From Militant Irish Monthly, December 1990–January 1991.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
SECRETARY OF State Peter Brooke made a major speech in November outlining what he claimed was current government policy on the North. Since it claims to be a comprehensive statement of British policy this statement is worthy of examination. It raises questions which require an answer – would the British negotiate withdrawal? What is the present strategy of the British ruling class?
Brooke presents a very benign image of Britain’s role in the North. He states that the “British government has no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. Economically he argues the British presence amounts to the “transfer from the common exchequer every year of very large sums of money”. For this the ‘generous’ British government “seeks no return other than the satisfaction of improving the conditions of life in Northern Ireland”.
As far as the presence of the troops: “The United Kingdom has, of course, no vested interests in maintaining these high levels a day longer than is necessary”. The implication is clear – that the army will go “when violence comes to an end”. On partition Brooke reiterates forcefully what is set out in one part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement – “if, in the future, a majority of the people of Northern Ireland clearly wish for and formally consent to the establishment of a United Ireland, it (the government) would introduce and support in parliament legislation to give effect to that wish”.
If all this is the case why does Britain not simply with draw? According to Brooke the reason lies with what he calls the “most significant aspect of the British presence” – the fact of “nearly a million people living in a part of the island of Ireland who are, and who certainly regard themselves as British”. Convince them of the benefits of united Ireland and we will go – this is the gist of the speech.
Is this an honest account of the strategy of the British ruling class? The answer is yes and no. Brooke’s claims each contain an element of truth, but they present only one side of the case. Take his picture of a generous administration doling out large sums to ensure the well being of the people. It is true that the government is compelled to transfer funds to maintain basic services in Northern Ireland. But the image of a caring administration rings hollow alongside the vicious attempts by the Tories over ten years to drive down workers living standards and slash basic services. Similarly on the political front the paternal and beneficent image presented by Brooke is not credible for a single moment. It was the British ruling class who partitioned Ireland, primarily to divide the working class. It was they who whipped up sectarian hatreds setting Catholic worker against Protestant worker in order to weaken and divide the labour movement.
It is quite true that since the 1960s the strategy of the British ruling class has changed. Under the then economic conditions of boom, with the opening of the southern Irish economy to British investment and goods, and with the threat of socialist revolution off the immediate agenda, they would have preferred to move towards withdrawal and reunification. This is the government’s intent today. But it is something they can never achieve. The stumbling block, as Brooke explains, is the Protestants: but not for the reason he gives.
According to him Britain will stay simply to ensure that the wishes of the majority in the North are upheld. The reality is not quire so straightforward The British ruling class have been no respectors of democracy in any of their colonies throughout their bloody history. If they could coerce the Protestants into a united Ireland they would unhesitantly do so, utterly regardless of what the Protestant community wanted.
The real problem for them is that, were they to attempt to do so, they would precipitate a civil war in Ireland. The Protestants would resist any moves towards a capitalist united Ireland, arms in hand. Civil war would engulf the country, destroying property and trade; ending not in reunification but repartition and leaving a legacy of Lebanese instability on Britain’s doorstep. It was to avert this scenario, with the certainty of violence spreading to Britain, that the ruling class, through the vehicle of then Labour government, committed the troops to the streets in 1969. It is for this same reason, not out of humanitarian concern, that they have no alternative but to maintain the army presence indefinitely.
The troops are now a permanent feature of the situation. There are only two scenarios in which their withdrawal would become possible. One would be in the aftermath of a civil war when the British ruling class would be confronted with the reality of partition and might seek to come to terms with the two entrenched states which would then exist. The other would be on the basis of a revolutionary movement of the working class in Britain and Ireland, a movement which would infect their army and might force their withdrawal.
Gerry Adams, replying to Brooke, argues that “the real problem can in no way be defined as one not of forcing the Protestant population ‘into’ anything; the real problem is one of forcing Britain to get out”.
In an Irish Times interview he claims that Britain pumps money into the North to give them “a toehold and an influence over the whole country” and that Britain has also a military interest in maintaining a presence.
All this is nonsense. In this age of nuclear weapons, with Britain now only a third rate power, Ireland is of no military or strategic importance. As Adams says, British capitalism is interested in developing investment and trade with the South of Ireland hut this is a reason for ending partition, not maintaining it. The British ruling class would prefer to remove the border, which is now a permanently destabilising feature within Ireland, so as to be able to economically dominate and exploit the whole country, without he expense or headache of a direct presence.
Because the alternative would be immediate civil war the British ruling class have no choice but to maintain their presence and the activities of the Provisional IRA can never succeed in forcing them out. Rather by antagonising the Protestants and intensifying their opposition, it in practice, makes it all the more difficult for the British to pull out.
The real purpose of Brooke’s speech was not to outline a solution but to deliver a political thrust at the Provisionals. He has done so by pointing to the grim irony of the past twenty years, that while the Provisionals have conducted a military struggle to force Britain out, the British ruling class would prefer to leave but cannot, and the only effect of all the Provisionals’ efforts has been to make withdrawal even less possible.
After two decades of violence the British ruling class have come to terms with the fact that they have no solution. On a capitalist basis the problems are intractable. Posed in capitalist terms the choices for workers in the North are either to be poor within Britain or to be poor within a united Ireland; each choice totally unacceptable to one side or the other.
Throughout the ‘troubles’ the real policy of the ruling class has been to apply a mix of concession and repression in order to try to bring events under control. But as one solution after another have collapsed successive governments have always tended to fall back on repression. Repressive methods exercised on the streets, from internment to the shoot to kill policy, have been the one consistent aspect of the policy of British capital. This remains the case today. Brooke has no intention of withdrawing the troops or disarming the RUC. Behind Brooke’s honeyed words is the reality of a government busily strengthening its arsenal of repression.
In formulating its new anti-terrorist laws, this administration has added new offences, and against the recommendation of the body which reviewed existing legislation, has maintained the power to introduce internment without trial.
The best hope of the British ruling class is not to achieve an answer but to bring about a temporary containment which because it solves nothing will lead to a new cycle of violence and ultimately to the threat of civil war at a future stage. The Financial Times reviewing the five years of the hapless Anglo-Irish Agreement is quite explicit on this, “For some time the British government will have to be happy that Northern Ireland’s policies, like the security situation, is ‘contained’.” (16/11/1990)
It is only the working class, by uniting around socialist policies who can solve the problem. Workers’ unity in the North, unity with the labour movement in Britain and the South in the common struggle for socialism – this represents the only way forward. The first step must be the convening of a rank and file conference of the labour movement in the North, involving shop stewards, tenants groups and independent labour organisations to discuss a socialist solution and to hammer out the concrete way in which this can be achieved.
Last updated: 8.7.2012