From the vaults: British Labour Party & Ireland – 60 years of shame (1981)

Supporting the Tories against the hunger strikers in 1981 was typical of the British Labour Party; moreover, they were the ones who removed political status for republican prisoners in the first place

The following article is from the July-August 1981 issue of the next step, a Marxist review published in Britain from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.  It was put out by the Revolutionary Communist Party, who were the force behind first the Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign and then the Irish Freedm Movement.  I’ve added the word ‘British’ in a few places to make clear it is the BLP and not the (equally awful) Irish ones the article is about.  Although it irks me that the Dublin regime is referred to as “the Republic” I have left the term as is, because that is how it was written in the original article.

by Dave Douglas

“Your Labour Party is the subject of jest in Ireland.  You sent us a deputation, and one of its members was a member of the Government which shot Connolly, and all of them have been and are still silent on Larkin’s exile.  Our memories are long: is it any wonder they are bitter?  In a few days your Parliament will vote on the Military appropriations.  Will your Labour Party oppose them, or will they vote payment for a military occupation of Irelan?  Of what use is their hypocritical sympathy for us, their acts give the lie to their words.”

  • Eamon Macalpine, “Open Letter to the British Workers”, in the Sheffield Worker, April 1920, quoted in Bill Moore, How we stopped the war against Russia but failed to free Ireland, Sheffield, Holberry Society, 1981.

A few days after the British Labour Party’s ‘Northern Ireland’ study group agreed that the party should accept a commitment to Irish unity, an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted for the renewal of Direct Rule and for the continuing military occupation of Ireland.  And six republican hunger strikers – Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson – have died while the Labour Party has been deliberating over its policy on Ireland.

The news leak that Labour was going to come out for Irish unity was greeted as a sensation.  A break from the party’s bipartisan approach with the Tories!  The end of 12 years of partnership in war against the Irish!  A closer look reveals that nothing much has changed.

When is unity not unity?

For the British Labour Party, ‘Irish unity’ is a metaphysical concept.  While invoking this stirring vision of the future, the study group has some practical proposals for the present.  The common theme is that while the Labour Party would like, ieally, for the Irish to manage their own affairs, for the moment it’s got some plans for how the British should administer Ireland.  This recalls the infamous document passe at the Communist Party’s 1979 Congress which, after eight proposals – all demanding legislation from Westminster, recognises in the ninth point, the “right of the Irish people to determine their own future” (Comment, 1 December, 1979).

So what are Labour’s new proposals?

Firstly, the stuy group wants a power-sharing volved government.  New?  Humphrey Atkins has been trying to get some such assembly off the ground ever sinc he took over at the Northern Ireland Office – and there were several spectacular failures in the ‘seventies.

Second, the group wants “a funamental review” of the Emergency Provisions Act and suggests that the Prevention of Terrorism Act “should be at least modified” if not repealed.  Scant comfort for the thousans of victims of these draconian laws.

Third, the Labour Party urges “a major reflation” and close co-operation with the Republic to revive the economy in the Six Counties and provide more employment.  When the Government can’t provide jobs in Britain there seems little hope of reucing unemployment in Ireland.

Finally, what about the hunger strikers?  The group “opposes the granting of political status and agrees with the Government that any concessions on the Maze hunger strikers’ five demands would be unproductive”.  So much for Irish unity!

When the Labour Party backs it

However even this hypocritical and cynical support for ‘Irish unity’ was too much for the Labour leadership.  Michael Foot, speaking to Radio One J Jimmy Young, one of Britain’s foremost ‘new wave’ political commentators, assured the public that the study group’s report was only in draft form.  “There was still a long way to go,” he said.  And he was right.

As the Financial Times observed, Labour’s commitment to unity “could still become so hedged about as to be meaningless.  The Party’s desire to be seen doing something new and radical may in the end come second to its reluctance to rock the boat” (July 2, 1981).  Very percipient – Labour ha not yet reached the bottom of the barrel.

“Labour and Ireland: a setback” was the ominous headline in the Morning Star on 15 July.  The study group had accepted an amendment saying, “Before any constitutional change is made we would seek to obtain the consent of the people of Northern Ireland by means of a referendum.”  What does this mean?  It means that Labour accepts the Partition of Ireland which was carefully worked out to ensure that the part of Irelan included in the United Kingdom contained a permanent majority in favour of this arrangement.  The amendment brings the stuy group into line with existing government policy which is to hold a referendum on the Irish border every ten years.  The next one is due in 1983.  Thus official Labour Party policy is committed to the unity of Ireland while fully endorsing its division!  Brilliant!

Unity for Direct Rule

The radical left regard the Labour Party’s debate about ‘Irish unity’ as a great leap forward.  “At least they’re talking about Ireland,” they say.  The fact that what the Labour Party is discussing is modifications to British oppression in Ireland, behind a lot of waffle about unity (and ‘withrawal’, which in Labour Party circles has about as much meaning as ‘unity’) is of little concern to the left.  The consequences of Labour’s new position in support of Irish unity became obvious in the House of Commons ebate on irect Rule at the beginning of July.

Humphrey Atkins kicked off by saying that Direct Rule was fine but neeed more of a ‘Northern Ireland political input’ to make British domination more wiely acceptable.  He proposed yet another of the toothless assemblies favoured by the Labour study group.  It was received with indifference by most British MPs and with hostility by most of the Irish politicians he had expected to participate in it.

Labour’s spokesperson, Don Concannon, known only for his visit to kick Bobby Sands in the teeth on his eathbe, agreed with Atkins, especially, he emphasised, on political status.  No other Labour MP had anything much to say. . . except former prime minister, now backbench statesman, James Callaghan.

Callaghan grabbed the headlines with his contribution – the proposal of an inepenent ‘Ulster’, six-county state.  This is neither Labour nor Tory policy, but it is the position of the loyalist paramilitary group the Ulster Defence Association.  Callaghan did not reveal whether he had joined up  but the UDA was delighted: it congratulated him on his “courage and vision” and urged “all those interested in peace” to consider what he had said (Irish Times, 4 July).  This from the group behind numerous murders!

But scarcely anybody in Britain thought much of what Callaghan had said.  The Daily Mirror thought his scheme was a great iea an might turn out to be the best way of defeating the IRA (3 July).  But most bourgeois opinion was unmoved.  The Direct Rule debate confirmed the juddgement of the Sunday Times a week earlier:

“A group of half-a-dozen senior people has been considering, over the past five years, the raical political options, and can rattle them off – integration, independence, unification (federal or not), re-partition.  Th trouble is that this scrutiny has persuaded the Northern Ireland Office that all those options are impossible. . .” (Sunday Times, 28 June).

All the important contributors agreed.  Atkins thought Direct Rule “had many advantages”.  Concannon “did not see any immediately available alternative”.  And none of the Labour friends of the radical left – Ernie Roberts, enis Skinner and the rest – whose opinions about ‘Irish unity’ are often quoted in Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge, had anything to say against the official line.  Direct Rule was imposed for another 12 months by a majority of 223.

Workers for Irish freedom

After wide circulation of the ‘Open Letter’ quoted above, the Sheffield Trades Council passed the following resolution unanimously on 27 April 1920: “That the Sheffield Trades and Labour Council demands the immediate release of the Irish political prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, and the application of the principle of self-determination to Ireland.”

This decisive anti-imperialist stand was followed by many workers throughout the country; some took strike action to prevent military supplies getting to Ireland.  The trade union leaders subverted this campaign.  While they and the Labour Party talked about Irish freedom they acquiesced in the Partition of the country.

Today we have to draw a clear line between those who talk about Irish unity while advancing British plans for Ireland and those who are prepared to support those fighting for Irish unity against the British state.  The Labour Party debate about Irish unity is as useful to the Irish people as its MPs were to the hunger strikers.

Posted on January 8, 2019, in 1930s and 1940s, 1981 hunger strike, British state repression (general), British strategy, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Repression and resistance in 1970s and 1980s, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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