By the bullet or by the ballot – McGuinness's nationalism part of the capitalist order

Martin McGuinness (1950-2017)

The death of the recently retired Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland produced a very predictable response from the establishment, particularly in Britain and Ireland.

The Mr Hyde McGuinness who had been a leading figure in the Provisional IRA (PIRA) was the epitome of evil incarnate. However, following the "new dispensation" starting with the Good Friday Agreement of 1989, Dr Jekyll McGuinness was a progressive hero. Indeed, for many years, the press had honoured Mr McGuinness and the equally avuncular Dr Paisley with the honorary title "The Chuckle Brothers". Sic transit gloria.

Internationalist workers are less easily confused. Whether they are in the phase of military struggle to get their place around the government table or, when they've achieved their aims, the McGuinnesses of late imperialism represent bourgeois factions within a capitalist world order, pure and simple. At both stages, and at all intermediate points, their programme is one of restructuring the existing political frame and in no way is a “step to socialism”. The spreading of their nationalist poison divides the working class. Working class people who are convinced by their siren calls are bullet-fodder at the start and victims of undiminished exploitation at the end.

IRA Commander to Deputy First Minister - the Logic of Nationalism

Martin McGuiness's formal position in PIRA is of no consequence to us. It is clear that he was one of their leaders in Derry and amongst the upper echelons of the entire organisation. There seems no doubt that he held such positions throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s at the end of which time PIRA/Sinn Fein had adopted the "ballot box" in preference to the "Armalite".

The full history of the imperialist twists and turns from the start of "the Troubles" in the late 1960s could be the subject of a far longer article. For the present, let us focus on the pivot whereby McGuinness, following a host of others including Makarios, Kenyatta and Mugabe, experienced metamorphosis. They move from being a "terrorist who has no place in the discussions" to a place in a safe (for capitalism!) government. Usually, this follows a period where either openly or covertly – as was the case with the UK Government and PIRA for much of the 1980s and 1990s – the terrorist becomes the feted statesperson.

During their military campaign PIRA could justifiably be seen as the most effective exponents of the tradition of "physical Force Repulicanism". Their reaction to "the Troubles" was to resurrect the struggle for a United capitalist Ireland which had been lost militarily in the 1920s. In the words of the Republican song their militants identified with "the men(sic) who intend to do the killing until England's tyranny cease". From the Republican song, "Take it Down From the Mast".

After more than 20 years it became clear that the partition of Ireland was not going to be overturned by PIRA's military campaign. That in itself was not enough to push the leadership of PIRA, or its political co-thinkers, Sinn Fein to change course.

The cause of the sea-change which the Republicans undertook was a very simple and material reason. Throughout their existence PIRA had been sustained by donations from supporters in the USA. The rug was finally pulled from under them when the Clinton administration, working with both the Irish and British Governments switched tack. During the 1990s the imperialist order pulled the plug on the flow of funds and launched what became known as the "Peace Process". This came to a culmination with the "Good Friday Agreement" of 1998.

The Republican leadership was entirely complicit in the process where the capitalists mapped out a settlement to "normalise" exploitation in the 6 counties, with Gerry Adams, now a TD – member of the Irish Dail (Parliament), and Martin McGuinness being the most visible representatives.

As the settlement bedded in PIRA established a permanent ceasefire and, at least officially, destroyed their weaponry. The quid pro quo was that the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly was established in which Sinn Fein has a position alongside Unionist politicians, where their "snouts are guaranteed a place in the trough". Until his recent resignation through ill health, Martin McGuinness's role in the capitalist order had been crowned with the title of "Deputy First Minister".

Socialism not Nationalism, the Way Forward

As with all other nationalisms in the imperialist phase of capitalism, Irish nationalism is alien to the struggle for a socialist future. Martin McGuiness's rise to a position of authority stemmed from his involvement with the PIRA. From its establishment PIRA consciously abandoned the leftist, Stalinist positions that its predecessor, which became the Official IRA, had developed.

For PIRA the vision of a 32-county united capitalist Ireland was held out as the "Holy Grail" for the supporters. Even as McGuiness was in his last weeks, his political party Sinn Fein, was using the future chaos which Brexit will unleash to campaign precisely for a 32-county capitalist Ireland as part of a 27-state European Union. This shows again how Irish nationalism simply represents a section of the interests of Irish capitalism. A section which see a hard border between the north and south of the island as an economic disaster.

We have previously commented on the 1916 Easter uprising [1] and in particular of the tragedy of those socialists who became overwhelmed by the wave of nationalism. In particular, it is appropriate to quote James Connolly, who had struggled for a vision of Socialism for many years prior to being murdered by the British State for his role in the Uprising.

Connolly wrote in 1897, "If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain." [2]

The preceding quote, in a nutshell, marks out the class nature of Irish Nationalism and the argument for the 32-county Republic.

For McGuinness, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (2007-2017), a further quote from Connolly will serve as his epitaph. "Yes, friends, governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class." [3]


22 March 2017



[2] Shan Van Vocht January, 1897. Reprinted in P. Beresford Ellis (ed.), "James Connolly - Selected Writings", p. 124. Nowadays, of course, our conception of socialism has advanced beyond the notion of a “socialist republic” in any one country but Connolly here was merely expressing the notion that real liberation for the working class can only come with the overthrow of capitalism.

[3] Irish Worker 29 August, 1915. Reprinted in P. Beresford Ellis (ed.), "James Connolly - Selected Writings", p. 248

Wednesday, March 22, 2017