British Labour and the Irish Question [In 1987]

This discussion paper by C. Desmond Greaves was delivered at a conference in London organised by the Connolly Association on 24th October 1987:

The bloodshed and violence in the six counties of “Northern Ireland” have been going on for nearly twenty years, providing the most protracted crisis in Irish history. The cost to the United Kingdom Exchequer is estimated at something like £2,000 million per annum. To this must be added a sum of the order of £250 million per annum borne by the exchequer of the Republic. This expenditure is being incurred at a time when, in both countries, health, education and other services are the subject of heavy retrenchments.

On purely economic grounds there is therefore a case for the most thoroughgoing examination of the basis of policy; and the less easily quantifiable toll of death, suffering and resultant deprivation add to the urgency of such examination.

The root cause of the conflict is the fact that a substantial part of the people of Ireland have refused to accept the settlement that was forced on them by Lloyd George’s government in 1921. British pressure has repeatedly wrung from Irish administrations de facto recognition of the partition of Ireland that was the essence of that settlement, but such recognition has never won popular acceptance, especially in the six counties where Britain retains control. 

The argument is plain. The majority of Unionists in the six counties is a minority in Ireland as a whole. The nationalist argument is that the Irish people should vote as one nation, the minority bowing to the will of the majority as they do in most other countries. It is argued that they would have no choice, but for the willingness of Britain to maintain military force and economic support.

An important factor is the size of the artificially created minority in the six counties. Forty percent of its population consider their rightful place the Republic. How to prevent this minority becoming a majority has exercised successive local administrations and possibly British governments as well. The result has been the creation of a complete system of discrimination and repression, which still exists. 

The question naturally arises as to why British governments have been prepared to maintain such a system, expend so much wealth and incur international odium. The main reason – and the issue played a large part in the Anglo-Irish negotiations of 1921 – relates to military security, at present in the context of the “defence of the north-western approaches” and obligations to NATO. The solution of the Irish question is thus intimately connected with the issues of world peace and détente and should be reviewed in the context of the recent rapprochement between the super-powers following the initiatives of Mr Gorbachev and President Reagan. If, as Mr Tony Benn argues, the Russian threat is largely imaginary, then British security not only does not require nuclear arms; it does not require the occupation of the north of Ireland, and the money can be saved.

It is unlikely that any Conservative administration would draw this conclusion. Three outcomes are possible. First, there is a possible military victory by one of the contending parties. This seems unlikely. Then there is a compromise based on the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Dissent on the Nationalist side (leaving aside Unionist dissent) is too substantial to warrant optimism, and the British Government appears to have opted for “an acceptable level of violence” provided it can maintain military control of the territory. There is a third possibility that is open only to a Labour Government, a settlement based on the cessation of British interference in Ireland, a military and administrative withdrawal and the re-unification of Ireland under a government in Dublin.

Is this practical politics from the British side?  A poll taken by the “Daily Mirror” showed a majority in favour of withdrawal. Whether a similar poll taken by the “Sun” would yield the same result may of course be doubted. But that there is a widespread sentiment for withdrawal is evident and this doubtless contributed to the decision of the Labour Party to support the reunification of Ireland “by consent”, while offering no guidance as to how that consent was to be achieved.

The decision nevertheless reflected the increasing organisation of withdrawal sentiment. Substantial demonstrations have been called by, for example, the Troops Out Movement. Trade union delegations have gone to Ireland in increasing numbers, involving trade unions like the NUR and NALGO. Increasingly these are seeing the need to visit the Republic as well as the six counties. A delegation from the Lancashire trade unions is to go this autumn. In the case of NALGO a most sophisticated report was published containing important and not usually appreciated facts about six county life. The NUR delegation was remarkable for the variety of its contacts made in Ireland.

The Labour Committee on Ireland has made a substantial impact with its fringe meetings at Labour and Trade union conferences. And in some trade unions, for example ASTMS, rank and file movements for withdrawal from Ireland have been established. It would be impracticable to mention them all. In addition there have been local government delegations, particularly in London and Manchester, and city councils have declared for withdrawal. The problem is how to bring this organisation to a level of majority acceptance in the Labour Movement.

One difficult problem lies in the organisation of the trade union movements of the two islands. During the Union, that is to say from 1801 to 1921, after the legalisation of trade unions in the two countries, it was an advantage for an Irish tradesman to hold a British card, since a considerable proportion of the labour force, especially in construction, spent part of the year “on the tramp”. In shipbuilding a British card likewise provided an opening on the Clyde, Mersey or Tyne. The massive organisation of the unskilled in Ireland in 1889-90 involved mainly British unions (NUDL, NASF, ASRS etc.)  and the ITGWU, at present the largest union in Ireland, owes its existence to a breakaway from the British NUDL [National Union of Dock Labourers]. Even after 1921 British Unions undertook recruiting campaigns in Ireland, for example the TGWU and ASTMS, though by contrast two railway unions pulled out.

Over twenty British Unions have members in Ireland, the largest being the TGWU with approximately 60,000 members. The AUEW has over 30,000 members there, UCATT 17,000, Electrical and Plumbing 12,000, others including CPSA, FBU, GMWU, ASTMS and TASS. The situation is further complicated by the fact that while the TGWU has members all over Ireland, as indeed have to a less degree ASTMS and TASS, others like the AUEW are weighted in favour of the six counties.

This situation, which has grown up historically, has compelled the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, as the price of maintaining an all-Ireland trade union structure, to remain mute on the ever-present precondition of Irish politics – the border. The establishment of the influential “Trade Unionists for Irish Unity and Independence” a few years ago has provided a centre for receiving delegations and a source of speakers for fringe meetings. It has reminded the world that the majority of Irish trade unionists are in favour of united Ireland.

It must be understood that Trade Unionists in Ireland are living in a situation not of their own making, and nobody in England is entitled to lecture them upon their tactics. They have thought it wise in the six counties at least to stick to economic issues. But are British trade unionists compelled to follow suit in Britain?

The most difficult situations arise. The district committee of the Engineering Union decided to donate £50 to the Civil Rights movement. Its Belfast members threatened to resign. A moderate resolution applauding the Labour Party’s stand on Ireland was remitted to the Executive Council of a public services union under pressure from six-county delegates. This resolution was in accordance with official Labour Party policy. In another case a resolution was dropped because delegates from the two parts of Ireland disagreed about it. Naturally enough the Union Executives are anxious not to lose members. But they and their members are taxpayers, and they are being told to remain silent about the disposal of thousands of million pounds of their money. There would seem to be little justification for the gag that is imposed. At the same time, the framers of resolution might find it desirable to bear in mind the difficulties of their executives and colleagues in the six counties. The stand being taken by unions without six-county members will undoubtedly help to create a more constructive atmosphere throughout the Labour Movement, and bring about a position where those in the six counties who want the benefits of Trade Union membership will take the attitudes of the British members as a fact of life. Six-county unionists are long on threats, but sometimes short on carrying them out, as their opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement has shown.

A problem in the presentation of the case for withdrawal is that it tends to be viewed as a single apocalyptic act, like Belgian withdrawal from the Congo. It has to be seen as a process, and the decisive question is where does that process begin. The logical starting point is in the Cabinet room. The British Government, which has spent nearly 70 years maintaining partition, should decide to go to work to end it. The first step would be a statement of that intention. That would be a public statement of a new objective in Irish policy. 

The logical second step is an approach to the government of the Republic. The two governments could then agree on a timetable and the series of measures that would be needed. It is conceivable that the Dublin government might shrink from the unpredictabilities of the process of reunion. A cynic might say, “Well, that’s the British Government off the hook.” If the aim is to get rid of Ireland, as the matter was put a hundred years ago, this will not be so expensive as taking it proved to be, but it will still cost money. There would have to be a transition period. Whether this would involve a period of federation, or the piecemeal transfer of powers and services to Dublin, would be a matter for discussion at the time. For example the 1920 Act listed a number of “reserved services” which were retained in London with expectation of later transferring them to the devolved governments or a Council of Ireland.  In the present case of course it would be a matter of transferring them to the government in Dublin. Some such process was touched upon by Mr Clive Soley [MP for Hammersmith] during the time he was Labour Party spokesman on Irish affairs.

According to the view taken here, the primary objective, the turning point we should work for, is a declaration of intent by a Labour Government, intent to cede the six counties to Dublin, and to do it in a cooperative manner so as to avoid any unnecessary disruption. On no account should withdrawal be used as a threat to anybody in Ireland. Hence specifying a date is unnecessary. Once the intention to withdraw is stated, then the withdrawal takes place as soon as the necessary requirements are met and these are agreed with the Dublin Government.

Sometimes slogans are coined that their coiners never expect to see implemented. One such is “Troops Out Now”. It is absurd to suppose the withdrawal of troops can take place before there has been any discussion of the type of regime that is to be established. “Troops out as soon as possible” is not so easy to shout out, but that is all “Troops out now” can in reality mean.

While the things done after the declaration of intent will depend on discussions with the Irish Government, there is no harm in discussing with the British Government should be prepared to provide money for. It is a sad fact that though £2,000 million is spent annually to preserve hatred, nothing whatsoever is spent on reconciliation. Here are some of the things for which, subject to Irish approval, the British Government should be prepared to fund:-

  1. A chair of reconciliation in some northern university. Every social and political factor capable of promoting reconciliation should be brought to light;
  • Local history societies. They would discover nearly all the field names are Irish –  as indeed is the Shankill (old church) Road. Old Ireland is only inches below the soil;
  • Societies is for the promotion of Irish music; 
  • Interchange trips for northern children to other parts of Ireland; 
  • The replacement of British-oriented school text-books by Irish-oriented ones. Where necessary, retraining of teachers;
  • Interdenominational cultural events; 
  • Compensation, as agreed, to employees who suffer hardship as a result of the British Government’s change of policy;
  •  Anything else within reason that the Irish consider would help to reunite the nation.

A good guess may be hazarded that when all this was done, there would still remain a good slice of the £2,000 million.

Some might say the withdrawal proposal is “giving in to violence”. It is of course not true that people go fighting for the pleasure of it. The Republicans who have taken up arms have done so because they can think of no other recourse. On the other hand members of the SDLP have a different perspective. The fact is that the Irish people are entitled to their country without having to fight for it, so that a British Government that withdrew would only be yielding to moral principle and saving a lot of money into the bargain. It is no use being hoity-toity over the IRA. They are a fact of life arising from the grievances of the nationalist people. Put those grievances right and there will be nothing to IRA about. 

It will obviously take time to convince the leaders of the Labour Party of the need for the type of course of action that is adumbrated above. It is likewise going to take time to get Labour re-elected. In the meantime there are consequences of the partition regime that demand immediate attention, not only in the six counties but in Britain.

It is recognised that religious discrimination still exists in the six counties. Mr Sean MacBride has drafted a series of provisions that if enacted would eliminate it, and these (the MacBride Principles) have been widely supported in the USA. There are a number of objectionable practises, such as the strip-searching of women prisoners. This has spread from the six counties to Britain and has been used against peace protesters. The Prevention of Terrorism Act is a standing grievance which the Labour Party has undertaken to remove. The continuing extension of police powers, the growing militarisation of the security services, the assault on the rights of accused persons and hostility towards the jury system, whilst closely in keeping with Mrs Thatcher’s philosophy, owe much to the system of repression in the north of Ireland, and illustrate in our time the truth of the old adage that a nation that oppresses another forges its own chains.

Finally, note should be taken of the appeal of the so-called “Birmingham Six”, who were convicted of the Birmingham bomb outrage in 1974 and are widely believed to be innocent. The hearing begins on November 2nd and it should be noted that they and their families have requested that while they welcome publicity, no demonstration whatsoever should take place in the vicinity of the court during the hearing.

 C.D. Greaves

 October 1987