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Irish peace talks - Give peace a chance?

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The war in Northern Ireland has always been the acid test for British revolutionary socialists. Faced with the prospect of an imperialist sponsored peae deal, the SWP has once again failed that test

The peace being prepared in the talks between Major and Albert Reynolds, as well as those between John Hume and Gerry Adams, is a reactionary settlement. It is the latest in a long line of capitulations by armed middle class nationalist movements, where a place at the bosses' negotiating table is exchanged for a ceasefire in an armed struggle that seems to be going nowhere.

The one “concession” British imperialism has made to the Republican movement--the denial of any "economic or strategic interest in Northern Ireland"--does not mean that Britain has any intention of quitting Ireland. It merely shovels the whole responsibility for legitimising Britain’s presence onto the will of the Protestant population to maintain the union.

It is the duty of revolutionary socialists, both in Britain and Ireland, to warn those with any illusions in the proposed peace deal, especially the war-weary working class of Northern Ireland, that no good can come of it. It will maintain imperialist domination of Northern Ireland. It will cement the privileges of the Protestants, with the added bonus of the Republican leadership playing the role of a Mandela or an Arafat in selling the surrender to the masses.

Britain’s two main left organisations, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Militant Labour, have failed in this duty.

On 6 November Socialist Worker castigated John Major for not responding positively to the Hume-Adams' peace initiative. Attacking Major because he had "snubbed the one real chance of peace", it suggested:

"The one thing Major could do is immediately meet representatives of all sides."


The Hume-Adams proposals, still not published, are clearly a formula worked out between the Republican leadership and the pro-imperialist SDLP for a face-saving ceasefire. Instead of focusing their fire on this, the SWP criticise Major for failing to take up Sinn Fein’s offer of surrender!

When Major responded with his own formula, the Downing Street declaration, the SWP’s tune changed slightly. The January issue of Socialist Review states:

"Socialists welcome the possibility of peace. But we remain sceptical about the [Downing Street] deal and critical of the Republican politics which have carried Gerry Adams down this road."

Why welcome the "possibility of peace" if that peace is going to mean outright defeat for a just struggle? In reality the SWP’s scepticism about the deal is because of its inability to bring a ceasefire, not because it is a betrayal of the struggle for national self-determination:

"Of course [Major and Reynolds] would like the war in Ireland finished. It is an enormous drain on the resources of both governments. But neither will be distraught if Sinn Fein and the IRA reject the declaration. They hope such a rejection will cost Sinn Fein support. Then they will blame Gerry Adams for the war . . . This is clearly no recipe for peace. But it could help raise the standing of Major and Reynolds themselves."

Certainly the Republican leadership--which has placed all its hopes on "bombing Britain to the negotiating table"--faces the threat of renewed repression and loss of mass support . But the proposed talks are not just a cynical attempt by Major to expose the Sinn Fein leadership. They are a genuine attempt to stitch up a reactionary deal.

If socialists are to be consistent in their criticism of the politics which have brought Gerry Adams so close to this sell out, then they must draw the logical conclusion and demand the rejection of the deal offered by Major.

But the SWPcould not bring themselves to do this..

On the contrary, they regard any “peace” as the best possible condition for taking the fight for socialism forward. Even a peace deal dictated by British imperialism is preferable for the SWP.

In order to pose itself as the best fighter for “peace”, the SWM, the SWP’s sister organisation in Ireland, lumped the justified and progressive anti-unionist struggle in with the reactionary activities of the loyalist paramilitaries under the general heading of “sectarianism”.

Its leaflet to the 3 November peace demo in Derry proclaimed:

"Today must be the start, though not the end, of a strike movement throughout the country against sectarianism, for peace . . . The loyalist campaign of sectarian murder and the IRA massacre on the Shankill Road have united most working class people in terror and grief."

This is rubbish. Far from uniting working class people, the upsurge in violence and the “concession” to the Republicans contained in the Downing Street statement have, if anything, hardened support for the loyalist paramilitaries amongst the Protestant working and urban middle classes.


If the SWP is “sceptical” about the Major-Reynolds' declaration, how does it see “peace” being achieved? SW tells us:

"Permanent peace can only come from a fight against [the Irish and British Tory governments] that unites Protestant and Catholic workers north and south of the border."

Workers' unity is a worthy goal, but socialists have the responsibility to ask on what basis this unity can be achieved if it is going to take the struggle of the working class forward rather than to lead it into another dead end.

Unity of workers, Protestant and Catholic, north and south, is vital to the success of the Irish revolution. But workers need to be united against not only economic oppression and attacks on the welfare state, but against the very existence of the sectarian northern state.


It is the border and the British presence that maintains the relative privileges of the unionists of the North. It is Britain and the border that tie Protestant workers to the Orange bosses. The imperialist presence is what divides the working class, and the road to unity must come through a struggle against the sectarian state led by the working class.

The SWP’s economism blinds them to this fact. Economism is a deviation from Marxism which suggests that the day to day economic struggle of the working class has the power on its own to generate revolutionary consciousness and to overcome all forms of oppression: racial, sexual and national. Socialist Review says:

"It is up to socialists to argue that Irish workers, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether living in the north or south, can expect nothing from Reynolds and Major. Together they can fight to create a new Ireland free from poverty, repression and discrimination."

True, but unless socialists also argue that the new Ireland will have to be united, will have to be created by throwing out British troops and smashing the Orange state, and by eliminating all the anti-Catholic discrimination in employment, housing etc, the much vaunted "workers' unity" will disintegrate every time the national question is posed.

In 1990 SWM leader Kieran Allen wrote:

"The type of unity built by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has depended on ignoring the reality of discrimination . . . it has never targeted the British army and the RUC as the source of the violence. As a result, this 'unity of the working class' amounts to nothing when sectarian tensions rise."

But now Socialist Review tells us:

"A working class fightback against low pay, unemployment and hospital closures could be a major start in breaking down sectarianism."

What will happen when "sectarian tensions rise"? The SWP has to pin all its hopes on the imperialist peace deal in the vain hope that “peace” will mean an end to sectarian tensions.

Far from seeing the Irish national question as a key component of the class struggle, the SWP sees it as a diversion from that struggle. Because of their economism they have no strategy for resolving it. They wish that this decisive political question would quietly disappear, letting workers get on with the task of fighting Major and Reynolds on wages and jobs.

This is why we find Socialist Worker “welcoming” not only the prospect of peace but the reactionary peace process itself.

Amid this vague, confused and, at root, opportunist reaction to the peace talks, what has happened to the SWP’s much vaunted anti-imperialist position on the Irish war?

Every week in Socialist Worker’s "Where we Stand" column they tell us that they "support all genuine national liberation struggles".

Now all trace of support for the Republican struggle against the British state has disappeared from the SWP’s publications. Even the call for Troops Out of Ireland Now, the formal position of the SWP, appears less frequently, and it certainly is not part of the SWP’s strategy for achieving “peace”.

If socialists support all "genuine national liberation struggles" then we should support the IRA’s struggle against the British occupation forces, even though we criticise its wrong strategy and methods of struggle. It is not simply a question of supporting the IRA’s right to defend the anti-unionist population from sectarian killings. Revolutionary socialists in Britain--from Karl Marx onwards--have always supported, unconditionally but critically, the armed struggle of Irish Republicans against the British state.

The SWP has consistently flinched from supporting this fight openly. Despite its anti-imperialist “principles” it has discovered that you cannot just throw membership cards at workers and students if your paper stands against the stream and takes the side of Britain’s enemy in the Irish war.

Militant Labour commits all the errors of the SWP but openly and unashamedly. It has never supported the armed struggle against the British state, even critically; it has consistently equated republican and loyalist violence; it has peddled the abstract formula of "workers' unity" around economic issues as a fig leaf for its refusal to take the anti-imperialist side in the Irish war.

Little wonder that faced with the prospect of a reactionary peace deal Militant has even fewer qualms than the SWP about accepting it with open arms, in order to get on with the economic struggle alone. As Militant’s editorial (17 December 1993) states:

"Should an agreement be reached it will only represent the first stage of a complicated process fraught with tremendous obstacles. Peace however would be seen as a great step forward throughout Ireland and Britain."


By the ruling class, yes, but why should socialists welcome the "complicated process" of selling out the national struggle?

"An agreement is still possible and with it a reduction in the intensity of the violence. This would give the chance to the trade unions to unite Catholic and Protestant workers in common struggle."

Militant Labour--in a classically economistic manner--has always argued that if only the “sectarian” national struggle would go away then workers could “unite” on the bread and butter issues. It is only logical--albeit a total betrayal of the anti-imperialist struggle--for Militant to welcome British imperialism’s attempts to "get rid" of the national struggle for them. Militant Labour’s economism is distinguished from the SWP’s merely by its more blatant pro-imperialism.

The SWP and Militant Labour, faced with British imperialism’s latest manoeuvre against the anti-unionist revolt in Northern Ireland, have jumped aboard the peace bandwagon. Whether they realise it or not, they are sharing seats on this wagon with imperialism itself. They are betraying the anti-unionist revolt. And this marks them down as centrists--revolutionary in their rhetoric and reformist in their deeds--not revolutionary socialists.

Harsh words. But the 25 year old revolt against the Orange state and British occupation has been too bitter too allow for any diplomacy. The British state has hurled everything it could against the anti-unionist population--its troops, its assassination squads, its non-jury courts, its bouts of internment with out trial, its daily raids on the nationalist community. Still that revolt continues.

It is unworthy of any socialist, let alone a socialist in Britain, to reward that spirit of resistance, to repay the sacrifices made in that revolt--prison, torture and death--with calls for peace on Britain’s terms. The struggle against Britain’s occupation of Northern Ireland deserves much more than the counsels for surrender being offered by the centrists of the SWP and Militant Labour.