There are about 1.5 million people in the north of Ireland. The place has an assembly with some devolved powers through which positions, patronage and money are shared along sectarian lines by a coalition of the junior partner Sinn Féin and the homophobic, climate change denying, creationist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The other parties in the Stormont assembly are the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, UKIP, NI21, the Green Party, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). That’s nine parties with elected representatives in an area with a smaller population than Birmingham and those are only the ones which are successful in elections. The tally doesn’t include a range of other groups which either don’t stand in elections or don’t get enough votes under a proportional representation system which is much more democratic than the first past the post method used in England.
It’s hard to argue that people in the north of Ireland are unaware of the importance of political parties or elections.Voter turnouts tend to be much either than in England or Wales. As well as elections people get involved in politics through demonstrations, sectarian parades and, to some extent now, armed struggle.
One can reasonably argue that a choice between the DUP and TUV is no choice at all. It would not be wrong to point out that Sinn Féin is running the northern state on behalf of the London government, has been politically defeated and practises corrupt nepotism. A number of small radical organisations in Ireland make the same criticisms.
Understandably Irish radicals sometimes survey the country’s political landscape and despair. Some English radicals do the same and occasionally reach the conclusion that what the Irish need in their struggle for socialism is an organisation to give the Irish a chance to try “proper” politics, free from all that nonsense about flags and borders. We saw that reflex at the recent Left Unity (LU) conference where the original draft of the constitution contained a clause that would permit the new party to organise in the north of Ireland.
The offending section was removed by a majority vote but a significant minority was in favour of its retention. The pressure of a busy agenda stopped a meaningful discussion of the issue and it’s safe to assume that it was the first time many of the people in the room would have considered it. Why is it so important?
No one is likely to join Left Unity who’s in favour of imperialist war and occupying other people’s countries. However it is only the fact that the north of Ireland is a British colony that even makes it possible to consider the idea of LU organising there. That colonial relationship is secured by a large military presence and a willingness to use murder and violence to protect it. Claiming the right to organise in a colony if you are a party in the occupying country is nothing but an endorsement of your state’s territorial claim. If Left Unity had voted to allow branches in the north of Ireland it would have been explicitly supporting British imperialism’s territorial claim on Ireland. In the political jargon that is “social imperialism” or in more literary language, it’s another version of Kipling’s “white man’s burden”. Only the civilising potential of British socialism can save the ignorant Irish from themselves. It’s one of the most insidious justifications of imperialism and has been used by every war criminal from Julius Caesar to Tony Blair.
A consistently principled position for socialists in Britain is to oppose British imperialism. Most activists have no problem applying that simple rule to Iraq or Afghanistan. With the defeat of the mass movement against imperialism in Ireland it’s a golden rule that is semi forgotten. For many of Left Unity’s younger activists the idea that part of Ireland remains a British colony is one that they may not have heard before. It certainly won’t have had any relevance to their daily political practice.
Socialists in Britain might look at the multiplicity of political organisations in the north of Ireland and thoroughly disapprove. There’s no harm in that. The working class in the south of Ireland has passively suffered huge cuts in its standard of living and in the north they again seem obsessed with flags and trying to blow things up. Partition and imperialism have divided the Irish working class but it’s the responsibility of that class to create the instruments of its own liberation. Well-intentioned missionaries should stay away.