Tony Benn Talks North of Ireland to Mark Hayes

Tony Benn died earlier this week. TPQ republishes a two part interview conducted with Mr Benn by Mark Hayes. It initially featured in Fourthwrite magazine Issue 3 Autumn 2000. Fourthwrite was the journal of the Irish Republican Writers Group. Part 2 is carried today. Part 1 featured yesterday.
In the second part of the interview Tony Benn considers the politics of the North of Ireland.

MH: As I understand it, you have always maintained a principled commitment to a united Ireland. Am I right?

TB: Yes, well the right of the Irish people to determine their own future. The problem is not an ‘Irish problem’ in the United Kingdom, but a British problem in Ireland. Once you get that straight you can see it quite differently. I’m not a nationalist, but I support the right of people to control their own affairs, and to that extent I am really strongly in favour of getting the British out of Northern Ireland.

MH: In light of your position, can I ask you what your attitude was to the armed campaign waged by Republicans to achieve that objective?

TB: It’s a difficult one that. My instinct is towards Gandhian non-violence, because violence destroys both sides in an argument. On the other hand we fought a war against Hitler, and Mandela was denounced as a terrorist because he was engaged in armed struggle. Armed struggles occur when there is no political solution, but I am a supporter of the peace movement. Yet in some cases without pressure, without violence you cannot make progress – that’s not endorsing it, it is just a historical fact, that is what happens. Anyway armed violence can lead to dictatorship.

MH: What about the idea that in order to achieve peace Sinn Fein has accepted a deal which falls far short of traditional Republican objectives?

TB: I have known Gerry Adams for many years now, in fact I met him through Ken Livingstone, and I have kept in touch. Now that there is some political progress Gerry Adams is obviously very much against the continuation of the armed struggle, and I think that’s right. You will always get those who will continue to fight, but without the popular support it won’t work. Beforehand many Nationalist homes were ‘safe houses’, but now that won’t be the case….

MH: But hasn’t Adams, in effect, accepted that there will not be a united Ireland in the immediate future? Bernadette McAliskey has made some very insightful comments about the diminution of Republican expectations….

TB: There will be a united Ireland, demographic changes will ensure that. But I think Adams’ line at the moment, which is to be the advocate of the peace process against the ‘rejectionists’, is absolutely right. When there is another election they will do very well. Bernadette, I think, didn’t want to be associated with ‘green Tories’ and I can understand what she means because nationalism without an ideological analysis can become very crude, like the ‘tartan Tories’ in Scotland. You have to be a democrat and an internationalist. There is nothing shameful about being practical in politics, I had to do it all the time when I was a minister, dealing with peoples immediate needs and problems.

MH: Yes, but some Republicans will argue that the Good Friday Agreement isn’t anywhere near enough, that itdoesn’t justify the years of struggle.

TB: They didn’t do too badly did they? Northern Ireland is now governed as part of a condominium between Dublin and London. That’s a huge change. Sinn Fein is representing Nationalists in government. You have to take a moving picture of the political changes, you cannot take a snap-shot, and the momentum is very strong towards a united Ireland. There needs to be a basis upon which the two communities in the North can live in peace, and then you can get the British out. It seems to me that this process is well underway. What we have is an interim transitional stage prior to the withdrawal of the British. I think it will happen and I have been advocating it.

MH: What about de-commissioning? Do you think that it could be the issue that might allow the ‘rejectionists’ to destroy the Agreement?

TB: Mandelson suspending the structures over de-commissioning was ridiculous and did a lot of damage to the credibility of the Agreement. The real issue is de-militarisation. Of course the ban on hand-guns never applied to Northern Ireland, there are thousands of licensed weapons, and on top of that you have the RUC, the Army, paramilitaries and so on. They are not killing each other at the moment so we need to build on the culture of peace to keep the political process going.

MH: What did you make of the Patten Report?

TB: Well they have tried to by-pass that of course. They are making concessions and many people are unhappy, but I don’t know what the result will be. At least Patten addressed the problem, which was that the RUC was seen as a Unionist force. Obviously something has got to be done.

MH: Can you comment upon British strategy with regard to Ireland, and particularly Labour Party policy? Why have the British stayed?

TB: Well it is no longer profitable of course, and there is no interest in funding the war. At the same time the Republic is getting richer, with subsidies from Europe and so on. For its part the Labour Party effectively abandoned Ireland. But one of the things that interested me was the strategic dimension and the position of the USA in all this. Kennedy and Reagan, who both claimed Irish ancestry, endorsed British strategy because they were fearful of an independent neutral Ireland during the Cold War. When the Cold War ended the Americans completely lost interest in endorsing the British line, and Clinton has put pressure on the British government to bring about a settlement. This is, as far as I can see, the only positive thing he has done.

MH: Is there any scope for progressive elements within the Loyalist/Unionist community to develop now in the new political context?

TB: Yes. The Republic is changing and the Catholic Church is weaker, so Pope-bashing does not have quite the same effect, although Paisley is the authentic voice of some elements in Unionism. Of course it is interesting that on issues like homosexuality and abortion he adopts the same position as the Pope! A point which I have made to him a number of times in the House of Commons. The Protestant working class needs to liberate itself from Unionism, which has manipulated them for its own purposes. There is certainly no future for Ireland on the basis of religion, whether you are Protestant or Catholic. If Ian Paisley and the Pope issued a joint manifesto it wouldn’t solve anything. There needs to be a class analysis and a socialist agenda.

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