39. The CWI’s history and work in Ireland



Ireland, posing sharply the approach of socialists towards the national question, occupied a key position from the inception of Militant. This was the first country in which we acquired forces outside our original base in Britain. We formulated our political position in the late 1960s when Ireland burst into a prominent position. This has stood the test of time, even with the many twists and turns in the situation.

This arose from a visit I made in 1969 to the city of Derry/ Londonderry at the invitation of Paul Jones, who had previously lived in London and had joined our ranks. Discussions were held with individuals like Eamon McCann, who we had also known in London but who later became a member of the SWP. I was introduced to other figures on the side of the workers and youth then gathered in the Northern Ireland Labour Party, resisting Loyalist attacks on the Catholic/nationalist population. Through this initial discussion many others were won to our ranks including the late Cathy Harkin. I also went to Dublin but drew a blank in gaining support for our ideas in terms of potential contacts and sympathisers.

Beginning with work in the North – added to later with the winning of others such as Peter Hadden who was to play an important role in the development of our Irish section – we established over time a very strong base in Southern Ireland as well. This has been reflected in the great success of our comrades over a number of years, which resulted in winning key people like Joe Higgins. Following him came others like Kevin McLoughlin and, from Northern Ireland, Niall Mulholland who became an important part of the leadership of our Irish section, and his brother Ciaran, together with Stephen Boyd. Niall subsequently moved to London and is now a member of the CWI’s International Secretariat. Kevin is the national organiser of the Socialist Party Ireland. Joe and the Socialist Party had the distinction of winning a seat in the Irish Parliament (the Dáil) in the 1990s on a socialist, Marxist revolutionary programme. This was all the more remarkable given that it was achieved before the complete exhaustion of the greatest economic boom which the country had ever faced – the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’. Capitalist ‘experts’ believed it would mean that workers would be impervious to a radical socialist message.

We opposed the terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) from the outset, explaining that an armed guerrilla tactic, located primarily in urban areas and based on a minority, the Catholic population, could not succeed in defeating British imperialism. Nor could it overcome the opposition of the Protestant population, who then constituted two thirds of the population of Northern Ireland, to force Irish unification on a capitalist basis. We counterposed the need to unify the workers of the North on a class and socialist basis.

In the third edition of the Militant International Review, we wrote: “The only way to undermine the power of British Imperialism and their capitalist allies North and South of the border, as the only way of bringing about real unity, is through class unity.” This was shown by the election of Bernadette Devlin on the basis of an astounding 92% turnout and the vote of 6,000 Protestant farmers and workers, demonstrating the way forward for the working class. But for it to be guaranteed of long-term success, it had to be channelled through the organised labour movement.1

This was a precondition if the whole of Ireland was to be unified – if, indeed, that was the choice of the peoples of Ireland. This was possible on a socialist basis but impossible through the methods and programme of capitalism and its parties – or by terroristic methods. This meant serious work would have to be pursued through the trade unions, the factories and workplaces in order to cement unity amongst the working class. The achievements of the CWI’s Irish section – both North and South – over decades in defending this approach have stood out. We have had comrades killed, intimidated and threatened by sectarian paramilitaries for sticking doggedly to the tasks they set themselves and had significant results on occasions.

Our original stand and consistent work were dramatically confirmed when the iRA leadership, after a long period of behind the scenes negotiations, called a ceasefire in August 1994. Our Northern Ireland comrades declared: “The British and Irish establishments have co-operated to produce a re-echo of the 1973-74 Sunningdale Agreement. Then, the IRA opposed that deal as a sell-out to Unionism while the Protestant working class reaction in the form of the 1974 [Ulster Workers’ Council] strike swept it away as a sellout to Dublin.”2

From the negotiations came the Framework Document on Northern Ireland in 1995. We pointed out that it was an ‘agreement at the top’ amongst essentially pro-capitalist politicians. This would not solve the underlying problems which bred sectarianism: high unemployment, inadequate housing, the segregated education system. The agreement did not contain anything about jobs, decent wages, properly funded public services or opposition to privatisation. We commented: “How could it? It was produced by two governments – the Irish and British governments – who stand for privatisation, low wages and exploitation.”3

Following a brief resumption of fighting after the breakdown of the 1994 ceasefire, the IRA declared a further ceasefire in July 1997, which reflected the dramatic shift of Sinn Féin and the abandonment of two decades of armed struggle. It was the Republican leadership and not the British ruling class which had shifted ground. Gone were pledges to self-determination for all the people of Ireland, as well as British action to persuade the Protestants to accept a united Ireland. There were references in the agreement to cross-border bodies but this was a sop to allow the Republican leadership to sell this deal to their rank and file as a stepping stone to a united Ireland. However, Unionists insisted that the institutions set up be accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly as well as the Dáil.

Over the following years leaders on both sides were engaged in a process of trying to condition Catholics and Protestants to accept this arrangement as ‘power sharing’. The negotiations were punctuated by the resurrection of sectarian outrages and it appeared sometimes as though any agreement hung by a thread and would break down, possibly resulting in sectarian civil war. However, after decades of conflict there was a pronounced ‘war weariness’ on both sides of the divide. The mood in the mid-1990s was entirely different to 1974. This time, middle class Protestants seemed to acquiesce and the local organisation of the employers’ body, the CBI, welcomed it. Even in Protestant working class areas the predominant mood was that it was time for talking, not fighting. Paramilitaries and ex-paramilitaries were reluctant to be the unthinking foot soldiers again for warlike middle class politicians.

Our sister party in Northern Ireland, Militant Labour, gave critical support to the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, concluded at Easter 1998 by Blair’s New Labour government, the Irish government and the Northern Ireland parties, including Sinn Féin. Our comrades welcomed the situation because a new space had opened up which could hopefully see the re-emergence of class politics. As on all occasions like this it was necessary to invoke, particularly for the new generation, past examples of working class unity which could be taken up by working people in the period opening up. To this end, Militant Labour sought to convince workers from both sides of the divide – and neither – to apply these lessons.

Predictably, the attempt to open up a dialogue between workers, leading to class unity between Catholics and Protestants, was attacked in Ireland, Britain and internationally. Our comrades were denounced for even talking to the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), the political wing of the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). In the eyes of hidebound political sectarians this represented a sell-out to Unionism and British imperialism. The fact that the two giants of the Irish Labour movement, James Connolly and James Larkin, had endeavoured to do the same thing was a book sealed with seven seals to such critics. In 1907 Larkin had organised workers to march together in support of strikes, even going to the lengths of organising Orange and Green bands. Connolly did the same in 1911. Moreover, in 1932, at the time of the ‘unemployed riots’ – protests against the slashing of unemployment pay (outdoor relief) – workers came together in Belfast from the mainly Protestant Shankill Road and the predominantly Catholic Falls Road. A real opportunity was presented to cement class unity. Unfortunately, there was then no organisation or party able to build a non-sectarian movement on firm political foundations.

As we predicted, events showed that the ‘peace agreement’ in 1998 did not eliminate sectarianism. In fact, the increasing number of ‘peace walls’ separating communities meant that Northern Ireland was more divided, in a sense, than before the Good Friday Agreement. At times, subsequently, it has appeared as though Northern Ireland was once more on the verge of sectarian civil war: after the Omagh bombing, the aftermath of the Warrington bombs, during the stand-off at Drumcree, or the many clashes which ensued over parades. What helped to prevent this nightmare, above all, was the intervention of the organised working class through the trade unions, with Militant Labour playing a key role in this process.

For instance, when sectarian attacks began again in 1996, not just in Northern Ireland but in London, working class demonstrations involving 100,000 people took to the streets in towns and cities across Northern Ireland on Sunday 25 February. Massive crowds assembled, with 50,000 in Belfast, 20,000 in Derry and 7,000 in Coleraine. This was preceded by two weeks of rallies and protests with hundreds of thousands participating in peace phone-ins and letter-writing protests to the paramilitaries and politicians. The Provisional IRA leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, in particular, managed to sell the agreement to IRA members because of a number of important changes that had taken place, particularly within the besieged Catholic population of the North. Kevin McLoughlin had summed up the situation following the Canary Wharf bombing in London in 1996: “In the South of Ireland the vast majority have never supported the Provos’ campaign and opposed this bombing outright.”4

Previously, Protestant paramilitaries had decided to pursue a brutal and ruthless ‘counter-terrorist’ campaign in answer to the IRA. This involved the indiscriminate murder of entirely innocent Catholics, exerting pressure on the Catholic community through sheer terror, the fear of indiscriminate murder and violence. This is detailed in the book Loyalist by Peter Taylor.5 It compelled the IRA to tone down and eventually abandon its campaign which, in turn, led to the Loyalist paramilitaries also declaring ceasefires. This uneasy situation threatened to fall apart at times but held largely because of the overwhelming desire for peace and the pressure of the labour movement to ensure that this would be the case. This was on display after one of the biggest terrorist outrages, the Omagh bombing by dissident Republicans in 1998.

A huge wave of anger swept across Northern Ireland. The trade union movement stepped into the situation with shop stewards approaching management in the factories. This resulted in a number of enterprises closing for a period, reflecting the revulsion at this outrage (probably committed by a split from the Provisional IRA). Stalls set up by members of the Socialist Party (the new name of the CWI in Northern Ireland) were inundated with people who wanted to sign petitions calling for a one-day general strike. Many considered this the minimum that was required. The mood was generally non-sectarian – Catholics and Protestants were similarly outraged – with even demands that the bombers should be ‘bombed’.

The Real IRA, the organisation from which the bombers came, was besieged and its leaders forced to flee their homes. Other Republican paramilitaries, like the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), were forced to consider a ceasefire.

From 1996 onwards, the history of Northern Ireland has been marked by endless proposals for lasting peace from the British government and its Irish counterparts. This then inevitably breaks down, resulting in upheavals and splits within the paramilitary organisations, followed by a revival of peace negotiations. In all this, none of the major issues confronting working class people – jobs, housing and education – have been solved. Neither the IRA or its civilian face, Sinn Féin, nor any of its Loyalist counterparts could solve any of the social problems confronting the working class of Northern Ireland. Inevitably, in this situation, and without any concrete gains accruing to the paramilitaries, ceasefires broke down. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, having turned to the political front, increased its vote to 15.5% in the ‘Forum Elections’ of 1996, its biggest share since the 1950s. Yet fearing a split it initially hesitated to enter the Forum, an institution set up to enshrine the peace process.

However, Sinn Féin was eventually forced to bite the bullet and enter these institutions – including the Assembly at Stormont later, taking responsibility for policing and security. The net result of the peace process, as we pointed out, was to harden the sectarian divide. Marxists had no illusions in the process but were not prepared to just stand aside when a serious conflict could easily spill over into sectarian fighting or worse, a civil war. Merely proclaiming against sectarianism was not enough. Nor was it sufficient to issue general propaganda in favour of unity between different religions on a socialist and class basis. It was necessary to give answers, to provide possible solutions in a very polarised situation.

One of the thorniest questions was the issue of parades. What should the solution be when communities demand the right to organise traditional parades? Sometimes parades by the Orange Order were construed by Catholics as intimidatory, especially as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was considered a paramilitary force biased towards the Protestants and without authority in the Catholic population. When parades took place, the police were perceived as hemming in local residents who consequently felt threatened. Similarly, Protestants, when denied access to a traditional route, believed that their rights were being taken away.

The response of Militant Labour in Northern Ireland to these conflicts was to recognise that equal rights could only be settled by negotiation. During the parade stand-offs in the late 1990s, Militant Labour recognised the right of the Apprentice Boys to march through the city “except for the section of the walls overlooking [the Catholic area of] the Bogside”. This was seen as reasonable and fair in the circumstances. Our comrades declared that they were “opposed to sectarian organisations such as the Orange Order and its equivalents on the Catholic side. However, we respect the right of these organisations to march and to do so freely… Local agreements acceptable to all could be worked out… Where there are agreements over parades, there should be no police presence, rather the stewarding… should be left in the hands of the community representatives.”6

While our comrades were swimming against the stream to some extent in the North this was not the case in the South of Ireland. Even while the Celtic Tiger was in full swing, Joe Higgins, representing Militant Labour, almost won the Dublin West by-election for the Dáil in early 1996. Joe has a long history of struggle for the ideas of the CWI within the ranks of the Irish labour movement. He had been a leading member of the Labour Party, until it became corrupted and transformed into a bourgeois party. He then became a Militant Labour councillor, prominent activist and leader in the anti-water charges campaign in the 1990s. He and Militant Labour campaigned to enter the Dáil, but linked this with the fight against the government’s new water charges which would hit Dublin’s poorest areas severely. They called for an organised mass non-payment campaign similar to the anti-poll tax struggle in Britain. As with the renewed water charges campaign from 2014 onwards, the Labour Party in 1996 was participating in a coalition government, then led by Fianna Fáil, the main capitalist party. Joe came within a whisker of winning the by-election, losing by only 370 votes on the final count.

The Socialist Party, as it was now called in Ireland, stood five candidates, all in the Dublin area and closely associated with the antiwater charges campaign. Candidates also stood in Tipperary and Cork. Despite the extensive boom, the economic situation was not what it seemed. The cream was being skimmed off by the elite. A recent poll had shown that 62% said they had not experienced the feel-good factor. The figure for skilled workers rose to 75%. Socialist Party candidates stood on the platform of only taking the average worker’s wage and donating the rest to the Socialist Party and the labour movement. Opposition to water charges was the centrepiece of the campaign. Other issues which came up included a huge drug problem which was plaguing Dublin. The failure of the state in this field resulted in a massive community-based movement to tackle drug dealing and provide help for addicts. The Socialist Party played a leading role on this issue in a number of areas. Joe Higgins’s campaign was a triumph for genuine socialist ideas. Once in the Dáil, he became a model representative of the wider labour movement in opposition to Irish freebooter capitalism.

Many Southern Irish workers felt as though they had not been invited to the Celtic Tiger party. As the rich and powerful gorged themselves Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party helped to organise the working class and poor in the mass campaign which defeated the attempt to introduce water charges. In 2002 he stood in the election and was once more triumphant. His re-election confirmed that the shine was beginning to be taken off the economic upswing; more a stooping tiger than a crouching one now!

One beneficial effect of the boom was the huge changes in the Irish working class. It had assumed a more dynamic and concentrated character, with significant sections of women absorbed into the workforce. Much of the population lived in the Dublin area, which was experiencing increasing health, traffic, housing  and education chaos. This in turn led to a greater determination to challenge the capitalist establishment with many workers looking for a real alternative. Joe and the Socialist Party were able to tap into this mood. Parties which were seen to stand outside the capitalist establishment – also, to some extent, the Greens and Sinn Féin, along with independents – saw a big increase in their vote. Joe was re-elected as a TD (MP) in Dublin West, coming second out of the constituency’s three elected candidates, increasing his vote.

However, the overall results showed that it was business as usual. Bertie Ahern’s ruling Fianna Fáil emerged as the biggest party. On the basis of this election, Sinn Féin was regarded, at least by its own voters, as being in opposition to the Irish political establishment and picked up five TDs. It distributed an abundance of glossy material and organised expensive stunts, including hiring planes with huge display banners over Dublin West two days before the vote. The press predictably played up Sinn Féin and the Green Party, while virtually ignoring the Socialist Party. While there was disappointment that the Socialist Party had not been able to elect another TD, there was a confidence that Joe’s experience of winning after losing first time out would be repeated in the future. Even with one TD the media played down the significance of Joe’s re-election, referring to the Socialist Party as ‘independents’, while building up the success of Sinn Féin.

But it was not long before the Socialist Party was in the thick of the resistance to government attacks. Joe Higgins and Clare Daly were arrested and sentenced to a month in prison in Mountjoy jail for their part in the campaign against the imposition of bin charges. These events became front page news and a major talking point with Socialist Party representatives debating against government ministers and other establishment figures on national TV and radio. The jailings were clearly an attempt to deal a crushing blow to the Socialist Party which had become a constant thorn in the side of the government. Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who had been mercilessly subjected to attacks by Joe Higgins in the Dáil, personally defended the jailings. Asked why he had previously objected when another TD was jailed for protesting in defence of Dublin traders, he tried to draw a distinction by saying that the other TD was “a nice man”!

The bin charges attack on the working class was a symptom of the mounting economic problems for Southern Irish capitalism, with growth slowing dramatically to close to zero. The gap between rich and poor was the second highest in the advanced industrial countries. The real legacy of the Celtic Tiger was that 40% of Irish children were living on or below the poverty line. During the ‘economic miracle’, the super-rich managed to avoid paying taxes and Joe Higgins had exposed the corrupt practices of politicians, receiving bribes in ‘brown envelopes’. Councils reacted to the bin tax nonpayment campaign by declaring that they would no longer collect the rubbish off non-payers. This was met with mass leafleting by the anti-bin tax campaigners suggesting blockades to stop bin lorries if collections were stopped. The centre of the protest was in the Fingal area, with Joe Higgins and Ruth Coppinger playing a role in the resistance, and in Dublin North.

The right-wing General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), David Begg, attacked the campaign and accused Joe and Clare Daly of leading people into “imprisonment in pursuit of a political objective”. Joe roundly condemned this “stab in the back” in the first public statement he was able to make from his prison cell.7 The campaign spread to the Greater Dublin area with the bin service effectively shut down in October by pickets of bin depots organised by the four anti-bin tax campaigns throughout the city. The action had been called in response to the jailing of 13 other people, most of them residents of Fingal and other parts of Dublin. Eventually, Joe and Clare were released declaring themselves “proud, unrepentant, defiant and more determined”.8

The esteem amongst working people that Joe Higgins and the Socialist Party had built up was reinforced when he and Socialist Party councillor Mick Murphy lifted the lid in 2005 on the ruthless exploitation of foreign, mainly Turkish, workers in Dublin employed by the infamous GAMA construction company. It was revealed that this firm, with major government and local authority contracts in Ireland, had for years been working its migrant workforce excessively: up to twelve hours a day, seven days a week. “What we have is mass fraud, a grand larceny of workers’ wages,” said Joe.9

GAMA then claimed that it had deposited the rest of the workers’ wages in accounts with the Dutch-based Finansbank. The workers knew nothing about these accounts so Joe and Mick took four former employees of GAMA to Amsterdam, walked into the Dutch bank and spoke to stunned officials, demanding the workers’ access to their accounts! One worker had €24,000 yet had known nothing about the account’s existence! It was estimated that as much as €40 million of the workers’ money had been deposited in this bank. These revelations led to demonstrations of 300 workers from GAMA sites in Dublin in an unofficial protest against the company’s below minimum wage payments. They were joined by Joe and other workers on a march to the Dáil and Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the country’s largest trade union, SIPTU. This action eventually brought some recompense to the workers but it also highlighted the systematic actions of the bosses to cheat very low-paid workers out of even the minimal pittance that was due to them.10