramsci labelled transformismo ever emerged the same. Ó Ruairc employs McAliskey, again to devastating effect, when she warned Provisionals during the early stages of the peace process that ‘you boys, you’re going down a wee tunnel. It won’t bring you peace. It won’t bring you equality and, when you come outside at the other end of it, you won’t even have the personal and political integrity you had going into it’.
What we get then is an Irish articulation of Thatcher’s ‘There is No Alternative’ [TINA], where political acumen appears commensurate to the degree to which you can delude people with smoke and mirrors. Tellingly, Sinn Féin also proceeded with the wholesale adoption of Thatcherite economic policy. Ó Ruairc provides good statistics on the damage wrought by Stormont’s unconditional promotion of ‘the virtues of free market enterprise, austerity finance, urban regeneration, public-private partnership, private-finance initiatives and foreign direct investment by global multinationals.’ Indeed, in order to be able to cut corporation tax in December 2014, Sinn Féin agreed to lose 20,000 public sector jobs, slash welfare benefits and accept a reduction of £200 million per year in the block grant. The statistics demonstrate that public spending accounts for over 70% of the North’s GDP against an OECD average of 28%. Over 30% work directly for the public sector. Proportionally, the gross disposable household income vis-a-vis the rest of UK in 2014 matched that of 1997, while the suicide rate doubled in the same period and the number of peace walls quadrupled. They can erect a statue to James Connolly in West Belfast, but the working-class people who pass it every day live in a society that Connolly himself would have railed against.
Nevertheless, Ó Ruairc’s assessment of neo-liberalism, while rich in detail, tails off into a disappointing section on the victims’ industry. Arguably, there are some significant dots to be joined up here. He rightly identifies ‘counter-insurgency Keynesianism’ as the means by which even Thatcher used state employment to undermine support for the Provisionals. Yet, the section on the levelling off of the divisions between Protestants and Catholics elides some significant issues. The average hourly wage for nationalists and republicans (£9.44 per hour) is now higher than that of pro-British unionists (£9.11 per hour).In 1992, 76% of working-age Protestants were economically active, compared with 66% of working-age Catholics. By 2016, these figures had fallen to 75% for Protestants, but risen to 74% for Catholics. In 1992, 24% of working-age Protestants were economically inactive compared with 34% of working-age Catholics, a 10% point difference. In 2016, the rates were 25% for Protestants and 26% for Catholics. Over the period 1993 to 2016, the proportion of working-age economically active Protestants with no qualifications fell from 30% to 11%, but the numbers of Catholics without skills fell by slightly more, from 32% to 10%. This is all very interesting, but there is little analysis or insight into what the implications are for those committed to an emancipatory future. Indeed, for the student of history, these figures represent a sea-change in the character of northern society.
Only the most naïve (and this is not directed at Ó Ruairc) could suggest that this level of intervention would have taken place without the republican campaign. In a classic manifestation of the cunning of reason, Sinn Féin has emerged as the party of a new Catholic middle-class born during the Troubles – a class created to undermine the PIRA campaign during their youth. In 2001, only 17% of Catholics belonging to the highest social and economic category were born in it compared to 33% of Protestant. Working-class Catholics have a 1-in-5 chance of attending university, the figure is 1-in-10 for their Protestant counterparts. The Protestant working class represent the net losers of the peace process, but the working class as a whole has barely benefitted. Indeed, ‘Northern Ireland suffered the largest fall in household incomes and the biggest rise in poverty in the UK during the recession and austerity measures’. Ó Ruairc is right that ‘there is an economic crisis, but it has not yet reached the stage of an organic crisis – where the very legitimacy of the system itself is questioned.’ But, as a socialist republican, what means are at our disposal to challenge this vast injustice?
This is where his analysis, in my opinion, ignores some pertinent tensions – admittedly perhaps due to book’s publication date during rapidly changing historical conditions. I agree with Ó Ruairc that ‘the 1998 Agreement achieved the “reconstitution of bourgeois order” in the North “not in the context of the British Empire…but in the context of the European Union”. I have previously written of a Catholic surrogate establishment at the birth of the Orange state. The republican military challenge did not achieve its objectives, but the conflict fundamentally altered the material forces or the character of northern society. We appear to have a largely redundant political system where two-thirds of young people don’t even vote. But we also have a northern bourgeoisie more European in orientation and sentiment than ever. Ó Ruairc himself points out that ‘about 60 per cent of Northern Ireland’s exports are to the EU, and of that more than half go to the Republic of Ireland’. The Brexit process and potential Scottish independence suggests that a socially liberal, economically conservative tendency on the civic nationalist model could potentially destabilise the northern bourgeoisie’s aversion to constitutional change. This is not to vindicate Sinn Féin’s ‘strategy’, but it demonstrates how external forces impinge on what appeared to be a reasonably settled political modus vivendi.
At the same time, the end of heavy industry and disappearance of much of the Troubles’ security economy has dissolved the material basis of Orange patronage and narrowed the gap between two impoverished communities. We are a long way from talking about a northern working class, but the carefully managed differential that underpinned institutionalised sectarianism has largely ended – working-class Protestants and Catholics have received little if any peace dividend. Perversely, rather than an Orange State, we now live in an Orange and Green State. The potential for Protestant working-class resentment to manifest in extreme right-wing loyalism hardly needs to be explained. However, Sinn Féin as a neo-Hibernian ethnic tribune cannot attract working-class Protestants in any serious number – only genuine socialist republicanism has any faint chance of that.
And this is another criticism I have of a very interesting book that mirrors my own analysis to a very large degree. There is a preponderance of criticism, but little in the way of constructive suggestion. Surely a republican or socialist committed to universalist and emancipatory principles needs to expand their horizon from ‘the individual intellectual vocation, which is neither disabled by a paralysed sense of political defeat nor impelled by groundless optimism and illusory hope.’ Ó Ruairc, for instance, offers little criticism of vanguardism. Like many critics of Sinn Féin before him, it would appear that the leaders rather than the model represented the problem, but splendid principled isolation will bring the Republic no closer. The analysis of working-class republican agency is also incredibly bleak. There is little commentary on the reality that working-class communities sustained an insurrection against a major world power for over two decades. Their movement emerged not because of a group of leaders or since commemorations spurred their efforts, but because material conditions and political realities generated the collective agency for genuine change that all revolutions require.
At the end of my lecture last week, I concluded by saying that all revolutions and popular insurgencies rely in the first instance on material conditions, when Marx’s old mole resurfaces. Sinn Féin developed its peace strategy in a period when it seemed that revolutionary movements had been decisively defeated. They should not be criticised for abandoning the armed struggle [and in fairness Ó Ruairc does not do this], but because their electoral strategy displayed such a wanton lack of faith in working-class, democratic agency and such a marked propensity for elitist and hierarchical political control. If Sinn Féin enter government in the south, they will serve their class interests and despite rhetorical flourishes, they are the party of the emergent northern nationalist middle class. The working class across the island will be told that labour can wait, that we need to get unification over the line, that the strategy is finally paying dividends. Like an awful lot else, the Provisionals will pilfer some more Sticky lines and promote their own stages theory to the grass roots.
This shit show has been going on for over two decades. If the Shinners enter government, then working-class Irish people need to hit the streets and demand that they walk as well as talk left. The socialist republican position rejects opportunism and develops a pragmatic position based on principle. Mass democratic movements have shaken Irish establishment politics in the past. Parnell and Davitt did not fight the land war on their own, but after an economic depression spurred hundreds of thousands to action. Tom Barry and his peers were only agents of a democratic movement that captured the mass of Irish people after the cataclysm of world war. The Orange State fell when thousands engaged in civil disobedience and when the nationalist working class refused to stay on their knees. Yes leaders emerged, but without mass political consciousness and agency, there is no meaningful and progressive societal change.
Marx’s mole has poked his head to the surface once more. We are living in the midst of a decade-long global systematic crisis where the majority of people on this island and globally suffer under an exploitative economic system. The centenary of the Ireland’s unsuccessful revolution should provide lessons and inspiration, but the responsibility rests with this generation of Irish people – our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth. A Workers’ Republic now!