England’s Responsibility for the Crisis in Ireland

by C Desmond Greaves

Atlantis, No.5, April 1973 (first delivered at the Wolfe Tone AGM in November, 1972)

To argue that English imperialism is to blame for the violence and destruction at present proceeding in the six counties and affecting the life of all Ireland to a greater or lesser degree, might be thought an easy brief. Certainly today I am arguing it before people who know it as well as I do, and many better. To republicans it is a self-evident fact of experience. The only additional information I can give them relates to the workings of that imperialism on its central home ground, as it is seen by a person resident in England.

But all are not agreed. There are world-famous Irish publicists who reject the conception of English responsibility. This makes it necessary to examine our arguments and express clearly and unmistakably what we mean. Possibly our critics do not understand our reasoning. We must make it plainer.

First on the meaning of the word ‘responsibility’. Etymologically it implies that there is something to be answered for: that there is a wrong committed, what lawyers call a tort. I remember an Athlone barber explaining the principle to a timid driver. ‘You’re only responsible for the road in front of you. If anybody runs into your side or up your bottom, that’s his fault, insurance pays.’ I draw special attention to the consequences of a tort. Either the man or his insurer pays. Hence there is a weighty interest for the English Government in denying responsibility for the deformities of our thalidomide state across the border. And those in Ireland who from lack of information or understanding, or misplaced internationalism, concur in the denial, wittingly or unwittingly serve that interest.

What then is the nub of what is complained of? It is the approach to the issue of sovereignty. The English Crown has laid claim for centuries, and continues to lay claim, to sovereignty over Irish soil. And what is more, it exercises it. And where and when it is exercised, the interests of those over whom it is exercised, are regarded as partial and relative to the interests of those represented by the Crown, who are not, I hasten to add, the people of England, but some of the wealthier of them.

The issue was first raised in the twelfth century. When Henry encouraged his vassals to prop up native misgovernment in Leinster, he extorted a vital concession from MacMurrogh. Diarmuid became Henry’s liegeman in return for military support. From that moment it was no longer a question of a simple quarrel between rival factions within Ireland. It was in principle a struggle between two sovereign powers, two geographically distinct centres of coercion. The effort made by the English Crown to enforce its sovereignty in Ireland came near to turning the country into a desert. It is of course no more possible to put things back as they were than to fit a fresh arm to the victim of a road accident. The important thing is to recognize the vast unpaid debt, the compensation that has never been handed over. It is most improbable that more than a fraction of it ever will be handed over. But in the meantime the English Government cannot logically call the Irish unreasonable if they demur at the daily additions to the account.

The result of the attempt to enforce England’s claim has been to litter Irish history with anachronisms. And since past events are enshrined in present relationships, those anachronisms exert a tragic potency even today. For example, ask what is to blame for the ‘religious war’ in the north? Certainly not any unbridgeable gap that exists today between the general interests of Catholics and the general interests of Protestants. But at one time there was such a gap. It was the time when Irish Catholics were being driven off the land and English and Scottish Protestants were brought in to replace them under the aegis of the English Crown. The origin of religious sectarianism is economic, and its country of origin is not Ireland but England. But why, historically speaking, does it survive today in the hysterical form encouraged by the Unionists? Because in the days of the French revolution, when conditions were ripe for abolishing landlordism, and Irish Catholics and Protestants were beginning to combine for that purpose, the English Crown threw overwhelming military force behind the anachronism, and preserved elements of it to our own day, elements which having no validity in the modern world, express themselves in the absurdities we know so well.

May I at this point refer to Dr. Conor Cruise O’Brien’s new book. Its theme, if I may attribute such to it, is that the theory of English responsibility is mistaken. I would describe his critical method as systematic obfuscation, and would like to give an example germane to the point last mentioned. Of the Catholic tenantry he says: ‘The only French Revolutionary idea that “travelled” to them in assimilable form was that of war against the landlords. The trouble was that the landlords were almost all Protestants.’ But far from being a bad habit acquired from the French, the struggle against the landlords was the essence of Irish popular politics. Their being Protestant was no coincidence, no more than a Rhodesian tobacco planter’s having a white skin. That was how you knew what he was; it was the outward visible sign of his social position. And there was no need for the conception of an insurrection against the landlords to come from France. There were repeated peasant risings in the eighteenth century, some of them very impressive. What indeed came from France was the conception that political democracy (the reform of the franchise, as Tone put it) could be the means of uniting all those who suffered from an out of date system. When the issues are stood on their feet again, their comparability with the issues which confront us today is plain to be seen.

Again, one may refer to the potato famine which started so precipitately the process which was to reduce the population of Ireland by a half. This was the direct consequence of the preservation of landlordism decreed by the events of 1798. The maintenance of the steady flow of rent across the channel was the main concern of English government. To whom the sovereignty, to him the responsibility. Libraries have been written about the worthy motives of the Queen’s ministers. But the fact remains that the Irish people were not permitted to solve their problems by means (wise or unwise) chosen by themselves, but the path they took was dictated by others. The catastrophe took place. If Germany is still suffering from the Thirty Years War, Ireland is still suffering from the potato famine. And it is no excuse for a man who crashes into your rear bumper to explain that he mistook it for a rainbow.

Incidentally, the crock of gold was there too. It is estimated that at the lowest £1,000,000,000 was transferred from Ireland to England in various forms of rent, interest, profit and taxation (including capital drain and emigration) during the period of the thirty-two county Union. Are the rulers of England in no way responsible for the fact that Ireland entered the twentieth century as a country deficient in industrial capital?

Coming to more recent events, the establishment of the six county State was by Act of the English Parliament. At that time England was being invited by the representatives of the majority of the Irish people, whose will had been expressed at a recent election, to relinquish the claim to sovereignty in Ireland. She chose to ignore their request, and despite resistance and efforts at negotiation, insisted on partition, drawing up the powers the new Parliaments were to have in London and conferring these while withholding others. The sterility of this policy was illustrated by the almost almost immediate withdrawal of the twenty-six counties from the proposed arrangement. But in the six counties, which accepted it, is it not clear that a gulf of responsibility lies between those who designed and enforced, and those who merely concurred? Today,we see where the road has led.

Have the English establishment learned anything? Not on the issue of sovereignty. We are assured by Mr. Whitelaw that the English guarantee to the Unionist minority of the Irish people that as long as they wish it they (and those of the majority who live among them) will remain incorporated in the English State, is an ‘absolute’. Here once more is the supreme issue, presenting itself in the most modern dress. The crying need is for a Government in England which will relinquish what is by any estimation a preposterous claim.

The withdrawal of the claim to sovereignty on Irish soil would of course be followed by a total physical withdrawal of the military and administrative apparatus used to uphold it. But this could not and would not be an instantaneous process. We should not be frightened, off course, by fears of a sudden holocaust. I have personally little doubt that if Mr. Whitelaw telephoned Mr. Lynch to communicate a change of heart, and announced a complete withdrawal in one week, Mr. Lynch would reply ‘Hold your horses. This is something we wish to be consulted on. We’re glad you’re going, but we have an interest in how you go and what you leave behind.’

Relinquishment of the claim to sovereignty would have to be followed by discussions. There would be many parties who would consider they had a right to participate, and it is not for me to attempt to enumerate them. What is important, however, is that these discussions would take place on an entirely novel basis.

Up to now all constitutional discussions between England and Ireland have taken place on the basis of antagonism between the English Government and the majority of the Irish people. Following the relinquishment of the claim to sovereignty (whether this was expressed as a ‘Declaration of Intent’ or by some other means) the discussions would be based on an agreement between the English Government and the majority of the Irish people. The unconditional guarantee given to the minority that they could disregard the majority would have gone. In the discussions that followed they would have to bear this in mind. They would still retain rights, for it is accepted that minorities have rights, but their rights would not be equal to the rights of the majority.

There is a distinct possibility that if the English government were to perform this vital act of conciliation, most republicans would draw the conclusion that no more fighting was necessary, and that progress could now be made along evolutionary and constitutional lines. There is also the strong possibility that a majority of Unionists would conclude that further fighting would be of no avail, and that their interests would be best preserved by negotiation.

This conclusion is the opposite to that drawn by Dr O’Brien. He appears to think that an era of peace would come about if the Irish Government withdrew its claim to sovereignty in the six counties, one third of whose inhabitants belong to the majority. I would rather think that a recipe for intermittent warfare such as we have had all my lifetime. To make the present de facto position de jure would simply undermine the position of those who accepted it, without altering the actual relations between people and things in the slightest. Nobody who rejected partition de facto would accept it de jure. And those who had what they wanted all the time would continue to hold it and say ‘thank you for nothing’.

Against this I would suggest that the road to peace can only be opened by the English Government whose claim to sovereignty in Ireland is the fundamental question. Instead of asking others to make the vital concession they must make it themselves. They have acted analogously in analogous conditions, though seldom willingly. Their unwillingness is no argument for concession by their opponents. The question thus becomes ‘who and what will bring a sovereign government to account?’

I presume it will be readily accepted that appeals to justice, humanity and the ‘British sense of fair play’ can be relegated to the regions of romance. If anybody in England offers to do something for the sake of the Irishman’s bright blue eyes, disregard him. The appeal must be to self-interest. But whose self-interest? The fundamental fact of English political life is that that country is in the grip of a fierce class struggle which lines up the population in two camps and penetrates every aspect of the social being. Lest anybody imagine I am forecasting imminent revolution in England, let me reassure them. Societies can survive states of acute stress for very long periods. There are strains in the earth’s crust. Why is there no earthquake today? Because there are processes by which strains are adjusted. Only when these fail is there an earthquake. In politics these adjustments are the daily decisions that are made, and revolutions are infrequent because these decisions release immediate strains even though they may be quickly replaced by others from the same fundamental cause.

No simplified concept can subsume the lives and actions of millions of people. But if you want to know what makes the politics of a country ‘tick’, look first at the fundamental conflict of property interests, as you look to the bass line when analysing music. It was on this level that James Connolly argued that the class struggle in England and the struggle for national independence in Ireland (which he regarded as a form of class struggle) were different aspects of the one thing.

At this point it may be convenient to remark on the limitations of ‘pure protest politics’. The theory is that if we make ourselves sufficiently obnoxious, then those with the power to act will ‘do something’. This sounds well enough, though it is to go without propositions into the conference chamber. The weakness is that it leaves the initiative in the hands of the rulers. Repeatedly the rulers of England have found themselves in the enviable position of a cat chased into a dairy. The claim to sovereignty on Irish soil has actual consequences in England. The Government’s Irish policy has an actual place in its general policy. It is essential to know that place, and what interests are involved. Then we can see how these interests express themselves, and what opposing interests are waiting to be set in motion. This is, of course, a subject we can do no more than touch on today.

First let us take an example from the present day. and then look at past history to see if it illustrates a general principle. When working on the balance of payments of the six counties, a somewhat obscure subject, I became convinced that there was evidence of a classical colonial position. The money poured into that territory by the British taxpayer was subsequently withdrawn in various forms of tribute to private interests. The holding of the six counties was thus a means of transferring sums of money from worker to capitalist. A corollary, for which there is independent evidence, is that in so far as the six counties enjoy a higher standard of living than the twenty-six, this is due not to subventions from England but to a higher productivity of labour due to more intensive capitalization.

Why should an Englishman get into a brawl for this? The bare bones of the matter is that although the English banker and investor may have an interest in maintaining partition, the British worker almost certainly has not. He is often unaware of this fact. But then what are the mass media for?

It is not usually appreciated, either in Ireland or indeed in England itself, that past vicissitudes of the struggle over the sovereignty of Ireland have left an enduring mark on that country. English schoolboys are taught to admire Cromwell’s foreign conquests but to regard his revolution as a somewhat unfortunate necessity never to be repeated. They are not told that its immediate consequence was the establishment of a republic, or that this was replaced by a ‘Commonwealth’, then a ‘Protectorate’ as Cromwell progressively compromised with the landlords.

Nor are they told that his Irish policy grew out of that compromise, the attention of his land-hungry followers being diverted from the fat estates of their lordships to the despoliation of the native Irish. And least of all are they told that the Levellers, Walwyn for example, protested against the iniquity as a wrong on the English people. It would be hard to deny that many an English child starved over the next three centuries because the landlords had been left in position, and that their influence was more often thrown against popular interests than in favour of them.

The influence of English landlordism on English history is easy to see. But what of Irish landlordism? The British people who suffered from the horse’s teeth, did not escape its heels. Thanks to the ‘corn laws’ which gave to the Irish landlords the monopoly of British corn imports, they suffered in the last century the ‘hungry forties’, so that even when a cheap food policy was finally adopted, the general traditional standard of English working class life was lower than it needed to be in view of the productivity of the country.

Incidentally a monopoly comparable with that accorded the Irish landlords is being handed, so it seems, to the agriculturalists of the Common Market. We will judge the dietetic consequences when we see them.

The connection between Irish landlordism and the Tory party is of course well known. That link still remains in relation to the six counties in a quite direct way. People often ask what conceivable motive the English establishment may have in still clinging to the six counties and suffering all the troubles that ensue. Apart from the previously mentioned economic motive, and the increased pliability induced in Dublin by truncating the territory governed from that city, there is the fear of weakening the most reliable reactionary strand within the Tory establishment, the section most ready to wage class war at home or support reaction abroad.

These are only examples taken from history. But there is nothing exceptional in them. At every point in the history of these islands, since the people of Britain first achieved a political existence, the most advanced democrats of Britain were at one with the Irish people in their claim for unconditional sovereignty in their own country. What measures the Irish people take to achieve their purposes it is not for the English to decide. That is an internal Irish question. But the English claim to sovereignty in Ireland is not an internal question but an international question. For this reason the rest of the world is concerned. And the British people are quite entitled to object to what their rulers are doing in Ireland and to endeavour to force a change.

I reminded you earlier that England is the centre of far-flung imperialist interests, of which Ireland is only one. To say that the Irish question only becomes a matter of real urgency in England when it presents itself simultaneously with other questions is merely to paraphrase O’Connell’s truism. Yet this is what happens, in detail as well as in general. Everybody who knows the history of the years 1916 to 1922 must be struck by the impossibility of tying Lloyd George to any one policy for more than a few days.

What is the explanation? It lies in the fact that postwar England had insufficient economic and military strength to defend all her world interests simultaneously and was compelled constantly to be playing the two ends against the middle.

Flood Ireland with troops and a miners’ strike drew them back to Lancashire. The Government of Ireland Act of 1920 had to be hastened because of the peace treaty with Turkey. The sudden truculence of Lloyd George to Collins and Griffith at the end of November 1921 arose from his having the Washington Naval Treaty in his pocket.

I previously made the point that Irish independence is linked with the objects of English democracy, quite contrary to what the otherwise penetrating historian Dr Strauss believed, but it can also be seen that it is an integral part of a movement on a world scale. It may conceivably be fear of the international consequences of a serious struggle for Irish sovereignty in Ireland that have made the diplomat Cruise O’Brien shy back.

Despite all other considerations, however, the pressures to which English politicians are bound to be most sensitive are English pressures. The power of the Trade Unions in particular is now so great that repeatedly Governments have had to climb down. The fact that the British Trade Union Congress voted unanimously for a Bill of Rights to redress the grievances of those members of the national majority who live in the six counties, is of enormous significance. It will be remembered that the last section of the Bill provided constitutional machinery by which a relinquishment of the claim to sovereignty in Ireland could be put into effect.

We had ample opportunity in endeavouring to secure the passage of this Bill to observe the complex cross-currents of British politics. We had the Trade Unions and the left. We had Plaid Cymru, but not the Scottish National Party. You can guess why. At the Commons division the Labour Party put on the whips. We lost by the difference in strength between the two parties. But all manner of difficulties had to be overcome.

In the period when there was no election in sight we were advised that the introduction of Proportional Representation in the six counties would solve the problem on its own. At another period fears of setting a precedent for England and ending the monopoly of the two main parties led to a reversal of feeling. We were advised to cut out PR and leave all the rest. Never once do I remember the questions being discussed on their merits, by anybody possessing any political authority, and the grander the company the less merits appeared to enter into it.

It is an absolute certainty, in my opinion, that the decision to impose ‘direct rule’ early this year had no direct bearing on the needs of the situation in the six counties, and that if Mr Faulkner had known enough about English politics to realise that fact, he might be sitting in Stormont today. We must be content to wonder if things would be better or worse than they are now.

‘Direct rule’ was imposed to restore at Westminster the consensus politics which had been broken by the Derry massacre. The idea had been quietly canvassed among Labour circles over the preceding months. Two alternatives existed to the policy that was being pursued. England should pull out. This was the right policy, subject to what I have said in explanation. Or England should go deeper in. The proposal to go deeper in was presented as a progressive alternative to underwriting Stormont, and the Labour MPs, most of whom get no time to study anything but what is coming up tomorrow, fell for the confidence trick. Bi-partisanship was back. The Irish people would pay physically and the English financially. What better arrangement could there be?

At that time the Heath Government was faced with severe industrial unrest, and opposition to its proposed entry into the EEC. If bipartisanship had been abandoned on a third issue, the Government might have been compelled to appeal to the country. The entire programme of the Tories might have become a nullity. But what is the use of complaining? While England exercises sovereignty in the six counties decisions in respect of the territory will be and can only be made on such a basis.

I will make a final point before passing on to some general questions of current interest. There follows from what has been said the enormous importance of Irish organizations in Britain entering British politics as British politics, and not as an extension abroad of Irish politics. During the days of the Mansion House Committee in Dublin ministers used to advise the emigrants to become ‘ambassadors for Ireland.’

I am not opposed to the idea, but would like to deepen it. They should act as ambassadors of a principle. They should demand the withdrawal of England’s claim to sovereignty in Ireland because it is in conformity with their present interests, interests they hold in common with the other categories of people working in Britain, but as a section from experience more aware of them.

Based on the interests of the British working class, using the political methods and recognizing the traditional organizations usual in England, there can be raised a movement capable of moving the English Government from its intransigent position, or replacing it with one more amenable to democratic influence.

Before closing I would like to digress for a few moments. At present there are several fine orchestras playing variations on the theme that the ‘Nation State’ is obsolete, and the demand for national independence sheer romanticism. For the latter, Nationalism as romance never had any sense in it. But Nationalism is not a matter of romance. It is a matter of how a country is to be run and by whom. These days we are told it is romantic to think that if people conduct their own affairs they are more likely to manage them well than if somebody else does it for them. But seemingly it is not romantic to believe that the blind operation of ‘market forces’ supervised by a faceless commission in Brussels will achieve what the people on the spot cannot achieve for themselves.

On the matter of the Nation States being obsolete, one immediately asks ‘for whose purposes?’ Possibly the answer is ‘for the purposes of international firms who wish to enjoy uniform conditions wherever they go’. But are they obsolete for those who wish to erect checks and barriers against the unbridled expansion of these firms? What more suitable place to erect such checks and barriers than at the peripheries of traditional communities? The nation defines the unit within which democracy is recognized. It comes under fire because democracy itself is under fire. The international firms want to be responsible to nobody. But far from being obsolete the nation state has become one of the vital defences of democracy against commercial interests intent on governing a world peopled by statistics.

I am aware that in the referendum in the twenty-six counties there was a majority in favour of entering the EEC. But I also note that the question put was not ‘will you abandon Irish national sovereignty?’, but in effect ‘will you join the common market in spite of what the Constitution says about sovereignty?’. I think what will go down in history is not what the people were asked, but what they were not asked. For one can only conclude that the Government was afraid to ask them a straight question. If they have not been asked to abandon sovereignty, they have not abandoned it.

In England it is accepted that a majority of the people are opposed to entry. Whether the Government could think up a referendum question that would confuse them we are not to know. There is to be no referendum. Just as I believe the Irish people will, beginning with the Labour and republican movements, struggle for freedom from the toils of the EEC, I am also confident that the English will do the same. Now you cannot be a jailer when you are in prison yourself. You have to join with the other prisoners and try to get out. This is the reason why I regard EEC entry as the most important decision in English politics since the seventeenth century. It will open a new era. And it may well prove to be the era in which bitter experience will thrust upon the British people the conclusion that the acceptance of Ireland’s claim to national sovereignty is a precondition for preserving or regaining their own.