Sinn Fein’s decision to host a London conference in February on the theme Putting Irish Unity on the Agenda was a good one. The timing turned out to be particularly happy, with the DUP having recently accepted the inevitability of key decisions over the future of the occupied Six Counties henceforth being made in Ireland, not the UK. There were excellent contributions made by Sinn Fein representatives Pat Doherty (MP for South Tyrone), Conor Murphy (MP for Newry Armagh) and Jayne Fisher (from the party’s London office), as also from Jarlath Burns from the Gaelic Athletic Association and writer Ronan Bennett.
The Irish are nothing if not magnanimous in victory. Despite the long and dirty history of Unionism as a tool of colonial oppression, the DUP’s latest concession to common sense won generous praise from Pat Doherty. Similarly, the treacherous and divisive historical role of the “constitutional nationalists” of the SDLP was clearly judged to be well enough known to the whole republican movement not to require spelling out on this occasion. Now that the dogged fight for self-determination has finally put a united Ireland firmly on the agenda, the core leadership of that struggle is correctly allowing nothing to get in the way of building maximum unity on the home stretch to national sovereignty.
The only real doubts about the fact that a united Ireland is now on the agenda came from two directions. A number of republicans who do not recognise the tactical advances achieved on the back of the Good Friday Agreement suggested that the leadership had accepted a unionist veto on Ireland. Pat Doherty refuted this, explaining the transitional character of current arrangements and the unchanging goal of SF: a democratic 32-county Irish state of equal citizens. From another direction, Andy Pollak from the Centre for Cross-Border Studies described in very useful detail the wealth of cross-border links which have proliferated under the peace process, not least the all-Ireland electricity grid. Perversely, he then maintained that progress in this area would be compromised by the achievement of a united Ireland. It was gently pointed out to him that such burgeoning links were precisely evidence of the ripeness of Ireland for reunification, and that these links were themselves the consequence of many long years of both armed and political struggle.
Ironically, the best proof that a united Ireland really is on the agenda was the great long line of SDLP constitutionalists, former incumbents at the Northern Ireland Office, Labour Lords and do-gooders who all queued up to claim that a united Ireland was really their idea all along, and only “hot-heads on both sides” has previously delayed matters.
SDLP man Conall McDevitt wanted to contrast his vision of “Our Ireland” (uncannily resembling the inclusive and democratic nation consistently championed by Sinn Fein) with some sectarian nightmare invented by himself and falsely ascribed to those who sacrificed everything for the cause of Ireland in a conflict which he chose to describe as a “dirty and futile war”.
Dirty it was – on the side of British imperialism. As one speaker, the novelist Ronan Bennett, pointed out, the torture barracks at Castlereagh served as a training ground for the horrors of Gauntanamo. But futile it was certainly not. Without having waged this just and revolutionary war against the partition and colonisation of their homeland, none of the positive developments hailed at the conference would have been in evidence. However, to accept this obvious truth, McDevitt would have to acknowledge the counter-revolutionary role played by his party in the period of armed struggle. It is more comfortable to slander the heroes of the struggle as sectarian boneheads who stood in the way of progress, botching Sunningdale and delaying peace for years despite the most benign efforts of British imperialism!
A similar tale was told by Lord Alf Dubs, late of the Northern Ireland Office (1997-1999). According to his version, Harold Macmillan was on the verge of cracking the Irish question but then fell ill at the crucial moment. In his view, it was only when another British politician, Mo Mowlam (currently undergoing sanctification in multiplexes all over the UK) showed up that the logjam was broken. This upside down view of Irish affairs, where everything hangs upon the good offices of one or other British politician, conveniently airbrushes out of history the struggle of the Irish people for freedom against the allied forces of British imperialism and “Ulster” unionism.
This Lord of Labour warned that the “links between the Tories and the Unionists were very damaging”. The next British government should be an “arbiter” and not take sides! Comrade Gerry Adams cut through all this nonsense last summer when he reminded a meeting in Westminster that Irish republicans are experienced in dealing with British governments of whatever party as what they all have in common is that they have all been unionists. Indeed the Labour party continues to uphold the colonial occupation of the Six Counties and the denial of the Irish people’s right to self-determination – and all who support Labour objectively do likewise, however hard they cross their fingers behind their backs.
Labour governments have been not a whit less murderous than Tory governments in their efforts to oppress the Irish nation. It was Harold Wilson who sent in the troops in 1969; it is Gordon Brown who still keeps 5,000 of them barracked there today. British governments of all stripes have never been “arbiters” between warring communities; they have always been active and bloody protagonists in the colonial violation of Irish sovereignty. If British governments are starting to change their tune now, this has nothing to do with the relative merits of rival imperialist parties and everything to do with the success of the Irish republican struggle.
With great arrogance Dubs took the opportunity to wag his finger at the Irish in Britain. Why didn’t they pull their socks up and muster the same political clout as their countrymen in the USA – presumably by voting Labour. Yet we recall no such warm social democratic enthusiasm for Irish political influence in Britain at the time when the IRA collecting tin was passing round the pubs and the Hunger Strikers were supported as heroes, when the mere possession of an Irish accent was as dangerous as the possession of a hijab is today. Sadly, Respect leader Salma Yaqoob coupled her correct identification of current islamaphobia with the anti-Irish sentiment whipped up in the 1970s and 1980s with a misguided attempt to lay the blame for this prejudice at the door of the armed struggle. It is imperialism alone that must be made to bear the responsibility for all the bloodshed in the world to which its oppression gives rise. Yaqoob’s weakness in this regard gives us a measure of how far Respect has yet to travel if it wishes to crawl free from Labour’s social democratic shadow.
Another former denizen of the Northern Ireland Office (1987-1994), Kevin MacNamara, warned that the sharpening economic crisis runs the risk of drowning the peace process under a wave of reaction across both Ireland and the UK. What neither he nor Ken Livingstone or John McDonnell remembered to mention was the treacherous role played by social democracy, not only against Irish self-determination, but also against the social emancipation of the British working class . The two strands of treachery are in fact woven into a single cord: by drawing British workers into complicity with the national oppression of the Irish (and the Afghans, Iraqis and Palestinians), social democracy crucially undermines the class fight against capitalism. Labour’s support for capitalism has prepared the ground for the current descent into slump, and it is Labour in government that has LED the very wave of reaction of which MacNamara bids us be wary, genocidal wars, concentration camps for refugees, islamaphobia and all.
What the circumstances of sharpening economic crisis and darkening political reaction make necessary for the working class in imperialist Britain is a decisive break with social democracy and with its foul collaboration with imperialism. What these circumstances require instead is a decisive advance down the revolutionary road towards the overthrow of capitalism. The Irish working class, through their struggle for a united Ireland, are helping remove one significant obstacle to British proletarian advance. At the same time, by dealing at last with the outstanding historical question of Ireland’s nationhood, the Irish working class will most usefully be clearing the decks for the advance of their own class struggle.
The SDLP man took exception to the fact that the conference was held in London. However the chair of the meeting, Steve Bell from the CWU, got it right when he welcomed the location, saying that we in Britain should take responsibility for supporting the campaign for a united Ireland. In a few years time, when Afghanistan and Iraq, having achieved national independence, look back upon their struggle against imperialist occupation, we may be surprised to see at that time how many in the West claim to have been life-long supporters of the resistance struggle in those countries. What would be of greater assistance would be for voices to be heard right now in solidarity with the resistance forces, before the blood has dried from the latest convoy of Afghan women and children to be bombed by ISAF forces, before the lapse of years softens the focus. In giving the warmest support to SF’s campaign to reunite Ireland, let us also give unstinting solidarity to the resistance struggles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, where imperialist intransigence still enforces the necessity of armed struggle.