Socialist Party archives - Ireland Two Nations? Bankruptcy of Theories of O'Brien and 'Marxist' Sects 1972

Two Nations?

Bankruptcy of Theories of O'Brien and 'Marxist' Sects

This article was originally publised in the first edition of Militant Irish Monthly, in 1972. This copy is taken from our pamphlet, For Workers' Unity A reply to the Workers' Association pamphlet 'What's wrong with Ulster Trade Unionism?'. This was written in 1974 after the WA pamphlet came out argued for a split in the labour movement along sectarian lines. it is our intention to carry all of this pamphlet in the near future. SP Belfast, Nov. 26th 2004

'The petit bourgeoisie change their ideas like a man changes his shirt,' Trotsky once wrote. Incapable of standing on firm principles and fighting against hostile and backward currents of thought in the workers' movement, the middle class politician and middle class political tendencies usually opportunistically bend under pressure. This often means that the position which was stubbornly defended yesterday is unceremoniously abandoned today, without any explanation or attempt to justify the change in policy.

Such is the position of Conor Cruise O'Brien and those 'Marxist' tendencies who have embraced the 'theory' that there are 'two nations' in Ireland, a 'Protestant nation' and a 'catholic nation'. Invariably these same tendencies in the past adopted the position of Catholic nationalists by implicitly characterising the Protestant population of the North as alien, sometimes as 'colons' or at best as being incapable of rising to the same level of consciousness and fighting spirit as the Catholic workers. Conor Cruise O'Brien, for instance, wrote articles in 1966 praising uncritically the leaders of the 1916 uprising and the role of Republicans in general, in the national independence struggle.

Some of the 'Marxist' sects on the other hand, quoted articles of James Connolly in such a manner as to make him a catholic Nationalist par excellence.

What is a nation?

The adoption of the 'two nations' theory is born out of a despair that the present religious polarisation in Northern Ireland is fixed once and for all, that real unity between Catholic and Protestant workers cannot be achieved and consequently all that remains is to permanently fix these divisions by recognising two nations and two separate states.

Such an analysis, at the same time as being profoundly pessimistic, does not stand up to any serious examination form a Socialist or Marxist standpoint. What is a nation?

Marxists do not characterise any assortment of individuals as a nation. Otherwise any odd group, religion, etc. would be able to arbitrarily declare itself a nation. Nations and the formation of the modern nation state, came into existence with the development of capitalism itself, with the breaking down of medieval particulararism and a corresponding centralisation of capital, peoples and markets as a pre-condition for the development of the productive forces, i.e. science technique and the organisation of labour. Historical experience has shown that for a nation to remain viable and not subject to continual break-up, it has to have certain common characteristics. These are a common language, a common territory, a common and quite distinct economic cohesion and a common culture. If any one of these factors is missing, then history has shown the tendency towards dissolution will be manifested at a certain stage.

In what way then does the Protestant 'nation' meet these requirement? A common language? The proponents of the theory of 'two nations' feeling their weakness on this question, are forced to hearken back to the earlier part of the 19th century, to prove that there were two different languages spoken by Catholic and Protestant. Both now speak English as the major tongue. Irish is only used as a first language by a minority, even in the South.

A distinct national territory? Right from its inception, the six counties included two overwhelmingly Catholic counties, Fermanagh and Tyrone. The logic of a demand for a separate territory for the Protestants would be the establishment of a four county state, with a Protestant majority. The inclusion of Fermanagh and Tyrone in the six counties at the time of partition was because the Unionists themselves realised that their state was completely unviable on the basis of four counties. Economically also the unionist regime has always relied on the enormous subventions of British imperialism.

What about a common culture? At the time of the plantations, the Protestant population emanated from a different culture from that of the native Irish. With the development of industry and a modern economy, the tendency towards to the co-mingling of the Catholic and Protestant was only cut across by the British imperialists, firstly by the deliberate fostering of sectarian divisions for political, military and economic reasons, and in the past by the deepening of the sectarian divide by the Paisleyites on the one side and the Provisional IRA on the other. More examples can be given to show that the Protestant worker considers himself as an Irishman, than can be adduced to prove any separate 'nationality'.

Thus the numerous Protestant Republican martyrs, beginning with Wolfe Tone and the Independent Orange Order which in 1906 and 1907 broke away from the main Orange Order taking with it the majority of the working class lodges in Belfast.

They linked up with James Larkin who was able to forge an alliance of Catholic and Protestant workers fighting on class issues.

Protestants are Irishmen

The Manifesto of the Independent Orange Order demonstrated that even these 'orange' workers, who started off as a right wing, viciously sectarian organisation, considered themselves as Irishmen…'As Irishmen we do not seek to asperse the memory of the hallowed dead (but)…to bridge the gulf that has so long divided Ireland into hostile camps …and to hold out the hand of fellowship to those who, while worshipping at other shrines, are yet our fellow countrymen.' (From Emmet Larkin's biography of James Larkin.)

Quite apart from this, in every 'national culture' there is in reality two cultures, the culture of the capitalists and landlords, and that of the workers, i.e. class solidarity and international brotherhood. Catholic and Protestant have fought together shoulder to shoulder on many occasions against their common exploiters.

The argument that the Protestant population must be a nation because there is a Protestant capitalist class in the North, arises from a complete misunderstanding on the national question from a Marxist and Socialist standpoint.

Firstly, there were Jewish capitalists in Russia before 1917, but this did not mean that at that stage there was a Jewish 'nation'. The Russian Marxists specifically rejected this idea, characterising the Jews as a specifically OPPRESSED CASTE.

The Georgian Jew was closer in all aspects to the Georgian worker and peasants than to the Ukrainian Jew, save for the religious question. The religion of the Protestant worker is a reflection of the cultural conditions of the past. It can only continue to hold the worker in its grip given the backwardness of the Labour movement in Northern Ireland, allied to the fact that some labour leaders also seek to reinforce the religious bigotry and backwardness of the Protestant workers by the injection of false ideas about 'Protestant nationality.'

Imperialism Divided Ireland

Ireland was not divided, as is claimed by some, because of the separate development of a Protestant industrial capitalist class in Northern Ireland. The Unionist bosses were a component part of British imperialism. If the British ruling class could have guaranteed a limited 'independence' for Ireland, while still maintaining their military and naval bases together with their economic stranglehold, they would have been prepared to come to terms with the emerging Southern capitalist class.

The factors which prevented such a deal were on the one side the fear of the social revolution which underlay the liberation struggle from 1916 to 1923 and was reflected in the occupations of the land by the small farmers and the mass strikes during the Civil War in 1923. They were afraid that the contagion in the South would spread to the North. Hence their determination to stave off this threat by inflaming sectarian passions. On the other was the need to guarantee Ireland as a military outpost- the 'guardian of the freedom of the seas.'

It is precisely because some of these factors have been rendered obsolete by the developments in the South and the North in the last 50 years, that the British ruling class have now proposed the unification of Ireland on a capitalist basis. With the decline in the military and economic power of British imperialism, their reliance on sea bases has diminished. Southern Ireland as much as the North is bound hand and foot to the British economy.

The only thing which stands in the way of British imperialism having its way is the monster of sectarianism, its own creation which refuses to lie down. The Protestant population, nourished by the British ruling class on this diet, see any suggestion of a capitalist united Ireland as a threat to them.

The acceptance of the position that there is a separate Protestant 'nation' in Northern Ireland is not only thoroughly false but in practice can objectively aid reaction. This is particularly the case with the position of those 'Marxist' sects which accept this 'theory' and at the same time restrict themselves to calling for the 'right of self-determination' for the Protestants without raising even once the idea of socialism as a way out of the crisis which faces Protestant and Catholic workers alike. In practice, they adopt the standpoint of Paisley and Craig, fuelling the sectarian fires with ill-digested arguments borrowed from Marxism.

A Socialist united Ireland

The rank and file of the Irish labour movement, North and South, must reject these ideas, which are a barrier to the uniting of Protestant and Catholic workers in action against the Green and Orange bosses alike. A united Ireland will be realised, but only on the basis of the socialist transformation of society. The Protestant workers can be won to the idea of the unification of the country if this is linked to solutions to the problems he faces, i.e. unemployment, housing, education, starvation wages, etc. The only weapon which can bring this about is a united labour movement, which in the North alone is a quarter of a million strong. This giant will be aroused to action on a programme of socialist change which will, n the process, push aside the purveyors of Protestant 'nationalism' and their Catholic counterparts.




This series of articles on Northern Ireland from our archives
are available here.

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