Thinking outside the box


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…


  1. Tom Griffin said,

    October 18, 2009 at 8:35 am

    Very interesting points re: the DUP. I suppose its obviously a good thing from the point of view of a Greaves-type strategy to have a unionist leadership as independent as possible of Westminster.

    Things could shape in an interesting way after the next election. Assuming the Tories come in, they will be allied to the UUP, and committed to austerity. On both grounds there is scope for tension with the DUP.

    In Scotland, The Tories are unlikely to have much of the mandate, and the SNP will use that and a possible referendum to extract as possible from Westminster. There isn’t yet a consensus for Scottish independence, but there is pretty broad support for more powers.

    Is the DUP capable of holding it together well enough to (A) oppose Tory austerity, (B) consider the case for further powers?

    I suppose for the left the easy part is opposing Tory cuts and encouraging the Executive to strengthen its hand by getting some actual business done. The harder part might be developing a progressive approach to further devolution. More financial powers could be a recipe for austerity by another route, but if Scotland moves forward the status quo starts to look a lot less tenable.

  2. Mark P said,

    October 18, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    The government parties in the North have an interesting problem to resolve.

    On the one hand they have absolutely no alternative to standard issue right wing economic policies and Westminster controls the purse strings. This means that they are committed to administering austerity. On the other hand, the Northern economy consists essentially of a state sector, a state sector dependent private sector, and not a lot else. This means that they don’t have a lot of choice but to oppose very dramatic austerity measures.

    On the broader point you make, there is a fallacy in traditional Republian thinking which asserts that if nobody can provide a viable short term alternative to a failed strategy that the failed strategy should be persisted with. The fact is that there is no short term or even medium term path to a united Ireland – and most of the short or medium term strategies which Republicanism is so fond of have the main effect of diminishing chances in the longer term. From a socialist point of view, there is also no short term path to winning over sections of the Protestant working class – but plenty of short term ways to move that goal further away.

  3. Garibaldy said,

    October 18, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I think SS you are right about the potential in an appeal to the business class. And there are a lot more business people who happily think in all-island terms than people sometimes realise. But the current crisis has demonstrated the weakeness of the southern economy, and the benefits of being attached to a major world economy, and so that argument has lost a lot of the cogency it had in 2007. On a different note, Patterson’s point about unionist autonomy was an important one that far too many people ignore in simplifying the situation into a straightforwardly colonial one.


    I’m not sure the DUP wants to oppose austerity, depending on the scale anyway. Robinson is chomping at the bit to cut the public sector, partly because he is right-wing, and partly I suspect to prove that he is a competent, can-do, modern man of business. I think it’s very important to both his and the DUP’s self-image. They love pointing to Castlereagh as the greatest council ever for precisely these reasons.

    I’d agree with a lot of what Mark says. I also think the difficult choices faced by the executive parties show exactly why attaining local democracy was vital for opening a space where left politics might emerge. It means they are finding it ever more difficult to pose as all things to all people, and is bringing out the fact that the all-class blocs are dominated by the propertied, and serve their interests. It’s dialectics in action 😉

    I think we do need to realise that the project of building a socialist alternative and unity is a long and slow one. And not just among people who have traditionally being unionist. Those who want Irish unity are quite often economically conservative as well.

  4. Tom Griffin said,

    October 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm


    Fair point. No doubt the DUP will try to develop a working relationship to the Tories, but they’ve also made a big point of being able to stand up for Northern Ireland’s interests and not being beholden to any one party.

    It’s one thing to cut spending in order to cut taxes or to impove the North’s balance sheet. It’s another when the benefits will go to the UUP’s mates at Westminster. That has to stick in their craw, surely?

    Mark P,

    “On the one hand they have absolutely no alternative to standard issue right wing economic policies and Westminster controls the purse strings.”

    The SNP is in pretty much the same position with regard to powers, but Joan McAlpine’s article in the Sunday Times today suggests that they have made a defensible fist of things:

    “Though the Edinburgh parliament has no fiscal autonomy or borrowing powers and is entirely at the mercy of what London decides to bestow on it, the Scottish government acted boldly within its existing powers to tackle the recession and Swinney was keen to tell the tale. An economic recovery programme was launched last July, and early action was taken to accelerate capital spending, including a house-building programme. Swinney boasted of £29m on road improvements, and more again on skills training and school building and refurbishment.”

    There’s no doubt that the credit crisis, the demise of the Celtic Tiger and the collapse of the Scottish banks, was a blow to both Irish and Scottish nationalism as John Lloyd argued last year:

    However, McAlpine’s article provides some evidence that Scottish Nationalists
    are adjusting to a post-neoliberal environment.

    I agree the point about unionist autonomy, but there is a danger of making the opposite mistake.

    At a minimum, the union is a relationship, and the British state is one of the parties to that relationship. An ideologically unionist/methodologically nationalist analysis that leaves that out out of account is ignoring a key variable.

    To think of one example. consider how much weaker unionist support for Stormont would be if there hadn’t been devolution in Scotland and Wales.

    If you regard the British state as a constant, and look solely at the Irish situation, then the prospect of constitutional change might look remote. But I think the evidence at the moment is that the British state looks increasingly like a variable factor.

  5. robert said,

    October 18, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    The possibility of Scottish independence and the breakup of the UK is the one that keeps me up at night. And it isn’t just Anglophilia that arouses my interest in the Scotish Question. Decisions taken with regards further devolution or a UK wide divorce will have repercussions over here in Northern Ireland and will perhaps be felt most emphatically by Ulster loyalists. I know loyalists are thinking about this and I know one leading figure who has made it clear that he feels that Scottish independence would simply be disasterous for Ulster Prods. This much you might have guessed. Unfortunately, Strategist, I see no prospect of loyalists simply throwing their hand in with an Irish Republic (and I suspect that even the Irish government would baulk at finding almost a million sullen northerners falling under their jurisdiction).

    The UDA used to have a doomsday plan which proposed the violent repartition of the North. That’s a frightening possibility and one that most republicans would not take too seriously, being convinced that Ulster loyalists are really Irish nationalists labouring under a form of false consciousness. Remover the British presence, they think, and Ulster Prods will learn to love the Irish Republic. I just can’t see this happening. Irish Republicans entirely underestimate the sense of difference felt by Ulster Prods. There may be a relatively affluent protestant middle class, who will grumble a little finding the UK has gone, but as long as it makes little material difference to their lives they’ll become good citizens of an Irish Republic. The urban and rural poor are another matter. Here you might see a rather ugly Ulster nationalism arise. There are Ulster nationalist around at the moment (sections of the UDA flirted with it in the past, just as section of the UDA have been inspired by Serbian nationalism), however generally they are considered as a bit cranky but who knows in the future. One thing you can depend upon they won’t be maneuvered into a united Ireland easily.

    Looked at historically, unionism and loyalism in Ireland have always been in retreat. Irish unionism became Ulster unionism which became 6-county Ulster Unionism which eventually during the campaign to ratify the Agreement saw Ian Paisley claim to represent the majority of the majority in Northern Ireland (effectively a minority then, big man). The United Kingdom is disintegrating; the monarchy to which they pledge allegiance is in disrepute; the Celtic Tiger in the South undermined the sense of Northern economic superiority; Dublin and London governments have put aside old animosities and become partners in Europe. The world has changed around unionism/loyalism and undermined it both politically and intellectually. In working class protestant areas the feelings of confusion, anger and betrayal are palpable. As Gramsci said, the old ways are dying and the new cannot be born: this is a time of morbid symptoms.

    From my perspective, if we don’t get devolution/break up right it could be very bad. In this respect, the question of Scotland, isn’t just a question for Scotland.

  6. Tom Griffin said,

    October 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    “Remover the British presence, they think, and Ulster Prods will learn to love the Irish Republic. I just can’t see this happening.”

    Actually, I have talked to Irish republicans who are just as sceptical as you about the impact of Scottish independence on unionist attitudes.

    But the impact on Ireland won’t necessarily dictate whether it happens or not, so there’s no point pretending the possibility isn’t there.

    Nobody knows how events will play out, or how fast, but the stronger and more effective Stormont is, the less people in the North of both persuasions will be at the mercy of developments elsewhere.

  7. Garibaldy said,

    October 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Fair point Tom. I think that they will say we are doing this, but the cuts are so deep thanks to Reg Empey’s mates at Westminster. It’s an interesting point you make about the British state not being a constant. I’m inclined to say that it wouldn’t have mattered whether Wales and Scotland got devolution or not. We would have had it anyway. There was no way an integrationist platform could have ended the Troubles, and I think unionists knew that. Throw in the prospect of greater southern involvement without devolution, and I think that there mightn’t have been much difference in the support level. I’d totally agree though that Scottish and Welsh devolution made it more palatable.


    I think Scottish independence would be a culture shock to unionists in NI, but I don’t think it would cause a major crisis of faith.

    • WorldbyStorm said,

      October 20, 2009 at 9:41 pm

      That’s an interesting way of putting it. But still, it has to generate some effects in the longer term. One wonders about the actual physical shape of a UK sans Scotland… interesting to wonder how even the physical linkages would operate… imagine Stranraer with its own customs etc…

      • Garibaldy said,

        October 20, 2009 at 10:15 pm

        EU WBS, so no customs. I doubt though that Scottish independence will happen anytime in the foreseeable future. There doesn’t seem to be a big push for the independence referendum. Probably because the SNP know they would lose, and it would damage their political momentum.

  8. October 20, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    […] reader, it is often worth persevering with. In particular there has been a recent discussion of the peculiarity of the Unionist population in Northern Ireland. A lot of this comes down to how you perceive unionism. There’s been an element of traditional […]

  9. WorldbyStorm said,

    October 20, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    I always think of Harvey Bicker’s fascinating journey to FF member… there’s an awful lot in what you say about business people splintered…

    • splinteredsunrise said,

      October 20, 2009 at 10:30 pm

      I might actually start a campaign to draft Ganley for North Down. Of course, I’m not a North Down voter, but that didn’t stop the BICO drafting in Big Bob.

  10. robert said,

    October 21, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    If republicans and Marxists are serious about a united Ireland they are going to have to find a way of persuading Ulster Prods that their identity will not be threatned rather than demonising them as colonialist or saying that Ulster Prods are suffering from false consciousness or what have you.

    A few cultural changes that might make the prods feel less alienated:

    Let them parade through Garvaghy once a year, provided they do it peacefully.

    The Orange parades don’t have to be seen as sectarian: King Billy’s victory can be celebrated as a defeat for Stuart absolutism and a key event in the move towards parliamentary democracy on these islands. The Pope at the time supported William’s troops because they were part of a grand alliance against James’ sponsor, Louis XIV.

    There should be a united Irish football team just as there is a united Irish rugby team.

    The Irish republic could rejoin the Commonwealth as a gesture to the Prods -membership of the Commonwealth doesn’t stop
    India being a sovereign republic that threw off colonial rule.

    Fianna Fail campaigning in the north very good news – the existence of a conservative republican party as well as a left republican party (Sinn Fein) may over time reduce hostility to a united Ireland among conservative business elements in the north.

  11. December 31, 2009 at 9:13 am

    […] that seem to go on in that organisation. I wouldn’t say I agree with all of Splinty’s assumptions, but unquestionably there’s a sharp mind at […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: