Ireland: “the class struggle is the source of the national struggle”

éirígí protest in Belfast

The following is a transcript of an interview Basque magazine Ekaitza conducted with the General Secretary of éirígí, Breandán Mac Cionnaith. That magazine can be downloaded here: Ekaitza 

1. Hi, could you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is Breandán Mac Cionnaith and I’m currently the general secretary/rúnaí ginearálta of the socialist republican party, éirígí. I first became involved in Republican activism during my mid-teens in the 1970s. I was imprisoned in August 1981 for a number of years and became re-involved in the struggle again after my release. As well as my political activism, I’m also involved at a grass-roots level with a number of organisations which work to try and address a range of social and economic problems facing my local community.

Brendan Mac Cionnaith
Brendan Mac Cionnaith

2. First we need to go back 15 years to the Good Friday agreements which were considered a breakthrough for the Irish people. Several things were highlighted by Sinn Fein and the media to promote a successful peace process, for example, the end of the armed conflict and the end of the social stigmatisation towards the Catholic community, as well as amnesty for political prisoners and the dismantling of paramilitary groups. What can you tell us about it?

It is important to remember that the entire political establishment in Ireland, Britain and the US, with EU support, played a central role in shaping that Agreement and in the unprecedented and coordinated media campaign to promote support for it. The Agreement was constructed by all those elements as means to achieve an end to the political conflict on their terms. It most certainly was not about delivering those major and far-reaching social, economic or effective political changes in Ireland which Irish republicans had struggled for over many years.

The secret negotiations conducted between the political parties and the British and Irish governments’ took power away from communities and left them vulnerable to the strategic interests of the parties who claim to represent them. That not only is true of the Good Friday Agreement but also the other agreements negotiated since then.

I had many reservations regarding the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, at that time I declined the offer made to me by the SF leadership to be a candidate for that party in the 1998 Assembly elections. My response to that offer was that while I could understand the reasons why the leadership had signed up to that Agreement, I could not publicly ‘sell’ an Agreement the merits of which I was not convinced about.

Obviously, the later decision to sign up to the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006, with its full acceptance of partition and final tacit endorsement of British policing, British armed forces and repressive British legislation proved to be a step too far and I resigned from Sinn Féin in 2007.

3. There was, however, the case of Marian Price that we followed over several years. In addition, we’ve heard that released prisoners lose all kinds of civil rights and are forbidden to engage in political activities under penalty of being returned to prison. Is this correct?

As you’ve said, the case of Marian Price is one that people outside Ireland would be familiar with. There are others that have not received the same attention. In the case of Martin Corey, as an example, who had not been charged with any offence but who was imprisoned for four years, when he was released from prison last year he was subjected to a period of what could only be described as a form of internal exile for several months which prevented Martin from living in his home town.

Stephen Murney, a member of éirígí, who was held in prison for a year on very spurious charges before being released when a court ruled there was no case against him, was also subjected to similar conditions of being denied the right to live in his home town when he sought release on bail. Stephen rejected those conditions and as a result was denied release from prison until the charges against him were finally dismissed.

Others are also being subjected to similar conditions of internal exile.

In a number of other cases, prisoners have been subjected to the conditions you refer to. Indeed, one prisoner was re-arrested as he left prison simply because another former political prisoner had arrived in a car to collect him at the prison. Former prisoners also have great difficulty in securing employment and are barred from certain jobs.

4. Let’s talk about Belfast and the north of Ireland. The media often highlight that one of the largest political advances in the peace process came from the many investors who radically changed the face of the city and brought prosperity to Belfast.

From our point of view, you could say it has led to the emergence of a business-minded middle class, and that Belfast has become a trendy city for tourists. But for the working class nothing has changed. Many figures show that living conditions have gotten worse and unemployment has increased.

Almost seventeen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the political parties that make up the permanent Stormont coalition still hide behind the so-called peace process to disguise their collective failure to deliver any progressive social, economic or political change. West Belfast, for example, still experiences the highest levels of unemployment and child poverty.

For too many people in the Six Counties, that new dawn promised by the Good Friday Agreement has been proven, like the political parties who supported it, to be completely false and without substance. Emigration, unemployment, poverty and deprivation remain all too commonplace within all working-class communities across the occupied Six Counties. Sectarianism and division are built into the very fabric of ‘the peace process’.

From a socialist-republican viewpoint, we understand that the Six-County State is fundamentally irreformable and we reject the notion that the interests of the population of the Six Counties are best served by partition and subservience to Britain.

5. Let’s go back to the Good Friday Agreement. A key point in the agreement hangs on the abandonment of the claim to Northern Ireland and the establishment of a Northern Irish government office in the Stormont parliament where Irish republicans and unionists share power. This denies the fundamentals of the Irish national liberation struggle. How could this measure be accepted by the Irish people?

The British-backed unionist veto still exists as a barrier towards Irish reunification just as it was enshrined as such through the original partition of Ireland. You ask why such measures could be accepted by the Irish people and that takes us back to a previous answer where I pointed out that the Good Friday Agreement was largely shaped by the central role played during those negotiations by the political establishments in Ireland, Britain and the US.

In the unprecedented and coordinated media campaign which the political establishments conducted in order to promote support for that agreement, the Irish people were essentially asked to vote for peace or for continued conflict. Given that endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement was deliberately and very consciously couched in those stark terms, it is not surprising the majority of people voted in favour of peace.

Completely absent from that whole debate was any major discussion about how to improve social and economic conditions for the vast majority of people, or how Irish unification would be restored and British involvement in Ireland would be ended.

6. When you listen to Sinn Fein at the Good Friday Agreements, you get the impression you’re hearing exactly the same arguments to those which arose after the Treaty of London signing in 1921, that the agreements are only a step towards the final unification of Ireland, that elections and parliamentairism are only means and not ends in themselves. We know how it ended. In the end doesn’t this consolidate the legitimacy and sovereignty of the brits?

A recurring theme in the history of the Irish republican struggle has been a refusal by many supporters of the national liberation struggle to accept that the class struggle is the source of the national struggle and that the successful resolution of one is impossible without the successful resolution of the other. Too often the struggle for social and economic rights has been subordinate to the struggle for national rights.

éirígí believes that this represents a fundamentally flawed and reactionary position which has often led to the struggle for ‘Ireland’ being elevated in importance above, and as something distinct from, the struggle for the interests of the people of Ireland.

There can be no compromise between the capitalist class and the working class, or any question of separating out the question of national liberation from that of class conflict.

Fundamentally, éirígí believes that the root cause of the conflict in Ireland is to be found in the nature of the economic and social relations that have existed for hundreds of years between Ireland and Britain; the history of Anglo-Irish relations is intertwined with the history of the development of the British Empire and of capitalism and imperialism as a global system.

The struggle in Ireland has been and still remains as much about the nature of the economic and social relations that exist between the people of Ireland, as it is about Ireland’s relationship with Britain. We are under no illusion as to the fact that the capitalist class ultimately has no allegiance to anything other than its own class interests. A capitalist from Ireland is essentially no different from a capitalist from England or anywhere else. Throughout history the servants of capitalism, and its preceding property-based social systems, have utilised the tactic of ‘divide and conquer’ to great effect, confusing and dividing people along ‘national’ and religious lines, so as to deflect focus from the exploitative nature of a society based upon social class distinctions.

éirígí’s position vis-à-vis the ‘national’ question is that British military-political interest in Ireland has always been intimately related to securing the interests of the capitalist-imperialist system; the updated, ongoing occupation of the six-county area involving the pro-British puppet-parliament at Stormont and the whole military-security apparatus of paramilitary police, British troops and intelligence agencies merely reflects the age-old British ruling class objective of securing and defending its interests in Ireland.

It was James Connolly who most clearly identified both the historical nature of the struggle in Ireland and the complementary nature of both the class struggle and the struggle for national liberation when he argued that:
‘The Irish question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish people against their oppressors resolves itself in the last analysis into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the sources of production in Ireland’.

As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising in Ireland in just over a year’s time, it becomes clearer and clearer on a daily basis that the vision of the 1916 Proclamation remains just that – a vision. It is evident that the most important aspect of the liberation of Ireland – the liberation of its people – is impossible under capitalism and is impossible under the current political structures which exist. The chasm that exists between the intent and objectives of the men and women revolutionaries of 1916 and those of every subsequent government in the Twenty-Six Counties, and more recently in the Stormont coalition parliament, grows wider with each passing year.

7. The reformists argument favoring the Stormont parliament is a particularly debated strategy when we observe that Sinn Fein can only count on 29 members in the Northern Irish Assembly, while the Unionist party currently has 38 members. In the Republic of Ireland Assembly Sinn Fein counts 14 members in a parliament of 166, so the fourth strongest political force in the country. Is election, as a sole political expression, not a dead-end for Irish people?

As Irish socialist-republicans, as members of a relatively new and growing revolutionary party, we fully understand the inherent weaknesses of the current electoral process and the impotence of the elected institutions that stem from those processes in both partitionist states in Ireland.

In deciding the party’s position on the role that elections and elected institutions could possibly play in a revolutionary struggle, éirígí has studied the national and international historical experience. That history is littered with examples of revolutionary parties, genuine or nominal, which foundered on the rocks of elections and elected institutions.

While these experiences highlight the potential dangers of engaging in the electoral process, éirígí does not believe that the correct strategic reaction to these dangers is complete detachment from the electoral process.

Instead éirígí believes that current-day revolutionaries in Ireland and elsewhere need to learn from all of the lessons that were so cruelly taught to our predecessors who entered the arena of elections and elected institutions.

éirígí does believe that it is possible for a revolutionary party to move closer to its objectives by tactically contesting elections and tactically participating in specified elected institutions.

Such a tactical approach can provide a major additional platform to challenge and expose the status quo while representing the interests of working people and promoting a socialist alternative.

However, unlike previous and ongoing engagements in elections by other republican parties, any éirígí engagement must and can only be premised on a clear understanding that the existing elected institutions must ultimately fall before a new, genuinely democratic system can emerge.

The primary purpose of éirígí tactically participating in elections and elected institutions is therefore to expose the limits of the capitalist economic and imperialist partitionist systems and give voice to those whose interests lie in direct contradiction to both the capitalist and imperialist system.

Of equal importance and in parallel to exposing the flaws of the current system, éirígí is committed to developing alternative community and workplace based initiatives with which people can engage. Ultimately, the allegiance and loyalty of working people will need to transfer from the institutions of the capitalist state towards those forums and institutions which represent their interests.

At its inception, éirígí stated that “electoral and parliamentary politics alone cannot deliver the type of change required in Irish society” and that “a Democratic Socialist Republic can only be established and sustained through the collective action of a progressive social movement incorporating local communities, organised labour, cultural organisations, campaigns groups, political parties etc.”

That analysis still remains valid today. Elections and elected institutions are only one front in a multi-front battle against injustice and exploitation. Elections and elected institutions should never be the sole focus.

8. Has the normalisation of political relations and the coexistence between Irish Republicans and British Unionists in the Stormont Parliament had a direct impact on the Irish people’s capacity for mass mobilisation, which was formerly one of the Republican’s great forces?

The ‘peace process’ was predicated on the exclusion of the vast majority of people from any influence over it. The exclusion of ordinary people from the peace process meant that they were not actively engaged in it.

That stands in stark contrast to the late 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s when vast numbers of people were actively engaged in street politics which in turn helped develop the politicisation of ordinary people.

In contrast, the ‘peace process’ was inherently a pacification process which, along with ending the political conflict, also sought to demobilize ordinary people and to negate and marginalise any form of dissension to the agreed status quo. By dissension, I not only refer to republican dissension, but also to dissension from within wider society to the policies being implemented by Stormont.

Indeed, Stormont politicians have often been quick to describe any criticism of their social and economic policies as “an attack on the peace process”. Even trade unionists campaigning on issues directly impacting upon their members have been accused by Stormont politicians in recent years of “endangering the process” which demonstrates how ridiculous the situation has become.

However, it is noticeable that more people are now prepared to at least question the austerity agenda which has been implemented collectively by the Stormont coalition since 2010/2011.

Earlier this month, at the beginning of March, trade unions held a one-day strike to oppose the latest budget agreed at Stormont as part of the recent ‘Stormont House Agreement’. Significantly, this is the first time trades unions have openly opposed any Stormont deal. On every previous occasion, right back to 1998, the trade union movement praised the outcomes of those previous negotiations and deals.

9. In 2006, the United Kingdom began employing several hundred members of the MI5 in a building in an old military camp in Belfast forming the largest of the British secret services outside London. The departure of the English from Northern Ireland has never really been on the agenda.

That is correct. Seventeen years ago, the Good Friday Agreement promised a Bill of Rights. Today there is still no Bill of Rights, and human rights are under a severe and sustained attack. MI5 dictates British security policy on the ground within the north of Ireland; the Police Service of Northern Ireland is one of the most heavily armed forces in Europe and has access to a wide range of repressive legislation; and Britain’s secret covert troops, known as the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, have been deployed for the past several years.

Constitutional nationalist parties have created a smokescreen of propaganda to mislead their community into believing that those parties had achieved major progress on ending the era of political policing which has existed for as long as the Six-County State itself. That is simply a deceit.

As I also said earlier, the British-backed unionist veto still exists as a barrier to national re-unification in Ireland.

10. Here in Euskal Herri (the Basque Country – Redline), many take the example of the Irish peace process as a model to follow. What would your view be on that?

I would caution any genuine liberation movement against using the ‘Irish peace process’ as a model to follow if they are sincere in achieving their ultimate aims. Let’s not forget that Britain and the US have used the ‘Irish model’ and Irish participants in that model to assist in the pacification and normalization processes which followed their wars of invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Most damning of all, and something which is not widely publicized by adherents of the ‘Irish model’, was the role played by Irish politicians, including erstwhile Irish republicans, in those disastrous political interventions in the years that preceded the onslaught against the Tamil liberation movement in 2008/2009 which resulted in both a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.

When one looks at how the ‘Irish model’ was used in those countries, then you can understand why I urge others in Euskal Herri to use caution.

Similarly, if one looks at Palestine, the Fateh-led Palestinian Authority’s record has led to disaster after disaster for the Palestinian people. Sinn Féin has an uncritical relationship with the PA despite the latter’s catastrophic failure to protect and defend the Palestinian people against US-backed Israeli aggression. It is also no small coincidence that the architect-in-chief of the ‘Irish model’, former British prime minister Tony Blair, has been the so-called ‘peace envoy’ on behalf of the EU, UN and US in that region for almost eight years.

In contrast, through our contacts with PFLP comrades, we are aware that organization has adopted a more critical analysis of the ‘Irish model’ and that they are acutely aware of the dangers inherent in that model.

The PFLP fully recognise that the British imperialism which we seek to end in Ireland is the same British imperialism that brought the Balfour Declaration and welcomed the Zionist movement to colonize and occupy Palestine.

11. On the question of the institutional development in Northern Ireland, long and difficult negotiations finally accomplished the transfer of company tax collection management from London to Belfast, a status which, amongst others, the Basque Autonomous Community already had for decades. Have you something to say on the subject?

The various parties which make up the Stormont coalition have consistently proposed reducing corporation tax as a ‘magic bullet’ for economic regeneration. The coalition continuously ‘sells’ the Six Counties as a ‘good place’ for global businesses to set up shop on the basis that a well-educated but low-paid workforce exists here.

Stormont’s coalition partners have learned nothing about the profit-driven motivation of those multi-national or major companies that would benefit most from a corporation tax reduction.

The Six Counties is littered with examples of huge companies who previously received substantial subsidies, amounting in some individual cases to many tens of millions of pounds, to locate in the north. Having taken every subsidy, grant and tax-break on offer, they closed up and moved elsewhere where the labour costs were cheaper and state subsidies were higher.

Reducing corporation tax rate will not stabilise the economy, it will merely exacerbate economic instability for workers and their families. It will inevitably lead to widespread zero hour contracts, less legal protection for workers and further non-unionising of workplaces.

While the Stormont coalition advocates lessening the tax burden on those best placed to pay more, it steadfastly refuses to resist implementing cuts in education, housing, health, and social services provision.  The community and voluntary sectors, the vital threads running through many communities, are being stretched to breaking point.

The British Tory government’s austerity agenda has already been implemented by Stormont politicians for the past number of years.

Here again, Stormont’s ineptitude is laid bare. Worse still, the record of both the SDLP and Sinn Féin has been shown as two-faced, despite those parties’ claims to be the erstwhile defenders of the less well-off and the working poor.

12. We’re going to finish this interview by going back a bit on what’s happening currently. Could you talk about austerity in Ireland? We’re beginning to have more information on the subject since “Water Tax” was established, causing large mobilisations throughout the country. To what degree do éirígí participate in the anti-austerity struggles? How is this organised?

Even before the financial crisis which hit the Twenty-Six Counties several years ago, as a party éirígí had warned that the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’, with its huge profits for industrialists, property developers, financiers and bankers, was unsustainable.

An example of how a political system placed private business interests above those of the people was the decision of the Dublin government to establish NAMA and bail out the private banks. Those decisions have burdened the people of the Twenty-Six Counties with massive debt to private banks for generations to come and they demonstrate the fallacy of the notion of democracy in capitalist society.

Our members have been very active in campaigning against austerity measures in both parts of Ireland well before the current anti-water tax campaign in the Twenty-Six Counties gained momentum. As a party, we were a constituent part of the original Campaign Against Home and Water Taxes and we had a track record in opposing the privatisation of our natural resources.

Our activists are very much involved in the campaign groups within communities, and several of our members have been arrested for their role in those groups.

Our party chairperson, Brian Leeson, was one of the main speakers at a recent national anti-water tax demonstration attended by tens of thousands of people from across Ireland.

The Anti-Water Tax campaign is very much a ‘bottom-up’ movement, composed of hundreds of local groups across the country. On a daily basis, members of those groups are engaged in disrupting and preventing the installation of water meters to people’s homes.

Within the Six Counties, we have been running a ‘Stormont Isn’t Working’ campaign since 2010, exposing Stormont’s systematic implementation of year upon year of cuts to essential public services such as health, education, and housing.

We make no apology for correctly forecasting that widespread cuts across all public sector services would be dutifully implemented in both partition states in Ireland through ‘modernisation agendas’, ‘health service streamlining’, ‘reform initiatives’, and ‘private investment incentives’.

Of course, we were accused of scare-mongering when we said that the reality of such policies for people across Ireland would be a massive, negative impact on housing, employment, health and social services, with continued community disintegration and housing shortages, reduced services for the ill and vulnerable, and further financial pay-offs to companies through the privatisation of public services with rock-bottom wages.

The austerity policies presently being implemented in both parts of Ireland show the correctness of our position.

What is clear is that the local anti-austerity campaign groups are starting a new debate at grass roots’ level and are reflecting a desire by many to see a country where the economy, society and politics are run according to the needs and wants of the majority of people and before the profit-seeking of international investors, bankers, multinationals, property speculators and the wealthy.

As a party, éirígí, will continue to be engaged in that debate and that movement.

Would you like to say anything else before we finish?

I’d like to thank you for this opportunity of being able to explain to people in Euskal Herri about éirígí and about our type of politics. We are conscious of the fact there are strong bonds of friendship and solidarity among both our peoples and we extend fraternal greetings to our comrades in your country.

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