The Irish Left and the Northern Question

There was a time when the more radical sections of the Irish Left were passionately concerned about Northern Ireland/the North/the Six Counties (delete according to preference). Elsewhere, the main lines of division among left-wingers ran between communists and social democrats, Stalinists and Trotskyists, anarchists and Maoists. All of these tendencies could be found on the Irish left-wing scene, but they often seemed less important than concerns about the North and the issues it required people to take a stand on. Partition, ‘armed struggle’ and the H-Blocks campaign provoked bitter controversies that cut across the more exotic divisions on the Left. The Stalinists of the British and Irish Communist Organisation threw their polemical weight behind a version of militant loyalism, while the equally Stalinist Communist Party of Ireland (Marxist-Leninist) praised the IRA. Trotskyists were just as diverse in their attitudes, with People’s Democracy and the Socialist Workers’ Movement urging ‘critical support’ for the Provos and the Militant Tendency staunch in its opposition to the IRA campaign.

Some of these groups are long since defunct, while others have now secured a foothold in the Dáil. But whatever positions were adopted in the past, the Northern question is certainly not as divisive as it once was. In part this is a healthy development. Passions are no longer stirred by events in the North as they were by internment, Bloody Sunday, the Provo bombing campaign or the 1981 hunger strike. People don’t have to improvise a position in response to the latest atrocity while the blood is still fresh. There is more room to breathe, to consider all aspects of the situation. This can only be a good thing – unless, that is, it leads to indifference or incomprehension.

It has to be said, of course, that Irish socialists can’t help being influenced by some of the effects of partition. The divergence between the two states has inevitably produced a certain mental distance. A lot of meeja pundits in this semi-state revel in southern apathy towards what happens north of the border. Irritating as those gleeful dunces may be, there’s no denying the fact that things appear in a very different light in Dublin and Cork than they do in Belfast and Derry. People in the South have to confront their own set of problems and can be forgiven if they find the main aspects of political life in Northern Ireland to be a turn-off. The halting, protracted course of the Belfast Agreement has probably sharpened this feeling. Even the most avid followers of the peace process must have sometimes felt it would be more rewarding to see if orange paint dried faster than green.

You only need look at Sinn Féin to find evidence of this divergence. Although the party has been successful on both sides of the border, its northern and southern wings could almost be separate parties. Almost thirty years ago, Gerry Adams acknowledged that ‘you can’t get support in Ballymun because of doors being kicked in by the Brits in Ballymurphy.’ Sinn Féin has won support in the North as a vehicle for nationalist self-assertion, in the South as a channel for working-class protest. The presence of Adams himself in Leinster House can’t hide the tensions underlying the Sinn Féin project, which partly reflect the inherent difficulties of trying to establish a presence across the island as a whole.

The radical left has been strongly critical of Sinn Féin’s inconsistencies, and deservedly so. But the criticism would be more effective if it acknowledged some of the fundamental differences between political life north and south. For Sinn Féin to be part of a coalition government with right-wing parties in the North is not quite the same as Labour coalescing with Fine Gael. For as long as Northern Ireland has existed, the main axis of political division has run along communal lines. It is easier to imagine Fine Gael’s upper-class supporters in Ballsbridge voting for the United Left Alliance than it is to imagine the DUP’s working-class base defecting to Sinn Féin.

It’s long been a staple of socialist argument about the North that a focus on class issues can and should displace the communal divide as the main axis of political life. There’s certainly no reason why social identities based on ethnicity or nationality need always command more support than those based on class. For many years, the Labour Party in Scotland and Wales comfortably trounced the nationalists in the contest for the working-class vote. The rise of the Scottish National Party at Labour’s expense doesn’t represent the triumph of nation over class, at least not in any simplistic way. As Neal Ascherson noted after the recent SNP triumph in the Scottish elections, the party has gained as much from Labour’s shift to the right under Blair as from the awakening of Scottish national consciousness:

‘In Lanarkshire, I kept coming across trade-union veterans, men and women who had spent their lives fighting for working people in this landscape of dead mines and half-forgotten ironworks, who no longer regarded the SNP as ‘Tartan Tories’. Sickened by Blairite neoliberalism and memories of the Iraq War, they hoped that the SNP might offer more of their Old Labour values.’

But the experience of Northern Ireland since partition suggests that once a difference of opinion about the very existence of the state has entrenched itself at the heart of political life, it’s extremely hard to replace it by invoking class consciousness. Not because national identities are bound to be stronger than class feeling, but because the starting-point for political action must always be a given unit of territory. If you want to appeal to the masses, you have to draw a line around your potential audience somewhere, since you can’t address the whole of humanity at once. If your goal is to take power, you first have to decide where power lies. In this case, does it lie in Belfast, Dublin or London? If you tell people you want to establish a workers’ state, where will its capital be? This reminds me of the old story about an atheist in Norn Iron who was asked if he was a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist. Will the promised land be a British workers’ state or an Irish workers’ state? These sorts of dilemmas may have leftists wanting to tear their hair out in frustration, but they cannot simply be wished out of existence.


Image top: Randal Droher.