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Irish Socialists, though they seem to have little idea of taking on the State in revolution, have at least a rough economic plan for socialism: nationalise the banks and essential services, tax multinationals highly in the meantime, force them to pay higher wages, abide by worker and environmental protection regulations, etc … But Irish Republicans, who have a very clear concept of overthrowing the State, in general appear to have no economic program. How can this be?
Firstly, let’s do away with any idea that Irish Republicans have no awareness of the impact of economics on their lives. Irish Republicans are not nearly as focused on the trade unions as are the Socialists but they are well aware of austerity measures, of wage levels, the cost of housing etc. Irish Republicans are overwhelmingly working or lower-middle class and they feel these impacts and think about them. But they do not, collectively, formulate plans to change these factors.
It would be illogical to think that they don’t care, or that they think that there is nothing that can be done about these things. The rational conclusion to arrive at rather is that they are consciously shelving the question. They don’t have an economic program because they don’t want to – they are actively and consciously avoiding having one.
There is a rational reason for behaviour, even when it seems irrational and this case is no exception. Irish Republicans know that the field of economics is going to have different theories and a variety of proposals tendered for action and this will lead to divisions, some on a very fundamental level. It was part of the reason for the avoidance in the movement of burning social questions in the past. Many of those social questions have been largely resolved without any leadership from the movement, by changes in thinking across society, of which the Republicans are of course a part: contraception, gender equality, divorce, LGBT equality …. even intentional pregnancy termination may be approaching acceptance by the majority of Irish Republicans now.
The notional acceptance of “socialism” as part of the program of Irish Republicanism has led to divisions in the past. The Republican Congress project of the 1930s failed and the Republican movement lost many of its most advanced social theorists and organisers, while the IRA placed an official ban on communist membership.
The essentially social democrats1 who came to lead the 1960s pre-split Republican movement were very strong advocates of socialist economic measures but they foundered on the question of opposition to the State – the deeply sectarian Six-County colonial statelet. When the movement’s leadership failed to supply the arms which the ‘nationalist/ Catholic’ areas needed to defend themselves, the movement split and many in the new camp, the Provisionals, blamed the debacle on “politics” or even more concretely on “socialism”.
It was of course judgement of guilt based on association rather than on intrinsic nature but effective nonetheless (as such often is)2. Subsequently the Adams camp used “socialism” – without of course outlining any real socialist economic program — to unseat the historical leadership of the Provisionals. The objective was to replace them with Adams and his own clique and in this they were successful, through that and other maneouvres.
Now that Provisional Sinn Féin seeks to become a partner in managing the state for the neo-colonial Gombeen class, it has dropped the “socialist” tag (though occasionally, when convenient, likes to describe itself as “Left”).
But not since the 1960s split (apart perhaps from a brief moment in the Irish Republican Socialist Party) has the Irish Republican movement had an explicit economic program, much less a socialist one. “These are all questions that will be resolved later” is and has been the message – i.e after the colonial Statelet and the neo-colonial State have been overthrown, after the nation is free and united.
What is much more likely, however, is that at that point, should we reach it, we’ll have another civil war. And really socialist Republicans will likely lose, because they’ll be trying to sort out priorities and alliances in the midst of a struggle for survival, against a new capitalist order or a foreign invasion – or a combination of both.
DEFINE AND DECLARE OR PREPARE FOR DEFEAT
All Irish Republican organisations and parties now define themselves as “socialist Republican”, which is something that was not true until fairly recently. They need not only to put flesh on those bones but to grow the very bones themselves. If they want to succeed, they need to answer the questions:
- what do they mean by “socialist”?
- What practical economic measures do they intend to implement?
- What is their notional timetable for this implementation (i.e which are immediate, which transitional etc)?
The implications of answering these questions or not are crucial not only in whether we build a viable socialist society to benefit the vast majority of the working people on this island, but crucial also in whether we achieve independence for the nation in the first place. The working people need a visible stake in a free, united and independent Ireland; I am in agreement with James Connolly when he made the profound declaration that “only the Irish working class remain as the incorruptible inheritors of the fight for freedom in Ireland.”3
1Some may object to this definition but it seems to me correct to describe followers of a doctrine of installing a socialist regime without a fierce struggle to overthrow the existing State.
2There was of course also the wish not to alienate the Irish capitalist elements which the Provisionals hoped would support them, both in Ireland and in the USA.
3From Connolly’s introduction to his Labour In Irish History (1910) – second-last sentence (see https://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1910/lih/foreword.htm)