Workers Hammer No. 238
Reasserting revolutionary internationalism
All British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland now!
In August 2007, the British Army formally ended Operation Banner, its brutal 38-year-long campaign of imperialist terror aimed at enforcing the subjugation of Northern Ireland’s oppressed Catholic minority. The scaling down of the troop presence did not, however, end the British imperialist occupation of Northern Ireland nor the oppression of the Catholics. As we noted in Workers Hammer no 213, Winter 2010-2011: “The British Army has retained a garrison of several thousand troops who can be called upon instantly to provide ‘assistance’ to the Police Service of Northern Ireland [PSNI]/Royal Ulster Constabulary. We demand: All British troops and bases out of Northern Ireland now!” Since that issue of our newspaper, however, we have not again raised the demand for the remaining troops to get out.
Our de facto dropping for several years of the troops out demand constitutes a capitulation to British imperialism and specifically to the imperialist “peace process” aided and abetted by Gerry Adams’ Sinn Féin. The casual dropping of a demand that was central to the programme on which the Spartacist League/Britain was founded was carried out surreptitiously, never discussed or codified in a party body and never reported to the leadership of the International Communist League, of which the SL/B is the British section. We hereby repudiate this capitulation and reassert our revolutionary, internationalist line calling for immediate, unconditional withdrawal of the troops.
The April 1998 Good Friday Agreement was premised on the Provisional IRA decommissioning its weapons while leaving guns in the hands of the Loyalist paramilitary killers and keeping the British Army in place. Having achieved through the “peace process” what it could not bring about through decades of naked terror — the disarmament of the IRA — the British Army began to greatly reduce the number of troops. The work of patrolling the streets was left to the paramilitary PSNI — whose operations against dissident Republicans and others deemed “enemies of the state” have been openly augmented since 2007 by a huge MI5 facility in Belfast. Actual troop numbers have fluctuated over the years, reaching 5000 in 2016. Marxists are opposed to all British forces in Northern Ireland. As we wrote in our “Theses on Ireland” (Spartacist [English-language edition] no 24, Autumn 1977):
“An essential element of our program is the demand for the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of the British army. British imperialism has brought centuries of exploitation, oppression and bloodshed to the island. No good can come of the British presence; the existing tie between Northern Ireland and the British state can only be oppressive to the Irish Catholic population, an obstacle to a proletarian class mobilisation and solution. We place no preconditions on this demand for the immediate withdrawal of all British military forces or lessen its categorical quality by suggesting ‘steps’ toward its fulfillment (such as simply demanding that the army should withdraw to its barracks or from working-class districts).”
The imperialist “peace” fraud has meant the continued subjugation of the Catholic population. Our failure from 2011 onward to demand the withdrawal of the British garrison bought into the chauvinist lie that the “United Kingdom” has a legitimate claim to Northern Ireland and amounted to a denial that the Catholics continued to be subject to direct British state repression. Our position also conciliated the Green nationalist Sinn Féin, who betrayed the oppressed Catholic minority through its role in the “peace” charade and its willingness to play second fiddle to the Unionists in a bogus “power-sharing” arrangement in the reactionary Orange statelet. In the upshot, Northern Ireland remains a sectarian hell hole, more segregated now than in the 1960s, with the “peace” maintained by permanent “peace” walls and thousands of armed police.
Northern Ireland has served as a testing ground for the “war on terror” in Britain, primarily directed against the Muslim minority, and for imperialist terror around the world. An internal Army report titled “Operation Banner — An Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland” bragged: “Operations in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq have already demonstrated both the particular techniques and the levels of expertise learnt through hard experience, both on the streets and in the fields of Northern Ireland.” The report included a foreword by General Sir Michael Jackson, who was the head of the British Army during the 2003 Iraq invasion. Jackson earned his stripes in Derry on Bloody Sunday in January 1972 as adjutant to the Parachute Regiment when it carried out the cold-blooded killing of 13 Catholic civilians (with another dying later).
Ireland is a litmus test for revolutionaries in Britain. Karl Marx stressed the need “to awaken the consciousness of the English working class that, for them, the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation” (“Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt”, 9 April 1870). Marx and Lenin’s insistence that the working class in Britain must oppose British rule in Ireland is rejected by the reformist left. The Socialist Party has refused to call for the withdrawal of British troops from the North for decades. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), then called International Socialists, notoriously welcomed the Labour government’s despatch of troops to Northern Ireland in 1969, claiming:
“The breathing space provided by the presence of British troops is short but vital. Those who call for the immediate withdrawal of the troops before the men behind the barricades can defend themselves are inviting a pogrom which will hit first and hardest at socialists.”
— Socialist Worker, 11 September 1969
The notion that the British ruling class would protect Catholics in the North betrays the SWP’s deep-seated reformist view of the capitalist state as potentially serving the interests of the oppressed.
These small-time reformists take their cues from the Labour Party. Labour has been wedded to English chauvinism since its inception, and remains so to this day. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, he and ally John McDonnell sought to distance themselves from their former support for the Irish Republican cause. Witch-hunted by the Tory press and right wingers in the Labour Party as “terrorist sympathisers” for having spoken at Republican events, McDonnell issued a grovelling apology for having praised the IRA’s armed struggle, while Corbyn meekly objected, “the violence was wrong on all sides and I have said so all along” (belfasttelegraph.co.uk, 28 September 2015), thus equating the murderers of Bloody Sunday with the defensive violence of an oppressed people.
We Trotskyists champion the rights of the oppressed Catholic minority and defend against state repression those who strike a blow against the imperialist occupation forces and the Loyalist paramilitaries. But we have never been cheerleaders for the Republicans, whose nationalist politics and terrorist tactics are counterposed to the interests of the working class, Catholic and Protestant, North and South. A case in point is our response to the Real IRA killing of two British soldiers in the Massereene British Army base and a Continuity IRA killing of a cop in Craigavon in March 2009. We denounced the “obscenely hypocritical declarations against ‘terrorism’, not least from the British Labour government which is part of the world’s biggest force for terrorism as seen in the brutal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan”. We led with the call: “Defend Irish Republicans against state repression!” (Workers Hammer no 206, Spring 2009). At the same time, we counterposed our Marxist politics to those of the Green nationalists:
“From the point of view of the working class, the killings of these British military personnel and a Northern Ireland cop are not criminal acts. However, in most such terrorist acts, innocent civilians are among those killed or maimed. Among those injured in the shooting were two workers delivering pizza to the army barracks, one of whom was a Polish immigrant. The obscene claim by the Real IRA that both workers were ‘collaborators’ with the British shows the reactionary (and racist) logic of nationalism, which purports to represent its ‘own’ people and writes off all ‘other’ people as the enemy .
“We oppose and condemn communalist attacks by the Irish nationalist forces on the Protestant population as well as indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets in Britain and in Northern Ireland, such as the Omagh bombing in 1998. These indiscriminate actions are indeed crimes against the working class of these islands. Politically our programme is counterposed to the terrorism that is carried out in the service of the nationalist programme which cuts across the class unity of the workers in the struggle against their common enemy: the capitalist class.”
The call for troops out of Northern Ireland does not automatically ensure advance in a revolutionary direction. It is, however, a necessary starting point, which must be linked to a revolutionary proletarian perspective for both islands. Given the interpenetration of the Catholics and Protestants in the North, we recognise that the conflicting rights of these two peoples can be equitably resolved only under workers rule (see “Northern Ireland: imperialist ‘peace’ fraud and Catholic oppression”, page 2). We fight for an Irish workers republic as part of a voluntary federation of workers republics in the British Isles.
From the foundation of the Spartacist League in Britain in 1978, we have had a proud history of struggle against our “own” imperialist government over the question of Ireland. If not publicly corrected, the dropping of the call for troops out would have revealed as hollow our commitment to forging the Leninist vanguard parties needed to lead the workers of the British Isles to victory over their rapacious capitalist rulers. For workers revolution on both sides of the Irish border and both sides of the Irish Sea!