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A debate is currently taking place about whether armed struggle is appropriate in the context of achieving national liberation in Ireland. The debate is hardly new — traditionally some sections of the polity have opposed it and some have advocated, even embraced it. However tiresome it may be for some, revolutionaries need to address questions as they emerge and re-emerge but there is another reason to enter this debate, which is that in my opinion both sections in the main are basing themselves on a false premise.
The composition of the sections opposed to or in favour of armed struggle has varied but in general and hardly surprisingly, the social democratic and liberal sections have opposed its use, while the revolutionary Republicans have defended it. But sections of the Republican movement at various times have also moved out of the armed struggle camp and into the ‘constitutionalist’ quarter. As to the revolutionary Left (or that claiming to be revolutionary), the main parties1 have opposed it not only in terms of Irish national liberation (with which they hardly concern themselves as a rule2) but also in the class struggle, while smaller parties and groups have at different times endorsed it as a legitimate or even necessary mode of struggle.
Before going deeper into this question it would be as well to look at the current situation in general and also to review the usual relevant scientific rules, which is to say those tested in the laboratory of Irish and world history.
OVERVIEW OF IRISH ANTI-COLONIAL HISTORY
Ireland is a small country in size and population but historically has had an effect on the history of large parts of the world out of all proportion to its size. Currently this is not the case which is perhaps not surprising since it is partitioned with one-sixth of its land mass under British colonial rule and the rest ruled by a neo-colonial capitalist class that came from under direct colonial domination a little over a century ago. The process of that colonial domination began eight and a half centuries ago3 and the decades and centuries since that time have seen Ireland colonised, most of its land appropriated, cultural, economic and political domination, famines and mass emigration, all of which the Irish have resisted and against which they and sections of the settler population have risen time and time again. The resistance has taken many forms but in general has always included armed struggle: sword, pike or gun.
The phase of the national liberation struggle in the early decades of the last century resulted in the granting of nominal independence to five-sixths of the country and the retention of the remaining portion as a direct British colony, formally part of the United Kingdom but with a number of administrative and legislative elements peculiar to itself4. This was followed almost immediately by a civil war in which the Republican movement was defeated and all governments of the Irish state since then, regardless of their political party composition, have been of the “Gombeen” neo-colonialist class.
Elements of the Irish Republican movement have never reconciled themselves to this situation and surges of armed struggle took place in the 1930s and 1940s, after that usually restricted to the Six County colony in the mid 1950s to early 1960s and again from the beginning of the 1970s to the end of the 1990s, since when there have been what could best be described as sporadic armed incidents.
During the course of those years sections of the Irish Republican movement have abandoned armed struggle for national liberation, denouncing their erstwhile comrades and even participating in repression against them, whilst those who continue to support armed struggle accuse those who have left the fold of treason.
The history of Irish resistance to colonial domination and expropriation has been replete with armed instances which should surprise no-one, since that colonial domination was achieved in the first place by force of arms, a force employed again and again in repression also. Whenever other means of repressing Irish resistance were employed, e.g by legislation or cultural imposition, the arms of the conqueror were never far from view. “Dieu et mon droit” is the historical motto of the English monarch5, meaning “God and my right”; however “my right” in English at least has the other meaning of “my right hand”, which can also be understood as the hand used to strike a blow, whether as a fist or holding a weapon. And neither monarchs, feudal or capitalist classes of England have been historically reticent in employing force, including armed violence, in pursuit of their “right” to rule – their own country or others’.
Indeed, it took an armed rising in 1916 followed by three years of guerrilla war (1919-1921) to convince the rulers of Britain that they should grant even limited autonomy to Ireland, albeit with partition as part of the deal. The intervening peaceful gain of 73 out a total of 105 Irish seats in the 1918 British General Election, every seat won on a public commitment to Irish independence and a rejection of the British Parliament, did not at all sway the British ruling class.
Furthermore, around the world the history of nations that have liberated themselves from colonial occupation or incorporation has been, almost without exception, that of armed repression overcome eventually by armed resistance.
AGAINST ARMED STRUGGLE IN IRELAND
Those who oppose the right and indeed necessity to resist armed occupation with armed resistance are opposing a law of history. Granted that in theory, Ireland may be an exception or that the historical rule may no longer apply in this historical period and if that is the claim, then it is incumbent on those who oppose armed struggle to explain why they believe one of those to be the case.
In general, they do not even try to do so but rely instead on emotional appeal and moral argument. These are irrelevant in this context: yes, people get killed and otherwise suffer in armed struggle but the deaths and suffering imposed by imperialism and colonialism world-wide are hundreds of times greater. If we want to apply emotional and moral rules to the question then logically we should support the most widescale and energetic struggle everywhere to overthrow imperialism in the shortest possible time.
Those who argue that the current historical situation provides an exception to the general rule of history usually rely on two issues:
1) The gaining of the most seats in the parliament of the Irish state by the Sinn Féin political party in the 2020 General Election6 and 2) the discussion current in society about the holding of a “Border poll” at some point in the near future.
Neither of these is valid for positing that Ireland is currently — or about to enter – a historical phase that will nullify the general historical rule.
1) The Sinn Féin political party has done much more than abandon armed struggle – it has accepted the partition of the country and joined the administration of the British colony, accepting its legal system and repressive apparatus, in particular its police force. Its party within the Irish state is striving to become the dominant party of the Gombeen capitalist class, as first step towards which it seeks to join a coalition government of one or more of the parties of that class, manoeuvering to appeal to the Gombeen class while at the same time keeping its popular base. Nor is this the first time this has happened in Ireland, for what became the foremost party of the Gombeen class, Fianna Fáil, followed that trajectory after splitting from Sinn Féin in 1926.
2) The question of a “Border poll” does not change the historical rule because it is not the expression of the desire of the colonised that governs the decisions of the coloniser, as evidenced from 1918 to 1921 in Ireland for example. Indeed, even during the most recent war in Ireland, opinion polls repeatedly showed a majority of the British population wishing to have their governments pull out of the colony, those wishes never acted upon or even tested in referendum. On a purely legalistic level, even if (and it is by no means certain) a majority of the population of the colony should favour formal unification with the rest of Ireland, the question of how large that majority should be remains uncertain, as does whether – despite the words of some politicians of the British State – the wishes of such a majority would find a majority in the British Parliament and, in the final analysis, the endorsement of the British monarch.
Nor is there any guarantee that such a poll would even be held. And in the final analysis the right to self-determination of a nation in its entirety is not to be decided by a minority made into an artificial majority by colonialism and backed up by its repressive apparatus.
THOSE IN FAVOUR OF ARMED STRUGGLE
The section of our polity supporting the right to armed struggle therefore has a well-established international historical rule and the nation’s historical experience to vindicate its position. But neither factor necessarily dictates the form or the timing for such struggle. And our history has had many occasions when armed struggle was not the most appropriate form of resistance, either because the subjective or objective conditions did not favour it or because we had suffered a recent crushing defeat in arms.
Taking up the option of armed struggle usually occurs in a revolutionary situation but can also be in others, for example against a fascist takeover or other repression, or in defence of some gains (both were present in the case of the Popular Front Government of Spain in 1936 and the second in the case of the Civil War in Ireland). It does not seem to me that any of the periods of armed struggle in Ireland since 1922 fit into any of those categories except perhaps in the recent war in the Six Counties which in part might be categorised as defensive armed struggle against repression.
To wage war against a superior armed and experienced enemy is a serious undertaking. To do so with the struggle largely confined to one-sixth of one’s country and in a part in which almost two-thirds of the population is ideologically opposed to one’s forces has to be considered madness. Extremely courageous but madness nevertheless. How could those leading that armed struggle ever expect to win? Only by basing themselves on a flawed analysis or a reformist one – never on a revolutionary one.
The flawed analysis was that the British ruling class had no great interest in holding on to the colony and could therefore be encouraged to leave if only they could be made to suffer enough. The theory that the British ruling class places no great importance in maintaining its grip on the Six Counties has been amply debunked by its actions since 1921 and even more so since 1968. Of course, that does not prevent liberals, social democrats, unionists and other defenders of British imperialism from peddling that theory but revolutionaries at the very least should be able to see through it.
The reformist analysis was that if only the struggle became serious enough then sections of the Irish capitalist class would oppose British colonial rule in Ireland and move towards the reunification of the country. This analysis is deeply mistaken in that it fails to take account of the nature of the native Irish capitalist class, which is weak and foreign-dependent and has never been anything else. The last time the Irish capitalist class or a substantial section of it was revolutionary was in the time of the United Irishmen and they were led and in some areas largely constituted by descendants of planters and settlers. The development of the native Irish capitalist class under British colonialism was hampered by Penal anti-Catholic laws, destruction of native industry and the influence of a large section of its intelligencia, viz. the conservative Catholic Church hierarchy and much of the priesthood. In 1921, this native capitalist class, raised in huckstering, clientism and corruption, preferred to murder and jail its own national fighters than to carry the struggle for independence through to the end. Since then it has largely allowed foreign capitalists to exploit its labour force and other natural resources on land and sea, along with large parts of its infrastructure. It was never going to take a serious stand for independence and national reunification.
If both those analyses are mistaken, what other rational basis can there be for waging an armed struggle confined to the Six Counties? And if there be no such rational basis, how can the sacrificing of idealistic and courageous young people to years of prison and negligible employment prospects be justified, to say nothing of loss of life and serious injury?
IN CONCLUSION: THE URGENT TASKS OF REVOLUTIONARY STRUGGLE
If an armed struggle confined to the Six Counties is unwinnable, it does not follow that the time is therefore right for armed struggle across the whole of Ireland.
The task for revolutionaries in Ireland, i.e people who are determined to work for a revolution, is to analyse objective and subjective conditions and work in accordance with them in order to advance the struggle to the point of insurrection, at which point there will be no choice but to take up arms, since foreign imperialism and native capitalism will both send their armed forces against us. While it is true that an effective resistance to armed attack requires certain preparations in advance of that crisis, concentration on armed struggle at this stage will not bring us to that point. The mass of the population, including our potential mass base, does not require armed struggle at this point and therefore would not support it. In these conditions and at this time, different forms of struggle are called for.
Nevertheless there are many struggles which working people undertake now and will do in future and revolutionaries need to participate in them and also to use them to help the working people to see their potential. If people must go to jail — and historical experience tells us that they must — would it not be better for them and even more so for the overall struggle, if they did so for taking part in a social or economic struggle of wide sympathy, for example around housing, rather than for “membership of an illegal organisation” or possession of firearms? This would be so even if the immediate objective were the reformist one of forcing the Irish Government to release funds to the local authorities for a construction program of public housing for rent.7
While at times we fight for reforms, we should not advocate any faith in a reform of the system, nor in organisations or leaders who advocate such faith but we rather use the struggles to educate the working people in struggle, showing their strengths and of what they are capable but also the need to go further, to take power into their own hands. It also means that we have to organise against oppression and repression in all their forms – political, economic, religious/cultural, sexual, intellectual ….. And that we have to find ways to participate in all those struggles, putting forward a revolutionary analysis.
This approach calls for both temporary and long-term alliances, both of which have to be managed with care and never by surrendering our revolutionary direction.
We need to build fighting organisations and revolutionary media. We lack broad fighting organisations of any size on any one of the fronts on which we have to fight, including (crucially) fighting trade unions or grassroots trade union organisations. We do not even have a mass revolutionary weekly newspaper.8 Nor a wide political education program. Without those things, it does not seem a realistic proposition to overthrow the ruling classes in Ireland. Towards the building of those elements is where the energies of revolutionaries in Ireland should be directed, whether they be Irish Republicans, Socialists, Communists, Anarchists (or any combination of the above).
In the face of such tasks, does it really matter much why at this time this or that individual speaks out for or against armed actions by relatively small organisations?
1These are two, both of Trotskyist ideology: the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (both now part of the Anti-Austerity Alliance — People Before Profit parliamentary coalition).
2While usually supporting it in areas of the underdeveloped world.
3The British occupation of Ireland is normally dated from 1169.
4These included permanent emergency repressive powers and a number of blatantly sectarian discriminatory provisions.
5It is also displayed on the coat of arms above and behind judges in British courts, which should alert people to the nature of the justice dispensed there.
6However they fell short of the absolute majority required to form a government and would have needed others to form a coalition government which instead, was formed by parties (of previous governments) that had won less support: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
7The housing crisis within the territory of the Irish State is acute but no local authority is building housing for rent — they do not have the funds to do so. Successive governments are starving local authorities of that funding in order to benefit the property speculators and private landlords, which in turn the State funds through a number of measures including social welfare payment for the homeless converted to rent. Funding construction of public housing could also be used to expand public employment and training in construction, thereby pulling away from neo-liberal domination of the capitalist economy and strengthening workers’ rights. Meanwhile some fascists are using the housing need to push their “house the Irish first” propaganda against migrants and asylum-seekers.
8Ireland has two ruling classes: the native Irish neo-colonial one and the colonial unionist class ruling in the colony.