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John Newsinger

Two Nations: A Reply to Brian Trench

(December 1971)

The following is from the International Socialism, Internal Bulletin, December 1971.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford, September 2012.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Comrade Trench appears to reject the ‘Two Nations’ theory on two main grounds, firstly that it is historically unfounded and secondly that the political conclusions that must inevitably be drawn from it are reactionary, even counter-revolutionary. Perhaps the best starting point for considering his objections is to restate one contemporary reality that he appears to have overlooked: at the present time the Protestant population of Northern Ireland is wholly against inclusion in a united Ireland. This has been the case for many years. The Protestants consider themselves to be British. They have a national consciousness which is different from and at the present time antagonistic to that of the Catholics. How has this come about?

Origins of Protestant Nationalism

The national consciousness of the Protestants has its origins in the uneven development of the Irish economy, The Protestants in the North were always a separate community but whereas in the last decades of the eighteenth century they spearheaded opposition to British rule, in the nineteenth century they became fanatical loyalists. The transformation was brought about by one overriding factor: the economy of the northeast industrialised as an integral part of the British economy and the Protestant bourgeoisie was successfully integrated into the British Establishment. The Protestant bourgeoisie carried out the historical tasks of the capitalist class in the northeast of Ireland, they hammered the working class into shape. In these circumstances it was inevitable that the Protestant working class should at its birth be ideologically subordinate to the Protestant ruling class, that it should possess the same national consciousness as the Protestant bourgeoisie developed. This may well have been unfortunate from the point of view of the republican struggle, but it is a fact, and as Marxists we have to deal with the facts and not with the wishful thinking of romantic republicanism.

In his discussion of this question Comrade Trench reduces this Protestant national consciousness to nothing more than a demonstration of ‘their particular privileged position within the Irish nation’, although he does admit that this has ‘traits of a national consciousness’. This is just not adequate. The distinctive national consciousness of the Protestant working class cannot be simply reduced to their being bought off. The historical process is much more complex than this allows for. This is the sort of childishness that we expect from the IMG. Of course to be fair Comrade Trench does go some way towards appreciating this. He writes that ‘the explanation of this phenomenon involves considerable conceptual problems. I think it suggests the need to develop a concept of the relative autonomy of ideology and consciousness’. What exactly Comrade Trench is on about here is beyond me but it seems to be a complicated way of admitting that he doesn’t know.

On the Democratic Validity of Northern Ireland?

Comrade Trench then goes on to talk about the reactionary political conclusions that inevitably follow from this particular reading of Irish history. He asks ‘how does one challenge the chauvinism of workers in Britain by saying that the British Army has a right to be in Northern Ireland to defend that “democratically valid” state? This is where the two nations theory leads’. Now unfortunately for Comrade Trench nowhere in my contribution to the Internal Bulletin did I write that the British Army have a right to be in Northern Ireland and nowhere did I use the phrase ‘democratically valid’ which he quotes as if I had. What I actually wrote was that the Ulster Unionists had ‘seized control of as much territory as they thought they could hold regardless of the wishes of the local population. The two counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone, both of which had nationalist majorities were incorporated into the Ulster State against the express wishes of a majority of their population. This created a large Catholic minority within Ulster which could only be reconciled to its fate by violent repression and the maintenance of a police state’. Now such a statement of events would by implication seem to preclude any belief in the democratic validity of the Ulster State – but not to Comrade Trench. In fact to Comrade Trench this is ‘apologising for repression’! This is a downright slander. Discussion and debate between revolutionaries should take place in a manner that clarifies differences. Distortion and slander are a cheap way of scoring points, they can contribute nothing to our understanding of the situation on Northern Ireland.


The partition of Ireland was carried out in such a way as to include a large Catholic minority in the Northern State. This was in violation of any ‘democratic’ principle and was only achieved by brute force. The Ulster State was founded on the denial of the national rights of the Catholic minority. It has only survived by means of the continued and continuing repression of this minority. Clearly this is something that has to be condemned and fought by revolutionary socialists.

The programme that Comrade Trench puts forward in order to do this calls for the establishment of a 32 county socialist republic. The trouble with this is that it ignores one of the crucial determining features of the situation: the Protestant working class is at the present time and has been for many years wholly opposed to its inclusion in a united Ireland of any social description. This has got to be faced. It is no good hoping that the Protestants will go away or that somehow they will be miraculously transformed into Catholic nationalists. We have to deal with the existing reality. Our programme has to be formulated so as to take the working class as it is and carry it forward towards independent political organisation, towards socialism. The call for a 32 county socialist republic does not do this. It is not based on a scientific understanding of the realities of Irish society or of working class consciousness, rather it represents a failure to break with the ideology of romantic republicanism. To paraphrase Marx, Comrade Trench is substituting the evacuating motion of his own mind for the historical development of Irish society. The consequences of this are that his programme is self-defeating. It will not help break this Protestant working class from their unnatural alliance with the Protestant ruling class, it will reinforce it. For socialists to deny the Protestant working class the right of self-determination will only serve to drive them further into the hands of Ian Paisley.

In practical terms the call for a 32 county socialist republic without allowing the Protestant working class the right to opt out, is a call to replace the oppression of the Catholic national minority by that of a Protestant national minority. At the present time the only way the Protestant working class will be incorporated into a united Ireland is through physical coercion. We must be quite clear about this. The IMG with their almost touching ultra-left innocence recognise, indeed welcome this logic with their proposals to treat the Protestant workers as scabs (Red Mole, No. 30). This is politics for infant schools. It has nothing in common with Leninism. Of course Comrade Trench does not go as far as this but I would argue that it is in fact implicit in his position.

We have to fight for the right of self-determination of both Protestant and Catholic. The Ulster State which is founded on sectarianism must be destroyed. The workers of Northern Ireland must be allowed to settle their own national destinies. We must oppose any attempt by the British State to impose another unjust settlement on Northern Ireland. In practical terms all of this would mean a repartition.


As an afterthought it is worthwhile forestalling any claims that ‘Comrade Newsinger has called for the forced exchange of populations’. This is not implicit in a call for repartition. It is something that we as socialists would oppose. Instead we would fight for the recognition of the democratic rights of national minorities.


John Newsinger
Hull IS

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