Left Republicanism

Liam O Ruairc of the IRSP responds in the pages of the Communist Party of Great Britain's Weekly Worker (issue 589 Thursday August 11 2005) to a debate about the role of Republican Socialism and the Protestant working class in today's Ireland.

In his article (WW 4 August), Peter Manson raises a number of issues relating to Irish republicanism.

"It is missing the point to say that Adams has sold out. His socialism was...always fake. No one should be surprised when such people discard the Armalite in favour of constitutionalism -there is nothing innately revolutionary about their nationalism."

However, to paraphrase Peadar O'Donnell, the problem is not that Adams is not a socialist - he doesn't claim to be one - the problem is that he claims to be a republican whereas he has moved to the nationalist position. He has ditched innately revolutionary republicanism for innately reformist nationalism. At this stage, the important political debate is not that between republicanism and socialism, but the debate between republicanism and nationalism. Though the question of socialism cannot be chronologically separated from the struggle for the republican position, the latter has logical priority.

The Adams strategy blurred the distinctions between republicanism and nationalism, between republicanism and Catholic defenderism. An alternative strategy needs to re define those boundaries and rescue republicanism from being seen simply as a different face of the nationalist and defenderist project. Peter is absolutely correct when noting that "what is paramount is the programme we fight under". In the present conjuncture, we are back to the debates of the 1930s and the Republican Congress. Should the immediate aim be the Republic or the Workers Republic? To reach this aim is the best vehicle the party or the united front? Those questions still haven't been clarified.

Last year, there was an attempt to set a Congress of Republicans <http://lark.phoblacht.net/nml1802055g.html>. The project failed. Some of those involved were for the Republic, others for the Workers Republic, a few defended the Belfast Agreement, most opposed it, some supported armed struggle, others not.

Peter writes that "the IRSP is first and foremost a left nationalist formation" rather than a Marxist party. Given the opposition between nationalism and republicanism, the term 'left republican' or 'social republicanism' is more adequate. It stands in the tradition of Tone, Emmett, Lalor, Connolly, Mellows and Frank Ryan. Of all those, only Connolly was strictly speaking a scientific socialist. Liam Mellows wrote that to call his ideas 'communist' was "silly" (CD Greaves, Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution, Lawrence & Wishart, 1971, p.377).

In the words of Tom Barry, Frank Ryan was a patriotic Irishman with left wing sympathies. In a letter to a newspaper, Ryan wrote: "The future lies in working-class rule. In my opinion not in the Communism advocated today, but certainly in that direction. That explains, at once, why I associate on a platform with the CP and at the same time why I would not join the CP. And eventually the gap between CP policy on the one hand and the Fianna Fail IRA policies on the other hand will be filled by a new movement. We will have to slog along for that." (Irish Press, 1 May 1935)

Historical evidence thus substantiates Peter's characterisation. Also, none of the left republican figures or organisations ever fitted within a strict definition of a communist party, for example being based on the theses and resolutions of the first four congresses of the Communist International, accepting the 21 points of admission, etc. However, left republicanism is the best starting point for those in Ireland who want to forge the vanguard and build a party of a new type. Where else can you begin? It is the current that has the most 'family resemblances', as Wittgenstein would have put it, with scientific socialism.

Peter would object that a left republican programme "fails to embrace anything approaching a programme to win over the British-Irish population". I have never heard the Ulster Protestants refer to themselves as 'British-Irish' and very few would claim the status of a distinct nationality, however for reasons of convenience I will refer to them here as the 'British-Irish'. How does one challenge Orangeism and Loyalism and win over the 'British-Irish' as Peter calls them?

One has to make a clear distinction between the 'British-Irish' population and Orangeism, loyalism and unionism. An ethno-national group should not be confused with a particular political ideology. Not all the 'British-Irish' are loyalists. Maintaining the distinction between the two is essential if one wants to encourage 'British-Irish' breaking away from the reactionary Orangeism, loyalism and unionism, and currents independent of them emerging amongst the 'British-Irish' workers.

A left republican programme would accept the right of the 'British-Irish' to define themselves as they want. Social republicanism does not have a problem with people considering themselves to be British or believing in the Protestant religion. Everyone in Ireland has the right to hold on to his or her own identity, culture and perceived nationality. For example, there are Chinese people in Ireland who consider themselves to be Chinese and are holding on to their language and culture, the same with Polish or Nigerian people, etc. So if the Protestant people in the North consider themselves to be British and not Irish, republicans should have no problem with it.

The programme would challenge the 'British-Irish' on what they mean whenever they talk of their British identity and culture. For example, if one talks of Irish identity and culture, one can point major writers, music, architecture etc. However, whenever the 'British-Irish' claim to be celebrating their culture, it is limited to the flying of Union flags, marches and bonfires. Is that all what their culture and identity is? How many writers for example has the 'British-Irish' tradition produced? They should be challenged on their lack of culture and contradictions. If wearing a Rangers top and a sash while singing The Billy Boys and banging a drum is a culture, then every social group, sect and bunch of ideological crackpots can claim the status of a culture and a separate identity. More specifically, the 'British-Irish' should be challenged on how they relate to their progressive heritage.

There are lots of things in the British culture and history that left republicanism can identify with, think for example of the democratic tradition of the Levellers, the Chartists, etc. Many Protestants who consider themselves to be British only hold on to one aspect/expression of British identity: the monarchy, nostalgia for the Empire, etc. Left republicans would point that there are other ways of being British, why don't they explore and appropriate for themselves all the progressive British heritage?

Commentators have recently talked about "Protestant alienation". There is a deepening crisis in Protestant working class areas in the North. Apart from poverty and unemployment, Protestant working class communities suffer the daily brunt of paramilitary oppression and gangsterism. The 'British-Irish' should be challenged on the lack of social and economic content of both loyalism and unionism. Contrary to republicanism, it has no democratic social and economic content, which would be able to articulate solutions to those problems. Orangeism, loyalism and unionism are unable to correspond to the needs of the 'British-Irish' people. It is unfortunate how this crisis has encouraged so few Protestants to question the relevance of unionism and loyalism.

Ideally, the emancipation of the 'British-Irish' working class should be the work of the 'British-Irish' workers themselves. However, there are two major obstacles to this. The first problem is that working class Protestant communities are characterized by a weak political culture, and this has had a major effect on its ability to develop outward and progressive looking policies capable of developing their positive potential. It has few thinkers. The second problem is that as long as the British state guarantees that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom, the unionist population has no incentives to question and change their position. Unionist and loyalist intransigence is proportional to the lack of resolve in confronting it. That leaves republicans and socialists pessimistic about winning over substantial sections of the Protestant population.

What elements of the 'British-Irish' population are the most likely to chart a progressive move forward? Within the working class, a rudimentary trade union solidarity still remains, residue from the large scale Protestant working class participation in the manufacturing industry prevalent in the building of industrial Belfast - linen, textiles, engineering and shipbuilding. Every working class district had, until recently, many men and women who had involvement at shop steward or convenor level within their union, and those organisation skills learnt in the unions lent discipline to the Protestant community. Also, in most predominantly Protestant districts today, most of the "social cement" is provided by, or within the sphere of influence of churches. The influence of Protestant clergy in the resolution of community problems has been noticeable. At their best, the influences of church leaders and the labour movement were seen in the development of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. At its height it had 4 Stormont MPs in the 1960's. Those are the elements of the 'British-Irish' population who have the best chances to challenge Orangeism and unionism from within.

Finally, non-nationalist republicanism challenges all manifestations of nationalism and sectarianism. Republicanism should not be identified with romantic cultural nationalism. More specifically, it refuses to identify Irish culture and identity exclusively with one single cultural form (i.e. Irish language, supporting Gaelic games, etc). A more diverse and inclusive approach to culture influenced bym republicanism such as the Field Day project provides an alternative to this position.

This is the most realistic programme to strengthen what is best in the 'British-Irish' population without making any concessions to Orangeism, Loyalism and Unionism.