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Two nations once again

3 March 2006

We oppose British group’s new line on Ireland

Recently the Weekly Worker, the journal of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) announced that it would be terminating a debate on Ireland with a new policy statement.  The new policy will declare the existence of a new group within Ireland, the ‘British-Irish’ and a new policy: the ‘one county, four half county British province that exercises self-determination’

Full information .can be obtained from:

The announcement led to a letter of protest from our member Joe Craig

We carry the letter below and welcome contributions from CPGB supporters, our own supporters and any others who want to clarify Marxist policy in this area.

A Carnival of Reaction all over again?

I wish to respond to the article in Weekly Worker no. 612 ‘Self-determination and the British-Irish.’  In this article Jack Conrad defends the demand for a ‘one-county, four-half-county British-Irish province (which) exercises self-determination.  Such a programmatic clause would help reassure backward and medium-developed British-Irish workers that they have nothing to fear from the rule of the working class.  We have no interest in forced or involuntary unity and reversing the poles of oppression’

Some immediate objections arise from this proposal which on their own would be sufficient to render it unacceptable.  First, while showing commendable concern for the ‘British-Irish’ Conrad does not seem to evince any concern for the remaining Catholic Irish trapped in this purified sectarian state.  His concern not to ‘reverse the poles of oppression’ appears to leave the current pole untouched.  What compulsion does he envisage will be necessary for this population’s incorporation into this State and how will this sit with the quest for ‘maximum unity of the working class?’

Secondly it should be pointed out that the ‘British-Irish’ have never sought self-determination but only the support of British imperialism in their assertion of sectarian rights.  Tailoring one’s programme of State forms to that acceptable to the ‘British-Irish’ would leave imperialism in place.  Why does Conrad think it an acceptable method to derive the socialist programme from that which is acceptable to the most ‘backward and medium-developed’ workers?  The ultimate logic of this is exposed in these workers being asked not to fear the rule of the working class – that is rule by themselves?  Presumably their commitment to this class rule will be made more palatable by their being able to exercise it without the encumbrance of having to deal with such a large number of Catholic workers.

The only possible claim to a separate State for the Protestants is that Catholics cannot, under any circumstances, be trusted to be in a majority.  In fact of course, even the confessional State created in the 26 counties in which this has been the case, and which has only been the other side of the coin to the sectarian State in the North, has never descended into the depths of violent bigotry that has characterised the Northern State.

Further Problems

As one reads the article further problems leap from the page. The principle issue it is argued is that ‘drawing state boundaries must take full account of the sympathies of all those concerned.’  But who will draw the boundaries?  Who will decide?  The British?  The Protestants only?  The population of that artificial entity known as Northern Ireland?  Who?

In a flight of fancy Conrad speculates that this re-partition can take place in ‘benign conditions’ where ‘a rapprochement can take place and divisions and mistrust be overcome.’ How on earth could this happen in a sectarian carve up? And let us be concrete about this (the comrade is keen to assert this programmatic demand is ‘for the here and now.’)  Why would unity arise in an exercise designed to cement division through definition of territorial State power?  Conrad jibes that his comrade Anne McShane is ‘scared’ of defining the new border.  Well if you’re not scared you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Let’s forget, as Conrad says, about ‘some imagined future.’  The drawing of State boundaries based on sectarian demographics invites multiple sectarian pogroms.  That is why the only political force to advocate it in the last thirty years has been the loyalist killers of the Ulster Defence Association.  The sheer irresponsibility of the proposal for a ‘one-county, four-half-county British-Irish province’ whose boundaries can be known only to Conrad but which would have to include at least one third of the Catholic population in the 6 counties, perhaps 250,000 people, simply beggars belief.

There really is no excuse for such stupidity.  Why on earth would this partition prove any more successful than the last one?  Does Conrad want another ‘carnival of reaction’, as Connolly put it?

Stalin’s Checklist

A feature of the whole article is appeals to principles based on nations and their equality yet acceptance that the Irish Protestants aren’t one.  We are fed population statistics and then told we need political solutions.  We get Stalin’s checklist then are told the question isn’t one of ‘economics, linguistics or history’ but one belonging ‘wholly and exclusively to the sphere of political democracy.’

Yet even Stalin’s checklist provides little support for a political programme based on self-determination for the Protestants.  And let us be clear that this is what is being discussed - a nation State (or rather a State incorporated by imperialism) defined in religious terms.  Beyond all the changing self-identification of the Irish Protestants as British, Irish or Ulster (the last endorsed by only 5% of Protestants in a 2004 survey but which alone supports any appeal to self-determination) lies a more essential and obvious point.  While Protestant identification of themselves as British (and therefore appealing to imperialist sponsorship) might fluctuate from 59% to 76% between 1989 and 2004, and only 39% in 1968, the objective foundation of this ‘nationality’ and the real subjective self-definition is their being Protestants.  It is self-determination for Protestants Conrad is talking about when he uses the hitherto unknown and unrecognised (where I come from) label of ‘British-Irish.’

We are not talking about those declaring themselves British because around 10% of Northern Catholics so define themselves, and we are obviously not talking about those defining themselves as Irish.  It comes down to a claim to a State based on sectarian identification and this is what Conrad wants socialists to support.

One could engage in extended criticism of Conrad’s one-sided characterisation of the stability and common territory of the Irish Protestant population – their State of ‘Northern Ireland’ has been anything but stable and their territorial integrity has been achieved only by severing ties to their brethren in the rest of Ireland and then the three Ulster counties left to the 26 county State.  In fact Conrad’s whole scheme is further testimony to their ‘national’ failure and their decline, not movement from ‘semi’ or ‘proto-nation’ to full nationality.

Language cannot set them apart and the Northern economy is utterly dependent on the British State, further confirming that the basis for any claims to state power on the island of Ireland is one founded on imperialism.

As for their collective ‘character’ or ‘common culture’ this has claimed ridiculous justification recently in the discovery of a Protestant language - ‘Ulster Scots’ - that most speakers recognise as the way they speak English.  Even Conrad’s list of cultural characteristics is essentially a list of myths and/or sectarian and reactionary motifs – King Billy, union jacks, anti-popery, anti-republicanism - all traits of a virulent monarchism and pro-imperialism.

All these characteristics do indeed make the Protestants of the North of Ireland a separate people (to the varying degrees Protestants actually share them) but far from justifying capitulation to this reactionary combination they are precisely why socialists oppose the Northern State, oppose partition , re-partition or any nonsense about Protestant self-determination

In order to win Protestant workers to democracy and socialism it is necessary to reject the sectarian self-identification bound up with all this.  It is impossible to win them to socialism through first accepting their claims based on this reactionary self-identification.  Part of winning them to socialism must be the defeat of the sectarianism and pro-imperialism that Conrad wants to legitimate and strengthen with State power.

Conrad does not make any case, indeed does not even attempt to show, how his programme would hasten or assist the unity of Irish workers, which is more than negligent given that this is its declared purpose.

The future unity of the Irish working class lies not in reassuring the bigots who march on 12th  but with the thousands who get as far away from it as possible.  Comrade Conrad and the comrades of the CPGB should think again.

Joe Craig
Socialist Democracy Belfast



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