Wise words on the Irish question

Words are weapons and can also save lives. It’s possible the wise words of a young Danish sociologist could have saved hundreds of lives in Northern Ireland if they had been heeded. Gary Kent explains why

This slim but weighty pamphlet was published by the Independent Labour Party in 1972 and in that year’s Socialist Register. It is titled Who is the Principal Enemy? – contradictions and struggles in Northern Ireland and the author was Anders Boserup. It was written in August 1971, shortly before internment and the escalation of the Troubles which endured until the mid-1990s and whose effects are still being felt.

I read it back in 1979 and it changed the whole trajectory of my thinking on Ireland, as it did I think of others in the ILP. I had previously been typical of British left-wingers on the “Irish question”. To my embarrassment, I recall attending an ILP annual meeting as a callow young man and denouncing the leadership for failing to support self-determination for the Irish people as a whole and for troops out now. This was the orthodoxy of the left and one the ILP came steadily to reject.

I became involved in this work and adopted a revisionist position which entailed, in short, rejecting the notion that Ireland must be united above all else and that the views of the Protestants could be ignored or eradicated by force, but recognising that the key issue was building working class politics based on justice and equality.

I have now been involved for more than 20 years, sometimes very heavily. I have always recognised the debt I owed to Boserup but re-reading the pamphlet, I am overwhelmed by his clarity of analysis and diagnosis.

It is a great achievement that a man of just 21 was able to write a major and enduring analysis, based clearly on Marxism, and his words are still very fresh and informed, although some parts require more careful reading.

He confidently rattles through a brief sketch of Irish history outlining how the two parts of the island of Ireland were shaped by their different economies and the alliances that flowed from them, including a masterful assessment of the cross-class bloc around the Orange Order.

You can read it for yourself at http://socialistregister.com/index.php/srv/article/view/5310. I wish to focus on the concise political lessons he draws from this analysis.

It’s vital to remember just how isolated and frustrated he must have felt as the legions of the left adopted a simple-minded anti-partitionism.

It’s interesting to note that the editors of the Socialist Register, Ralph Miliband and John Saville, put a hefty health warning over the essay in their introduction. No-one ever answered his points, although it fundamentally challenges the theory and praxis of their key writers who, to one degree or another, believed that the good guys were those who wanted to impose Irish unity and the bad guys were those who feared this would be calamitous in the circumstances.

Things fall apart

I know they are regularly wheeled out in any discussion on Ireland but the words of WB Yeats in The Second Coming are still the best way of describing this situation.

Yeats wrote, of the 1916 Easter Uprising:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Boserup says:

“The strategy of ‘national liberation’ which the left is presently pursuing, is based on a faulty analysis and leads absolutely nowhere. It portrays the windmills of British imperialism as a mighty army and overlooks the real enemy. In so doing, far from enriching the revolutionary experience of the working class and preparing the ground for the more meaningful struggles of the future, it is trapping the working class ever more firmly in its sectarian ideologies. Suitably romanticised, the bloody and pointless battles of these years will probably one day take their place alongside the trophies of 1690 and 1916 to fulfill their only possible role: to cripple the consciousness of future generations in Ireland.”

Who can dispute this after the decades of Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, Enniskillen, and all the other atrocities which claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 people, and injured, maimed or made mad so many more?

In my view, the prime responsibility for this lies with the Provisional IRA and the loyalist paramilitary groups, although I don’t wish to minimise the awfulness of Bloody Sunday or to exculpate the security forces.

It’s entirely possible, however, that these forces could have been marginalised earlier if more people on the left, chiefly in Ireland but also in Britain, had been able or willing to understand that Ireland consisted of two nations and not just one which deserved unity.

Boserup is so clear in this analysis:

“From every point of view, save those of territoriality and statehood, the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland constitute two distinct national groups. These are usually described as Catholic and Protestant but the difference between them is not only, not even primarily religious. It is two entirely different cultures with little in common apart from language. True, one finds among Protestants as well as among Catholics a feeling of ‘Irishness’, but the similarity stops at the label. Behind it one finds national mythologies, conceptions of Irish history and Irish destiny, and social and political ideologies which have virtually nothing in common.”

Peace has since dropped slowly on Northern Ireland but his picture is still all too true. The depth of division between Catholics and Protestants remains profound with only six per cent attending integrated schools and most living in homogenous areas with little or no contact with each other. There is power-sharing at the top, grudging, inefficient as it sometimes is, but things are slow to change at the grassroots although credit should be accorded to the trade unions, for instance, which have done much to hold back “the blood-dimmed tide”.

Yet, at the beginning of the Troubles, those who sought to find common ground between Protestant and Catholic workers were ruthlessly squeezed out of the equation by those who believed, in Boserup’s words, that “British domination is … seen as the root of all the problems of Ireland. In the socialist ideology British domination becomes British imperialism. In this way everything fits nicely into place in what appears to be a consistent socialist theory. The severing of the links with the British oppressor becomes the precondition for socialism in Ireland.”

It was poppycock, and Boserup was able to identify how to overcome it. He writes: “If it is to engage effectively in the struggle against the Orange system the left must necessarily dissociate itself from 32-county nationalism and accept the existence of the Northern State. As long as the left does not do this but, more or less wholeheartedly, plays the tune of Catholic nationalism, it is in fact shoring up that system by providing it with a badly needed scarecrow to frighten Protestant workers.”

His clear-headedness is also shown here: “The affirmation that Northern Irish Protestants constitute a separate national entity with a right to refuse incorporation in the Republic is usually considered to be divisive of the working class and therefore anti-socialist. On the contrary I think that it is the stubborn affirmation of unity and solidarity where none exists and the extravagant claim of Irish Catholics to the whole island which is divisive.”

He pulls no punches in analysing the advocates of unity without consent: “The Catholic left demands a 32-county Republic and tries to sweeten the pill for Protestants by affirming that this will be a socialist and ipso facto a secular republic. Protestants would be fools if they believed it. Socialism in Ireland is not for tomorrow and, even if it were, deeply entrenched ideologies do not disappear overnight. The Catholic left, by its espousal of the demand for a united Ireland, has demonstrated that even those who claim to constitute the socialist vanguard are trapped in nationalist ideologies.”

He adds: “Ultimately it is to put the cart before the horse to demand a 32-county Republic and hope that it can then develop towards socialism. There is no surer way of perpetuating religious divisions than to impose Irish unity against the will of almost a quarter of its population, and a state so created would be socialist, if at all, only in name.”


This has since come to pass. The basis of Labour policy, once it was changed in the mid-1990s, the approach of the Major Government, and the Good Friday Agreement was recognition of the consent principle: that Northern Ireland has the right to say yes or no to unification. The Irish have reversed their once-strong irredentism, scrapped the relevant clauses in its constitution, and are now clear that Northern Ireland needs to become a functioning entity. It may well be that this makes it easier to envisage a united Ireland in due course, but my own view is that formal and informal unity may have little between them.

Boserup recognised that the main political and often military battleground was in Ireland but refuses to let the British left and others off the hook: “Well-intentioned people in Britain and elsewhere have had a considerable influence on events in Ireland in the past, and they have a corresponding share of responsibility and leverage as regards future developments.”

He saw that the Provisional IRA would depend on the support it could command, in Britain and abroad, for its aim of forcible reunification of Ireland, and his final sentence is a warning that was lost in the rush to misunderstand and marginalise Protestants and adopt an unbalanced perspective on a complex issue: “It is therefore important that British and other socialists should realise that in responding to the call for ‘solidarity in the struggle against British imperialism’ they are in effect betraying socialist ideals and backing policies of national oppression of the Protestant minority in Ireland.”

Much of what he feared came to pass and it took three blood-drenched decades before the British and Irish states were able to cauterise the poison unleashed, for trade unions and others to maintain and expand the zones of civility, and to reach a deal that could have been achieved without so much tragic suffering.

Boserup shredded illusions when it was extremely difficult to navigate Irish affairs, just as the fog of war descended. His analysis deserves to be more widely studied. It’s a great pity that many who should have known better didn’t catch on a lot earlier. Many lives could have been saved.


  1. Harry Barnes
    11 February 2020

    The Irish Labour Party had a spell in politics when it was as successful in electoral terms as Sinn Fein has just now become. Sinn Fein has acquired 37 seats, the same number Labour acquired in the 2011 General Election when a Fine Gael-Irish Labour coalition was then founded. The Irish Labour Party’s recent Election Manifesto seems to me to have attractive features. But Irish Labour have only obtained six seats.

    There should be scope in the politics of the island for Labour Party activities to be aimed at establishing a good relationship between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. But although people in Northern Ireland can now join the UK Labour Party it has no similar constituency structure to the rest of the UK. When Dick Spring was the leader of the Irish Labour Party he pointed out that it was easier to unite one set of people living on two islands than to unite two sets of people living in one island. But as the majority of the people in Northern Ireland are not currently in favour of a united Ireland, two mobilised Labour Parties across the island could fruitfully work together to extend and improve relationships.

    This is especially required given Brexit, where within the EU, the Irish Government needs to be pressed to work to overcome any future form of border controls. Given Sinn Fein’s history and its hard line united Ireland stance, socialists should be looking instead for the alternative avenues I suggest. I need to find out whether any of the candidates for our Labour leadership agree with me.

  2. Red Handed
    3 February 2020

    2009… If anyone’s still out there, why do you think the British left took this stance?

    Assuming unionists were in the wrong due to British colonisation being wrong in the first place? Desire to save money getting rid of the fiscal transfer from Westminster? I’m from NI but was born in the 80s and the history of this is not familiar to people here anyway, that is how separate the Labour left and people living here have been.

    In the case of Troops Out it seems to have been an unthinking analogy with Vietnam and colonial wars. And in the case of McDonnell and co that James Connolly and the Citizen Army were socialists, so if they died in the Rising it means republicanism = socialism.

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