Workers' Liberty #54


Class politics and the Agreement

The following documents were discussed and voted on at the conference of the Alliance for Workers' Liberty over the weekend of 20-21 February 1999. In May 1998 the AWL's National Committee voted by a sizeable majority in favour of a "yes" vote in the Six County referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. The NC minority, most of whom favoured abstention, thought that this was a serious political misjudgment.

By the 11 July NC, after the referendum, there was probably no longer a majority for "yes". The position taken on the referendum was now a part of our history. It was agreed on both sides that the important thing was to continue the political discussion for as long as necessary. This has been done in the pages of Workers' Liberty and in discussion bulletins, which are available to readers of WL on request. On 21 February the conference pronounced on the dispute.

A resolution embodying the thinking of the May NC majority was presented in the names of John Bloxam and Pat Murphy. A resolution embodying the minority position at the May NC was presented in the names of Mark Osborn and Sean Matgamna.

Approximately 75% of conference voted for the Matgamna-Osborn resolution as amended by Bruce Robinson (see below); there were a few abstentions, and the rest voted for the Murphy-Bloxam position.

The discussion will continue in Workers' Liberty and in discussion bulletins. We invite contributions.

"Balanced bureaucratic sectarianism"

Preamble (not voted on) to the resolution carried by conference

The Good Friday Agreement on new political structures in Northern Ireland was agreed between London and Dublin, and by all the major political parties and private political/sectarian armies in Northern Ireland, with the important exception of the Democratic Unionist Party, and sponsored by the USA and the European Union.

It built on the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Historically, it might be called Part Two of that agreement. It has also, and not inaptly, been described by the Northern Ireland deputy prime minister Seamus Mallon as "Sunningdale for slow learners", a new version of the Sunningdale Agreement sponsored by the British and Dublin governments in 1973 and briefly implemented through the power-sharing executive which was set up in January 1974 and lasted until the Orange general strike of May 1974.

The crucial difference is that this version of "Sunningdale" proceeds in reverse order. Sunningdale set up a less structured Belfast powersharing coalition government (without Sinn Fein), and then tried to get all-Ireland structures in place. The attempt triggered the general strike of 1974. All-Ireland structures are in place, now, first: the stumbling block is proving to be the setting-up of an all-inclusive Belfast government. If that proves to be not possible, and Dublin and London try to keep all-Ireland structures in place, there could be another Protestant explosion.

Workable power-sharing is a lesser evil than renewed communal civil war. But that cannot mean we disarm politically and support the setting-up of a bourgeois, sectarian power-sharing government. The Agreement and peace are not synonymous.

The AWL National Committee at its meeting of 16 May 1998 voted by a sizeable majority to commit the AWL to advocating a "yes" vote in the referendum on the Agreement. That the AWL took that position is now an ineradicable part of the history of our tendency. It falls to this conference to pronounce political judgment on that position, and to repudiate it.

It does so in the spirit of the following words, which prefaced the pamphlet which our tendency produced in November 1969, IS [SWP] and Ireland, about what we thought was the grievous mistake made by that organisation when British troops were put on the streets of Northern Ireland in August 1969:

"The test of the seriousness, the maturity, the honesty and the ultimate viability of any revolutionary organisation is its attitude to its own mistakes. Marxists make mistakes - inevitability. Those who are serious face their mistakes, analyse them in the light of further experience, analyse why they made the mistakes they did, and thereby avoid making a merely empirical alteration without fundamentally learning from the experience. Those who are not serious, or who are first of all concerned with ‘face', prestige, and factional self-defence seek above all to evade an honest accounting: they subordinate fundamental questions of method and approach to what are essentially secondary and, in the final analysis, unimportant considerations."

The main features of the Good Friday Agreement are:

  1. A Northern Ireland Assembly is set up, to which will gradually be devolved legislative and executive authority for matters now dealt with by Northern Irish government departments.

  2. The Assembly's functioning is regulated by a complex system of checks and balances designed to structure politics around communal identity. Members of the Assembly are required to designate themselves as Unionist, Nationalist, or Other. Since a certain level of support among both "Unionist" and "Nationalist" is required for decisions, there is pressure against choosing the designation "Other".

  3. A North-South ministerial council will deal with European Union matters for the whole of Ireland. The Agreement also provides for a British-Irish Council and a standing British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference.

  4. The Agreement calls for the disarmament of paramilitary organisations within two years. It makes no commitment about the British Army, but calls for a reform of policing in Northern Ireland.

  5. The Agreement provides for statutory guarantees of human rights.

  6. In short, the Agreement erects institutions of power-sharing above the existing partition of Ireland. These can solve neither the legitimate "Irish national" question - the right of the Catholics where they are the majority, as they are in large areas of Northern Ireland adjoining the Republic, not to be severed from their own - nor the all-island minority question, the right of the Protestants where they are a majority (mainly in the north-east of the Six Counties) to autonomy and self-rule.

  7. If a majority in a Northern Ireland poll votes for a united Ireland, then Britain is committed to legislate for it. This proviso both leaves the Northern Ireland Catholic minority entrapped for now, and cancels out the right to autonomy of the Protestants should demographic change make them a minority in the Six Counties, as nationalist politicians hope it will.

In short, the Agreement tries to bury the basic question of two conflicting identities under a structure of balanced and weighted bureaucratic sectarianism, coupled with a highly explosive long-term pledge. It is in fundamentals a continuation of the programme pushed by the British state since the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973.

Procedure and tradition

The position taken by the National Committee flatly contradicted the position we had taken towards the Good Friday Agreement's predecessor, Sunningdale 1973, and the Agreement's preparatory, ground-laying stage, the Anglo-Irish Deal of 1985. It also contradicted, for example, the approach we had taken to the Oslo Agreement of 1993 on Israel-Palestine: we argued that this miserably inadequate agreement was a step forward, and better than any available option, but we did not support it, or take responsibility for it. The May NC jettisoned our long-held democratic and transitional programme for Ireland.

A distinct issue, though in the circumstances it was intertwined with that of the Good Friday Agreement, is the question of proper AWL procedures. If such a radical shift in our approach was necessary and proper, then, to ensure continuity of method, politics, and tradition, the departure should have been made deliberately, openly, and accounted for in Marxist fashion in terms of our previous positions and our tradition. Without that approach, with only case-by-case decisions on issues as they come up, there can be neither political consistency, nor organic and stable tradition, nor the thoroughgoing education of cadres - which is the practical political purpose for which we build up, and where necessary criticise, revise and rectify our tradition. The NC should have given priority to maintaining our tradition - clarifying and amending, if and where necessary; it should have understood the magnitude of the political lurch involved in the decision to vote "yes", and resolved not to take a snap decision.

The minority at the 16 May NC was seriously at fault in not supporting and fighting for the proposal made in that NC by some majority comrades, not to decide there and then but to continue discussion, thus letting the exigencies of the referendum and its timetable override our most basic programmatic and methodological concerns.

The fundamental cause of our error was excessive narrow "realism"; a drift towards excessive journalistic preoccupation with sifting the pros and cons of options within the existing system; an over-reaction against the demagogic, denunciatory, "maximalist" - essentially anarchist - politics current in some of the far left; a narrowing of horizons caused by the pressure of the recent period of depression and setbacks in the British labour movement. We resolve to correct ourselves.

"We do not choose the lesser evil. We counterpose independent working-class politics"

Resolution passed by conference

  1. Conference believes that the position taken by the AWL at the 16 May 1998 NC and afterwards was a grievous political mistake.

  2. We are for an end to communalist paramilitary violence and to British Army and RUC violence. We sympathise with the feelings of that majority of Irish workers who voted for the Agreement because they saw it as offering a chance of peace. But only if working-class unity is built on it can the peace be solid; only if the working-class socialists maintain their political independence, and the clear counterposition of their programme to all the bourgeois alternatives on offer, can working-class unity be built on such peace as we may hope for from the Agreement. To subordinate our independent political tasks (upholding our programme) to "realistic" political calculations (our votes are needed to help the Agreement pass; or, we must vote "yes" so as not to offend the workers who vote "yes") is to misunderstand what we can and should do.

  3. The Good Friday Agreement flatly contradicts the democratic programme of working-class socialists for Ireland - consistent democracy, the maximum of self-determination for each community compatible with the rights of the other, a federal united Ireland with regional autonomy for the Protestants, a confederal link with Britain. Socialists therefore could not back the Agreement. We should not have advocated a "yes" vote in the referendum.

  4. If the Agreement holds and restrains armed communal conflict in Northern Ireland, then that will create easier conditions for working-class politics there. In that sense, the Agreement is a "lesser evil". But as between a capitalist project which runs counter to our programme and principles, and the status quo, we do not choose the lesser evil. We counterpose independent working-class politics to all the capitalist options. Consequently, it was in the circumstances a breach of working-class principles and of our programmatic position to advocate "yes". We uphold the old watchword of classical Marxism: "Not a person, not a penny, for their system!" We support "lesser evils" only when they represent a real, if limited, element of our programme, and when doing so can be clearly dissociated from any granting of confidence to bourgeois political programmes. In the actual case, to give any credit to the Agreement was inseparable from giving political credit to the British state.

  5. We believe that a "no" vote would also have been incorrect, not merely because it would have made it impossible to address the legitimate concerns of those supporting the Agreement because it brought peace or because it would align us with Paisley and the Republican ultras. Crucially, a "no" vote would have signified, both programmatically and practically, a vote for the status quo of polarised division between the two working class communities and a continued campaign of sectarian violence. Voting "yes" to this British state project was wrong in principle. Therefore abstention was the only principled alternative.See footnote

"Yes was a vote for communal compromise and peace"

Resolution rejected by conference

  1. Conference endorses the decision of the May 1998 NC supporting a critical "yes" vote in the two parts of the all-Ireland referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

  2. The NC was relating to a new political situation in Northern Ireland: in particular, the change of line by Sinn Fein/IRA implicitly accepting the bankruptcy of their perspective since the early 1970s and the shifts in the Protestant and Unionist community towards forms of communal compromise/accommodation. Summing up an analysis of this situation, the editorial in WL45 ("Endgame in Northern Ireland") outlined the basic attitude of Marxists to this: "Socialists who want Protestant-Catholic working-class unity should welcome any moves that offer serious hope of permanent peace and an end to blind-alley militarism. We cannot and should not, however, take responsibility for either London or Dublin. We state what is and prepare the future. We work for the development of independent working-class politics. The first step is to understand reality clearly, and that means rejecting all delusions that ‘anti-imperialist war' can bring progress in today's Ireland."

  3. In the referendum people voted with different views and expectations, largely shaped by the communal divide. Nevertheless, the main lines were clear - 50-60% of Protestants voted for power-sharing and links with the South; the overwhelming majority of Catholic Ireland voted to recognise that the central issue was the relationship between the Irish majority and minority, and that this relationship should be settled on the basis of consent and accommodation. It was a vote for communal compromise and accommodation of one form or another against communal domination or conquest.

    What did the large mobilisation for a "yes" vote, including in our class, fundamentally express? Not an attitude towards the details of the Agreement, certainly, nor even a "vague desire for peace", but an acceptance that there had to be a new way, that any progress required consent, communal compromise, minority rights, recognition of prisoners, etc. The question of whether the actual deal can deliver on these in the long term is a different one. It cannot, but our ability to convince workers of our programme is better served by clearly indicating the shared starting point than by appearing indifferent. In the simple and limited "yes/no" of the referendum, in which the issue of communal relations was central, we needed to indicate clearly which side we were on.

    It was also a vote for peace, for the political settlement that underpinned the main paramilitary cease-fires. Whatever our criticisms of the details of the settlement we are for such peace - for the cease-fires and the consequent limiting of intercommunal slaughter. Our class has paid a terrible price for the paramilitary campaigns, seriously sharpening communal tensions and bitterness and thereby rendering more difficult a proper democratic resolution of the national questions in Ireland and also progress in developing normal class activity. If we believed that opposition to blind-alley militarism, to sectarian slaughter, constituted "working class pacifism", then we must say that we are "100% working class pacifists"! If we believed that this could simply be summed up as "war weariness" then "war weariness" is a very good thing indeed.

    The best members of our class will say, "we are for peace, for an end to working class people slaughtering each other. We need to do things differently, start working together, not try to dominate or force each other. It's either voting for that or the status quo. We're voting yes." And our response? Certainly not to dismiss them as being dupes of the Blairite spin-doctors! Instead: "We agree and that's why we're voting with you. It's a step forward, but it's only that. It's better than the status quo, but it is not a solution - it's tinkering from above. We need a different approach, that properly and democratically deals with the rights of the two Irish peoples, and which does this as part of a fight for a workers' republic. We will try to convince you of that on the basis of experience, and also of the urgent need for our class to use the new situation to start organising politically and across the communal divide. Trust yourselves, not the bastards who are behind this deal, etc, etc."

  4. Our attitude to the details of the Agreement were spelt out in the first document, "Not a Solution but Socialists Should Advocate a Yes Vote", whose conclusions the May NC voted for: "At worst, what it does is institutionalise the sectarian conflict at the heart of Northern Ireland society. At best it provides a new framework within which the leading communal politicians can manage that conflict", "…the alternative to the communal conflict institutionalised in the Agreement is the united working class movement committed to a democratic settlement". "It is not… our solution or method" but neither are we neutral. Our class, and the possibility of developing working class unity, was affected by the outcome. The Agreement could minimise sectarian conflict; the alternative, a return to sectarian war, means ‘more polarisation' and ‘less workers' unity."

    (a) The Agreement was a bourgeois "lesser evil". "Lesser evils" exist because our class is weak and Marxists a small minority. How we relate to them depends - there is no recipe book answer or substitute for thinking. In an electoral contest with Hitler, Hindenberg was not a "lesser evil" for the working class; if he had moved militarily against Hitler he would have been. It can only be judged concretely on the basis of the interests and development of the working class as a class – the conditions under which it organises the development of class consciousness. It is a positive and independent political assessment, not a negative reaction to what our class enemies are saying or which "camps" exist.

    In Northern Ireland the Good Friday Agreement was "the lesser evil"; the cease-fires of the main paramilitary organisations it cemented, the new structures created, provide better conditions for our class to organise. That, without any illusions or expectations of what it would deliver, was sufficient basis for a critical "yes" vote.

    In the context of the last 30 years, such progress should be welcomed. We have recognised this before. "Any arrangement acceptable to most people on both sides would be progress and should be welcome to socialists, whose first concern is to see the working class in Northern Ireland, and in Ireland as a whole, unite across the murderous communal divide" (WL 42 editorial: ‘The IRA "restores its cessation''')

    Further, it is not a passive prediction. "We say what is and prepare the future." We do not thereby accept this lesser evil as some "necessary stage" in developments, nor does it reduce us to "gratefully accepting crumbs from the table of the bourgeoisie." How much progress there is will, in important part, depend on the activity of socialists on the ground.

    (b) To accept it as a lesser evil is to kid nobody that it is either a solution or that it can do what its bourgeois authors promise or even expect. "The facts have spoken" certainly, but only to (i) underline the fact that we are faced with a new political situation and (ii) indicate that the Agreement is neither stable nor a democratic answer to the relationship between the Irish majority and minority. (ii) is true, although even a consistently democratic programme would face serious resistance from the likes of the Paisleyites and the "Spirit of Drumcree", which it could expect to undermine, not abolish.

    It is not a solution because it accepts the parameters of the artificial six-county statelet, with its in-built denial of democratic rights for the majority community in Ireland; it further provides no territorial safeguards for the Irish Protestant minority.

    To recognise this, however, is not to reject the possibility of progress within the confines of the Northern Ireland statelet. Progress, however limited, has been made, and is reflected in the Good Friday Agreement. Unless there is the possibility of further progress, and above all developments in working class unity and politics, the programme of a united, federal Ireland, let alone a workers' republic, is utopian. Working class unity cannot wait until a federal Ireland which is the programme of a united working class…!

    (c) The Agreement is not our programme, but neither is it the direct opposite - which is why we agree with parts of it (e.g. minority rights, release of prisoners, the changes in the Irish Republic's constitution). The direct opposite of our programme is the ‘no' camp in the referendum - those who support the six-county statelet as a Protestant ascendancy, support communal military conquest and reject communal compromise and accommodation.

    To the worker who asks "why are you in favour of the Agreement if you support a different approach, federalism?" we say: "For a start, the referendum is only about the Agreement. We say better communal power-sharing than sectarian civil war; better bureaucratic checks and balances for communal agreement than a programme of communal conquest and subjugation. But 100% better than the few steps forward we have got here is a programme that offers a real solution. Let's use the new structures as a platform for a fundamentally different approach, relying only on ourselves."

    Sectarianism has structured and dominated politics in the North from the very beginning. It will continue to do so in the Assembly with or without the provisions for communal classification; it reflects the reality of the Northern Ireland statelet. Rather than throw our hands up in despair, or reject in fact (if not in principle) the possibility of any political progress within Northern Ireland, we seek to find a way forward - there is no shortcut to contesting our class answers to the answers of the Green and Orange parties. We are for a Northern Ireland Labour Party with a federal programme. If it existed we would argue for it to stand in the Assembly elections; if elected to refuse communal classification; to use the Assembly as a platform for a working class programme, functioning independently, rejecting the sectarian watchwords.

  5. In calling for a critical "yes" vote we "take responsibility" for what we say - for saying that this bourgeois settlement is a "lesser evil", for rejecting blind-alley militarism and voting for a settlement that underpins the main paramilitary cease-fires, for saying that the new situation provides a better situation for our class to organise, for agreeing with prisoner releases, for backing the idea of communal compromise. We do not thereby "take responsibility" for the whole project of imperialism/"the greatest popular front in history", or become advisers to the bourgeoisie about how to make the settlement work, any more than our call for a "yes" vote in the Scottish referendum led us to "take responsibility" for the project of the Blairites, the SNP, the Lib-Dems in Scotland, or become advisers to the Scottish Office. Further, calling for a "yes" vote in the referendum no more obliges us to vote for the bourgeois politicians who drew it up than hypothetically voting "yes" for the legalisation of homosexuality obliges us to subsequently vote for Liberals.

    We support a critical "yes" vote and retain our political independence. Why this rather than the vaguer expressions of "welcoming" and "hoping", but refusing to vote? Because it is clearer and sharper, because it helps us talk to people in Ireland and therefore improves the chances of winning Irish workers to our programme, because it can be done in a way that is intelligible and not a self-contradicting mockery, because we can do it and maintain our political independence.

    Yes, irreconcilable opposition to the bourgeoisie, the fight for working class independence and self-activity, are the beginnings of the Marxist alphabet, but not far behind is the need to talk to our class, to relate our programme to their needs and concerns, to win workers to revolutionary politics, to build the force that will get rid of the Clintons, Blairs and Aherns, the Trimbles and Adamses, and the classes they represent. Even if we are tiny, and haven't got any supporters on the ground in Ireland, it is in that spirit we should conduct ourselves - if not, why should anybody take us seriously?

  6. Support for a critical "yes" vote on the Good Friday Agreement did not contradict our approach to either British troops or previous attempts at political settlements (Sunningdale; Anglo-Irish Agreement).

    Since the early 1980s we have called for Troops Out as part of a political settlement, and polemicised against the slogan "Troops Out Now". At best, we argued, the British state and its troops froze the situation - better the status quo of low level sectarian civil war than a full blown Bosnian-type civil war followed by bloody repartition; better the status quo in which communal divisions were deep and bitter, the prospects of working class unity and political development virtually non-existent, than a full-scale catastrophe. We also pointed out that, in the course of freezing the situation, the troops had done great harm. We never "welcomed" the troops in our public press, nor expressed a "hope" they might succeed; our immediate demand was that they should be "taken off the streets" and then got out as part of a political settlement. We do not have the same attitude towards a particular peace settlement that represents progress, which underpins a widescale paramilitary cease-fire, that aims for communal co-operation, that creates better conditions for the beginnings of working class unity, that is acceptable to most people in the two communities. For sure they are both bourgeois, but we shouldn't flatten out or ignore the differences because of a general and indivisible attitude to bourgeois society.

    Our assessment is concrete. In 1969 the British state put troops on the streets of Northern Ireland to control the situation - to hold back the Orange pogromists, certainly, but also to demobilise the mass Catholic revolt, to break down the barricades to the "free areas". Any value in the former was massively outweighed by the latter. Rightly, we said no.

    "In essence the details in the Good Friday Agreement are little different from what the bourgeoisie has had on the table before. We never said critical ‘yes' before, why now?". The short answer is for the same reason that we never "welcomed" them either.

    (a) The Good Friday Agreement was a peace settlement that cemented the paramilitary cease-fires, and in particular the Provo war, that had wrecked such havoc to communal relationships. The previous "deals" were not that.

    (b) It clearly had wide support in both communities, representing an acceptance of the need for some form of dialogue and communal compromise. It proved to be acceptable to most people in the two communities, even if there was only a small majority among the Protestants. The other "deals" did not.

    (c) Because of (a) and (b) it was progress, and represented better conditions for our class and the possible development of working class unity. The previous "deals" did not.

  7. For the last two decades we have openly rejected the idea that the central problem in Ireland is British imperialism, and its accompanying slogan "Troops Out Now". Blame the British ruling class, yes, but the central problem concerned the relationship between the two peoples in Ireland and the need to secure a consistently democratic settlement of that relationship as part of the struggle for a workers' republic. The slogan of a united, federal Ireland, with autonomy for the Protestant areas, etc., was not advice to the ruling class but an indispensable weapon in the fight of socialists for working class unity and political development, itself a necessary condition of serious progress .

    Our declaration that the Provos' military campaign was futile and counterproductive, and our call for it to end, was part of this approach, not an example of pacifism. Time and again we said without ambiguity that the "central achievement" of the Provos long war "has been to make the division in Northern Ireland between Catholic and Protestant deeper and stronger". We consequently welcomed the IRA and loyalist ceasefires and the resulting peace talks. In January, when Sinn Fein were kicked out of the talks and it looked as though the entire process might well break down, we said: "It will be a setback for the working class and for both communities in Northern Ireland if they (the talks) do (break down)... This is not because the peace talks will produce some miracle solution, but because the paramilitary cease-fire increases the possibilities of building a socialist movement in Ireland which can unite workers around a programme offering advance both to Catholic and Protestant workers". (WL bulletin, 23.1.98). The vote at the May NC was in line with this approach.


Point 5 of the agreed resolution is an amendment from Bruce Robinson, adopted by conference in place of the original Matgamna-Osborn formulation which read as follows: Whether or not to vote "no" was a question of tactics. Voting "no" would not have been wrong in principle. In our view abstention was better because the "no" vote was so much dominated by the outright Protestant sectarian DUP. Voting "yes" to this British state project, however, was wrong in principle.
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