by C. Desmond Greaves
Labour Monthly, October 1980
Present violence in Ireland has gone on longer than any in the past 300 years. So says a news commentator. It is significant that an English journalist should compare 1968-1980 with 1912-23, 1793-98 AND 1690-92. Despite the great differences the rule seems to hold: the Irish question comes to the fore at every major crisis of English capitalism.
The founder of Labour Monthly, R. Palme Dutt, used to say that Britain’s post-war crisis was a ‘crisis of empire’. The old empire of occupied territories has of course practically disappeared. But it has been replaced by the empire of supranational companies under the aegis of which traditional British capital plays an increasingly parasitic role. ‘Engineers say goodbye Britain, hello world,’ simpers the Economist (May 3, 1980) as it records the ruthless demolition of England’s industrial base as capital flows abroad. But the City stands where it did.
The politics of parasitism have reached complete fulfilment in the Thatcher government. Britain is still the world’s second largest foreign investor, and the largest in the former colonial world, but she lacks the military power to defend her investments. Under what conditions will others do it for her? Under conditions of chronic tension between East and West, the maximum internationalisation of capital and the fullest participation in the arms race.
One burdensome commitment which helps to qualify Britain for a seat at the top table is the absurd ‘independent deterrent’. It is seldom appreciated that another is the ‘responsibility for the western approaches’ which eats up £1,500,000,000 a year for the occupation of ‘Northern Ireland’. According to recently opened cabinet papers Labour accepted this commitment in 1949 when the Republic withdrew from the Commonwealth.
The ruling class said: ‘What we have we hold’ – the six counties. But the aim of influencing, controlling, even regaining a footing in the twenty-six was never abandoned, as parliamentary debates show over the years. The various means considered included Nato, the EEC, a ‘federation of the British Isles’ (variously titled) and the Sunningdale ‘Council of Ireland’ on which Britain was to be represented. The aim was to destroy Irish neutrality and make the whole island available for war purposes, particularly as a thinly populated area in which to disperse strategic resources though the deep water ports were not ignored.
An ideological offensive was mounted. There were complaints about the ‘nationalist’ slant of history teaching in Irish schools. Conferences and seminars were held. From university to mass medium the cult of ‘anti-national brainwashing’ was practised. But the mass of the people still wished to keep their country independent and unaligned. Strong pressure was sometimes applied. A few months ago the Irish government reversed its decision to support the Moscow Olympics under American threats of economic reprisals.
Mr Haughey has been singled out for abuse. A press campaign was launched against him accusing him of complicity in arms smuggling ten years ago. This would not harm him much in Ireland. But it was hoped to give his enemies an excuse to replace him as Fianna Fail leader, or failing that to bring down the government and replace it with a more pliable Fine Gael administration.
It ought to be axiomatic that the British ‘left’ should support the struggle of the Irish Republic to maintain independence and neutrality. It is an essential part of the fight for world peace. One need have no doubt that when Mrs. Thatcher goes to Dublin this autumn, whatever the hand-outs, her twin demands will be integration into the Western alliance and toleration of the British presence in the six counties. The Northern base not only defends the Western approaches. It also threatens the rest of Ireland.
It is in this light that the demand for a British withdrawal from the six counties must be seen. It is a demand to remove an element of coercion. This demand is official Irish government policy. It is reiterated less whole-heartedly by the main opposition party. If Labour gives an uncertain sound, the two biggest trade unions in the country are committed to it. It is of course not a question of instantaneous withdrawal. It is a matter of making the aim of policy the placing of all Irish territory under the control of the majority of the Irish people. The time scale? As long as is required.
To the British public of course Ireland is the six counties where their soldiers are being killed. An opinion poll showed that more than half the British people want out. This is how Americans felt at the end of the Vietnam war. This feeling found expression in the Troops Out Movement, a negative feature of which was for some time its contempt for the second aspect of solidarity with the Irish people, the struggle against the results of partition, and, in particular, for the liberalisation of the six county regime. Recently the TOM has been moving steadily towards a consistent anti-imperialist position, that is to say the understanding that a British withdrawal must be made in a way acceptable to the majority of the Irish people. We want no Congos or Katangas.
The development continues. In August 1979 London saw the biggest demonstration on the Irish question for many years. It was organised by a committee of Liberals, with the participation of various Labour organisations, the Connolly Association, the TOM and the Young Communist League. The same Committee organised a conference in July 1980 at which the opening speech was made by the secretary of the Connolly Association. The questions connected with a British withdrawal were discussed in a constructive way. The demonstration the committee proposes to organise this November will highlight partition. The Connolly Association has encouraged this development and has also had informal discussions with branches of the TOM.
In December 1979, the Connolly Association acted as host to a delegation from the Irish Sovereignty Movement, Dublin. A well attended conference, including representatives of hundreds of thousands of workers, heard Mr. Michael Mullen, general secretary of Ireland’s largest trade union, the 170,000-strong Irish Transport and General Workers Union, unreservedly support the praiseworthy efforts being made to secure the liberalisation of the six county regime but ask for an effort to secure a government policy aimed at ending partition. While treating the symptoms he called for an attack on the cause of the disease. One of those present convened a meeting of 110 Labour Parties, of which 100 supported the anti-partition policy.
It was as an indirect result of this that Mr A.W. Stallard MP and others established the Labour Committee on Ireland with the object of pushing this policy in the Labour Party. At its fringe meeting in Blackpool the support of Mr Tony Benn is expected. In September, conferences and forums on Ireland have taken place in London and Liverpool. Later in the year the North West Region of the TUC is to convene a conference. In August two constituency Labour Parties in West London held a joint public meeting to hear speakers from the Connolly Association and the LCI. Old centres of nineteenth-century immigration are showing an interest. I recently addressed a meeting of Haslingden Labour Party in the rooms of the Irish Democratic League Club founded by Michael Davitt. The Lancashire Association of Trades Council has decided on a Conference this autumn.
There is still confusion but the wider issues are being increasingly understood. There is a sense growing in the labour movement that the Irish question cannot be dismissed with a few palliatives or excuses for postponement. There is a demand for information and education greater than has existed since the 1930s. A group of perhaps 30 MPs in this parliament are actively interested. After the next election the number will almost certainly be substantially increased. For the moment the need is education and discussion. When understanding has been won on a wide enough scale, and we hope the time is no too far off, there will be a need for decisive action. But make sure of one thing. The Irish question is a part of the crisis of our time.