We’re going to take a momentary break from The Lost Revolution, although this post will touch on one or two relevant points. What I want to ponder is a simple matter of political strategy. There are two quite serious strategic conundra that face anyone interested in progressive politics in Ireland. Let me state at the outset that I won’t be putting forward any answers to these issues, because I don’t have any. But, quite honestly, neither does anyone else.
The first of these issues is how to break Fianna Fáil’s grip on the southern working class. I don’t mean weaken it conjuncturally, but break it for the longer term. Sure, FF are undergoing a torrid time in the polls at the minute – currently registering fourth in Dublin, unless I’m mistaken – and Biffo Cowen looks like he’s heading up a dead government walking, but it would be a fool who would predict that this was permanent. FF have very deep social roots, and a couple of years of a useless Fine Gael-Labour government could quite easily see the buggers bouncing back again. What would be needed would be to get FF down, keep them down and for some other formation to capture their base before they could make a comeback. I find it difficult to see that happening any time soon.
The second, and much more tricky, issue is that of how to end partition without armed struggle. One may object that armed struggle hasn’t been very successful in ending partition, but that’s hardly the point, at least if you’re worried about more generations coming along and taking up the physical force tradition. During the Troubles, you used to have these meetings organised by the left where the left speakers would attack the armed struggle as being either morally wrong or tactically counterproductive or both. Inevitably, there would be some Provo sympathisers in the audience who would ask the leftists to produce an alternative strategy. And they could never do it convincingly.
The left, in its approach to the north, has been quite heavy on schemata and has had a whole array of tactics, but a plausible strategy has never really been forthcoming. You found this even – perhaps especially – with people who prided themselves on their theoretical sophistication. The old-time Peoples Democracy used to have a schema, derived basically from Trotsky’s permanent revolution formula, whereby the national struggle in the north would create shock waves in the south which would in turn open up an all-Ireland revolutionary vista. That, self-evidently, did not work out, not least because the southern bourgeoisie was a lot stronger and deeper rooted than PD allowed for. PD’s successor group, when not impersonating Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, seem to have turned that schema on its head and now look to industrial militancy in the south to create shock waves in the north. You’ll notice that this is still a schema, and doesn’t really have much in the way of empirical evidence to support it.
Militant/the SP developed quite an elaborate schema which was, if I interpret Peter Hadden correctly, designed as a counter to the republican and official communist stages approach of resolving the national stage of the revolution and then progressing to the socialist stage. Peter claimed to have broken with that whole approach, but to the sceptical outsider it looked as if he had simply reversed it – by positing the national question as an epiphenomenon of capitalism, what was then required was for the working class to achieve power north and south, with economic militancy as the motor, and thereafter the national question would be easy to sort out. By way of contrast, the SWP (who have long had to negotiate the difficulty of an extremely anti-republican leadership and a membership containing a fair percentage of hardline republicans with an embarrassing tendency to talk like PD members circa 1973) put forward a schema that was quite appealing in its crude clarity – these issues would be solved in the course of the revolutionary process, so the task of the moment was for the revolutionary party to get more bums on seats. This would seem more convincing if the vanguard was a little better at keeping bums on seats for longer than five minutes.
Of course, the foregoing is a massive generalisation, and there is plenty more that could be said – in terms, for example, of how Militant expected a mass left split from the Labour Party, or how PD expected a mass left split from the republican movement, both of which hopes were obviously disappointed. But these are on the level of theoretical schemata. There has never been any shortage of tactics either, but strategies properly speaking have been thin on the ground. I mention this not in an accusatory way, because it’s not as if I have any ready-made strategy either.
The classic socialist strategy for ending partition has been to try and break the Protestant working class, or a substantial section of it anyway, away from unionism. It’s the most obvious alternative to physical force, and it’s not rocket science or any great novelty – the CPNI, probably under Greaves’ influence, wrote this perspective into Ireland’s Path to Socialism in the early 1960s. But then you come up against the question of how exactly to go about doing this. Republican and communist participants in NICRA were very much informed by the Greaves perspective, but it quickly became apparent in the course of the civil rights movement that splitting the Unionist Party and winning over the Protestant working class were not at all the same thing. That the Protestant working class, under the impact of civil rights, turned not to socialism but to Paisleyism demonstrated that.
A lot of this comes down to how you perceive unionism. There’s been an element of traditional republican thinking that has a serious blind spot in respect of unionism, basically seeing it as a function of the British presence rather than an autonomous entity. Recognising unionism as a thing in itself was obviously a conceptual breakthrough, but one that doesn’t answer any questions but simply raises a whole lot of new questions. There’s also been this tendency, not only amongst republicans but also on the Marxist left, to see unionist identity as something quite shallow and easily discarded – as a form of false consciousness which Protestant workers will see through when they enter into class struggle, for instance. No, there’s more to it than that, and seeing unionism as a reactionary ideology doesn’t mean, uncomfortable as this may be, that it isn’t organic.
This is where Henry Patterson scored points in his attack on republican civil rights thought in The Politics of Illusion. (Henry was still a member of the Workers Party when he wrote it, but there are specifics about his background – he’d previously been in the Workers Association, a BICO front group, and was something of an apostle of the late Bill Warren – that are as relevant, and probably more so, than the WP’s positions.) Basically, the Greaves strategy saw that discrimination was the material basis of unionism, and since discrimination against Catholics necessarily meant discrimination in favour of Protestants, it cemented the Protestant working class to the Orange state. Remove discrimination, and you kicked away unionism’s material prop, and therefore (so the thinking went) removed the Protestant worker’s motivation for supporting unionism.
This didn’t work. The schema failed to take into account the stiff resistance the Protestant working class would put up to a movement against discrimination, for precisely that reason. Henry also derides as wishful thinking the idea that, in the absence of discrimination, unionism would fade away – unionist identity was a lot more deeply rooted than that, as he ably pointed out. The trouble with Henry’s critique is that he has an equal and opposite blind spot, which is the assumption that, if discrimination was abolished, northern nationalism would fade away – that there would be no material basis for a separatist project and so northern Catholics would simply retreat into a sort of cultural Irishness. In essence, this following the line of least resistance leads only to Walkerism, and that doesn’t work either. It also leads to the world of endless Barry White columns in the Belfast Telegraph wondering bemusedly why northern nationalists couldn’t be satisfied with a Welsh-style recognition of their cultural identity (actually, unionism even finds that difficult) or why prosperous Catholics on the Malone Road weren’t becoming unionists.
Disappointing as though it may be for the thoroughgoing historical materialist, ethno-national identities do have a life of their own, and are usually very entrenched. And while some purist Marxists may say that the workers have no country, with the wish being father to the thought, in fact it’s elements of the capitalist class that have moved most swiftly into a sort of post-national Europeanism, the charms of which the actually existing working class so far remains resistant to.
Could things change? Hypothetically, yes, but in unexpected ways and not necessarily with the working class at the centre. Here I’m going to do some shameless speculating, but it’s no more off the wall than some of what gets argued as quite serious politics.
Firstly, Newt was mentioning just there about some of the interesting noises Big Ian was making in his fairly brief stint as first minister. That is to say, the Dochtúir Mór seemed to be hinting at an idiosyncratic sort of Ulster nationalism, which might involve close relations with the south but which also embraced Paisley’s very chummy relationship with Alex Salmond. This however proved too heady a brew for the DUP, and Peter Robinson’s mood music is much more conventional. This is not to say that the logic of devolution, and perhaps developments in Scotland particularly, might not work itself out in an unpredictable way.
Secondly, one should not dismiss out of hand the idea that a conservative Catholic movement might find common cause with culturally conservative Protestants – although probably not these guys – in resisting the tide of secularism. Bernie Smyth has actually had some success along these lines on the single issue of abortion. One can only imagine the horror of our bien-pensants at such an appalling vista.
Finally, there’s a class aspect here, and I’m thinking in a sense about something that Malachi mentions every so often, about the middle class’s abdication from politics and whether this might be reversed in a post-Troubles environment. I was struck by Garibaldy’s account of the appearance of Chris McGimpsey at the WP NI conference, where Chris mentioned how his electoral base on the Shankill owed a lot to the old NILP base, which by now is dying out through old age. But, while socialist unionists like Chris McGimpsey or Roy Garland seem like quixotic figures now, there are other possibilities which are more likely to manifest themselves in North Down than in Belfast.
Allow me to explain. The North Down constituency is the wealthiest in the north by some distance, and contains within it a very large concentration of liberal unionists. These people have a liking for quirky independent candidates. They are also prepared to vote in large numbers for Catholic candidates – historically Alliance, but there would be some logic in UCUNF trying its hand with a Catholic candidate. (It’s the Shaun Bailey strategy. There is little evidence that Shaun Bailey appeals much to black Londoners, but he just might appeal to liberal-minded white folks who want to be reassured that the Tories aren’t racist any more.)
This mix of factors has led to some delicious unpredicability in North Down politics. In the latter half of the 1980s the area was the major stomping ground for the Ulster Tories, which makes sense. Then the good burghers elected Bob “Cream Bun” McCartney, who not only surrounded himself with Conor Cruise O’Brien and veterans of the British and Irish Communist Organisation, but on being elected to Westminster promptly declared his hitherto unsuspected leftwing sympathies and proposed to take the Labour whip. (They didn’t let him.) Big Bob was then unseated by Lady Sylvia Hermon, who has been a most assiduous supporter of New Labour. The thinking now is that the UCUNF lash-up, with its appeal to pan-UK unionism, may have a strong appeal in the area.
But there is another, admittedly hypothetical possibility. Up in Derry, PSF have been running a unionist outreach programme for years, but this seems to encompass relatively few Prods from the estates and rather a lot of businessmen and clergy. And in fact, it is the business class who are most open to the all-Ireland context, and just might be willing to look south. One might argue that, if Fianna Fáil were serious about their northern mission, they wouldn’t be farting about in Derry and Downpatrick talking to clapped-out SDLP types, but heading to Bangor and Holywood to make a business case for a united Ireland. Then again, maybe FF isn’t fit for purpose, and you would need it to be a particular sort of candidate to make the right impact there. I believe Declan Ganley is between political projects at the moment…