National Sections of the L5I:

Review: 32 Counties: The Failure of Partition and the Case for a United Ireland by Kieran Allan

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

Kieran Allen’s latest book is a timely exposition of the case for a united Ireland. Allen is a leading member of the Socialist Workers Network which has been the driving force behind People before Profit (PbP) which boasts of being ‘the largest socialist organisation in Ireland’. As such he is concerned that PbP advances ‘a distinctive socialist position on the national question’.

Set against the backdrop of Brexit and the resulting renewed interest in a united Ireland, Sinn Fein have clearly been the main beneficiaries. They could be part of a government in the south before long as indeed they are in the north. Allen and the PbP are keen to not miss the boat on this so it is incumbent on them to delineate themselves from Sinn Fein at the same time as agreeing
to their cornerstone demand for a border poll.

Impact of Brexit
The impact of Brexit is analysed but Allen tellingly fails to inform the reader of his/PbP’s pro Brexit stance in the referendum. Yes they are against a hard border but voting for Brexit was never going to rule out such an option, indeed it still can’t be entirely ruled out. His outrage that the ‘EU was willing to impose a hard border’ if talks failed is disingenuous since the threat derived from Brexit! Shamefully there is no analysis of the dire economic consequences for Ireland, especially the south.

Allen recognises that Brexit has stoked the flames of English nationalism and that ‘resentment against foreign migrant labour’ was a feature. But the ending of free movement of labour played a huge part in the overwhelmingly racist campaign of Johnson/Farage. Brexit was not a working class victory against the imperialist EU. It benefits neither Irish nor British workers.

Allen then poses the rise of Irish and Scottish nationalism as the antidote. His claim that ‘Scottish independence would weaken Anglo American imperialism’ is fanciful in the extreme. Scottish nationalism is not anti-imperialist nor has it strengthened working class organization. Scotland is not an oppressed colony in the way that Britain ruled over Ireland. Scottish independence would likely see the creation of a small imperialist nation aligned to the imperialist EU.

There is little to disagree with in Allen’s opening comments on the origins of partition which rightly considers the border ‘as a product of British Imperialism’ and affirms James Connolly’s prediction of it as a ‘Carnival of Reaction’. Allen explains how ‘the allegiance of unionism to a particular territory was in fact pragmatically driven’ and shifted from all Ireland unionism to an Ulster then a six county unionism. Contrary to two nations and binary ethnonational explanations there was never a fixed national identity nor delineated territory that constituted a separate nation.

The state of ‘Northern Ireland’ was a Protestant state and was constructed with an inbuilt Catholic minority. It was backed to the hilt by British guns and money. It was born in violence as pogroms and systematic discrimination was established as the norm against the Catholic minority which constituted around a third of the new state’s population. The southern ‘Free State’ was a mirror image at least in terms of it promoting a reactionary Catholic identity and based on ‘a rejection of nationalist rebellion in the North’.

Managed sectarianism
There is a powerful indictment of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) described as a ‘mechanism to maintain, strengthen and manage sectarian division in a statelet over which Britain retains sovereignty’. This latest example of ‘managed sectarianism’ has resulted in the ‘reconfiguration of the Northern state around two competing identities’ with the role of fighting over symbols serving to renew communal loyalties.

Particularly odious is the way the GFA has been used to agree a unified approach from the British, Irish and US governments to running the northern economy. This meant shrinking the state sector and growing the private sector. The role of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) was crucial here which Sinn Fein fully supported.
Allen notes that PFI was another form of privatisation but ‘the form it took in the North was particularly repugnant because it essentially became a means by which private companies ripped off the public purse for billions’.

The so-called peace dividend of the GFA for workers has not materialised. There has been a veritable increase in low skilled, low paid, employment whilst average pay for workers in the North is 9% below the rest of the UK. Northern employees still work longer than their British counterparts but still come out with less pay.

So Sinn Fein’s flagship peace deal is rightly criticised. But more could be said on this. It was a sell out of the struggle to remove British Imperialism from Ireland and has left the repressive structures of the northern state intact that are still being used against opponents of the GFA. But the economistic Socialist Worker tradition which equivocated on supporting the war against the northern state is quite happy now under peaceful conditions to embrace the nationalist clamour for a united Ireland.

Strategy for what?
Allen is perhaps at his weakest when he outlines his strategy for a socialist united Ireland. He rightly rails against the Sinn Fein perspective of managing capitalism and their united Ireland from above. As an alternative he calls for struggles from below, social movements that have an all Ireland character such as around an all island health service, climate change, on challenging the Catholic Church control in primary schools and the health sector and on a revived Irish labour movement defending its interests.

A return to the ‘Connolly way’ is posed and the need for a ‘substantial political party that promotes a radical Irish unity movement from below which challenges both states’. It is right to draw on Connolly’s revolutionary legacy but unfortunately his syndicalism left very little to refer to in terms of building a party. It is debatable whether the founding father of the Irish Citizen Army would have been taken with Allen’s ‘one elementary democratic demand for a border poll’ that can unite the radical left and republicans. So once again adapting to nationalism and tailing Sinn Fein’s strategy for a united Ireland!

In fact last year PbP TD Richard Boyd-Barrett called for Sinn Fein to reenter talks with smaller groups on the left to form a ‘left leaning government’. So despite Allen’s rebukes of Sinn Fein, many of which ring true in terms of their pro capitalism, we are left with essentially an electoralist strategy of tailing the nationalists into government! There is the added problem of pinning all your hopes on a border poll which is not likely to be called any time soon by the Tory government.

Allen talks about a ‘radical united Ireland’ rather than a revolutionary socialist Ireland. Intervention within the social movements is of course obligatory but no sense of how to turn these into revolutionary campaigns. Missing is the message that the working class has to assume leadership of these movements, including on the national question, using its methods of struggle and organisation from the strike committee and workers’ council to the workers’ militia in its fight to abolish capitalism and expel imperialism. Missing is the message that the trade unions need to be put on a war footing and thoroughly transformed by a fighting rank and file movement that can oust the do nothing bureaucratic leaders.

A revolutionary party needs to be built in Ireland which can formulate an action programme towards a Workers’ Republic. It cannot equivocate on the question of government, a workers’ government will earn that title if it is accountable to workers’ councils linked to a struggle for workers’ control. It cannot create the illusion that a programme of left reforms carried out by a ‘left leaning government’ will erode the capitalist state. In short a socialist revolution that smashes the capitalist state is required.

The first requirement for a socialist is to say so, this Kieran Allen has not done but 32 Counties is still worth the read!